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Same sex relationships and gender identities among non-whites

Many European American GLBT folks assume that non-whites, particularly women, cannot be GLBT. Coming out as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender is a proud assertion of individual identity, a privilege that whites, consciously or not, ascribe only to themselves. People of color are not seen as individuals, only as part of a culture of otherness, devoid of personalized identity. By inference, they cannot be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Even when Euro-American glbts "accept" their counterparts of color, non-white glbt are often seen as "not-real-GLBT folks", unlike white glbt which are the "real" glbt. Exceptions are usually made for GLBT folks of color who fit white expectations of interracial power dynamics, e.g. the submissive bottom Asian gay male paired with a dominant white male.

In actuality, GLBT folks have been well-represented among people of color all over the world. A recent Seattle school district survey found 27% of black students, 15% of Latino students and 12 % of Asian students identified as queer, compared to 7% of white students. If statistics are anything to go by, non-whites, at least in Seattle schools, have a higher tendency to be gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender than whites. This is not exactly in line with common myth that 'queerness' is a 'white' thing.

Queer History of the non-European world

The presence of glbt in the non-European world goes back to antiquity, just as it does in the European world. While European queer history is taught to the American gay community as "THE" queer history, the queer histories of non-European communities are not taught, giving rise to the false impression that GLBT folks were absent among people of color, and that non-Europeans, by their nature, are generally incapable of being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. A cursory glance at the history of many non-European cultures will show this is not the case:

Many Native American nations have a special place for the two-spirited (roughly equivalent to gay/lesbian/transgender) people. Such people are considered spiritually gifted and often achieve high standing as religious leaders. Wewha of the Zuni Nation, a biological male who lived as a woman, was an important leader and shaman.

In the pre-Spanish Filipino culture, women were considered the key link between humans and God. A male priest has to appear as a woman in order to address God. Other Austronesian cultures also feature cross-dressing religious functionaries, the mahu of Hawaii being a well-known example. Polynesian cultures also have the aikane tradition - male-male bosom-buddy relationships which often have a sexual dimension.

Among the Swahili, male transvestites known as mashoga act as drummers and musicians at women's festivals.1 Homosexuality is often associated with mashoga. Same-sex behavior in Swahili society goes back to the slavery era (ended in 1897 in Zanzibar and Tanganyika and in 1907 in Kenya), when homosexuality is said to have been tolerated between slave owners and slave boys.2 Woman-woman sexual behavior has also been documented in traditional African cultures, including the Ovimbundu and the Tswana.3

Many matter-of-fact descriptions of same-sex attraction can be found in Chinese classical literature. The satirical Scholars contains an episode Du Shenqing Seeks Beauty which describes how bored young scholars in Nanjing (who do have access to female partners) go to great lengths to seek out good-looking young men. The well-known books Liaozhai and Dream of the Red Mansions also contain references to the widespread phenomenon of same-sex relations between master and servant, actor and patron.

Female shamans among Chukchi of Siberia took on aspects of the male social role and had wives. Similarly, male Chukchi shamans lived as sociological women and took men as husbands or sex partners.4 In Senegal, cross-dressing gay men, called goor-jiggen in the Wolof language, were traditionally tolerated, playing an important social role with women leaders.5

Non-white GLBT folks have a right to know their queer forebears, just as white GLBT folks seek connection with their history. A link with the past empowers and grounds people of color, a right whites take for granted.

A Lakota View of Gender/Sexual Minorities

J.B., a Lakota, gives his perspective on queer identities within his nation:

In Lakota, we simply say winkte or koskalaka. Also, it's more than simply homosexuality; there's a lot of special training and functions behind it. They're matchmakers, and give names; they're also said to be lucky, and superior artisans. We have no problem with homosexuality, though; we don't even have a word for it! Rather, we thought of sexuality as fluid, and just one element of a person's being. Also, I've never met a homophobic Indian; nor do they refer to us as 'breeders' or any of the other cutesy terms for heterosexuals. After all, without us, they wouldn't be born; and if we don't like them, why do we keep giving birth to them? LOL

OTOH, I will say, that contrary to the assertions of certain gay (and invariably white) intellectuals, winkte and koskalaka are NOT temple prostitutes. They are not taken by war parties as communal sex partners.

From this we can draw two conclusions:

  1. Anyone who thinks Western society is ahead of other cultures when it comes to GLBT issues is seriously ignorant. As a corollary, anyone who thinks homosexuality is a 'white man's disease' is seriously ignorant.
  2. Note that Lakota are stereotyped as the ideal masculine persona. I guess it proves that men secure in their masculinity don't consider what goes on behind behind closed doors (or under blankets, as the case may be) an issue.
Queer life in Africa and Asia in modern times

"Enlightened" attitudes and open-mindedness have often been considered the exclusive domain of European-descent whites, both by whites and by some people of color. This has led to the idea that white/Western society is more accepting of transgender people, bisexuals, gays and lesbians. Just how true is this?

The first 2 countries in the world to have constitutions that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation were South Africa and Fiji6, both non-Western countries with a majority non-white population. 6

On the East African coast, homosexual contact is frequent between visiting sailors and local males, and with tourists.7 It is also practiced by the Swahili during Ramadan when heterosexual intercourse is prohibited.8 Robert Brain, an ethnographer who spent 2 years in Cameroon, befriended the sister of a Bangwa chief. Brain observed that the "androgynous princess" lived with her wife and the wife's daughter addressed the princess as 'father'.9

Mainstream American entertainment is famed in the rest of the world for prolific and explicit heterosexual scenes. While mainstream Hong Kong and Japanese TV entertainment feature less public displays of affection, they outdo America when it comes to featuring gay characters or presenting characters with ambiguous gender identities, even in children's programming. (See Gender Benders and same-sex attraction in Japanese anime and Cross-gender roles in Hong Kong cinema)

Chinese and Japanese theatre's long tradition of playing cross-gender roles is still alive today. The Takarazuka Troupe of Japan, founded in 1914, had all female casts. The male-role players styled and dressed as young men, on and offstage. Takarazuka shows are always sold out to an almost all-female audience. Its connection to lesbian practices had been documented in the 1920s and 1930s. Traditional Chinese opera troupes, being all male, groom male actors for female roles. It is not uncommon for these men, trained to play classical ladies since their childhood, have same-sex relationships with patrons offstage.10 Since the 1940s, it was common practice for women to play both male and female leads in Taiwanese Hoklo ytsfiyionsl opera. Lesbian relationships between the male-role actresses and their female colleagues or fans were common.11

In Thailand, MTF transgenders are visible in every aspect of life. According to N, a heterosexual cis-gendered Thai male, most straight Thais have gender-queer or gay classmates from grade school to college and beyond; and have no issue accepting their openly gay relatives and friends. In How many European/European American GLBT folks can boast of the same universal acceptance? In the 1990s, an American boy was thrown out of the classroom window by classmates after he came out as gay. He broke an arm.

An ethnic Chinese Singaporean informant relates a remarkably fun, problem-free high school life she and other classmates had growing up openly queer in Singapore. Contrast that with the experience of 17 year old American Adam Colton who was beaten unconscious in his high school parking lot and had the word "fag" carved on his flesh with a pen (Click here for report ) and the suffering of Jamie Nabozny of Wisconsin, USA whose classmates pushed him, peed on him and mock raped him in class. (Click here to read Oasis profile of Nabozny.)

In 1996, a Euro-Am bi male spoke of what he called an "amazing sight" in Taiwan: crowds of hundreds of gay men meet openly in Taiwan parks. Gay bashing is unheard of. In the US, a gay man can be tortured and killed just because a straight man thinks he made a pass at him. The most publicized case is the Matthew Shepard murder, in which the accused brought up the old "homosexual panic defense". Incidents like this seem to indicate we have not progressed much since the time black men were lynched for allegedly whistling at white women.

Drag queens known as bakla are ubiquitous in public life in the Philippines. Cianna, an American woman of Filipino heritage, relates:

When I went back to Davao 3 years ago, my family told me, "Oh, the bakla boys are having a volleyball game. You might want to go down there."... My family, who are a very public family in the southern Philippines, have gay men all over our social engagements, everywhere... very open. You talk about it, and you laugh about it in public too. The bakla boys were flirting openly with my brother who is straight. And the whole family was kidding him about it without being derogatory to the guys who were flirting with him.12

Many Western gay men would love to have this level of tolerance in their family. Accounts abound of white GLBTQ American youths being assaulted by family members or turned out into the streets because of their GLBTQ identity. 40% of Homeless Youth in the US are LGBT Kids.

When China decriminalized sodomy in 1997, same-sex intercourse was still illegal in Texas, USA. In 2002, Taiwan dropped its ban on gays in the military police, at a time the US Army was still expelling known gays.13 While acknowledging that things are not all perfect for the glbt community in South Africa, China and Fiji, or other parts of the non-Western world, people who believe Europe/America are always ahead of the rest of the world in glbt rights need a reality check.

Further Reading

Sexual and Gender Minorities in Chinese History

East Asian pre-modern fiction with some homoerotic content

Yes, these were written way before Western 'gay liberation' came along.

Except for The Great Mirror of Male Love, these books are not exclusively dedicated to the topic of male homosexuality. We make no guarantees as to whether the homoerotic overtones have been lost in the English translation. Other East Asian pre-modern literature with homoerotic themes exist, but are not available in English translation.

  1. John Middleton, The World of the Swahili, p. 121
  2. Middleton, p. 120
  3. Social Sciences: Africa: Sub-Saharan, Pre-Independence
  4. Conrad Kottak, Cultural Anthropology (10th Edition), p. p358
  5. 'Gay man' disinterred in Senegal (BBC, 4 May 2009)
    West African crackdown on homosexuals (PRI's The World, 3 Jul 2009)
  6. South Africa to have gay weddings (BBC, 1 Dec 2005)
    GLBT rights in Fiji on wikipedia
  7. Middleton, p. 120
  8. Middleton, p. 120
  9. Carrier and Murray, p. 262
  10. Hinsch, Bret, pp. 166-167, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China
  11. Silvio, Teri, "Lesbianism and Taiwanese Localism in the Silent Thrush", AsiaPacifiQueer: Rethinking Genders and Sexualities, ed. Martin, Fran; Jacksn, A. Peter; McLelland, Mark; Yue, Audrey, p. 218
  12. Lipat, Ordona, Stewart and Ubaldo, "Tomboy, Dyke Lezzie, and Bi: Filipina Lesbian and Bisexual Women Speak Out", Filipino Americans: Transformation and Identity, ed. Maria P.P. Root, p. 240
  13. Taiwan lets gays serve in military police