J. Daniel Luther reflects on his time studying at SOAS and his part in establishing ‘Queer’ Asia.
“Going off to SOAS”
September 2018 marks the completion of my four years as a doctoral researcher at SOAS. The sense of excitement, possibilities, and nostalgia remind me of four years earlier when I was leaving Singapore to start a new chapter in London. On a brief stopover at home, in Delhi, I went to my undergraduate college in the University of Delhi. In its quaint and musty corridors, amidst a lush green part of Delhi, I recall sitting down over chai and samosas with lecturers from my undergrad years. They were as excited for me as I was. They joyfully shared my news— ‘going off to SOAS’ — with other colleagues, including a professor of Biology, who I barely knew, but whose witty quips and timely sarcasm was as permanent as the fixtures in the college building. He was quick to puncture the elation and remarked that ‘SOAS is not all that it is made out to be!’
Diversity in Bloomsbury
Four years later, I feel he could not have been more wrong, but not for the reasons he anticipated. SOAS is special because of the sheer volume of diversity visible in the heart of Bloomsbury. Where it was once an instrument of the British colonial apparatus, it now houses a strong surge against colonial knowledge in the ‘Decolonise your Mind’ movement; it is the site of inspiring campaigns to challenge the neoliberal structure of universities with the ‘Fractionals for Fair Play’ campaign and the ‘Justice for Cleaners’ movement; was at the forefront of the ‘Enough is Enough’ movement on consent culture. This diversity, and the acuteness of this politically aware body, has been the reason a few of us were able to start ‘Queer’ Asia, which has remarkably enriched my four years here.
The start of ‘Queer’ Asia
What is so special about SOAS only became clear to me in the summer of 2015 when three colleagues of mine — a fellow PhD, a Master’s student, and an early career researcher — realised we shared a painful common ground. That is, working on queer issues in Asia meant being incomprehensible, if not scoffed at, in a number of Area Studies conferences, and unrelatable in Queer Theory conferences. It was this common meeting point that led us to start a ‘Queer’ Asia conference, to foster engagement with the issues we felt were central to our work and our lived experiences. We put out a call for papers and hoped for a small conference with a few scholars in attendance. The response was overwhelming. People came to ‘Queer’ Asia 2016 — titled ‘Diversity, Contestations, and Developments’ — in droves, the rooms were packed, sweaty (those rare British summer days), and the feedback was overly positive! Everyone shared our feelings.
Desire, Decolonisation and Decriminalisation
Since that eventful summer, ‘Queer’ Asia has grown in leaps and bounds. We ran events every month all through 2016-2018. The ‘Queer’ Asia 2017 conference — Desire, Decolonisation, and Decriminalisation’ — was even larger than the first, a tad sweatier even. It expanded, to make room for the first ‘Queer’ Asia film festival, and featured eight films from all over Asia. What we had tapped into was an urgent need for a discussion that was long overdue. The sheer numbers of staff and students from within SOAS who stepped up to help, the incredible range of experiences, knowledge, ideas, and creativity they brought with them was what made it all possible.
Bodies X Borders
As I write this on the eve of ‘Queer’ Asia 2018 — ‘Bodies X Borders’ — I am in awe of the diversity of the people who have contributed towards making ‘Queer’ Asia possible. Now a week’s worth of events, ‘Queer’ Asia is home to an art exhibition by inspiring artists from across Asia and its diasporas, and it has expanded into another prestigious institution in Bloomsbury, the British Museum. This year, the British Museum, along with SOAS, host the second annual ‘Queer’ Asia Film Festival with films spanning four continents and from over thirty different filmmakers.
‘Queer’ Asia has become a platform for queer voices from all over Asia.
More importantly it is a place where inter-Asia networks, connections, and bonds are made anew. ‘Queer’ Asia is inspired by the connections and networks that are at the heart of SOAS and which was what we tapped into as scholars from different parts of Asia. These are connections we have nurtured in the various committees and participants across three years and, more importantly, the close ties and friendships that have formed over the three conferences. It could not have happened without the brilliant people who all came to SOAS, and who attend ‘Queer’ Asia, and tirelessly contribute their talents, skills, knowledge, and experiences.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
I am thankful I chose SOAS back in 2014 when I was deciding on where to go to do my PhD. It has had its moments, the good, bad, and ugly, but it would just not have been the same anywhere else, simply because of the people who chose to study and work here. ‘Queer’ Asia has emerged from what is possible at SOAS when you tap into the creativity, intelligence, and the diversity of the body politic at SOAS. It has made these past four years an incredible experience.
Read more about the people who work hard every year to make ‘Queer’ Asia possible.
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