Thursday, November 14, 2013

Everything You Know Is Wrong

I'm currently reading Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America, edited by Thomas A. Foster, published in 2007 by NYU Press.  Can't remember what led me to pick it up, but I did.  So far I'm having trouble.

Of course there's the ongoing refrain of "homosexuality" as a "modern" category.  For example, in Tracy Brown's "'Abominable Sin' in Colonial New Mexico: Spanish and Pueblo Perceptions of Same-Sex Sexuality":
In this chapter, I have been careful to use the terms "same-sex sex," "same-sex sexuality," and sodomy [no quotes for some reason] to discuss anal sex between men, however awkward or wordy these terms may be, rather than "homosexuality."  The term "homosexuality" denotes, as Richard Trexler and others have argued, a distinctly contemporary phenomenon: "the notion of a 'gay' lifestyle shared by everyone participating in homosexual behavior."  Serge Gruzinski argues that such a community may have existed in colonial Mexico City, but there is no evidence of the existence of such a community in New Mexico [53].
First off, I think Brown has confused "denotes" and "connotes."  The term "homosexuality" denotes eroticism, whether overtly expressed or not, between persons of the same biological sex.  As an umbrella term it includes not only "sodomy" but oral copulation, genital apposition or rubbing, mutual masturbation, erotic kissing, and a range of other erotic activity.  (I'm using "erotic" where most people would use "sexual," for reasons that I hope will soon be clear.)  It includes gendered, age-stratified, and "egalitarian" patterns of partnering, and it includes a wide variety of communities as well as isolated individuals with no access to communities of like-minded and -lusted people.  It includes conceptions of same-sex eroticism ranging from the innate to the situational to the commercial.  It has been used to refer to persons and patterns all around the world, and throughout history -- as well as to copulatory behavior and bonding in other animal species. To claim, as Brown and so many other scholars do, that it refers to only one twentieth-century pattern of behavior and feeling is to show that one has no idea what one is talking about.  Even in academic writing like the work assembled in Long Before Stonewall, those who define "homosexuality" that narrowly are usually unable to stick to their own definition -- see here, for example -- so I cannot see why this attempted distinction persists.  If it has any use at all even for this narrow band of scholars and writers, let alone their audience -- which it must, judging by its ubiquity among them -- that use must be something other than intellectual; I suspect it is mainly a genuflection to the discipline, to establish professional bonding.

True, in the US and Europe "homosexuality" has come to connote a specific mode of eroticism between people of the same sex, but that's a different issue.  It's not surprising that contemporary Americans would think of "homosexuality" in terms of stereotypes they have of homosexuals in their own time and place; most people probably do.  Look at this example from contemporary Nigeria, by Rudolf Pell Gaudio, a gay anthropologist who spent time among the yan daudu there:
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 [Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic African City [Wiley-Blackwell, 2009], 281].
Or consider Graeme Reid, a white human rights professional who was promptly classified (and sometimes propositioned by black gents) in small-town South African terms as a lady even though he didn't wear women's clothes and makeup or style hair for a living as the classification lady requires.  So when Western academics think of "homosexuality" in terms of Lady Gaga CDs and U-Haul trailers, they are simply acting like traditional non-Western folk.  But as scholars it's their job to be aware of the wider world outside their personal experience, and to acquaint themselves with the history of the concepts they work with.

Second, "sex" and "sexuality" (let alone "same-sex") are also "distinctly contemporary" Western concepts, though even in academic use they're thoroughly confused and incoherent.  Usually they're left undefined, which doesn't help matters a whit.  As Wikipedia reports, many contemporary Americans don't consider oral stimulation of the genitals to be "sex."  Other surveys have found that many people don't consider anal penetration to be "sex." Brown, however, treats "sodomy" as uncomplicatedly "sex." The same goes for "man" and "woman," both of which are social constructions, but are commonly treated as uncomplicated commonsense realities.  These terms need to be defined in scholarly writing but rarely are.  To pick on one term and dwell on its modernity and cultural specificity, while ignoring the same dimensions of other crucial concepts in one's discussion, is poor practice, however widespread it is.  (As I recall, the Foucauldian independent scholar Jonathan Ned Katz admitted in his book Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality [Chicago, 2001] that he was leaving "sex" and "men" essentialized, but brushed the problem aside.)

Another contribution to Long Before Stonewall had more serious problems.  Ramon A. Gutierrez' "Warfare, Homosexuality, and Gender Status Among American Indian Men in the Southwest" immediately betrays some misconceptions about terminology, attributing "two-spirited persons" to "American scholars" (19), though that term was invented by American Indian laypeople and activists.  He seems to have no such reservations about the term berdache, which he seems to regard as unproblematic.  Then he writes,
When Spanish soldiers and missionaries first saw Native American men pressed into impersonating females, forced to perform women's work, dressing as women, and offering sexual service only to men, they asserted that these individuals were living in bradaje. Bradaje as a word was derived from the Arabic bradaj, which means male prostitute; hence the English word berdache.  Bradaje was something Europeans were quite familiar with in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, having inherited it themselves from East Asia and Islamic Africa where it was extensive. When they found men so employed in Florida and New Mexico, in central Mexico and in the highlands of Peru, they were not particularly surprised and described in a rather matter of fact fashion what they saw [20-21].
This is weird: I'm beginning to have more doubts about all the explanations I've encountered so far of the origins of the term berdache.  For what it's worth, I haven't seen (and can't find) any references to an Arabic word bradaj as an ancestor of berdache; there is some uncertainty as to whether the original was Persian or Arabic, but every source I've seen up till now agrees that the word was bardaj.  Gutierrez has evidently transposed some of the letters, and neither the editor nor any other reader seems to have noticed this.  Neither an online Spanish dictionary nor a big print dictionary I own includes the word bradaje -- or bardaje for that matter -- but I'll keep looking. 

The Arabic bardaj means "slave," according to most sources I've consulted, though Wikipedia says it means "captive" or "captured."  Okay, so slaves were often war booty, and they were often used sexually by their masters or prostituted.  It's easy to see how you could get from A to B, but Gutierrez seems to have garbled the itinerary.  His claim that the Spanish "inherited" the prostitution of boys from "East Asia and North Africa where it was extensive" is way off base, since boys (and girls) were prostituted in Europe as well; there was a long history of the prostitution of both sexes in classical Rome and Greece, for example. Gutierrez might have mentioned the direct influence of Arabic on Spanish language and culture during centuries of Moorish occupation, ending in 1492; but that's not what he wrote, and I see no reason to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I also have doubts about some of Gutierrez' translations from the Spanish, and about his use of Richard C. Trexler's controversial book Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas (Cornell, 1995), so his garbling of berdache makes me unwilling to trust anything he says about the institution.

Well, I've just begun Long Before Stonewall.  Maybe it'll improve.