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Fearing the “non-Normative”: How Anthropology and History Can Help Change Perspectives


Last week, I observed a heated exchange on social media about diversity regarding the LGBTQ+ community. A friend (X) was called immoral for being gay. The accusation made by another user (Y) was based on their religious beliefs, where they were taught that being LGTBQ+ was a sin. Y’s accusations immediately raised responses in support of X, with some users acting hostile towards Y. Y did not respond to any of the comments made against them.

While I wrote in support of X, I decided against attacking Y despite my temptation to do so. I thought any opposition from me would simply make them defensive and they would become further entrenched in their beliefs. Yet, I did want to say something constructive to help Y critically assess their beliefs, especially when their religion also preaches that all God’s creatures are sacred.

Sadly, there is much division in the world today based on race, gender, sexuality, and even political stances; and at the same time, we have seen many protests attempting to draw attention to and rectify discrimination and injustice. The protests work well on a large scale, but what if someone like X is hurt on an individual level by someone like Y?

As ever, I am always trying to find peaceful and meaningful solutions to disagreements. In this case, it was clear that a frank and compassionate discussion had to take place between X and Y because Y was closed to different perspectives and lifestyles. An open and safe dialogue, where both are free to state their points of view, is one way to change attitudes and bring people together. In this way, ideally Y would no longer feel threatened by X’s sexuality, and X could calmly explain how and why Y’s comments hurt him.

So, what might work? My idea to facilitate dialogue between the two is for X to present anthropological and historical examples which demonstrate that throughout the world and over time there exist(ed) different perceptions, understandings, and acceptance of gender and sexual identifications. No one place or time is/was perfect in response to difference, and all societies have their biases. However, raising awareness through positive exemplars can be a starting point for discussion that leads to sophisticated understandings and a kinder approach towards difference.

Gender Difference: Anthropology

There exist variant perceptions of gender around the globe that do not adhere to the western norm of male and female. An area of my academic research is the archaeology and history of gender. When teaching this topic, one of my main objectives is to explain to my students that gender identification is a social construct based on behavioral norms expected of the society in which someone lives. For example, in the States, the female gender is determined by traditionally assumed roles of mother and nurturer, and women are expected to behave in a passive manner. Males, on the other hand, are the economic providers and seen to be good with repairs. They are expected to behave in a forthright manner. These norms, although reality for some, are quite unrealistic for many. Women work and some are better with repairs than men, and some men are better with childrearing than women. The same goes for behaviors. However, when someone diverges from the expectations of their society, derogatory comments and assumptions are made about them. For example, a forthright woman is a “bitch,” a passive male is “weak.” In terms of careers, a male nurse and a female auto mechanic might both be thought to be gay and lesbian respectively, even if this is not the case.

Anthropologists have found numerous variations in gender definitions. In some societies, there are more than two genders, for example in Tahiti the terms RaeRae and Māhū are used to identify people who are in-between male and female: men with sweetness and women in a male’s body. These third gendered persons continue to hold traditional spiritual and social roles in French Polynesia, despite the fact that they were deemed aberrant by Christian missionaries who visited the islands. The missionaries who encountered them understood gender in binary terms and did not have the vocabulary to define a third gender. Therefore, they classed the RaeRae and Māhū in accordance to their own perceptions of homosexuality and, ultimately, sinful.

This and other examples of third and fourth genders, of which there are many around the world, might help to explain that exist different and more positive ways of identifying people who do not fit within western perceptions of normative behavior. However, another issue that might cause Y apprehension about LGTBQ+ people is that they envision the love between them in purely physical terms. This is frequently the issue that brings about insecurities and conceptions of sin. This concern can be addressed with ancient Greek philosophical thoughts on the concept of love.

A Socratic Dialogue on Love

In Plato’s Symposium, which dates to the 4th century BC, there is a dialogue between guests about the meaning of love (eros). A number of speakers debate its meaning, from a form of reciprocity to a higher form of love that leads to the creation of beautiful and lasting things, the latter of which is explained by a woman, Diotima.

One of the attendants, named Aristophanes, tells an etiological myth that explains three types of sexuality: the love between two men, two women, and a male and a female. According to the myth, before there was love between two separate beings, there were creatures with round bodies with four arms, two heads, and two sets of genitals: some had two female genitalia, others two male, and some (the androgynous) had both male and female parts. These creatures were confident, which made them a threat to the ancient Greek deities. Rather than destroying them, the god Zeus decided to split them in half. This would make them weaker and less of a threat, and there would be more people to give the gods offerings. When they were divided, each longed for their missing half and many died of sadness. To resolve this, the gods created sexual desire as way for them to find their missing half through pleasure (Plato Symposium 190e2-5).

Diotima argued that the myth and other arguments made by the attendees tend to have only described reciprocal love, basically one person gives pleasure to the other, and the other responds in kind. To her, this was a low form of adoration because reciprocity alone does not create beauty. Diotima believed that the goal of a loving relationship was to permanently possess the good (Plato Symposium 206a11). This good was achieved through mutual love, and from this the couple would generate something of beauty (Plato Symposium 206e5), which would leave a lasting legacy after their deaths. For example, teaching students, creating a child, or writing a literary work. It was also claimed that the love between two men was the highest form of love because this enabled them to govern a society.

To put this in modern terms, mutual love brings out the best in a person. Hence, X could use this to explain that there is a higher form of admiration that extends beyond the physical erotic aspect of a relationship. It is also very likely that anyone in the LGBTQ+ community will have had to defend themselves far more in the West than someone who is heterosexual. Their struggles might add to them having a much stronger and more committed relationships than heterosexual couples that can bring about creativity, beauty, and unconditional love and affection.

I have only given two examples here, but there are many more that can be used to create a dialogue that allows us to explore our own feelings and beliefs. When we have the tools that enable us to critically question what we have been taught, it is possible to create a constructive dialogue. Even if people do not agree with each other, being open to hearing about different perspectives and lifestyle can make the world a better and more understanding place in which to live, one with less hurt and pain and greater mutual respect for one another. So, can we be brave enough to have these open, and I might add compassionate, dialogues like those held in an ancient Greek symposia?

Bibliography

Groneberg, Michael. “Myth and Science around Gender and Sexuality: Eros and the Three Sexes in Plato’s Symposium”. 52, no. 4 (2005): Diongenes: 39-49.

Plato PlatoLysis. Symposium. Gorgias. Translated by W. R. M. Lamb. Loeb Classical Library 166. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925.

Stip, Emmanuel "Les RaeRae et Mahu : troisième sexe polynésien". Santé mentale au Québec 40, no. 3 (2015): 193–208. https://doi.org/10.7202/1034918ar

At the same time this event occurred a friend wrote a Views article for Diva Magazine that might also be of interest

Tomas, Kate Views: “Is Coming Out Actually All that Empowering” Diva Magazine 3rd November 2020 https://divamag.co.uk/2020/11/03/views-is-coming-out-actually-all-that-empowering/

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