Jess Shollenberger (English), On Being “Regularly Gay There”: Gertrude Stein’s Queer Ordinary
In this presentation, I revisit Gertrude Stein’s “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene,” a portrait of two ladies being “regularly gay.” I situate this understudied composition with respect to Stein’s career (specifically the early period of 1903-1911) and in the broader contexts of gay/lesbian/queer history and theory. The queerest thing about this portrait, I suggest, is not the coupling of Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, but rather Helen Furr’s release from coupled life (as Georgine Skeene mysteriously disappears). The ending finds Miss Furr in something very like a “gay” community: a clustering of “many” sharing “all the little ways of being gay.” Being gay emerges in this portrait as a form of life both ordinary and insistent, “regular” and “there.” Though it depicts a failed “gay” couple, it does not end in loneliness or sorrow for the single woman, Helen Furr. Landing somewhere in between the miserable romantic triangle of Q.E.D., an early novel, and the blissful household coupling of Tender Buttons, Stein’s “Miss Furr” presents “gay” forms of life uncoupled from canonical extremes of tragedy and comedy (the well of loneliness/the lifting belly), as well as from the couple form itself.
Rovel Sequeira (English), Death of a Museum Foretold?: On the Politics of Sexual Display in the Time of AIDS in India
My paper examines the conditions under which sexual publics are tenuously made and unmade in postcolonial nation-states like India. It investigates the historical conjunctures through which Antarang, India’s only sex museum, came to be opened in 2002 in the heart of Mumbai’s red-light district, Kamathipura. The museum catered to a varied clientele consisting of sex workers, their clients, college students, and others, but was shut down in 2008. Using interviews, photographic documentation, and discourse analysis, I show that the sex museum in Mumbai functioned as a hybrid site combining the governmental imperative of preventing HIV-transmission among sexually marginalized populations, with normative, if aborted, liberal goals of providing mainstream urban publics with basic sex education. Exploring the origins and afterlives of such a pedagogical/bio-political project through tracking the debates on sex education in India, I claim that the museum’s precarious existence between the imperatives of public health and liberal activism illuminates the relationship between the state, civil society, and political society in neoliberal India. While interrogating the aspirations of the museum’s curators to fashion a sexually modernized “indigenous” subject of sex, I show that failure marked even such liberal projects of recuperation, highlighting the premature closure of the museum due to state neglect. This failure, I suggest, is a function of the spatial segregation of urban India that maps onto the governmental segregation of different groups as targets of specific but disparate bio-political mechanisms. These mechanisms, in turn, differentiate Indians into citizens and populations. Magnified by the state’s neoliberal policies of divesting from public infrastructure in “global cities” like Mumbai, the effects of such spatial and governmental segregations limit the access of marginalized groups to the infrastructure required for a substantively progressive sexual politics in India today.