Where Homosexuality Is the Norm

Edward (Ted) Fischer is the Director of Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University.

Fischer studies cultural anthropology, specializing in matters of economics and moralities. Most of his fieldwork has been in Guatemala (with the Maya) but he has also worked in and written on Germany and the United States. His books include “Cultural Logics and Global Economies,” “Maya Cultural Activism,” and “Broccoli and Desire.” With Peter Benson he is now working on a project titled “Markets and Moralities.” He also has a video series out from The Teaching Co. titled “Peoples and Cultures of the World.”

He received his PhD, in anthropology at Tulane University and his undergraduate degree from University of Alabama at Birmingham after studying at Birmingham-Southern College.

  • Transcript


Question: Where is homosexuality completely accepted?

Ted Fischer: How love is manifested varies greatly from culture to culture. And we, I think, often think of our way as the only way, or the best way, or the natural way, and yet it’s not. And this is really the power of anthropology is showing us we naturally think the way we do things is best very often. And looking around the world and saying, “Oh, among the Sambia in New Guinea they form homosexual bonds between men and also have husbands and wives.” That’s a different way of configuring families. A different way of configuring love. And it opens up the range of possibility for us to reconsider the way in which we do things. And it doesn’t mean we have to adopt somebody else's pattern, but just knowing that we construct this world in which we live, and if we want to we can change it.

There are few notable cases around the world. Among Plains Indians before contact and even shortly after contact, there was a recognized; sometimes it’s called a third gender. So men who would feel like they are truly women, and they would dress as women, and the they would take male husbands, and very much a pattern of romantic love, falling in love, marrying, not having children, of course but still living as husband and wife. So that’s one pattern that we find in a few cultures around the world. More often, interestingly, of men feeling that they should be women. A few cases that we find of women feeling that they should be men and dressing as men, but that seems to be more transgressive for cultures in some way. So that’s one pattern.

Question: Are women sexually shunned in any cultures?

Ted Fischer: Another pattern that we find, especially, in New Guinea and in the Amazon region are men forming very strong bonds between themselves, and sometimes this is sexual as well as platonic. And in these cultures a very deep suspicion of women. Women is seen polluting, as dangerous, as someone who would suck a man’s life blood out of them, and so in these cultures there’s still heterosexual bonds, and heterosexual relationships and that’s the norm. And yet it’s seen as dangerous. And men feel more comfortable in the men’s house where only men can go. And for example, among the Sambia of New Guinea that involves -- it involves sexual relations. So young boys are taught about sex by having oral sex with older men. And very -- and sometimes -- and then they’re expected then to go through this progression of having sexual relations with older men, then having sexual relationships with younger men, and then becoming heterosexual, choosing a wife and living with that wife and having children. Very often it’s hard for these men to make that transition to heterosexuality because women are scary, and they don’t want to be too polluted by women. So that’s interesting for this notion that heterosexually is natural. It probably is. I mean, most of the Sambia don’t want to continue with these homosexual relations for the rest of their lives. Some of them do and resist pairing up with a woman. But even for the ones who want to be with women, it’s a hard transition because they’ve learned a different kind of sex.

But those are the exceptions around the world. In most cultures around the world heterosexuality is the norm, and not only the norm, but the, you know, the very clearly the norm that other sorts of love are looked down upon. But this changes over time. I mean, there were -- we can talk about ancient Rome. We could also talk about times in the United States or in western European history where homosexuality wasn’t accepted but it also was, it was kind of a screaming secret. There were, you know, spinsters who lived together, or men who liked men, and you wouldn’t talk about it in polite company, but it was one of those things we know it goes on and we just won’t talk about it. So we’ve seen homosexuality even in cultures such as our own that have and even in the very recent past had strong prohibitions against homosexual love. Evolutionarily we would expect, and then if there is an evolutionary basis for it, we would expect that it would have evolved to promote male/female bonding. It just makes evolutionary sense. But it doesn’t mean, I mean, the beauty of humans is we’ve evolved these huge brains so that we’re not slaves to our biology any more. We’re not automatons. We, again, we create our forms of love. We make love. If we can use that as a phrase. And so we can make love in different sorts of ways.