Controversial and proudly free of political correctness, his sharp comments are often feared by authors of new publications. Yet for people who know him closely, Steve Murray is the most supportive and helpful reader of one’s drafts one can find.
Following the publication of the culmination of two decades of his research and writing about homosexualities, the book, Homosexualities, by the University of Chicago Press. I asked him a series of questions, as follows.
MF: There is something monumental about Homosexualities: its volume (almost 500 pages); its breadth (homosexual cultures in many regions and historical periods of the world); its 50 pages of bibliographic sources from diverse fields. Not surprisingly, some of your main mentors or more influential colleagues for this work seem to be Wayne Dynes, author of The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (1990) and David Greenberg, author of the also massive The Construction of Homosexuality (1988) . What motivated you to embark upon such an ambitious project?
SM: The third of the dedicatees of the book, Louis Crompton, has just completed in a gargantuan history of homosexuality in civilizations, only some parts of which have thus far been published.
However, I definitely did not set out to build a monument. When I was a graduate student in the mid-to-late 1970s, I read most everything I could find about homosexuality. It could be said that I also began fieldwork on homosexuality both north (Canada) and south (Mexico and Guatemala) of the United States during those years, although I didn’t see my explorations as ethnography (as I explained in my chapter in Out in the Field). I did some formal lexical elicitation (“white-room ethnography”) in Guatemala City and in San Francisco, wrote about a speech genre (“ritual insults”) with mostly Canadian data and examined the supposedly “technical” social science criteria of “community,” finding that the Toronto gay community of the late-1970s fit them better than Toronto ethnic communities.
In addition to publishing my first articles about gay phenomena in 1979, I provoked both a typology of social organizations of homosexual relations (structured by differences in age, gender, or profession, or egalitarian) and a delineation of “modern gay homosexuality” from Barry Adam, who had been my older brother at the University of Toronto (even though he was born a year later than I). He managed to lay out both these (and more!) on a single page—which I still find depressing! Being contrarian, I set out in search of data that would not fit the typology, while also trying to figure why one dominant structuring succeeded another. I think that both Barry and I have always been very explicit that the “dominant discourse” about homosexuality in some place does not account for all that is going on in the way of same-sex sexual relationships. He borrowed Robert Redfield’s “little traditions,” though I have been troubled by unwritten and/or unwritten-about “great traditions.”
My very short, decidedly unmonumental first book dealing with homosexuality (Social Theory, Homosexual Realities, 1984) has a chapter laying out the typology with some discussion of transformations from gender-stratified to “gay” homosexuality and earlier instances of transformations from age-stratified to gender-stratified homosexuality.
My 1987 book on male homosexuality in central and South America is primarily about gender-stratified homosexuality and structural constraints on any re-enactment of the gender-to-gay transformation as it happened in North America. There is also some consideration of age-stratified homosexuality among some Amazonian peoples. This book already extended far beyond what I considered my geographical area, Mesoamerica. In the next book (Oceanic Homosexualities, 1992), expanded as Pacific Homosexualties, 2002). I organized the material on homosexuality in a vast arc extending from Madagascar to the Arctic Ocean within the Adam typology, and concluded that a distinct “profession-defined” type was unnecessary.
A gender-to-gay transformation is important in my book (American Gay, 1996), though much of it focused on racial-ethnic differences and on basic but hotly-contested concepts like role, couple, and community in North American lesbigay contexts.
The primary organizing principle of the books Will Roscoe and I did on the Abode of Islam and on sub-Saharan Africa (Islamic Homosexualities, 1997, Boy-Wives and Female Husbands, 1998) is geographical. In the latter book, I used HRAF codings to look at correlations of the existence of a type of homosexuality in “traditional” cultures with other social structural variables such as inheritance rules. There did seem to be patterns, though they were muted by the simultaneous existence of more than one of the kinds of relations.
When I was in graduate school, the view was still popular that if anthropologists amassed detailed analyses of many domains in a particular place, a holistic ethnography would come together, and that if enough detailed analyses from many places amassed, the structured variability of human culture would become clear. Such hopes for ethnoscience have long been abandoned. But most anthropologists are still hyper-particularist (“fine ethnography” personified by Hal Conklin). Now the same structure of beliefs exists with “local histories” in the place of “rigorous semantic analysis of cultural domains.” I am quite certain that local histories are not going to add themselves up into a coherent history of a particular place, still less a universal history or any sort of model or explanation of cultural variability in either space or time. Personally, I like detail. I would like much richer detail about erotic subjectivities of those who from the outside are classified as being in age-stratified, gender-stratified, or “modern gay” homosexual relations. If such detail is ever amassed from a range of societies, a quite different synthesis than that in Homosexualities will be possible. Even if there was some funding for such research, I will be long dead before it can be limned. Indeed, I was astounded to still be alive and healthy after the Islamic and African books were published and to be faced with the necessity of moving on to global comparison of the data on forms of homosexuality. But there I was.
There are probably too many cases in Homosexualities(as also in my revised dissertation history/comparison of anthropological linguistic theory groups and theorists). However, I wanted to include examples of each subtype from diverse times and places I could find. I was also determined to counter the view of a single monolithic type existing at a time, to show that there were relations that were not stratified by status and age-stratified ones and gender-stratified ones at the same time and place, even though one type was most written about (e.g., gender in contemporary Latin America, age in classical Greece). Material on Athens, Rome, China, and Japan appears in the sections about each main type, and I repeat that even in contemporary American cities, there are homosexual relations structured by differences in age and gender as well as officially egalitarian “gay” relationships.
Again, concurrent forms make any sorting out of the sociocultural correlates of particular forms fuzzy. The African patternings do not entirely hold up. I guess this is retroactive justification for my earlier focus on smaller geographical swathes.
I am well aware that most readers will dip in to the parts about the cultures that particularly interest them. I can only hope that my comparative focus brings something to what I have written about particular cases (as in the models I have revered since my youth: Eric Wolf, Barrington Moore, and Max Weber).
MF: How does your model differ from those of Adam and Greenberg?
Other than an article (Adam 1986) elaborating on age-structured homosexual relations, his comparativist work has been on the emerge of gay and gay/lesbian social movements during the twentieth century, and his brilliant earlier work on the similarities of stigmatizing characteristics and responses to stigmatization of homosexuals, Jews, and those of African descent in the West during the last two centuries. I have jettisoned one of his four types and elaborated subtypes of the remaining three, as well as exploring links of the social organization of homosexuality to other social structurings.
David Greenberg’s 1988 book is a great book in several senses of “great.” Although its title is The Construction of Homosexuality, his focus was on the construction of prohibitions against homosexuality, not on examining or trying to explain the range of variation of homosexualities as lived/enacted by individuals. He is a criminologist, albeit a Freudo-Marxist one. There is a not very covert evolutionary schema to his use of the age-gender-gay progression that I do not accept, and some Freudian psychologizing that I do not accept, but I admire much in his book.
In addition to addressing a different problematic, my book draws on quite a profusion of research that appeared in the dozen years after he finished his book. And I want to add that I am very grateful both for the stimulation of David’s work but for his unflagging support for my work, not least in the blurb he wrote for the back cover of Homosexualities. I think we see each other’s books as complementary.
MF: How would you theoretically place Homosexualitiesin regards to postcolonial critiques of “White”/First-world gazes, postmodernist concerns with positionality, reflexivity and self-consciousness, the subjectivity of the text, and the politics of representation, and poststructuralist emphases on the politics of discourse creation?
SM: I wouldn’t. These are things for readers to do—or for a particular kind of multiply postie-drunk reader to do..
MF: How does Homosexualities depart from an “objective” and promptly classifiable and neat typologizing, structuring, patterning, or taxonomizing of sex, sexuality, and gender around the world?
SM: In being interested only in taxonomizing same-sex sexuality and trying to explore whether the FORMS of same-sex sexuality are “socially constructed” in some relation to other forms of sociocultural life. It does not intend to aggregate analyses of emic phenomena or sort through what the “domains” of sexuality are in local views. Such emic data as I found is included, but the project is resolutely etic, or, as Lawrence Cohen put it in presenting the Ruth Benedict Prize to the book, “unrepentantly ethnologic.” It clearly departs from “neat,” as I have already mentioned, in showing each of the main homosexualities in China, Japan, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and contemporary North Ameerica.
I have to add that to find data on homosexuality in very many times or places requires looking at representations by hostile observers of such phenomena. Colonial Christian moralism is only one of the distorting lenses one has to try to read through.
MF: How do you deal with political-economy-based globalization perspectives that see the “local” as part of larger interacting systems?
SM: Most of the cases considered in the book are about pre-postmodernist cultures and societies. In no sense is the book a tour of what exists everywhere in the world at the beginning of the Christian third millennium. I am certainly aware of the slipperiness, and the many ideological uses to which “traditional” is and has been put, but the book is mostly about various sociocultural pasts, not a survey of the present in which “globalized” has some meaning. The political economy is also primarily of precapitalist socioeconomic formations. There is discussion of modernity/ postmodernity in relationship to homosexualities, but this occupies perhaps two percent of the book.
MF: Do you see these perspectives as destabilizing the enterprise of universally comparing patterns of conduct between societies as these societies appear to be not so “isolated” anymore?
SM: No. I am writing primarily about roles and, except in the conclusion, whether the societies are isolated or melted together is irrelevant for my purposes. If I were using inferential statistics, I would have to be concerned with the orthogonality of the cases (Galton’s problem), and it could be argued that I beg this question with even descriptive statistics.
I also think that societies were not so isolated as they were represented as being, especially by anthropologists, in the past. That a place does not have a written history before colonial incursion does not mean that nothing happened, that there was no interplay between societies before that. We know something about trade networks from archaeological work. But, of course, those who believe that there was no homosexuality before 1869 can similarly believe there was no history before someone came along to write it in English or some other European language!
MF: Why is it important to establish universally recurrent patterns for homosexuality anyway?
As usual, my reply is why focus on challenging study of homosexuality. Why is it important to establish anything? (especially in a time when many doubt that anything can be established).
I think that it is interesting that there are relatively few forms and that these forms recur in quite different places with quite different technologies. Whether it is important to establish that there is not unilinear social evolution in forms of homosexuality is for others to decide.
Some of us are interested in exploring what variability exists (rather than simply proclaiming that there is variability) and going on to try to account for recurrences. There are certainly many who prefer “blooming buzzing confusion” and to perpetuate unknowingness about sexuality in particular, but the orderings of social phenomena in general.
MF: One of the most important points in your book seems to be your critique of what you have called “creationism,” or the “pop-Foucaultian” view that “the homosexual” as species only appeared in the West in recent centuries. How does your research and analysis prove that different manifestations and incarnations of “the homosexual” have existed in many societies and historical periods reaching far beyond the confines of modernity and the European order of things?
SM: It’s not entirely “pop” Foucaultian, but based on a hyperbolic sentence in the introductory volume of The History of Sexuality. and on Foucault’s practice of focusing on prescriptive texts, despite his avowed interest in social practices.
I am not entirely convinced that there were no networks of men who identified themselves with a shared desire for males, but I am certain that men enacted roles of which sex with persons of the same (biological/natal) sex was a part , and that there were names for such roles in many societies long before late-19th-century forensic psychiatry is supposed to have “invented homosexuality.”
It is often fudged that this first “modern” homosexual was an “intermediate” species—intermediate between masculine and feminine. The first “modern” homosexual was not the conventionally gendered man or woman in a more-or-less egalitarian relationship that most of us think of as “the modern homosexual.” Before 1869 when the word “homosexual” was coined, there were other words for gender-variant beings who engaged in what I would call “heterogender homosexuality.” Although less common (or at least far less documented), there are also venerable terms such as tribades for females desiring female sexual partners within Christendom, and other labels in other cultural traditions.
The sodomite was not “a temporary aberration,” nor was sodomy “an utterly confused category” as Foucault rashly proclaimed in 1976. He had done no research on sodomy prosecution in early modern Europe. If he had, he would have seen that the inquisitors were interested in recurrences of desire and in networks of “sodomites.” The “sodomite” was both a kind of person and a “juridical object” that judges and prosecutors looked at and looked for. Their primary interest was not in stray acts of sodomy “that anyone might commit,” as the paty- line claims. Similarly, the focus of the crime of “sodomy” was anal penetration, though the boundaries of the classification were fuzzy, as social and juridical categories generally are. Moreover, there were terms for the kind of man seeking male sexual partners in early modern Europe, and in many, many other times and places. (See Murray 1989.) I think that we should treat Foucault’s pronouncements as hypotheses – hypotheses that subsequently have been falsified. If Foucault had lived and done research on the practices of social control in early modern Europe, I am sure that he would have “carbonized” (to borrow his own admonition) the claim that has so intoxicated many scholars. Indeed, in the few more year years he lived, Foucault himself came to recognize that not only were same-sex sexual preferences recognized in ancient Greece and Rome, but even that there were “abiding love relationships between two men who were well past adolescence,” in addition to the statistically normative pederastic relationships in those societies (Foucault 1986:194). There were even etiologies for same-sex desires in ancient treatises, millennia before similarly specious psychiatric explanations from the late-19th century.
It is obvious that late-19th-century psychiatric discourse had nothing to do with the earlier Japanese code of wakashu-do, or the roles and norms for male-male relationships in many other times and place. But Foucault’s assertion is wrong even for his homeland – which as of 1976 was the only society whose history he had studied.
MF: Have you ever been criticized for being too confrontational and bold?
SM: Not to my face, though, perhaps some people think this. My own self-conception is that I am an inordinately polite and very nonconfrontational rural Midwesterner. Do you think I’m confrontational?
MF: At times you criticize others’ work so sharply that I would not be surprised to see reactions of hostility against you and your work. While academics often complain that more debate is necessary to dynamize certain fields in the social sciences and humanities, most of them do not cite specific works or authors when criticizing a paradigm or discourse prevalent in academia, perhaps afraid of the repercussions and enmitiess that a more direct criticism might generate against them. In this current academic landscape, which is full of cliques, alliances, scapegoats, fear, and censorship, where would you place your work and yourself and what do you think about being “too confrontational and bold” anyway?
SM: I think that I criticize ill-founded conclusions and assertions, not the perpetrators of these. I can think of only one instance of my criticizing the person as well as his ideas, and this was in a political context rather than in an arena of contesting ideas. Scholarship and Science are impersonal endeavors of organized skepticism (to borrow Robert Merton’s label for one of the institutional norms), though scholars and scientists are very often ego-involved. Unfortunately this defensiveness is especially acute around ethnographies, where the “measuring instrument” is the individual ethnographer, any questioning of claims tends to be taken as “personal criticism.” I think that the combination of arbitrariness of many claims and the refusal to permit scrutiny of the claims they make is a major explanation for the lack of influence anthropologists have.
When I think something is wrong, I say so. It doesn’t matter who said what I think is wrong, even if that person is myself (as in regard to my mistaken claim that there was not gay chain migration to North American metropolises). I think that both my friends and my enemies know I am going to say what I think and let the chips fall where they may. My friends already know I am going to say that a claim is unwarranted or wrong if I think it is. I guess some enemies have been puzzled when I accept that they got something right.
MF: How does your freedom and independence from institutional affiliation empowered you to say what you “really” think and at the same time limited you in some ways?
SM: I am not sure I buy this explanation, since I think I was more brutal when I had an institutional affiliation (admittedly, a long time ago). Lack of institutional affiliation has eliminated opportunities for grant funding, and having a non-academic job after my postdoctoral fellowship precluded extended fieldwork away from home. The up-side of this is that I have not wasted time on grant proposals that would have been unlikely to be funded anyway. It would have been nice to have had a job in which research was valued, to have library privileges as part of a job, to have had an office, and, most of all, graduate students.
MF: Can you explain how are you both capable to harshly criticize an author while simultaneously using other aspects of his/her work?
SM: It has never seemed at all difficult to me to take what seems right and to reject what seems wrong. I wish that people I like never said anything stupid and that those I don’t like never said anything that wasn’t stupid. Alas, things are not so simple!
MF: One of your most common criticisms to academics is that they are not “true scholars”? What is a “true scholar” and where do we find them?
SM: For me a “true scholar” seeks the Truth, knowing that only provisional better approximations will be made, that no one is ever actually going to possess ultimate Truth. Those with a vocation for scholarship are emotionally prepared for their findings and theories to be improved upon and are open to correction(s). Some do not even regret such correction, though I think that welcoming being corrected is inhumanly high a standard to expect. Openness to it is difficult enough for most of us.
“True scholars” are around, even in gay studies. To take some already mentioned in this interview, Michel Foucault, David Greenberg, Barry Adam. I had the privilege of being in what turned out to be Foucault’s last seminar. He was very open to alternative interpretations of the texts we were discussing and seemed to find challenges to his interpretations stimulating. He said that he preferred this critical scrutiny by Berkeley students to the reverent audiences of his lectures at the Collège de France that simply wrote down what he said. He was far less committed to his formulations than some of his followers have been. Although I am a critic of his most influential formulation about homosexuality, I consider him a model for being open to criticism and seeking improvements by others of his ideas.
MF: You mention your physician in the acknowledgements of some of your most recent books.
SM: Yes, that I am still around and able to do anything owes much to my doctor and more to my life-partner. Of all the stupid and vicious criticism that has come my way, what annoyed me the most was a European professor’s suggestion in a review of American Gay that I included an acknowledgment of my physician to forestall criticism of the text. Leaving aside that the acknowledgments were at the end rather than the beginning of the volume, his surmise shows how total is the ignorance of ensconced European professors of the reality of trying to survive AIDS in an epicenter such as San Francisco.
MF: How has your HIV status (and sexual orientation) affected your politics and work in general?
SM: I’m not sure. Being HIV+, I expected to be dead by now, so that status certainly motivated me to try to get the work I wanted to do done and out. I don’t think it affected my politics: they were critical/emancipatory long before I knew I was HIV+. Probably being HIV+ made me less willing to make the compromises that seem to be necessary to work in toothless social science AIDS research.
Similarly, I was oppositional before I knew what sexual orientation was. Having come out with a view from Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization that seemed to me to valorize a particularly gay oppositional stance, it was later a shock to me to discover the craving for respectability of some lesbians and gay men and the viciousness of what I see as internalized homophobia and the unseemly eagerness to police and repress other less “reputable” gays and lesbians. There may not be a necessary relationship between being gay and a contempt for hypocricy, especially about those who practice what they publicly condemn, but there is at least a statistical correlation.
My interest in exploring various ways of conceiving and practicing same-sex eroticism is rooted in being gay, but I would hope that what I see is what is “out there,” not only what is “politically correct” to notice, whatever the politics is that is dictating correctness. Although I believe that homosexual behavior is a transcultural (etic) phenomenon, it is neither “gay identity” like mine nor “gay people” elsewhere that I have been looking for. Still, following Lévi-Strauss, I think there is something to the notion that the person who looks at other societies is not content with his/her own. The certainty that things must be the way they are is eroded by knowledge of alternative ways, even if none of the documented ways strikes one as perfect or as a plausible or a attractive blueprint. It may be that “globalization” will render it impossible to look for differences except in the past, though when I was young a slightly different paradigm, “modernization,” also foresaw a homogeneity that I find dystopian.
Adam, Barry D. 1986. “Age, structure and sexuality.” Journal of Homosexuality 11:19-33.
Foucault, Michel. 1986. The Use of Pleasure. New York: Vintage.
Greenberg, David F. 1988. The Construction of Homosexuality Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Marcuse, Herbert. 1955. Eros and Civilization. Boston: Beacon.
Murray, Stephen O. 1979a. “The art of gay insulting. Anthropological Linguistics 21:211-223.
—. 1979b. “Institutional elaboration of a quasi-ethnic community.” International Review of Modern Sociology 9:165-177.
—. 1984. Social Theory, Homosexual Realities. New York: Gay Academic Union.
—-. 1987. Male Homosexuality in Central and South America. New York: Gay Academic Union.
—. 1989b. “Homosexual acts and selves in early modern Europe.” Journal of Homosexuality 16:457-478.
—-. 1992. Oceanic Homosexualities. New York: Garland Publishing.
—-. 1995. Latin American Male Homosexualities. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
—-. 1996. American Gay. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
—-. 2000. Homosexualities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
—. 2002. Pacific Homosexualities. San Francisco: Instituto Obregón.
Murray, Stephen O., and Will Roscoe. 1997. Islamic Homosexualities. New York: New York University Press.
—-, —-. 1998. Boy Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
An Interview of Stephen O. Murray by Manuel Fernández-Alemany that was partly published in a SOLGA column in the Anthropology News
©2001, 2019, Stephen O. Murray