Gay identity in a cross-cultural comparative discourse. A critique on the application of sexual categories for male-male encounter

Term Paper, 2008

27 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1. Muslim Homosexuality – Global Homosexuality?
1.2. The status of current research
1.3. Definitions and Terms

2. Cultural traditions and social frames for homosexual behaviour
2.1. Homosexuality as a modern social category in Western societies
2.2. Modes of male-male encounters in Muslim societies

3. The Orientalist and Colonial discourse on sexual practices
3.1. The ‘other’ sexuality
3.2. Literary discourse and Sex-Tourism
3.3. Michel Foucault and his homosexual Orientalism
3.4. Excursus: Iran

4. Postcolonial discourse on sexual categories
4.1. Modes of Homosexuality in Turkey and Lebanon
4.2. Globalisation as frame for adaptation

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

1.1. Muslim Homosexuality – Global Homosexuality?

Reports on male-male sexual encounters are a common occurrence in the social history of Muslim societies. But conservative groups in these same societies have repeatedly rejected their existence. Especially orthodox religious clerics negate homosexuality as an imported social phenomenon and place its roots in the decadent and immoral Western society.1

Such paradox irregularities between the ‘official’ intra-cultural discourse on sexuality and the social reality put into question the way sociological and historical studies deal with categories of sexuality. Instead of instantly assuming an intolerant stance on non-normative sexual behaviour in these societies, the use of certain terms like “homosexuality” and the way they are ascribed to other societies should be re-examined. Unfortunately some studies, even from the field of postcolonial or queer studies, still apply them without reflecting on their preconceived meaning.

On the research field modes of homosexual behaviour and homoeroticism in various examples of ascribed and existing forms can be found in Muslim societies.

Widespread tales and myths about the sexual permissiveness of harems for tribadism and hammams for male-male encounters are presented in 18th and 19th century reports of the “orient”. But the lack of reliable evidence allocates these assumptions in the realm of masculinist orientalist narratives.2

Homoerotic allusions in classical Persian, Turkish and Arabic literature indicate that homosexual or homoerotic sentiments have been included into the discourse of love but do not necessary describe attitudes towards homosexual practice.3 Only very few cases of pre-modern egalitarian homosexual relationships are known. There are examples of literary discourse in the 8th and 13th century where the preference for postpubescent males is discussed. Here the irreverence of rejecting somebody’s company after he has reached adulthood is the main argument.4 But cultural scripts of social phenomena do not consequentially describe the real extent of the specific social behaviour.5

Examples of gender transgression like the effeminate musicians and dancers called mukhannathun in the first Islamic century are in some studies related to homosexuality although no explicit connection can be made on the basis of the existing historical evidence.6

Other known cases are the age- and status-stratified modes of same-sex relations in military and court elites in the Ottoman Empire for example among the Mamluks in Egypt and the Janissaries and Pages at the High Porte in Constantinople.7

For the most part, this historical ‘evidence’ has been described in studies based on a small amount of reliable information and with unfortunate usage of definitions and categories common to European and North American sociology. ‘Homosexuality’ is in itself such a term. It is by no means neutral and applicable to Muslim or other non-Western societies. It ascribes meaning to certain social occurrences and obstructs the perspective on the actual realities. Pre-knowledge from one’s own cultural background is applied to the subject instead of obtaining knowledge from the subject itself.8

Amongst sociologists it is recognised that ‘the homosexual’ is a historical construct and that it is necessary to make a distinction between homosexual behaviour, which is and has been present in most cultures and homosexual identity, which is a rather young phenomenon originating from Western European and Northern American culture.9

Sexuality has a history of its own with ideas, practices and values that are different in various times and spaces. Additionally, the variety of these historical examples shows that a single definition for homosexual behaviour in Islamic societies cannot be found because different people in different social situations define sexualities differently.

A careful analysis of certain terms and definitions of certain acts is therefore absolutely necessarily. In this process it may also help to re-examine how sexual categories developed in Western societies, how their meanings, references and limitations have changed and evolved.10

1.2. The status of current research

A paramount problem facing the research on homosexuality in Islamic societies is the small number of personal and contemporary accounts on the subject.11

General discretion displayed towards sexual behaviour in Muslim societies makes research especially difficult. Questionable statistics which try to give variables to describe universal patterns are an unfortunate result of this lack of knowledge, which is further increased by deficient translations of specific terms from one language and reference system to another.12

Additionally, some studies on homosexual practices in Muslim and Arab societies to a large extent still use texts from medieval Arabic literature. Even though these historic examples may be useful in some contexts, the lack of contemporary additions often leads to the impression of static sexual norms incapable of adapting to social change.13 The same can be said for using tafsir, the hadith and the ethics in fiqh as the ultimate sources for an Islamic stance on the topic of homosexuality. Through the centuries economic and cultural factors have influenced processes of socialisation and counter-socialisation, which can be observed in the changing social practices in the history of Muslim societies.14

1.3. Definitions and Terms

In this paper the terms same-sex and homosexual behaviour will be used as synonyms but with no implication on the identity of the participants or homosexuality as specific sexual category. Instead it merely describes the sexual act in a generalised manner. While analysing certain sexual actions and constellations the distinctions of age-structured, status-stratified or gender-stratified and egalitarian modes of homosexual behaviour are useful categories for different forms of male-male encounters because they are descriptive but also indicate ascribed power relations and sexual roles for both participants. Still they do not assume in how far the partners of such encounter do evaluate their own roles and behaviour in the same manner.

Of course there has been a scientific discussion about the use of original terms and their translation. Arno Schmitt argues that all terms in Arabic, Persian or Turkish refer to actions or preferences alone. His opinion has not stayed unquestioned because a variety of terms, which name both partners of the act, exist in all these languages as well. These terms imply, that the participants of sexual acts were not seen as equal and had certain characteristics ascribed to them. In this context Stephen Murray also asks in reference to Schmitt how separated behaviour and attitude based on certain preferences is from character traits or elements of one’s identity and how terms for sexual activity originating in a Muslim society can be translated based on knowledge of European views on sexuality.15 It becomes obvious how difficult the transfer of terms from one reference system to another is.

The examples used in the following text will be limited to male-male encounters. Reason for this is the almost non-existing information about female same-sex relations. The lack to some extent is connected to the general invisibility of women in social discourse in Islamic societies and in the Orientalist discourse. Another reason is the fact that women almost never left records of their behaviour and feelings until the 19th century. This absence of information is no evidence for or against the existence of lesbian relations. But the fact that there are no accounts of social roles connected to lesbianism implies that there was at no point in time an established and recognised social role or identity based on this particular sexual preference.16

The paper will start with an analysis on the development of ‘homosexuality’ as a modern category for sexual preference in Western societies. In comparison to that, the social and cultural frame of Muslim societies will be shown.

In the following, various discourses applied to cross-cultural encounter between Western and Muslim societies will be examined to answer the question in how far sexual categories are used to explain social conditions and how categories from Western societies are transferred into a Muslim context without critical reflection.

In the last part, the paper will deal with the question in how far developing social networks based on male-male sexual acts in Muslim countries are adapting to a ‘global gay identity’ and with which consequences. To illustrate this, recent studies about homosexual men in Turkey and Lebanon will be referenced.

2. Cultural traditions and social frames for homosexual behaviour

Within an analysis the relation between cultural frame and specific sexual behaviour is important because cultural practice defines which modes of behaviour are available to individuals in certain societies.

Sexuality and sexual behaviour are cultural practices themselves as far as they are expressed by language and symbolism and play a role in social consciousness.17

Additionally, they are influenced specifically in each culture by social developments, external and internal factors and actors and processes of ascription.

2.1. Homosexuality as a modern social category in Western societies

The need to define sexuality and its various forms is symptomatic for social discourses in European and North-American research and is to some extent also apparent in studies on non-Western societies.

Modern Western societies tended to apply exclusive categories of homosexual and heterosexual based on the two gender categories male and female and the possible combinations between the two. But these categories are not natural. Their boundaries are fluid and they are difficult to define as can be seen in research and surveys for several decades starting with still prominent examples by Freud and Kinsey.18

In pre-modern times, as can be seen in various Judaeo-Christian discourses on the issue, homosexual behaviour was not related to a particular person, ‘the homosexual’, but a potential of sinful behaviour in all creatures. The Old Testament and the Talmud prohibit male homosexuality as a sin and sanction it with banishment or death. Both religious regulations leave open the possibility of ritualistic repentance. After earlier influence by the Greco-Roman culture Christianity first began to develop a stricter attitude on sexual dissidence in the 12th century.19

The Judaeo-Christian tradition does not differentiate between different forms of homosexuality may they be age-stratified, status-stratified or egalitarian. Sexual pleasures outside the realm of procreation in marital relationships are seen as detrimental to salvation.20

As the next significant social change and with the growing importance of the individual and its identity in sciences and thought sexuality as innermost reality of each person was slowly converted from act into role and personality trait and later into entire subcultures.21

This change took place in the 19th and 20th century. The physical acts stayed the same but the meaning given by societies and actors were profoundly different.22

In the 1960s a concept of identity labelled gay emerged among homosexuals in North America and Western Europe. This concept included the emphasis on the worth of gays as human beings, the responsibility to educate people and to confront prejudice. Gay had become the preferred self-designation because it was associated with the act of self-definition; it implied a social identity and an actively chosen consciousness.23

The major feature of the modern Western gay today is a consciousness of belonging to a certain urban, consumer-oriented subculture based on the possibility of economic success, global mobility and egalitarian and exclusive same-sex relations.24

But the egalitarian, monogamous homosexual relationship is an ideal that can never fully represent social reality. Sexual identities are diverse, fluid and span a much more diverse spectrum, which for example may also include people who regularly have same-sex intercourse but do not consider themselves homosexual. A certain sexual behaviour does neither necessarily result in a related identity nor the association with a particular group or collective action.25 Additionally, versatility and egalitarian sexual roles are not a general feature of Western gay identity. Activities and personality are therefore by no means coextensive.26 Furthermore the gay identity is of course very exclusive because it is based on factors of economic capital, mobility, and a distinction between a central urban setting and a marginal periphery.

Usually, sexuality is referred to as a Western construction intrinsic to societies of modern nation states. This perspective implies not only the exclusive realisation of sexual identity in a modern nation but also an evolutionary development of same-sex behaviour into a modern identity within which Western egalitarian homosexuality is the highest form of liberation.27 This is in itself a contradiction. In the traditional model the nation is gendered in its connotations. The nation-state is personified as a woman, while men are the soldiers who protect the honour of the female state.

Women within the nation state are responsible for the reproduction of said nation. Therefore the ideology of the modern nation-state is intrinsically homophobic.28

Nationalism, whether it is seen as a stable theoretical frame or a changing interrelation of various discourses, still tries to articulate a dominant national identity for the nation’s subjects. Those attempts must, based on their intrinsic logic, deny the existence of non-normative behaviour be it sexual or other.29

Nationalism represses homosexuality to naturalise the nation as heterosexual and homosocial.

Also implied in this theory of a progressive evolution is the assumption that people engaging in homosexual behaviour in pre-modern times never formulated an identity based on their practices.30

Same-sex behaviour may be universal insofar as it is a social practice in most societies but the homosexual identity and consciousness are modern Western realities. They are not inherent in a particular individual because being a homosexual includes not only individual inclination and activities but also social attitudes and participation in particular cultural and social relations.31

Categories, which divide human sexual behaviour into hetero and homo seem to be unknown in certain societies amongst them the ancient Greeks. In their belief sexual passion in any form implies sexual passion in all forms.32

2.2. Modes of male-male encounters in Muslim societies

Same-sex behaviour was known in Muslim and Middle Eastern societies for centuries, which becomes apparent in its inclusion in cultural and social discourses and consistent patterns of homosexual relations especially in the spectrum of age-differentiation and alternative gender status. Evidence suggests that various modes existed for a long period of time in different social contexts.33

The Qur’an has several sures (26:165-166, 15:73-74) that supposedly refer to male homosexuality, although even on this the opinions of interpreters differ.34 A couple of hadith take on the issue as well.

In general, the Islam approves of sexual desire and attributes significance to it in removing the trace of sin and even giving it a transcendental quality.35

But sexuality is restricted to the relationship between husband and wife. In the Islamic history exceptions have only been made towards the sexual relationship with slaves, because as non-Muslims the personal status of slaves does not fall under Islamic law.36 In Islamic history there are examples like the ghulam in 8th century Persia that show male slaves kept for sexual purposes were a regular institution.37

The fact that sexual behaviour between members of the same sex is referred to in the Qur’an and other religious texts, implies that some form of homosexual practice must have existed at all times.38

Scholars tend to emphasise that sexuality in Muslim societies is divided along the lines of active and passive and not as in Western societies along the gender division. The distinction is made between those who take pleasure and those who submit.39 This also implies a constant hierarchy in all sexual relationships.

Unlike the Greco-Roman culture Islamic societies did never make a connection between homosexual encounters and educational or initiative purposes. Sex between males has naturally been status-defined because it affirms separateness in dominance. The male participant who “submits” negates the masculine prerogative of the active sexual part.40 Following this evaluation the actual gender of the receptive partner is only semi-important because of the ascribed and gendered role during the encounter. Women and young males are therefore giving the same status. Consequently, homosexual encounters are for the most part age-stratified between boys and adult males.

Such practices are seen as a characteristic element of societies with strict gender segregation and a high regard for female virginity.

For Muslim societies this means the greater availability of boys and the will to avoid causing offence to other males responsible for protecting the virginity of unmarried females.41

Pederasty has long been the idealised form of homosexual intercourse in Muslim society as the pleasure is justified by the beauty of adolescent boys not by their masculinity. Sacral aspect of the act, or any form of initiation into social maturation did not appear to have had any meaning or importance.42

Widespread homoeroticism in cultural practices as well as homosexual behaviour in various forms is seen as natural element of a society with a general sex-positive attitude but strict gender segregation. The age-stratified mode of homosexual behaviour is seen in connection to various social variables like patrilineal kinship systems, the seclusion of women, and the tradition of polygamy.43 Among the consequences of these practices are the alienation of the sexes and the social acceptance of male prostitution supported by state legislation as well as sexual contact to effeminate males and boys as a way to protect female virtue. Institutions like all-male military elites and slaves in state positions created the necessary historical social spaces in which homosexual behaviour existed as social practice.44

Nowadays a general notion of discretion is the important social frame. Even though strict laws are in practice they are usually not enforced as long as the relationship does not become a public nuisance and the traditional hierarchy of the partners stays intact.45

In Arabic and Islamic societies it is normal to avoid public recognition of deviations from normative standards. Also the rules of penal procedure concerning testimony are very strict. Only oral testimonies of four trustworthy Muslims or four confessions by the culprit are accepted as evidence for any wrongdoing. The Islamic law allots severe punishment for unproven accusations. In general only public transgression of sexual norms is explicitly condemned and the disclosure of a sin is perceived as a sin itself.46


1 See AbuKhalil, 1997: 97.

2 See Schmidtke, 1999: 262.

3 See Schmidtke, 1999: 263.

4 See Murray(a), 1997: 23f.

5 See Murray/Roscoe(b), 1997: 302.

6 See Rowson, 1991: 671.

7 See Murray, 2000: 43f.

8 See Padgug, 1999: 16.

9 See Weeks, 1999: 70.

10 See Binnie, 2004: 4.

11 See AbuKhalil, 1997: 97.

12 See Binnie, 2004: 3.

13 See Hayes, 2000: 4.

14 See Bouhdiba, 1985: viii.

15 See Murray(a), 1997: 32.

16 See Murray(b), 1997: 100f.

17 See Padgug, 1999: 21.

18 See Padgug, 1999: 21.

19 See Afary/ Anderson, 2005: 155.

20 See Schmidtke, 1999: 261.

21 See Padgug, 1999: 21.

22 See Weeks, 1999: 122.

23 See Murray, 2000: 394.

24 See Murray, 2000: 382.

25 See Murray, 2000: 383.

26 See Padgug, 1999: 21.

27 See Hayes, 2000: 5.

28 See Binnie, 2004: 18.

29 See Hayes, 2000: 2.

30 See Murray/Roscoe (a), 1997: 5.

31 See Padgug, 1999: 21.

32 See Padgug, 1999: 15.

33 See Murray/Roscoe (a), 1997: 6.

34 The primary argument seems to be the references to Lot and his people who were punished by God for their behaviour which included ignoring the women in favour of sexual intercourse with boys. The problems with the Qura’n’s stand on the issue stem from unclear terms and references which leaves considerable space for interpretation. (See Mohr, 2003: 52.)

35 See Bouhdiba, 1985: viii.

36 See Afary/ Anderson, 2005: 156.

37 See Murray/Roscoe, 1997(b): 304.

38 See Afary/ Anderson, 2005: 156.

39 See Afary/ Anderson, 2005: 156.

40 See Afary/ Anderson, 2005: 158.

41 See Stevenson, 1998: 313.

42 See Murray/Roscoe, 1997(b): 302.

43 See Murray/Roscoe, 1997(b): 310.

44 See Murray/Roscoe, 1997(b): 311.

45 See Afary/ Anderson, 2005: 156.

46 See Murray(b), 1997: 15.

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Gay identity in a cross-cultural comparative discourse. A critique on the application of sexual categories for male-male encounter
University of Erfurt
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homosexuality, identity, cultural discourse, muslim, islam
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Alexandra Samoleit (Author), 2008, Gay identity in a cross-cultural comparative discourse. A critique on the application of sexual categories for male-male encounter, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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