This post builds on the research article “Queer Pilgrimage: The San Francisco Homeland and Identity Tourism,” which was published in the February 2001 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Interview with the Author
Kevin Carrico: What has inspired your work in the field of ritual, and in what ways does your work contribute to the study of these issues?
Cymene Howe: My interest in ritual, particularly for my research on queer pilgrimage, was motivated by questions about the possibility of a queer homeland, a territorialized and yet semiotically rich companion to what Kath Weston (1998) has called the “gay imaginary.” In the case of San Francisco, tourism--as a modern quest for experience and a way of seeking authenticity--coincided with the practice of pilgrimage. Journeying to a site of significance and reaching a destination of meaningful arrival were combined in the twin projects of tourism and pilgrimage. Using the classic formulation of a rite of passage developed by van Gennep and the Turners, I found that queer-identified persons were in a unique position vis-à-vis the practice of pilgrimage. On the one hand, the epic journey to San Francisco was a separation from the social world “back home,” a liminal space to enjoy communitas with other gay folk, followed by a return and reincorporation that left one transformed. While this rendering of pilgrimage as a rite of passage is a very familiar one, I was also interested in how queer pilgrimage was distinct. Many lesbian and gay identified people, for example, are not accepted as a legitimate normative part of the social “body” from which separation traditionally occurs in a rite of passage. Rather, queer folk may be viewed as outside of the norm because of their sexuality, and this is where the touristic trope of “escape,” as opposed to pilgrimage, was equally important. The ways in which my interlocutors in San Francisco brought together elements of tourism and pilgrimage offered me insights into each set of practices, particularly in how one could “return” to a place where one had never been. In this sense, there was a kind of intentional inversion at work, where people sought a real sense of authenticity in the touristic encounter, not with the “other” but with “others like me.” (Miller- sense that one has find others like self implicit in the form of the “expatriate”) However, like places such as Mecca, Lourdes or Varanasi, a site for queer pilgrimage must be ample, inclusive, and welcoming to many seekers in search of codifying, legitimating and ensuring a particular status or identity. These sites of ritualized journey must necessarily be capacious--not unlike, incidentally, the term “queer” itself which has been intended as an inclusive, polymorphous response to heteronormativity.
Kevin Carrico: How do you see the topic of ritual to be relevant at this moment in time?
Cymene Howe: Ritual has an enduring life because it demands a time outside of time, where one’s focus, often a collective focus, is magnified. It is an opportunity to qualify some of the ineffable qualities of human existence in more material, observable and practicable ways. And in this sense, it is hard to imagine humanity without ritual. In my more recent research I have been less focused on the canonical forms of ritual and more interested in the ritualized aspects of political performance and how these may intersect with different forms of spectacle.
Working with sexual rights activists in Nicaragua I have been able to observe the very nuanced ways that activists are attempting to reconcile identity politics with the country’s Marxist political history in a time of neoliberal inequalities. Although perhaps not ritual in the classic anthropological sense, the activist practices I have documented frequently mobilize one of the hallmarks of ritual: repetition. Human rights discourses, for example, have saturated so many activist projects that they seem to have taken on the status of doctrinal truth for many sexual rights advocates. Producing a social justice telenovela (soap opera), and thereby serializing their messages of tolerance for lesbian and gay Nicaraguans, is another way that sexual rights advocates have employed both spectacle and a reiterative strategy in their efforts, as they put it, “to transform culture.” There are also less obvious and public instances of ritualized performances of spectacle. For instance, an enduring event in Nicaraguan sexual rights activism has been the “travesti concurso” (a beauty contest-like competition where biological men attempt to replicate “true womanhood”). The concurso involves a lot of pageantry, a lot of glamour and often a dose of affectation. After every concurso I have attended contestants have always asked me to take their photograph. They strike a pose bedecked in their costumed finery and I do my best to take on the persona of a good paparazzo. One thing that is remarkable to me is that travesti contestants never ask for a copy of the photo. The ritualized performance is, it seems, the purpose. Being a photo-worthy subject, and being seen as such, provides more satisfaction than the acquisition, preservation or documentation of the event. In thinking more about spectacle in this ethnographic moment and others, I have found it useful to return to Guy Debord’s proposition that “the spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (Debord 1995: 12). In a world that is increasingly lived in mediated encounters, whether through social networks or the productions of the news and entertainment industries, it seems to me that a deeper anthropological understanding of how human relationships are conditioned and transacted by spectacle and a ritualization of political life continues to be an important project.
"Welcome to the gay capital of the world!"
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Of course, paradise can be hard to navigate, let alone understand. Thus, this guide offers both an overview of queer San Francisco from the beginning of the century to the present and a select neighborhood guide that lets you in on local bon mots not to be missed. Homo heaven has a range of 'hoods each with its own special character, style and history. Some may prefer the Tenderloin and some Bernal Heights and some may want to hit all the sights. Read through for the locale that fits your needs, provokes your curiosity or offers you a night of not-so-straight-up fun."
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Gay & Lesbian Convention & Visitors’ Bureau Page on San Francisco
"Only in San Francisco. Equality for all. Pride and freedom. Respect and tolerance. Those words say a lot about a place called San Francisco.
Historically and culturally, San Francisco has been waving the flag (albeit not the rainbow version created here in 1978) for more than 150 years. Historians note the emergence of a gay population during the Gold Rush and the days of the Barbary Coast. Today San Francisco has one of the highest per capita gay populations in the world."
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More than three-quarters of respondents to a poll by the Travel Industry Association agreed that San Francisco was gay-friendly, putting it streets ahead of Key West and New York, which were deemed gay-friendly by 57 per cent and 51 per cent respectively."
Questions for Classroom Discussion
1. Howe's article reconsiders a case of tourism as pilgrimage. What are the general similarities and differences between tourism and pilgrimage? How are their effects similar or different? What is the relationship between pilgrimage and identity? And how might tourism, by comparison, affect identity?
2. Howe's article traces the history of San Francisco, from its origin myth to its emergence as the "queer capital of the world." How do images and narratives of places shape their reality? Are such narratives of place inherently self-reproducing?
3. Howe sees the San Francisco "homeland" as contributing to the production of "a flexible set of identities, rather than a singular emphasis on a one-dimensional queer subject" (53). Is maintenance of such a flexible and non-totalizing identity possible? What other examples relate to or differ from the San Francisco case?
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