At Columbia University in New York in 2007 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then the president of Iran, claimed that “in Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country”. In Global Gay, Frédéric Martel goes to Iran and about 60 other countries, offering not only a rebuttal of Ahmadinejad’s bewildering assertion, but also an analysis of how gay cultures operate within and beyond “Western” models of homosexuality. This rich survey of gay lives around the world reveals a complex and dynamic relationship between different nations and cultures, casting gays as both global and local.
Across South America, Africa and Asia, Martel meets gay people who are “increasingly globalized and often very Americanized”, using and consuming the same apps, fashions and media. American music, films and TV shows are ubiquitous on his travels: girls watch Lady Gaga’s Telephone video in Tehran; Taiwanese shops stock DVDs of The L Word and Brokeback Mountain; Martel even finds the Brokeback Mountain Café in Bogotá. At a club in Havana, he notices a uniform of “Converse All Star sneakers, Gap Jeans, ‘I Love NY’ T-shirts, Calvin Klein boxers”, and surmises that “Cuban gays imagine their dream and emancipation under the Stars and Stripes”. Merely hinting at the invasive, neo-imperial nature of this influence, Martel insists that gays view America as a “symbol of their liberation”.
But the most interesting parts of Global Gay are the accounts of the unique and often surprising ways that gay life remains heavily inflected by regional cultures. In Iran, for instance, where homosexuality is punishable by death, strict gender segregation means that some men actually find it easier to sleep with each other than a heterosexual couple might (two men can freely book a hotel room). We read, too, that in China LGBT people are reclaiming an old military term – tongzhi, or “comrade” – to self-identify as gay and proud. In Tel Aviv, the Israeli flag flutters with rainbow flags. And gay clubs in Singapore stand beside temples, in neighbourhoods where pink condoms decorate bamboo trellises.
Gay rights and culture are, for Martel, an index of universal political progress, a “standard by which to judge the state of a country’s democracy and modernity”. Crucially, his subtitle, “how gay culture is changing the world”, suggests that this is a live and ongoing revolution. Because it is written in a spirited journalistic style and often in the present tense, there is an immediacy and a drama to Global Gay: “The battle”, Martel declares, “has only just begun.” But, we are left asking, which battle? Is it really the same for Chinese and Iranian gays? Given the rich tapestry of difference that Martel shows here, especially regarding “particular non-Western ways to experience one’s homosexuality”, it is curious that his title alludes to a singular gay culture. Indeed, in our “queer” moment, it could also be a limitation for some that Martel deals almost entirely with men.
The book’s strength is that it provides an abundance of material attesting to the diversity of gay men’s experiences today. The next step is for Martel to reconcile this attention to localism with his universalist politics. While few of us may have needed convincing, Martel proves passionately that “homosexuals are different everywhere”. And that is the truly fascinating feature of global gayness.
Charlie Pullen is a PhD candidate in English at Queen Mary University of London.
Global Gay: How Gay Culture Is Changing the World
By Frédéric Martel; translated by Patsy Baudoin
Published 20 April 2018