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The GLQ Archive
Theorizing Transnational Studies of Sexuality
In modernity, identities inevitably become global. Indeed, few things remain local in the aftermath of the rise of capitalism. Just as goods and people come to circulate in new ways, so too identities emerge and come into specific relations of circulation and expansion. In this globalized framework of encounter and exchange, sexual identities are similar to other kinds of identities in that they are imbued with power relations. These power relations are connected to inequalities that result from earlier forms of globalization, but they have also generated new asymmetries. Our task is to examine both the specificities and the continuities within the globalization of sexual identities at the present juncture.
For the most part, throughout the twentieth century, what we might call politically "progressive" studies of sexuality emerged as a result of identity politics and social movements. Increasingly, with the rise of ethnic and postcolonial studies and the growing emphasis on diaspora in American studies, the scholarship on sexuality is globalized. 1 Yet thinking simply about global identities does not begin to get at the complex terrain of sexual politics that is at once national, regional, local, even "cross-cultural" and hybrid. In many works on globalization, the "global" is seen either as a homogenizing influence or as a neocolonial movement of ideas and capital from West to non-West. 2 Debates on the nature of global identities have suggested the inadequacy of understanding globalization simply through political economy or through theories of "Western" cultural imperialism and have pushed us to probe further the relationship between globalization and culture. 3 Yet how do we understand these emerging identities, given the divergent theories regarding the relationship between globalization and cultural formations? [End Page 663] Can these identities be called "global identities," or is some other term more useful?
In light of the problems that some scholars have pointed out with the rhetoric of diversity and globality with respect to sexual identity, such that these discourses produce a "monumentalist gay identity" and elide "radical sexual difference," the term transnational seems to us more helpful in getting to the specifics of sexualities in postmodernity. 4 As we have argued elsewhere, the term transnational can address the asymmetries of the globalization process. 5 Yet it has become so ubiquitous in cultural, literary, and critical studies that much of its political valence seems to have become evacuated. Is this a function of globalization in its cultural aspects, of the ways in which it has become a truism that everyone and everything are always already displaced and hence "transnational"? Or is it a function of the modernist search for novelty and innovation leading to the adoption of a seemingly new term for a global world? Perhaps these two tendencies are intertwined, and this term works at this point because it has become "real" or "appropriate" in some way that it would do us good to examine. By thinking about the many ways in which the term is being rearticulated, we can understand the rhetorical imperative that underlies such uses. Since terms and critical practices are neither authentic nor pure, we do not wish to argue that one use is more correct than another. Rather, we need to examine the circulation of this term and its regulation through institutional sites, such as academic publishing, conference panels and papers, and academic personnel matters. By doing so, we can begin to understand how the study of sexuality remains bound by disciplinary constraints. A more interdisciplinary and transnational approach that addresses inequalities as well as new formations can begin more adequately to explore the nature of sexual identities in the current phase of globalization.
We can identify several primary ways in which the term transnational does a particular kind of work in the U.S. academy in general. First, it circulates widely as a more useful term to describe migration at the present time. This is...