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Ethnography has become, in effect, the description of indigenous non-European peoples by Euro-Americans, in short, descriptions of so-called primitive people. Historically, ethnography has been a particularly attractive form of writing for homosexuals or those who wished to write about homosexuality. (To avoid anachronism and ethnocentrism in this article, the term homosexuality will refer to any sexual acts performed by persons of the same gender, and not merely to the form those acts took on in modern Euro-American culture.)

The Attraction of Ethnography for Homosexual Writers

Before the twentieth century, writing about homosexuality in Europe came in one of two forms--pornography or studies of psychological or social pathology. Euro-Americans who had homosexual relations were considered either sick or criminals. Thus to talk of such people without stigmatization, authors had to move outside Euro-American culture, where they could write about homosexual relations as "primitive" rather than as "pathological."

In addition, ethnography was a way for writers to cloak themselves in the mantle of the scientific, which protected them from questions about their sexual orientation or political ideology. The scientific description of primitive homosexual relations could therefore counter the equally scientific--but more pejorative--work in social psychology and pathology.

Moreover, ethnography counters charges that homosexuality is "unnatural." The occurrence of homosexuality among so-called primitive peoples ("noble savages," as Rousseau called them) indicated that homosexuality was "natural." As Sir Richard Burton pointed out, homosexuality in the Americas "astonishes the anthropologist, who is apt to consider the growth of luxury and the especial product of great and civilized cities, unnecessary and therefore unknown to savagery."

Ethnography broke down other stereotypes such as the belief that homosexuals were weak and cowardly by describing homosexuality among tribal warriors and that homosexuals were ungodly by detailing the priestly roles homosexuals have had in many cultures. However, ethnography did reinforce other stereotypes, such as that homosexuals were "artistic," "transvestites," "bestial," "corrupter of youth," and of "foreign origin."

Ethnography played on the erotic allure of the foreign. Homosexual relations have often been viewed as a "foreign" habit. Such terms in popular gay language as French and Greek sex for oral and anal intercourse derive from the English view that such practices must come from elsewhere. The term derives from the belief that anal intercourse was a Bulgarian heresy. Insofar as foreign practices excite xenophobia, such references are negative.

But the foreign also suggests attractive alternatives. Both heterosexual and homosexual Europeans often imagined--and sometimes lived on--tropical islands freed from the constraints of Euro-American prudery and sexual repression.

Cultures Examined by Gay Ethnographers

Ethnography with homosexual subject matter treated a number of different ethnic groups. The most important ethnic group treated by gay ethnographers was ancient Greeks.

It is hard to underestimate the importance that ancient Greek pederasty had on the formation of modern concepts of homosexuality.

Such nineteenth-century homosexual writers as John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter argued that since the Greeks are respected for the epitome of civilization, wisdom, and moral virtue, and the purest combination of the natural with the austerely rational, then homosexual behavior among the Greeks indicates that such practices are rational, natural, civilized, and moral.

Symonds's book A Problem of Greek Ethics (1873) argued the importance of the Greek example. Carpenter's books The Intermediate Sex (1908) and Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk (1914) were more popular and widely distributed. They discuss the Greeks as one among many other ethnic groups in which homosexuality was recognized and valued.

Debate about how to interpret Greek sexual behavior still goes on, but the terms have changed. Whereas before K. J. Dover's Greek Homosexuality (1978), scholars still debated whether the Greeks valorized actual sexual activity and how frequently such behavior occurred, today the debate in such works as David M. Halperin's One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990), John J. Winkler's The Constraints of Desire (1990), and Foucault's History of Sexuality is how close Greek pederasty resembles modern homosexuality.

Yet another important Victorian work of ethnography is Sir Richard Burton's "Terminal Essay" to his edition of The Arabian Nights (1885). Burton believed that a "Sotadic Zone" circled the earth stretching from the Mediterranean through the Near East, across India and Asia and throughout the Americas.

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A portrait of artist and anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum by Stathis Orphanos.
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