The Messy Itineraries of Queerness

From the Series: Queer Futures

Photo by Michael Held.

I have always been suspicious of an overemphasis on the “new” in assessing and evaluating research. Instead, I also look to enduring questions, continuities, and fraught connections in terms of my own professional and scholarly trajectory. At first glance, my second project on food, embodiment, and immigrants might seem to be a radical departure from my dissertation research and book on Filipino gay men (Manalansan 2003). However, upon more focused reflection, I have realized that there are more connections than disconnections between the two projects, particularly in terms of how “queer” sutures both projects and opens up provocative conceptual avenues in understanding abjection, marginality, and impossibility. More importantly, I am pointing to a capacious notion of queer beyond nonnormative sex, queerness, and queering that is based on experiences and ideas about mess and disorder.

I started thinking about conducting research on food and immigrants as part of my second project when I was visiting my sister, who lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Queens. She was scrubbing the walls of her kitchen and dining room. Appalled, I asked her why she was doing this. She matter-of-factly said that she had just fried fish the day before and, since the smell of oil and fish stuck to the walls, she was getting rid of these unwanted aromas of what she termed “immigrant households.” I was fascinated by this practice and its connection to the elusive, evocative power of smell, the way that olfaction is a marker of the marginal stranger/foreigner and the ways that such sensorial markers become part of grids that speak to issues of hygiene, disgust, and aspirations (Manalansan 2006). More than anything, I was enthralled by the messiness of smell and how, at certain moments, it conjures queerness through disorder, clutter, and the chaos of things gone awry. I was also further provoked to delve into immigrant working-class domesticity and the world of cramped, working-class immigrant New York City apartments.

Working-class apartments, rooms, and dwelling spaces, particularly immigrant ones, have always been part of my research. In Global Divas, I devote several pages to a description of the cramped studio apartment of a gay immigrant informant. In my new project, my interest in urban domiciles has been invigorated. These immigrant spaces convey not only the ways in which cluttered immigrant habitats speak to their occupants’ marginalized positions within mainstream society, but also allude to the ways in which the everyday is suffused with the clutter and disarray of bodily capacities, material objects, sensory landscapes, and uncomfortable predicaments—particularly for undocumented immigrants, who are often seen as abhorrent, disgusting, or in need of a clean-up and a dose of normative domestic order (Manalansan 2014). Historically, these ghettoized migrant residences are portrayed as dens of vices, diseases, and moral degradation; this can be gleaned from archival accounts of the bunkrooms of workers in New York City's Chinatown, as well as the Jewish tenements on the Lower East Side.

Based on interviews and observation that I have conducted in New York City for the past several years, I submit that these lives and spaces are sites for maneuvers, for wading and sashaying through material and symbolic barriers. My recent fieldwork in immigrant working-class households showcases how the choreography of bodies, the valuing of seemingly worthless objects, and survival tactics amidst cramped, uncomfortable residential conditions conjure meanings and figures that pivot around the aberrant, the deviant, and the queer. In this second project, queer is constituted by such mess.

This conception of queer as mess brought me back to Michael Warner’s introduction to the canonical collection Fear of a Queer Planet (1993). In that essay, Warner proposes for queer theory the goal of “funking up” the staid and sterile walls of academia with the scents of sexual rut. Warner’s statement can be read in the context of the initial need for the shock value of queer theory, as an antidote to its subaltern status in academia during the 1990s. With queer theory’s eventual institutionalization—particularly with the onset and proliferation of tenure-track jobs, academic programs, book series, and scholarly journals devoted to it—Warner’s call for the centrality of sensorial morass can still be considered valuable, insofar as it speaks to the pathologization and impossibility attributed to queer lives, dismal situations, and abject ways of being in the world.

Queer as mess refers to material and affective conditions of impossible subjects as well as an analytical stance that negates, deflects, if not resists the “cleaning up” function of the normative. Queerness, then, is not just about off-kilter sex or nonnormative desires, but is about the potentials and possibilities behind quotidian practices and struggles of peripheral lives. With my continued interest in the ethnographic limning of immigrant lives, the persistent resonance of queer remains enmeshed in my work. My research trajectory showcases the shifting character and plasticity of queer and queerness in ways that reflect the messiness of desire, sociality, and power. While commentators may have, in various moments, heralded, bemoaned, or celebrated the passing on or obsolescence of queer, it remains a powerful pivot that animates and fuels my projects in the present time and will continue to propel my scholarly forays in the future.


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

_____. 2006. “Immigrant Domesticity and the Politics of Olfaction in the Global City.” In The Smell Culture Reader, edited by Jim Drobnick, 41–52. New York: Berg.

_____. 2014. “The ‘Stuff’ of Archives: Mess, Migration, and Queer Lives.Radical History, no. 120: 94–107.

Warner, Michael, ed. 1993. Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.