Thursday, June 24, 2010

Living in the Catacombs: John Howard's Men Like That, part two

I really did mean to post more on John Howard's Men Like That in reasonable time, but time got away from me. So here's more now.


Somewhere along the line, "identity politics" has become a safe and handy term of abuse, like "political correctness" -- and about as free of content. Howard throws it around several times in Men Like That, without ever making it clear what he means by it.

Impenetrable, unkissable men involved in homosex -- men that [informant and self-identified "trade queen" Ron] Knight describes both as "supposedly straight guys" and as "men" -- should not be understood within the present-day psychoanalytic frame of denial or the identity politics category of closeted. They should not be read as essentialized gay men unable to accept it. As this and the prior two chapters show, in midcentury Mississippi male-male sexualities happened within complicated worlds of myriad desires. To experience or act on homoerotic desire did not necessarily define the person as gay....

As sociologist Steven Seidman puts it, "The very possibility of framing homosexuality as a site of identity presupposes sexual object-choice [the gender of one's sexual partner] as a master category of sexual and self-identity." For many in this time and place, this master category may not have been at work as an identity mechanism; although, certainly, sexual object-choice functioned more broadly in American culture in the framing of acceptable and unacceptable, normative and nonnormative sexual practices [122f].
This passage is a clotted mass of misinterpretations of data, and of misunderstandings of theory. Howard mentioned earlier the amazingly resilient "heterosexual will to not-know, the pretense of ignorance" (xvi); were only heterosexuals capable of denial in those days? I don't agree that it implies essentialism to suggest that someone is in denial over his participation in homosex. If anything, essentialism facilitates denial: "Yes, I'm screwing a man (or getting screwed by one), but it doesn't count because I'm not queer." This mindset has often been lethal for men who didn't believe they needed to use condoms while being penetrated, since only queers got AIDS. An anti-essentialist can point out (as Kinsey did), that someone is engaged in homosexual activity without necessarily implying anything about that person's inner nature.

As for "closeted," there may not have been a mid-century Mississippi equivalent to refer to men who declined to acknowledge (to themselves, or to others) what they were doing sexually. I see no reason not to use the accepted current label unless one is devoted to producing a purely emic account of midcentury Mississippi queerdom, which Howard is not.

Whether trade -- "Impenetrable, unkissable men involved in homosex" -- should be understood as closeted or in denial depends on the individual. For Howard's impenetrable and (initially) unkissable informant Mark Ingalls, who now sees himself as gay, both denial and the closet were definitely involved: Ingalls himself reports his mother's reproval on his second (!) heterosexual marriage: "Knowing what you know, why are you doing this?" (46) As Howard notes, "Avoidance of the topic did not indicate a lack of awareness on either side" (ibid.), and refusing to call something by its name doesn't remotely imply that you don't know that name. Trade don't refuse to think of themselves as queer because they are anti-essentialist: they are extremely essentialist, and in their social world they are essentialized Real Men. "Queer" represents what is outside manhood's carefully patrolled (because highly permeable) boundary.

And Queers were just as invested in that construction, as shown by Howard's informant Ron Knight, who says "A drop of sissy come would choke us. If we were going to go down on anybody, they would have to be men, trade" (122). (Another example, from Mexico City: "The vestidas disapprove of any signs of femininity in their partners. For example, bisexual men who are apparently manly but who secretly let themselves be penetrated as if they were homosexuales are often criticized by the vestidas, even when the vestidas are the ones who penetrate them" [Prieur 1998, 166]) Fellows like Ron Knight, incidentally, make it quite clear that "sexual object choice" – Men -- was a major and defining factor in their sexual identities.

A Real Man out looking for fun in postwar Mississippi would probably not consider a Queer equivalent to a woman as a sexual partner - but that might be part of the Queer's appeal. Women cost money, directly or indirectly; a Queer might pay the Real Man. This risked putting the Real Man in a feminized position, a fact which must never be mentioned, making it all the more important that his Real Manhood be maintained in bed. Or at least officially, out of bed.

The Real Man / Queer binarism is too restrictive to account for all sexual interaction between men, even in areas where that model is the norm. In parts of Latin America where the Real Man / Queer dichotomy still rules, there are Real Men who want to be penetrated some of the time, and who may seek out Queers to penetrate them. But this is a dread secret and may be denied in the act: "My experience of stubborn denial is indeed confirmed by Murray ... , who says he has 'been told by young Latinos with semen inside their rectums that they never get fucked.'" (Prieur 1998, 199). Howard, by contrast, seems unaware of such complexity -- he's at least as invested in the traditional dichotomy as any Real Man, or any Queer.

Finally, it simply is not true that "The very possibility of framing homosexuality as a site of identity presupposes sexual object-choice as a master category of sexual and self-identity." Despite its etymology "homosexual" originally referred to the invert, the Queer, the woman's soul trapped in a man's body – all quasi-heterosexual constructions of same-sex desire and behavior -- and only gradually and inconsistently was extended to all those who loved their own sex, regardless of "gender performance." The invert was an identity, and inversion as a "master category" encompassed both "gender performance" and "sexual object-choice" -- the latter being assumed on the basis of the former or vice versa, which is a reminder that sexual-object choice and gender performance were inseparable in the 19th century. (And still are in many cultures today, including much of the US.) This should not be news to anyone who really has been informed by queer theory, but it seems to be news to Howard.

Howard's insistence on the variety of motivations that brings men to sex with other males then (as now) is well-taken, but it hasn't been news since Kinsey (et al., 1948) at least. (It was an essentializing American society, which included an essentializing gay world, which assumed the 37% of males who'd had orgasms with other males must all be Queers.) More important, he seems to be unable to do anything but state and reiterate that insistence, renouncing essentialist binarism and its evil works. Yes yes yes, not all men who insert their penises into the orifices of other men's bodies, or who receive other men's penises into their orifices, are properly categorized as "gay" or "homosexual" -- so what? Howard has nothing new to tell us about how such men saw themselves, or even how they were seen by the men they penetrated. Nor does he cast any light on those "complicated worlds of myriad desires" in which his Queers and Real Men came together.

Even if we grant that there was "a heterosexual / homosexual dyad prevalent throughout American culture during the twentieth century", it's not obvious that the Real Man / Queer dyad which governed much sexual interaction between males in midcentury Mississippi "did not privilege sexual-object choice, or the biological sex of one's partner, a primary technique of categorization." While the Real Man may truly not have cared whether he penetrated a woman or a man (though I doubt it as a general rule), the Queer wanted to be penetrated by a Real Man, which sounds like a privileged sexual-object choice to me. (An essentializing Queer can explain away any heterosexual contacts he may have by recourse to the same strategies a Real Man uses: it doesn't count, because he really isn't That Way.)

Howard wrongly implies that "binarized conceptions of sexual identity" were something new to the US, or the Deep South; the Real Man / Queer binary disproves that. And the heterosexual / homosexual dyad hasn't become universally hegemonic in American society to this day; if nothing else, the "new" category employed in AIDS education, of Men Who Have Sex With Men, shows that. (See also Leap 1999.) As other writers have shown, George Chauncey among them, it was not just that "the" homosexual concept was transmitted to different regions at different rates; multiple concepts coexisted in any given place, and they diffused through different ethnic and class groups at different rates even in the same city. (It may also be that the Homosexual / Heterosexual dyad provides a touchstone of denial for many Men Who Have Sex with Men, creating more of the latter or letting them create themselves.)

The polemic heats up when Howard discusses gay activism in Mississippi. Though gay organizing in Mississippi began as early as 1959, the Mississippi Gay Alliance (MGA) offered the first sustained activist visibility the state had seen. But:

In the 1970s MGA membership never totaled more than a few dozen, with white membership always vastly outnumbering black. Influenced as it was by identity politics, most notably an increasingly national lesbian and gay movement, gay organizing clashed with local sensibilities, queer and nonqueer. For decades sexual deviants and gender nonconformists in Mississippi had functioned quietly but effectively within rural and small-town contexts, outmaneuvering hostile forces. [Except, of course, when those "hostile forces" -- which according to Howard were never inherently hostile -- arrested, harassed, beat, or killed them. And "effectively" at what?] Queer Mississippians even in remote parts of the state were nonetheless visible and available to one another. Gay politics required a different sort of visibility. Most disturbingly, it required clear-cut identity statements, individuals' open and public avowal of homosexuality, a speech act that some belligerent lawmakers and law enforcers interpreted as a felony in and of itself (attempted sodomy)....

Further, the category gay didn't well encompass the range and inventiveness of sexual and gender nonnormativity in Mississippi. And it made few allowances for those whose sexual and gender nonnormativity served as a relatively insignificant component of identity. For African Americans, for example, to participate in gay organizing meant to participate in yet another white-controlled, white-dominated institution. Though homosexuality and gender insubordination clearly weren't just a white thing, gay political organizing for the most part was [239].
All the evidence Howard musters indicates that non-involvement in MGA had much more to do with wholly rational fear and hopelessness than with a distaste for "identity politics." (As shown, for instance, by the terrified small-town resident who wrote anonymously to the Jackson Daily News advice columnist, asking him to publish MGA's contact information instead of mailing it to him directly: "'I can't reveal my name ... because of the small town in which I live'" [238]. Not because homosexuality was "a relatively insignificant component of identity" -- just the opposite.)

And how is gay African-Americans' reluctance to get involved in one more white-dominated institution -- as though it were utterly unthinkable that they start their own! -- an "example" of people whose queerness was "a relatively insignificant component of identity"? It was significant enough to produce conflict in people who felt they had to choose between one component of their identity and another. Also, since "gay", like "queer," has always been multivalent, including significant amounts of gender insubordination (and certainly did in the early 70s), in Mississippi as elsewhere, how can Howard say that it doesn't "well encompass the range and inventiveness of sexual and gender nonnormativity in Mississippi" etc.? Once again, his evidence just doesn't support his conclusions.

Nor does the "different sort of visibility" and "individuals' open and public avowal of homosexuality" required by gay activism have anything to do with "clear-cut identity statements." Rather, as Howard is aware, the difference is between being visible to other gay people and being visible to straights. Such visibility meant a whole new way for queers to think about themselves, but that was as true, as challenging, and as disturbing to college-educated white professionals in New York City as it was to preachers' sons with an eighth-grade education in Mississippi. Chanting "identity politics" like a mantra obscures the real issue, which is that being visible to straights as a Queer formerly happened only involuntarily, through arrest or murder. What the gay movement advocated was not "identity" -- that was already present -- but a rejection of shame in being gay. It also wrested the power to label from straight society, and put it into queers' own hands, an act of insubordination that bothered many straights for a long time after.

Finally, Howard cites the nascent Metropolitan Community Church as a corrective to MGA's thoughtcrime: "They [the MCC] found fertile soil in Mississippi" (245). "Such ecclesiastical gatherings, in stark relief to in-your-face activism, could generate the support of some liberal politicians" (240). But the binary opposition he hopes to construct collapses almost immediately, since "The leadership of the two organizations [MGA and MCC] was intimately intertwined..." (248), and the MCC became involved in "in-your-face activism" by opposing Anita Bryant's late-70s antigay crusade and the Mississippi Moral Majority. In other words, it may not have been that the MCC itself was so attractive, as Howard implied earlier in the chapter, but the visible threat of organized bigots that got Mississippi homos off their butts. But with that came once again the serpent in the Garden, the spectre of "identity."

"While the enumeration and articulation of gay institutions appeared an invitation to many, it seemed a barrier to others, a signal that an identity-based community, by its very nature, excluded some as it smoothed differences among the elect ... Where gay identity politics flagged, a gay social gospel flourished" (251f). This is a false antithesis, and anyway, it ain't true, as the next quotation shows. The "gay social gospel", Howard laments, included "gay identity politics":

Some visitors to MCC felt particularly unwelcome. As Kathy Switzer recalls, the congregation was entirely white. Though African-Americans visited, "they would always go back to their home churches because they felt more comfortable there." One black worshiper explicitly stated the dilemma to the group: "It's hard enough to be black. You want me to be gay too?" "Yes," came the response. "You play with the boys, honey. Don't you think it's time to identify yourself?"

Indeed, identity was the issue... [253]
Indeed, was it? It wasn't that the MCC whites wanted that "black worshiper" to "be gay" -- he was already, and he knew it. What was going on there was not a conflict between those who espoused "identity politics" and those who didn't: it was about conflicting allegiances to different identities. Howard approvingly tells the story of an African-American community leader whose political career managed to survive repeated homosexual scandals. This was a triumph of African-American identity politics -- the demand that racial solidarity should trump every other consideration, a demand that finally ran aground on the controversy over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court. Howard seems not to be aware that racial solidarity is the paradigm case of "identity politics" in the US, or that such "identity politics" were what kept so many gay African-Americans closeted.

We're now seeing the rise of specifically African-American lgbt organizations, which is probably the only solution to the problem, and long overdue, since there are plenty of gay and lesbian and bisexual African-American exemplars. This will only confuse those who, like Howard, insist that you can only have one "identity" at a time. Like being bisexual, being gay and African-American is a multiple identity: the solution is to choose both, or more than both -- lesbian, feminist and black; gay, black and Muslim; and so on.

Kinsey, Alfred; Pomeroy, Wardell; Martin, Clyde. Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1948.
Leap, William L. "Sex in 'private' places: gender, erotics, and detachment in two urban locales." In Leap, William L. (editor), Public sex / gay space (New York: Columbia UP, 1999), 115-140.
Prieur, Annick. Mema's House, Mexico City: on transvestites, queens, and machos. [Worlds of Desire: The Chicago Series on Sexuality, Gender, and Culture] Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1998.