Jin Haritaworn, Queer Lovers and Hateful Others: Regenerating Violent Times and Places, Pluto Press, 2015, 237 pp., $32 (paper) $99 (cloth), ISBN: 9780745330617

Time passes fast, especially in Berlin, the rapidly gentrifying German capital. When I received the editor’s request to review the book Queer Lovers and Hateful Others: Regenerating Violent Times and Places by one of the most courageous queer scholars of our day, Jin Haritaworn, I personally experienced a non-negotiable eviction prompted by gentrification. I was kicked out from a shared flat in the neighborhood Wedding because the main tenant repeatedly failed to pay the rent to the real estate company. This cruel eviction at the beginning of the harsh Berlin winter would have been negotiable some years ago when Wedding was still, like Kreuzberg and Neukölln in their old days, an immigrant and working class neighborhood deemed to be “too dangerous.” This unpleasant event took place just as Wedding was being hailed as an emerging “cool” place to live in by both local and foreign media, including the local English magazine EX-Berliner and the New York Times. The New York Times article, “Wedding in Berlin Finally has Its Moment” (August 2015), included jaw-dropping interview statements such as this: “While expats are often blamed for fueling gentrification, Mr. Omietanski [runner of a monthly party called Wedding Soul] embraces out-of-towners. ‘People who come here deserve to have a good time’, he said, ‘because they found their way to Wedding’.” In such accounts, the not-yet-fully-gentrified Wedding becomes an exotic place in the inner city that is difficult to find. If one dares venture out to it, one is rewarded not only with a good time at the party, but also reprieve for fueling gentrification. Queer Lovers and Hateful Others should be a required reading for those who share this perverse logic of aggressive urban capitalism.

Amidst the fervent gentrification of Berlin, Haritaworn’s book offers an urgent critique. Its investigation is timely especially because the book is not mainly concerned with “easy targets” such as cooperative gentrification, but the progressive front of Berlin’s LGBTQ communities, particularly what Haritaworn calls “queer and trans people with class and race privileges.” The book pours a good amount of cold water on Berlin’s self-endowed title of “most gay-friendly city in the world.” The “coolest of all,” a trademark of Berlin that consists of, among others traits, gay-friendliness, queer-friendliness, as well as the newly added trans-friendliness, is, for Haritaworn, better understood as a “transitional phenomenon that occurs on the border between a welfare and a neoliberal regime” (163). It goes hand in hand with gentrification and most tellingly with the racialization of queerphobia, that is, the racist practices crystallized in what the author terms “the new folk devil: homophobic Muslims.” The book does excellent work in its analysis of the complicity of queer subjects with the forces of normalization and gentrification through the double movement of “regeneration”—the increasing visibility and acceptance of “queer forms of love” —and “degeneration”—the racialization of neighborhoods through the appearance of people of colour, especially those who are intepellated as the most homophobic and who appeared in previous colonial periods as “too queer” due to their failure “to conform to strictly binaried European hierarchies of gender and sexuality” (163).

The publication of Queer Lovers roughly coincides with the two Paris Attacks, the 2016 New-Year’s Eve incident in Cologne, the frightening rise of the anti-immigrant (mainly anti-Muslim) right-wing party AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland), and the election of Donald Trump as the president in the United States, that is to say, with the globalization and institutionalization of Islamophobia. Organized under the three main themes of “Love,” “Hatred,” and “Queer Nostalgia,” plus a rich introduction, “Setting the Scene,” and a useful conclusion and succinct epilogue, the book draws on an impressive range of literature, including the “Kitchen Table Talk” of queers of color in Berlin and the Khalass!!! Manifesto, as well as theoretical works across issues of racialization, gentrification, queer nationalism, gay imperialism, hetero-/homo-/trans-normativity, the perpetuation of colonialism old and new, National Socialism in Germany, and the neoliberal era, to name but a few prominent examples.

Combining ethnographic accounts and theoretical analyses, the book is well structured and its arguments are very convincing. Reading it is a challenging and rewarding experience. Haritaworn’s courageous work does not spare anyone from scrutiny. However, the book might be criticized for being at times Manichean. The dichotomy between the so-called “queer of color” and the “white queer” is necessary but also inevitably simplistic, so much so that the political strategy of carving out one’s own space (in this case, the space of the queer of color) might be seen as part of what Rey Chow calls the process of “keeping them in their place” (2002). The feeling of political and discursive ghettoization evoked by the invocation of “them and us” might be ultimately unhelpful for building solidarity both within and across different axes of social and cultural identification. This dichotomy is shown, for example, by the author’s different treatment of two forms of “nostalgia”: “homonostalgia,” Gloria Wekk’s term that points to the projection of a past that is “a white benevolent nation free from ‘homophobic’ people of colour” (54), which Haritaworn rightly rejects; and the nostalgia for an all-inclusive, intersectional Kreuzberg past, which the book portrays as more authentic and desirable. For instance, Haritaworn recalls how one of their informants, Danía, “nostalgically remembered a Kreuzberg where queer and trans people of colour were a recognizable part of the local landscape.” “With gentrification,” writes Haritaworn, “this space is now being eroded” (69).

This kind of simplification is shown in an instance of the book in which Haritaworn discusses the cover of the 2007 issue of the Hamburg gay magazine, Hinnerk.[1] The author describes the scene as the following: “a white man in drag (appearing to wear a hijab) submissively waits for his döner kebab sandwich while a hunky hairy Middle-Eastern server wields his knife against a giant meat skewer” (55). The cover in fact features a group of men in drag (instead of one “white man in drag” as recounted in the book) wearing rainbow colored hijabs who are ordering and eating döner sandwiches from two Middle Eastern-looking men in a kebab shop. The clientele consists of five men in drag whose racial identities are not clearly discernible except for one leaning against the cashier who could be identified as “Middle-Eastern” as he shares the same representational traces (shaved beards, hairy chests and arms) as the two kebab servers. The white client whom Haritaworn describes as submissively waiting is difficult to find. On the contrary, the clients in drag seem to be more at ease, almost visibly patronizing rather than submissive. The cartoon is accompanied by the issue’s provocative title: “Schöner ohne döner? Schwule und Muslime: Streit in St. Georg” (Nicer without kebab? Gays and Muslims: Contention in St Georg). Although a large proportion of the content in the issue, especially from readers’ letters is indeed tellingly racist and explicitly Islamophobic, there is no reason to oversimplify the message the cartoon cover might convey in a way that might intensify that “Streit” (which the author prefers to translate as “struggle over” rather than “debates in” as translated by Petzen [2008: 177], from whom Haritaworn quotes) between the groups.

The cartoon might have well served the author’s purpose of criticizing (white) queer entitlement; the relaxed and overtly entitled extravaganza of the clients, clearly enjoying their kebabs after a party (many of them have rather drunken faces) is juxtaposed with the sweaty, hard work of the two kebab sellers who stay up late in order to serve party-goers. However, the question “Would it be nicer without döner kebab?” (or even the question mark alone), set against the representation of entitled queer partygoers (who are difficult to identify as exclusively white) and the hardworking “guest-workers,” makes it harder to discern the editorial intention of demonizing “homophobic Muslims,” an intention that is conveyed in the rest of the magazine and which Haritaworn aptly criticizes. If we look at the cartoon alone, the exaggerated facial expressions of the queer clients may even be read as mocking and thus cautioning against their intrusiveness in the döner shop whose owners are clearly as much bewildered as patronized.

The critical energy of the book exacerbates the rather sectarian character of the LGBTQ community in Berlin, where annual pride events do not talk to one another and where something as absurd as “half-POC” is not unheard of within queer scenes. One wonders if at times the book could retain its critical sharpness without perpetuating certain stratifying conflicts that already exist. One also wonders, ultimately, to whom the book is addressed and where the author positions themselves. It might have been more useful to have a more complex approach to the usage of the term “queer.” The book seems to presuppose the whiteness of “queer” and depicts “queer of colour” as necessarily outside of that whitened category. If we follow the anti-normativity thesis of queer theory or see queer as a positionality rather than an identity, then those who suffer from gentrification and racism most, namely “queers of colour” are more likely to occupy the position of the queer rather than that of the “queer gentrifiers” who are ultimately white cis-gender persons with class privilege.

This short book review cannot do justice to this complex book that Jin Haritaworn has worked on for ten years using intensive field work and elaborate theorization. Although it might at times assume a Manichean approach, the reader should bear in mind that a more nuanced and complexified approach may not have been an option given the urgency of responding to an increasingly racist environment, one that has not only become uninhabitable for queers of color without race and class privilege but is largely predicated, as the author repeatedly reminds us, on the “social death” of people of color, queer or otherwise.

 

Notes

[1] I would like to acknowledge the help offered by Mr. Friedrich-H. Schregel from the Centrum Schwule Geschichte at Cologne for sending me a copy of the cover he kindly scanned from the CSG’s library collection.

 

References

Chow R (2002) The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Petzen JL (2008) Gender Politics in the New Europe: ‘Civilizing’ Muslim Sexualities. PhD Dissertation, University of Washington, Seattle.

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Zairong Xiang is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the DFG Research Training Group “Minor Cosmopolitanisms” at Potsdam University. He works on the intersection of feminisms and queer theories in their decolonial variants in Spanish, English, Chinese, French, and Nahuatl. Before Potsdam, he was a research fellow at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry and received his PhD in Comparative Literature from University of Tuebingen and University of Perpignan.