Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Homostudies Four: Gay Studies in cross-cultural context

The Cross-cultural Paradigm directs attention to non-Western civilizations and cultures (including the so-called “primitive folk”). This approach evolved shortly after the inception of the Third Paradigm (see the above posting), which was comprehensive to be sure--but mostly in terms of Western civilization.


Perhaps the most original scholar in Magnus Hirschfeld’s circle was Ferdinand Karsch-Haack (1853-1936). Extremely ambitious, this writer documented the occurrence of same-sex behavior throughout the animal kingdom, among tribal peoples, and in non-Western cultures in general. The son of a physician, Karsch-Haack shared with Alfred Kinsey a professional formation as an entomologist.

Breaking with the Eurocentrism of most of his fellow sex researchers at the time, Harsch-Haack set out to disprove the then-common notion that homosexual behavior was the product of “overcultivation” in societies that had become decadent through an excess of civilized. Utilizing his zoological background he produced a pioneering text "Päderastie und Tribadie bei den Tieren auf Grund der Literatur" (Pederasty and Lesbianism among Animals, Based on Literature), which he published in 1900 in Magnus Hirschfeld's Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen. Here he sought to disprove the traditional notion, still found occasionally, that “animals don’t do it.” Almost a century later, Karsch-Haack’s approach found a triumphant and detailed exemplification in Bruce Bagemihl's magnum opus, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (1999).

Drawing his various interests together, Karsch-Haack planned a vast project, with the overall title of Forschungen über gleichgeschlechtliche Liebe (Investigations of Same-Sex Love). This would have comprised: (1) “primitive” peoples; (2) East Asians; (3) Semites and Hamites; and (4 and 5) the Aryans. Because of the death of Karsch-Haack's publisher, however, only two volumes of the series actually appeared: Die Ostasiaten: Chinesen, Japaner und Koreer (The East Asians: Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans; 1906), and Das Geschlechtliche Leben der Naturvölker (The Sexual Life of Primitive Peoples; 1911). This last work, extending to 668 pages, was a grand synthesis in the nineteenth-century manner, surveying male homosexuality and lesbianism among tribal peoples in Africa, the Americas, the Pacific regions, and Siberia. Copiously referenced, the book contains evidence that even now has not been properly followed up by anthropologists.


Without attempting to rival the encyclopedic scope of Karsch-Haack’s work, the Englishman Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), contributed a theoretical distinction that is of great help in understanding same-sex behavior among non-Western peoples. Committed to both mysticism and utopian socialism, Carpenter shared the enthusiasm of his older contemporary John Addington Symonds for Walt Whitman, whom he visited in Camden, New Jersey, in 1877 and 1884. At the same time he became involved in Hindu and Buddhist thought, visiting India and Ceylon in 1890. He maintined that the redemption of a deeply flawed society had less to do with external reorganization than with individual self-realization leading to the development of cosmic consciousness. In his Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk (second ed., 1911) Carpenter posited that there was not one model for homosexual orientation, but two complimentary ones. The two poles are the helping type, found in the shaman and berdache, and the warrior type, as seen in the samurai and the ancient Greek erastes. More recently, further studies have expanded this insight by recognizing that the two most frequently encountered forms of pre-modern and non-Western male homosexuality are the gender-variant type (corresponding to Carpenter’s helping type) and the age-contrastive or pederastic type.

What preceded Karsch-Haack and Carpenter? Often harshly judgmental, nineteenth-century imperialists and colonizers could be surprisingly informative. Many of their reports are quoted or summarized in Karsch-Haack’s monograph.


Surely the most extraordinary of the Victorian travelers and investigators was Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890). In his time he wore many hats: explorer, soldier, writer, translator, linguist, orientalist, ethnographer, fencer, and diplomat. He was renowned for his intrepid explorations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. According to one account, he spoke twenty-nine European, Asian, and African languages.

Early in Burton’s career he made a study of the boy brothels of Karachi; whether he was a participant-observer in these events is unknown. His most important literary achievement is his comprehensive, but somewhat stilted version of One Thousand and One Nights (1885-88). The “Terminal Essay” included in the tenth volume of this work introduced the expression "sotadic zone" as a geographical marker of areas of the globe where male same-sex relations were particularly salient. Somewhat arbitrarily, Burton took his term from Sotades, an Alexandrian poet of the third century B.C. who wrote seemingly innocuous verses that became obscene if read backwards.

In Burton's words, "There exists what I shall call a 'Sotadic Zone,' bounded westwards by the northern shore of the Mediterranean (N. lat. 43) and by the south­ern (N. lat. 30), including meridional France, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy and Greece, with the coast-regions of Africa from Marocco [sic] to Egypt. Running eastward the Sotadic zone narrows, embracing Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Chaldea, Af­ghanistan, the Sind, the Punjab and Kash­mir. In Indo-China, the belt begins to broaden, enfolding China, Japan and Turkistan. It then embraces the South Sea Is­lands and the New World.... Within the Sotadic Zone, the [pederastic] Vice is popular and endemic, held at worst to be a mere peccadillo, whilst the races to the North and South of the limits here defined, practice it only sporadically amid the opprobrium of their fellows who, as a rule, are physically incapable of performing the operation." Possibly Burton's exclusion of sub-Saharan Africa contributed to the erroneous modern belief that black people were originally innocent of the "vice," having been corrupted by slave masters and lubricious colonialists. (Actually, the theory of sub-Saharan exceptionalism goes back to Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century.)


Some contemporaries of Burton specialized in a popular genre of "strange customs of primitive folk" literature. Paolo Mantegazza (1831–1910) was a prominent Italian neurologist, physiologist, and anthropologist. A tireless traveler, beginning in 1854 he made many trips to South America, especially to Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia. His observations in those countries led him to become an early researcher on the effects of coca leaves on the human psyche. He also took note of sexual customs in the regions he visited. The 1932 volume, Anthropological Studies of the Human Race, is a translated version of an 1886 Italian volume by Mantegazza in the exotic customs mode; it contains some relatively objective material on homosexuality.

Beginning with a series of articles in 1901, the Russian ethnologist Waldemar (Vladimir) Bogoras (1865-1935) reported on the findings of the Jesup Expedition in Eastern Siberia, among the Chuckchee. These investigations showed that a homosexual orientation among the shamans there was common. These findings also suggested a connection with the American berdache (or two-spirit) type. The latter had been known among travelers since the eighteenth century.


Cultural anthropology (known as social anthropology in Britain) was mainly a creation of the Anglo-Saxon world. With some rare exceptions, that world tended to be shy away any public discussion of homosexuality--until, that is, the appearance of Alfred Kinsey’s first volume in 1948.

A cognate issue, that is to say, the malleability of men and women’s character types and sex roles, was addressed by Margaret Mead in her studies of South Pacific societies of the 1920s and 30s. Here she challenged the idea that men were always the aggressive, “take charge” gender, while women were restricted to passivity and nurturing. The conventional stereotypes underlay the conventional classification of male homosexuals as sissies and lesbians as butches. Perhaps because she was personally bisexual, Mead largely declined to address the issue of sexual orientation in her cross-cultural studies.

Over the decades, however, evidence of same-sex behavior had been accumulating from anthropologist’s field work. The appearance of a kind of clearing house, based at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, made it possible to correlate this data. Founded in 1949, the Human Relations Area File (HRAF) has as its mission to encourage and facilitate worldwide comparative studies of human behavior, society, and culture. Today it mainly pursues this mission by producing and distributing two full-text databases on the Web, eHRAF Collection of Ethnography and eHRAF Collection of Archaeology. HRAF also sponsors and edits the quarterly journal, Cross-Cultural Research: The Journal of Comparative Social Science, and organizes and edits encyclopedias. The entire HRAF Collection of Ethnography, in paper, microfiche, and on the Web, covers nearly 400 cultures world-wide. The HRAF databases were developed to foster comparative research on human beings in all their variety so that explanations of human behavior would be universally valid, not culture bound.

In 1951 Clellan S. Ford and Frank A. Beach undertook to synthesize the HRAF findings on same-sex behavior as they stood at mid-century (Patterns of Sexual Behavior, 1951). The authors reported that of 76 societies of which records were then available, 49 (64%) tolerated or encouraged homosexual behavior. These findings decisively refuted the notion that disapproval of same-sex behavior is universal. In fact, acceptance is more common than condemnation.

In the six decades since Ford and Beach offered their initial findings, evidence has continued to accumulate in the HRAF database. Despite the increased documentation, it has proved difficult to essay more definitive conclusions, though some directions seem to be indicated. In “The Evolution of Human Homosexual Behavior” (an article in the journal Current Anthropology, 41, 2000, pp. 385-98), R. C. Kirkpatrick concludes that homosexual behavior occurs significantly more often in agricultural than in hunter-gatherer societies.


Since the eighteenth century, European travelers had been aware of individuals personifying a homosexual role among Amerindian groups. For a long time this type of person was referred to as berdache, a term of Persian origin. The mixed gender roles encompassed by the term historically included wearing the clothing and performing the work associated with the opposite sex. In some groups, special powers were associated with these individuals.

In 1990 the third annual inter-tribal Native American/First Nations gay/lesbian American conference in Winnipeg concluded that it would be preferable to use the term “Two -Spirit People. This expression derives from the Ojibwe expression Niizh manidoowag, "two-spirited" or "two-spirit," generally usually used to indicate a person whose body simultaneously houses a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit. The term Two-Spirit People is now generally accepted.

Will Roscoe, a leading scholar in the field, notes that male and female Two-Spirit People have been "documented in over 130 tribes, in every region of North America, among every type of native culture."

Walter Williams, a professor at the University of Southern California, is generally acknowledged as having produced the first modern monograph on the subject: The spirit and the flesh: Sexual diversity in American Indian cultures. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. Other notable scholars in this field include Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Sabine Lang, and Will Roscoe.


Studies of same-sex behavior on a world-wide basis have suggested broader conclusions as to typology. In a series of books and papers, Stephen O. Murray, a major gay scholar residing in San Francisco, has summed up an emerging consensus. This consensus postulates a three-fold typology of male same-sex behavior. The three basic types are: 1) age-differentiated, as found in the pederastic culture of ancient Greece, medieval Islam, and the Japan of the Samurai; 2) gender-differentiated, as found in the shamans of Northeast Asia, the Amerindian berdache, and a number of contemporary societies in Southeast Asia; 3) egalitarian (or androphile) in which the partners are of roughly the same age and gender identity. The latter type is characteristic of the advanced industrial societies of the West, but occasionally elsewhere, as in the Old Kingdom in Egypt.

In complex societies there is usually one dominant type, with one or both of the others represented as a minority preference. In the US, for example, the egalitarian form is dominant, while age-differentiated and gender-differentiated types exist among smaller portions of the population. With this proviso, research has shown that this typology is valid world wide, and that there are no other major types of male same-sex behavior capable of rivaling these three.

Some observers object, however, asking what about those who are attracted across class boundaries, and those who seek interracial unions? And what about those who look for slender or muscular partners, ones who are hirsute or not. Shouldn't options like these be added to the list?

Closer analysis shows that these preferences, while significant to those who hold them, are not on the same plane as the primary ones mentioned.

It remains unclear, though, how valid this typology is for female same-sex behavior.


Gradually, the sphere of indigenous peoples untouched by contact with advanced societies shrinks. In fact it has vanished, to all intents and purposes. Accordingly, there has been much emphasis on salvage anthropology--the attempt to record the basic features of such societies before knowledge of them in their pristine state is completely lost. In this context there seems to be little attention to same-behavior. Yet in such popular books as Keep the River on Your Right (1969) and Wild Man (1979), the romantic traveler Tobias Schneebaum (1922-2005) reported on his erotic visits to various locales in the Americas and the Pacific region. Some critics have detected notes of fanciful exaggeration in some anecdotes, as in Schneebaum's claim to have participated in a cannibalistic feast in South America. By and large, no such allegations attach to the pioneering work of the anthropologist Gilbert H. Herdt, whose 1981 monograph Guardians of the Flutes records his discovery of a New Guinea tribe (which he named the Sambia) that required same-sex initiation rites (ingestion of semen) of all adolescent males.


Given the disparate nature of themes, there are no up-to-date syntheses of this material. However, one should examine the various monographs of Stephen O. Murray (see for a listing).



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