Friday, April 22, 2011

"Pre-Gay Patterns"

How many great stories have started out with, "So I was reading this amazing book about heroin addicts..."

Okay, not many. The book, Righteous Dopefiends, is remarkable, though. Two anthropologists spent twelve years with a group of homeless heroin addicts living under a freeway in San Francisco. It's an easy group to vilify (the government of San Francisco has certainly done it enough), but the book really shows you these people's humanity and the complex web of factors that led them to their lifestyle. It's very eye-opening. In a chapter called "Male Love", there's a short section about the seemingly contradictory sexual identity of some of these "dopefiends". Some of the men are involved in homoromantic or homosexual relationships, but they remain openly homophobic and retain their identity as heterosexuals.

(Before sharing a quote from the book, I have to explain the word "lumpen". This is the authors' re-imagining of a term from Marx, "lumpen proletariat", referring to the most marginalized people in society.)

Historians have argued that gay identity in the United States emerged after World War II. Formerly, men who had sex with one another might maintain a fully masculine social identity (Chauncey 1994). In fact, sex between men was relatively common in the largely all-male communities of the marginal lumpenized working class. (Phillipe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg, 214)


In the 2000s, these same "pre-gay" patterns persisted. Lumpen and poor working-class men might, under certain conditions, have sex and fall in love with one another without altering their masculine self-conception. They could even remain aggressively homophobic. Sex between men who do not self-identify as gay or bisexual has been well documented in a range of contemporary lumpen settings [prisons, sex worker strolls, and transient labor camps are given as examples]...Although it is frequently described, this form of masculine sexuality remains undertheorized, and it is not generally analyzed as a class-based phenomenon. (214)

The authors also mention that "class dynamics have been, for the most part, absent from [queer theory literature]." (215)

I tried to talk about asexuality and class here, but it was a pretty awkward analysis, with my attempts to discuss both race and class at the same time. In Righteous Dopefiend, the authors sleep outside with the homeless, having an experience of class that's very different from their own. I would guess that such things are rare. The truth seems to be that for some truly "lumpen" groups, the concept of sexuality as we know it today is largely irrelevant. I think that's definitely an idea worth noting; we often talk about something like sexual orientation being universal in scope. But little, if anything, really is.


adair said...

fwiw, I thought Brokeback Mountain was pretty much a portrait of the class/masculinity/homophobia dynamic at work in such a relationship.

Ily said...

That's true, thanks!
Such a depressing film... :(