Wednesday, July 21, 2010

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

4. "I don't have a good definition for a homosexual."

In 1955 a Mississippi man named John Murrett was murdered by two young Air National Guardsmen he'd picked up and taken to a Jackson hotel. During the ensuing trial, medical examiner Forrest Bratley told defense attorney W. W. Pierce: "A homosexual is out of my line of work. We don't see them pathologically. In performing an autopsy one cannot differentiate between a heterosexual or a homosexual. I don't have a good definition for a homosexual."
P[ierce]: Would a homosexual or a queer differ materially in his physique, in ordinary behavior in public from the average individual?
B[ratley]: In physique or appearance there would not be any difference. In behavior among the general public there would not be any difference. How they might act before an individual, which I wouldn't consider public, I don't know.
P: Doctor, sex has a great deal to do with the behavior of a good many people. You know that as a medical man, don't you?
B: Sex does determine some of our behavior patterns.
P: And in some instances it can be an uncontrollable urge in the individual. Don't your medical books teach that?
B: I am sure some of the specialized books do. I haven't had that specialized training.
P: Doctor, would a person who would engage in sex perversion, would he be a person who might be aggressive if the sex urge was strong enough?
B: I am sure the sex urge would be just as strong if he wasn't a homosexual.
[Howard 135-136]
Bratley's assertion that homosexuals are physiologically indistinguishable from the general population is at odds not only with mainstream 20th century medicine, but with the present-day mainstream gay movement, which predominantly declares that homosexuality is an inborn physical condition. Not much has changed since Bratley's day, either: we still don't have a good definition for a homosexual. At around the time of this trial, the UCLA psychologist Evelyn Hooker was conducting research in California which turned out to indicate that homosexual men are psychologically indistinguishable from heterosexuals as well. "Homosexuality as a clinical entity does not exist. Its forms are as varied as are those of heterosexuality. Homosexuality may be a deviation in sexual pattern which is in the normal range, psychologically" (Hooker 1957, 30). Bratley's remarks are very close to Hooker's conclusion -- and no less at odds with the views of mental health professionals at the time, or later.

Howard understands Bratley's testimony differently, however. Though he credits the doctor with "refut[ing] societal stereotypes of queer promiscuity and pathology", he says (approvingly, it seems) that Bratley "depicted homosexuality as ... a state of being for a definable minority of individuals" (135) and "homosexual persons" as "a distinct and fixed minority of individuals" (168). Maybe so, but in the testimony Howard quotes, Bratley said just the opposite: he could not define homosexuals, and they were indistinguishable from the general population except perhaps in private behavior.

Howard is generally hostile to the kind of "gay identity politics" (252) which regards gay people as "a distinct and fixed minority of individuals." This "master category" or "identity mechanism" creates "essentialized gay men" (122), and is apparently the work of "more liberal strains of midcentury American medical discourse" (135), but also of "gay publications in North America's urban centers" (183) whose hegemonic power created such an "irrefutable trajectory" (170) that even Howard finds himself tempted to project "presentist identities and cultural models on to historically situated actors", instead of "attending to the exigencies and specificities of their time and place" (192). Nor, when he's laid aside the bladder he uses to flog the Evil Essentialists, can he seem to refrain from using such essentializing language as "their kind" (xvi) and "men like that", let alone "queer."

Howard shares this ambivalent distaste for "gay identity" with a large number of his colleagues, probably the mainstream of academic writers on gay history and gay life at the end of the century. For example, historian Leila J. Rupp: "What is important is that we avoid thinking that all the terms used by people in the past are synonyms for what we today mean by 'gay' and 'lesbian'" (1999: 104). Or journalist Frank Browning: "To the leading [and forever unnamed] authors and strategists of the American gay movement, sexuality -- sexual orientation -- is an identity, something sure, certain, reliable, around which rites and rituals are being invented" (1996: 16).

Or, from a paper on counseling "men of color" (Tafoya and Wirth 1996: 60): "For some tribal men, one's identity as a homosexual may not be defined by the gender of one's partner, but by the nature of the act itself; thus, as long as one is the active insertor, the gender of one's partner is irrelevant. [On the contrary: "gender" here is clearly defined by one's erotic practices; the authors are confusing "gender" with "sex."] The only 'homosexual' involved is the man who passively receives. [Plenty of "European" binary concepts there!] Such ideas are normative in a number of Native communities, and must be understood from that context." Such ideas are also the traditional white Mississippian understanding, as Howard presents it. What a coincidence.

Jeremy Seabrook, an English sociologist, warns against "projecting onto India Western concepts of straight, gay and bisexual" which he considers "stereotyped and rigid categories" (1999: 140). He quotes "Shivananda Khan, Calcutta-born founder of NAZ in London and a tireless researcher into sexual identities in South Asia" (140): "the withering blast of being labelled 'gay'" destroys "destroys Indian traditions of friendship: indigenous homoaffective and homosocial relationships" (141). Khan doesn't mind using Western concepts and terminology like "homoaffective", though.

Seabrook glibly dismisses gay-identified Indian men, who are "looking at the situation from their own Westernised and socially advantaged position" and "are bearers of precisely those values which Karim and other Indians whose lives are anchored in India deplore" (146). This would seem to imply that John Howard's queer Mississippians are non-Westerners, for Howard considers "gay identity" as intrusively alien to them as Seabrook does for Indians.

Homosexuality in one form or another is not the only erotic practice that has been explained away as an evil foreign import -- consider the way whipping was called the English vice in France, and French in England -- but it has frequently been seen that way, from ancient times right down to the present. And as the examples I've just given show, it is now America, the Wicked Witch of the West, which gets the blame, not only in Asia or Africa, but in the US itself. Seabrook, by the way, deplores Hindu fundamentalists who denounce homosexuality as modern foreign degeneracy, but a major aim of his book is to do the same thing they are doing. The difference is that he sees certain homosexual patterns as indigenously Indian, and only condemns certain others as Western; but this too is typical, as should be clear by now.

Many gay Americans do see homosexuality as a fixed identity or nature (they tend to confuse the two, but so does John Howard), and there are prominent spokespeople for this position, such as essentialist Andrew Sullivan: "The homosexual identity was certainly known to Plato and Aristotle; recent scholarship has unearthed examples of it as recently as New York in the 1920s and as long ago as the Stone Age" (Sullivan 1995: 30). Notice that Sullivan conflates homosexual orientation with homosexual identity; a history of identity would have to rely on verbal evidence, and I'd like to know how there could be Stone Age evidence for it. Even cave paintings could at most depict behavior, not orientation or identity; or have archaeologists perhaps discovered caves with ancient track lighting and industrial carpeting, thus proving the existence of Paleolithic interior designers?

Sullivan as a gay spokesman is a creation of the straight media, who are as ignorant about gay issues as he is. He's not a movement strategist or leader, though many gay Americans are eager to agree with him that gay people are biologically and psychologically distinct from straights. But gay identity is 'socially constructed' if anything is, and so it can never be fixed, sure, certain, or reliable. Others may deny your right to claim a given identity: you aren't a true Christian, Republicrat, Mississippian, American. You may cling to your identity despite all argument or evidence to the contrary. An identity can be changed, abandoned, hidden, or (Goffman 1963) spoiled. Good fences make good neighbors, Robert Frost's New England farmer says dourly; but identities don't make very good fences. People walk through them as if they were made of air -- and so they are.

At the same time, many gay Americans wish to believe that they are basically no different from heterosexuals, and that if it weren't for drunken leathermen who insist on gyrating lewdly on Pride Parade floats (Graff 1999), heterosexuals would recognize this basic similarity and embrace us as upright (oops!) fellow citizens. Many oscillate between declaring that they are genetically incapable of desiring the opposite sex, essentially and congenitally "different", forever doomed to be outsiders on one hand (Sullivan 1995: 13); and "There's something of both attractions in all of us" (ibid., 11) on the other.

The really curious thing about the old-fashioned down-home notions about queers which Howard and others treat so respectfully, is that they are so similar to the "modern homosexual" Foucault postulated. The queer, the not-man who plays receptor to a manly partner's penis, the gender nonconformist, is very like the invert of 19th century European medicine. If I weren't deathly afraid of being reductive, I'd say that they're the same concept. It's easy to forget this, because (as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick pointed out in Epistemology of the Closet), historians and theorists talk about "the modern concept of the homosexual" without noticing that they are retailing at least two such concepts, and probably more. Howard even cites the pertinent part of Sedgwick's book, but ignores what she said there.

Having offered what he calls a "tentative assertion that throughout the twentieth century, queer sexuality continued to be understood as both acts and identities, behaviors and beings" (xviii), Howard promptly forgets it in the main text. Which is too bad, because any writer "informed by queer theory" (xiv) who's actually read Foucault should know that this "tentative assertion" is normative: Foucault (1978) rejected the repression hypothesis, arguing that 19th century medical theories of sexuality never simply replaced other conceptions. Foucault also had a hard time holding this position consistently, and seems to have been unaware that there hadn't been a single conception of same-sex sexuality before "homosexuality." The sodomite was never only "an aberration," as shown by Voltaire's famous (if apocryphal) retort, "Once, a philosopher; twice, a sodomite!"; the homosexual was never simply a "species."

Browning, Frank, 1996. A Queer Geography: journeys toward a sexual self. New York: Crown Publishing Inc.
Foucault, Michel, 1978. The history of sexuality, volume I: introduction. New York: Pantheon Books.
Goffman, Erving, 1963. Stigma: notes on the management of spoiled identity. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.
Graff, E. J., 1999. What is marriage for? Boston: Beacon Press.
Hooker, Evelyn, 1957. "The adjustment of the male overt homosexual." Journal of Projective Techniques, XXI, 18.
Rupp, Leila J., 1999. A desired past: a short history of same-sex love in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Seabrook, Jeremy, 1999. Love in a different climate: men who have sex with men in India. London and New York: Verso.
Sullivan, Andrew, 1995. Virtually normal: an argument about homosexuality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Tafoya, Terry; Wirth, Douglas A., 1996. "Native American Two-Spirit Men." In Longres, John F. (editor), Men of color: a context for service to homosexually active men. New York: Harrington Park Press / The Haworth Press, 1996: 51-67.

[This is as far as I got with my discussion of Men Like That. There were a couple of other parts of his work I wanted to look at, such as his analysis of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" and his account of the scandal which led to the death of a Jackson classical musician, and I'll try to get to those one of these days.]