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Homophobias LUST AND LOATHING ACROSS TIME AND SPACE
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
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Chapter One Can There Be an Anthropology of Homophobia?
THE END OF 2004 was marked by a horrific tragedy. An undersea earthquake o the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra set into motion a massive tidal wave, a tsunami, that smashed into coastal areas across the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Over 160,000 people, most of them local inhabitants, but many of them tourists, are known to have perished. In the midst of this devastating human loss, the Westboro Baptist Church in the American state of Kansas posted this notice on its home page, www.godhatesfags .com:
... Do you realize that among the dead and missing are 20,000 Swedes and over 3,000 Americans? ... We sincerely hope and pray that all 20,000 Swedes are dead, their bodies bloated on the ground or in mass graves or floating at sea feeding sharks and fishes or in the bellies of thousands of crocodiles washed ashore by tsunamis. These filthy, faggot Swedes have a satanic, draconian law criminalizing Gospel preaching, under which they prosecuted, convicted and sentenced Pastor Åke Green to jail-thereby incurring God's irreversible wrath [Sweden's law prohibiting hate speech extends to speech that denigrates or incites violence against homosexuals. In 2004, pastor Åke Green, who in his sermons used language not unlike that found in this Internet posting, was convicted of hate speech against homosexuals and sentenced to a month in prison].
... America ... is awash in diseased fag feces & semen, and is an apostate land of the sodomite damned. ... Let us pray that God will send a massive Tsunami to totally devastate the North American continent with 1000-foot walls of water doing 500 mph-even as islands in southern Asia have recently been laid waste, with but a small remnant surviving. God Hates Fag America! ... Thank God for the tsunamis & we hope for 20,000 dead Swedes!!!
Meanwhile, in another place and time, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe opened the 1995 Zimbabwe International Book Fair with these words:
I find it extremely outrageous and repugnant to my human conscience that such immoral and repulsive organizations, like those of homosexuals who offend both against the law of nature and the morals of religious beliefs espoused by our society, should have any advocates in our midst and even elsewhere in the world. If we accept homosexuality as a right, as is being argued by the association of sodomists and sexual perverts, what moral fibre shall our society ever have to deny organized drug addicts, or even those given to bestiality, the rights they may claim and allege they possess under the rubrics of individual freedom and human rights? (Engelke 1999:299)
And meanwhile, in another place and time, the following brief notice appeared on Friday, November 19, 2004, unobtrusively at the bottom of page six in the Oakland Tribune, a local newspaper from the city whose main claim to fame is as the referent of Gertrude Stein's aphorism "There is no there there":
Philadelphia 11-year-old boy charged with rape An 11-year-old boy sexually assaulted another boy in a middle-school stairway after chasing the victim from a bathroom, authorities said. A school officiate said they would try to determine where employees were at the time of the attack Tuesday meaning. The suspect was charged as a juvenile with involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.
This last example might not, at first glance, seem to have much in common with the other two. The report consists of three one-sentence paragraphs reporting on a sexual assault. It is written in dry, telegraphic Associated Press prose that is unremarkable-save for one malignant word occurring right at the end. Deviate.
Grammatically, deviate, like the word involuntary that precedes it, is an adjective, qualifying the type of "sexual intercourse" that occurred. "Involuntary" clearly refers to the will of the victim and signifies that the intercourse was unwanted. But what is the meaning here of "deviate"? Was the intercourse "deviate" because it was an assault, and to assault someone is to deviate from a statistical norm? In that case, one might wonder why rapes, say, or armed robberies, or murders-never committed by the overwhelming majority of people-are generally not qualified with "deviate" in press reports. Could it be that the word deviate refers to the fact that both persons involved were male, as in the familiar derogatory collocation "sexual deviate"?
The occurrence of the word deviate here signals a denigrating stance toward same-sex sexuality so banal (and gratuitous) that it might easily pass unnoticed. It is a far cry from an American church's ecstasy over the supposed deaths of "filthy, faggot Swedes" or an African despot's insistence that homosexuals have no human rights. In the Oakland Tribune, the word deviate is subtle. It functions more as a diacritic than an assertion, gently reframing the modality of the report from a straightforward journalistic account of a sexual assault to a distasteful commentary less on the assault itself than on the idea that the object of the assault should be another male.
What links all these three examples, then, even though they occur at different times and in different places (and in different registers), is a denigration of same-sex sexuality. This kind of denigration is a phenomenon often referred to by the word homophobia. Homophobia is a Western concept, coined in the early 1970s by George Weinberg, an American psychologist, to describe what he defined as "a disease ... an attitude held by many nonhomosexuals and perhaps by the majority of homosexuals in countries where there is discrimination against homosexuals" (1972:n.p.). But even though it was the West that named it, the denigration of persons associated with same-sex sexuality, and hatred and violence against them, is hardly limited to North America and Europe. A chapter in this book recounts how, a few years ago in central Java, a social gathering of mostly gay men and transvestites was stormed by 150 men who assaulted those present with knives, machetes, and clubs. Another discusses how in Jamaica on any given week, at least three of the top twenty musical hits promote violence against queers with lyrics like "Bang, bang into the gay man's head / Homeboys will not tolerate their nastiness / They must be killed." Another reports on a brutal murder of a gay man and his lover in 2004 in Lucknow, India, where subsequent media accounts were much more interested in detailing the supposed sexual proclivities of the victims than in urging the apprehension of the killers. When it comes to homophobia, it seems, it's a small world after all.
As a cultural phenomenon of seemingly global scope, homophobia ought to be an obvious target for anthropological attention. And indeed, individual anthropologists have done important work showing how antigay prejudice affects how lesbian and gay anthropologists position themselves both in the discipline of anthropology and as fieldworkers in different societies (Blackwood 1995a; Bolton 1995; Leap and Lewin 1996; Newton 1993; 2000; Seizer 1995). This anthology differs from that approach in that it is less interested in how anthropologists experience homophobia than in how local people in particular ethnographic contexts are affected by it. In this sense, the book continues and extends the work of those ethnographers who have documented how violence against people associated with nonnormative sexuality is an integral part of heterosexist social, cultural, economic, and political systems that reward some people and punish others (Bunzl 2004; Kulick 1998; Lancaster 1992; Manalansan 2003; D. Murray 2002; Prieur 1998; Valentine 2003). The question this book asks is, in effect: Can there be an anthropology of homophobia? And the answers it gives to that question are developed in chapters that focus on the particular manifestations of hatred and violence faced by people who engage in same-sex sexuality. The different chapters each discuss "homophobia," but they do so without making the elementary error of taking the concept as an unproblematic, transcultural given. On the contrary, each chapter engages with "homophobia" in ways that interrogate and modify our understanding of it. This means that the book is about speech and acts that are generally glossed as "homophobic" even as the individual chapters simultaneously decompose and reframe that concept.
What Is Homophobia?
Homophobia, everyone seems to agree, is a problematic word. A few years ago, the historian Daniel Wickberg (2000) published a concise and helpful history of the concept. Wickberg points out that homophobia is nowadays regularly featured in Western liberal discourse as one of the "big three" obstacles to social justice-the other two being racism and sexism. But in addition to being a much more recent concept than racism (which appeared circa 1935) and sexism (circa 1965), homophobia differs from them in two important ways. The first difference is a semantic one and concerns the fact that homophobia specifies the direction of prejudice in a way the other two do not: while the targets of racism and sexism are overwhelmingly people of color and women, respectively, there is nothing in the concepts themselves that prevents whites and men from claiming victimhood from race or gender prejudice. They are, in this sense, equal-opportunity concepts. Reverse-homophobia, on the other hand, cannot exist.
A second, more significant difference between homophobia, racism, and sexism is that homophobia appears to locate the source of prejudice against homosexuals not in social structures but in the individual psyche. The stress on individual reactions to homosexuality links the concept, in ways suggested but not discussed by Wickberg, to a much older psychiatric concept by the name of "homosexual panic." But in contrast to how both homophobia and homosexual panic are generally thought about today, homosexual panic in its original formulation did not refer to a fear of homosexuals. Instead, it referred to cases where men who had been in intensively same-sex environments became aware of homosexual desires that they felt unable to control and unable to act on. The original formulation of the disorder was based on a diagnosis of a small number of soldiers and sailors in a U.S. government mental hospital after World War I (Kempf 1920). These men were not violent-they were, on the contrary, passive. The disorder was characterized by periods of introspective brooding, self-punishment, suicidal assaults, withdrawal, and helplessness. So homosexual panic was generally understood not as a temporary, violent episode but, rather as an ongoing illness that comprised severe bouts of depression. Patients suffering from it were catatonic, not violent.
During the course of the 1900s the original understanding of this condition shifted, and it came to be applied even to men who reacted violently in situations where homosexual desire was made explicit. In the psychiatric literature, there is no consensus that the concept of homosexual panic should or can be used to explain sudden violent outbursts like these. But in the popular mind, homosexual panic has come to be perceived as a surface manifestation of homophobia, a concept that in only three decades arguably has been naturalized as a set of understandable psychological structures that everyone has (even homosexuals) but that reasonable people resist and try to come to terms with.
This pathologizing framework has been criticized by many people, perhaps most trenchantly by the literary scholar Eve Sedgwick (1990), who has noted that the very existence of such a concept rests on an assumption that hatred of queers is a private and atypical phenomenon. But think about it, she says. To what extent would anyone accept race-phobia as an accountability-reducing illness for a German skinhead who bludgeoned a Turk to death? Or gender-phobia for a woman who shot a man who made an unwanted advance to her? (Think for a moment of how many bodies would be swept out of bars and clubs every morning.) On the contrary, the fact that a concept like "homophobia" exists at all indicates that far from being an individual pathology, hatred of homosexuals is actually more public and more typical than hatred of any other disadvantaged group.
For these reasons, every chapter in this book takes some issue with the term homophobia. One of the strongest positions is taken by Lawrence Cohen. He suggests that "homophobia as such may not be what is at stake in accounting for specific institutions and practices that punish persons recognizable under the globalizing gaze of LGBT/queer." Cohen's chapter on India discusses a situation in which "the policing of sex between men through arrests, blackmail, sex on demand, and rape is ubiquitous in many Indian towns and cities, but no organized public apparatus of homophobic punishment, interdiction, and shame exists in India to the extent it has in the United States of the last half century." In this context, crimes and arrests involving homosexuality have different resonances than they do in places like the United States-resonances that Cohen analyzes as "feudal" rather than homophobic. On the other hand, there is some indication that a shift may be underway. The final case discussed in Cohen's chapter-a violent murder of a gay man and his lover in August 2004-was reported in the press in a partly novel way; one which may indicate that same-sex desire is being thought about-and punished-in ways that until now have not been imaginable.
Tom Boellstor's chapter is specifically about this kind of shift. It discusses recent attacks by Muslim groups on gatherings of homosexuals and transvestites in Indonesia. Indonesia, like India, lacks what Cohen calls an "organized public apparatus of homophobic punishment"; indeed, Boellstor explains that "historically, violence against non-normative men in Indonesia has been rare to a degree unimaginable in many Euro-American societies." This, however, has changed since the fall of the Soeharto regime in 1998, and attacks and threats explicitly directed at homosexuals and transvestites have become increasingly common and increasingly violent. The anthropological question is: why? What has occurred to make this new genre of violence seem conceivable and logical?
Boellstor's discussion of this novel genre of violence hinges on a distinction he draws between "heterosexism" and "homophobia." This is a distinction that suggests an important general point. Recall that one of most recurring criticisms of the word homophobia is that it focuses attention on the psychological rather than the structural dimensions of hatred of and violence toward queers. It is arguably possible to direct a similar kind of criticism at the terms with which homophobia is most frequently contrasted on this count: sexism and racism, both of which direct us to social structures. A problem with terms like sexism and racism (or the alternative often proposed for homophobia, heterosexism) is that while they do indeed lead us to pay attention to social structure, they background an exploration of the emotional involvement that people come to have in those structures. To be sure, different kinds of -isms reproduce inequality and foster prejudice and discrimination against minorities, women, and queers. But what is their emotional resonance? How do -isms come to be invested with emotional significance that moves people to think and act in particular ways?
This is where Boellstor's distinction between heterosexism and homophobia is useful. Heterosexism is the belief that heterosexuality is the only natural or moral sexuality. Homophobia, on the other hand is the fear and hatred of nonnormative sexualities and genders. In Boellstor's terms, it is possible for a society to be heterosexist without being homophobic. Indonesia, for example, is a place where heterosexuality has been the doxic mode of being without the presumption of its naturalness and superiority leading to or depending on violence against people who engage in same-sex sexuality.
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