Tuesday, July 2, 2013

We Are the Joburg Girls; or, This Year's Model

There's a famous moment from the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, described by Martin Duberman in his Stonewall (1993):
When the police whirled around to reverse direction at one point, they found themselves face-to-face with their worst nightmare: a chorus line of mocking queens, their arms clasped around each other, kicking their heels in the air Rockettes-style and singing at the tops of their sardonic voices:
We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear no underwear
We show our pubic hair...
We wear our dungarees
Above our nelly knees!
It was a deliciously witty, contemptuous counterpoint to the TPF's brute force.
The climax of Graeme Reid's How to Be a Real Gay is the workshop (or rather, series of workshops) from which Reid took his title.  Despite his good intentions, I must say that Reid treats the workshop, its organizers, and its participants with modern, Western, global (to use his favorite words) condescension.
The political project seemed doomed from the start: how could anyone, I thought, try to impose a standard norm on the myriad processes, performances, desires and identities that constituted gay life in the area of my fieldwork? At the heart of the workshops were two competing yet intersecting ideas about gender, sexuality and identity that circulated in Ermelo. On the one hand, a particular set of gender ideals was promoted and reinforced by my informants (what it means to be a lady or a gent) and, on the other hand, sexual orientation and gay rights that suggested a modern gay identity, based on object choice, were the primary discourse of the workshops … This was a context in which what I will call traditional understandings of sexuality and gender, coexisted with a modern gay identity, which underpinned the provision for freedom of sexual orientation in the Constitution [154]...

The workshops showed that ‘being gay’ was a contested terrain. If there was a real way to be gay there must then be other, presumably less real or even fake ways of being gay [155]
Le duh.  Everything is "a contested terrain."  Reid works hard here to assimilate the workshops into his modern, global, Western bogeyman, without success.  He claims that the "stated intention of the workshops [was] to encourage the emergence of a 'real gay' identity" (192), but that intention doesn't emerge from his report of the workshop: it's in the Western academic authorities he cites in his discussion, Not having attended the workshops myself, I can only go by Reid's report, and he makes it reasonably clear that although the organizer, a local gay named Bhuti, was in touch with activists and organizations in Johannesburg, he addressed his audience in terms of the lady/gent model, with an eye toward refining ladies to comport themselves like ladies.
Bhuti stands in front of a sheet of newsprint clipped with pegs to the pelmet, wearing a jersey against the cold and a hat for style. He is explaining the meaning of terms that appear on the newsprint: ‘homosexuality; heterosexuality; transvestite; transsexual; hermaphrodite; bisexual; gay; lesbian; butch; femme; dragging queen’ ... Tsepo, as one of the group leaders, reports back that in his group they felt that ‘gays should not make themselves a joke’, they should not arrive for a job interview ‘wearing twenty earrings on each side, a lady’s two-piece suit and long nails’. And gays at school should behave like normal students; lesbians should not insist on wearing trousers and gays should not insist on wearing skirts. Bhuti jokes that for some it was easy to come out to family and friends, ‘because your families always called you intombazone’ [157].
Throughout the book Reid shows that the Ermano ladies had their own very firm ideas about how to be a real gay, and weren't shy about expressing their dislike for people who didn't conform.  It isn't only "activists" who try to impose a standard norm on the myriad processes, performances, desires and identities that constitute gay life in the area of his fieldwork  This isn't a standoff between a freely-chosen local model and one imposed from without.  For example, Reid quotes his informant Nathi, who
regarded himself as a real gay. He was born this way and had no time for ‘fake gays’: ‘Me, I was born like this, Graeme, so I see the others they are changing, you see? They are no longer gays. They are fake. To be a real gay you are born like this and you don’t have a feeling for ladies [women].’ He spoke with contempt and disapproval of Sipho, originally from Driefontein and now based in Johannesburg: ‘He wants to fuck the guys and then he wants others to fuck him? Uh-uh.’ Nathi is not sure, but he thinks this has something to do with ‘white gays’. Sipho, Nathi says, is attracted to white gays and he has evidence: ‘You remember at Andrew’s engagement party? Sipho had a cell phone and he was phoning a white gay' [164-5]
Nathi's reaction to gays who don't fit his model is basically the same as that of  the African "traditionalists" Reid quotes on 225-6, who denounce homosexuality as un-African, something brought in from outside; Nathi agrees, but only about constructions of sex between men that he doesn't share.  Reid also quotes a gent, Samuel, who told him, "It is a style. In fact, it is a new style, a new style that is a fashion" (144). Reid admits that the "idea of homosexuality as fashionable is not a new one" (145), but his heart isn't in it.  The thing is, sex between males may be "a new style" to Samuel, but it isn't new in Africa.  Neither is the gendered gent/lady model that Samuel calls a "fashion."  The ladies want to be fashionable and modern, but this only applies to their clothes, makeup, and hairstyle: they not only have no interest in Reid's modern global international gay model, they condemn it.

What may be new is the language of rights and sexual orientation as identity that Bhuti used in the workshop.  But he also multiplied identities: look at the list of words on his sheet of newsprint: "homosexuality; heterosexuality; transvestite; transsexual; hermaphrodite; bisexual; gay; lesbian; butch; femme; dragging queen."  They're a mixture of sexual-orientation language and language about gender.  The audience, Reid says, paid close attention to these words, and some told him they found them useful.  By contrast, the second workshop, on gays and the law in South Africa, was run not by a local but by professionals from Johannesburg, bored the queens and drove most of them outside.  That didn't mean they weren't interested in their legal status -- according to Reid, they brought questions with them -- only that the workshop was badly designed by people who didn't bother to learn how to communicate with non-professionals.  The same problem arises in the US, as I know from experience, and I doubt it's a "modern" one.  (I don't think such professionals should be designated the owners of modernity or Westernness; at most they are only a small part of either one.  This is one of the problems with orthodox Foucauldians: partly because they are generally professionals themselves, they are too willing to let the 19th-century European medical professional model of homosexuality be homosexuality.  It isn't.  It's a limited, inaccurate, and unrepresentative conception of homosexuality, and that's leaving aside the fact that it's basically a rebranding of older prescientific models anyway.)  Insofar as the Johannesburg professionals assumed a "modern" concept of sexual object-choice, it doesn't seem to have been apparent or a stumbling block for their audience, who were quite ready to embrace a modern discourse of laws and rights and assimilate it to their own styles of being gay.

Reid also seems rather confused about what "activism" entails.  He tries to tie it to the Western internationalists, but he has to acknowledge that gay activism in South Africa "was at home in the anti-apartheid movement, affiliated to the United Democratic Front and participating in political protest" (260) with an eye to the world outside.  Activism covers a wide range of behavior from fighting cops in the streets, like the Stonewall girls, anti-apartheid activists, and students in Chile today, to wearing suits and talking to bureaucrats.

One early instance of gay activism in South Africa involved three teenaged gay boys who 1994 went to their (Western, Christian) school "wearing make-up and their own versions of the girls’ red and black uniform. Dumisani recalled that Ayanda wore a particularly tight skirt, while he and Siyanda opted to wear trousers and high-heel shoes" (142).  They weren't harassed or criticized, and reported that even the teachers encouraged them.  Activism as such doesn't have a dress code, no matter that some factions try to impose one.

One reason the "modern" construction of "the homosexual" was developed was because the traditional ones were inadequate.  There were many people the gendered model didn't fit; maybe most people. Judging from Reid's account, ladies aren't all that interested in what gents think about their involvement with feminine but male-bodied partners.  The lady/gent model relies, in fact, on neither partner thinking about it very much.  This is performance (though not performativity).  The model works all right for some of them, though there are a number of acknowledged problems with it: miners may have provided for their boy-wives, but the township gents don't provide for their ladies -- usually it's the other way around, and ladies complain a lot about "gold diggers" who are only interested in them for their money.  It wouldn't do, of course, for anyone to point out that in this respect the gents are playing a "woman's" role, but that's one of the contradictions in the lady/gent model.

What happens if a gent starts to realize that he likes, even prefers, a male-bodied partner?  That's the beginnings of a "modern" gay identity.  It really has nothing to do with modernity per se, nor with the West.  It seems to me that many modern, even post-modern, Western queer theorists want to privilege heterosexuality: it annoys them as much as it does a Christian traditionalist that some people have rebelled against the assumption that sexuality inherently and inevitably must involve a male and a female partner, whether anatomical or fictive, against the evidence that many people discover and reinvent a nongendered pattern all by themselves.  Instead these postmodern Westerners agree with the traditionalists by blaming homosexuality on foreign influence and contamination: no one would have done this if "modern" "Western" "international" outside agitators hadn't corrupted their innocent minds.

Many people claim that "gay" is too narrow a category to work as an identity, though the adoption and redefinition of the word around the world indicates the opposite.  But the lady/gent model of male/male sexuality is too narrow a category even in the townships of South Africa.  It excludes people who practice homosexuality in a less-gendered or non-gendered way, and not by accident.

I recognize that many people react to the discovery of a non-gendered homosexuality by rejecting and denigrating gendered homosexuality, claiming authenticity only for their preferred pattern.  I don't want to claim that either model has more authenticity or should be privileged.  Both models are real and authentic. I think we need to recognize that there is not only one way to feel, act on, and construct "homosexuality" -- no one model represents "real gays"; real gays come in a variety of models -- but can we?  Many people's brains shut down in the face of the problem.  I don't believe it's inevitable, but clearly a more accurate picture of sexuality, which recognizes its complexity and contradictions, is more difficult to hold onto and use, even in academic work, than I thought.  What I think is needed is an "identity" that can cover a variety of styles of same-sex eroticism.  We already have one, "gay", which doesn't have a pejorative history as "queer" does, and it has caught on around the world.  It might be that it has done so because it's not indigenous in other cultures; on the other hand, it is usually assimilated to local models, as it was in South Africa.