Sunday, January 5, 2014

Girls Will Be Boys and Boys Will Be Girls

I just read a short (106 pages of text) book, Gender Diversity: Crosscultural Variations (Waveland Press, 2000) by Serena Nanda.  Nanda, a cultural anthropologist, is the author of an ethnographic study of the hijras of India, though lately, as a professor emerita, she's been working on a series of "anthropological murder mysteries."  Gender Diversity is meant as a brief introduction to its subject, and it's good that its crosscultural scope (while limited) includes Europe and America.  But there are problems, which are all the more visible in such a short book.  That's a good thing, but it doesn't make the problems go away.

There are some errors that are clearly Nanda's fault, like her reference to "the Genesis story, in which Adam creates Eve from his own loins" (87).  Of course in the second Genesis creation myth, it is Yahweh who creates Eve, from Adam's rib.  Less egregious but still significant is the claim that in Plato’s Symposium "Aristophanes argues that three sexes were part of an original human nature, “man, woman, and the union of the two …. having a double nature” before all three groups were split in half by Zeus (Symposium 252-3); as a consequence, human beings spend their lives seeking their lost other half.  Aristophanes doesn't "argue", he simply declares that he's talking about the original human condition.  Moreover, the primordial humans with the "double nature" were the source of what we now would call heterosexuals: "Now all who are the men's slice from the common genus, which was then called androgynous, are lovers of women; and many adulterers have been of this genus; and, in turn, all who are women of this genus prove to be lovers of men and adulteresses."  Those males who became lovers of other males, and those females who became lovers of other females, were originally single-natured, so to speak.  Classical Greece also had stereotypes of effeminate, sexually receptive males, which we know about from hearsay.  The institution of pederasty, in which adult male erastoi courted and loved adolescent male eromenoi, distanced itself from effeminacy in either partner.  So Aristophanes' myth has little if anything to do with the kind of gender variation Nanda is writing about.

Most of Nanda's exemplars of gender variation are our contemporaries, who can be studied and interviewed directly.  In the case of American Indians (as with some African variations, but Nanda doesn't cover Africa in Gender Diversity), this is less true, though that's changing.  So, like others writing about this subject, Nanda must rely on older travelers' and ethnographic accounts, which often leads to trouble.  Her description of gender variants -- alyha (males) and hwame (females) -- among the Mojave, for example, is "based on interviews by anthropologist George Devereux (1937) with some old informants who remembered the transvestite ceremony and had heard stories about gender variant individuals from their elders" (21).  Devereux, then, was writing about a phenomenon he'd never encountered personally, often at third-hand ("stories [they had heard] about gender variant individuals from their elders").  So I'm a bit skeptical about the rather detailed description of alyha sexual behavior Nanda provides, especially since she also apparently accepts John H. Honigmann's account of "female berdaches" among the Kaska of the Yukon -- also based on interviews with gender-normative male Kaska informants who hadn't met such individuals themselves but had heard stories about them from their elders.  Honigmann's work was dissected by Jean-Guy A. Goulet in his contribution to Two-Spirit People (ed. Jacobs, Thomas, and Lang [Illinois, 1997]).  Nanda knows and cites that collection, but evidently didn't read Goulet's piece, since she claims that "Among the Kaska, a family who had only daughters might select one to 'be like a man'; by engaging in the male activity of hunting, she would help provide the family with food" (24).  That's exactly what Goulet cast doubt on.  (Such selection isn't unknown in the West, if only as folklore; see, for example, Isabel Miller's novel Patience and Sarah, one of whose protagonists was raised "as a boy" in a large family with no sons.)

Luckily, we can talk to real gender variants around the world today, and observe how their families and neighbors treat them.  Nanda herself talked at length to hijra, for example, as did Gayatri Reddy in With Respect to Sex (Chicago, 2005).  We also have numerous works by gay Indian writers, based in India itself or in the diaspora.  One hijra, A. Revathi, has written his own autobiography in English, The Truth About Me (Penguin Global, 2011).  Martin F. Manalansan IV, an anthropologist who identifies himself as a bakla, has written about the experience of Filipino gender variants in the US; J. Neil Garcia, another bakla academic, has written about bakla and gay life in the Philippines.

Because Gender Diversity is such a short book, its contradictions are thrown into relief, which is handy.  Nanda makes the typical errors on gender variation in the West, saying now that the Western model of homosexuality is homogender, and then that it is based on inversion.  So, for example, she writes that Brazil assimilated a "modern Euro-American 'medical' model of sex/gender relations ... in the late late-nineteeth and early-twentieth centuries."  But this model
…in the last three decades has been challenged by a (postmodern) gay ideology, in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation.  This model, which continues the homosexual /heterosexual divide of the medical model, but without its pejorative connotions [sic], is gaining a foothold in the more highly industrialized urban centers of the South (Rio and Sao Paulo), as well as among the more wealthy and educated classes throughout Brazil [55-6].
To her credit, she recognizes that "In Brazil, as increasingly in many contemporary cultures, several sex/gender ideologies coexist" (55), but this has always been true in contemporary cultures and in the past as well.  (Compare classical Greece, with its homogender but age-stratified institution of pederasty which coexisted with a model of penetrable effeminate males.)  As for the "postmodern" (?) ideology, "in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation," this is a gross oversimplification.  The "ideology" that only the penetrated male was "homosexual" was current, and perhaps dominant, in the United States until the middle of the twentieth century, and the denigration of effeminacy has meant that many males in a variety of cultures have used flaming queens as cover for their own activities.  In Mexico (as in much of Latin America), for example, the queen with plucked eyebrows, makeup, and a wardrobe of gowns is the official metonym of male homosexuality, and anthropologists have often mistaken the part for the whole. (Vestidas are so much easier to find and study.)  But gay male anthropologists and travelers have found plenty of sexual partners in such places without having to put on a dress or wig, and there's so much homogender activity going on that perhaps we should be more skeptical whether the activo/pasivo model is actually gendered.  (The same goes for contemporary South Africa, where the white anthropologist Graeme Reid was propositioned by black men who wanted to penetrate him, even though he didn't fit the codes of the lady that supposedly governed male/male sex there.)  For that matter, a naive observer might conclude from popular entertainment that a gendered ideology of homosexuality was dominant in the US, and many people do.  Maybe it is.

I enjoyed this remark by Nanda about Thailand, especially after some people I know on Facebook were getting their pants in a bunch about American evangelicals who blame earthquakes on Teh Gay:
Same-sex/gender eroticism (what would be called homosexuality in the modern West) was considered inauspicious, resulting in natural disasters, such as droughts, being struck dead by lightning, or becoming crazy.  These consequences do not appear to have been directed at (heterogender) man/kathoey relationships … [74]
(Kathoey [กะเทย] are the feminine transgenderish males in Thai society.)  And, of course, she mentions numerous times that "gender variants" almost never, in any culture, copulate with other "gender variants" -- that would be "lesbianism," "incest," even "cannibalism."  For example:
And, similar to India, Brazil, Thailand and the Philippines, but in contrast to the West, gender nonconformists [in the Pacific Islands] do not have sex with each other [74].  
However, it is not true that gender nonconformists in "the West" normally have sex with each other, as Nanda here implies.  For one thing, Latin America is part of "the West"; more important, the idea of two sissies "bumping pussies" (as queens I've known delicately put it) is as outrageous in some contemporary American circles as it is in Rio, Mexico City, Bangkok, Hyderabad, or Manila.  Try this for size, from John C. Howard's Men Like That (Chicago, 1999): "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).  I heard this sentiment expressed in the gay communities of southern Indiana in the early 1970s.

I'm also skeptical about the claim, which is not particular to Nanda, that "The sexual partners of gender variants were never considered gender variants themselves" (17).  As she says a few pages later, Mohave gender variants' "husbands were teased for marrying them" (21).  Numerous scholars have doubted similar claims about males who penetrate other males in Latin American societies: Annick Prieur is one observer among others who's found it difficult to get mayates (gender-normative Mexican men who penetrate Mexican sissies) to admit, let alone talk about their same-sex copulations; see Mema's House, Mexico City (Chicago, 1998).  Stephen O. Murray has written, more stringently, that
Whether the complementary role is a "gay macho" (bujarron) indifferent to what he penetrates is a matter of some controversy among observers -- and also one of dissensus among natives ... Usually, the category is linguistically unmarked (hombre-man) although Schifter and Madrigal reported hombres de verdad (true men), Lancaster attested the reduplicated (hence, highly marked) hombre-hombre, and Tierno listed muy hombre and mucho hombre (very man and much man).  The masculine partner, then, at least sometimes is referred to with linguistically marked forms and is, thereby, distinguished from men in general [50].
And, he adds:
Latinos with whom I have discussed claims that masculinity can be enhanced by fucking a maricon vociferously disagree with Lancaster's assertion that fucking men enhances "male honor."  They also question the extent of banter about homosexual exploits among adults in Latino cultures ... Lancaster does not appear to have asked direct questions of the residents of the working class barrio in Managua, Nicaragua, among whom he lived[,] about whether one gains honor from using a pasivo (cochon in the local lexicon) [54] ...
Murray also notes that Lancaster might have produced a more accurate picture of Nicaraguan society if he had "studied those who call themselves cochones rather than picking up tidbits of hombre-hombres' views of cochones" (56n8).  These considerations may not refute Nanda's remarks, but they do complicate them and the consensus she represents.  Although she cites several authors from the collection in which Murray's critique appears (Stephen O. Murray, Latin American Male Homosexualities (New Mexico, 1995), she evidently skipped his contributions, just as she missed Goulet's in Two-Spirit People.

It's ironic that Nanda, like so many of her colleagues, opposes "third sex" and "third gender" concepts to "modern" (or are they "postmodern"?) "Euro-American" ideologies.  The thing is, "third sex" and "third gender" are both Western concepts, developed in the nineteenth century* by European doctors and disseminated (along with Euro-American homophobia) to doctors and lawyers around the world.  Whether, or how well, these concepts actually correspond to non-Western figures like bakla, hijra, katoey can be and should be discussed more, but like "queer," which is also applied indiscriminately, regardless of culture or era, they are Western in origin and content.

While Gender Diversity is a good introduction to its subject for undergraduates, it also shows some gaping holes in the Euro-American academic account of sex and gender, whether of the "West" or elsewhere.  That could be a good thing, if it leads to a reconsideration of the consensus.

*In fact the idea of a "third sex" has been traced back to the second-century North African Christian father Tertullian, who wrote in his treatise To the Nations:
You ['O unjust pagans'] too have in your midst a third gender -- not so much a third religious persuasion -- but a third sex. They are well suited for both male pleasure and for female pleasure, endowed with male and female aptitudes. Do we offend you with this particular shared affinity?  Equality lends force to envy.  Thus the potter envies the potter and the craftsman envies the craftsman.
I learned this from Willy [Henri Gauthier-Villars, 1859-1931], The Third Sex [ET of Le Troisième Sèxe, 1927]  Translated and with an introduction and notes by Lawrence R. Schehr.  Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007, page 99n4.  The things a promiscuous reader finds ...