Decolonizing Queer Experience: Q&A with TCUP Director Emily Channell-Justice

March 2, 2021
Pride Parade Kyiv

What is it like to live in the post-Soviet world when you're gay? What does transgender activism look like? How to these experiences differ from the West, and to what degree to they vary within the region? 

TCUP Director Emily Channell-Justice recently published an edited volume examining questions such as these. Decolonizing Queer Experience: LGBT+ Narratives from Eastern Europe and Eurasia brings together new research on LGBT+ communities in the post-socialist world, where non-conforming genders and sexualities are typically associated with repression.


Contibutors to the volume (Feruza Aripova, Emily Channell-Justice, Vitaly Chernetsky, Tjaša Kancler, Polina Kislitsyna, Roman Leksikov, Jānis Ozoliņš, Zhanar Sekerbayeva, Tamar Shirinian, Syinat Sultanalieva, and Kārlis Vērdiņš) draw on diverse methodologies to discover a multiplicity of LGBT+ voices, offering new perspectives to both the global LGBT+ discourse and to our understanding of life within post-socialist countries.

On Wednesday, March 3, HURI's Seminar in Ukrainian Studies will feature a panel discussion on this research. The panelists, whose chapters in the book focus on Ukraine, will discuss their work and why the lens of "decolonization" is particularly useful for thinking about LGBT+ experiences in this part of the world.

In advance of the talk, Emily Channell-Justice answered a few questions about her book and the importance of addressing contemporary issues in Ukraine from new angles and in comparative contexts. We invite you to tune in on YouTube on Wednesday (or watch the video afterward); attendees will receive a code to purchase the book at 30% off.

HURI: In a nutshell, what is this book about? Why did you put it together? 

Emily Channell-Justice: The book represents scholarship from the post-Soviet world that features new perspectives on LGBT+ communities in the region. It moves beyond a focus on repression and violence against LGBT+ people and explores these communities from new vantage points. 

The book came out of a panel I organized at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in 2018. At the time, I had just begun to delve into the topic that is the focus of my chapter—the intersection of leftist activism with LGBT activism—and so I invited some people who I already knew were working on the topic to contribute to the panel. The discussion we had there shaped the direction of my thinking, as well as the framing of the book. 

The book itself went through a few different stages, but I wanted to bring together authors who were all looking at LGBT+ communities and people in ways that pushed back against the typical understanding of the LGBT+ experience in the region. That is, most articles in the media focus on violence against LGBT+ people and repression of LGBT+ activism. This is certainly important, but the book addresses how LGBT+ people survive and thrive outside of those narratives. Each of the chapters contributes to that aim in various ways and from a variety of research perspectives. 

HURI: What value does the cross-regional perspective provide? What are some of the striking similarities and differences within the region covered by the book? How about the ways it compares to queer experience in other areas of the world (especially the West)?

Zhalmauz Kempir. From Batyrlar Turaly Ertegiler. Almaty: Aruna Baspasy, 2015, 91. Artist T. Vishnyakova.
Zhalmauz Kempir From Qial-gazhaiyp Ertegiler. Almaty: Aruna Baspasy, 2015, 21. Artist Assol Sas. From Sekerbayeva's article.

Channell-Justice: Despite knowing the huge diversity of the countries that we call the “post-socialist” or “post-Soviet” region, we often see a glossing over of the “post-socialist” world. That is, we hear that LGBT+ people face repression in the post-socialist world, and so we start our interrogation from that point. One thing I think these chapters do exceptionally well is to take the starting point as LGBT+-identified people who happen to live in the world we call post-socialist. What we see is that their experiences are very distinctive depending on their surroundings, even as we learn that they are also connected through a global LGBT+ rights-based movement. For instance, Zhanar Sekerbayeva’s chapter looks at how Kazakh folklore has space for queer and gender non-conforming narratives, but because of the dual process of Russian repression of Kazakh folk culture and of LGBT+ people, these narratives have been largely unseen. This creates a new space for thinking about LGBT+ experiences in present-day Kazakhstan because Kazakh folklore (and possibly others) was already open to gender non-conforming narratives. This helps us see that an acceptance of “queerness” is not only a Western export but existed outside of both Russifying and Westernizing processes.

At the same time, it’s important to see how LGBT+ people’s experiences in this part of the world are part of a global LGBT+ story. Because of the reality of the repression of LGBT+ people, the post-Soviet world has largely been left out of the development of queer theory, and there continues to be only limited firsthand research with LGBT+ populations. One thing that is particularly interesting is how swiftly Western ideas about LGBT+ people and their communities came to the region. Tamar Shirinian’s chapter in particular highlights how Western terminology is adapted (sometimes ironically) in the Armenian context; so, LGBT+ activists in the post-socialist world are aware of their relation to the West, and of the Western perception of them. The chapters in the volume push back against these Western perceptions in creative and unexpected ways.

HURI: Why did you call the book Decolonizing Queer Experience? Why choose "queer" instead of LGBT+?

Channell-Justice: The word “queer” comes out of a reclaiming practice in which members of the LGBT+ community began to self-identify as “queer” to take the negative implications out of the term. In academia, Queer Theory is a field that is distinct from Gender Studies and Feminist Theory, even though they are all connected. So the use of the word “queer” in the book’s title places the volume’s contribution within the broader development of queer theory, and not just in regional studies. In the title, it serves as a sort of shorthand, but it isn’t necessarily a synonym of LGBT+ (which is sometimes written as LGBTQ, with the Q meaning queer). 

Roman Leksikov, who also contributed to the volume, has written (individually and with Dafna Rachok) a few articles on this theme that had a strong influence on the direction of my research. His work argues that the idea of “queer” comes from an established kind of LGBT+ activism that arose from Western democracies, and that adopting terms like “gay” or “homosexual”—often understood in the United States as being less radical and less progressive—is actually more radical in places such as Ukraine, because non-LGBT people understand what it means to be gay, whereas they might not truly understand “queer” as anything other than a Western import. “Queer” in Ukraine doesn’t have the historical process of “queer” in North America, nor does it have the academic field backing it up. So while I use “queer” in the title precisely to bring this discussion into the forefront of the volume’s contributions, I use LGBT+ in my own chapter, following Leksikov’s arguments about the word “queer” in Ukraine (and other authors used their own preferred terminology).

Of course, this discussion of terminology, the globalization of certain concepts related to LGBT+ people, and the local or indigenous pushback against these terms, is a much bigger topic in the sphere of queer theory. Anthropologists, cultural theorists, and many others have been developing excellent research on this topic for many years (see Vitaly Chernetsky’s preface and Tamar Shirinian’s introduction for some references; Tjaša Kancler’s chapter also addresses the flows of these terms and concepts). Additionally, some of the chapters address the intersection of gender and sexuality, such as Syinat Sultanalieva’s, which looks at how gender norms also influence the behaviors of LGBT+ people in Kyrgyzstan. “Queer” incorporates an effectively broad idea of gender and sexuality, without limiting how the topic is studied.

HURI: And what does "decolonizing" mean in this context?

Channell-Justice: The idea of “decolonizing” in the title is linked to this idea of “queer” as a term imported from Western LGBT activism. Decolonizing means that we are studying LGBT+ communities and movements in a way that takes them on their own terms, rather than assessing them from a North American and European rights-based perspective. In the volume, this allows the authors to find LGBT+ communities and experiences that we might not have known existed before, because they weren’t limited to a discussion of success and failures of movements for gay rights, for example.

The idea of “decolonizing” also comes from a broader framework I’ve been pursuing in my research. Since 1989/1991, anthropologists (and other social scientists) have been talking about this region as “post-socialist” or “post-communist,” and every few years we get together to try to figure out if we are post-post-socialism. My own interlocutors in Ukraine pushed back against the idea that Ukraine should primarily be identified as post-socialist, instead suggesting that Ukraine is a post-colonial country. That is, the Russian Empire and Soviet Union should be seen as colonizers interested in Ukraine only because of its wealth of resources, and Ukraine’s future is constantly being limited by its colonial status. Ukraine is now navigating a complex space in which European and Russian dominance are threatening its post-colonial independence. This idea merits a much longer discussion, but much of the examples mentioned above, in terms of exploring what “queer” terms mean as they have circulated around the world, come from other post-colonial contexts. That means that a “decolonizing” framework has been popular in queer theory since the field formed, and some scholars in the post-socialist region have been picking up this notion, so the title is an effort to push research to continue in that direction. 

HURI: How about "experience"?

Channell-Justice: As far as “experience” goes, I was trying to think of a word that encompassed - but was not limited to - activism, a term that would include communities but also allow for deep investigation into people’s life experiences—for instance, Kārlis Vērdiņš and Jānis Ozoliņš wrote their chapter based on the life histories of two male performers in Latvia, and Polina Kislitsyna’s chapter on LGBT+ people and religion in Russia is based on oral histories. I think “experience” shows how the volume values a diversity in research perspectives and the creativity of the authors in generating new ways of looking at LGBT+ lives. 

HURI: When was the research conducted for this book? Have there been any significant developments since then that you think would warrant additional or new research? 

Channell-Justice: The research for my chapter came out of the research I did for my dissertation, which began in 2012. While the leftist activists I worked with for that research were largely sympathetic to LGBT+ causes, it was in 2015, when a Pride Parade in Kyiv was attacked by right-wing groups, even though it was protected by a police cordon, that those leftists started writing about why it was important to support LGBT+ issues (my chapter delves into some of their publications in greater detail). My chapter incorporates recent events, especially the Pride Parades in Kyiv in 2017, 2018, and 2019, but there is always more to think about. For example, I don’t look into the existing LGBT NGOs in Ukraine, which have played a prominent role in establishing Pride and other activist initiatives. And while my chapter draws from the existing research on social attitudes toward LGBT+ people, there needs to be much more extensive research in this area, because attitudes change all the time. Plus, the rise in right-wing violence toward LGBT+ people in Ukraine might contradict shifting social attitudes. 

These are just some very basic aspects of what is yet to be covered in Ukraine, but as the volume as a whole shows, there are infinite questions to ask! For example, Feruza Aripova’s chapter draws entirely from archival sources, and it reconstructs gay men’s use of public space, such as city parks, in Riga, Latvia, through the lens of the historical documentation of their trials for the crime of homosexuality. I hope this volume encourages researchers to think creatively about how they explore the topic of LGBT+ experience, even as it is so often erased and repressed.

HURI: On Wednesday, our book panel will focus on the book’s Ukraine contributions. Can you give us a quick overview of the remaining chapters?

Channell-Justice: The book is divided into three sections, each of which play a little bit on a title of a well-known contribution to queer theory. The first, “The Categories Themselves,” draws from David Valentine’s work on the category of transgender (from an article of the same title [2004], as well as his longer work Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category [2007]), the influence of which is prevalent throughout the volume. Tjaša Kancler’s chapter explores the intersection of trans* theory and activism with decoloniality, using (post) Yugoslav art projects to illustrate the pushback against Western-dominated queer theory. Tamar Shirinian’s chapter focuses on the queering of identity production among LGBT+ people in Armenia, which again challenges the domination of Euro-American terms and categories. Syinat Sultanalieva considers notions of “good” and “bad” girls in Kyrgyzstan as they relate to ideas of shame and family expectations. 

Relations: 25 Years of the Lesbian Group SKUC-LL, video frame
“Relations: 25 Years of the Lesbian Group ŠKUC-LL”, by Marina Gržinić, Aina Šmid and Zvonka T. Simčič, 2012, videoframe. From Kancler's article.


The second section is called “Queer in Public,” the title of which evokes Laurie Essig’s 1999 Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self, and the Other. This was one of the earliest contributions from the region in US academia, and Essig argued against the notion that a communal, LGBT rights-based activist movement should automatically develop in independent Russia, mimicking Euro-American democracies. The chapters in this section draw on Essig’s engagement with public space to think about how people have been queer or LGBT+-identified in public over space and time. This section includes my own chapter, which uses the example of Kyiv’s Pride Parades to explore the connections between leftist activism and LGBT+ movements. Feruza Aripova’s chapter investigates the impact of anti-sodomy legislation in Soviet Latvia from the 1960s to the 1980s to show how gay men saw themselves within a homophobic Soviet state. Roman Leksikov’s chapter explores how LGBT+ people relate to police and penitentiaries, drawing from his research in Ukraine but also considering these discourses in North America. 

The final section, “Decolonizing Queer Performance,” draws less from a specific work and engages more with the important role of performance, bodies, and performativity in queer theory. (I should add here that of course, these three themes are very clearly present throughout the chapters, so the sections are not really discrete entities at all!) Zhanar Sekerbayeva’s chapter uses Kazakh folklore to find the potential for gendered transgressions; this chapter most explicitly addresses the theme of Russian colonialism. Kārlis Vērdiņš and Jānis Ozoliņš explore the life stories of two queer performers in rural Latvia, drawing queer theory out of the urban spaces where it is typically assumed to exist most robustly. Finally, Polina Kislitsyna’s chapter argues that Russian LGBT+ people have varied experiences and relationships with religion, which she explores through life histories. 

Image 1. Zhalmauz Kempir. From Batyrlar Turaly Ertegiler. Almaty: Aruna Baspasy, 2015, 91. Artist T. Vishnyakova.
Image 1. Zhalmauz Kempir. From Batyrlar Turaly Ertegiler. Almaty: Aruna Baspasy, 2015, 91. Artist T. Vishnyakova. From Sekerbayeva's article.


HURI: Who would be interested in reading this book (or parts of it)? Can you think of some example courses that might make use of the book in their syllabi? 

Channell-Justice: This book makes an important contribution to gender and sexuality studies, and any queer theory course can benefit from the diverse perspectives shared in the volume. I hope that people who are teaching global queer theory will consider some of the chapters here for their courses, not only because of their geographical breadth, but also because of the creative research methodologies used. They should encourage students to think about how to research LGBT+ topics without limiting them to certain approaches. 

I hope that faculty who teach overview courses about the “post-socialist” world will also consider adopting some of these chapters into their courses. Gender is regularly considered an important topic in regional surveys, but now that there is a growing literature that includes research on sexuality and queer experience, I hope faculty will highlight this work and show students that it is possible to research these subjects. 

Certain chapters in the volume can be of interest to those in art history and criticism (Kancler), literary history and criticism (Sekerbayeva), and historical methods (Aripova). 

Finally, the chapters are good examples of creative research methodologies: I would also advocate for those interested in oral history to look at how certain authors use those methods in the volume (especially Vērdiņš and Ozoliņš; Kislitsyna; and Sultanaliyeva); to consider Shirinian’s chapter to think about the craft of survey development; and to read Leksikov’s and my own methods sections to see how we both used somewhat unorthodox methods for data collection.

HURI: Tell us a little about the process of getting this work into print. What were the steps? Did anything surprise you about the process? Unexpected challenges? New insights you discovered during the process?

Channell-Justice: I had a generally positive experience of publication, thanks to my excellent editor, Kasey Beduhn, at Lexington Books. She contacted me at the AAA meeting where my panel took place, and from there the volume took off. It took a few forms before getting to its final stage, and I ended up unable to include every chapter that I might have wanted to—for instance, one of the original AAA panelists decided not to publish from his research because he couldn’t be sure he could protect the anonymity of his sources. In this area of study, such considerations are so important, and I appreciated that the concern for his interlocutors came first. There were a few times that I wasn’t sure the volume would come to fruition, but Kasey continued to champion it and encouraged me to complete it. I’m very grateful for her commitment! 

I learned so much from reading these chapters, and despite some of the tediousness of copy editing, overall I enjoyed getting to see these chapters take shape. I’ve seen it through from start to finish, but I’m still a little bit in awe of the breadth of the work that these authors did. I’m amazed at how much they know—but I’m also amazed at how much there is left to learn. Hopefully others who read this book come away feeling like they’ve learned something and feeling inspired to pursue further research. 

Finally, I want to give a little shoutout to Michelle Viise, my colleague at HURI’s publications program, who helped me navigate the task of indexing the volume. She made me feel confident in my view of the volume, so I hope the index meets readers’ needs. HURI Communications Manager Kristina Conroy also helped me mock up several options for book covers, which helped me envision the book in its final form—choosing a cover that represented the diverse contributions in the book was a lot harder than I anticipated!

Emily Channell-JusticeEmily Channell-Justice is the Director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at the Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University. She is a sociocultural anthropologist who has been doing research in Ukraine since 2012. She has pursued research on political activism and social movements among students and feminists during the 2013-2014 Euromaidan mobilizations. Her ethnography Without the State: Self-Organization and Political Activism in Ukraine is forthcoming, and her edited volume, Decolonizing Queer Experience: LGBT+ Narratives from Eastern Europe and Eurasia (Lexington Books) was published in 2020.