This post builds on the research article “But Do Not Identify as Gay: A Proleptic Genealogy of the MSM Category,” which was published in the May 2011 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
“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.
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).
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?
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.