Discussions of state–citizen relations often do not seriously consider gender and sexuality. Meanwhile, discussions of sexuality often focus on solely on homosexuality and queer sexualities, through a framework of questions of representation, identity, visibility, and authenticity. Scholars Maya Mikdashi, whose research focuses on Lebanon, and Karma R. Chávez, whose research focuses on the United States, argue that straight and queer sexualities need to be thought of together, and that using the lens of sexuality deepens our understanding of global processes, state power, and how citizenship is established or secured.

 In academic analyses, Lebanon is often framed as an exceptional and extreme case— a cautionary tale. On the other hand, academic research often frames the United States as exceptional: it is either a state to aspire to, or else it is silently accepted as the baseline for universal analysis. Dialogue participants argue that analysis must overcome exceptionalism to better understand how sexuality and gender are used by states to secure their power.

Karma R. Chávez: One of the things I often return to from your work is your insistence on the refusal of the bifurcation of sex, sexuality, and gender from race, economy, and settler colonialism. This should be a no-brainer—it’s intersectionality! But you continually return us to the fact that the very definition of the state and the citizen is produced through sexual difference, and the way that sexual difference is enforced is always and perpetually overlaid with the political and economic. 

Maya Mikdashi: My recent work on “sextarianism”—a term that emerged from my research in Lebanon—suggests that sexual difference and its regulation are key to secular power and sovereignty, and to the production and circulation of secularism as a set of values, aspirational practices, and as a hierarchy of modernity. My approach arises in part from a frustration that work in sexuality studies sometimes treats heterosexuality as an empty category, while queer sexualities are marked categories. On the other hand, so much of the critical work on state power, citizenship, secularism, and sectarianism does not take sexuality into account—although these issues are all grounded in bureaucratic regimes of heterosexual kinship, and in discourses about sexual and political difference.

To make a basic point: in Lebanon sect is a patriarchally inherited category. In the eyes of the state, your sect is not what you affiliate with, what you believe in, or who you are not. Instead, the criterion that states use to identify members of different sects is simple—what sect was your father? Most of the critical work on sectarianism only treats in passing the fact that sect is a patriarchal inheritance, as if it can or should be cleaved from our theorization. I don’t think we can dismiss that fact, though, if we want to take the structure, history, and experience of power seriously. There is no coherent, ungendered sectarian subject position. Instead, “sect” is bureaucratically and legally constituted and practiced at sexed inflection points.

“Most of the critical work on sectarianism only treats in passing the fact that sect is a patriarchal inheritance.”

In my book Sextarianism,1 I argue that both queer and straight sexualities, as well as sectarian and political difference, are produced, regulated, and securitized through the state’s use of sexual difference as a vector of power. In many ways, this framework employs queer feminist theories to rethink the projects of heterosexuality, heteronormativity, secularism, and citizenship. By sexual difference, I mean the feedback loop between gender and sexuality— between the projects to make, fix, and manage gender difference and different sexualities. 

 Karma: Could you discuss your notion of “sextarianism” more, and how in the case of Lebanon—not to make it an exception, of course—sex and sect co-constitute or are co-constituted (by the state and culture) in order to produce and reinforce a sovereign state that is logically securitized?  

Maya: Part of what Sextarianism proposes is that nation-states are highly invested in producing and regulating the intersections between categories of identification, as a form of sovereignty. I say “identification” instead of “identity” because I am thinking of state power kinetically, as a set of practices. Seen this way, intersectionality—and sexual and political difference—are not only categories of experience, of representation, or of analysis. Instead, they are vectors of state power: to make sexual and political difference, to capture and fix the unrelenting messiness of life into bureaucratic or legal categories, and to manage the intersections between them. As such, individual chapters of Sextarianism focus on the regulation and experience of religious conversion; the curation of legal archives; the relationship between sovereignty and the making and management of sexual difference; and practices of what I call evangelical secular activism. But it is the juridical state and the experience of state power that interest and motivate me throughout the book.

 In Lebanon, two examples of sex and securitization come immediately to mind. One relates to the ability of women to pass on citizenship to spouses and children, something that they are currently prohibited from doing. There is this discourse that it is “dangerous” to the sectarian balance in the country to “give” women this right (I put “give” in quotes because the issue is discussed as if allowing them to have this right is an act of benevolence). In this discourse, the sectarian balance is posed as essential to Lebanon’s founding myth and bureaucratic, legal practice of coexistence that produces the secularism of the state. This position of the sectarian balance is connected, in turn, to the demographic anxieties inspired by the children and birth patterns of Lebanese women and of refugees. 

A woman surrounded by Lebanese flags holds a sign that says, “Citizenship is a right for me and my family.” Lebanese women are currently unable to pass on their citizenship to spouses and children. Source: Lebanese Women’s Right to Nationality and Full Citizenship campaign Facebook page.

A second example of sex and securitization is the use of “sex panics” to securitize refugee and displaced people in Lebanon. Sex panics are social frenzies of fear about practices that are supposedly threatening the country’s innocence or moral character. These panics are capacious and flexible—both queer and straight sexuality, criminality, and public morality have been used to securitize, racialize, and border refugee and displaced populations. Seen through the analysis of sextarianism, political sectarianism (a form of structural pluralism), is a regime of securitization as much as it is a system of representation or practice. Political sectarianism not only identifies, produces, and manages a population of citizens; it also identifies, produces, and manages populations that can never be citizens. Sexuality and its securitization are key to both aspects of political sectarianism.

Karma: My impulse as a U.S. scholar who largely studies the United States was to ask you to make an analogy with Western, supposedly secular states. But I suppose what I really want to ask about is queer theory from outside the United States. 

Maya: I like how you frame the idea of the “supposedly secular,” in part because it gets at how we always already have an idea of what is “actually secular.” Sextarianism is, most broadly, a theorization of the relationships between sexual and political difference. It suggests that producing, erupting, securitizing, and traversing the borders between the supposedly private and public spheres are key to understanding how secularism is operationalized, imagined, and desired in a postcolonial or colonial world of nation-states. So far as the United States is a settler imperial country with a colonial relationship to both internal and external populations (Indigenous, Black, Iraqi and Puerto Rican, for example), sextarianism helps us think through how sexual difference is sutured to political difference in a secular, securitized, scalar, and hierarchical regime of extraterritorial pluralism known as the U.S. empire.

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Biopolitics and Borders

 Maya: Your work shows how both the fantasy of control—which might be called “whiteness”—and political economies of race, gender, class, and vulnerability animate the securitization of HIV. In some ways, this process causes the collapse of the body and the border into a system of securitization. Your book, The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine and Resistance,2 traces how the history of the HIV/AIDS pandemic is constructed as a regime of power, both in terms of who the subjects of history are and the arc of history itself. The book uses the lenses of citizenship and immigration to examine the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the United States. What you show is that the “miracle” of HIV pharmacological containment became a triumphant history, but only when the protagonists were white men. If the bodies in that history are non-male or non-Euroamerican—if they are securitized, racialized, assigned a class, and gendered to matter less—the story doesn’t get told, or it is distorted. As the HIV/AIDS pandemic evolved, there ended up being a focus on quarantine and a ban on HIV-positive immigrants, when neither of those things make any epidemiological medical sense. You also tell the story of how the victims resisted these measures.

 How does your work help us rethink borders, security, and biopolitics in our own COVID-19 moment? What kind of coalitional possibilities do you see emerging? Learning from your work, what might the many histories of this moment look like in thirty years?

Karma: “The collapse of the body and the border into a system of securitization”—I’m struck by this phrase, because I think it really captures what is at stake in times when disease—particularly pandemic or epidemic disease, but also certain kinds of endemic disease—comes to the attention of states. Human bodies, categorized through racist, xenophobic, and capitalist logics—and therefore presumed to be infected with viral bodies— become simultaneously the justification and alibi for immediate border security (the need for containment), the site of border security (surveillance and containment practices), and the material manifestation of broader state anxieties about border security (leaky, porous borders and the like). 

“Not all disease has a sexual dimension or is somehow assumed to be transmitted sexually, but contagious disease is always intimate.”

Not all disease has a sexual dimension or is somehow assumed to be transmitted sexually, but contagious disease is always intimate. There is no spread of disease without the intimacy of shared breath, fluid, or touched surface, or some combination of the above. So even when we’re talking about COVID-19 instead of HIV, the fears about the human body and the fears for the national body are fears about intimacy and what that intimacy will do. At the same time, not all bodies infected with viruses or other pathogens get collapsed with border security.

So, as you and the gender theorist Judith Butler say, only certain bodies come to matter—only certain bodies come to matter as subjects of a triumphant history of eradicating disease, and only certain bodies come to matter as a threat to the state’s management of the health of its proper citizenry. 

To respond to your question about COVID-19, I’m interested in the possibility of “coalition” in the face of HIV/AIDS and COVID-19. Part of the impulse of all my work is finding the ways to connect, and to actively resist that ultimate master’s tool of divide and conquer. I’m not utopian about coalitions. But I do think disease is also an opportunity to find new ways to connect. We can connect over the abstract—how do the alienized coalesce around shared relationships to power? We can also connect over the particular—how do we find new ways to love, fight, and be intimate in pathogenic time?  


Karma: You’ve said that Lebanon is not exceptional, but exemplary. Could you elaborate? 

Maya: When particular areas and countries and peoples and different geopolitical locations are marked as “exceptional,” the term implies a kind of border, a stoppage, an epistemological barrier. It creates a saturation of historical specificity that makes this place or that unable to stand in for a grand narrative about the world at large. I don’t think it is a coincidence that most of the “exceptional” geopolitical locations are either colonized (as in the case of Palestine) or postcolonial (as in the case of Lebanon). The occupation of Palestine is framed as exceptional to, for example, any other colonial regime of supremacy—even the Palestinian insistence on freedom and equality is framed as exceptional to the general principle that people should be free and equal, that they have the right to not be occupied. Lebanon, even in the literature on the Middle East (itself framed as exceptional, or outside of history, in the vein of Edward Said’s critique), is considered exceptional. Lebanon is talked about like this weird little complicated place with too many laws, identities, religions, systems, wars, and histories. Of course, once framed this way, Lebanon can only teach us about itself—it can’t tell us something universal. (For the record, I’m not a fan of universalizing narratives.) 

On the other hand, there are ways in which Lebanon is exemplary. The Lebanese state is exemplary in terms of how it ties political and sexual identity together, and how it produces and regulates difference as a mode of secular state power and sovereignty. And Lebanon is an exemplary location for thinking about the relationship between political and sexual identity (a cornerstone of feminist political thought), because that relationship is so amplified and obvious in law, bureaucracy, and discourse.

I was born and raised in Lebanon, and it is interesting to think how I was brought up to think of Lebanon as a cautionary tale—a place that always could be, if only it got its shit together and started behaving like “normal” countries.

Karma: Yes, Lebanon is seen as exceptional in the sense of being a warning or cautionary tale. There is another way to define exceptionalism, though. I come from the United States, where we are born and bred on the truth and promise of U.S. exceptionalism. But the ways the United States may actually be exceptional are of course antithetical to what the idea of “U.S. exceptionalism” is meant to convey as a controlling myth. 

What the common discussions of both Lebanon and the United States often lack, in terms of being exemplary, is an analysis of power. What are the means by which an entity can come to be thought of as exemplary? Conversely, what are the forces that may prevent an entity from being thought of as exemplary?

Maya: I have always found it interesting how exceptionalism is used in multiple, contradictory ways depending on the geopolitical location and historical context that are being discussed. U.S. exceptionalism, unlike the exceptionalism of Lebanon, is meant, as you say, as a “controlling myth,” and to my mind this very much has to do with power. So while U.S. exceptionalism marks the United States as unique and impossible to replicate, it also marks an aspirational affect—one should want, desire, or work to replicate it. I do think that U.S. exceptionalism is reproduced by the emptying out of historical specificity in academic work that is located in and emerges from the U.S. academy. Here, U.S. exceptionalism implies the ability to be unburdened by history—to be emptied of historical specificity or the political economy of location. What makes this possible is the brute logic and practice of empire. 

Consider academic book titles. It is rare for a book in queer, gender, or feminist studies (or a “theoretical book more generally), which is anchored in research in the United States, to be encumbered with a title that ends with the hanging phrase “in the United States.” Instead, the title is location-less, and in some cases, so is the writing itself, as if research conducted in the United States should speak for the world. The United States is treated as an exemplary place from which to derive or produce narratives (or theories) that are universal or universalizing in reach.

“The United States is treated as an exemplary place from which to derive or produce narratives (or theories) that are universal or universalizing in reach.”

Karma, how do you view the relationship between empire, colonialism, and exceptionalism? I have learned so much over the past months in our conversations with peers from different geopolitical locations and positions—and have found it refreshing to place the United States as one location among many. We both work in interdisciplinary departments—how does the exceptionalism of our multiple locations look like from your perspective? 

Karma: U.S. ethnic studies and U.S. gender and sexuality studies all emerged in American universities around the same time and in response to the demands of movements of the 1960s. (I am using “ethnic studies” as an imperfect shorthand to mark the interdisciplinary intellectual formations of Asian American, Latinx, Black, and Native American studies.) The origins of these disciplines are activist and are bound to the U.S. nation-state, at least to a certain extent. But this latter point about the nation-state is only true to the extent that the people fighting for the development of ethnic studies lived on the land we call the United States, made demands on U.S.-based universities in the communities in which they lived, and centered many of their critiques on U.S. state entities (police, military, elected officials). The best of all of these movements were deeply transnational from the beginning, both in their membership and in their analysis. But the institutions that house ethnic studies programs have often had to be really intentional about how the intellectual project gets framed. This is especially the case in relation to “area studies,” which emerged in U.S. universities not from activist demands, but from U.S. government foreign interests.

I bring this up because one of the things I am often thinking about as chair of a U.S. Latinx studies department at a university, with one of the most renowned (and well-funded) Latin American studies institutes in the world, is how to keep my budget line without bluntly centering the United States. For example, following the anthropologist José Limón, we often talk about the southwestern United States as “greater Mexico,” which is to imply not only that the region used to be a part of the Mexican state, but that culturally there are numerous ways in which this part of the world feels more like Mexico than the United States. But where, then, is the disciplinary line between Latin American and Latinx studies? U.S. Latinx studies continues to grapple with its relationship to land and indigeneity: Many U.S.-born Latinx people are estranged from their Indigenous heritage. Many newly arriving Latin American migrants are Indigenous (and because of their migration, have become settlers). U.S. Latinx studies is also grappling with its relationship to Blackness, and the constitution of an idea of a mestiza, mestizo, or mestizx race vis-a-vis transnational slavery. How can we do the work we need to do when the discipline is so beholden to the U.S. nation-state? 

I fear I’ve gone far afield here, and perhaps that is the result of the anxiety I feel as an administrator of this department. But I do think, even as I have found being in an interdisciplinary department liberating, I have also found it stifling, for the reasons I’ve just described. So spending this time together discussing gender and sexuality, while keeping in mind that the United States is one context among many, has been really wonderful. 

This dialogue is part of “Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance,” a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.

header image: Fatma, a Syrian woman from the city of Idlib, begs with her two children in a wealthy district of Beirut on November 16, 2013. Refugees poured into Lebanon from Syria during the course of the latter’s devastating civil war. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images


  1. Maya Mikdashi, Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism, and the State in Lebanon (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2022).
  2. Karma R. Chávez, The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine and Resistance (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2021).