Wednesday, May 17, 2006


The last century has seen the accomplishment of many advances in our understanding of same-sex behavior. Yet many who are not familiar with this research retain a sense of puzzlement and unease. Closer inspection suggests that it may not be so much the behavior but the words and concepts deployed to explain it that are strange. Some reasons for this strangeness—-and tactics for overcoming it-—emerge in the segments following this one.

What is a trope? In the sense used in this text a trope is a figure of speech embodying a comparison, metaphor, or cluster of meanings to designate a human group or concept. One of the tropes of youth, for example, is seasonal--it ranks as the springtime of human life. Other ideas are germination or sprouting (of green plants) and embarkation (as on a voyage). More general qualities also come into play, as vigor, striving, promise, inexperience, and so forth. All these are tropes of youth.

Many words in our language contain hidden metaphors. For example, the grammatical term conjugation stems from agriculture, since etymologically it means “yoking together.” Context reflects weaving. As these two words show, some tropes are more evident than others. Generally speaking, this book concerns the more evident ones as they pertain to homosexual conduct.

Because homosexuality is a richly varied modality of human life, its tropes are exceptionally productive. There is a second quality as well, one shared with some other groups that have been for one reason or another proscribed or vilified in our society. That is to say, many of the tropes have taken on a negative aura. The term stereotype comes to mind, except that tropes are more varied and ramifying.

There are other ways of thinking about the matter. The first stems from literary historians, who sometimes write of topoi, that is “places” to which various authors recur. Such topoi include the idea of an arcadian landscape and the puer-senex linkage, comparing an old person with a child. Another term, which is recent, is meme. This concept is still being worked out, so that there is some uncertainty about the definition. Very simply, a meme is the cultural analogue of a gene, that is a motif that keeps replicating from one individual to another, seemingly without the participation of the meme’s “host.” Familiar examples, are catchy tunes and advertising slogans—-ear worms in short. Memes have also been compared with viruses, spreading from one individual to another. We know, of course, that they could not spread without our consent. Yet consent seems hard to refuse. Finally, one might simply refer to the categories as families. This designation seems appropriate when one gathers together all the terms for body-part focus and for recognition of youth and age. In such cases we have left the world of tropes per se. Yet these sets of words are trope-like—hence the expression tropism.

As one looks through the following gatherings of material, one cannot help being struck by the profusion of negativity. To be sure, some tropes, such as creativity and color symbolism, are positive or neutral. But disparaging ones, such as abnormality and disgust, stand out. The persistence of these negative motifs reflects, in the main, the centuries of obloquy enjoined by the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

More generally, a pattern of group disparagement occurs when the mainstream of society finds a group or phenomenon patently different, and therefore, in many instances, threatening. Ethnic and racial stereotypes are familiar instances.

There are other parallels. At the beginning of the twentieth century many mainstream critics experienced modern art as alien and disturbing. In order to put it down they mustered an armory of tropes, including ugliness, incomprehensibility, incompetence, childishness, madness, and fraud. Eventually, the intensity of these criticisms ebbed, as well as the moral indignation that sustained them. But the approach never entirely disappeared. Recently, one contemporary critic, Donald Kuspit, has denounced contemporary art as “decadent,” “narcissistic,” “meaningless,” and “clueless.” Another writer, Hilton Kramer, dismisses the whole realm as a “carnival of rubbish.” Perhaps such criticisms are inescapable in realms of expression that challenge conventional patterns of understanding.

Recently, some have maintained that homosexual negative terms, such as queer and dyke, can be cleansed and recycled. As in the case of “black” for African American, such terms can be detoxified and reclaimed--or so it is said. A successful example of this procedure is the word fairy. During the 1980s the radical faeries emerged as a subset of the gay-male community. In this case the word fairy had lost much of its sting, and to reclaim it was not much of a stretch. Such examples of uncontroversial recycling are fairly rare, though. At the opposite extreme, the process of reclamation can shade over into abjection, as when one styles oneself a pervert or degenerate.


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