Thursday, July 14, 2005

Retrospect of a gay scholar

While I had long had a variety of interests, until the early 1970s I regarded myself as a card-carrying art historian. I completed my dissertation, sought to establish myself as a teacher-scholar in several major universities, edited a periodical in the field, and so forth. After Stonewall in 1969 though the emerging field of gay studies started to engage my attention. The potential of this field became evident in working with my best friend, the late Jack Stafford, on a bibliography of the subject, conducted under the auspices of a committee of gay librarians. Then I joined the Gay Academic Union, which I first thought of exclusively as a civil-rights organization. Fairly soon, though I saw that this work could have a scholarly component.

There were a few lonely forerunners in the US, who operated outside the sphere of academia (then committed to disparaging homosexuality as "abnormal psychology.") ONE Inc. and its scholarly Quarterly were outposts of a sort. In the impromptu courses given at ONE in Los Angeles ten fields, from sociology to literature, were recognized. In New York City Donald Webster Cory operated mostly alone in preparing books on the subject.

By the mid-70s I was aware of the vast corpus of German-language material from 1838-1933. Since I could read German, I sought to assimilate this.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED—after 30-odd years.

1. As a rule feelings of same-sex love in human beings are persistent, intense, and ineradicable. It is not certain whether this commitment in depth is due to a primary biological-genetic component or a constitutional one (the latter encompassing, and perhaps privileging early childhood experience and cultural conditioning).

2. There are significant similarities as well as differences between the experiences of gay men and lesbians. The equation of the two, sustained on political and strategic grounds, is relatively recent (the latter part of the nineteenth century).

3. In addition to many manifestations in tribal cultures, there have been four chief forms in high cultures: ancient Greece, the Far East (China and Japan), Islam, the European West. Islam and the West have absorbed homophobic perspectives stemming from the Hebrew-Christian Bible; the other two did not. This comparison offers a clear dichotomy.

4. The West and Islam are afflicted by a powerful hydra of homophobic prejudices and fabrications. The need to examine these and root them out is ongoing.

5. The West has shown a long history of legal sanctions, reflecting these motifs. These laws and the arguments for and against them display notable residues of thinking and attitudes. The history of law enforcement against those who have fallen afoul of such legislation is a melancholy, but necessary subject.

6. On a worldwide basis, research has revealed a prevalence of two quite different types of same-sex behavior: age-differentiated and gender-differentiated. A third type, the so-called egalitarian one, is relatively rare, though prevalent in modern Western contexts--at least those that are most visible. Survivals of the other two types are undeniable.

7. In most societies that have fostered homosexual behavior, there are patterns of cultural continuity. In American Indian societies, for example, these take the form of traditional roles assumed by the so-called berdache figures. Ancient Greece, the West, and China display complex manifestations of gay and lesbian high culture.

8. Whether this reality authorizes one to speak of a stable gay identity and lesbian identity over time is uncertain. Even more problematic is the hypothesis of a distinct bisexual identity. Nonetheless, many individuals eschew absolute polarization, not restricting themselves either to the other sex or to their own, but have combined the two interests in some fashion.

9. Ethological research has abundantly shown that the old view that homosexual behavior does not occur among animals is false. Yet in many species the behaviors are of limited scope (e.g. mounting; the joint upbringing of young), too narrowly focused to permit a straightforward ascription of "animal homosexuality."

10. Academically an opportunity has been squandered, since most of the tenure-track jobs in our area have gone to Queer Theorists. In general, the hijacking of gay studies by postmodernism has produced little of lasting value.