Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Blind Man and the Elephant

Love in a different climate: men who have sex with men in India
Jeremy Seabrook
London and New York: Verso, 1999.

In a major city there's a park where men go to look for sex with other men. These men vary in their motives, and the kind of sex they're looking for. Some are apparently masculine, others apparently effeminate. Some are here because they aren't married, or aren't living with their wives, and they want a quick and easy sexual release that costs them no money. Others prefer to pay for sex, and they can find men here who will accept payment: some of these latter are full-time sex workers who insist that they don't feel desire for men,but hustling is a relatively easy way for them to make money. Some of the married men who cruise here live with their wives, but they married only to satisfy family or social pressure, and have no sexual interest in women: many of them claim that they fantasize about their experiences with men to be able to perform sexually with their wives. Some speak wistfully of finding a man who will stay with them for longer than it takes to reach orgasm, a friend who will love them and be loved in return. Some men come here as much to socialize as to cruise, and spend hours chatting and gossiping with other habitués.

I'm referring to the park in Delhi where Jeremy Seabrook found interview subjects for this book, but I think most people knowledgeable about human sexuality will recognize that the park could be almost anywhere in the world, including the United States. It might be a highway rest stop, an adult bookstore, or a public bathhouse, but the range of behavior and rationales of the men who gather there is much the same, regardless of their language or color. The stories they told Seabrook differ only superficially from the stories men would have told him in New York City, Taipei, Berlin, Mexico City. Love in a Different Climate is most valuable when Seabrook lets his subjects tell their stories, bearing witness to their lives in a culture that ignores and even denies their existence.

Seabrook, however, seems to think that these men live on another planet, their experiences absolutely alien to those of men in other countries and cultures. As I will show, this bizarre notion undermines all his contrasts of India with "the West." But the trouble goes beyond that. Like too many writers on homosexuality nowadays, Seabrook has a lot of bad things to say about the word "gay": that it is "Western," "reductive," and so on. But, like his fellows, he never explains what he means by "gay." He never explains how it differs from "non-Western" conceptions of same-sex love and desire. And that, it seems to me, is where he should begin.

Perhaps I can reconstruct Seabrook's definition of this Western concept by looking at what he thinks it is not, the behavior and attitudes he opposes to it, which he found among these Indian men. But as I just noted, the stories he was told in Delhi could just as easily be told by American men. This is not an endorsement of "essentialism." While remarkably similar patterns appear across cultures, there is no single pattern in any one culture: a similar variety of types and patterns appears within each culture. That variety includes people who want to form lasting partnerships with others of their own sex, whether or not they call themselves "gay."

"Shivananda Khan, Calcutta-born founder of NAZ in London and a tireless researcher into sexual identities in South Asia, points out that a compelling reason now exists for not projecting onto India Western concepts of straight, gay and bisexual: the spread of AIDS cannot be prevented by having recourse to these stereotyped and rigid categories. Men who have sex with men do not recognize themselves in these classifications, and any attempt to reach them and to create consciousness of the need for safer sex will not reach them" (140f). Evidently Khan is unaware that the same problem has arisen in the"West," including New York and San Francisco -- even London.

Khan and Seabrook may be using the same term differently, however. Seabrook includes some men who think of themselves as gay among the wide range he describes of Indian "men who have sex with men." Khan seems to mean only those men who have sex with men but don't identify themselves as gay or bisexual. As I understand it, "men who have sex with men" originated as a hopefully non-threatening term intended to cover all men who have sex with other men, including gay and bisexual-identified men. Now it seems to have split off, referring only to men who resist such identities, but in either sense it is certainly one more Western concept, coined in the West to enable AIDS services to reach Western men who resisted gay or bisexual identity. As Khan uses it, it's as rigid as the identities he denounces -- after all, its boundaries are delimited by those identities.

Those identities are not a product of the gay liberation movement. They are a grass-roots construction by people -- not only college-educated middle-class whites by any means -- who loved their own sex. Such people are generally hostile to the notion of fluidity in sexuality, and to the Queer theorists (often denounced for supposed elitism) who question the popular rigidity. "Rigid" better describes those men who indignantly reject labels such as "gay" or "bisexual," despite extensive erotic experience with other men.

Seabrook says that a gay consciousness "is itself a response of the powerful, those who have had access to Western liberal education,who know global English-language culture. To the powerless it can appear crushing, dominant and oppressive. Another man, less dogmatic, said, 'Indians do this thing, but they don't talk about it. They don't give it a name, and then it is OK. It is integrated into life not in theory, but as it is lived and experienced. Once you start to rationalize and explain, it becomes something else, and that something else falsifies the Indian form of integration. In this way, even your liberation can become another form of colonialism. That is what you have to avoid'" (137).

Seabrook considers this condescending diatribe less dogmatic? On his own showing it is not "OK" for Indian men to have sex with each other as long as they don't talk about it: if that were so, they would not be so furtive about it, they would not have to keep it secret,they would not feel that it is shameful and a sickness and an addiction. (What this informant calls an "Indian form of integration"is all too familiar to American gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals. We call it "the closet.") Sex between men is not "integrated into life"in India. On Seabrook's own showing, it is marginalized and shoved into silence and obscurity.

Seabrook's painter informant is even more dogmatic. Gay liberation "is a kind of cultural terrorism and we must resist it. In India, to be a friend may have erotic overtones or it may not. If a male friend comes to visit a married couple, the wife will leave the marriage bed to the friend. There may be sex or there may not. That is not the point. ... The wife will sleep with the children or her mother. It will not necessarily matter to her if sex takes place between the men -- even if she knows it -- because this does nothing to undermine her place at the heart of the family." Cute, but this ignores the experiences of Indian men, some of them quoted by Seabrook, who do not want to marry a woman, who do not want to put a woman at the heart of the family, who marry because it is demanded of them, and who then must imagine men in order to have sex with their wives.

Karim, "a historian from Lucknow", declares: "Love between members of the same sex was portrayed as a higher form of attraction and was even considered divine by some. [...] Historically, at least as far as men were concerned, as long as you continued the lineage, no one really cared what else you did. ... It is a perfectly effective and civilized way of managing human sexuality" -- except for women, and for those men who do not wish to marry a woman.

The (false) idea that same-sex eroticism is "a higher form of attraction" is known in the West, of course; it can be comforting to think of oneself as a member of a divine elite despised by the ignorant many. Toleration of sex between males "as long as you continued the lineage" (and avoided scandal) is familiar too. Think of England's King James I, who was allowed his male favorites as long as he dutifully married and sired heirs. "Effective" this approach may be, but it's as Western as it is Indian, and "civilized" it is not. (To paraphrase Gandhi, a civilized approach to sex would be a good idea.)

Some of Seabrook's informants aver that to be gay is to be gratuitously hostile to the "family." This sort of talk is also familiar in the West, which implies either that these informants have been corrupted by Western influence, or that the Christian Right in America has been drinking from the bountiful well of Eastern wisdom. This tendency appeared in India decades before "gay liberation"existed, and it attacked any and all erotic connections between people of the same sex. As Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai point out wryly in their anthology Same-sex Love in India (New York: St Martin's Press, 2000, p 250f), these denunciations "associate homosexuality with the West. ... On the other hand, they draw on Western sources to legitimize their homophobia." (It's interesting to compare Love in a Different Climate to John Howard's similarly antigay Men Like That:a Southern Queer History [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999]. For Howard it's Mississippi instead of India that trembles helplessly in the grip of gay cultural terrorists, whom he denounces in almost identically vitriolic terms: evil outside agitators bringing in their Communist ideas to stir up and confuse the natives, who were perfectly content before.)

It's true that radical gays have often been hostile to the patriarchal family, but not without reason, as Seabrook himself shows. Since Love in a Different Climate deals solely with the experiences of men, with only passing references to women, I won't say much about the price women pay for living in an extremely sexist society like India. For now it should be enough to point out how destructive the Indian family is just to men, using information from Seabrook's subjects.

The Western Jungian "men's movement" holds that in traditional societies, fathers are closer to their sons than in the deracinated West, teaching them what they need to know to be men in their cultures. Seabrook unwittingly demolishes this romantic fantasy. Both his park informants and his Indian apologists represent Indian fathers as distant, authoritarian, and unsupportive. When young Indian men need information about sex, they turn to their peers, who are as ignorant as they are, sharing such disinformation as that sexual release is either necessary or weakening, or that you can't get diseases by having sex with men.

Many gay people in the West are heartbreakingly eager to prop up the patriarchal family, to keep their place in it despite their families' equally determined efforts to expel them. Not all Western parents reject their gay children, of course; neither will all Indian parents. If American experience is any guide, and I believe it is, Indian gay men won't want to cut themselves off from their parents. Given what one of Seabrook's spokesmen says about the material support that children provide to parents in a traditional society without Social Security, it is downright self-defeating for Indian parents to disown gay children. Compare Mina Shum's 1994 film Double Happiness, in which a Chinese-Canadian father disowns first his only son, then his elder daughter, for defying his authority. In the degenerate West we might call this "cutting off your nose to spite your face."

At least two gay-identified Indian men reject Seabrook's assertion "that there is a powerful undertow of eroticism in relationships between Indian men: they see this as a form of cultural projection by Westerners upon what they perceive as crude and rudimentary sexual encounters." I couldn't have put it better myself. "On the other hand, they themselves are impressed by what they perceive as the subtlety, richness and sense of equal status between gay men in the West. 'In India, there is no equality between people in such encounters. It is at best a patron-client relationship if you pick up some young man, and at worst a brief and unsatisfactory meeting.'"

Seabrook is briefly taken aback: his uppity native informants have presumed to point out his Western bias, his imposing of his Western conception of eroticism on relations between Indian men! He quickly puts them in their place. "Perhaps we are all doomed to see things, or imagine that we see things, in that which is exotic, foreign, and other; and to set little value on what is close at hand, local and familiar. ... I was referring rather to the observable loyalties and affections between men in India of all ages -- the physical closeness and holding of hands which causes so many Western visitors to believe, mistakenly, that being gay is a common and open experience in India; while they were speaking of the pick-ups which they, as privileged men, might make by chance. [Not only 'privileged men' make such pick-ups, nor do they make them by chance, as Seabrook's informants in the parks make clear to him. What about those encounters, which he himself labels "abusive," between older men and young boys who must share a bed during a wedding festival? This has nothing to do with class privilege.] They were speaking of the possibilities that certainly do exist in the West for gay men to make long-term stable relationships and live together. [And which Seabrook's informants long for, if only in fantasy, as they have told him again and again -- because these possibilities hardly exist in India.] They were looking at the situation from their own Westernised and socially advantaged position. In that sense, they are bearers of precisely those values which Karim and other Indians whose lives are anchored in India deplore. Yet there is truth in both testimonies" (145f).

That isn't the only time Seabrook's Western bias misleads him: "There is an even more fundamental problem, and that is in defining precisely what constitutes sex. For some time, I was puzzled by the assertions of men whom I had seen regularly in the Park that they never had sex. This seemed at first to be only a more flagrant form of denial. But for many, 'sex' means vaginal intercourse with a woman. Whatever they did with men did not count; indeed, it did not even constitute sexual activity at all. It became clear that 'play' or 'fun' belonged to a quite separate order of experience; this suggested a degree of dissociation which I had not believed possible." Then he's pretty damned ignorant. This "degree of dissociation" was far from unknown in the West, even before the Clinton sex scandal reminded us about it.

Notice how willing Seabrook is to impose Western concepts of sex on his informants. By "sex" and "eroticism" they must mean what he means; if they don't, it is due to "dissociation". His very label "men who have sex with men" relies on Western conceptions of "sex" (and "men"). Notice too that safe-sex outreach to "men who have sex with men" will fail if these men don't think of what they're doing as "sex." Since such education involves talking about things ("giving them a name") that in India (as in America) are not supposed to be talked about at all, it is impossible to do AIDS education without destroying the sweet "naiveté" that Seabrook and his accomplices find so quintessentially Indian.

Contrast "Karim, thirty-four, who says, 'Before I went to Canada, I had had a limited number of relationships with men in India. But the shortage of numbers was balanced by the intensity of the relationships. We built friendships that lasted and have continued until today. In Canada, I was shocked by the casualness of it all: the ease and abundance of partners, but also the readiness with which people discard and forget each other.

"'It is now getting like this in India'" (152). Seabrook doesn't dismiss Karim's testimony as tainted by "privilege," though by his standards that label certainly applies to Indians who can travel overseas for study and sexual tourism, but Seabrook is so eager to demonize the West that such details escape his notice. In any case, unless The Park in Delhi has only recently become a place for quick, forgettable and forgotten discharge between men, it has probably always been "like this in India" too.

But it has also always been like "that." Men who have sex with other men are no more all alike in India than they are anywhere else. This is not to say that gay life in the West is free of problems: of course it isn't, because it is life. The Indian men Seabrook romanticizes, who dream of finding a friend, have almost never had the chance to try a relationship with another man. If they do, they will find that in the end it is a relationship, with rewards and difficulties not really so different from a relationship with a woman.

Seabrook and his privileged Indian informants talk as though hostility to homosexuality did not exist in the West. Gay liberation is at least as much a rebellion against "Western values" -- which look a lot like Eastern ones, as Seabrook and his subjects define them -- as it is an expression of them. As even Seabrook admits, there is no "harmony" in the lives his informants live in India. Listen to "Kamal, thirty-four.... 'I learned of the secret circles of men looking for sex with men. ... But it doesn't get you relationships,friendship, love, respect or comfort. It gets you sex. It is only by discovering the existence of yet another world -- the openly gay world where you are not bound by pretence or false machismo or the demands of family -- that you come out into the free air of making real choices, deeper relationships, more satisfactory friendships with other men'" (148).

Gay liberation in the West strives towards openness, towards recognition of gay people as part of their society-- towards "harmony" and "integration", in fact. And this, it appears, is the "gayness" Seabrook objects to, so vehemently that he wrote a book to attack the idea. At the same time, Seabrook is appalled by Hindu fundamentalists who want to suppress gay identity in India, such as those who attacked Deepa Mehta's lesbian-themed film Fire. Why doesn't he deride Mehta as a privileged, Western-educated traitor to her race, trying to impose foreign categories on Indian culture? Why doesn't he defend Mehta's critics as honest folk "anchored in India," seeking to resist the neocolonial cultural terrorism of feminism and gay liberation? For that matter, Seabrook's antigay Indian informants are themselves mostly privileged Western-educated men with access to global English-language culture. But since they say what he wants to hear, he overlooks what is, by his criteria, their contaminated status. The only mitigation is that thanks to its author's overwrought ambivalence, Love in a Different Climate wears its contradictions on its sleeve.

Part of the trouble lies in Seabrook's provincial conception of"gay." I suspect he associates the word with celebrity queers such as W. H. Auden, E. M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood (men who often rejected "gay" as a label anyhow), not with the pansies and bulldaggers, the window dressers and factory workers, documented by historians like Allan Bérubé, Rictor Norton, Jonathan Ned Katz, George Chauncey, Lillian Faderman, Elizabeth Lipovsky Kennedy and Madelyn D. Davis.

Seabrook's assertion that gay consciousness is "a response of the powerful, those who have had access to Western liberal education, who know global English-language culture" would, I believe, have surprised the people who formed proto-gay communities in North America and Europe from the 1700s on. Many of them were marginal to begin with -- poor, sparsely educated, non-white, gender-nonconformist -- and finding kindred spirits in the cities did not make them less marginalized. These areas were visited by elite men, however, who didn't want to be marginalized but were willing to use those who were. (Resisting and rejecting a stigmatizing label is one of the privileges of the "powerful," especially while they're slumming.) On top of this, the depiction of gays as a bunch of predatory rich people is a familiar homophobic trope in the West -- to say nothing of its resemblance to anti-Jewish propaganda. It doesn't occur to Seabrook or his elite Indians that a non-elite Indian (or for that matter, American or British) man might find gay liberation liberating. Many have.

Like his privileged Indian informants, Seabrook mistakes commercial gay male culture for gay liberation. "This has significant implications for the debate about same-sex relations: people can scarcely be expected to wait for the liberating potential of Western-style affluence to sanction their sexual behavior. This version of lesbian and gay emancipation is simply not going to occur. Other forms of repressed or denied sexualities have already arisen; people will always create some space for themselves in however hostile an environment, as the testimony of the men here make [sic] clear"(182).

Gandhi was influenced by the Sermon on the Mount, Eastern teachings transmitted through Western institutions and missionaries; Martin Luther King Jr. was influenced by Gandhi; people around the world have been influenced by King. The Gay and Women's Liberation movements took their names and some ideas from non-Western national liberation fronts that took much from the Westerner Karl Marx. Cultural purity is a mirage: impossible to achieve, and destructive to attempt.

The Gay Liberation movement was sharply critical of contemporary patterns of urban gay life in the West, and gay radicals continue that critique to this day. Gay Indians will surely criticize the institutions, commercial or not, that will be developed by and for men who have sex with men in India. But their criticisms should not be based on whether those institutions are "indigenous" (unless they're prepared to agitate against telephones, automobiles, radios, televisions, air travel, VCRs, and other non-indigenous colonial-terrorist devices). Indians have created plenty of oppressive institutions around sex and gender, without any help from the West; they can also create new ones, for better or worse.

Seabrook and his Indian informants view Indian culture as monolithic, ignoring its history of diversity, conflict, and dissent. Of course, Western gays can't escape their Westernness, any more than Indians can escape their Indianness. Why should they? But if Indians can appropriate Western homophobia for their own uses, as they have from Gandhi to Shivananda Khan, why shouldn't they appropriate Western gay liberation as well?