MF 2015

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Martin Foreman

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Gay's the word?

March 2004: I have previously pointed out that in many societies, particularly in the developing world, "gay" was not an appropriate term for many men who have sex with men. In different communities it may be interpreted as meaning (US)American, middle-class, effeminate or transgender or not understood at all. Most social groups have their own terminology for men who have sex with men, and I gave the often quoted examples of cachero (Costa Rica), gathoey (Thailand) and panthi (India), each of which refers to a particular group of such men. While the phrase "men who have sex with men" is appropriate, I argued against the use of the acronym MSM on several grounds, in particular the increasing tendency to talk about an MSM identity. (For the full article and responses by readers, click here)

This month I want to take a longer-term look at the terminology used to refer to men who have sex with men. I am going to argue that over the next two or three generations the identities that we refer to today, whether community-specific (eg cachero), global (gay) or new (MSM) are likely to wither away and gay rights campaigning will have achieved its goal when the gay identity dies.

Look back into the past for a moment. In Western Europe in the nineteenth century, the words invert, Uranian and homosexual (and their equivalents in French, German etc) were coined to refer to men and women who were exclusively attracted to their own sex. Other words, such as sodomite and bugger, had long been in use, but these were slang terms,  which were often used vaguely and which did not meet the needs of a world that was feverishly classifying everything from rock formations to animal species, and from skull types to human behaviour.

Over the next hundred years, Uranian and invert lost favour, homophile flourished briefly in the mid-twentieth century and homosexual persisted. But the term never lost its clinical edge and the homosexual man and woman in the street preferred slang words, particularly those that maintained an element of secrecy. "Earnest" was popular in late nineteenth-century London (it is no coincidence that it was used in Oscar Wilde's play), while "musical", "queer" and "one of us" were commoner in later years. "Gay" itself began life in Victorian times as a word describing women prostitutes, but its meaning shifted to those other sexual outlaws, men who have sex with men.

All these words focused on the sex of the partner, not on what the two partners did together. Thus although English-speakers were usually aware of sexual roles - the idea that one partner in a same-sex relationship assumes an "active" "insertive", "top" or "masculine" role while the other is "passive" / "receptive / bottom" or "feminine" - these roles were not critical to a gay or lesbian identity.

In other societies, for example Latino, South Asian and Thai, whether one penetrates or is penetrated has often been seen as more important than the sex of one's partner, and being penetrated is considered as more shameful than to penetrate. This influences the terminology used. Thus the language may make little or no distinction between an "active" same sex partner and an "active" heterosexual partner, or it may attach little stigma to the "active" same-sex partner*. Meanwhile, strong stigma is almost always attached to the man who takes the "women's" role.

Why was the role distinction less important in anglophone countries? One argument is that discrimination against women has never been as strong in societies that originated in Northern Europe as in many other parts of the world. Men could certainly be criticised for "female" behaviour but they would not be ostracised on those grounds. And since strong stigma was attached to both same-sex partners, irrespective of their sexual roles, there was no external compulsion to adopt one sexual role exclusively. Certainly, it seems that most western gay men - ie those that have been strongly influenced by Anglo-American culture - do not restrict themselves. Ask a typical gay Londoner whether he prefers to penetrate or be penetrated and he is likely to respond "both, and a lot more besides". Ask a typical Mumbai man who has sex with men - particularly one who has little income or education - what his preferred sexual role is and he is likely to state one very clearly and laugh or recoil in horror at the thought of the other.

Is this an appropriate reaction? Has the Mumbai man called himself panthi (insertive) or kothi (receptive) because it genuinely reflects both his basic needs and desires and the culture he comes from? Or has his culture forced him into a sexual role that he might not otherwise choose? In their early teens, many rural Thai boys, with no concept of sex between men except that of transvestite / transsexual gathoeys, adopt highly effeminate mannerisms, such as gestures and the speech marker "ka", and some even start taking female hormones, because they can see no other way of expressing their sexuality. In their late teens and early twenties, when they come into contact with other Thai men who prefer men and with western views of homosexuality, those same boys often revert to a more masculine role, with which they are innately more comfortable. (Which causes problems for gathoeys who regret having taken hormones to extremes or having undergone surgery.**) In other words, their choice of a specific role was dictated by the culture they live in rather than innate desire - and I suspect that is true for many other cultures. The strength of gay - and even more of its sibling, queer - is that it allows individuals to explore their sexuality to the point where they feel most comfortable.

Meanwhile, the distinction between a Western gay identity and local role-based identities is rapidly changing. Across the world middle class men who are attracted to other men increasingly refer to themselves as gay. They do so either rejecting local identities that limit their freedom of sexual expression or considering them of lesser importance. This shift is the result of many factors, including the influence of Western culture, urbanisation and the increasing emancipation of women. Urbanisation weakens the links between individuals and their families and geographical communities (which they cannot choose) and strengthens links between individuals and friends and virtual communities (which they can choose). While women are far from achieving equal status in every society, among the middle-class in particular, their status is rising and there is less stigma in adopting the "women's" - ie receptive - role. (Yes, the link between these points is weak, but is, I suggest, nonetheless real.) 

In the short term in many countries, poorer and less-educated individuals, who are often socially conservative, are more likely to retain and feel comfortable with identities such as kothi and panthi that focus on penetration. In the long run, however, they too are likely to move towards gay. This may be regrettable in terms of an increasing globalisation of culture and a loss of local cultural identities, but it is to be welcomed as part of a universal shift away from the current practice of limiting individuals' choices in sexual activity and away from stigmatising individuals who are penetrated in sex.

In other words, in the medium term, "gay" as a universal identity for men attracted to the same sex, is both inevitable and desirable. (Yes, I am using gay as shorthand to include lesbian and those who call themselves bisexual.) Certainly those of us working in HIV prevention and self-esteem for men who have sex with men (and women who have sex with women) should respect and work with local identities as long as those identities are deeply rooted in the community, but we should not stand in the way of the emerging global gay identity.

Note that I said "in the medium term". In the long term - one, two or three generations - the concept of gay itself is likely to fade away. That will happen when the world as a whole recognises that same-sex attraction is not only a harmless natural phenomenon and that a fair and just society cannot exist without recognition of the right of gay men and women to enjoy their lives to the full extent of their heterosexual siblings. In other words, when it is widely accepted that there is no difference between a heterosexual woman and her lesbian sister except for the sex of their emotional and sexual partner, the need for a separate identity begins to die.

That process has already begun to happen in many Western countries. Both in legislation and in everyday life, the distinctions between homosexual and heterosexual are breaking down. Twenty years ago a newspaper report would refer to "John Smith and his homosexual partner"; today such a report is more likely to say "John Smith and his partner", with the partner's sex being omitted or brought up only in passing. In nightlife the barriers between gay and straight are dissolving and in large cities couples of whatever gender who are scarcely noticed holding hands in the streets. Meanwhile laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals proliferate (and are even proposed in Muslim Turkey!!!), pensions are granted irrespective of the sex of the worker's partner and country after country is moving slowly, if often vociferously, towards marriage being celebrated irrespective of the genders of the participants.

Of course some countries are further along this road than others, and some have hardly begun the journey. But we are all marching in the right direction - just look at changes in the last twenty years in countries as diverse as China and India, Argentina and South Africa. And the further along this road we progress, the more irrelevant "gay" becomes. It may persist as shorthand for a hundred years, but it will become no more than significant to an individual's identity than the colour of their hair or the style of their clothes. Of course we will mourn its passing, but the world it leaves behind will be a much better place than the one into which it was born.

* The terminology for the "active" partner in lesbian sex often appears similar to grudging admiration; eg sapatão in Brazilian Portuguese - literally "big foot" - denotes masculinity and strength, which are qualities that are admired.

** With several transgender friends and acquaintances I am of course not arguing that transgenderism and transvestism or effeminacy in men does not exist, only that it can sometimes be an unwilling or inappropriate choice. No-one should consider a physical realignment of their sex until their early twenties when they are mature enough to be aware and understand what they really want.

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