Monday, August 15, 2016

The Triumph of The Gay

Once again I find myself wondering how certain things find their way into print.  As a warming-up exercise, I'll share with you a passage from a book I read earlier this summer, aimed at a readership of helping-professionals, published by a press that specializes in such material.  I won't name either the book or the publisher for now.
The report states that a majority of the respondents held an undergraduate degree (31.5% of men and 32% of women) ...
It appears that the writer of this passage added together the percentages in order to conclude that they constituted a majority of the respondents.  In reality the respondents of both sexes who held undergraduate degrees constitute a minority, about 31 or 32 percent of the whole.  I couldn't believe that a professional would make such an elementary error, or failing that, that the editor and the referees who vetted the paper wouldn't have caught it.  After reading it repeatedly to make sure I hadn't missed something, I posted the passage to my page on Facebook, asking friends with backgrounds in statistics if I'd missed something.  They didn't think so.

Now, I could make a mistake like this -- but I'm not a professional with a graduate degree, and I write a blog, not for a professional press, presumably peer-reviewed but certainly run by and for professionals.  And the rest of the book is not much better than this, though not as blatantly off.

So, on to what got me started today.  I've begun reading Tongzhi Living: Men Attracted to Men in Postsocialist China (Minnesota, 2015) by Tiantian Zheng.  It's been getting positive attention, and it's a topic that interests me, so I picked it up.  Unfortunately it seems to have many of the same flaws of most studies I've seen of homosexuality outside the US, and I'll probably have more to say about it when I've finished it.  For today I want to point to a really egregious passage that's indicative of the problems in the book.
Stephen Murray (1992) theorizes Western homogenization as a neo-evolutionary process toward a universal, egalitarian, Western gayness.  He maps out an evolutionary model of homosexuality from unequal relations based on age (ancient Greece), gender roles (modern Mesoamerica), and class (early capitalism) to equal relations.  In Murray's evolutionary model, an increasingly strong gay and lesbian culture, identity, and politics have been diffused little by little throughout the Western world.  Eventually this Western model will be what other countries and cultures will follow [location 126 of the Kindle version].
I was immediately suspicious, because I've read a lot of Murray's work, and Zheng's summary didn't sound like him.  So I tracked down the reference, to his paper "The 'Underdevelopment' of Modern/Gay Homosexuality in Mesoamerica", published in Modern Homosexualities: Fragments of Lesbian and Gay Experience, edited by Ken Plummer in 1992.  The opening paragraph should suffice.
In what has been written about male homosexuality in the world's cultures, three basic social organizations recur.  In so far as changes over history are visible, the types occur in the order (1) age-stratified, (2) gender-stratified, (3) gay.  When and where homosexuality is age-stratified, for instance in ancient Greece, medieval Japan, or the New Guinea highlands until recently, the 'boy' is sexually receptive to an older boy or man who takes responsibility for helping the boy to become a man.  In societies with gender-stratified homosexualtiy, as in the recent past in Northern Europe and North America, contemporary Latin America, and indigenous Polynesia, one partner acts the role of a woman, generally specializing in what is considered 'woman's work' in a society, frequently stereotyping women's dress and behaviour.  The 'gay' or 'modern' organization of homosexuality breaks from assigning one partner to the inferior role of 'boy' or 'wife' and -- without regard to their sexual behaviour -- insists that both are men who should have equivalent privileges, not the least of which is autonomy.  Because the historical succession has been from age to gender to gay, it is tempting to consider this a necessary, evolutionary order.  In this chapter, I will argue that such an 'evolution' is not inevitable, and discuss some of the obstacles to the globalization of an egalitarian (gay) organization of homosexuality even in the relatively industrialized and 'modern' capitals of 'developing' countries [29].
As you can see, Murray very clearly rejects an evolutionary reading of the differing models (or organizations) of homosexuality that he lists here.  I'd go further myself, and point out that differing models coexisted and overlapped, not least in the supposedly developed West.  In Japan, for example, as in China and probably elsewhere, there was a model involving boy actresses (in the Noh theater and Beijing opera, respectively) who were defined as insertees with respect to their older patrons, both because of their youth and because they "stereotyped women's dress and behaviour."  In ancient Greece, the age-stratified model was dominant, but males copulated with each other outside that model, and as John Boswell showed for medieval Europe, in age-stratified relationships the "boy" might be middle-aged and might even be older than the "man."  In Mesoamerica, the model of the vestida (as he's known in parts of Mexico) defines the homosexual, but a lot of (probably most) male-to-male sex involves men who play a "woman's role" only as sexual insertees, not in dress or general behavior.  I've noticed before that when a white gay man visited a gender-stratified gay community in South Africa, both gents and ladies not unreasonably tried to parse him in terms of the system they knew, and gents propositioned him as if he were a lady.

As Murray later remarks:
In Thailand, as in Latin America, the typological system is very simple, with gender roles and sexual behaviour in neat conformity with each other.  But in messy reality, sexual behaviour, gender appearance, and sexual identity are more complex [30].
These templates do not describe behavior and presentation, they prescribe it and are imposed on it.  The same is true of the "gay" model: despite our supposedly "egalitarian" homosexuality, American gay men still talk about "daddies" (insertive) and "boys" (receptive), "men" (insertive) and "twinks" (receptive), tops and bottoms, and the prevailing Western pseudoscientific model of homosexuality is gender-stratified.

Murray does mention class in his paper, but not as an organizing system of homosexuality; I don't know where Zheng got that.  While class can be a factor, it goes all over the map, from the poor cross-dresser hired by a man with more money to the wealthy older man patronizing a younger man from a lower class, to middle-class men hiring working-class trade.  In some cases lower class signifies femininity and penetrabilility, in others masculinity and impenetrability.  It appears from what I've read, not only in Tongzhi Living but in other writings about male homosexuality in China, that a similar variety of styles can be observed there.

I've made similar misreadings of material I've read, and for similar reasons: I had a thesis, and I needed grist for it.  But again, I'm not an academic writing for an academic press, running a gauntlet of editors and referees.  (And when I've found myself, or been caught, in such an error, I try to acknowledge and correct it.)  Zheng seems to have misread Murray's opening paragraph (I wonder if she even read past it) because she wanted to cast him as a Western gay imperialist, exulting in the triumph of "this Western model" over all "other countries and cultures."  That binary, which is beloved of many international, post-colonial scholars of queer life, is at best an agenda-driven oversimplification.  (Quite a few American scholars love it too.)  To recognize the common features of homosexual life in different societies is not, in itself, to impose a "neo-evolutionary" template on them, or to regard one model as "modern" and the others as "primitive" or "undeveloped."  But to refuse to recognize them distorts and impedes understanding of people's real lives, both in the East and in the West.  I'd like to think that in time, this particular bias will be recognized and corrected, but by then there will probably be a new consensus with its own distortions and errors.