Wednesday, April 14, 2021

False Dichotomies, Cultural Baggage, and Nuclear Families

I was doing some thinking about identities today, with an eye toward doing another post on the subject, and got sidetracked when I reread this passage from an article on sexual attitudes in Mauritania.*

But I have come to understand that the statement "We don't have homosexuals in Mauritania" means something else altogether to the people who say it.  Western television and movies are widely available in and watched here.  Via these media, Mauritanians see American and European gay people demonstrating in the streets for their equality, petitioning their government for the right to marry, leaving their extended families, and setting up house together so they can live independently as a couple.  That is what "being gay" looks like to people there.  When homosexuality is portrayed in those terms, the Mauritanians are right -- they don't have (those kind of) gay people here!
Among the many things wrong with these remarks is something so obvious that I forgot to spell it out in the post I wrote around it.  There are numerous reasons why American and European gay people would marry, leave their extended families, and set up house together so they can live independently as a couple.  One very important one is that gay people here have traditionally been expelled from their families, whether by force or by insistent pressure.  But another is that it's what American heterosexuals do.  American heterosexuals rarely live in extended families, though it may have become more common lately, with the COVID pandemic exacerbating the effects of the crumbling American economy so that they can't afford to live independently of their families.  It's this pattern that Dennis Altman referred to as the homosexualization of American culture, and it helped make room for gay people to imagine their coupled arrangements as normal, since in American terms they increasingly were.

Still, the much-vaunted "American dream" is built around the nuclear family, living in the suburbs in a house with a white picket fence with 2.4 children, with white-haired Grandma and Grandpa living in the picturesque countryside to be visited on occasional holidays.  It was always exaggerated, since many heterosexuals chose to live near their parents if they could; gay people frequently could not.  It's also an exaggeration to suppose that people live in "their" extended families in other cultures: in traditional Confucian Korea, for example, a bride left her parents to live with her husband's extended family, and visited her parents only rarely for the rest of her life.  Some family connections, in other words, are made to be broken even in traditional cultures, but they don't count.

If I were trying to explain American gay people to Mauritanians who'd been seeing gay political activism in the news, among the many other misconceptions I'd have to correct was their misunderstanding of heterosexual family arrangements in America.  (Another would be the fantasy that all American gay people spend all our time marching in the streets.  If we did that, we'd never have time for the eternal cavalcade of non-stop, mind-blowing anal sex for which we are justly famed worldwide.)  As I've said many times before, it's true that Americans have cultural baggage of which we tend not to be aware - but so do people in every country and culture.


*Jay Davidson, "It All Began with Mamadou," in Gay Travels in the Muslim World, ed. Michael T. Luongo (Harrington Park Press, 2007), p. 8.  Is a "gay travel" a travel that wants to get married to a travel of the same gender?