Sunday, October 11, 2009

Men, Homosexuality and the Gods

Ronald Long’s Men, Homosexuality and the Gods: An exploration into the Religious Significance of Male Homosexuality in World Perspective is in large part a book about arguments in the contemporary US, particularly religious arguments, over homosexuality.

Hence the berdache of Amerindian tradition (Holy Effeminancy: The Native American Berdache As Living War Charm), Leviticus (Holy Homophobia in the Hebrew Scriptures), Paul and St Augustine (Early Christianity: A Revolution Aborted? ) and Buddhism (The Variegated Lotus: Homosexual Sex and Historical Buddhism) each get a chapter while the final chapter is entitled Struggles on The American Front.

But it is not only a book about that. The first chapter (Straight Thinking on Some Not-So-Straightforward Matters) sets out key terms (he prefers top and bottom rather than penetrator and penetrated as being a more socially grounded distinction) and concepts, particularly about how to think about religion and how to think about (male) homosexuality. The second (Holy Homosexuality: Of Men and Semen) looks at the Sambi of Papua New Guinea (who believed ingesting semen turned boys into men) and Taoism. The third (Holy Homoeroticism: Splendid Men and Splendour Divine) looks at Plato and Athens and Platonism in Sufism. Then it is on the Amerindians and so on.

Long notes that gay liberation and gay scholarship have moved together: the wearing away of the stigma of homosexuality has encouraged scholarly enquiry while scholarly enquiry has undermined the stigma of homosexuality. Looking to the past for gay heroes, and then for cultures which did not stigmatise homosexuality as C20th America did, led to some very alien sexual institutions: such as the “(teenage) boy wives” of Azande and Nzema, the compulsory fellatio of the Sambi; or cultures where penetration of lower status males was a way of affirming one’s masculinity, such as Ancient Rome. Or religions that tolerated, honoured, even mandated homosexuality.
It is to this variety—the various ways religious traditions of the world have taken up the question of homosexual relations among men—that this book is an introduction … We are all inclined to presume the world is as it is for us unless we are shown otherwise. (p.5).
Long illustrates the power of assumptions, and the religious basis of assumptions about homosexuality, through an anecdote of a friend who came out to his father and got the immediate response:
But that’s the kind of guy other guys beat up
and, despite lacked any other sign of religiosity—the son could only remember his father using the word "God" in his presence once—saying
but it’s a sin! (p.7).
Long discusses the Sambi, the attitudes that come across in Plato’s writings (including the notion that homosexual romance strengthens democracy while its proscription, such as among the Persians, strengthens autocracy) and the Sufi notion of shahid bazi: the notion that gazing on beauty, including a beautiful young man, is a path to the appreciation of the divine.

He then moves on to the Amerindians, where he seeks to puncture romantic notions of the berdache as honoured manifestations of human sexual variation. Long argues instead that they were feminized, unmanned, men whose feminisation was both a lessening and a manifestation of mystical power. A basic thesis of the book is that:
males are born but men are made (p.49)
and that attitudes to (male) homosexuality need to be understood in terms of particular society’s conceptions of masculinity. So, Long argues, the berdache grew out of sexual penetration as the unmanning of defeated enemy warriors. A berdache was thus both a “safe” sexual release for young warriors and a manifestation of their victorious nature: hence a living war charm; Long reminds us that:
people can be tolerated, and society can provide a significant value for them without admiring them (p.55).
Ironically, I think Long may be projecting Western attitudes more than he realises.

Long’s discussion of Leviticus takes us through the concept of people’s bodies being owned by their family (pp78ff)—so the sin of Onan was not masturbation but coitus interruptus to avoid impregnating his dead brother’s wife, any resulting child being more his brother’s than his own (p.73)—the use of sexual proscriptions to separate Israelites from foreigners (as he notes, the imputation that homosexuality is foreign is a hardy perennial in human affairs; and, given only cities were likely to have significant concentrations of homosexuals, seen as an urban corruption [p.75]); that raping of defeated enemy soldiers was also a hardy perennial; that slaves were often expected to be at the sexual whim of their masters (supported by highly suggestive Egyptian wall paintings [p.76]) and very different cultic sexual practices (p.77) to create the basis for the Levitical proscriptions. He regards, however, the horror of sexual penetration as a sign of crushing defeat as the real emotional basis behind them (p.84).

He includes an aside on Muslim attitudes, arguing that a Muslim man who penetrates non-Muslim men was much more acceptable than anything which implied sexual submission by an Arab/Muslim male. The submission that is required of Islam also meant domination and subduing of others (p.77).

In his chapter on early Christianity, Long argues St Paul simply did not continue the logic of the rejection of the other aspects of the Holiness Code to matters (homo)sexual, mainly because he was under no pressure to do so (p.93). (I would agree about Paul being inconsistent about not rejecting all the Holiness Code proscriptions—in a way that there is no evidence that Jesus would have supported—but I would also argue that there were pressures on Paul to make exactly the move he did. While I understand the attraction of reading Paul’s use of malakoi and arsenokoitai as denunciations of exploitative sex, I am not convinced.) Long notes that part of the success of Christianity may have been that it shielded (women in particular) from the pressure to marry (p.94): a revolution in family matters.

Long also gives an extensive rendition of St Augustine’s view on matters sexual (pp 95ff), particularly his fear of passion and pleasure as overthrowing the rational control which the basis of virtue (a very Stoic idea) and diverting us from attention to God. So procreation is the only possible justification for sexual activity.

Moving on to Buddhism allows Long to explore a tradition which has a similarly problematic attitude to desire as St Augustine but goes in a quite different direction:
If, for a Western thinker such as Augustine, self-control is the height of rationality, in Tibetan Buddhism, it is the open receptivity that is the essence of reason (p.114).
It is also a quite different tradition about what constitutes a religion and religious concerns. Though, again, Long notes how Buddhism still manages to reflect cultural presuppositions about masculinity:
If, at is seems, there is no reason in Buddhism why homosexual sex should be treated any differently than heterosexual sex, it is nevertheless the case that in actual practice Buddhism presumes the cultural bias that assumes that sex is something a man has with a noman, a woman or a lesser or younger man (p.114).
The last chapter draws the threads together to bring an historical understanding on the “culture wars” debates over homosexuality. Long quotes with approval Richard Mohr’s comment that the military has the purpose of defending a society, but militaries are also often used to define the country, citizenship and personhood. Long also makes the perspicacious comment that Clinton’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy serves to mask that gays have been officially included in the American military (p.118).

Long discusses various lines of gay thinking on the issues (correctly tagging Andrew Sullivan as a classical liberal) before getting stuck into the Bowers v Hardwick decision, teasing out its underlying religious presumptions and its overturning by Lawrence v Texas. He quotes Richard Mohr’s telling comment that:
unenforced sodomy laws are the chief systematic way that society as a whole tells gays they are scum (p.129).
Long holds that unnaturalness arguments against homosexuality are not arguments at all, but just educated name-calling (p.90). This is an amusing thought, but excessively hard on natural law theory. His point that calling homosexuals objectively disordered is just another way of calling them sick has rather more force (p.135). He is not convinced that it is possible to live without gender norms, not least because boys will always have the need to emotionally separate themselves from their mother and so need some direction to aspire to (p.142).

Long sees the modern homosexual movement as something unique in history: a repudiation of the notion that a “real man” is one who penetrates social underlings (p.142). Long sees WWII as the beginning of the modern homophile movement, with the 1970s as being when gay men took within themselves a concept of homosexual masculinity: of muscles as queer (in the parlance, they became their own trade).

Long draws together his argument that underlying very different religious traditions and social contexts is a notion of masculinity requiring a particular sort of sexuality, one which involves subordination of one’s sexual partners:
Full adult masculinity has been thought regularly to be sexually enacted in the penetration of social inferiors, and the penetration thus signified, if it does not cause, subordination (p.145).
He argues that homosexual liberation is, in fact, liberating for all men because it provides a much more open concept of masculinity. That sexuality no longer be conflated with defence, that men be free to make love as well as war.

I find myself intrigued and often in agreement with Long. I agree (to put it more directly and generally than Long does) that the shift from the notion that sex is properly between unequals to that it is properly between equals or near equals is a major social change—it is a nice historical resonance that the word homosexual was first coined in the same year as John Stuart Mill published The Subjection of Women. Which suggests that homosexual liberation is part of broader social shifts. (The concern over paedophilia—it becoming the ultimate transgression—strikes me as being part of the same shift.)

So I am not comfortable with situating quite so much in constructions of masculinity. They are clearly important, but again seem to me to be part of broader issues of attitudes to sex, of how its various roles are conceived. Which is to say, I am struck by concepts of masculinity as effect as well as cause, of changes and variations. Long himself is very concerned to chart variations in understanding of masculinity, but that raises questions of why such variations in the first place: still, a very stimulating and informative work.

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