Frank Browning: Do Gays Exist?

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Do gays exist?

In A Queer Geography: Journeys Toward a Sexual Self — available from Amazon — Frank Browning begins chapter one by asking that question.

Actually, Browning doesn’t doubt that homosexuals — people attracted to others of the same sex — exist; in fact, he doesn’t really doubt that gay people exist. He does question, though, how ‘gay’ is created.

If you are already confused, don’t give up yet. Browning steps into the thoughts and ideas of gay men everywhere and looks at how their lives are shaped by time and place. Essentially, these are the questions that Browning attempts to answer: What is the gay identity? and Do gay people even exist? Through those questions, he shows how and why what we call the gay movement could have only arisen in America.

For Browning, whose best-selling 1993 book The Culture of Desire detailed the emergence of the contemporary gay culture, being gay is a singularly American experience. He acknowledges same-sex activity and male-to-male relationships in other cultures, but he does not call those ‘gay.’ America, with all its preconceived ideas about sex, family and marriage, has created and continues to create the gay identity from the homosexuals who live here. He presents the idea of a gay identity as a part of a global spectrum of homosexual lifestyles and manifestations. America, according to Browning, is not home to all the world’s homosexuals, but it has created all gays.

“Homosexuality is eternal, but what the activist and the press call the ‘gay identity’ is something new, distinctively American, and pretty bizarre to the rest of the world,” Browning says. “It’s a longing for certainty and stability whose story is all about uncertainty and instability.”

Browning uses Edmond White as an example. White, whom Browning calls “the most prominent gay essayist in the English language,” confesses in one of his works that “I myself might have been bisexual had I lived in a different era.” Browning comments that if this person who epitomizes the gay identity admits he might have been bisexual under different circumstances, and then surely many people must have been socialized into roles created by their culture.

Browning takes readers from the present to the past and soaring ahead to the future. A Queer Geography, now available in paperback, leads those who can follow it from Italy to the tribes of New Guinea. Then Browning drops the (almost) overwhelmed reader into the middle of our nationalistic and narrow-minded country that boxes people into roles they may not have any interest in assuming.

Through vignettes wrapping around examples of his argument, Browning draws his abstract ideas into real-life situations. He introduces people like Paul in New York, who finds the gay culture a “community predicated on sexuality.” He also considers the femminielli, transvestite prostitutes who are an accepted part of the culture in Naples. He cites both as examples of queer –but not gay — people in other cultures.

He also writes about the gay culture in America developing since the riots at the Stonewall Inn almost three decades ago. “[The gay culture] is a haven, a defensive zone of experimentation and growth in a culture that has long been marked by panic around sexual matters,” Browning writes. He uses the Samian tribe in New Guinea to illustrate that point.

“[Sambian men] believe that boys cannot become men unless they suck out male essence — semen — and fill up their ‘semen organs,'” Browning writes. He wonders, then, how the American gay culture as he describes it relates to this behavior in New Guinea that they may consider child abuse or, at the very least, bizarre.

“It’s the entire Sambian organization of sex and sexual identity that makes my gay friends fidget,” Browning observes about gay Americans whom he says often recognize their culture as the only expression of homosexuality instead of one of many representations. And the Sambian experience in New Guinea is only one of his examples.

Browning’s arguments and language are vivid and compelling. He forces readers to think; many will also be offended by the openness with which he discusses delicate matters. Eventually, though, what readers see is an examination of a gay community that has been created by its country.

Simply put, though, the author says gay language, attitude and culture is a uniquely American product of the unique American culture. He supports his argument with examples of queer but not gay people in other cultures. Ultimately, Browning tries to make readers see what can be learned from and shared with other queer people around the world.

“Contrary to our usual nation impulses, I believe, we would be well advised to look with generosity and forbearance at the sexual geographies that are organized in other ways, which may in fact change the way we come to see ourselves in future days,” Browning says.

A Queer Geography may compel readers to expand their view from an American one to a human one.