Friday, July 22, 2011

What Is Really to Blame?

My post on Bigotry has faced a number of criticisms in the comments section.  One of those criticisms, which I want to address first, is that my post made it sound as if there was an organized selective breeding program of slaves going on during the Antebellum South.  As Russ Manley of the blog “Blue Truck, Red State” wrote, “It's important, though, not to give people the impression there was any organized program going on - all depended on the individual whims of slave owners, and antebellum accounts are full of complaints about the "lazy darkies" who had to be watched and prodded every minute to get their work done.”  I certainly didn’t mean it to sound that way, and one of the reasons that I love to have you guys comment is so that I can clear up misunderstandings in my posts.  I do that with my students as a way to get discussion going in the classroom.  As long as civility reigns, I very much appreciate comments and criticisms.


Furthermore, there was also much debate about religion being the main cause of homophobia and bigotry.  I admit, that it is part of the equation, but not the only reason.  When we choose one reason for homophobia then we are missing the larger picture.  Homophobia, or the hatred of same-sex intercourse, has been around much longer than Christianity of Judaism.  More than likely, it has been part of societies since the beginning of man.  Therefore, there are many parts to this equation.


In another criticism, Lonnie left the the following comment on my post about "Bigotry":
I think John D'Emilio and Sherry Wolf give a much better account of the origins of gay oppression:
http://platypus1917.home.comcast.net/~platypus1917/demilio_captialismgayid.pdf

http://www.isreview.org/issues/37/gay_oppression.shtml
Since it was suggested, I read the two articles.  I found Wolf's article to be particularly hard to stomach, but I read it anyway.  Both of these authors present a Marxist historiographical approach to the question of the origins of gay oppression.  In its most basic form, the Marxist historical tradition blames all of the problems of the world on capitalism and class struggles.  However, I have always found it deeply flawed.  For one, if you look at the sources used by Marxist historians, you will quickly find that more of those sources are from other Marxist historians.  They so narrow down their sources, until they ignore the larger historical picture, even though they claim to be looking at the larger historical picture.  In my opinion, this effectively removes their objectivity which is at the heart of true history.  They ignore those sources that contradict their point of view.  You cannot be an effective historian and dismiss the sources you do not agree with, you must take them into account.  History has many schools of historiography (the study of the history and methodology of the discipline of history), and Marxist interpretation is only one of them.


Before I continue, I want to say this, John D’Emilio is one of the greatest LGBT historians.  His books Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 and Intimate Matters:A History of Sexuality in America are two of the seminal books on LGBT American History.  The article suggested above by D’Emilio, and I do hope that each of you will go check these links out for yourself and not just take my opinion, was written while he was still a graduate student, which does not diminish his writing in the least, but his tone has changed since those early days in the 1980s when it was written.  Still, the two books above are well worth reading if you want a greater understanding of LGBT history in America.


Now that I have stated why I disagree strongly with Marxist interpretations, I want to address some of the semi-valid points in their arguments.  First of all, homosexual identity as it is seen today was nearly non-existent before the twentieth century; however, that does not mean that just because we did not have the word for it, that it did not exist.  I think it most certainly did, though it was quite rare and was not always practiced in the same way, it still existed.  The love between persons of the same sex existed before the advent of capitalism, which did not emerge until the end of mercantilism in the late 19th century.  D’Emilio and Wolf try to state the difference between homosexual behavior and homosexual identity.  Do you really think that no one before 1900 realized that they had an attraction to someone of the same sex and that they were not attracted to someone of the opposite sex?  Do you think that we become homosexual because family structure has broken down?  The answer to these questions is no.  The history of Florence, Italy during the Renaissance shows that homosexuality/sodomy was not illegal during that time period.  Some men married because they felt the need to procreate, but other did not.  They had homosexual relationships.  Also, the Inquisition records of the Catholic Church in Brazil during the 17th-19th centuries has numerous documented cases of homosexual persecution.  This was not a phenomenon of capitalism. Brazil only had a brief history of capitalism in the early twentieth century that was quashed by Getúlio Vargas and his corporatism from 1930-1954 and then largely under the control of the military until 1985. Likewise, Spain who continually persecuted homosexuals under Francisco Franco from c. 1936 to 1975, was not a capitalist country but was a hybrid of corporatism, fascism, and dictatorship.  Even in the late 19th century in America, there was talk of so-called "Boston Marriages," a term is said to have been in use in New England in the decades spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe two women living together, independent of financial support from a man.  The term was believed to be first coined by Henry James in The Bostonians.  Since 2000, many mentions of "Boston marriage" cite as examples the same few literary figures, in particular the Maine local color novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Adams Fields her late life companion, the widow of the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. There is often an assumption that in the era when the term was in use, it denoted a lesbian relationship. However, there is no documentary proof that any particular "Boston marriage" included sexual relations, but there has been a great deal of speculation, some of which comes from what we know or the private life of Willa Cather.


Furthermore, these authors argue that same-sex segregation during World War II brought about modern day homosexuality.  First of all, World War II is not the first time that large numbers of men and women have been separated from their families. This has happened in all major modern wars.  In Europe, this had happened in the First World War, and to a lesser extent in America.  So I don’t think that you can pinpoint WWII as the starting point.  It had all happened before.  Wolf does not address that millions of men in Europe served in World War I, and that millions of women left their homes and family to either work in the military or in factories during World War I.  Because it is convenient for her argument, she dismisses the history of Europe when it is inconvenient, and then turns around and uses it when it is convenient and the same history in America in turn is inconvenient.  In addition, both authors cite WWII as the beginning of homosexual persecution in the military and that it has continued largely uninterrupted until the modern day.  The problem is that it was largely ignored during Vietnam, when men identified as homosexual to not be drafted, most of those men truly were homosexual, however, they were forced to serve in the military anyway.  The ban on homosexuals was largely ignored by the draft board and military during the Vietnam War.  Likewise, today, when America is fighting two wars, and there is an increasing need for soldiers in the war against Terrorism, they have repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  It is not a coincidence in my opinion.


I have three more points that I want to make.  Both authors claim that sexual liberation, that is sex for enjoyment not for procreation, is capitalist invention/byproduct.  I cannot buy that explanation.  First of all, communism and socialism pushed for the ideas of free love, long before the flower children of the 1960s.  The sexual revolution was made much more visible because of birth control, but people have been having sex for reasons other than procreation since man first had an erection.  We are the only species who we know for sure have sex for enjoyment.  It is not a modern phenomenon.


I also want to point out that Wolf argues that the family has not always existed in human history.  If she would look at the anthropological studies, archeological studies, and historical studies of mankind, she would realize that it has always existed.  From the earliest humans, the family structure has been the governing structure.  The idea of the family or clan is the first political structure in any society.  As the family grows larger, the head of the family becomes the head of the clan.  From there, stronger clans take over weaker clans and form chiefdoms, which eventually grow into kingdoms and empires.  The family structure has always been the basis of human society.  Even as gay men and women today, we are not abandoning the family, we want families of our own.  We want marriage, and we want children (at least I do, and so do many others.)


The last point that I want to make is that urbanization has led to gay communities more so than capitalism. Urbanization has more to do with the industrial revolution than it does the rise of capitalism.  As fewer people were needed to work a farm, due in large part of the end of slavery and the mechanization of the farm, that excess labor moved to the cities to find work.  Most did not abandon the families, and a large family often lived together in a household trying to make a living wage.  However, the urbanization of America began before capitalism, and thus I feel that it is not the cause of the breakdown of the family, nor is it the cause of class warfare.  Class warfare has existed long before capitalism, and therefore, capitalism cannot be the blame for all the evil of the world.


Wolf is not totally wrong in all that she writes. In fact she (surprising to me) got this part of history correct:

In Paris and Berlin, medical and legal experts in the 1870s examined a new kind of "degenerate" to determine whether or not these people should be held responsible for their actions. The word "homosexuality"was first coined by a Hungarian physician named Karl Maria Benkert in 1869.  Homosexuality evolved in scientific circles from a "sin against nature" to a mental illness. The first popular study of homosexuality, Sexual Inversion by Havelock Ellis in 1897, put forward the idea that homosexuality was a congenital illness not to be punished, but treated. Nineteenth-century sexologists developed ideas about homosexuality as a form of mental insanity. One famous theory held that gayness was the result of "urning"–the female mind was trapped in a male body (or vice versa). Another theory widely disseminated referred to homosexuals as a third sex.

I do want to make one final point before I end this post.  Both D'Emilio and Wolf argue that there is not basis for being "born gay."  This is a recent argument that I have actually come across several times in the last few weeks from LGBT activists and scholars.  Most of the recent attention to arguments against a biological component to homosexuality is because of the Lady Gaga song, "Born This Way," to which some in the LGBT community are now starting to argue against.  This is a topic for a future post, so I won't go into much detail right now. I merely wanted to mention this as part of the discussion.


I may have rambled a bit in this post, but I wanted to talk a bit about historical interpretation.  I hope that you will read those two articles cited above and give me your take on them. I do not believe that either author presented a convincing argument for the beginnings of gay oppression.  In fact, from my reading of the articles, it seems to me that both vaguely lay the blame on capitalism, but do a poor job of giving evidence to this claim. Do you think that I am completely off base or are they completely off base or are all of us a somewhat right and somewhat wrong?  I want to know what you think.  I personally think that the origins of gay oppression is a many faceted problem and cannot be explained in a simple historical method.  We have to look at all parts of the picture and not ignore those parts that we find inconvenient.

10 comments:

M@rvin said...

I read D'Emilio's article in a queer studies class two years ago. I think he means industrialization enabled the development of a gay identity, not so much just capitalism. Especially true for lesbians - more workers were needed, women were hired, they earned money, got more independence, didn't need a man to survive in the world, and could fully pursue relationships with other women, not just sex. WWII is cited since many women joined the workforce in the US for the first time only then, when men were away fighting a war, and 'Rosie the Riveter' was needed.

I agree the study is limited to the US in scope though.

Some family structures may have existed, but not always in today's form. That is new. In many parts of the world, it's still different. For example, the Nair community in Kerala.

JoeBlow said...

M@rvin, I agree that D'Emilio is speaking largely of industrialization, but within the context of capitalism. To quote D'Emilio "Their [gay men and women] emergence is associated with the relations of capitalism; it has been the historical development of capitalism--more specifically, its free labor system--that has allowed large number of men and women in the late twentieth century to call themselves gay, to see themselves as part of a community of similar men and women, and to organize politically on the basis of that identity" (pg. 102) In that quote he specifically says capitalism is the reason for the emergence of gay and lesbians.

The family structure has changed since it's over the millennia; however, Wolf states not that the family has changed but that it did not exist. To be specific, she states ". In fact, the family itself has not always existed." In this she is relying on the writings of Engels, who was in turn employed the anthropological research of Lewis Henry Morgan, much of which Wolf herself states "has since been refuted." She is using an argument that few, if any, modern anthropologists would give credence.

As for the Nair community in Kerala, I have to confess that I know little about them, so I am going to refrain from much comment. However, from what I read, they do have a familial structure, though it is not the "traditional" family that we think of today.

I think that both D'Emilio and Wolf make some interesting observations, but that ultimately their arguments are flawed by the limit of their scope.

Thanks for your comment. I really do want to know what my readers think of these studies.

becca said...

wow a really great post and well written wish i could say something more in depth but honestly there was alot to take in will be going back to read it again. but it was very well done

JoeBlow said...

Thanks becca. It's a bit theoretical, which I know can be difficult, so thanks for reading.

Jay M. said...

Theoretical yes, but the two posts combined mean a lot to me...it's been a real education into who I am, and perhaps "how I got here". Having only recently (since about this time last year) have I fully embraced who I am as a homosexual, learning about the whole origins of our place in the world has been extremely interesting.

Thanks for taking the time to educate me, and I'm sure others, Prof.

Peace <3
Jay

JoeBlow said...

Thanks, Jay. I'm glad that you found it interesting and learned something from it.

VitaVagabonda said...

There is so much wrong here that I could spend the rest of the day on it and not get much else done ... So here are some random thoughts.

First, I'm not really sure what the difference is between saying that D'Emilio/Wolf are limited in their analyses because they're “fundamentally” Marxist in their approach and saying, on the other hand, that your analysis is more accurate because you are utterly reject such views and are, thus, just as “fundamentally” anti-Marxist.

There’s also a profound unfairness (as well as a leaping logical flaw) in the syllogism you propose: D’Emilio/Wolf are Marxist historians; the Marxist historiographical approach is “deeply flawed” because “more of [their] sources are from other Marxist historians,” leading to a narrow view of history and a lack of objectivity; thus . D’Emilio/Wolf are biased and have a narrow view of history. As a matter of fact, it simply isn’t true about their scholarship, which is much more broadly based than what is suggested in your somewhat sideways attempt at red-baiting.

But let’s get down to your claims.

You write, “First of all, homosexual identity as it is seen today was nearly non-existent before the twentieth century; however, that does not mean that just because we did not have the word for it, that it did not exist. I think it most certainly did, though it was quite rare and was not always practiced in the same way, it still existed.”

OK, so it was “nearly non-existent,” “quite rare,” and “not always practiced in the same way....” And that means your argument is what? That D’Emilio/Wolf miss the boat because they don’t focus on a phenomenon that even you admit was “nearly non-existent” and “quite rare”? They are inaccurate because they focused instead on the larger social/cultural/historical trend – i.e., that the biological sex of one’s partner was not considered the fulcrum upon which identity hinged? This is your criticism?

You go on: “Do you really think that no one before 1900 realized that they had an attraction to someone of the same sex and that they were not attracted to someone of the opposite sex? Do you think that we become homosexual because family structure has broken down? The answer to these questions is no.” I don’t understand how the second question is remotely relevant, and the first is both a non sequitur and ungrammatical. (More important, it’s also why I forbid my students to use rhetorical questions in their essays: When you have a valid point to make, you make it and show your proof; when you don’t, you ask rhetorical questions.)

Yes, some people prior to 1900 realized that they had attractions to those of the same biological sex and yes, some (but not all – because the notion of the exclusivity of sexual object choice as the sine qua non of an immutable personal identity comes MUCH later) were also not attracted to members of the opposite biological sex. And so what? What are you even trying to get at here? What people “realized” about their attractions had (and continues to have) a merely tangential relationship to what they actually did with their genitals, with what relationships they entered into or failed to enter into, and with what identity they chose to take on. None of this – including the Florentines and all the other historical evidence you adduce – has anything whatsoever to do with the fundamental point: At a certain point, a shift took place in the concept of *essential* personal, sexual identities created largely out of the biological sex of the sexual/marriage/romantic partner.

VitaVagabonda said...

To continue, you write, “Furthermore, these authors argue that same-sex segregation during World War II brought about modern day homosexuality.” That’s a straw man summation and it’s unfair. It isn’t what they say. Rather, they say that historical conditions provided an unprecedented opportunity for young people to be segregated with others of their biological in milieu that were not just distant from their families but were light years from the social contexts many of them knew. The WWII experience certainly didn’t “bring about” modern homosexuality (whatever that is), but it clearly gave men and women the opportunity to consider possibilities of action (and, ultimately, identities) different from the ones they had left behind.

As to whether such a thing had never happened before, again: They never say it hadn’t. But for sheer numbers and duration, WWII was different, at least in part because those deployments took place in an entirely different social and historical context.

I think it’s an interesting question to speculate why, during the Civil War, for example, more of the soldiers (many of them very young) who were taken from home (but not really so very far away, however, and almost always with people they knew intimately from their very same hometowns or social milieu) did not develop new identities out of their arguably common same-sex adventures. (Whitman lived in a Civil War world in which men were apparently available for companionship and sex on nearly every street corner – precisely because having male-male sex *didn’t* require an identify shift).

I don’t know what the entire explanation for that would be, but the differences between early American capitalism (at a time when America was almost entirely rural and agricultural) and the middle capitalist period following WWII (which in turn followed the industrial revolution, vast movements of the population into cities, and significant changes in male/female sex roles) surely played a significant role. That combination of forces and events *hadn’t* happened before, and that’s what they authors argue.

And you say more: “The problem is that it was largely ignored during Vietnam, when men identified as homosexual to not be drafted, most of those men truly were homosexual, however, they were forced to serve in the military anyway.” I don’t actually understand this sentence, but if you’re attempting to argue that the military, in times of great need for personnel, ignores some of its own regulations, that is an indisputable fact. And, once again, so what? Your comment about the ongoing repeal of DADT is illogical: all the military has to do if it finds itself short-handed is issue stop-gap orders (which it has done throughout the post-9/11 conflicts) and put an end to discharges. It certainly didn’t need to repeal DADT.

And finally: “Both authors claim that sexual liberation, that is sex for enjoyment not for procreation, is capitalist invention/byproduct. I cannot buy that explanation. First of all, communism and socialism pushed for the ideas of free love, long before the flower children of the 1960s. The sexual revolution was made much more visible because of birth control, but people have been having sex for reasons other than procreation since man first had an erection. We are the only species who we know for sure have sex for enjoyment. It is not a modern phenomenon.”

Wow. Really? Communism and socialism, to the extent they “pushed for” anything having to do with sexuality, pushed for *heterosexual* free love, having at least occasionally recognized that the male/female marriage-&-children dyad was a fairly basic unit of capitalism. They were, on the other hand, wickedly homophobic.

VitaVagabonda said...

As for whether “people have been having sex for reasons other than procreation since man first had an erection”: Leaving aside the fact that slightly more than half of the “people” don’t have erections, at least not the kind you mean, this is another non sequitur and doesn’t actually prove anything. The point isn’t whether people “in the past” had what we’ve come to call “recreational” sex; the point is that the social consequences of those acts were often dire. Sex for pleasure is not a modern phenomenon, but what we mean by “sexual liberation” is.

Two final points: The sexual revolution was not “made more visible because of birth control”; birth control, which was becoming available to women long before anyone thought of a sexual revolution, made it possible for women to contemplate a destiny that did not necessarily involve being baby factories and dying an early death from exhaustion; it gave them the opportunity to (at least) consider the possibility of occupying a sphere outside of the home. The (relatively) widespread, legal availability of birth control unchained women from the maternal bed and gave them some choice in the question of whether to procreate; that b.c. was put to other uses some 60 years later is true, but that is beside the point you seem to be making. And we are not, by the way, the only species that has sex for enjoyment; masturbation is known among several kinds of primates, and homosexual behavior is so frequent among many animal species as to be called common. Such sexual behavior, at least arguably, is undertaken for reasons other than for the creation of progeny and, thus, can reasonably considered “pleasurable.”

JoeBlow said...

VitaVagabonda, I am sorry that you seem to take such offense at what I have written here. It is meant to be a theoretical thought piece. It is my opinion, of which I feel that I am completely entitled to on my blog. That being said, I would like to respond to your criticisms.

I do not believe that I am "red-bating" when I claim that most of their sources are from other Marxist historians. When looking through their sources, there are no sources that disagree with their arguments, which make their research one-sided. All historians should be objective, and whether you agree or disagree with a source, you should still acknowledge that there are other points of view. D’Emilio/Wolf do not accomplish this in their articles. I claim that this particular article by D’Emilio is Marxist in its approach, but from reading his other works; I would not categorize D’Emilio as a Marxist historian.

I am not claiming in this post that "they are inaccurate because they focused instead on the larger social/cultural/historical trend," however, what I am claiming is that they dismiss completely the possibility of a homosexual identity prior to the invention of capitalism.

As for your criticism of my use of rhetorical questions, I do not allow my students to use rhetorical question in their essays either (though you seem to have no problem using them in your comments). However, I do not consider this a formal essay, and if I want to use rhetorical question, I have every right to do so. Part of the reason for doing so is to present some of the questions that I myself have and that others may have as well. These are questions that I invite my readers to ponder as well, and thus, I feel that rhetorical questions are effectively used in this circumstance. Furthermore, if I decide to simplify and argument with a "straw man" assumption, than I have the right to do so as well.

You state that “As to whether such a thing had never happened before, again: They never say it hadn’t. But for sheer numbers and duration, WWII was different, at least in part because those deployments took place in an entirely different social and historical context.” To me, it seems obvious that they are omitting this from their argument for a reason. Simply put, it does not support their thesis. This presents a problem, in my opinion. D’Emilio/Wolf make some strong statements in their arguments and in doing so ignore other parts of history. I still argue that the same circumstances presented in WWII are remarkably similar to the circumstances experienced during WWI. However, in your analysis your ignored my argument about WWI and instead used your own flawed argument by presenting a red-herring argument about the American Civil War.

Furthermore, I admit that I did omit that communism was wickedly homophobic. I agree they were, however, my argument stated the ideals of free love which D’Emilio/Wolf use in their argument.

As for my statement that humans have been having recreational sex since "man" had "his" first erection is meant to be a humorous exaggeration. And you should notice that I specifically said that “man” had an erection. I did not say humankind (and thus did not include women as you imply) had an erection. I believe that if you look at the statement, you would have to agree that “men” past puberty do have erections, and it is well more than half of men in the world that have erections. Half of the men in the world are not impotent.

Furthermore, the sexual revolution was indisputably made more visible by the use of modern birth control. I cannot see how anyone who has studied women’s history can dispute that modern birth control, i.e. “the pill,” did not have a profound impact on the sexual revolution.