- A Taste for Brown Bodies: Gay Modernity and Cosmopolitan Desire by Hiram Pérez
Queer theory has a race problem. Despite countless interventions by a growing constellation of critical scholars for more than two decades, the glaring whiteness of queer studies persists. Literary critic Hiram Pérez wrestles with this foundational, field-defining concern in his Lambda Literary Award-winning book, A Taste for Brown Bodies: Gay Modernity and Cosmopolitan Desire. An associate professor of English at Vassar College, Pérez is perhaps best known for his essay "You Can Have My Brown Body and Eat It, Too!" in the 2005 special issue of Social Text, "What's Queer About Queer Studies, Now?"1 Published more than a decade before the release of Pérez's long-awaited monograph, the special issue offered a clarion call against the "neoliberal turn" in queer studies to reinterrogate the field's primary investments in whiteness and to showcase a newer cohort of queer of color and queer diasporic scholars analyzing racialized sexuality and the violence of colonial modernity. Pérez's contribution offered a clear-eyed indictment of queer liberalism and racial exclusion on display at the international "Gay Shame" Conference held at the University of Michigan in March 2003. In this essay, now revised as chapter 4 of A Taste for Brown Bodies, Pérez argues that queer studies functions both as "a case study of racist practice and a methodology to identify and combat racism, particularly in its imbrication with the erotic" (10). The "Gay Shame" conference took place within days of the US invasion of Iraq and amid major Supreme Court affirmative action cases involving the University of Michigan, yet it was a conference that included only one queer person of color out of forty invited speakers. In his review of the conference and its racialized division of labor, Pérez concludes that scholars who seek to trouble the entrenched "transparent white subject" at the heart of queer critique are deemed "retrograde or provisional" (97, 10). "Brown" is a prop for weak multiculturalism, mediating (white) gay male shame as "axial to the formation of a cosmopolitan gay male identity and community" (98). Still longing for the radical promise of "queer," Pérez urges queer scholars and activists to "interrogate the various [End Page 226] potential complicities of dominant gay male sociality both to nation building and to global capitalism; otherwise, the predatory violence of these systems also operate across our bodies" (11).
A Taste for Brown Bodies extends Pérez's erstwhile criticism of queer theory's violent collusions with neoliberalism, racism, and colonialism to examine the formation of gay male modernity and its connection to US imperialism vis-à-vis erotic entanglements with "brown" bodies. Pérez is at his best when his queer of color killjoy voice shines in the book—indicting "establishmentarian queer theory" for its lack of race consciousness and unwillingness to wrestle with "its own erotic investments with race and power" (10). Through deft close readings of literature, film, and photographs from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries—including Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabíos's Fresa y Chocolate, James Baldwin's "Going to Meet the Man," Anne Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain," and photos of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison—Pérez proposes that modern gay male identity, often traced to late Victorian constructions of "invert" and "homosexual," occupies not the periphery of the nation but rather a cosmopolitan locus, instrumental to projects of war, colonialism, and neoliberalism. A Taste for Brown Bodies argues that practices and subjectivities that we understand historically as forms of homosexuality, from canonical works by the likes of Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick, in fact have been regulated and normalized as an extension of the US nation-state, laying bare the tacit, if complex, participation of gay modernity within US imperialism.2
The book's most exciting scholarly contribution is its development of a literary...