Staking a Claim on History and Culture: Recent Studies in the Anthropology of Homosexuality

Article excerpt

Practicing Desire: Homosexual Sex in the Era of AIDS. GARY W. DOWSETT. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1996; 322 pp.

Same Sex, Different Cultures: Exploring Gay and Lesbian Lives. GILBERT HERDT. Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1997; 204 pp.

Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History and Literature. STEPHEN O. MURRAY and WILL ROSCOE, eds. New York: New York University Press, 1997; 330 pp. Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation. ARLENE STEIN. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997; 256 pp.

To desire the same gender and to create relationships based on love and sex with another man or woman are to stake a claim on history and culture. This is true not only because those who have openly dared to love the same gender have been punished and forced to flee from their own lands. It is also true because controversies surrounding homosexuality remain a vital part of the debate about what is "normal and natural" in the range of sexual variation and the tolerance accorded sexual minorities in all human societies (Herdt 1997: ix).

This is the opening statement in Gilbert Herdt's cross-cultural exploration of sexuality, identity, and desire, Same sex, different cultures. That book, like the others I will consider in this essay, reflects the outcome of a lengthy, often emotional, and stillongoing struggle on the part of lesbian/gay anthropologists, bisexual and transgendered anthropologists, and some straight colleagues as well. The concerns of this struggle include efforts to gain acceptance for anthropological-based studies of homosexuality inside and outside of our discipline. The concerns include efforts to define the subject matter for the anthropology of homosexuality, to develop a language to ensure unbiased reporting of research findings, and to resolve the many technical and ethical problems associated with research on the social margin. These concerns include difficult negotiations of researcher identities, complicated by the effects of those identities, whether revealed or concealed, on research process, analysis and write-up of research findings, possibilities of publication, and the advancement of professional careers.

I know of these concerns, and have become a part of these struggles, from a position of relative privilege. And I have admired and tried to support colleagues who are in positions of greater vulnerability as they work to bring lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered concerns into the foreground of the anthropological project.

The success of these efforts has been considerable, particularly in recent years. There is now a substantial scholarly literature in lesbian/gay ethnography and lesbian/gay linguistics, including sitespecific case studies, cross-cultural comparisons, discussions of method, and claims to theory; there is the beginning of an anthropological literature in bisexual and transgendered studies, as well. There is a visible lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered presence at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association and at regional conferences, and there are more specialized meetings (such as American University's annual Lavender Languages Conference) where lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered issues are the primary intellectual theme.

Lesbian/gay anthropology - and to some extent, bisexual and transgendered anthropology, as well - has become a part of applied anthropology. Anthropological activism around AIDS, women's health, and other issues is claiming visibility in gender studies and queer theory, fields traditionally dominated by scholars from Women's Studies, History, Cultural Studies, and Literary Criticism.

These successes are not without their difficulties. Many have yet to be addressed effectively within the profession. There is no rewards system benefiting any area of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered scholarship within the profession. Articles addressing these themes do not regularly appear in anthropological journals. …