Studies of Homosexuality Volume 2 Introduction

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The academic discipline of anthropology took shape in the 1860s under L. H. Morgan in the United States and E. B. Tylor in England, but it can trace its roots to the comparative study of human societies adumbrated by the fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus. The new discipline soon acquired disparate branches in physical anthropology, which deals with the evolution of the hominid line; archaeology, the study of material remains; linguistics, with the task of recording and analyzing the speech of nonliterate peoples; and cultural anthropology, which took up an older tradition of ethnography and settled down to specialize in comparative investigation of human cultures. Originally these fields tended to address what pioneering anthropologists thought were the "lower races." In the 1930s, however, Robert Redfield and his associates began the study of the folk society of peasants, forming a bridge to more recent fieldwork within the host society itself. In the course of the twentieth century anthropology absorbed influences from behavioral psychology, Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxism, ecology, ethology and primatology, semiotics, area studies, and even literary criticism. From a small, holistic discipline, American anthropology greatly expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, stimulated by an infusion of federal financial support. The field became increasingly fragmented and did not develop a central body of theory or unified ap-proach. Cultural anthropologists generally assume culture to be the main determinant of behavior, resisting encroachments from ethology, genetics, and (most recently) sociobiology, which emphasize uniformity and biological determinism. By contrast, anthropologists tend to value cultural diversity, accepting pluralism as an unalloyed good. But what is culture? A major cleavage in contemporary anthropology is between materialists who, influen-ced by the Marxian tradition, tend to trace the determining feat-ures of culture to socioeconomic factors (which vary enormously owing to differences of technology and ecology), and symbolists, who focus on concepts and ideas cherish-ed by the culture, including myths.

Recently, with their traditional hunting grounds, the unspoiled prelit-erate cultures, dwindling, some anthropologists have turned their techniques on the large American city, creating "urban anthropology" in a domain which had been the prime turf of sociology. Faced with such territorial raids, sociologists retaliated by invading the Third World, compounding still further the question of anthropol-ogy's identity as a discipline.

Anthropology entered the popular imagination through the massive creation of Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890-1915), a work criticized by professionals because it was derived from secondary sources and retained strong elements of Eurocentric judgmentalism. In America a new model based on fieldwork and cultural relativism was championed by Franz Boas.

Even better known were his pupils Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, who were sexually involved with each other as well as with other women. Mead became a pundit of sorts, commenting widely on topical matters and discounting the usual assumption that the American way of life was the only valid one.

The growth of "green" environmentalist groups in industrial societies, with their concept of appropriate technology, stimulated interest in native peoples-especially those of North America and the Amazon-now no longer perceived as backwards but having lessons to teach for the future. The rise of a gay and lesbian American Indian movement reawakened knowledge of the indigenous tradition of the berdache, as examined by Will Roscoe herein.

Today anthropology as a separate discipline in Western university faculties is widely perceived as an example of division of labor, with sociologists taking the European and North American cultural zone, area studies the developing and advanced Asian nations, and anthropology left with the villages not yet reached by television. And yet, sustained by their own rich tradition, anthropologists may ask different ques-tions or examine different aspects than would the sociol-ogist. When it addresses American society, the work of Gilbert Herdt and Kath Weston does so from the standpoint of anthropology rather than of sociology. Moreover, anthropology retains a noble ambition of interpreting the whole of human culture and not just particular zones thereof.

Anthropology and Homosexuality

In general, classical cultural anthropologists addressed kinship and social structure rather than personal matters like sexuality, and homosexuality in particular escaped the framework of their investigations. In the preanthropological stage of encounter with tribal society many travelers collected anecdotal evidence for same-sex behavior, but this data has tended to be neglected by professionals. Many anthropologists seem to have tacitly accepted a version of the noble-savage myth: indigenous peoples could not be contaminated with such a decadent Western vice as same-sex behavior, hence one need not bother to ask about it. A few recorded it, either on the basis of personal predilections or through a wish to rationalize colonial expropriation. Others collected relevant data, but refrained from publishing it. Some worried about their personal reputation-s. Male anthropologists were reluctant to inquire about lesbian practices or found such inquiry taboo. Frequently, Western assumptions governed the inquiry; a classic instance is William Davenport asking Melanesians if they knew anyone who had no sexual desire for women, but only for men. No one did, so Davenport concluded there was no homosexuality. Later he learned that homosexual activity was nearly universal among his subjects, but simply did not supplant heterosexuality. Often natives of cultures with a gender-differentiated type of homosexuality no longer consider those persons who were born male but who have ritually left their gender to still be males, and hence answer questions about sex between males in the negative.

Native reticence about sex in general or particular prac-tices, especially ritual and shamanic homosexuali-ty, is occasion-ally a handicap. Even more of a problem is previous encounter with Western sexual repression in the form of missionaries, teachers, government officials, and others; natives are quick to pick up the emotional reactions of these visitors to native homosexuali-ty as shameful, amusing, or evil. In numerous instances, direct and often successful efforts at suppression of native practices had already taken place before the ethnographers arrived.

Nevertheless, a considerable body of observations of homosexual practices among preliterate peoples did accrue. Paolo Montegazza, a professor in Florence, in 1885 published The Sexual Relations of Mankind, in which he emphasized the variety of sexual customs found in humankind. Calling sodomy "shameful above all," "vice against nature," and "unclean and revolting," Montegazza cited 14 cases of it (or cross-gender behavior) among the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The following year Sir Richard Burton issued his translation of the Thousand Nights and a Night with a lengthy appended "Terminal Essay" containing 42 pages on pederasty, outlining his theory of a "Sotadic Zone" extending to the South Sea Islands and the New World at the time of its discovery, where "the Vice is popular and endemic." The Finnish anthropologist Edward Westermarck included a substantial chapter on "Homosexual Love" in his Origin and Development of Moral Ideas (1906-08) showing the variability of same-sex relations around the globe.

In 1911 Ferdinand Karsch-Haack published the 668-page Das gleichgeschlechtliche Leben der Naturvölker, the first book devoted to the subject of homosexuality among preliterate societies (significantly, in German, the "nature peoples"). This work abounds in excerpts from primary materials in a number of languages. Unfortunately, many of these sources, which could provide comparisons over time with the contemporary cultures being studied by present-day anthropolo-gists, have suffered signal neglect.

Many of the early reports of European observers were biased, not only in the telling but even more importantly in the omission, reflecting the missionary and government auspices under which these observers operated. Anthropologists, too, tended to remain inattentive to subgroups which might engage in homosexual behavior.

The Human Relations Area Files were established at midcentury at Yale University to compile world culture traits. The materials accumulating there were utilized by anthropologist Clellan S. Ford in his 1951 collaboration with Frank A. Beach in Patterns of Sexual Behavior, constituting a major breakthrough. The authors found that 64 per cent of the societies for which records were available to them tolerated or encouraged homosexual behavior; such behavior was also noted in primates and other animals. Following Ford and Beach, anthropologists took a new look at the berdache phenomenon among native American tribes. In the seventies scholars formed the Anthropological Research Group on Homosexuality, which published a newsletter and later changed its name to the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropolo-gists.

Methodologically, anthropology displays some major discrepan-cies between initial and subsequent ethnographies of a single culture by different researchers, casting doubt on the reliability of such observations (the so-called "Rashomon effect"). In some cases, of course, the apparent discrepancy reflects the targeting of different aspects of the culture or a somewhat different geographical focus. Also, of course, tribal societies are not static, as one tends to think, but evolve, so that discrepancies between earlier and later ethnographies may simply mirror a pattern of ongoing change. Many cultures are being contaminated by acculturation, and tribal informants have learned to respond to an investigator's expectations. The "initiatory" homosexuality of many cultures may be closed to outsiders and hence denied.

A survey of the current data on homosexuality in preliter-ate cultures shows a striking lack (except among Arthur Soren-son's Indians of the northwest Amazon) of the androphile type of relationship (involving pairs of adults, both considered to be of the same gender, of roughly equal social status, and reciprocal in their behavior) which dominates today's industrial-i-zed Western world. Situational homosexuality does occur among African and South American all-male hunting bands roaming far from their families. Ethnographers have also found numerous instances of adolescent experimentation and occasional dominance-enforce-ment homosexuality among warrior tribes, but they have rarely de-scribed ephebo-philia (except among the Nkundo of Africa and the native Hawaiian aristocracy), possibly because they were not aware of it as constituting a distinct type. (Ephebophilia is the attraction to males in the 17-21 age range.) Broadly speaking, anthropol-o-gists have found two major systems: one gender-di-fferentiat-ed and the other age-differ-entiated.

Shamanism and the Gender-differentiated System

The gender-graded or "berdache" systems may be the remnants of a once-existing cultural sphere which spread across the northern plains of Asia, colonized the Western Hemisphere from Siberia, and sent offshoots to the coastal and litoral societies of the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans, including Polenesia. This is a pattern in which the passive partner receives a summons from spirits or perceives signs that he must give up his manhood in favor of a not-man status (sometimes described as feminine, sometimes as a third gender), which remains a lifelong assignment; he may assume special healing or religious functions as a shaman or perform other special functions for the tribe; usually he engages in limited or complete cross-dressing. His sexual partner, whom he may marry, could be any adult male of the tribe (not another berdache); in this type of arrangement the insertive role is not extraordinary, only the recept-ive one.

Native Americans, whose institution of berdachehood has attracted the most sustained attention, accepted gender diversity in a religious context, assigning its origins to the spirit world, which overruled the biological sex of the berdache. Like their Siberian counterparts, berdaches acted as shamans and healers, seers, and prophets. Berdaches, called "two-spirited" by some tribes, also served as teachers, adoptive parents, and mediators. Subject to repression from Christian intolerance, the institution went underground; in some tribes it disappeared, while in a few it has continued to the present, and in others the tradition is being revived.

Shamanism is a feature of the Paleo-Siberian peoples, including not only Siberia but also Alaska. Anthropologists have noted a widespread human idea that special powers or gifts are associated with interstitial or ambiguous persons, including mixed-gender individuals. Where division of labor in the tribe is by gender, the shaman serves as artist and intellectual. The "calling" to shamanhood may take place at any point in life, and far from being limited to males, often shows a predominance of females. Other areas reporting cross-dressing shamans include Kalimantan on Borneo, Celebes (Indonesia), and Vietnam.

In Tahiti most villages had a single mahu, who engaged in nonreciprocal sex as the orally receptive partner with young bachelors of the village; see Robert Levy's article, included herein. The Philippine archipelago shows numerous instances of gender-differentiated homosexuality, with the transvestites especially involved in entertainment activities; the banci of eastern Java are similar. Comparable roles for females appeared in the Philippines but not in Tahiti. Reports have also placed the male gender-differentiated type in the upper Amazon basin and the lower extremity of South America. Females who gave up their original gender-identity appeared among the Eskimos, the Plains Indians, and in South American tribes; these women would become warriors and hunters and marry standard females. Sometimes they had reputa-tions for spiritual power and prophesy. See Paula Gunn Allen's and Evelyn Blackwood's articles, included herein.

In India the devotees of the Hijra sect seem to belong to the gender--different-iated tradition, working as entertainers and with a definite spiritual dimension as worshippers of the Mother Goddess. Custom requires Hijras to surgically remove the male organs, after which they are regarded as females, but the timing of the operation is subject to omens and many Hijras, therefore, regard themselves as preopera-tive transsexuals. In Thailand the katoey (gatuhy) fills the gender-differentiated role, but without shaman-istic vestiges in that Buddhist country. Herodotus reported on the enarees, diviners who seem to have formed an effeminate priest-hood among the Scythian inhabitants of southern Russia and the present-day Ukraine in the first millennium B.C.

The eastern coast of Africa has also reported gender-differentiated homosexuality, some of it tied to possession cults, most notably among the Otoro, Moro, Nyima, Tira, Korongo, and Mesakin; in West Africa the Fanti and Wolof are so inclined; in central Africa the Basangye's kitesha form a third gender; the south African Thonga seem to have had elements of the gender-dif-ferent-iated type (mixed with age-graded, as is occasionally the case with other African tribes).

The possession cults of Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean societies (not primitive, if underdeveloped) show gender-differentiated adepts. As this example shows, shamanistic homosexuality is not limited to pre-literate cultures. In a different, secularized form it remains widespread in the more advanced cultures today, constituting the dominant mode of homosex-ual-ity in Latin America, much of Mediterranean Europe, and much of the Far East, while manifesting as a minority model in androphilic cultures of or derived from northern Europe. In these "advanced" areas, however, it appears to have lost its extraordi-nary spiritual aura and any claim to gifts of healing or prophe-cy.

Initiation and the Age-differentiated System

The other major type of homosexual organization found in preliterate cultures has sometimes merited the term "initiatory" since it is used to mark the transition from boy to man or from one stage of boyhood to another rather than to ascribe a permanent non-man role to the passive partner. The initia-tion may be a brief, one-time-only situation, or it may stretch over a period of years. (We are familiar with examples of the latter from the highly literate cultures of ancient Athens and the early modern Japanese samurai.) There appears to be a high correla-tion betweem initiatory homosexua-lity and masculinized warrior societies. In some cultures the initiatory function receives little emphasis, but the age-differentiated, transitory nature of the homosexuality remains paramount. As a general feature of the type, the older partner, who is the penetrator, passes on his knowledge and power to the younger, who is temporarily the penetrated. The adult commonly relates to adults of the opposite gender like any other adult male of that culture.

Bernard Sergent, a follower of Georges Dumézil, has recently claimed that Indo-European warriors practiced initiatory pederasty prior to their dispersion (and for some, such as the Greeks, afterwards) in the third millennium B.C. This thesis has remained contro-versial, for homosexuality is unknown to the orally transmitted Rig-Vedic legends of the warrior class (Kshatri-ya) descend-ants of the Indo-European Aryans who invaded ancient India (though the Rig-Veda in the form known to us is dated no earlier than 1500 B.C., and the Brahmins who assumed custody of the tradition may have deleted such references), and Greek pederasty seems to have originated in Crete in historical times, though there is evidence for ritual initiation as part of the Cretan practice, which could have roots in an older tradition. On the other hand, the warlike Celts were said by Athenaeus and others to have preferred boys to women, and there are suggestions of initiatory functions in this system. The ancient historians Ammianus Marcellinus and Procopius attested that some Germanic warriors of the Roman era commonly indulged in pederast-ic acts. Surviving pre-Christian Nordic literature contains no references to pederasty; the practices of the pre-Christian Slavs are unknown.

Gilbert Herdt noted ritualized age-graded homosexuality among the Australians (some of whom took boy-wives while themselves ephebes-older teens-awaiting heterosexual marriage) and it was he who documented the most commonly cited practices of overt-and mandatory-initiatory homosexuali-ty, those of the Melanesian Sambia, where knowledge of the cult was taboo for women. There teenagers who are between puberty and the age of marriage (19) "implant" their semen in boys between 9 and puberty, so that it may take root and spread its male virtue through their growing bodies, on the analogy of seed which must be planted before it can grow to produce fruit. The act of penetration of the boy is seen as masculinizing him rather than feminizing him. As a result Herdt's Sambians emgaged in exclusive homosexuality for some ten years before turning to exclusive heterosexuality at the point of marriage. One advantage of this system to the males was that their brides were considerably younger, having just passed menarche. See the excerpt from Herdt's 1984 book reprinted herein.

Eastern Javanese warriors kept boys called gemblakan, but these men prized the boys' feminine characteristics. The pre-European-contact Hawaiian warrior chiefs kept masculine ephebes, called aikane, procured at about seventeen, for sexual and romantic purposes.

In Mexico, the Spanish conquistadors noted the presence of boy prostitution, though it is not clear if the boys were active partners with transvestitic lowlanders or passives (or perhaps even actives in the ephebophilic mode) with older "normal" males. For a contemporary report on Mexico, see Joseph Carrier's 1976 article herein. Alves da Silva reported homosexuality in the puberty rites of Amazon Basin Indians.

In Africa, age-differentiated homosexuality has character-ized the Azande of the Sudan (see E. E. Evans-Pritch-ard's article, reprinted herein), the Bantu-speaking Fang, and the ephebophilic Nkundo.

Among literate cultures today, pederasty remains common throughout the Islamic world and in a number of Asian countries (Thailand, the Philippines, Japan), though in the "advanced" nations it has lost its initiatory function just as the gender-differentiated type has lost its shamanic role; though heavily stigmatized, it continues to exist clandestinely in Western societies.

Cultural Diffusion?

Scholars have suggested that such conceptual models of homosexuality as the gender- and age-dif-ferentiated types have spread from culture to culture; this is almost certain to have been the case in Polynesia. We can easily document today the spread of androphilic ideas to literate cultures previously unfamiliar with them. Another hypothesis is that of sub-merged Kulturkreise, surviving island remnants of what used to be more cohesive geographical patterns, the main parts of which have been extirpated by Christianity, colonialism, and modernization. A good example is the remnants of the North American berdache institution which are islands within a sea of Euro-American culture.

Some scholars favor economic-ecological considerations as a starting point for explanations of the distribution of types of homosexuality, observing that initiatory/age-grad-ed relation-ships tend to accompany warrior cultures (though certainly not uniformly, as the absence of that type from among American Indian tribes attests). Stephen O. Murray has also suggested that scholars look to differences in social structure, associating Polynesian gender-differentiated cultures with all-powerful chiefs and pervasive slavery, while age-differ-entiating Melan-esian warriors were more egalitarian among themselves. Several scholars have argued that in Melanesia ritualized homosexuality, along with proscribed times for heterosexual intercourse, lowered the birthrate.

Sociobiology and Evolution

The process of human evolution having long been a major focus of anthropology, it should not be surprising that anthro-pologists would take some interest in the question of the evolutionary nature (if any) of homosexuality. The physical anthropologists have had nothing to say on this topic, but sociobiologists, whose intellectual roots lie outside of but parallel to the discipline (both sharing sources in ethology and primatology as well as an allegiance to Darwin), have spilled quite a bit of ink on the matter. To them it is an outstanding theoretical challenge to explain a behavior which leaves no progeny behind. G. Evelyn Hutchinson developed a theory of heterozygote advantage, which may apply best to bisexuality, in 1959. James D. Weinrich in 1976 developed kin-selection theory to account for gender-differentiated types of homosexuality. Other types of homosexuality, such as the age-differentiated type in which the participants all eventually marry, situational homosexuality, adole-scent experimenta-tion, and dominance-enforce-ment, do not have significant effects on reproductive rates and thus do not pose puzzles for evolutionary theorists. The most difficult challenge for Darwinians would be exclusive androphil-ia, but this may be too recent a widespread development to have had notice-able evolu-tionary conse-quences.


How can anthropology contribute to the study of homosexuali-ty? Until very recently, it has mainly helped to refute various homophobic theories, such as that homosexuality is the product of a decadent and declining civilization, that it is unknown to "natural peoples" and hence itself unnatural, that it is univer-sally abhorrent, the product of certain family psychodynamics, a degenerative disease, an aristocratic vice, a hormonal failure, or a contagious perversion.

As we discard these shopworn ideas, however, anthropology may help us to develop a better understanding of what homosexual-ity is and is not. Clearly, same-sex behavior of some type or other seems to be found in all but the tiniest cultures, and therefore may legitimately lay claim to the status of a universal component of the human behavioral repertoire. In its organiza-tion and details, however, it is equally clear that variability is the rule and that the culture prescribes the parameters. What is intriguing is the limited number of forms of organization displayed, a fact which calls out for theoretical explication.

Meanwhile, we may pause and reflect over the raised status of the shaman, the male-bonding effects of ritual homosexual initiation, the universal male participation rate in some tribes of Melanesia, the lack of life-long effects on any of the participants' (except for the berdaches') sexuality, the refusal to single out the homosexually insertive males and label them any differently from males in general, the wide acceptance of homosexual relations with adolescents or prepubic boys, and, most provocatively, the general lack of reciprocity and "equali-ty" in the relation-ships described. Anthropological literature has given us much less material on lesbianism, but that should encourage researchers to redouble their efforts to find it. Depending on the results of that search, the theories of male homosexuality and of lesbianism may have to diverge.

Time is running out; when the last tribal Papuan can tune in to the "Gay Liberation Hour" with his satelli-te dish, traditional field work will be at an end.


Baumann, Hermann, Das doppelte Geschlecht: Studien zur Bisexuali- tät in Ritus und Mythos, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1955; Blackwood, Evelyn, ed., Anthropology and Homosexual Behavior, Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 1986; Bleibtreu-Ehrenberg, Gisela, Mannbarkeitsriten: zur institution- ellen Päderastie bei Papuas und Melanesiern, Berlin: Ull- stein, 1980; idem, Der Weibmann: Kultischer Ge- schlechtswechsel im Schamanismus; eine Studie zur Trans- vesti-tion und Transsexualität bei Naturvölkern, Frank- furt: Fischer, 1984; Carpenter, Edward, Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk, 2nd ed., London: George Allen and Unwin, 1911; Greenberg, David F., The Construction of Homosexuality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988; Herdt, Gilbert H., Guardians of the Flutes, New York: McGraw- Hill, 1981; idem, ed., Ritualized Homosexuality in Melan- esia, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984; Karsch-Haack, Ferdinand, Das gleichgeschlechtliche Leben der Naturvölk-er, New York: Arno Press, 1975 (originally Munich: Ernst Reinhardt, 1911); Levy, Robert Isaac, Tahitians: Mind and Experience of the Society Islands, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. Murray, Stephen O., ed., Male Homosexuality in Central and South America, New York: Gai Saber, 1987; idem, Oceanic Homosex- uality, New York: Garland Publications, 1992. Schneebaum, Tobias, Wild Man, New York: Viking Press, 1979; Sergent, Bernard, L'homosexualité initiatique dans l'Europe ancienne, Paris: Payot, 1986; Weston, Kath, Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Williams, Walter L., The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture, Boston: Beacon, 1986.

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