But Do Not Identify as Gay: A Proleptic Genealogy of the MSM Category

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Growing numbers of persons worldwide are beginning to call themselves “men who have sex with men” or “MSM.” How has this subject position come into being so swiftly, without the kind of social and political organizing associated with so many claims to identity? And how might considering this novel form of selfhood help us craft anthropological responses to cultural phenomena whose conditions of historical emergence appear “untimely?” In this article, I develop a notion of “proleptic genealogy” to explore the origins of the MSM category, as well as transformations in the category with regard to enumeration, identity, and translocalization. In doing so, I show how anthropological inquiry can engage with emergent cultural logics through forms of anticipatory analysis.

Editorial Overview

“Has anyone ever existed who thinks of himself in such terms- for example, ‘Hello, I’m a Man Who Has Sex With Men?’” -Simon Watney, 1994

In the May 2011 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Tom Boellstorff traces the history of the awkward yet increasingly influential term “men who have sex with men but do not identify as gay,” frequently rendered as “men who have sex with men,” or simply “MSM.” Boellstorff begins by analyzing the scientific and bureaucratic assumptions underlying the creation of this cumbersome concept in the 1980s. Initiated as an attempt by public health workers, epidemiologists, and other health professionals to separate behavior (sexual activity) from identity, MSM was initially intended to expand  HIV prevention efforts to men who have sex with men, but do not identify as “gay”- a term considered in some cases to be burdened by associations with Western, elite, white males. MSM thus began as a medicalized term for a “risk group” detached from identity and politics, based in the idea that “it is not who you are, it’s what you do.”

Adopting a genealogical approach, Boellstorff proceeds to trace three transformations which have not only detached the MSM concept from these founding assumptions but even come to run counter to them. The first is an enumerative transformation, wherein the scope of MSM has expanded as a result of its inherent inability to adequately name those to whom it “should” refer, gradually encapsulating notions which it originally excluded (e.g. transgendered persons and their partners). The second is a transformation of reference from a singular focus upon behavior (“what you do”) to a sense of identity and community (“who you are”)- individual behaviors referenced in the term “MSM” first constituted an epidemiological risk group, which in turn came to be perceived as an actually-existing community, thereby returning to the individual level as a form of self-recognized identity. This transformation has ironically produced a new binarism of “out MSM” vs. “MSM who do not identify as such,” re-creating the lack (“but do not identify as…”) which the term was initially created to overcome. The third transformation noted is the translocalization of the MSM concept from its medicalized roots in the United States to an increasingly common international label- the author recounts the development of the MSM concept in the contexts of India and Indonesia over the past decade.

Boellstorff’s study documents the trajectory of the MSM concept over the past two decades from an obscure and medicalized term to an increasingly influential form of identity. The case of “MSM” is a compelling example of how an identity label can take a trajectory quite distinct from its original meanings, producing social consequences which in turn reshape the scope and meaning of the label itself. At the same time, Boellstorff’s study proposes a proleptic genealogical model for the study of novel forms of selfhood, which could be applied and developed in other identity contexts.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on sexual identity and queer studies, including Alyssa Cymene Howe’s "Queer Pilgrimage: The San Francisco Homeland and Identity Tourism" (2001), Matti Bunzl’s "Outing as Performance / Outing as Resistance: A Queer Reading of Austrian (Homo)Sexualities" (1997)" Corinne P. Hayden’s "Gender, Genetics, and Generation: Reformulating Biology in Lesbian Kinship" (1995), Florence E. Babb’s "Out in Nicaragua: Local and Transnational Desires after the Revolution" (2003), Donald L. Donham’s "Freeing South Africa: The 'Modernization' of Male-Male Sexuality in Soweto" (1998), and David Schneider’s "The Power of Culture: Notes on Some Aspects of Gay and Lesbian Kinship in America Today" (1997).

Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on HIV and HIV prevention, including Stacy Leigh Pigg’s "Languages of Sex and AIDS in Nepal: Notes on the Social Production of Commensurability" (2001), Shao Jing’s "Fluid Labor and Blood Money: The Economy of HIV/AIDS in Rural Central China" (2006), and Leslie Butt’s "'Lipstick Girls' and 'Fallen Women': AIDS and Conspiratorial Thinking in Papua, Indonesia" (2005).

About the Author

Tom Boellstorff (Ph.D., Anthropology, Stanford, 2000) is Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association. His research projects have focused on questions of virtual worlds, sexuality, globalization, nationalism, language, and HIV/AIDS. He is the author of The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia (Princeton University Press, 2005), winner of the 2005 Ruth Benedict Award from the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists; A Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia (Duke University Press, 2007); and Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (Princeton University Press, 2008), winner of the Media Ecology Association’s 2009 Dorothy Lee Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Culture, and Honorable Mention for the 2008 PROSE Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence in Media and Cultural Studies, Association of American Publishers.

He is also co-editor of Speaking in Queer Tongues: Globalization and Gay Language (University of Illinois Press, 2004), co-editor of a theme issue of Ethnos, “Bodies of Emotion: Rethinking Culture and Emotion through Southeast Asia” (Volume 69:4, 2004) and co-editor of a theme issue of Anthropological Forum, “East Indies/West Indies: Comparative Archipelagos” (Volume 16:3, 2006). He is the author of publications in many edited volumes and a range of journals, including American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist (twice), Cultural Anthropology (twice), Annual Review of Anthropology, Journal of Asian Studies, Law and Society Review, PoLAR: The Political and Legal Anthropology Review, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Games and Culture, and GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies (three times). He is also a Core Faculty member for the Culture and Theory Ph.D. program at Irvine. He has worked as a consultant for the Intel Corporation, and sits on the advisory boards of two community-based HIV/AIDS organizations in Indonesia (Gaya Nusantara in the city of Surabaya (East Java province), and Gaya Celebes in the city of Makassar (South Sulawesi province)).


“Men Who Have Sex with Men Video”- from amfAR

“HIV Prevention for MSM”

Public Service Announcement for MSM (Thailand)

“Animation for Hidden MSM for HIV/AIDS Outreach and Prevention” (Thailand)

MSM Conference, Center for Interdisciplinary Research, Yale University

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. Boellstorff describes his approach in this article as a “proleptic genealogy” of the MSM category, a process which focuses upon “contingency, accident, and the self as an ‘irreal,’ even virtual project” to explore the history of “contingent transformations of the MSM category.” How do you understand this proleptic genealogical approach? How does it differ from other genealogical analyses? And what are its potential benefits?

2. Boellstorff’s study traces the transformations of the MSM concept from its medical-bureaucratic inception in the 1980s through its development into an increasingly influential form of self-identification over the past decade. To what other identity labels could a similar propleptic genealogical approach be applied, and to what results?

3. Although Boellstorff’s analyses highlight the awkwardness and already-anticipated failure of the MSM concept, he at the same time distances himself from any attempt at a better alternative identity label. Why does Boellstorff takes this stance? And what does the stated inability to “live neither with nor without ‘MSM’” reveal about the human relationship to identity labels in general?

Related Readings

Additional Work by the Author

Playing Back the Nation: Waria, Indonesian Transvestites.Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 19, Issue 2, pp. 159-195.

“‘Authentic, of Course!’: Gay Language in Indonesia and Cultures of Belonging.” In Speaking in Queer Tongues: Globalization and Gay Language. William L. Leap and Tom Boellstorff, eds. Pp. 181-210. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia (Princeton University Press, 2005).

A Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia (Duke University Press, 2007).

“Queer Studies in the House of Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 36 (2007), pp. 1-19.

Other Related Readings

Foucault, Michel. 1978 The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, Michel. 1998 “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” In Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology (Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Vol. 1). James D. Faubion, ed. Pp. 369-391. New York: The Free Press.

The Global Consultation on MSM and HIV/ AIDS Research. 2008 The MSM Initiative. Washington, DC: amfAR.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 2004 The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Katyal, Sonia. 2002 "Exporting Identity." Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 14:97-176.

Khan, Shivananda, and Omar A. Kham. 2006 "The Trouble with MSM." American Journal of Public Health 96(5): 765-766.

Rose, Nikolas. 1996 "Identity, Genealogy, History." In Questions of Cultural Identity. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay, ed. Pp. 128-150. London: Sage Publications.

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