issue 201 - November 1989
Homosexuality. Why all the
fuss? Vanessa Baird
Benin, West Africa. The year is 1976. Two women get chatting on a bus. One is a local woman, the other a European. Towards the end of their journey the African invites the other to stay with her large family. That night they sleep together in one bed.
They talk for a while, then, responding to each other's gestures, they make love. The next morning the European woman asks her new friend whether she often has such experiences with other women, and how she feels about being a lesbian.
Astonished, the African woman answers that it is quite usual for her to let a friend comfort her in this way. Later, describing the event, Dutch sociologist Ingrid Foeken1 comments: 'For her the incident had nothing to do with homosexuality. She asked me how my friends and I offered each other comfort, which was when I realized how painfully our Western habits contrasted with hers. What she had experienced as comfort had seemed to me at the time to be lesbian lovemaking.
In Western culture most sexual activities come with some kind of label. And it is virtually impossible for two people of the same gender to exchange sexual affection without having to ask themselves: what does this make me? What will others think of me? Will their attitude towards me change? Will they be hostile, rejecting?
Sexual identity matters intensely to most of us. And we behave as if it is fixed and tells us exactly what a person is. The people who at this moment are beating up a gay man or a lesbian in Liverpool or Bombay or Los Angeles have identified that person as a homosexual. The hundreds of thousands of people who parade through the streets of capital cities on Gay Pride marches once a year, do so because they identify themselves as lesbians and gays.
Conventional wisdom has it that there are two categories. There are heterosexuals - who are the majority. And there are homosexuals - a minority. Some people allow for a third category - bisexuals, who are properly neither one nor the other. So ingrained is this view that we may find it hard to believe that things have ever been otherwise. But, the compartmentalizing of sex is quite modern. And the concept of 'the homosexual', on which it is based, is only a century old.
It was a German doctor, Karol M Kertbeny, who first coined the term 'homosexuality' in 1869 to mean same-gender sexual attraction.2 This does not mean that the people who are now called homosexuals were not persecuted before this date. Millions were murdered. But they were killed for committing certain forbidden acts such as 'sodomy' or anal sex, and in the case of women who passed themselves off as men, fraud. They were not persecuted for being a certain type of person. But, in the words of philosopher Michel Foucault, 'the nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage.Nothing that went into his (sic) total composition was unaffected by his sexuality.'3
The 'sinner' had become a species.
But then, during the 1950s a team of American sex researchers turned such notions on their head. The Kinsey Reports not only revealed that homosexuality was a lot more common than previously imagined. They also showed that the divisions between homosexual and heterosexual were not at all clear. For example, one study of American males revealed that 37 per cent had had some homosexual experience to the point of orgasm since adolescence. But only four per cent had been exclusively homosexual.4 So, sexuality was not something fixed with clear boundaries. It had all sorts of possibilities.
Although the Kinsey Reports have been widely accepted they have made a limited impact on social attitudes towards homosexuality. In most parts of the world today women and men who live their lives as homosexuals are still treated as freaks and outcasts - at worst subjected to murder, at best pitied for their 'abnormality'. As I am writing this I hear of a gay man stoned to death by the mob in Pakistan; two women who have been sacked from their jobs in India for marrying each other; and a gay man murdered by a police officer in Argentina. These are incidents reported, 90 per cent are not. Why all this hatred?
Many societies, including that of Classical Greece, Confucian China and pre-colonial America accepted homosexuality as a normal part of everyday life. There is no one single factor that explains why other societies have turned so violently against homosexuality. But persecution of gays has peaked at times of authoritarianism - be it political or religious. It started on a massive scale with the burning of gays for the sin of 'sodomy' in twelfth-century Europe - a time when 'society turned permanently and up to now irrevocably against gay people and excluded them from the mainstream', according to historian John Boswell5 Since then there has been a steady history of prejudice and persecution, peaking in Europe under Hitler, China under Mao, Iran under Khomeini and, to a lesser degree, the US and UK under Reagan and Thatcher. Varied though these regimes are they seem to share the belief that homosexuality, in its diversity threatens the social order they wish to see in place.
Christine Osborne / CAMERA PRESS
Even in more traditional rural societies there seems at first glance to be no place for homosexuality. Taboos around non-procreative sex put paid to that - 'seed' must not be wasted if the race or tribe is to continue. However, societies where homosexuality was accepted (in South America or Polynesia) reported no shortage of offspring6 If anything, homosexuality is an efficient form of birth control which also provides an outlet for sexual desire.
The real issue is that homosexuality seems to threaten male domination. If men are to retain their 'natural right' to control women the differences between the two must be defined and reinforced with heterosexual practice. In Mozambique, for example, traditional initiation rights lay down the rules of how sex should be conducted - man on top, woman underneath. Men behaving 'like women' and women behaving 'like men' might throw this order into confusion. However, forms of homosexual behaviour do occur even in the most traditional societies in Africa and Asia, but are somehow contained by them as long as the traditions are maintained and people marry and have children6. 'People of the same sex just go out into the fields and make love there,' says Indian photographer Sunil Gupta.
Homosexuality only becomes unacceptable in such societies when it begins to look like an alternative lifestyle. This happened in a visible way with industrialization in nineteenth-century Europe. Families split up, individuals migrated to the cities where there were more sexual - and therefore homosexual - opportunities. The same thing is happening today in Third World cities such as Bombay, Sao Paulo, Jakarta, Bangkok and Lagos, which all have busy gay scenes.
In nineteenth-century Britain the response to the increase in visible homosexuality was to make it illegal. The 1885 law was exported to the then colonies such as India and Malaysia and it still applies in most of them today.
What nearly all the laws ignore is the existence of lesbians. This is odd because if there is a practical threat to the heterosexual, male-dominated order it is far more likely to come from lesbianism combined with feminism than from male homosexuality. But it seems that most men are incapable of taking seriously any sex which does not involve a penis - or relationship that does not involve men, for that matter.
Dubious and perverse
It is striking how very weak most practical arguments against homosexuality are. Usually they are fronts for a much deeper psychological concern.
Brazilian writer and gay activist Joao Trevisan describes how one day he was sitting in a cafe in the small north-eastern town of Aracaju when he overheard an astute term used by locals to refer to a someone who was gay: 'doubtful'.
'That is exactly what gays are - doubtful. The ones who cause doubt, those who confirm uncertainty, who open up a space for difference .'2
Furthermore it opens up doubt in an area of our lives that is highly-charged, and little understood - sex. This is also a rich area for guilt and taboo. Gayness tells you that there are other forms of pleasure than those we were brought up to desire. And gay people are in a very literal and positive sense 'perverse' in their sexuality. This is reflected in sexual practice. Sex researchers find that lesbian and gay sex is more diverse, imaginative and polymorphously perverse (not specifically genital) than 'goal-oriented' heterosexual practice tends to be. This is maybe one of the reasons that 'safe-sex' techniques to avoid AIDS have been far more readily adopted by the gay community than the straight.
But perversity is awkward. It appears to challenge the sexual integrity of the individual and incurs the corresponding social stigma and penalties. And to see homosexuals enjoying themselves in public is more than some heterosexual people can handle. It can arouse feelings of shock and jealousy. Sometimes this explodes into anger - especially in people having problems with their own sexual identity. Studies of gay-bashers (nearly always men under 21) show that the most common trigger for an attack is not an approach from a gay man but witnessing men interacting in a way that shows a greater degree of physical or emotional intimacy than that normally allowed in the male world.1 Attacking gay people - either physically or through verbal abuse or ridicule - is a strategy used by many men (and some women too) to define themselves as quite definitely heterosexual.
Brazil has a more advanced form of this ambivalent and exploitative relationship between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Every major city has its male prostitutes - called bichas - who dress as women. They are generally ridiculed by heterosexual men. But from these heterosexual men are drawn the bichas' clientele. They emerge from the transaction with their heterosexuality intact because it is assumed that they will take the dominant, 'male' role - not the despised 'female' role. The twist comes when one learns that the most common complaint among the bichas is that they are always being asked to penetrate their clients when they would far rather be penetrated themselves.2 Sex is complex but it sometimes seems that only lesbian and gay people are prepared to face its complexities without hypocrisy.
The sky is blue. The balloons are pink. Thousands of cheerful and brightly-dressed lesbians and gays wave placards as they pour through the city-centre streets. Some of them wave to people in open buses and invite them to wave back. When someone responds with this small gesture of recognition cheers and euphoria ripple through the moving crowd. Most spectators, however, do not wave back. They just look on, not wanting to associate themselves too closely with this Gay Pride march.
Perhaps they are daunted by the noise and the flamboyance and the colour. There is a reason for it. For many of the marchers this is the one occasion of the year when they 'come out' in public, protected by the anonymity of a huge crowd.
But there is another reason why lesbian and gay people have to make an impact - history. What is really chilling about the mass murder or tens of thousands of homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps is not so much the sadism and the sexual abuses of 'heterosexual' SS officers and fellow inmates. It is what happened - or didn't happen - afterwards.
Those who survived came out into a world which remained hostile to them and where they could not even talk about what had happened to them. The tens of thousands of homosexuals murdered on account of their sexuality were totally ignored on all memorials to Nazi victims.
It took 25 years for the gay survivor of Heinz Heger's Men with the Pink Triangle to feel that the climate was safe enough for him to say what had happened to him. He concludes his account in 1970 with this: 'the contempt of our fellow humans . and the social discrimination is the same as it was 30 or 50 years ago. True, our modern 'open' society accepts homosexuality in its own way, making plays and films about it, but at the same time homosexuals themselves are despised and persecuted. The progress of humanity has passed us by .'7
Indeed. Just 18 months ago when lesbians and gays took part in a march to commemorate the occupation of Austria by the Nazis they were jeered and booed by both fellow marchers and local dignitaries who accused them of 'jumping on the Nazi victim bandwagon'.
Hostility towards lesbians and gays is as alive today as it was in Hitler's time. And in recent years the situation has been compounded by the AIDS epidemic - sometimes called 'the gay plague'. Not only are gay people held to be responsible for the disease - they are often treated as if they are a health risk themselves.
The most important thing the gay rights movement has done is to shatter the silence and the isolation. More and more lesbian and gay people are realizing that they are not alone; there are millions of them. But many still feel isolated from their past. Rediscovering gay history is not easy. For gay history is not passed through families - quite the opposite. But various people are making links. The Nigerian photographer Rotimi Fani Kayode, for example, connects his art and homosexuality with the Orisha religion of his ancestors whose deities alternated gender and whose religious people had same-sex love affairs.
The gay rights movement is also becoming increasingly international in its outlook. This year the second International Lesbian and Gay Conference, held in Vienna, was attended by representatives not only from Europe and the US but also from Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The ultimate aim is to get homosexuality recognized as a human rights issue and to get all laws against homosexuality repealed. Amazingly, Amnesty International does not yet officially recognize the imprisonment of gays and lesbian people for their sexuality as a human rights issue.
But to combat discrimination there must first be total equal opportunities and legal equality with heterosexuals. That means legal recognition of lesbian and gay relationships and laws to protect lesbians and gays from prejudice. For even in countries where homosexuality is legal, discrimination pervades daily life - from employment, child custody and adoption rights to physical and mental health. In London one in five lesbian and gay teenagers have attempted suicide.
Lesbian and gay people are in the vanguard of sexual liberation as they protest against the vast, collective hypocrisy of homophobia - hatred of homosexuality. But gay rights is not only about sexuality. It is also a barometer of how much respect a society has for civil liberties and human rights. This affects all groups - especially minorities. Few societies in today's world are anywhere near passing the test.
Perhaps when all lesbians and gays have equal rights with heterosexuals - and prejudice is a memory of the Dark Ages - we shall all be able to do away with the sexual identity tags that cause such damage. But for the moment lesbians and gays have to take control of those words and labels that have been used against them.
And it is happening. Even the pink triangle - that ultimate symbol of prejudice that gays had to wear in Nazi concentration camps - has been reclaimed and turned into a symbol of pride and liberation.
1 Which Homosexualty?, International Conference on Lesbian and Gay Studies, GMP 1989.
2 Perverts in Paradise, Joao S Trevisan, GMP, 1986.
3 The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault, Penguin, 1981.
4 Human Sexuality and its Problems. John Bancroft, Churchill Livingston, 1983.
5 Rediscovering Gay History, John Boswell. Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, 1982.
6 The Homosexual Matrix, C A Tripp, Meridian, 1987.
7 The men with the Pink Triangle, Heinz Heger, GMP, 1980.
This special report appeared in the pride & prejudice - homosexuality issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.