Thursday, June 20, 2013

Another Binary Bites the Dust

I've begun reading Graeme Reid's How to Be a Real Gay: Gay Identities in Small-Town South-Africa (University of KwaZulu Natal Press, 2013), based on fieldwork among gay men who outside South Africa's big cities, and it looks interesting so far.  But as usual, I'm having problems with his theoretical apparatus.  He wastes a lot of time discussing identity issues, and getting them wrong.

But let me begin by quoting a passage where Reid almost gets it right.  (In all quotations I've silently removed references to other authors, which Reid gives in the form of [Author Date: Page Number], so as to avoid unnecessary ellipses [...].)
Alan Sinfield provides a succinct review of various cultural and historical accounts of homosexual identities. His book On Sexuality and Power refers to the two general modes of conceptualizing homosexuality in different historical and cultural contexts. The first is in terms of gender, focusing on signs of ‘inversion’: femininity in men and masculinity in women. The second is the Western model in which sexual object choice defines identity, or ‘sexual orientation’. According to Gayle Rubin: ‘Since the mid-nineteenth century there has been a slowly evolving distinction between homosexual object choice and cross-gender or trans-gender behaviour’ – which suggests a gradual shift towards a more homogeneous model of sexual identity [37].
I like Alan Sinfield; I've learned a lot from him, and I often agree with him.  I'm not sure he's really to blame for Reid's "the two general modes of conceptualizing homosexuality in different historical and cultural contexts."  Whoever is at fault, it's wrong. Even in the "Western" tradition, inversion hasn't been the only mode: the pederastic mode, involving older and younger men, without any feminizing of the junior partner, has always co-existed with the gendered (inversion) mode.  "Sodomy," the dominant Western-European concept from the Middle Ages to the nineteen century, doesn't seem to have involved inversion, at least not necessarily, nor did Kertbeny's original notion of "homosexuality."  Kinsey tried to decouple inversion from homosexuality, but encountered intense resistance not only from the public but from other sex researchers, who complacently believe that they've moved "beyond Kinsey."

In South Africa, the pederastic and gendered modes have also co-existed, as Reid knows: he recounts the practice of "mine wives," in which miners took younger men as "wives."  It didn't really involve inversion, though the couples were gendered, because inversion as nineteenth-century medicine defined it is a congenital, lifelong condition.  By contrast the mine "wives" saved the money they were given by their "husbands," then went home, became men, and married women.  Eventually they went to work in the mines and got boy-wives of their own.  (Reid also cites evidence that the mine-marriage custom wasn't, as some thought, purely situational: as with prison homosexuality, men who took mine wives often had sexual experience with boys back at home, before they took up mining.  (The same pattern was typical of classical Greek pederasty, though the Greek eromenos didn't become the fictive wife of his erastes; the eromenos was expected to grow up, marry a woman, and become an erastes himself.)  Inversion is actually a "modern," "Western" concept itself; we're talking about models of sex between males that always co-existed, rather than succeeded one another.

Which is why Rubin is also wrong: the inversion model persists to this day in Western scientific concepts of homosexuality.  Research into the nature and origins of "sexual orientation" almost always looks for the woman's hypothalamus in a man's brain, or the man's ring finger on a woman's hand.  At the grassroots level, even those American gays who decry inverted stereotypes fall back on them like someone whose belly pops back out after he's sucked it in for a long tiring period. This probably says more about the limitations of scientists than it does about the validity of the model, of course.

Reid starts off well in his next paragraph, but quickly wanders off:
The imagined homogeneity of a ‘Western model’ is a powerful idiom for imagining ‘own’ and ‘other’ in relation to sexual identity. In the classic contemporary Western model of homosexuality both partners in a same-sex relationship would automatically be classified as homosexual, based on sexual object choice. Sinfield, echoing Anthony Giddens, shows how the transformation of heterosexual intimacy – of gender roles, norms and ideals exemplified in the culturally sanctioned ideal of ‘companionate marriage’ – is reflected in the ‘egalitarian model’ as the ideal of same-sex relationships in the West. But the same author traces also a genealogy of difference – showing how differences in age, race, gender and class have historically been eroticized in gay male relationships. One can wonder, indeed, whether the supposed generalization of the equality model as the modern form of being gay does not undermine the continuing importance of difference for desire, even in the ‘modern’ West [37-38].
He begins well by pointing out that the "homogeneity" of a "Western model" is "imagined," but he can't seem to hold onto that thought.  I don't see how the "contemporary model" can be called "classic" when it is so recent, even on the account of its proponents.  The word "gay" often referred to a campy, effeminate style of homosexual male, which is one reason many older gay men objected to its adoption after Stonewall.  (If you read the early Gay Liberation literature -- see Karla Jay and Allen Young's anthology Out of the Closets for example -- you'll find that gender transgression played a prominent role.)  The "modern" homosexual that Foucault wrote about was the invert, not the gender-compliant gay man or lesbian of contemporary American PR.  When scientists (and those who buy into their theories) talk about "sexual orientation" they aren't talking about "sexual object choice" but about inversion, since they assume that males who desire other males sexually are really biological women internally even if they don't show it externally by gesture and dress.

The official ungendered mode of contemporary Homo-Americanism is more often honored in the breach than in the observance.  I don't believe it should necessarily be called "egalitarian"; I think Reid is confusing "equality" with sameness here, as so many people do.  He continues:
This is evident in Hugh McLean and Linda Ncgobo’s investigation into gay life in South African townships, where the term ‘gay’ is incorporated into an existing lexicon of skesana, injonga and imbube – all of which are gendered terms that refer to a division between active and passive roles.  In this scenario, it is quite possible for a man to have ongoing sexual relations with a member of the same sex and yet still retain an unquestionably masculine gender identity and, most importantly, a heterosexual orientation [38-39].
Reid has read Annick Prieur's Mema's House (Chicago, 1998), about effeminate gay men in contemporary Mexico City – in fact he cites her earlier in the same paragraph. Prieur wasn’t the first to notice that ‘effeminate’ gay men are anything but passive, but she commented:
Some added that they enjoyed being reserved during the initial flirt, letting the man take the initiative. As far as I can judge, however, this is far from true; they are about as coy as starving ravens. Flaca is one of those who claimed to be coy. But when I asked her how she expresses this, it all boiled down to her not actually grabbing the sexual organs of the men she accosts [174].
Prieur has other appropriately skeptical observations about her informants' "selective" claims to normative femininity near the above passage; see 172-176.  Maybe Reid's smalltown South African informants are different; I'll see as I read on.  But the active/passive dichotomy is always tricky, which is why I prefer Martin Hoffman's substitution of insertor/receptor in his 1968 study The Gay World (Basic Books).

Whether masculine men who play only the insertor role with feminine men on an ongoing basis can claim "an unquestionably masculine gender identity and ... a heterosexual orientation", as Reid declares, has often been hotly debated. At the very least, Reid is confusing "orientation" with "identity" here, and he seems to be imposing "Western" vocabulary on his subjects.  How much can it matter, especially in an orthodox Foucauldian framework, whether a man is classified as "homosexual" in a society where "homosexual" and "homosexuality" are not the standard terms?  Reid has not, that I've noticed so far, talked about the languages of his informants, but since he thanks those who interpreted and translated for him, it appears that they mostly didn't speak English except for a few loan words: "gay" (not used in the "egalitarian," "Western" sense), "ladies" and "gents."  Probably they spoke only a little more Afrikaans.  Whether a man who penetrated another man was considered "homosexual" is not relevant in such a context.  It sounds as if maintaining one's identity as a man (in the local languages) is what counts, and that can be settled by definition.

Though not always.  In his account of the trade/queer subculture, mostly in New York City seventy years ago, Barry Reay reported that one young man ("trade" according to the rules) enjoyed being penetrated by his queer friends, but began to worry about it until his friends casuistically stretched the category to reassure him that he was still a man.  According to the trade/queer classification, however, a guy who enjoys being penetrated is a queer.  It's in the eye of the beholder, I guess.

It's also questionable how universal those classifications are, even in societies where (Western anthropologists and queer theorists assure us) they are dominant.  In Caribbean Pleasure Industry (Chicago, 2007), Mark Padilla's study of Dominican hustlers, he tells how one of his informants was being kept by a local maricón until his novia found out.
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.”
Evidently the informant's girlfriend hadn't been properly, carefully taught about her own culture's norms.  (Incidentally, though Dominicans presumably know the activo/pasivo binary, it's significant this guy speaks of "giving" and "receiving," closer to Hoffman's terminology.)  Despite the certainty with which defenders of the trade/queer binary assert that a guy who screws another guy obviously isn't queer himself, not everybody agrees -- and the dissidents aren't all Western-trained gay activists in thrall to the modern concept of The Homosexual.  I think Reid realizes this, a little, but he too is in caught in the Modern Homosexual's toils.
The clear distinction between a heterosexual ‘outside’ and a homosexual ‘inside’ is blurred. And, in an Ermelo lexicon, amongst gays themselves the presence of an at least nominally heterosexual man seemed to be essential to erotic desire and sexual congress. For gays, heterosexuality was intimately bound up with their experiences as homosexuals. Such sexual norms and values, gender roles and sexual practices serve to blur the borders of the homo/heterosexual binary in fundamental ways. The inside/outside model along the lines suggested by Fuss and Rubin can only be sustained in a cultural context in which the boundaries of the homo/hetero binary remain intact [40]. 
Which means: nowhere. There is no such cultural context anywhere, that I know of.  All distinctions, however ‘clear’ in theory, are blurred in practice, because the boundaries are always permeable.  But on Reid's own account, there are no "nominally heterosexual" men in this community; that label doesn't appear to be in the Ermelo lexicon.  The hetero/homo binary isn't a significant concept among his informants: the gent/lady binary is, and that's not the same thing.