Homosexuality and What's in a Name?

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at SPAMosu.edu
Tue Dec 5 07:44:58 MST 2000

Gary MacLennan wrote:

>2.  Were there homosexuals back then?
>I especially enjoyed the posts around the history of homosexuality
>and homophobia.  I am vividly reminded about the first time I used
>the word "homophobia" in a lecture sometime in the early 80s. The
>students stopped me and asked me to explain it.  When I said
>"Intolerance of homosexuals" they burst out laughing. It was as if I
>had said to a tiger it was wrong to eat meat. Today of course
>students say, "I am no homophobe but..." and proceed to air some
>foul prejudice.

The feelings often described as homophobic are complex & cannot be
reduced to the dislike of or hatred for actual or imaginary
homosexuals.  The feelings seem to be a mixture of the following:

1.  Fear of appearing homosexual.
2.  Fear of oneself becoming (or turning out to be) homosexual.
3.  Fear of being victimized by the homosexual.

1 is quite obvious, in that much of homophobic behaviors originates
in the desire not to appear homosexual -- the desire caused by the
fact that, in this society, to be or to appear homo carries penalties
ranging from mild disapproval to lynching.  Since one does not wear
one's sexual preferences (actual or imaginary) on one's sleeve, it
seems to some (especially some young men) that they need to prove
their "normalcy" by creating & oppressing the "abnormals."  Because
it is impossible to "prove" one's sexuality once and for all,
homophobic behaviors tend to assume a character of compulsive
repetition that does not achieve its end (= proof of "normalcy").

2 is less obvious, so allow me to quote the late and lamented Quentin
Crisp to illustrate my point: "Mainstream people dislike
homosexuality because they can't help concentrating on what
homosexual men do to one another.  And when you contemplate what
people do, you think of yourself doing it....That's the famous joke:
I don't like peas, and I'm glad I don't like them, because if I liked
them, I would eat them, and I would hate them" (_The Celluloid
Closet_, dir.  Robert Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman [based upon the work
of film historian Vito Russo _The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in
the Movies_], 1995).

As for 3, it is a common ideological inversion of victims &
victimizers.  The oppressed appear as "victimizers" in the eyes of
the oppressors.  Gay bashers used to make use of the "homosexual
panic" defense regularly; and the "homosexual panic" defense used to
allow them to avoid legal sanctions against violence. This defense is
still being invoked by the gay bashers today, but nowadays the judges
and/or the juries do not necessarily accept it. This may be properly
called progress, paltry progress as it is.

>But anecdotes apart there is a good deal at stake.  I have snipped
>what I think is the crucial line from Lou's post.  Phil like the
>fine polemicist that he is went straight to it.
>'Odd that they 'lacked the vocabulary and the constructs necessary. . .'
>It is my opinion that there can be behaviour, feelings etc without
>words for them.  I think that Phil, Yoshie and others border on what
>Bhaskar terms the linguistic fallacy, that is the claim that
>language calls the world/reality into being.

No, I am not arguing for a nominalist or post-structuralist position.
I'm making use of Marx (esp., _Grundrisse_ & _Capital_ Vol. 1), Karl
Polanyi, etc.  Recall how Marx uses the term "rational abstraction"
in _Grundrisse_.

The disembedding of the erotic from the rest of social relations &
the creation of "sexuality" & "sexual identities" ("identities" based
upon erotic preferences & orientations, mainly now shaped by the
sex/gender of the object choice) could _not_ have occurred prior to
the rise of capitalism.  Consider the "rational abstraction" of
"economy": "[B]efore modern times the forms of [human] livelihood
attracted much less...conscious attention than did most other parts
of...organized existence.  In contrast to kinship, magic or etiquette
with their powerful [influences], the economy as such remained
nameless...Only two hundred years ago did an esoteric sect of French
thinkers coin the term and call themselves économistes.  Their claim
was to have discovered the economy (Karl Polanyi, "Aristotle
Discovers the Economy," in _Trade and Market in the Early Empires_
[Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957], p. 71).  According to Polanyi, "The
prime reason for the absence of any concept of the economy is the
difficulty of identifying the economic process under conditions where
it is embedded in non-economic institutions" (ibid.).  The economy is
at once discovered and invented by disembedding it from the total
ensemble of social relations.

"Sexuality" is the name given to the "rational abstraction," the
product of the disembedding of the erotic from the total ensemble of
social relations.  Such disembedding was impossible under either
pre-capitalist class societies in which surplus was extracted not
mainly through the market (as it is now) but through political power
justified by patriarchy (= an ideology of general subordination); or
pre-capitalist societies like North American tribes', organized on
the basis of clans & kinship networks (social relations
_unproductive_ of one class dependent on extracting surplus from the
other class of direct producers).

>Let us take the instance of a certain tribe in Papua New Guinea.
>This is a classic in the literature but I do not remember their
>names.  This tribe apparently believes that to ejaculate causes one
>to lose power.  They encourage preadolescent boys to suck off older
>boys so that they can become strong.  So off in the bushes there are
>lots of boys sucking off others.  (But "Are they happy?, I ask
>At a certain age the older boys leave the bushes and get married.
>The whole practice is obviously designed to keep young males away
>from the wives.  It is obvious that this behaviour cannot be covered
>by the words homosexual, gay or bisexual.  It is a specific form of
>same sex behaviour. By any standards it is normal within this
>Now there is apparently an instance in the literature when a young
>man from the same tribe, who had married, kept sneaking out to the
>bushes to indulge in a spot of fellatio.  How does one describes
>this behaviour?  Is it deviant? Is he a pervert? Or could he be a
>homosexual for whom the tribe lacks the "vocabulary and the
>constructs"?   Carroll. Phil and Yoshie would presumably argue that
>he could not be a homosexual because the word does not exist for
>that tribe.  being good liberals of course they would not describe
>him as a "deviated prevert". But what other explanation is possible
>for them given their equation of "language = reality", with "the
>corollary of "no language = no reality"?

In anthropological literature, the former (young men sucking older
men in Papua New Guinea as a part of the prescribed coming-of-age
rituals, the symbolic power of semen thus being passed from the older
to the younger generation, without it being lost aimlessly) is called
"institutional homosexuality," and the latter (your example of a
married young man sneaking out & indulging in fellatio in bushes)
"spontaneous homosexuality," for the lack of better terms.  Such
"spontaneous homosexuality" was known to take place in most
pre-capitalist societies, _whether or not_ such societies had
"institutional homosexuality" a la ancient Greece, Papua New Guniea,
Native North America, or Japan.

That "spontaneous homosexuality" in pre-capitalist societies went
unrecognized, existing beyond the tribes' vocabulary (though most
often without sanctions against it), means that such societies
thought of it as "unremarkable."  What is not "remarkable" in a given
culture does not become an "identity," for "identities" are
relational constructs, not names given to so-called "individual

Why did pre-capitalist societies often have elaborate rituals of
"institutional homosexuality" without thinking of "spontaneous
homosexuality" as "remarkable"?  Is it because such societies were
"backward" & did not "progress" toward our modern understanding as
they should have?  Were they "destined" in a Hegelian sense to
"progress"?  I think not.  "Spontaneous homosexuality" was
"unremarkable" because in pre-capitalist societies one's "identity"
was based first upon one's "place" in society, primarily in terms of
occupational pursuits & secondarily in terms of gender (in the case
of the so-called "biological female," however, gender generally
mattered more than occupational pursuits).

*****   For the American Indians, occupational pursuits clearly
occupy the spotlight, with dress/demeanor coming in a close second.
Sexual object choice is part of the gender configuration, but its
salience is low; so low that by itself it does not provoke the
reclassification of the individual to a special status [Yoshie: as it
does under capitalist modernity].  In the Western system [Yoshie:
which I call capitalist modernity, so as not to be Eurocentric], the
order of salience is virtually the reverse.   (Harriet Whitehead,
"The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look at Institutionalized
Homosexuality in Native North America," _The Lesbian and Gay Studies
Reader_, eds. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, & David M.
Halperin, NY: Routledge, 1993, p. 513)   *****

It is capitalist modernity that has made "sexual object choice" more
salient, creating "sexual identities" such as gay & straight.  Our
modern "sexuality" is not just a name or "construct" but a result of
"rational abstraction" wrought by capitalism (which abstracted
"economy," "labor," etc. too).

>So then there is for me something essential in certain types of
>sexuality.  I think of the term 'homosexual' and believe that it
>manifests itself differently over the dimensions of time, culture
>and space.  One of the contemporary manifestations is 'gay' and it
>is a homogenising movement.  It is assimilating and by and large
>eliminating traditional homosexual behaviour throughout the world.
>Gay Bars in Bangkok look remarkably like Gay Bars in Brisbane.
>Now I am not arguing that all people who indulge in same sex
>behaviour are homosexuals.  Prisons are full of examples of
>heterosexual men who turn to same sex behaviour because there is no
>alternative.   But I am saying that there have always been men who
>however they indulged their sexual preference, were homosexual
>whether the words or concepts for their preference existed or not.

With your additional distinction between "gay" (= self-consciously
foregrounding one's erotic preference & creating a "sexual identity"
based upon it in contrast to other "sexual identities," in part in
response to the ruling ideology foregrounding erotic preferences,
creating "sexual identities," & imposing one on everyone) and
"homosexual" (= possessing a stable sexual preference either for a
biologically "same sex" or for a sociologically "same gender" without
this fact becoming "remarkable" & institutionalized in his/her
culture & society), I think we are not in disagreement.

You are quite right to say that your "position is just as historical
as that of my good friends Phil, Yoshie & Carroll."  And you
correctly observe that "[o]ne of the contemporary manifestations is
'gay' and it is a homogenising movement."  That is because capitalism
cannot exist without imperialism.  Therefore, modern "sexual
identities" -- one of which is "gay" -- cannot but exert cultural
hegemony over older understandings of sex, gender, & eroticism,
reducing them to residual ideologies in the sense that Raymond
Williams used the term.

in queer solidarity,


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