A review of A Queer Political Economy of “Community”: Gender, Space, and the Transnational Politics of Community for Vietnamese Lesbians (les) in Saigon, by Natalie Newton.
Natalie Newton has written what is destined to be a classic book that expands multiple fields, including — but not limited to — studies on Southeast Asia, gender, sexualities, globalization, and transnationalism. She is the only scholar I can name who provides a much-needed study on Vietnamese female homosexual communities. This is not just a dissertation about Vietnam or the micro-practices of everyday life that many Vietnamese lesbian (les) experience. Instead, this dissertation examines how larger political, economic and global forces create communities and transform individual practices in local spaces. Newton also brilliantly provides us with a careful analysis that pays attention to institutional structures such as the state, the role of Vietnamese non-governmental organizations (VNGOs), donor funding from the United States and Sweden, and the participation of diasporics in every day les community formation in Vietnam. From the ground up, she provides us with a critical lens through which to show how les civic engagement resists Western hegemony by refusing aid in order to avoid dependency. The refusal of donor aid allows local communities to reject what she calls the NGO-ization of work on homosexuality in Vietnam that has historically privileged the male experience (p. 277).
There are few dissertations that are both empirically rigorous, chock-full of important theoretical contributions, and written in a style that is highly engaging. Newton has brilliantly accomplished this task, making her dissertation a must read for anyone interested in Vietnam and the queer political economy that has emerged in the context of rapid global economic restructuring. Most studies of gender in Vietnam focus overwhelmingly on heterosexual relations. However, this is the first study to date that theorizes how Vietnamese “gender” (gioi tinh) is a complex gender and sexual subjectivities. Moreover, A Queer Political Economy of Community “calls into question a necessarily capitalistic or profit-making mode when les use donations for community events” (p. 45). This involves multiple layers of analysis that critique politics, state and social structures, the formation of urban spaces, as well as global hierarchies that shape recent Vietnamese NGO work around LGBT human rights in Vietnam (p. 9).
Newton conducted nearly two years of ethnographic field research in Vietnam between 2006-2010, along with archival research of mainstream Vietnamese magazines, newspapers, and online venues, as well as les-produced publications and webforum discussions. During this time she also conducted 75 formal audio-recorded interviews. This ethnography takes us into people’s private lives, les-exclusive spaces, les sport community activities, and les charity events that reach out into a global arena. It is this level of empirical rigor that makes this dissertation so important to Vietnam studies. Chapter 2 provides us with a much-needed analysis of her research methods embedded within the text. Newton describes the politics and complications involved in studying a community that to many “didn’t exist” at the beginning of her research in 2006 or that was embedded within deeper stereotypes and assumptions of Vietnam as a backwater and homophobic society. These orientalist visions, she argues, “impair a theoretical understanding of how Vietnamese women homosexuals have constructed a complex and self-identified community.” She also underscores the very real issue of lesbophobia with scholars who study sexuality. “Homo-orientalism,” she argues “is a problem of methodology insofar as it manifests within an unequal terrain of research scrutiny over researchers who study sexuality, especially queer sexuality, over other research areas” (p. 67). This is also deeply intertwined with mutually-constitutive relations of race and class that shape homotransnationalism, defined by Bacchetta (2011) as the production and specifically transnational circulation of neocolonial, orientalist, sexist, and queerphobic discourses.
Chapter 3 begins with an analysis of how the State works out its anxieties over modernity, Vietnam’s entry into a global capitalistic economy, and the shifting norms of gender and sexuality that mark a proper communist woman. This chapter brilliantly bridges an analysis of lesbianism with constructions of the “nation-family” as Newton situates Vietnam’s state sanctioned homophobia within a broader history of other post-socialist nations in transition like China, Cuba, and Russia. Focusing on negative community formation Newton explains how les women in Vietnam view trendy les (those who others claim pretend to be les because it is chic and economically advantageous to take advantage of their female lovers) as a political construct and media tool that regulates women’s gender and sexuality. For les in Vietnam, however, this construct of the “trendy les” also leads to a kind of negative community formation, where les groups draw boundaries of inclusion as they form communities of their own beyond a narrative of victimization. Les define the community in terms of negation against the lesbophobic construct of the “trendy les,” a much more complex process than what Foucault may argue is simply “reverse discourse,” such as the reclaiming of the historically derogatory term “queer.”
Chapter 4 provides the reader with a critical analysis that expands our understanding of sex and gender as Newton analyzes gioi tinh, a term that cannot be reduced to either “gender” or “sexual orientation” because it encompasses one’s biological sex, sexuality or sexual acts, sexual orientation, and gender. These complex subjectivities provide les with a language of “coming out” that differs when they interface with each other and as they interface with the broader public (i.e., news/media or VNGO’s). Newton unpacks the multiple genders within gender locally, from B (butch) and SB (soft butch) to Fem (feminine), that exist outside of heteronormative genders male/female or man/woman.
The two most theoretically compelling chapters, in my opinion, are Chapters 5 and 6 where Newton introduces the concepts contingent invisibility and contingent visibility to theorize how queer spaces are made visible or kept invisible in the process of formation through modes of perception, disclosure, and gatekeeping. “Contingent” refers to invisibility that is “dependent” on state policing of urban space that is also a double entendre, where through familiarity and the use of these les urban spaces, a contingent becomes a community. “Invisibility,” she theorizes, is made possible by: (1) individual and collective compliance as a protective measure against social stigma; (2) new urban spaces of consumption and gathering that facilitate individual and collective anonymity; and (3) pervasive heterosexism that renders les bodies invisible (p. 225). Contingent invisibility then is a framework with which to understand the liminal space between public discourse and passing that les occupy in their daily lives.
Contingent visibility, on the other hand, is the primary mechanism by which Vietnamese LGBT work to capitalize upon existing local structures of governance of civil society and the LGBT human rights movement. This conceptual frame pays careful attention to the scales of visibilities across unequal fields of civil societies, including the global, local, and historical. Using this conceptual tool Newton unpacks the complexities of the role that well-funded and dominant NGOs in Vietnam, the United States, and Sweden play in structuring human rights agendas in Vietnam. She explains why it is so important to look at the stratification in terms of who has access to NGO networks, funding, and global political clout. She also provides us with an important foray into the ways that les communities are civically engaged outside of NGO structures through community organizing that is “hidden in plain sight,” such as the Mr. Les butch beauty pageant, the Lesbian Game League, and VietLavender Charity Trips. While all of these entities are embedded within their own diverse politics, networks, hierarchies, and individual subjectivities they provide les communities with the space to work outside of oppressive donor structures that often are unaware of the locally-grounded needs and that also tend to privilege the male gay experience.
It is rare to read an engaging dissertation with such insightful observations of multiple layers of society from individuals in their everyday lives to community organizations and social spaces to the state and the diasporic connections that shape local experiences. As one of the only texts to provide us with a careful analysis of gender and sexuality in Vietnam, this is an excellent source for graduate and undergraduate students interested in conducting ethnographic research. In addition, this is an informative, nicely organized, and accessible dissertation that should be read by policy makers and scholars alike. Newton has written a work that is a must-read for those interested in Asia, globalization, gender, labor, and migration studies. Her stories are gripping; her analysis is spectacular; and her insights are like none that I have encountered before.
Kimberly Kay Hoang
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Fieldwork conducted over a span of 21 months, between 2006 and 2010, primarily in Saigon, Vietnam. Involving 75 key informants including leaders of les projects and event organizers, owners of les spaces, and older les who described an oral history of Saigon.
News articles, Vietnamese research studies, magazines, novels and online debates. (See pp. 85-86)
University of California, Irvine. 2012. 455 pp. Primary Advisor: Victoria Bernal.
Image: Vietnamese Gay Pride Flag. Public domain image. Wikimedia Commons.