Friday, April 24, 2009

Never The Twain Shall Meet

The other day I quoted Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's critical take on those scholars who "implicitly ... underwrite the notion that 'homosexuality as we conceive of it today' itself comprises a coherent definitional field rather than a space of overlapping, contradictory, and conflictual definitional forces." This notion turns up often both in anthropological writings on sexuality and gender in "non-Western cultures," and in writings on history or literature in the "West".

For example, last weekend I read a paper, "The Romance of the Queer: The Sexual and Gender Norms of Tom and Dee in Thailand," by Megan Sinnott, in a collection called AsiaPacifiQueer: Rethinking Genders and Sexualities (edited by Fran Martin, Peter A. Jackson, Mark McLelland, and Audrey Yue [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008]). Rethinking genders and sexualities is a noble project, but as I've argued before, it's not quite as simple as invoking the names of Foucault, Butler, and de Lauretis. I haven't read the whole book yet, so let this be the first progress report.

Tom and Dee are, according to Sinnott (author also of Toms and Dees: Transgender Identity and Female Same-Sex Relationships in Thailand [Hawaii, 2004], English words (tom from "tomboy" and dee from "lady") that made their way into Thai culture sometime in the 1970s. Both in Thai society generally and among toms and dees themselves, "Tom and dee subject categories are not defined in terms of heterosexual/homosexual binary; they are not defined in opposition to heterosexuality," Sinnott declares (134), which isn't surprising since most heterosexuals do not think of themselves as heterosexuals; they tend to identify as men and women, with men assumed to be butch/penetrators and women assumed to be femme/penetrated, unless something goes awry.
Toms are typically understood to be masculine beings, who express their masculinity in their personality, dress, and sexual attraction to females. Most toms and dees I interviewed described dees as "ordinary" women (phu-ying thammada) who were normatively attracted to a masculine partner who could either be male or female bodied. Dees are described as being capable of attraction to males or toms. This description was borne out in the life stories of many of the dees with whom I spoke. Many (but not all) dees had had relationships with both males and toms, and considered themselves to be "ordinary" women who were currently involved with toms. The term dee includes, without distinction, women who consider themselves to be exclusively interested in toms and women who perceive themselves as possible partners with either males or toms. Therefore, "dee" is an ambivalent category, differentiating women who are sexually involved with females from women sexually involved with males, with the implicit understanding that dees are probably not exclusively attracted to toms, and not essentially of a different nature from women in general. In contrast, commonly among toms, dees, and Thais in general, tom is understood as a transgendered female, with a core, inborn masculine soul (cit-cay).

... Peter Jackson has analyzed the Thai cultural system as one based on the primacy of gender, in contrast to a Foucaultian grid in which sexuality, sexual object choice, and sexual preference are the primary categories of the Western sex/gender order. ... Sexuality in Thai culture is understood as an extension of one's gender; homosexuality is understood to be, in mainstream Thai interpretations, a result of psychological transgendering -- a man in a woman's body, or vice versa. For many Thais, including academics and psychologists, the western concept of "homosexuality" is interpreted in terms of the local concept of "kathoey." The term kathoey refers to an intersexed, transgendered, or transsexual person, usually male to female. ... From oral histories with people over sixty years old, I have learned that masculine women were known of in the past in rural settings. These women often had female partners and lived their lives as social men. While these individuals were called kathoey at times, people usually referred to such a masculine-identified woman as a "woman who is a man" (phu-ying thii pen phu-chaay). These masculine women, like toms today, generally were not "passing" as men. They were known to be physically female and did not claim otherwise. ...

Most obviously, toms and dees explicitly reject the English term "lesbian" largely due to its explicitly sexual associations "Lesbian" is understood to refer to two feminine women who are engaging in sex with each other. ...Toms and dees explained that they could only see this kind of sex as a possibility when it was a performance for a lascivious male audience. For Thai women, the sameness of gender that is implied in the term "lesbian" carries an additional stigma of explicit sexuality, rather than a gendered relationship [134-135].

Almost all of the toms and dees interviewed described sexual relationships as only reasonably possible between masculine and feminine beings -- men and women, toms and dees, kathoey and "men." Any suggestion of sexual relationships between two toms or two dees was described as bizarre and ludicrous [136]

One area in which toms and dees reverse normative discourses of sexuality is in the common practice of tom untouchability. Many toms and dees have described toms as unwilling to be touched sexually by their partners or to remove their clothes during sex. ... Dees, as appropriately "passive" (faay-rap), expect to reach sexual climax because they are acted upon by a masculine partner. Toms also generally expressed the belief that it was their duty to bring about a dee's sexual satisfaction.

Both toms and dees repeatedly expressed hilarity or discomfort with the idea of a same-gendered partner. The idea that toms could partner with toms and dee with dees clearly violated normative models of sexuality and identity [140].
All very interesting, and far be it from me to tell Thai queers how to arrange their sexual relationships. But there's nothing specifically Thai, let alone non-Western, about the gender/sex system Sinnott describes -- quite the opposite. The untouchable or stone butch is not only familiar from long history in the English-speaking world, she has become a motif in newer dyke erotica, starting with Joan Nestle's groundbreaking work on American butch-femme sexuality of the 1950s. (The image above comes from Nestle's blog.) So is the notion of the homosexual as a man trapped in a woman's body, or a woman trapped in a man's -- defined as such in the 1800s by the Uranian reformer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. It also is the basis for Radclyffe Hall's 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, and you can't get much more "Western" than Hall (image below from here). There's no reason why Thais should be familiar with this history, but a Western scholar like Sinnott should take notice of it.

In her influential book Female Masculinity (Duke, 1998), Judith Halberstam mentions that the 19th-century English diarist and sapphist
Anne Lister spoke in quite similar terms about her desire to touch her beloved without ever permitting her beloved to do the same to her for fear that it would “womanize” her too much. As we shall see in the next chapter, this particular version of female masculinity comes to be named “stone butch” within a lesbian vernacular in the 1950s, and as such it represented a privileged and ideal version of butch gender and sexuality among butch-femme communities. In fact, we could say that stonebutchness – Lister’s untouchability in the 1820s, Hall’s role as worshiper in the 1920s, the impenetrable butch in the 1950s – marks one particular historical tradition of female masculinity [102].
(In her paper Sinnott cites a later book of Halberstam's; it's hard to believe that she's unaware of Female Masculinity as well.)

Halberstam criticizes what she calls "the emphatic defense of modern notions of lesbianism" (109), which won't work because Hall and her circle were modern lesbians in the Foucauldian view, with modern ideas about sex and gender which, remarkably, look a lot like supposedly pre-modern or un-modern non-Western notions Sinnott describes. She also tries to explain Hall's apparent ambivalence about her body and identification with the male drag she used to cover it as "disidentification with the naked body," pointing out that in the early 1900s, "in Hall’s circle were many women who felt that their masculine clothing represented their identities. The new formed Women’s Police Service was filled with women who seemed to want to join up to wear the handsome uniforms" (106).

This might be more convincing if it worked both ways, as shown in this anecdote from Annick Prieur's Mema's House, Mexico City: on Transvestites, Queens and Machos (Chicago, 1998, page 165):

This cheating [that is, deceiving their male partners by pretending to be female] might be interpreted as a game, a play. But if it is, the vestidas definitely are bad losers. Marta was picked up on the highway: 'It was dusk, it was in November in 1987. I'll never forget it. I wanted a lift, and nobody would stop. It's getting dark and more difficult to get a ride. Then a car stops, a green Datsun. The driver, he's very handsome, you know, all my respects, he asks me "Where are you going?" "Home." "Come on, I'll give you a ride." We talked, and I told him I'm a hooker. Then he stops there on a flat stretch, and says "Straight away, how much is it?" "That much, my`love." "O.K." I was flattered, because he was really handsome, with a mustache, and not a fake one. I started to touch him with my hand, and I didn't find anything! Then he says, "It's because I'm lesbian." Oh my God, take a leave! I got out of the car, throwing up, traumatized. Because he was a man with a mustache and hair on his chest. He was a little fat so he had a bit of breasts, but I never could have imagined he was a woman. So I say, just like I have fooled them, I was fooled that day. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth."
In other words, if clothes make the Mythic Mannish Lesbian (.pdf) would the "women who felt that their masculine clothing represented their identities" have accepted vestidas as their partners? If Radclyffe Hall had met a lovely woman at a ball, seduced her and found a penis between her legs, would she have accepted that for this man, his feminine clothing represented his identity? I rather doubt it, and I'm not saying that she should have. But I find it ironic (as well as comic) that supposedly non-normative sex/gender actors should have such quaintly heteronormative, downright traditional ideas about homosexuality: two guys (or girls) together -- eeeeeeeuuwww! Gross! Queer! Prieur's vestidas, by the way, "comment with disgust at the sight of two mustache-wearing men kissing each other, seeing it as something 'abnormal'" (149), and queens around the world are revolted by the idea of two sissies having sex together, which they regard, significantly, as "lesbianism."

Which doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Even in Radclyffe Hall's England (and Paris, with its famous sapphic salons), there were competing models of eroticism between women. I daresay that in Thailand, toms and dees don't exhaust the gender/sex landscape for women; but same-gender homosexuality has the advantage (or disadvantage) of being socially invisible. Let me stress that I don't think that same-gender homosexuality is superior to, or more authentic than gendered homosexuality -- I just don't think that gendered homosexuality is superior or more authentic either. They're simply different patterns, and scholarship which fails to take the different varieties into account isn't doing its job. To return to Eve Sedgwick's remark quoted at the beginning of this post, scholars need to be aware that historically, tom/dee relationships have been, and still are, part of "homosexuality as we conceive of it today", not some exotic Oriental prodigy.