Monday, July 18, 2011

A Very Queer Sort of Queer

There's a notion that turns up often in writing that touches on homosexuality, whether centrally or tangentially. Supposedly there is something called "homosexuality as we know it [or think of it] today," or "what we would term homosexuality." In the pre-Stonewall past, something went on that "we" would term homosexuality, but people back then knew better and never made the mistake we do. As I've written before, it is almost never clear who "we" are, nor what we think homosexuality is; and as far as I can tell, several different models of eroticism between people of the same sex are current today, in the United States alone. I don't use the word "homosexuality" there because even in the post-Stonewall present, people are often quite insistent that what they or others are doing isn't homosexuality, no matter what "we" think.

When you're interested in how people think about themselves, it's legitimate and necessary to use the concepts and terminology they use. (But it's just as legitimate to use your own culture's concepts and terminology for other purposes.) Oddly, though, now that I think of it, today's LGBTQ scholars rarely do so. Many of them show no hesitation about using "queer" (or "transgender") for every culture and every era, though "queer" in the sense(s) they use it is just as culture-bound as "homosexual" or "gay." This eliminates the necessity of cultural or historical sensitivity in one's scholarship, which no doubt makes it easier to produce, but also invalidates it except as therapy, which seems to be the main purpose of a lot of queer writing these days. Not that there's anything wrong with therapy!

But I digress, just a little. I've been thinking about this problem ever since I read Barry Reay's New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern America (Manchester, 2010) last winter. Reay drew heavily on the Kinsey archives, especially the material supplied by Thomas Painter, Kinsey's Times Square informant. Painter was a participant-observer: he not only interviewed and photographed his subjects on Kinsey's behalf, he befriended, hung out and had sex with them. Using Painter's material and much else, Reay put together an interesting picture of the hustler/trade subculture, which involved men who (officially at least) penetrated other men without reciprocation, often directly or indirectly for money. In this pattern of male-male eroticism, only the penetrated was labeled queer; the penetrator was not.

Reay is as insistent on this point as any hustler. "Those who engaged in what we would term homosexual acts," he says firmly, "... were not necessarily homosexual" (35). "[Dotson Rader] made it clear that he was no ‘FAGGOT’, ‘no miss mary pansy’, ‘HUSTLERS ARE NOT QUEER’" [171].
George Chauncey has described a sexual culture divided into fairies and ‘normal men’, or ‘queers’ and ‘men’, rather than heterosexual and homosexual. Leo, an eighteen-year-old, African-American, effeminate man in Chicago, thought in terms of fags, faggots, cats (‘colored queers’), bell[e]s, and queer people (on the one hand) versus Jam people, straight people, squares, and those who were manly (on the other). He felt that he could be himself when ‘among the faggots’. He became confused when men who appeared masculine – ‘men’ – tried to french him. … This was activity that we would doubtless call homosexual, but the attitudes, desires, and identities involved in this activity were not what most would now identify with homosexuality [42-3].

Painter, who appeared in Henry’s book along with his hustler associates, later questioned the sexologist’s categorizations. "Dr. Henry obviously believes that participation in a homosexual act makes one a homosexual, and we do not believe any such thing." He was especially critical of the doctor’s characterization of the hustler Leonard R. as a homosexual when he was not homosexual: "most male prostitutes to homosexuals are themselves heterosexual" [63].
Already a couple of questions arise. Who were those men who tried to "french" Leo? Trade weren't supposed to kiss or caress their fairy partners, just lie back with their arms behind their heads and let the fairy bring them to orgasm. (Look ma, no hands!) One hustler's partner "told him, ‘You don’t blow johns. You don’t get fucked. You just strip and serv ‘em dick.’ Even though customers knew it was pretence, it was what they expected. ‘The money kept my face straight; gave me a straight macho face’" (250).  What is behind that "straight macho face," I wonder?

Some guys evidently hadn't read the rulebook, and Reay doesn't seem to be interested in them. Sex and masculinity in modern America didn't always fit the trade/queer binary, even pre-Stonewall. Leo's example also shows that fairies were as invested in maintaining that binary as trade were, but not all men who wanted sex with other men felt the same way. Trade and fairies constituted one pattern, one social construction of eroticism between males, but not the only one.

Next, the psychiatrist George Henry was certainly pre-Stonewall, so how could he have "believed that participation in a homosexual act makes one homosexual"? (Notice that Painter himself, though also pre-Stonewall, still apparently viewed a sexual act between two males as "homosexual," even though according to Reay that is something only "we" would do.) I think the indignant denials by hustlers and their johns that they were homosexual indicates that at the same time, existing alongside the model they used, there was at least one model that classified the insertor as homosexual along with the insertee. (I should mention that Reay is also critical of medical researchers who "essentialized homosexuality as effeminacy" [158], even though that means they agreed with the trade/queer binary.)

It seems to me that Reay, along with so many who would agree with him, ignores little matters like stigma, and denial as a defense against stigma. Painter (and men like him) also had personal reasons for not wanting to see his hustlers as homosexual: he wanted manly trade, real men, heterosexuals who would have sex with him. I think this is purely a matter of definition, depending on what you, I, or "we" think a homosexual is. If you define "the homosexual" as a male who wants to be penetrated by other males, then of course the male who penetrates him is not "a homosexual," even if he penetrates many other males. If you define "the homosexual" as "a participant in a homosexual act," then of course both participants are homosexuals.

Or not; few people are satisfied with such simple classifications, and reality intrudes even on those who subscribe to the trade/fairy model. "Eddie, who was being pedicated [that is, fucked anally] by both Painter and Melcarth and had begun to worry about enjoying it – ‘Eddie … fucks girls avidly’ – was easily convinced that it merely enlarged his sphere of enjoyment and did not make him ‘queer.’" Avoiding stigma is obviously the important consideration here. (Notice that Painter was one of the men who 'pedicated' Eddie; even a queer was willing to breach the trade/queer barrier when he got the chance, it seems.)

Then there was
William Burroughs, a homosexual, [who] was notoriously dismissive of pansies, fags, and swish. ‘Burroughs may be gay, but he’s a man’, was Norman Mailer’s endorsement. ‘I don’t mind being called queer’, Burroughs wrote to Allen Ginsberg in 1952, ‘But I’ll see him [his publisher] castrated before I’ll be called a Fag That’s just what I have been trying to put down uh I mean over, is the distinction between us strong, manly noble types and the leaping, jumping, window dressing cocksucker.’ ‘All complete swish fairies should be killed’, he told Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in 1955, ‘not as traitors to the cause of queerness, but for selling out the human race to the forces of negation and death.’ Interzone, written though not published in the 1950s, refers to a ‘queen-repellent smelling of decayed queen flesh’. ‘A room full of fags gives me the horrors’, writes the narrator (Burroughs) in Junky, first published in 1953 [171-172].
This hysterical revulsion against effeminate men, while common, wasn't universal: as the example of Leo shows, fairies and pansies often scored with masculine men. (I think I detect a whiff of irony, if not self-mockery, in Burroughs's "us strong, manly noble types," by the way.) What makes the fairy so threatening, I think, is not that he's repulsive, but that he's also strangely attractive -- not to everyone, perhaps, but to many.
Gore Vidal’s notorious antipathy towards his literary rival Truman Capote proclaimed a similar (homosexual) masculine distancing from the recognized popular stereotype of the effeminate queer [174].
Except that Vidal’s not all that masculine himself in speech or mannerism -- no more effeminate than his nemesis the notoriously heterosexual William F. Buckley Jr., but still. Reay's discussion of Vidal reminded me of something that has bothered me for a long time: from time to time Vidal has referred to "trade" in interviews and in print, but he uses the word differently than Reay and everyone does (though Reay seems not to notice it): for example, he refers to trade as men who "rent their asses" to other men. Certainly some men have done so, but they weren't called trade.

There's irony here, in the way someone like Reay who deploys social-constructionist terminology nevertheless falls back into essentialist concepts. He's far from alone, of course. Reading New York Hustlers sent me back to Mark Padilla's Caribbean Pleasure Industry: Tourism, Sexuality, and AIDS in the Dominican Republic (Chicago, 2007). Padilla, a gay Hispanic anthropologist, studied the hustler scene in the Dominican Republic, which also relies on the trade/queer binary. Of a bar which catered to local gay men and tried to ban trade (called bugarrones) for a while, Padilla writes:
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. [But quite typical, cross-culturally, of relationships between queers and Real Men. -- DM] 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]
Though the bugarrónes are supposed to be trade, there is widespread skepticism about their impenetrability. "Indeed, when my research associates spoke with one of Tropicalia’s owners about my ethnographic interviews with bugarrónes, he said tersely: I hope you’re going to prove what we already know: they’re all closet cases [son unos tapa’os]'" (33). Padilla sees this as local "gay-identified" men's wish to impose a "global gay space" on the DR, but then he admits, "The men in this study often mentioned to me that one or another of their peers was known to 'dar el culo' (give their ass) on occasion, which often produced much hilarity on the part of the storyteller." Given the popularity of such allegations in albures (sexual joking), I’d be wary of taking those ‘mentions’ at face value. But I'd also suspect that the “storyteller” might be the one who gives the ass on occasion; compare "While most would acknowledge that other sex workers steal regularly from their clients, almost none would admit to firsthand involvement in theft" (40). As Padilla got to know his informants better, he learned which ones did in fact steal from their clients; they included some of the same men who'd denied "firsthand involvement in theft."

And then consider this story. A 21-year-old bugarrón named Geraldo was living with a local maricón until a male friend le quemó (told on him, that is; literally, "burned him") to his novia.]
But she saw the guy, and – on top of everything the guy was a real maricón -- and I told her, “No! He’s a maricón! I’m not a maricón, I’m a bugarrón!” … And she said “What do you mean you’re not a maricón, if you live with a man?!” And I said they weren’t the same thing. “What do you mean?” And I said, “No, because he’s the one who receives, and I’m the one who gives.”
Was the girlfriend infected with globalizing gay identity notions, or is mariconería more ambiguous and inclusive than Padilla -- or Reay -- wants to believe?