Saturday, August 6, 2016

This Crazy Little Thing Called Gay Love

I finished reading Queer Wars last night, and I don't want to leave readers with the impression that Altman and Symons accept (let alone approve) the arrogance of Western-trained professional activists.  Their last chapter, "What Is To Be Done?" discusses the problem at length, and quite well.  In general it's a good book, especially for those who want an introduction to international LGBT politics.

There are, however, numerous bits in it that rub me the wrong way, and one of the most annoying was this quotation, on page 62, from another writer about Bangladesh:
Homosexuality is not shunned because of its criminal tag; it simply does not exist in the common mind as a variant of human behavior. This is a highly social culture with large and extended families, friends coming and going, eating and sleeping together at different times—all encased in strong social traditions. So what is this strange thing called gay love? Few have an answer.
The passage comes from a website, so I could go to the source.  It's not much better in its original context, an article called "Gay Life in Bangladesh" by one Richard Ammon.  Ammon has actually spent time in Bangladesh, but the tone of the article is normal Anglo travel writing about colorful natives and their exotic folkways, with a zest of sex-tourist prurience and sentimentality for subtext. 

So why do I object to this passage?  The fantasy of guys so culturally deprived that they have never even heard of Lady Gaga is of course a popular one, especially for those with a missionary temperament; also for urbanites who mistake their boredom with commercial gay culture (usually after spending a few decades immersed in it) for some kind of spiritual fastidiousness, and dream of finding a place untouched by Modern Life -- as long as they can get a good cell-phone signal there, of course.  The promise of untouched, unspoiled destinations is a common sell to tourists generally.  But eventually those other tourists start pouring in, and nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded.

If you identify homosexuality or "gay love" with its twenty-first century urban First-World manifestations (the Foucauldian fallacy), then you can persuade yourself and others that there's no
homosexuality where there are no mod cons -- no discos, no Internet porn, no (gasp!) Grindr.  While there is arguably a valid distinction to be drawn between "homosexuality" as an isolated practice and "homosexuality" as a specific cultural structure with a "scene" and institutions and ideology, most writers who draw that distinction can't sustain it consistently.  But the distinction is never hard and fast.  I can't fathom why Ammon assumes that "a highly social culture with large and extended families, friends coming and going, eating and sleeping together at different times—all encased in strong social traditions" somehow excludes same-sex eroticism and love.  If you put a bunch of males together, eventually some of them will start exploring each other's bodies, and some will realize that they prefer male bodies for this purpose.  (Muslim cultures are certainly aware of this "variant of human behavior.")  Even in cultures so benighted that they have never heard of RuPaul's Drag Race (oh, the humanity!), there are traditions of passionate same-sex friendship and sworn brotherhood.  It doesn't matter if those traditions didn't originally refer to copulation, because they will eventually be interpreted as erotic by people who need a precedent. (The ancient Greek reinterpretation of Achilles and Patroclus as erastes and eromenos is a classical -- pardon the pun -- example of this tendency.)

The capper is that closing rhetorical question.  Who are the happy "few" who "have an answer" to it?  Millions want to know.