Monday, August 20, 2012

An Indelicate Balance

As I close in on the end of J. Neil C. Garcia's Gay Philippine Culture (2nd edition, University of the Philippines Press, 2008), the more I'm convinced that neither 'traditional' nor 'modern/Western' understandings of same-sex eroticism work.  Garcia spends hundreds of pages flailing around, rehearsing the essentialist / constructionist debate on every other page, but neither approach makes much sense of the material -- mostly a few popular films, some fiction, and a widely performed but unpublished play -- he discusses.  He's far from alone in his confusion, of course, and it's not his fault because most discourse of human sexuality is hopelessly incoherent.

I did finally find a passage that helped me understand why this is so.
Furthermore, just because the native Tagalog and Cebuano languages do not have an indigenous term for “homosexual,” it does not mean the homosexual act does not get practiced in these cultures. Certainly, the sexual self-understanding of the people who commit it here can only be different from the sexual self-understanding of the people from other cultures where the distinction between homo- and heterosexualities holds rather firmly (as in the West). For instance, in the case of the bakla, a qualitative difference from Western homosexuality may be the rather strange preponderance of “straight-gay” relationships in the local culture, unheard of and incomprehensible to the dualistic, Western mind [250].
In fact, English does not have an indigenous term for "homosexual" either.  The word "homosexual" (rather, Homosexualität) was invented in the 1860s, welding together a Greek prefix with a Latin suffix, so it can hardly be indigenous anywhere.  Some writers claim that the "concept" of homosexuality was actually invented earlier by another person, though according to the linguistic determinism usually assumed in this kind of social-construction discourse, it's impossible to have a concept without a word, which magically and instantaneously brings the concept into being.

Maybe this is why no one seems to know what a "homosexual" is: the word and the concept are foreign coinages, at home nowhere, not even in the colonialist West.  Karl-Maria Kertbeny, who invented the word, argued that as far as the law is concerned it is irrelevant whether Homosexualität is innate or not.  He also apparently rejected his contemporary Karl Heinz Ulrichs' conception of the 'soul of a woman trapped in the body of a man,' separating homosexuality from gender.  I'm not sure about this last, because the only evidence the blogger I'm citing offers is that "Kertbeny pointedly noted that homosexual men were not necessarily effeminate, citing several heroic historical figures as examples."  In practice that information sits comfortably with belief in inversion, often seeking to show that those big butch warriors nevertheless had a little girl somewhere inside their psyches, perhaps their achievement was overcompensation for their well-hidden essential effeminacy.  The same blogger claims that Kertbeny's supposedly ungendered conception "is probably the most salient for understanding homosexualität’s triumph over urning and invert."  What actually happened, as far as I can see, is that the inversion concept assimilated the word Homosexualität: all modern "scientific" research on homosexuality today assumes the homosexual as the invert.  Foucault's canonical account defined the homosexual as "a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself."  The acceptance and the rejection of inversion as the model of homosexuality coexist incoherently in most "Western" writing on the subject; the writers and thinkers involved seem unaware of what they're doing.  In this respect, Garcia's discussion is thoroughly "Western."

Notice Garcia's conclusion that "in the case of the bakla, a qualitative difference from Western homosexuality may be the rather strange preponderance of 'straight-gay' relationships in the local culture, unheard of and incomprehensible to the dualistic, Western mind."  A perusal of craigslist personal ads for your locale will quickly show you that "'straight-gay' relationships" are not only heard of but fetishized by many American gay men.  If you want to limit the discussion to academic writing, look at Barry Reay's 2010 book on American hustlers and their clients in the first half of the twentieth century, which also conceives the homosexual as the invert, and insists that the men who rent their penises to homosexuals are not queer -- not even when they find they enjoy being "pedicated" by the queers.  After all, the inversion model traditionally assumed that the only acceptable partner for the invert would be "normal" (or "straight"), an assumption epitomized in Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, which ends with the inverted protagonist driving her lover into the arms of a normal man, to give her a chance for a normal life.

Garcia is sure that the bakla -- narrowly conceived as a flamboyantly effeminate, cross-dressing homosexual male -- is not the same as the invert, but it's not clear how: the bakla fits the bill in every particular, right down to the conviction of being cursed to a life of loneliness and paid sex in the twilight world between the sexes.  He's also sure that the bakla is indigenously and uniquely Philippine, though in explicating a Tagalog novella about teenaged hustlers he lists among their "bakla clients" a "middle-aged American" (363).  By Garcia's own criteria, an American cannot be a bakla.  But he doesn't seem able to keep a close enough eye on them to keep such anomalies from jumping the fence.

It works both ways: Garcia wants to use the word "homosexual" to refer to Filipino erotic phenomena and actors, but he never figures out how to do it without violating his own strictures.  For one example out of many I could give, he criticizes the writer Tony Perez for
working from the assumption that only the bakla in a ‘gay/straight’ relationship is homosexual. Since homosexuality does not truly have analogues in our culture -- for there are no local distinctions between the sexual orientations homo/hetero – then the more critical view would be not to dismiss the possibility that in any sexual interaction between two male individuals, both partners may actually be seeing through to its fulfillment their same-sex orientation. [Not in the Philippines! That’s a wicked Western concept, not just “orientation” but “same-sex”, which is what “homo” means.] After all, when we consider sexuality not as a question of identity but of acts, any person who engages in sex with another person of the same genital sex is possibly [!] already a homosexual. [Not in the Philippines! This is after all purely a matter of definition.] This perspective is potentially liberating, for it extends the issue of homosexuality beyond the minoritized identity of the bakla, onto the bigger social realm which will have to include even the macho men themselves [369].
(I've added some comments in square brackets [].)  If "homosexuality" refers to non-gendered relations between person of the same biological sex -- and to repeat, that is not what the word usually means even as it's used in "the West" -- then it has no real analogues anywhere.  In practice, there is a lot of non-gendered homosexuality, probably in all cultures, but it doesn't fit any local conception of sex, so it usually remains invisible and unthinkable.  (That invisibility gives some cover to the participants, of course, who therefore are usually happy to keep it so.)  It's not any conception inherent in the word "homosexuality," nor anticolonalist resistance to Western concepts, that explains the stubborn resistance to degendering it, but assumptions about sex and gender that are powerful in many if not most cultures.

Another sign of Garcia's inability to disentangle his ideas is that "when we consider sexuality not as a question of identity but of acts," the question of whether either participant in "the homosexual act" is "homosexual" doesn't come up.  In that case, neither partner is "homosexual."  At best, it's a separate question.  But Garcia doesn't seem to understand that.

One final issue is the question of "coming out."  Garcia seems unaware of the term's history in "the West," specifically America.  Before the post-Stonewall movement redefined it to mean telling straight people that one is gay, it meant making one's debut in gay society, and as a corollary, having one's first erotic experience with someone of the same sex.  This fits well with the meanings Garcia assigns to it in Philippine gay culture, if he only knew.  But he also distinguishes between "covert" and "overt" gays, especially in his discussion of Orlando Nadres' popular play Hanggang Dito na Lamang at Maraming Salamat (That's All for Now and Many Thanks).  The play is about a middle-aged pawnshop owner, Fidel, who lives a compulsively discreet life punctuated by occasional paid-for sex with younger hustlers.  Though on some level he knows he's a bakla, he believes that he can evade the stigma by acting as much as possible like a "normal" man; his main visible form of resistance is his refusal to marry a woman, a refusal made easier by the fact that his parents are no longer living.  For years he has carried a secret torch for his studly nineteen-year-old ward Efren, whose education he pays for.  Fidel's foil in the play is Julius Caesar Aquino, aka Julie: a flamboyant bakla beautician, who has apparently supplied some of Fidel's sexual partners in the past.  Only to Julie does Fidel admit his secret self, though Fidel still insists fiercely that the two are not alike, because Fidel represses his inner impulses.

So far so good, but what is Fidel repressing?  Not his sexual desires: he satisfies those with the occasional hustler.  What he keeps hidden, it seems, is his bakla nature.  Otherwise he'd be competing in gay beauty contests like Julie. To be a bakla is to scream, to wear one's hair long, to pile on the makeup, to compete in beauty contests.  This is a theme that runs through Philippine Gay Culture, as in Garcia's account of silahis:
… the silahis is a male who looks every bit like a “real man” – he may even be married and with a family – but who, in all this time, would rather swish and wear skirts and scream “like a woman.” A very good example of this conception of the silahis would be the members of the seventies’ novelty pop singing group, Charings. They look like five very “regular” men (mustachioed and all), and yet, the moment the opening strains of their one-and-only hit – the catchy disco hit, “Badaf Forever” – begin, they swish their hips and break into a faggoty song-and-dance routine [134].
"Covert" gays, then, are those men who don't scream and swish and wear skirts, but it takes all their will power to do so, because their inner bakla nature is churning away inside them.   It's hard to see how Garcia can appeal to the existence of "macho gays," because his whole intellectual framework denies the possibility of such creatures.  They may seem macho on the surface, but inside that facade is a bakla just waiting to throw off its chains and take over.

This problem is also built into the supposedly Western inversion model, by the way.  No one has ever been quite able to explain why all externally male inverts aren't letting their inner female souls out to sashay and flounce and shake that thang, or why all externally female inverts aren't lounging around in smoking jackets and wearing butch cuts.  Maybe they do so out of delicacy; maybe they're too cowardly to be themselves.  (False consciousness is such a handy way to explain other people's choices that we happen to dislike.)  There's nothing in the model that gives a reason why they shouldn't, and in gay culture the same assumption is widespread: to be a gay boy is to be a girl.  (Remember what one of the gay sociologist Martin Levine's clone informants told him: "Darling, beneath all this butch drag, we are still girls.")  Lip service is paid to the existence of the fabulous gender-compliant gay person, but most American gay people don't really seem to believe in it except for PR purposes, to assert our fundamental normality.  And who knows what RuPaulishness lurks in the hearts of the bodybuilder at the next workout station?

Myself, I have no idea whether every butch gay man has a bakla trapped inside him.  It's an assumption, based on no evidence whatsoever, perpetuated even by Western "scientific" discourse.  But then I don't believe that bakla or American drag queens really have a woman's soul trapped inside to give them fashion tips.  I don't know how you would even go about investigating, let alone proving it.  Which to my mind is a good reason to think of sexuality not as a question of identity but of acts, but that has its own problems.  We are human beings with bodies and subjective selves, so I don't see why questions of subjectivity (as opposed to chimerae like "orientation" and "identity") shouldn't be on the table.  And some humility about other people's subjectivity is in order, since we have no way of knowing what's really going on in other people's heads; our own heads are confusing enough.

What Garcia and others need to beware is the assumption that all people in a given culture interpret their experiences in the same way, by the same categories.  When he writes, "Certainly, the sexual self-understanding of the people who commit it ["the homosexual act," as if there were only one!] here can only be different from the sexual self-understanding of the people from other cultures where the distinction between homo- and heterosexualities holds rather firmly (as in the West)," he's ignoring the likelihood that that even among bakla there is not just one self-understanding of their sexual experience and of their lives.  It's certain that this is true of American gay culture, despite our own corresponding attempts to fit ourselves into one inadequate category or another.  I wish I knew how to persuade people to do otherwise: most people seem to love Procrustean beds, even for themselves.