Theory to Praxis: GSS Knowledge at Home & Abroad

Over my semester as a study of gender & sexuality studies, I have encountered a multitude of concepts, theories, authors, and readings that have lead me to develop a new understanding of the world and its workings. Beyond what I have learned in the formal setting of class, I have learned how to approach my society and other cultures with a new outlook on the structures in place. This course in gender & sexuality studies will provide me with valuable knowledge as I rapidly approach my junior year study abroad experience. I intend to go to St. Petersburg, Russia for my junior year to continue my study of political science & Russian language & culture. I will bring several key concepts from gender & sexuality studies to my abroad experience that will undoubtedly guide me to be a more respectful guest and to exercise cultural relativism in my host country.

Having read Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” I have come to understand the danger of approaching new cultures with a savior complex, be it intentionally or subliminally. In the often-ethnocentric perspective I have received as a student in the United States, Russia is very frequently presented as a country that is historically behind the times. One example that comes to my mind is that imperial serfdom is vehemently vilified, while the true horror of American slavery is often glossed over in the classroom. Vestiges of Cold War biases constantly tint the way Russia and its people are framed, in both the academic setting and within the news media. The same attitude often reflected onto the Middle East can be seen toward Russia, as well: the savior complex. Russia is constantly portrayed as deeply sexist and backward compared to the West, which propagates a dangerous notion that these women need us to save them from the evils of their repressive society. This portrayal rests on the highly problematic progress narrative that we attempted to deconstruct throughout the semester. Furthermore, all societies are sexist. It strikes me as a deflection to address our own unjust power structures to pass the buck to a “more sexist country.”

Connected to the savior complex is a key concept that was completely new to me this semester: homonationalism. Russian President Vladimir Putin has supported undeniably homophobic legislation and civil society has displayed violence toward LGBTQ individuals. However, much like our discussion of the Middle East, homonationalism has permeated through our thoughts on queerness in Russia. Despite the marginalization of queer identities in the United States, our (recent) legalization of same-sex marriage and our general acceptance of white, upper class gay couples can lead to criticism of Russia’s extreme anti-gay laws because, hey, at least the U.S. is better than them! I have certainly heard my fair share of Russia and Middle Eastern countries labeled as homophobic and anti-gay, but it wasn’t until GSS this semester that I realized that, despite American criticism, we certainly don’t live in a society accepting of most queer identities and lifestyles.

This semester has challenged the way I think about nearly everything. I no longer think of anything as “natural,” and no longer accept aspects of my culture as normatively right or better. I look forward to bringing my new knowledge on my adventure abroad and beyond.