Queer Women in the Service of Empire: Gender, Sexuality, and US Servicewomen in Iraq and Afghanistan

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:40 AM
Crystal Ballroom B (Hilton Atlanta)
Elizabeth Mesok, Harvard University
Based on personal interviews I conducted, this paper considers the intersectional relationship between gender, sexuality, and empire in regards to queer military women who served in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. While the historiography regarding gay women’s military service has largely focused on the persecution of homosexuality and analysis of queer experience, this paper looks instead to the gendered performances of US military women in the context of counterinsurgency operations in order to offer a richer account of the affective impulses governing queer service. In particular, the paper explores the relationships forged between queer American servicewomen and their comrades, and the occupied civilians with whom they engaged. One narrative that the paper analyzes, for instance, recounts the affective relationships that developed between a queer servicewoman — an Army first lieutenant — and the soldiers of the Afghan National Army. Disturbed by the aggressive, hyper-masculine heteronormativity rampant among her American comrades, the lieutenant was drawn to the men in the ANA for they provided a stark contrast to the men in her unit, who she described as “obsessed with being men.” Her gendered presentation, very masculine but a woman nonetheless, intrigued her Afghan comrades and allowed her access to a masculine sphere of male camaraderie from which she had always felt precluded in her civilian life. Her interactions with the Afghan soldiers impacted her perception of the war, her role in it, and the gendered, sexualized, and racialized dynamics that underwrote it. Focusing on how queer servicewomen’s gender and sexuality influenced their engagements with soldiers and civilians, this paper analyzes military sexuality within the context of US military occupation and explores the paradoxes of queer women in the service of empire.

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