After the horrific mass murder in June focusing on the LGBTQ community at an Orlando club, the only thing worse than the massacre has been the thread of homophobic comments following it. The folks who have been loudest about their disdain for LGBTQ members continue to rely on outdated, subjective, and outright false suppositions about sexuality to justify discrimination against LGBTQ members. It turns out that when you look globally at issues of sex, gender, sexuality, and marriage, it is extremely difficult to summarize human practices as universal or natural. They’re just too damn diverse. So, fighting “truthiness” with anthropological “factiness”, I present the top five homophobic myths that anthropology (and a little social psychology) completely demolish.
- Myth 1: I know homosexuality is not natural because I feel physical disgust when I see two men kissing/two women holding hands/a transperson walking into literally any kind of bathroom.
Guess what? Disgust reactions may be biological, but they are crafted by cultural forces. When I was a toddler, my uncle used to show me cigarette ads in magazines and would make disgusted faces, “Ick! Eeeeewww! Yucky!” To this day, I can’t control the repulsed sneer that bends my upper lip when I walk by someone smoking. Similarly, a video of a 6-year-old sobbing about the state of the environment and clips from the documentary Jesus Camp showing kids despondent over the sinful state of their souls show how passionately children can pick up on and internalize a cultural ethic. All are examples of teaching kids that something is wrong; they are not natural signs that they are wrong.
One of the most powerful examples of how cultural training can craft biological reactions goes against all Western assumptions about the “natural” sexual reactions men should have towards women. One Melanesian community, the Etoro, had such strong beliefs about women’s bodies being polluting that marital sex was believed to be depleting to the life force of the men. Like several other communities around the world, the Etoro practiced ritual homosexual acts, believing that young boys had to ingest the semen of older men in order to achieve adult male status, to gain enough life force to impregnate women, and, later, to help younger boys reach maturity. Male puberty rituals centered on ridding the body of all female contact by purging and bleeding. Extensive rules kept not only males separate from females, but males separate from anything that may have touched female genitalia. As a result, women’s genitalia were understood by men as… not great, to put it mildly.
One of the more famous stories by anthropologist Raymond Kelly, who worked among the Etoro in the 1970s, involved a public scene in which a husband exacted revenge on his wife, whom he discovered to be unfaithful. After dragging his wife to the village center and laying out the charges of infidelity, he dramatically pulled her skirt up, exposing her genitalia to the crowd. Rather than responding with arousal, humor, or curiosity, the men displayed revulsion: ‘‘Several young men (including my informant) retched forthwith and the adulterous youth himself became a queasy and visibly discomfited. Older men turned their faces aside with expressions of disgust’’ (1976:43). Yeah, you read that right. Dudes threw up when they saw a woman’s vagina. I cannot even imagine what they would think about American men who spend most of their hard-earned money buying pictures of them.
The disgust reaction is biologically hardwired, true, but what triggers it is not. It’s a useful reaction for keeping us from eating rotten food and bacteria-filled feces, but the hardwiring can be, and is frequently, hacked. When a culture has really strong prohibitions against something, whether it is eating meat, being racist, or touching someone of the lower classes, our social training molds our biology, which then drives our social behaviors. It’s why social psychologists like Jon Haidt refer to it as “moral” disgust. And it turns out that sometimes moral disgust masks a self-disgust over arousal or titillation. It is perhaps totally unsurprising that for decades, studies such as this one have found that men who were the most virulently opposed to same-sex relationships were the ones who were most aroused by images of gay sex.
- Myth 2: Never in the history of time has there been same-sex marriage/open homosexuality, transgender people.
If this is your argument, don’t feel too badly, your total ignorance of LGBTQ history likely comes from the fact that LGBTQ history is largely ignored and left out of mainstream history lessons, particularly in public education.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer folks and practices are not new. They exist everywhere around the world, and have existed throughout all recorded history. Same-sex relationships are referenced throughout ancient Greek texts and art as publicly acknowledged and openly practiced. The practices and categories may look different from today, but that’s because, and this is important, they were in ancient Greece. A completely different culture and time produces different cultural expectations and practices. What’s important is that there is an historical record from thousands of years ago that contradicts the claim that gay and lesbian relationships or identities are new creations.
Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s off-the-cuff statement that marriage has always been defined as “unity between a man and a woman”, polygamy and same-sex marriage have been extensively documented around the globe by more than a century of anthropologists. Marriage has sometimes equaled one man plus one woman. And sometimes one man plus many woman. Sometimes, like among the Bari in South America or certain Tibetan families, marriage has equaled one woman plus many men. And sometimes marriage equals two people of the same sex. As the American Anthropological Association stated in 2004, at the height of the same-sex marriage controversy in the U.S., “The results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. Rather, anthropological research supports the conclusion that a vast array of family types, including families built upon same-sex partnerships, can contribute to stable and humane societies.”
The classic, and perhaps most-used example of institutionalized same-sex marriage is the American Indian “Two Spirit” or “Berdache”. Of the approximately 400 known American tribes existing at the time of European contact, more than 155 had a formal status for male-bodied tribal members who opted to live, dress, and work as women. About a third of these have been documented as also formally accepting female-bodied Two Spirits, who lived, dressed, and worked as men. Both groups were allowed to marry people of the opposite gender, regardless of their sex. In other words, someone who was an acting male could marry someone who was an acting female, regardless of genitalia. Herein lies one of the problems – while Western cultures conflate the social aspects of gender with the biological aspects of sex; most other places around the world see them as not always lining up.
- Myth 3: It doesn’t make sense evolutionarily.
How do you know what the intended or unintended consequences of biological diversity are? It is sheer hubris to suggest that because you don’t see the point that there isn’t one. Evolution isn’t a linear process, it’s a process fraught with trial and error. There are examples of sexual diversity throughout the animal kingdom, just like there are examples of biological diversity that make life hard for no reason. The strange path human bodies have taken through evolutionary forces have resulted in bad backs, dangerous childbirths, sore feet, and aching wisdom teeth, not to mention Sickle Cell Anemia and appendicitis.
Genetic diversity survives, not because it has particular purpose, but because it doesn’t completely interfere with reproduction. “But same sex couples can’t have babies.” Since when? Marriage and mating and sexuality are three totally different things. Marriage doesn’t define one’s sexuality; it doesn’t even dictate who is mating with whom. Just look at all the folks whose heterosexuality isn’t contained to their marriage. Or all the folks who have “gay sex on the down low”.
It also doesn’t mean that because you have same sex proclivities that you act on them or that they are the same all the time or that they define your life choices, a point that also addresses the next myth.
- Myth 4: LGBTQ folks are easily recognizable, as they are different from “normal” heterosexual folks.
This is the ultimate in Theories That Don’t Pan Out in Real Life. So many scholars and activists have made the point that sexuality is a spectrum that I hesitate to repeat it. Just because Western culture likes to divide things into two tidy and opposing categories, it doesn’t mean the rest of the natural universe obliges. If it were so obvious, there wouldn’t be such an event as “coming out”. People would be obviously out or not.
The reason you can’t always easily discern who is gay and who isn’t (no one’s gaydar is 100%), is because your biological sex, how you view yourself as male/female/neither, who sexually attracts you, whom you choose to marry or partner with, how you dress, your mannerisms, and your sense of who you are in the world are all different elements of who you are, and they do NOT overlap into clear social categories. Humans are just too complex. Anthropology and many other biological and social studies disciplines have demonstrated over and over that, while we tend to think in terms of binaries, we live in terms of spectrums. For a great visual depiction of these spectrums, check out this video.
- Myth 5: You’re either gay or you’re not.
This belief says more about the believer than about the nature of sexuality. Innumerable examples from around the world, as well as from within heavily populated, complex cultures like the U.S., prove that sexuality is understood, experienced, performed, and imagined in a multitude of ways.
Think there are only two categories of people: male and female? That’s not what many people around the world believe. Some societies have third or even fourth gender categories, where people are neither male nor female. In addition to the Two-Spirit people mentioned above, check out the Hijra in India, a sometimes-mistreated, sometimes-revered group of male-bodied, female-dressed people who often undergo castration or some other form of genital surgery. They are seen as central to many religious ceremonies but are often socially mistreated. Or the Mustergil of the Ma’dan Clan in southern Iraq, female-bodied clan members who could declare themselves male after their first menstruation or after widowhood. They kept long hair and wore headscarves like women, as they were expected to pray in the back of the Mosque with other women, but otherwise dressed, transacted business, carried firearms, and acted publicly as men. Or the Travesti of Brazil, who dress and practice body modification to appear female, but who wouldn’t consider surgically modifying their genitals. While they see themselves as gay, they consider their boyfriends and Johns as heterosexual and unequivocally male.
Even people who see themselves as heterosexual and as distinctly male or female have behaviors and practices that would seem to contradict those rigid categories. The much-discussed phenomenon of “gay sex on the down low” refers to (usually black or latinx) men and women who may consider themselves heterosexual, who may be married or in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, but who engage in same-sex intercourse secretly. Of course this topic is fraught with politics, as some people see it as a way of characterizing black and latino men as hypersexual, while others see these stories as examples of people who are “truly” gay but pretending to be straight, but the fact remains that identity, behavior, and social categories simply don’t line up neatly.
In fact, it’s not even true that people neatly divide up into the biological categories of male or female. The numbers aren’t well known, but it is estimated that somewhere on the order of 1 in 1000-2000 people are born intersex, with genetic, hormonal, or physiological differences that make it challenging to casually categorize their biological sex. Sometimes these differences don’t show up until puberty, when secondary sex characteristics like the development of breasts or facial hair either don’t happen or happen at odds with someone’s assumed sex. References to intersexed people can be found around the world and throughout time as well, including on a stone tablet from the second century B.C. referencing the goddess Ninmah, who was made “with no male organ and no female organ”, through the Hindu goddess Shiva, usually depicted with a dual male/female nature, and in texts from ancient Greece and Rome.
There are so very many examples of people not conforming to the binaries of male-female or heterosexual-homosexual that it’s kind of astonishing we are still having these conversations. But Western categories of gender and sexuality spread around the world, often forcibly, through colonialism and globalization, and so what were ideas from one small part of the world became ideas we see everywhere, perpetuating the notion that they are universal. Even now, when very public dialogues exist within Western cultures about the validity of these categories, there are still so many beliefs embedded in misconception and misinformation.
Mostly this has to do with the nature of culture. Some parts of culture are very slow to change. Unlike fashion or slang, ideas about gender and sexuality are at the very core of society. It’s no wonder they are resistant to modification – changing them modifies the very fabric of the culture itself.
In the end, though, people are as creative in their social construction of sexuality as they are in their social construction of housing, family systems, medical practices, art, economics, and languages. Knowing more about human diversity through anthropological fieldwork challenges our ethnocentric tendency to think that the way we define people is the natural or only way to define people. If you are going to stake a political claim based on your belief about sexuality, recognize it for what it is—a belief; not an objective truth.
Special thanks to Dr. Will Meyer for his encouragement, edits, and help with ridiculous citation requests like: “You know that study about the guys and the thing that happened with the gender?
There are so many sources I could add here, so I’ll just lay out a few in addition to the ones linked in the article. If you would like me to add anthropological sources you think are important, comment below or send me a message through Facebook, Twitter, or email.
- Kelly, Raymond C. 1976. Witchcraft and sexual relations: an exploration in the social and semantic implications of the structure of belief. In Man and Woman in the New Guinea Highlands, ed. Paula Brown and George da Buchbinder, pp. 36– 54.
- Blackwood, Evelyn. “Tombois in West Sumatra: Constructing Masculinity and Erotic Desire,” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Nov., 1998), pp. 491-521.
- Carrillo, H. (2003) Neither machos nor maricones: Masculinities and emerging male homosexual identities in Mexico. In M. C. Guttman (ed.) Changing Men and Masculinities in Latin America (Durham: Duke University Press), pp. 351-369.
- Sex and Society, Volume 2. Cavendish Square Publishing (September 2010).