From Red Lights to Red Flags: A History of Gender in Colonial and Contemporary Vietnam
This dissertation argues that the public discourse of Vietnam's periods of modernity--the late French colonial era (1930-1940) and that of the post-socialist decades (1986-2005)--produced interlocking notions of what I call queer subjects, subjects who oppose or exceed a normative understanding of heterosexual reproduction. The dissertation posits, however, a diachronic rupture in the dominant meaning of queer between these two periods. Whereas the former exhibited a capacious vision of gender and sexuality, one that pushed the imagined frontiers of the human body, the post-socialist decades marked a retreat to a static notion of mythic tradition that pathologized and purged queer bodies through recourse to a late nineteenth-century European discourse of gender-inversion, the notion of a man "trapped" in a women's body or vice versa. To demonstrate this change, the first chapter argues that the normative meaning of gender and sexuality in late colonial Vietnam was far more dynamic and expansive than the contemporary scholarship has acknowledged. The second chapter maintains that the sexual regime that Foucault and others scholars have identified in Europe reaches its limit in the Vietnamese colony. The third and final chapter demonstrates the emergence of this sexual regime, albeit in transmuted form, during Vietnam's post-socialist decades (1986-2005). Together these chapters support the overall argument of a historical rupture in the cultural meaning of queer genders and sexualities between the period of late French colonialism and post-socialism. In reconstructing this rupture, the dissertation aims to de-familiarize contemporary practices and commitments and, by so doing, illuminate viable alternative forms of gendered and sexual life in twentieth-century Vietnam.