It's What You Do: Most of the Men Who Have Sex with Men in the South Probably Don't Identify Themselves as Gay or Bisexual

By Seabrook, Jeremy | New Internationalist, October 2000 | Go to article overview

It's What You Do: Most of the Men Who Have Sex with Men in the South Probably Don't Identify Themselves as Gay or Bisexual


Seabrook, Jeremy, New Internationalist


IN MANY COUNTRIES OF THE SOUTH, AIDS has made sexual relationships transparent which had previously been concealed -- especially those between men. The cost of silence and denial has already been high in human lives. Specialized agencies now recognize the importance of this channel of infection, but societies rarely show the same acceptance.

In the West, the existence of well-organized and informed communities of gay men helped both to promote safer sex and to offer great succour, practical help and spiritual comfort to those affected. Self-help and a strong sense of responsibility throughout the 1980s supplemented official responses which were often evasive and inadequate.

The story from the South is different. In sub-Saharan Africa, India and China, the majority of HIV/AIDS cases have been among heterosexuals and intravenous drug-users or through contaminated blood. This, together with the World Health Organization's emphasis on 'the global epidemic', has effectively obscured the route of transmission of HIV through men who have sex with men. Such a response has also been convenient for countries which, on legal, religious or social grounds, deny the existence of such relationships; in this many Southern governments have been complicit.

Western 'politics of identity', where to be lesbian, gay or bisexual is a major determinant in the lives of individuals, is incomprehensible to many other societies. Other roles are often so much more central than sexual orientation -- people are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. They are mother, daughter, wife, father, husband, son. People are inhabitants of this or that region. They are agriculturalist or factory worker -- and in poor countries, the importance of livelihood is no secondary identity. Culture remains an aggregate of characteristics which is the gift -- or for some unhappy people, the curse -- of the society they inhabit. It is not something to be selected in a choice-obsessed existential hypermarket.

There is a good practical reason for this in the South. The central importance of family, marriage and children is not simply a preoccupation with archaic social relationships -- they are the very tissue of survival, the only social safety nets. You don't have to go far on the streets of Sao Paulo, Dhaka or Nairobi to see the effects upon those excluded from that security.

Having said that, explicitly lesbian and gay minorities do exist in the South. In India and Bangladesh these for the most part reach only elites, those influenced by or educated in the West. In South Africa and Latin America, by contrast, there is a new assertiveness among more marginal groups -- the far from privileged.

Among the majority in Africa, India and China, men who have sex with men exist to an extent that is largely unknown. But despite the urgency of dealing with HIV/AIDS, it is important not to oversexualize relationships between men in the South -- affection, tenderness, friendship have great subtlety in societies where homoeroticism and homo-affectivity have never been called 'homosexual'. Also, the majority of male-male sexual relationships do not involve anal intercourse.

That is not to say that in many traditional cultures, sexual minorities have not been recognized. Nor have they always been stigmatized. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict, in Patterns of Culture(f.1), described the institution of berdache among the Zuni Pueblos of New Mexico -- men who dressed and lived as women. 'In some societies they have been especially acclaimed. They are often regarded as exceptionally able... good healers in certain diseases, or among certain tribes, as the genial organizers of social affairs.' In India the role of the hijras or eunuchs is of great antiquity: they had the power to bless or curse, especially in connection with fertility. Only in more recent times did they become beggars. Gatoei in Thailand could be minor wives or concubines, while transgenderal waria were shamans in Borneo and Sulawesi. …

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