Stepping Out of Bounds in a Globalizing World: Sri Lankan Diaspora in Lebanon, Same-Sex Desire, and Transgenderism

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:40 AM
Truman Room (Marriott Wardman Park)
Monica Smith, National University of Singapore
This paper considers the intimate histories and quotidian experiences of Sri Lankan domestic migrant workers in Lebanon since the 1990s who have same-sex desire and/or are transgendered.  These members of the diaspora transgress spatial and normative boundaries of proper gender and sexuality roles. Their sojourns take them across geographic boundaries, and, at the same time, place them outside the limits of respectable familial roles. In the process, they step outside the strictures of normative femininities and challenge gendered power hierarchies. Following Abu-Lughod's (1990) dictum that resistance is diagnostic of power, I explore how women, and female to male transgenders in Lebanon (and Sri Lanka) rework and resist gender and sexuality roles. Globalization has brought far-reaching social change in Sri Lanka and Lebanon. Among the changes have been large-scale movements of workers to labor markets in the Middle East, inflows of capital, technology and consumer goods, and the introduction of western-inspired ideologies of women's rights, sexual freedom, and self-fulfillment. At the same time, Sri Lanka has witnessed a resurgence of nationalism, which, inter alia, has put forward images of ideal femininity that emphasize modesty, chastity, obedience, and self-sacrifice. Migrant women in particular are charged with preserving this ideal. The stage is thus set for collisions between ideologies and practice. There are pressures (e.g., homophobia and transphobia experienced at home) and enticements (e.g., spaces of anonymity in Lebanon, and access to community acceptance of GLBT rights) to violate norms of feminine comportment. Thus desirable possibilities for economic advancement and self-fulfillment may come at the price of class-based, intergenerational and intra-psychic conflict.
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