Sunday, March 17, 2013

If I Get Her the Wool, Will She Make Me One Too?

I checked William Benemann's Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships (Harrington Park Press, 2006) out of the library after Band of Thebes praised Benemann's work.  I just began reading it, and already he's doing the Foucault Two-Step:
I join my voice to those who have begun to question some of the theories of Michel Foucault concerning the formation of a homosexual identity.  I do not believe that a homosexual orientation was non-existent until it was socially constructed during the late nineteenth century.  From my reading of sources from the colonial, Revolutionary, and post-Revolutionary period, I am convinced that there were men who were homosexual and who -- without the physicians, clerics, legislators, or sociologists -- recognized themselves as different from their comrades, a difference based solely on their sexual response.  I also believe that there were de facto gay communities.  Some of these communities were congruent with specific geographic places.  Others were real but floating, linked to a profession rather than a physical place.  Still others had their existence only on a subconscious level but were nonetheless a powerful impetus to bring men together.  I believe that men loving men in the early years of this country were aware of the concept we now label as "queer space," and that they took active steps to separate themselves from the heterosexual majority in order to join their brothers in an underground community based on a shared sexual response [xv].
Well, that's a mixed bag!  I have reservations about Benemann's ability to read "sources from the colonial, revolutionary, and post-Revolutionary period" if he can't read Foucault, and from this paragraph I conclude that he can't.  I haven't read everything Foucault had to say about the emergence of the Modern Homosexual, but then neither have most people who cite him.  Some of them seem not to have even read the entire first volume of the History of Sexuality, where Foucault made his canonical remarks on the subject; all they seem to know is this one paragraph, and often only the very last sentence of this paragraph:
The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitively active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that always gave itself away. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized – Westphal’s famous article of 1870 on “contrary sexual sensations” can stand as its date of birth – less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration [relaps]; the homosexual was now a species.
This is not a "theory," nor does it say anything about "identity" or "orientation."  It doesn't even use the term "social construction."  It does not say that "a homosexual orientation did not exist until it was socially constructed in the nineteenth century."  (Benemann begs the question whether there is such a thing as "a homosexual orientation" in the first place.)  What it does say is that nineteenth-century doctors interpreted sex between males, or between females, as a "psychological, psychiatric, medical category" involving "a kind of interior androgyny."   This interpretation persists to this day, and underlies most or all of the scientific work done today on sexual orientation.

On the very first page of the second volume of The History of Sexuality, written as Foucault was rethinking his approach under the influence of Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Foucault himself wrote about the word "sexuality,"
The term itself did not appear until the beginning of the nineteenth century, a fact that should be neither underestimated nor overinterpreted. It does point to something more than a simple recasting of vocabulary, but obviously it does not mark the sudden emergence of that to which "sexuality" refers.
So the kind of simplistic linguistic determinism that many Foucauldians fall into was eventually rejected by Foucault himself.

I like Benemann's dismissal of "physicians, clerics, legislators, sociologists," which comes closer to the heart of the matter.  What changed in the nineteenth century was the way such elites thought about sex between persons of the same sex.  Even Foucault, oddly enough, wrote not only as though what physicians, clerics, legislators, sociologists was the truth about homosexuality, but as though their categories were the only categories that existed in society.  He knew better than that, because before The History of Sexuality he'd dated the emergence of 'the homosexual' to the early 18th century English Mollies.  As usual, our information on the Mollies comes from hostile outsiders -- purity crusaders, the courts, newspapers -- so I'm not sure we know as much about them as I'd like.  But it's safe to say that the Mollies created their social forms through practice, not through theory, without the advice of medical professionals.  (There's also a widespread assumption that the classifications the doctors developed were something totally new and alien, as though the doctors were not men of their time and culture.)  When a category -- "Sodomite," say -- did filter down to the hoi polloi, it changed meanings and connotations along the way.  But then, the meaning of "homosexual" as a category was never particularly clear, any more than the meaning of "Sodomite."

A lot of the controversy over the nature of the "homosexual" has nothing to do with social constructionism or with Foucault.  There's no question that the fag/ penetrated / passive / bottom is homosexual.  The question is whether the trade / penetrator / active / top is homosexual; and it's disputed everywhere from Latin America to the Philippines to South Asia to right here in the USA.  The current model for scientific research assumes that the homosexual male is feminized and the homosexual female is masculinized, never thinking to ask who these people's partners are; but this model is much older than the 1870s, and appears independently in numerous cultures.

I must also dissent from Benemann's claim that early American buggers and sodomites "took active steps to separate themselves from the heterosexual majority in order to join their brothers in an underground community based on a shared sexual response."  A considerable segment of gay male community requires men who define themselves, and are defined by their queer partners, as normal men.  That includes only some men-loving men, however, but I'm looking forward to see how Benemann constructs his subjects.  And what, may I ask, is a "de facto gay community"?  I didn't know there were de jure gay communities.  Well, I'll see where Benemann goes from here.  His focus on romantic friendships might help him to avoid harping on Foucault.