Edited by Maria Elena Torres-Quevedo
Art by Fatima Seck
In a year and a half of studying anthropology I’ve gathered one thing: apparently, LGBTQ folk do not exist.
With the exception of an optional reading about transgender sex workers in Brazil, and a discussion of the Vezo sarin’ampela, (described as men who live as and become women), I have not yet had the opportunity to learn about queer identities in my degree programme. Anthropology is a discipline characterised by breadth: quite literally anything can be studied anthropologically, and I appreciate that consequently, our studies must have certain limits and constraints. However I simply cannot accept that in the study of humanity — one guided by the question of what it means to be a person — LGBT+ identities do not have their rightful place. With the rise of incisive, beautiful and creative media by folks of marginalised backgrounds there is no shortage of content from which we can study queer folk, and I hope we can make these productions significant parts of our curriculum.
Queer, black and unapologetic, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2017) offers an intimate portrayal of African-American manhood, sexuality, identity and poverty. Indeed, this intersectional approach to sexual identity is the first factor in my call to study Moonlight in anthropology curricula. Too often, ethnographic accounts of queer identity either isolate it from other sociocultural factors to the point of misrepresentation, or utilise it as a fragment of a larger theme, reducing queerness to a supporting argument. In contrast, Moonlight, as Steven Thrasher puts it, is “not a call to abandon black masculinity as a way to cope with black homosexuality, but [a call to] wrestle with the reality of its totality.” Moonlight succeeds in actively and simultaneously demonstrating the delicate interactions between race, economic class, gender and (homo)sexuality. Unlike other ethnographic accounts, it does not attempt to isolate or separate the idea of queer sexual identity. With Moonlight, anthropology can teach a contextualised queerness, one that is whole and complex, as LGBTQ people are.
Moonlight’s intersectional approach is not the only reason it ought to be included in curricula — I have found that too often, ethnographic literature about queer folk focuses primarily on the act of sex, only discussing ‘what it means to be queer’ in the context of the body and sexual activity. While this is a valid and important dimension of human sexuality, allowing sex to predominate queer studies can canonise the sexualisation of LGBTQ folk in academia. From Chiron sitting alone in the bathtub, to Kevin and Chiron softly embracing at the end of the movie, Moonlight is an examination of queer identity and intimacy beyond of the scope of physicality. It asserts gently that being queer is not only sex and image, but loneliness, love and more.
In its intersectional and beyond-sex approach to queerness, Moonlight as a part of our anthropology curriculum would be a holistic and rich academic introduction to queer studies. The fact that this story is told through film only solidifies its relevance. Currently, every single required and recommended source in my degree in anthropology is a dense body of text. Decolonising the academy must involve considering critically what can be a valid source of knowledge, and the historical circumstances that have informed these ideas. Accordingly, I hope we can produce a curriculum that is accessible to those with disabilities; and allows students to learn about humanity and personhood from sources other than ethnographers from university environments. We may begin this process through the introduction of films like Moonlight into our curriculum.
Queering anthropology does not need to take time. The infrastructure is there: things like kinship, marriage, sex and gender are probably the most common topics in our studies — thus, evincing an LGBTQ inclusive curriculum is simply a matter of adding to pre-existing spheres. Queer students deserve to be represented in their studies. Queer people deserve to be acknowledged as valid and present facets of humanity. Perhaps Moonlight can aid us in in addressing the issue of a heteronormative and parochial anthropology.
About the author
Fatima Seck is a second year student of social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. She’s interested in human-centred design, as well as the relationship between sociocultural identities and works of art.