Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Homoerotics of Orientalism




While Homosexual History is a disjointed affair – the term “homosexual” being a relatively new concept comprising definition, pathology and vilification in equal parts – we the men who desire and have sex with other men can glean much from the past to know about our present day selves, beyond modern Western ideas about identity.

We’re wise to take a “Well, yes and no…” approach when trusting academia to stay in its own lane: Queer integrity necessitates viewing “LGBTIQ” as a political collective whose successes rise and fall on being able to rally around overarching goals...goals which coincidentally intersect with race and broader gender issues some of the time. Masculinity itself however has been most poorly studied and consequently misunderstood. And male homosexuality as an offending sub-species of masculinity isn’t likely to fare well within that contextualization.

It’s then overwhelmingly impressive when an academic with impeccable credentials publishes something like “The Homoerotics of Orientalism”. Joseph A. Boone’s 520-page masterpiece (a fascinatingly informative and satisfying read) manages to take Orientalism from its old-tymey connotations and frame so much about how homosexualists are very real (and perhaps universal, if not timeless) participants in masculinity, although currently disenfranchised when it comes to effectively shaping masculinity.

No slouch himself when it comes to nutting out the finer points of Queerdom, race and transnational culture, (the following extract from) Eng-Beng Lim's excellent review highlights the degree of critical thought which pervades the book:



Boone's own preface reveals his clear understanding of the nuances of sexuality which must shape such a broad subject lest it be undone by dualistic assumptions, or an overemphasis on differences. He expertly rises to the challenge of addressing both homosexual acts as well as identity, as they've historically played out for, and by, men of what was once known as The Orient. The author hasn't assembled a linear history as such - more a highly successful attempt to empirically gather evidence which isn't assembled to suit any narrative or foregone conclusions.


von Gloeden's 1890s Orientalized Sicilians
An actual Oriental / Ottoman same-sex couple circa 1920s













 






In focusing on Orientalism, Boone is able to relieve homosexual history of being determined by, or rooted in, Occidental Classicism and its uncomfortable associations with pederasty. In fact, more modern bridging images (as photographed by the likes of von Gloeden) appear to be of rather old "boys" on close examination. Coupled with the knowledge that he coated his subjects in emulsions and used filters it's likely that von Gloeden's peddled images of "boys" and "youths" were anything but. (Anti-pornographers and their missionary kind are usually smart enough to avoid scapegoating von Gloeden as an exploiter of the poor and/or non-consenting: his models received good royalties from their images, and did so with the blessings of their communities.)

Von Gloeden's images are important inasmuch as they are the earliest photographic evidence of homoerotic Orientalism as it straddled the art vs smut divide. They also effectively refute how European art had traditionally insisted on mitigating the penis size of sexually mature males from Classicism onwards. While some insist that the photograph itself is more of a vehicle of pornography  than any painting or sculpture (due to its infinite possibilities for reproduction), there's no doubting its superior ability to document. But what von Gloeden documented wasn't penises of exotic races - he documented forays into erotic Arcadianism and Orientalism by virtue of a then-revolutionary medium. In a way he made homoerotic Orientalism more real, and in doing so dignified it.

It would however be quite wrong to suggest that von Gloeden (or any image for that matter) defines or best represents homoerotic Orientalism, or that it had or has "watershed moments". The Homoerotics of Orientalism successfully prevents the topic (and the men) from being dismissed as products and images of Western projection: Orientals themselves certainly bring enough meaningful homoeroticism to inform the topic.



 
Professor Joseph Boone address (Van Leer Jerusalem Institute 2016)

 
Of course "The Orient" nowadays refers to territories, races and peoples far removed from what and where Orientalism flourished - Boone's milieu encompasses cultures of North Africa, Asia Minor and a broad Arabia. Language, dress and religion have significantly gutted the Middle-Eastern man of his benign homoerotic appeal, and Boone is courageous enough to invoke Abu Ghraib images of men to demonstrate that demonically dark side of homoeroticism, as practiced by men (and women) who torture.

Orientalism as a viable homoerotic pursuit probably had its last days of innocence in our own times immediately before the demise of the busy cruising areas around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. They hosted Israeli and Palestinian men coupling in the name of Eros...oblivious to the reality of The Other being rapidly recast as The Enemy. Given what came before (The Crusades) and what has since transpired, it's not too simplistic to isolate these acts of homosexuality as possibly the only tangible evidence of men behaving with any degree of sanity toward each other in the entire region, for a very long time.




21st Century Homoerotic Orientalism: The Middle-Eastern Male, The Pesky Questions,



Some modern North and South American pornographers do their best to promote one vaguely Orientalist stereotype of Arabic virility in the pursuit of a niche buck. But the authenticity of the sentiment is as suspect as the true erotic content of a pizza delivery. As Orientalism, this erotica barely meets the brief of Western product for a Western consumer, lacking even the trappings of "mystery" and featuring models who could never vaguely pass as Arabic, Assyrian or Semitic - or anybody vaguely Oriental for that matter. Gone also are nods to youth and not-unattractive feminized aspects of homoerotic Orientalism: dimensionless Postmodern hypermasculinity - and little else - apparently being at the core of  Western homoerotic desire. (Notably, recent "Orientalist" homoerotica requires the consumer to choose between the mutually exclusive Arabic and Israeli sub-genres, with "Middle Eastern" and "North African" being unavailable options unless post-colonialist mixed-race French is your thing.)

Is the non-sexualized modesty of the traditional Eastern male actually a powerful erotic driver? If so, commercial porn as we know it seems oblivious to the idea. The oft-debated issues of modesty and flaunted sexuality are as relevant to Arabic men as to Arabic women, with few Westerners able to grasp how the Eastern perspective interlocks sex with privacy. That debate about immodesty and prohibition doesn't effectively address arousal for what is, or the fact that modesty itself (or more correctly, "what is covered") can be a potent sexual stimulant.

Have politics and religion subliminally caused modern Western homosexuals to deny Arabic men their unique homoerotic due? If not, who then is this man in the 21st Century? An online search ("sexiest hottest Arab men") will invariably turn up model Omar Borkan, whose main claim to fame is being deported from Saudi Arabia for "being too handsome".

Hamdan / Fazza redux

Hamdan / Fazza










As an internet sensation with a million followers, his cosmetic Orientalism somehow doesn't quite ring true beyond the damp-pantie world of Instagram. He's of course channeling Sheikh Hamdan, Crown Prince of Dubai - affectionately known to his six million-plus followers as "Fazza". What Hamdan does, so apparently does Borkan...albeit with depilated nipples and to-be-expected pencilled eyes boring into the camera. From affection towards horses thru poetry to even falconry...Borkan remarkably does it too! In terms of the sexual sensibility of the modelling game, Borkan certainly meets the brief of "white enough, and exposed enough".  In terms of camp sensibilty, Borkan seems to meet the "Florence of Arabia" brief in the same fey way as most who attempt artsy-fartsy homoerotic images invoking Orientalism rather than being it.


How do you like your Fazza? Hypermasculine Western...
...or mysteriously and exotically Eastern?





















Fazza himself is marketed to both Easterners and Westerners as everything from extreme sportsman to sensitive poet to astute modern leader. Importantly, he actually has the credentials. Still single in his 30s, the soulfully beautiful Fazza presents as perfection in Arabic homosocialization - he's never photographed with  female dates. Together with the added cachet of intact royal mystery and billions in the bank, he should be able to launch a thousand Arabian nights fantasies in Western gay men regardless of Orientalist leanings, but doesn't. Obversely, the British-educated Hamdan-as-Westerner on Grindr would make out like a bandit.

"Taste choices" aside, isn't there a silly queen or enlightened gay man somewhere who's come to think of him as a beloved and composed a poem to dignify the sentiment... as appropriate homoerotic (or at least homosocial) communication? Being a self-realized man with agency, perhaps he altogether subverts the exploitative European colonialist underpinnings of Orientalism, and therefore that aspect of homoeroticism. Perhaps again the breakdown of mutual East / West same-sex eroticism is an ongoing casualty of colonialism - continuously refueled for more nefarious purposes, from both sides.

Have we therefore - as politicized "gays" - become so dumbed-down that what we find attractive and unattractive is determined by forces outside our normal and curious desires...desires which have traditionally at least refuted racism to some degree?  On one hand it's very right to not emotionally engage with any person or thing which is of homophobia, but all Arabic men aren't of homophobia. (Secular Arabs were, and are, horrified by Islamist celebration of the Orlando massacre.) Islamicate homosexuals aren't likely to benefit from the advances made by Western homosexuals any time soon, since politics rarely even pays lip service to increasing human rights abuses in the 21st Century. If our tendency to love and/or desire them has been subliminally replaced by a fear and/or hatred of them then we all are diminished. Additionally, Westerners who believe they're progressive, and that Easterners are always playing catch up, are simply spinning their wheels in a quagmire of post-Colonial arrogance and chauvinism.

It's also tempting to buy into an alternate view that Islam is bravely staying Eastern and pure, and purging itself of Western thinking and influence, and to be respected for doing so. Sadly this rhetoric (peppered with toxic homophobia) is ISIS Propaganda 101, targeted at disaffected young males and seekers of "purity" everywhere. Islam therefore needs to take a good look at itself before it condemns male homosexuality (and the innate right of all men to enjoy it) as something innately Western, impure or undesirable. But then again Western men aren't quite able to make that shift in reason, or enough to be in any position to criticize Islam in any meaningful or useful way. And less so because European men have a very long history of invoking sodomy to demonize their enemies.

One can't help but look back further into our history and wonder how Alexander The Great would have sorted out this mess: I'm betting on a bloodshed, albeit with a return to homoeroticism coupled to a decisive reset on what masculinity is. In other words, a globalization of gay culture, but quite unlike anything we may be ideologically committed to in the present.








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