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It's What You Do

Sexual Politics
Gay Rights
Human Rights

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Sexual Minorities / HIV/AIDS

It's what you do
Most of the men who have sex with men in the
South probably don't identify themselves as 'gay' or 'bisexual'.
Jeremy Seabrook explains why it's vital to recognize this.

In many countries of the south, AIDS has made sexual relationships transparent which had previously been concealed - especially those between men. The cost of silence and denial has already been high in human lives. Specialized agencies now recognize the importance of this channel of infection, but societies rarely show the same acceptance.

In the West, the existence of well-organized and informed communities of gay men helped both to promote safer sex and to offer great succour, practical help and spiritual comfort to those affected. Self-help and a strong sense of responsibility throughout the 1980s supplemented official responses which were often evasive and inadequate.

The story from the South is different. In sub-Saharan Africa, India and China, the majority of HIV/AIDS cases have been among heterosexuals and intravenous drug-users or through contaminated blood. This, together with the World Health Organization's emphasis on 'the global epidemic', has effectively obscured the route of transmission of HIV through men who have sex with men. Such a response has also been convenient for countries which, on legal, religious or social grounds, deny the existence of such relationships; in this many Southern governments have been complicit.

Western 'politics of identity', where to be lesbian, gay or bisexual is a major determinant in the lives of individuals, is incomprehensible to many other societies. Other roles are often so much more central than sexual orientation - people are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. They are mother, daughter, wife, father, husband, son. People are inhabitants of this or that region. They are agriculturalist or factory worker - and in poor countries, the importance of livelihood is no secondary identity. Culture remains an aggregate of characteristics which is the gift - or for some unhappy people, the curse - of the society they inhabit. It is not something to be selected in a choice-obsessed existential hypermarket.

There is a good practical reason for this in the South. The central importance of family, marriage and children is not simply a preoccupation with archaic social relationships - they are the very tissue of survival, the only social safety nets. You don't have to go far on the streets of São Paulo, Dhaka or Nairobi to see the effects upon those excluded from that security.

Having said that, explicitly lesbian and gay minorities do exist in the South. In India and Bangladesh these for the most part reach only élites, those influenced by or educated in the West. In South Africa and Latin America, by contrast, there is a new assertiveness among more marginal groups - the far from privileged.

Among the majority in Africa, India and China, men who have sex with men exist to an extent that is largely unknown. But despite the urgency of dealing with HIV/AIDS, it is important not to oversexualize relationships between men in the South - affection, tenderness, friendship have great subtlety in societies where homoeroticism and homo-affectivity have never been called 'homosexual'. Also, the majority of male-male sexual relationships do not involve anal intercourse.

That is not to say that in many traditional cultures, sexual minorities have not been recognized. Nor have they always been stigmatized. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict, in Patterns of Culture1, described the institution of berdache among the Zuni Pueblos of New Mexico - men who dressed and lived as women. 'In some societies they have been especially acclaimed. They are often regarded as exceptionally able... good healers in certain diseases, or among certain tribes, as the genial organizers of social affairs.' In India the role of the hijras or eunuchs is of great antiquity: they had the power to bless or curse, especially in connection with fertility. Only in more recent times did they become beggars. Gatoei in Thailand could be minor wives or concubines, while transgenderal waria were shamans in Borneo and Sulawesi.

Traditional societies, however, have usually seen only the obviously 'feminized' male as a distinctive alternative sexuality. This has fateful consequences in the modern world. What is not named ceases to exist.

Transgenderal undergrounds
This can also be a problem even in countries whose social organization resembles - at least superficially - that of North America and Europe, notably in Latin America. There, the social and cultural impact of the US coexists with a Mediterranean culture of machismo which migrated with the conquistadors and colonizers. This overlaid older indigenous constructions of sexuality. Add long years of military dictatorship plus the power of the church and much of Latin America becomes similar to Western experience but with powerful reasons for continuing repression and denial. In many countries, homosexuality was decriminalized only after the end of military rule. Certainly Latin America remains the site of what Peter Drucker called 'transgenderal undergrounds', which he believes persist because of underdevelopment, in contrast with the West where the advanced market economy permitted the emergence of reciprocal gay relationships.2

The photographer Annie Bungeroth who has worked with communities of transvestites in Lima, believes that in a highly macho culture men in dresses are less threatening to their prospective partners than men as men; the tradition of cross-dressing is a posture of submission, which gains acceptance in the poor and marginalized suburbs.

in a highly macho culture men in dresses are less threatening to their prospective partners than men as men

In the early stages, as in the West, the spread of HIV in Latin America was primarily from male-male sex. In Lima, five years ago the ratio of men to women testing positive was seventeen to one; now it is one to one. This suggests that many men have infected girlfriends and wives. Societies which regard men who have sex with men as a negligible minority suddenly take notice when HIV appears among women and children. It is at this stage that governments acknowledge the significance of such minorities, but their national AIDS programmes and strategies are often unable to cope.

Marvin Leiner argued in Sexual Politics in Cuba: Machismo, Homosexuality and AIDS, that Cuba's programme of quarantining those infected with HIV reflects an idea of the uncontrollable nature of male sexuality.3 Homosexuals were treated more oppressively in the Havana sanatorium where they were detained. They got the worst of both worlds in terms of prejudice: it was assumed that, being men, they could not take responsibility for their sexual impulses, yet they were also stigmatized for their difference.

In many parts of the South, a distinction is sharply - and often falsely - made between the macho role of the insertive partner and the feminized role of the receptive partner. The male identity of the former is not thought to be impaired by the fact that he has sex with another man. 'A man fucks' is the way it is formulated, and the gender of the partner is considered immaterial. This is why many people in the South do not recognize themselves in the 'gay' paradigm. In the Delhi park where I researched in 1998, I was offered a wide range of 'reasons' why men sought men as sexual partners, including the absence of women among migrant communities, the availability of young male prostitutes, the tighter orifice in men, the belief that sex with men is 'safer' than vaginal sex, which many were convinced posed the only danger of HIV or std transmission.

Some cultural practices and perceptions are bewilderingly unfamiliar to the West. Take this story from Bangladesh:

Joshim is in his early twenties, a cycle-rickshaw driver in Dhaka. He met and became the sexual partner of Jamie, an Australian working for a non-governmental organization. The foreigner visited the young man's family in Jessore, where he was welcomed as a benefactor. He bought a cycle-rickshaw for Joshim, so he no longer needed to rent the vehicle daily. The relationship was sustained over three years. During this time, Joshim also had sexual relations with women, including, from time to time, sex workers.

Joshim asked the Australian repeatedly why he wouldn't marry him. At first, Jamie thought he was joking. He meant it. Joshim had identified his friend as 'the other', differentiated from him in three dramatic ways - he was white, he was older, he was the receptive sexual partner. These appeared to Joshim sufficient differences to make marriage conceivable. The sameness of gender did not figure prominently in his thoughts. He was so secure in his role as the insertive partner that the objections raised by his friend seemed to him special pleading. He said: 'You do not care for me.' Jamie protested: 'But you have girl-friends.' Joshim replied: 'You are my real friend.' The relationship cooled, but continued until Jamie went home.

Behaviour, not identity
There have now been a number of efforts to reach men who have sex with men in order to halt the spread of HIV infection. Most of these initiatives have taken place in cities, although the majority of people in the South are rural. It would be a mistake to imagine that there are no men having sex with men in the villages and fields of Africa and Asia. In Delhi I met one man who regularly had sex with his sister's husband whenever he went home to his village near Varanasi.

Given the global reach of communications, it may well be that most people in the world have at least heard of HIV/AIDS. But knowledge of its existence, even awareness of the risks, does not necessarily give people control over their situation. In the transsexual community in Lima, where HIV prevalence is high, the sex workers complain that if clients refuse to wear a condom, they cannot force them to do so. Sex workers cannot take long-term precautions when they have to earn a living today. Livelihood is at war with life.

...many think not only that sex with men is safe, but that the discharge of semen into their body makes them stronger and secure against infection

The power-balance between partners is a central issue, especially in societies where many men use male prostitutes, whether young male sex workers or transsexuals. The receptive partners are rarely in a position to dictate terms. In India, the only protection of the powerless is to wrap themselves in a comforting faith in their own immunity to disease. Some of their practices show the strength of belief - using incense smoke, Dettol, magic formulae after anal intercourse; some believe AIDS and STDs could be 'cured' by having sex with an animal, a virgin or an old woman; many think not only that sex with men is safe, but that the discharge of semen into their body makes them stronger and secure against infection.

To reach vulnerable men who have sex with men requires a different idiom, another approach, a more culturally appropriate response. For example, the Naz Foundation in India works in the cruising grounds and pick-up places in Indian cities with messages of safer sex - targeting behaviour rather than identity.

Jeremy Seabrook There has been progress; but it is obstructed by denial and silence of authorities, governments, religious and social leaders. It cannot wait until the whole world has been re-cast in the image of the Western politics of identity - that ambiguous reshaping of human destinies which certainly offers the best protection for gay men, but which does nothing to help people recognize themselves in labels and categories from elsewhere.

Jeremy Seabrook is a frequent contributor to the NI.
His book Love in a Different Climate: men who have sex with men in India,
is published by Verso (ISBN 1 85984 837 0)

1 Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture, Mentor Books, New York, 1946
2 Peter Drucker, New Left Review, 1996
3 Marvin Leiner, Sexual Politics in Cuba: Machismo, Homosexuality and AIDS, Westview Press, 1994.

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New Internationalist issue 328 magazine cover This article is from the October 2000 issue of New Internationalist.
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