A regular reader sent me a mail message recently, saying that he's "a LITTLE more in favor of [the] 'some people have always been gay' argument" than I am. I found this baffling.
"Some people have pretty much always been gay" isn't an argument, it's a claim. Depending on what it's supposed to mean, I agree with it. That is, I think it's as certain as any historical claim can be that there have always been some people who were interested erotically only in their own sex. There's documentation of that from many cultures over a couple thousand years, and I see no reason to suppose that it's not true at almost all times and almost all places. I think it's also pretty clear that same-sex eroticism isn't limited to such people, that many people have had sexual experience with partners of both sexes in varying proportions.
What I don't agree with is the other claims some people make around this one. It's not surprising, because most people bring cultural and personal baggage with them, myself not excluded. There's no agreement what being gay, or being homosexual, or being bisexual, means. I didn't exaggerate too much in my Gay Christians Say the Darnedest Things post, when I wrote sarcastically that because Leonardo had no Madonna CDs and (shame!) didn't go to Judy's Carnegie Hall concert, many scholars doubt that he was really gay. In the first place, not all gay people are alike nowadays in the US, and I see no reason to suppose that that's a new development limited to the US. Nor, of course, does it follow that because there have always been people who were interested erotically in their own sex, that exclusive interest is therefore inborn, or genetic, or biological, or whatever.
Related to these notions, I believe, is the excuse often made for stereotyping, that "stereotypes have some truth in them" because some people do fit the stereotypes. This line came up at the discussion group I attended last week in San Francisco, and I wish I'd thought to ask what now seems to me the obvious question: So what? What follows from it? It certainly doesn't follow that everyone is obliged to conform to the stereotypes just because some people do. That seems to be what is meant, however: that inside every gay man, however butch he may pretend to be, is a screaming queen trying to claw her way out, and that every self-styled bisexual is just a closet case who, if he were honest with himself, would have sex only with other males. In his book on male prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, for example, Mark Padilla reports that local gay men told him:
“I hope you’re going to prove what we already know: they’re all closet cases [son unos tapa’os].” This implies the existence of a deeper, more authentic sexual identity that is being actively repressed by the bugarrón, who fails to recognize his own fundamental sexuality and public mark himself in terms of his presumed same-sex erotic preference .There are numerous ironies here, aside from Padilla's own frequent cluelessness. One is that these Dominican gay men subscribe to a trade/queer model of male homosexuality, though (as always seems to be the case) with plenty of slippage. If all the bugarrones dropped their pretensions and came out as flaming travestís, there'd be no tops to supply the all-important dick to Dominican gays. As Padilla also pointed out of a Dominican bar's quixotic attempt to exclude bugarrones,
The policy was doomed to fail from the beginning. First, it seemed entirely incongruous with the erotic integration – and in many ways, the economic interdependence – of bugarrónes and gay-identified men. Local bugarrón-gay or bugarrón-travestí relationships frequently entail an economic arrangement in which the gay/travestí mantiene a su bugarrón (supports his bugarrón), an inversion of the typical gender division of labor in heterosexual relationships. Further, despite the occasional tensions between them, bugarrónes still represent the erotic ideal for a significant proportion of gay-identified [Dominican] men, reflecting what [Stephen O.] Murray ... has described as the sexual system of “homosexual exogamy” in Latin American homoeroticism. Thus, in their attempts to “clean up” the bar, the owners of Tropicalia were planning to purge a primary source of gay men’s attraction to the business: bugarrónes. As many local gay men commented to me, “So, if they keep bugarrónes out, why would we go there?” [32-3]In much the same way that many heterosexual men will try to get "nice" girls to have sex with them, in order to prove that all women are essentially whores, the Dominican gays, like the norteamericano tourists, will try to get bugarrones to dar culo, or give ass: if they succeed, they can scorn them, their stereotypes have been vindicated. The aim is probably not to move toward a more "egalitarian" mode of homosexuality, where either partner may penetrate or be penetrated, but simply to validate their erotic cosmology. So, as Annick Prieur observed in her study of Mexican vestidas, they despise those mayates (equivalent to bugarrones -- men who penetrate other men) who let themselves be penetrated, even when it is the vestidas who penetrate them. This connects to a fantasy entertained by some gay men, who insist that there are no straight men, that every man can be had if you go about it correctly. Taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that every man is, at bottom, a bottom.) If these gays really succeeded, though, and exposed all bugarrones as closet cases who really, deep down, want only to be penetrated, who would penetrate them?
This is only a problem if you insist on eliminating the middle ground, but that is what people are doing when they stereotype: there are no differences, there is no variation, everyone is alike, even if they pretend otherwise. It's not an empirical description but a principle that overrides observation and evidence, and can't be refuted because any observation that seems to contradict the principle can be dismissed as false consciousness, misunderstanding, or failure to grasp the essence that underlies mere appearances. (So it's related to belief in biblical inerrancy: any seeming error is due to the interpreter's misunderstanding or lack of sufficient faith -- the Bible's lack of error is the first principle of interpreting it.) It's true that some people can be found who fit any stereotype you like, and that's not problematic. The trouble arises when the stereotype is postulated as the underlying truth about all individuals.
*The Caribbean Pleasure Industry (Chicago, 2007.)