More or Less Gay-Specific

David Halperin

  • Homos by Leo Bersani
    Harvard, 208 pp, £15.95, April 1995, ISBN 0 674 40619 2

In the spring of 1919 military staff at the United States Naval Training Station in Newport, Rhode Island, launched an investigation into the scope of ‘immoral conditions’ in the local community. They recruited from among the young enlisted men stationed at the base a number of sailors who volunteered to serve as decoys and to seek out and identify men they suspected of being sexual perverts. The volunteers agreed to have sex with these men, to infiltrate their social networks, and by that means to find out as much as possible about the extent and organisation of male homosexual activity in Newport. The decoys soon discovered that the Army and Navy YMCA was the most popular hangout for ‘fairies’, by which they referred to men who violated masculine norms of both gender and sexuality – in the first case by displaying ‘effeminate’ mannerisms or adopting feminine nicknames, cosmetics and dress, and in the second by manifesting a preference for a ‘passive’, or receptive, role in sexual relations with other men. The decoys also identified as ‘fairies’ a number of local clergy who ran Sailors’ Homes and otherwise ministered to the Fleet. After repeated social and sexual contact with these ‘fairies’, the decoys turned their evidence over to the authorities, and as a result of their testimony more than twenty sailors were arrested in April 1919, along with another 16 civilians in July. In 1920, the Navy opened a second inquiry into the methods employed in the first investigation. And in 1921 a United States Senate Committee issued a report of its own.

The massive documentary record left by those various proceedings reveals a vanished moral universe that will seem remote and alien to anyone who has been following the recent debates in Britain and the US over the presence of ‘gays in the military’. As recently as 1919 at least some military personnel – both officers and enlisted men – evidently considered homosexual behaviour, including oral and anal sex, compatible with military service: indeed considered it compatible with normal masculinity and normal male sexuality, so long as a man continued to exhibit a normatively masculine gender style and played an ‘active’, or insertive, role in homosexual intercourse. It does not appear ever to have occurred to the military higher-ups in Newport that what they were asking the decoys to do was deviant, perverted or sexually repugnant – in short, something that any normal man could not naturally be brought to do – and the decoys, for their part, did not regard themselves as differing in their sexual make-up from normal men. It was only in 1920, when the Bishop of Rhode Island and the Newport Ministerial Union entered the fray, coming to the defence of the beleaguered clergy, that the terms of the discourse shifted. Now the Navy itself was charged with using immoral methods, with instructing young enlisted men ‘in details of a nameless vice’ and despatching them into the community to entrap innocent citizens, while the decoys suddenly found themselves subjected to humiliating cross-examination, forced to describe in minute detail the nature and extent of their sexual motives for volunteering to undertake their dubious assignment and the degree of their sexual pleasure in carrying it out – a cross-examination plainly designed to impugn their own claims to a normative sexual identity.

More was at stake in this dispute than a mere difference of opinion about sexual morals or the relative uprightness of the two institutions’ personnel. The military men and the bishops held radically divergent and even incommensurate notions about what constituted the normal and the deviant in matters of sex and gender, and this difference in outlook reflected profound divisions between them in social class as well as in – for lack of a better word – sexuality itself. The mostly working-class sailors and their junior officers had yet to feel the effects of a historical process of ‘heterosexualisation’ that had already overtaken the mostly middle-class churchmen: in the working-class culture of the Navy what distinguished a normal male from a deviant was not the sex of his sexual partners per se but the extent to which he displayed a masculine style of self-assertiveness, both on the street and in the sheets (or public parks); judged according to those high standards of masculine comportment, the local ministers – with their deferential middle-class manners, their ethic of humility and submissiveness and their sometimes extravagant expressions of affection and concern for the sailors – fell considerably short of the minimal requirements of normal manhood. By contrast, the ecclesiastical authorities considered any genital contact between two persons of the same sex to be a sign of pathological tendencies in both partners, no matter who did what to whom; they disputed the sailors’ claims to be able to identify ‘fairies’ on the basis of personal mannerisms alone, and they denied that what the sailors called effeminacy was in and of itself a symptom of sexual deviance. The society to which most readers of this publication belong is, for better or worse, a direct descendant of the social and sexual culture of the Newport ministers.

As the Newport anecdote illustrates, the question who counts as gay for the purposes of political representation or scholarly study is not a trivial, uninteresting or purely academic one. When, for instance, we set out to write ‘gay history’, whom, exactly, do we think we are writing the history of? Would it be people who had sex with other people of the same sex as themselves (in which case it would include both the fairies and the decoys), or people who cross-dressed (the fairies and their ilk), or people with a deviant gender identity (both the fairies and the ministers, depending on whose criteria you use), or people whose closest personal relations, loyalties and emotional lives were bound up with people of the same sex (the fairies, the ministers, the decoys, the military officers themselves, and indeed the US Senators who investigated the whole affair), or people who desired intimate contact with a person of the same sex (in which case it’s not immediately evident which of the aforementioned groups would necessarily qualify)? The question, in other words, is: what exactly defines gay identity? What do you have to do to be gay? Or, as the British gay mag Attitude put it recently: ‘When is a gay man not a gay man?’

I encountered these questions of definition on the first day of the first class in lesbian and gay studies that I ever taught. In the course of a discussion one of my lesbian students declared, in what was obviously intended to be a rebuke to the implicit assumptions on which the class seemed to be proceeding: ‘I am not interested in the history of women who fucked other women. I’m interested in the history of women who loved other women.’ To which another lesbian student mildly rejoined: ‘Actually, I couldn’t care less about the history of women who loved other women, but what I’d very much like to find out more about is the history of women who fucked other women.’ It is easy to sympathise with both points of view, and to conclude that lesbian and gay studies need to make room for the study of ‘lesbians’ defined in either of those two ways. Which is exactly what they have done. Nonetheless, such institutional accommodation does not resolve, but only defers, the problem of definition.

Definitional problems have in fact bedevilled gay politics for as long as there has been gay politics. The first homosexual activist, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who began his efforts around 1862, divided human males at first into ‘Dionings’ and ‘Urnings’, the latter defined in a famous phrase as men with a woman’s soul confined by a man’s body. But Ulrichs later became dissatisfied with his initial attempts at taxonomy and went on to ramify his sexual types further, subdividing his Urnings into Mannlings, Weiblings and various others, adding a sub-class of Dionings called Uraniasters, and supplementing the general distinction between Urnings and Dionings with a third category, the Urano-Dionings. Then came Edward Carpenter’s sexual intermediates and third-sexers, Magnus Hirschfeld’s sexuelle Zwischenstufen, Proust’s invertis, Gide’s pederasts and Genet’s queens. The recent public debate over gays in the military highlighted the continuing slippage between different concepts of homosexuality, now defined alternately according to status, conduct, orientation, identity or promiscuous combinations thereof.

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