Friday, June 21, 2013

The Question Is, Which Is To Be Master -- That's All

As I continue to read Graeme Reid's How to Be a Real Gay, I sympathize with his difficulties in trying to make sense of the styles of sex between males that he encountered in small-town South Africa.  I'm struggling with the same problem myself, and I don't pretend to have solutions.  Still, I think other writers have done a better job of describing the complexities of the subject -- Annick Prieur, for example, writing about cross-dressing feminine homosexuales in Mema's House.  Where Reid writes about a South African lady changing from his respectable church-lady outfit ("a bottle-green dress and a white shirt, headscarf and a matching belt", 98) into informal hair-salon wear ("tight-fitting white pants, stylish boots, earrings that were long enough to brush his shoulders and a delicate pink blouse that cascaded down his left thigh, offset with an orange jacket"):
There would be nothing remarkable about women church members changing from formal to informal wear, but because Nathi was not a woman, but a lady, his clothing was part of an ongoing and self-conscious performance of femininity.  In both churches and hair salons, gays frequently presented themselves as feminine, but in these two different spaces there were, of course, completely different styles [98].
Like many writers who refer to performativity, Reid seems to think that only drag queens and fairies are performing femininity.  As I understand it, though, that approach recognizes that even the born-female, XX-chromosome born-female church lady is "performing" femininity just as self-consciously.  She, or her daughter, may well dress in "completely different styles" in other spaces.  (Note to self: read Gender Trouble before the summer is quite over!)  Femininity and masculinity are not single, monolithic constructs.  But even so, changing outfits for different environments is part of the normative femininity that ladies aspire to.

Prieur, by contrast, writes:
So the jotas have considerable scientific support when they claim to have been born both feminine and homosexual. Still it seems a paradox that these persons who so actively go about forming their femininity, through makeup, dressing, and bodily transformations, at the same time insist that they are born feminine and are merely undertaking the necessary adjustments. Even if I am open to the belief that there are some innate or early founded differences that orient some more toward a heterosexual and other more toward a homosexual preference, some toward a rather masculine and other towards a rather feminine personality, I also believe that the actors' own essentialist interpretation of these differences accentuates them, polarizes them, and creates binary oppositions out of a continuum. A theory of innate factors cannot offer an exhaustive explanation of homosexuality [115].
Again, she is skeptical of the vaunted femininity of her informants:
Others, like Lupita, told me they liked housework. ... Having lived with some of them, however, I have good reason to doubt that they really like housework that much. Confronted with a stack of dirty dishes their femininity evaporates, and they start to resemble lazy teenagers. Not that this is any proof that their femininity is superficial - I suspect their sisters are not always fond of doing the dishes either. But their sisters can refrain from liking without much ado. (That they lack the same possibilities to escape it is another question) [176].
Prieur and Reid are writing about analogous milieux, though her vestidas live in Mexico City, not a small town (the country/city binary plays a major role in Reid's analysis).  The odd thing, though, is that Reid has so far been claiming that ladies are social women,  just as their gents are socially men, because in their culture gender trumps bodies and sexual orientation is determined by gender rather than sexual object choice.  (As I've argued before, if gender really did trump body configuration in this construction, effeminate men would pair up at least sometimes with butch women. but it doesn't work that way.)  On this logic, there should be no cultural difference between a lady with a penis and a woman with a vagina.  But there definitely is.

So, for instance, Reid writes about
a context where transgression of moral and social norms appeared to be determined not so much by sexual acts, but rather through the respect or transgression of gender boundaries. In other words, a heterosexual man could have sex with an effeminate gay without ruffling many feathers in the ambit of social decorum or jeopardizing his status as heterosexual. What does this way about the boundaries between (in Fuss’s formulation) the heterosexual ‘inside’ and the homosexual ‘outside’? Homosexual acts, per se, do not constitute homosexuality and same-sex practices can and do form part of heterosexual experience [39-40].
This is congruent with the common picture of Latin American activo/pasivo sex between males, where a man's manliness supposedly isn't compromised by penetrating another male, especially an effeminate one.  (However, "heterosexual" is as foreign a term and concept in this context as "homosexual.")  In practice, it's a bit more complicated than that:
The most pervasive [generalization] is that being gay in these environs is almost invariably synonymous with being effeminate or, in local parlance, a lady or sisButi. According to jolly-talk, ‘straight’ men can be ‘somehow bended’. Bhuti explained to me that in ‘location language’, the phrase ‘somehow bended’ refers to ‘straight’ men known or suspected of being available as sexual partners to gays. Those who are ‘somehow bended’ are also referred to as gents.
So it seems that there is a difference, or a distinction, between being a man and being a gent. And that distinction indicates sexual object choice as distinct from gender. Which is not quite what Reid has been saying.
These are important categories, as ‘straight’ men remain the primary object of desire for gays. Injonga also refers to a ‘gay butch’, someone who is attracted to and involved with gays, but who maintains a male social and sexual role in a same-sex relationship.
Sexual object choice again.
This term is almost the same as a gent, but the subtle distinction is that the term suggests a primary, albeit not exclusive, attraction or sexual involvement with gays [who are males, even if they are ladies - DM], whereas a gent is primarily heterosexual, in orientation, if not in practice.
Wait a minute. I thought the idea of ‘orientation’ (meaning ‘sexual object choice’) was utterly foreign to these kids. What I see here is a blurring of those clear boundaries, and it indicates an imagined distinction that may not really be a difference. It indicates that the ladies, at any rate, know the difference between a man who’ll have sex with feminine males on the side, because he's been "somehow bended," and a man who prefers to have sex with feminine males out of desire.
A lady is a femme, who ideally maintains a female social and sexual role in relation to a gent, a ‘somehow bended’ or a butch. This gender binary is respected and adhered to by both ladies and gents. It is an orthodoxy that was constantly confirmed and reinforced [or simply enforced] on daily practice and through gossip, banter and rumour. People were characterized and allocated a gender role according to this gender binary and usually the allocation seemed so self-evident that it was not worthy of comment: a lady was obviously a lady; a gent clearly a gent [60].
It also appears that non-gays in South Africa can tell the difference between gender and object-choice.  (Compare the Dominican girlfriend of the Dominican hustler I mentioned in my previous post, who wasn't convinced by her boyfriend's insistence that only the maric√≥n he was living with was queer.)
Brian’s girlfriend discovered that he was seeing someone else when she found condoms in his room in Richard’s Bay on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. She confronted him about it. At first he told her it was another woman, but she was already suspicious. She took their child and left him, telling his mother that her son was gay. His mother denied this, saying, ‘No, I know Brian is a boy.’
But by local terms, he isn’t gay, he’s a man. So that much may be true.
But later she told Brian that he would have to ‘pack his things and go’ if he did not change his ways. Brian said that with the exception of his younger sister (whose husband also had sex with gays) his family did not accept him and spoke badly about gay people.
Hey, no problem, because Brian’s not gay. Right? Right?
However, after a short separation, Brian’s girlfriend returned. Brian said, ‘The mother of my child said no, she wants to go on with me because she loves me. So we are back together and we are still lovers. And now she is pregnant with our second child.’ He remained involved with his girlfriend, but he moved to Ermelo to put some distance between himself and his family. In Ermelo he had a primary gay partner, known amongst others as his ‘senior wife’, as well as various other gay partners. While his girlfriend knew that he had male lovers, she did not want to see them. His gay partners knew about each other. The protocol involved was that the ‘senior wife,’ Zithembe, would grant Brian permission before he took another gay lover. Zithembe was deferential to Brian, declining to be interviewed, for example, until he had received permission from his ‘husband’, Brian [64-65].
Nevertheless, "Family members can play an important role in domestic disputes.  When Wandile's boyfriend assaulted him, his family intervened and his boyfriend vowed never to beat him again" (90).

It sounds to me as though the idea that gent/lady sex is culturally indistinguishable from man/woman sex doesn't hold true for the whole culture; it holds sway mainly in gay circles, and it takes a lot of work to keep shoring it up, even there.  I'd say it's more wishful thinking than a real cultural norm; I think that distinction holds up because writers like Reid talk as though South African gay social constructions are determined by overall South African gender norms.  And just as one finds in Mexican vestida circles or among twentieth century inverts, "It is accepted as a truism that 'straight' men inevitably end up with women" (90): the invert's quest for true love, which requires a 'normal' partner, is doomed because a 'normal' partner can never really be satisfied with a partner of the same sex, even if he (or she) is of a different gender.

I also suspect that Reid may be overstating the dominance of the lady/gent model in South African homosexual practice.  Ladies are easy to study because they are visible and have a social presence in their communities; insofar as they are small-business entrepreneurs, they aim to stay in one place, unlike their often unemployed boyfriends.  As many researchers have found around the world, getting their gent partners to talk about themselves is a lot harder.  Since they insist, and their lady partners insist, that they are just regular men, they have no basis for building a community.  Reid brushes up against other models, also down-low, of sexual interaction between males.  His informant Clive, for example, also a country boy, "was first introduced to gay life in KwaThema, although he was no stranger to having sex with men. Since he was twelve he had had thigh sex with older male farm workers who brought him gifts or small amounts of cash. ‘We never kissed,’ he told me and they never spoke about it. Sometimes Clive dressed up a bit, in ‘ladies things’ (80).  No one has any idea how many such men there are, because they retreat into the shadows as soon as the sex is over.  If you're looking for "identities", as Reid is, such men may not be of much interest.

Reid also comes across evidence that the penetrator/receptor binary isn't absolute, but he relegates it to an endnote and an informant's remark that "There are things that happen behind closed doors" (96 note 22).  HIV transmission, a very serious matter in South Africa, would indicate that gents aren't as impenetrable as they or the ladies want to claim.  Some men are gents in one locale, ladies (in bed, at least) in another.  The cross-cultural evidence indicates that getting gents to talk about being penetrated is going be very difficult.

South Africans who don't fit comfortably into the lady/gent model don't have an easy time of it.  There's no indication, and probably no way to find out, how common they are, but Reid talked to several of them.  Things weren't very different in the pre-Stonewall (but still "modern" and "Western") United States, where people were pressured to fit into existing community categories.  One famous rebel was Audre Lorde, who resisted defining herself as either butch or femme, and so was regarded with distrust by other New York City lesbians.  This is why I've always been wary of "community": I quickly learned that, far from being an environment where I could Be Myself, it was a place where a different group of people would tell me who to be.  Some of Reid's informants come up against the same constraints, and they don't like them any more than I did.  What Reid calls the 'gay activist' model of homosexuality, tainted by association with the City, Modernity, and the West, can be a useful tool for carving out space in a gay community that is not much more tolerant of difference than the straight world is.