Teaching Queer Anthropology

The November 2016 issue of Cultural Anthropology included a Retrospectives collection on “Queer Anthropology,” edited by Martin F. Manalansan IV. The publication of the collection marks an excellent opportunity to introduce students to the contemporary practice of queer anthropology and important debates within this area of inquiry. This Teaching Tools post presents strategies for teaching the collection and putting it into dialogue with other texts, as well as connecting students with scholarly and activist organizations that work on the issues discussed herein.

Audience

Advanced undergraduate or graduate students. Especially suitable for courses focused on queer anthropology, as well as anthropological theory and ethnographic methods courses.

Learning Objectives

  • Become familiar with changing disciplinary trends in the anthropological study of gender and sexuality
  • Understand and evaluate the use of queer as a concept and as a method in queer anthropology  
  • Understand and evaluate the relationship between a queer anthropological perspective and other, often marginalized traditions in anthropology
  • Critically analyze what queer anthropological perspectives, methods, and forms of knowledge teach us about the practice/field of anthropology more broadly

Suggested Readings

Given that the essays in the Retrospectives collection are relatively short, we recommend assigning all five pieces. For introductory courses, Martin F. Manalansan IV’s introduction and Margot Weiss’s article could be used as a basic roadmap. To plan a more extended unit, consider supplementing the collection with some of the following readings, which include a variety of perspectives engaged by queer anthropologists, including postcolonial queer studies, queer of color critique, and queer migration studies.

History of the Study of Sexuality in Anthropology

Boellstorff, Tom. 2007. “Queer Studies in the House of Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 36: 17–35.

Lewin, Ellen, and William L. Leap. 1996. “Introduction.” In Out in the Field: Reflections of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists, 1–16. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Weston, Kath. 1993. “Lesbian/Gay Studies in the House of Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 22: 339–67.

Queer Theory

Jagose, Annamarie. 1996. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press.

Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press. 

Queer Ethnography

Allen, Jafari Sinclaire. 2011. ¡Venceremos? The Erotics of Black Self-making in Cuba. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. 

Benedicto, Bobby. 2014. Under Bright Lights: Gay Manila and the Global Scene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dave, Naisargi N. 2012. Queer Activism in India: A Story in the Anthropology of Ethics. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Manalansan IV, Martin F. 2003. Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Morgensen, Scott Lauria. 2011. Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Stout, Noelle M. 2014. After Love: Queer Intimacy and Erotic Economies in Post-Soviet Cuba. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. 

Suggested In-class Exercises

Below are two exercises designed to elicit students’ own understandings of queerness and to mobilize them in a critical way.

The Multiple Meanings of Queer

The goals of this exercise are to a) show that there are multiple ways of understanding the term queer, b) foreground how these understandings frequently overlap, and c) open a discussion about the political, disciplinary, and ethnographic implications of using the term queer in these various ways. This exercise is based on a method described by Lisa Duggan in her 2015 blog post “Queer Complacency without Empire.”

To start, ask students to list all of the meanings that they can generate for the word queer, and write them down so they are visible to the class. Together, as a class, group the meanings into (at least) four categories: identity, practice, politics, theory and method. This might look something like:

  • Identity: queer as synonym for LGBT; queer as sense of self/identification (e.g., homosexual, lesbian, gay, genderqueer)
  • Practice: queer as umbrella term for non-normative sexual practices or gender practices (e.g., genderqueer, butch, femme, sadist, masochist, switch, top, or bottom)
  • Politics: queer as a designation of political alliance/affiliation (e.g., queer-feminist, queer Marxist, intersectional politics, antinormativity)  
  • Theory and method: queer as a mode of inquiry, as a way to understand the world; queer as a verb (i.e., queer as an analytic frame that unsettles normative understandings, for instance, to “queer” citizenship or belonging)

Next, draw on these various meanings to help parse out and make connections between concepts elaborated in the various articles from the Retrospectives collection, such as:

  • Identity, normativity, and desire (Weiss)
  • Language and knowledge (Morgensen)
  • Self-identifications and ethnographic responsibility (Lewin)
  • Intersectionality and Blackness (Allen)
  • Futurity and utopia (Manalansan, Weiss)

Queer Reading/Viewing

Select a film, poem, artwork, or some other form of media that can be viewed or read in class. Consider, for instance, the documentary “Paris is Burning” (1990), a poem by Gloria Anzaldúa, or images from Kara Walker’s art exhibition “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” (2014).

After reading or viewing the work in question, ask students to freewrite about the relation between the selected work and queerness. Encourage them to think through and elaborate on what they mean by queer: as identity, politics, theory, method, or something else. Then, invite students to share their thoughts. In the ensuing discussion, encourage students to draw on the articles in the Retrospectives collection to illuminate how a queer analysis or reading affords a new perspective on the work in question.

Suggested Discussion Questions 

  • How does each of the authors in the collection explain his or her use of the word queer? How do these different understandings overlap and/or conflict with each other?
  • How have understandings of queer anthropology’s proper object of study changed over time? How has this been reflected in institutional and disciplinary shifts?
  • In his introductory essay, Martin F. Manalansan IV highlights a cross-cutting theme in these essays when he notes that “queer anthropology can productively be apprehended as an aspirational field of inquiry.” What does he mean by this, and how do the various contributors explicate queerness and/or queer anthropology as aspirational?
  • Several of the authors raise the issues of identity and anti/normativity in relation to the term queer. How do authors such as Margot Weiss and Jafari Sinclaire Allen understand these issues, and how does their understanding respond to, intersect with, and/or differ from Ellen Lewin’s concerns about the use of queer?
  • According to Scott Morgensen, what is the relationship between queerness, anthropology, and colonial processes?
  • Jafari Sinclaire Allen’s work recovers the history of Black (especially Black feminist) thought to articulate a Black/queer “habit of mind.” How does Black/queer ethnography rework and intervene in both traditional anthropological inquiry and its queer variants?
  • Margot Weiss elaborates the role of desire in queer anthropology. What is the desire that Weiss wants to acknowledge, and how does the “frustration of the desires we invest in our objects [make] for a queer anthropology—and [make] anthropology queer”?
  • What might the insights of queer anthropology have to teach us about the discipline and practice of anthropology at large? How might queer anthropology unsettle foundational concepts like “the field” and anthropologists’ relationship to the participants in our research and the communities with whom we work?

Teaching Resources

The Association for Queer Anthropology maintains a digital library of syllabi for courses on queer and LGBT anthropology.

Queer Advocacy and Activism Resources