Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Once, a Philosopher -- Twice, a Secondary Virgin

Right after I finished Sunday's post, I realized I'd missed something.  Well, I usually do, and it's always good to have an idea for the next one.

I realized that something else was rubbing me the wrong way about Serena Nanda's remark that the inversion model of homosexuality "in the last three decades has been challenged by a (postmodern) gay ideology, in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation."  Similar claims turn up often in academic writing about the history of homosexuality, and I suddenly realized that, apart from the other objections I could raise about it ("gay" is not "postmodern", for example), Nanda mischaracterizes what the "gay ideology" implies.

Nanda is starting from the idea that in non-Euroamerican cultures, homosexuality is construed as the interaction of a 'normally' gendered person and a gender-variant person.  Of course, that construction is also traditional in Euro-(North-)America (though it co-exists with others, as it does elsewhere), and hasn't disappeared yet.  According to this model, the gender-variant person (who may be gender-variant only in the role he or she plays in sexual intercourse) is "the homosexual", the gender-normal conformist person is normal, or "unmarked" as the jargon has has it.  As I pointed out, there is reasons to consider this claim an exaggeration at best.

From one end, there's the story I've quoted before from Mark Padilla's Caribbean Pleasure Industry (Chicago, 2007), about a bugarrón (a male prostitute, in this context) in the Dominican Republic whose girlfriend learned he was being kept by a Dominican maricón (faggot):
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” [131].
It seems to me that this story, along with the rest of Padilla's ethnography, is evidence that the Dominican male who "gives" is not unmarked, or he'd be simply an hombre instead of a bugarrón.  Padilla claims that "the majority of the sex workers with whom I spoke did not seem to feel that being a bugarrón or sanky panky expressed a basic aspect of their identity or personhood" (92); as this story suggests, I'd bet that the situation determines how basic being a bugarrón was to his informants.  The same is true of the other cultures I've written about here: in rural South Africa, Graeme Reid wrote 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" (How to Be a Real Gay [University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2013, 60].  In Mexico City, the men who penetrate homosexuales are mayates.  In traditional US queer culture, the penetrators of fags, fairies, and queers were trade or jam, and so on.

In many if not all of these cases, the boundaries are not as solid as they're supposed to be, and the inverts are ambivalent about it.  As Annick Prieur wrote in Mema's House, Mexico City (Chicago, 1998, 166), "bisexual men who are apparently manly but who secretly let themselves be penetrated as if they were homosexuales are often criticized by the vestidas, even when the vestidas are the ones who penetrate them."  Barry Reay, in New York Hustlers (Manchester, 2010) tells of "Eddie, who was being pedicated [that is, fucked anally] by both Painter and Melcarth and had begun to worry about enjoying it – ‘Eddie … fucks girls avidly’ – was easily convinced that it merely enlarged his sphere of enjoyment and did not make him ‘queer’" (124).  And Mark Padilla reported that "The men in this study often mentioned to me that one or another of their peers was known to 'dar el culo' (give their ass) on occasion, which often produced much hilarity on the part of the storyteller" (96).  Though Padilla didn't draw the connection, he also learned that the same men who insisted at first that only other bugarrónes stole from their clients, would eventually admit that they themselves did so; I suspect the same pattern applied at least sometimes to giving ass.

At the same time, Padilla reports that the owner of a local (Dominican) gay bar catering to local gay-identified men told Padilla's research associate:
“I hope you’re going to prove what we already know: they’re all closet cases [son unos tapa’os].”  This implies the existence of a deeper, more authentic sexual identity that is being actively repressed by the bugarrón, who fails to recognize his own fundamental sexuality and public mark himself in terms of his presumed same-sex erotic preference.  Such discourses of authenticity are prominent features of North American constructions of gay identity [33]...
But "discourses of authenticity" are prominent features in Latin American constructions of masculine identity, as Padilla knows: they involve authentic men (hombre-hombre, muy hombre, mucho hombre, etc.)  and women (good women -- mothers, virtuous wives, virgins), and gender variants are not considered authentic.  Penetrated males are inauthentic in this discourse by definition.  It is interesting, though, that the same gay men who prize muy hombre males like the bugarrón nevertheless want to believe that deep down, they aren't really muy hombre after all.  I'm not sure what this means -- it sounds like the misogynist belief that every woman, no matter how good she seems, is really at heart a puta -- but Padilla was too busy fussing about the pollution of authentic Dominican sexual culture by inauthentic North American constructions to notice it, let alone question it. (I see I haven't really addressed the elephant in the room, namely stigma.  The penetrated male, like the polluted female, is a stigmatized figure, so rejection of a gender variant identity tends to involve the rejection of stigma -- "I'm not like that" -- rather than a scrupulous concern with accuracy.  Maybe I'm overstressing that aspect, but most scholars ignore it altogether.)

So it appears that often (not always -- almost nothing is "always" in human societies), the supposedly sharp boundary between penetrator and penetrated turns out to be more permeable than it's supposed to be.  That's hardly surprising; as Prieur argues, "when two persons with the same male sexual organs are naked, the construction of one of the partners as a not-homosexual man and of the other one as a not-male person is difficult to upkeep" (274).  And: "If it were the whole truth that a man enhanced his masculinity by penetrating other men, they would brag about their exploits with jotos, and one could imagine that the less effeminate the joto were, the more masculinity would the mayate gain from penetrating him, from showing himself as 'more man' than the other.  One objection might be that it would create doubt about who penetrated whom.  But if we take the group rapes in prison as an example, where other men witness who penetrates whom so there should be no doubt about who gained masculinity, it is still striking that systematically the most effeminate, those who are already jotos, are picked out to be raped. It is their femininity that 'justifies' the abuse [263-4]."

The point I'm arguing is that even where this 'traditional' gendered model of homosexuality predominates, it takes a fair amount of cultural work to maintain the boundaries.  It isn't only a supposedly postmodern "gay ideology" that wonders about the normality of the gender-normal partners of gender variants: so do people who live in those pre-modern societies.

This should establish the background I'm working from.  So what about this "gay ideology, in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation"?  I think Nanda -- like everybody else, really -- is confused about what "sexual orientation" means, and you really have to sort that out before you can talk about this.  According to the American Psychological Association,
Sexual orientation is an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual, or affectional attraction toward others. It is easily distinguished from other components of sexuality including biological sex, gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female), and the social gender role (adherence to cultural norms for feminine and masculine behavior).
On one hand, going by this definition, it doesn't matter whether you're a top or a bottom, a butch or a femme: if you have an enduring emotional, etc. attraction toward persons of your own sex, your sexual orientation is homosexual or perhaps bisexual.  Whether you are "a homosexual" is another question; this definition doesn't answer it.  The APA's definition founders a bit on "enduring" -- how "enduring" must it be?  Must it be exclusive to one sex, or can it extend to both sexes?  It doesn't follow from this that "both partners in a homosexual relationship" are homosexual by orientation, however: they might both be bisexual, they might even both be heterosexual -- though the latter seems unlikely if the "relationship" lasts for long.  How many "homosexual relationships" can you have before you qualify as "a homosexual"?  If by "homosexual relationship" Nanda means a relationship between two people of the same sex, the term implies nothing about their respective sexual orientations; if she means "a relationship between two homosexuals," where "homosexuals" means two people of homosexual orientation, then it does imply something about their orientations -- but it's also tautological.  "Homosexual relationship" refers to the sex(es) of the people involved, not to their identities, subjectivities, or sexual orientations; the same goes for "heterosexual relationship."  But Nanda, like most writers on this subject, seems not to have thought her definition through.

I've pointed out before that the prevailing scientific model of homosexuality is that of inversion, not sexual orientation: researchers investigating the causes of sexual orientation assume that a homosexual male is biologically feminized, and a homosexual female is biologically masculinized.  Since these researchers are evidently unaware they're making this assumption, they never justify it.  They begin by assuming that "a homosexual" is a gender variant, and look for evidence to support that assumption.  They don't explain who a homosexual's partner would be, probably because they haven't thought that far.  As Nanda acknowledges, and cross-cultural evidence shows, inverts (gender variants) commonly reject the idea of copulating with each other, and they reject it very strenuously, as "lesbianism," "incest," "cannibalism," and the like. There are mileux in which gender variants copulate and form relationships with each other, and contemporary American GLB culture is one of them, some of the time, though there's still widespread fetishizing here of "straight-acting" and even "straight" men as ideal partners -- but if they're really straight (that is, they have a heterosexual orientation by the APA's definition), why would they be having sex with other males?  If they are always the penetrator when copulating with other males, then they may not be gender variants, but they don't have an exclusively heterosexual orientation either.

There's also a long tradition of homogender or monogender homosexuality which rejects inversion (effeminacy for men, mannishness for women), though it often involves differences of age or class instead, and it doesn't fit the assumptions of the current research on homosexuality. The monogender model of homosexuality coexists (uneasily) with the inversion model, yet most gay men I've known who reject effeminacy still embrace scientific claims about the innateness of homosexuality that are based on the inversion model.  What matters to them, it appears, is being able to assert with scientific support that they are Born That Way, no matter how incoherent and invalid the science is.

It appears to me that this common formulation of the bad "gay ideology" is largely a straw man -- not because contemporary American GLBT culture has a coherent self-understanding, but because the academics studying it are just as confused as their subjects are.  I'm not sure I've quite gotten at what is wrong with Nanda's assertion about "(postmodern) gay ideology" and its implications about the orientations of partners in homosexual relationships; but I hope I've exposed some of the confusion in it.