Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pray for Us, St. Foucault

I've begun reading a book called Gay Travels in the Muslim World, edited by Michael T. Luongo and published by Harrington Park Press in 2007.  Band of Thebes mentioned it when commemorating Luongo's birthday, and my curiosity was piqued.  Right now I'm in the first selection, "It All Began with Mamadou," by Jay Davidson, based on his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania in 2002 and 2003.  Davidson must be my age or a little older, since he was in his early fifties when he joined.  He apparently spent most of his adult life in San Francisco, which may explain why he has so little understanding of the complexity of eroticism between males.  For example:
I have heard people say, "We don't have homosexuals in Mauritania."  Most Americans laugh at what they perceive to be such a naive and absurd statement.  After all, we know about the distribution of gay people in our own culture, and we conclude that there is a worldwide population of a given percentage of "homosexuals" in every society.  But I have come to understand that the statement "We don't have homosexuals in Mauritania" means something else altogether to the people who say it.  Western television and movies are widely available in and watched here.  Via these media, Mauritanians see American and European gay people demonstrating in the streets for their equality, petitioning their government for the right to marry, leaving their extended families, and setting up house together so they can live independently as a couple.  That is what "being gay" looks like to people there.  When homosexuality is portrayed in those terms, the Mauritanians are right -- they don't have (those kind of) gay people here!  By contrast, men having sex with men -- a critical part of the Western definition of being gay -- well, that is something totally different! ...

It is instructive to understand the translation from the Arabic of the first question people ask when they meet: "Who are you from?"  Note that they are not asking where, which would be just the name of a village or town, but who.  People's identity and sense of solidarity stems from the tribe, the family, the home.  They take great pride in these connections.  It would be antithetical to demonstrate in the streets in order to shine a light on the fact that they belong to a different class of people.  Doing so would alienate them from the people on whom they are most dependent [8].
Le sigh.  Where to begin?  Well, first, the claim that "We don't have homosexuals in X" long predates a gay movement that turned up in media for export: Samuel R. Delany wrote, I think in his autobiography, about a sexual affair he had in the mid-1960s with an African man who assured him that there were no homosexuals in his country, though he also claimed to have had sex with many men there.  Whatever this man meant, he didn't mean "We don't have gay pride parades and gay rights demonstrations back home," because we didn't have them in the US either in those days.  Similar declarations were made about the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, as I recall.

Davidson's remarks imply a sophisticated and very American social constructionist consciousness about sexuality among his Mauritanian acquaintances, which isn't evident from his report in any other area.  (Not that Davidson has a very sophisticated understanding of social construction either.  Like so many Westerners, he's probably just projecting.)  I imagine that there are local terms for men who copulate with other men, but Davidson doesn't seem to have spent enough time in Mauritania to pick them up.  His linguistic competence was in French, not Arabic or indigenous languages. Compare this passage from gay anthropologist Rudolf Pell Gaudio's account of gayish life in Nigeria:
Though it has become commonplace among anthropologists of sexuality to refrain from using terms from a colonial language (English, French, Dutch, etc.) to describe the identities and practices of people who speak other (usually non-European) languages, scholars have paid little attention to translation that operates in the other direction. The Hausa-language newspaper Kakaki, for example, had no trouble reporting on President Clinton’s ill-fated proposal in 1993 to permit gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the US armed forces, though the term the newspaper used for “gay men,” `yan ludu [literally, “sons of Lot”] conveys a negative moral judgment akin to English “sodomites.” `Yan madigo, the term used for “lesbians,” has more neutral connotations. Such translations occur in day-to-day conversations as well. In talking with Hausa friends I frequently found myself using terms like harka and dan daudu to describe gay life in the USA. I also heard such terms applied to me.
For that matter, it's a serious mistake to suppose that most American gay people protest or demonstrate for their rights.  It wouldn't be surprising if foreigners watching American TV got a skewed picture of American gay life, but Davidson should know better.

As for family, that too is a distortion.  Americans may not ask "Who are you from?" but we're just as interested in people's families, though this has faded somewhat as we became more urbanized and mobile.  I expect it will fade elsewhere in the world as urbanization takes over other countries.  But when new workers from the area immediately around Bloomington came to work as Indiana University staff during my years there, they'd be asked who their relations were, and the questioning was persistent and detailed.

American gay people formed ghetto communities because our families rejected us, not because we rejected them.  But the attempt to rebuild the burned bridges between ourselves and our families began right after Stonewall.  Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays began when Jeanne Manford, the mother of gay militant Morty Manford, marched with her son in the third New York Pride March in 1972; the first meetings of the new organization were held the following year.  Nowadays it's up to the parents of LGBT people whether they want to be part of their children's lives or not, and many do.  Marriage and setting up a household don't necessarily entail separating from one's family, either.  Usually it's only one spouse who leaves their family to live with the family of the other spouse, a separation that can be quite painful.  But even in the US it's common for married children to live near their parents, despite our tradition of mobility; I see no reason to suppose that gay couples intend to be any different if they can manage it.  Again, it's likely that through exported media presentations and antigay propaganda from within other countries, many foreigners will form an inaccurate picture of this aspect of American gay life, but Davidson should know better.

He also talks about what he sees as the greater "fluidity" of gay life in Mauritania, because he found that so many of the men he met still expected to marry and sire children.  I suppose that's "fluidity" of a sort, but it doesn't seem so different from the US.  It occurs in a social context where, as Davidson says, everyone is expected to marry and reproduce, and a gay man of Davidson's age should be able to remember when conditions were very similar in the US.  It may be that the size of this country and our traditions of mobility and land theft gave people more leeway to resist family pressure to marry -- you could always light out for the territory -- but even now, when people (especially straight women) around the world are voting with their feet against marriage, its romance and prestige are still very powerful.

The number of people who were exclusively homosexual was a small minority when Kinsey did his research in the 1930s and 1940s, while a far greater number had varying degrees of homosexual and heterosexual experience.  It may be that the development of gay communities and reification of gay identity since then has increased the proportion of gay people with no heterosexual experience or aspirations, but there still seem to be plenty of people who copulate with their own sex without thinking of themselves as homosexual.  Davidson mentions one Mauritanian who introduced himself in French as bisexuel, which reminds me that despite all the lip service to Kinsey, many gay people quite fiercely resist admitting the possibility of bisexuality: if a man has sex with another man and enjoys it, that means he's gay, and if he persists in enjoying sex with women also, he's a self-deceiving closet case.  (This is suspiciously close to the antigay concept of homosexuality-as-contagion: taste of the forbidden fruit only once, and you'll be enslaved to it for life, unless Jesus intervenes.  Which he never does.)

Davidson tells how, after watching a European gay-marriage demonstration on television, one of his students said, "If I had a gay brother, I would have to accept him.  He is my family.  And I could not let anyone say anything against him because he is my brother and I would have to protect him" (10).  That's good to hear, and it might be true as well as sincere, but would he accept a gay brother's partner as part of the family?

As I write this I'm slightly past the halfway point of Gay Travels in the Muslim World, and I've noticed that most of the Euro-American writers get all worked up and giggly over the fact that men in many countries can be very physically affectionate. Seeing two men holding hands especially excites them.  Davidson sets the tone: "We learned that this, of course, does not necessarily signal their sexuality.  One of my favorite sights remains that of two soldiers, uniformed, walking down the street holding hands.  An army of lovers cannot fail!" (3).  But they aren't lovers, that's just it.  Despite these (and other) writers' lip service to the idea that two men holding hands aren't necessarily gay, they don't seem to believe it.  I also enjoy seeing men holding hands with each other, and I like interacting with men from cultures where such touching is acceptable, because I don't see all affection as erotic.  Holding hands or cuddling with another man can be an end in itself, not just foreplay.

I get the impression that many Americans like to believe that people from other cultures are radically different from us.  It distances and exoticizes them; it's the flip side of believing that everybody is essentially the same, deep down.  But the differences that Davidson considers so radically extensive don't seem to be, since many of them constituted American culture until fairly recently.  And what annoys me most is that this exoticizing of Muslim cultures gets in the way of telling the stories these writers ostensibly set out to write.