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The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism (2003)
Joseph Henry Press (JHP)
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CHAPTER 7 Is~omosexuality a pecer7 ~ Ir7rer7 lion ? hat about the Greeks? This is the other question (with the evolution- ary one) that is asked nearly every time I talk about homosexuality. It would be asked even more often, except that a lot of people who believe that they already know the answer to the question don't show up to my lecture. These people think that I am wasting my time trying to learn about the nature of homosexuality. They think that homosexuality has no nature. To them, homosexuality is a"social construction." "Social constructionism" (or "social constructivism") is a term that might be familiar to anyone who has taken a humanities course at an American or European university since 1990, but it might other- wise sound odd. It is difficult to explain social constructionism in a way that satisfies social constructionists.They think this is because they are profound and people like me simplistic. I think it is because they aren't very clear, and to the extent they are clear, they are incorrect. 124
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Is Homosexuality a Recent Invention? 125 Regardless, this is an important controversy, and I will try to do it . . Justlce. Across history and culture the social constructionists believe they see tremendous variation in both the prevalence and form of homo- sexual behavior. So much so that to talk about sexual orientation as if it might be a fundamental part of human nature is surely mistaken. They think that whether one prefers sex with men or women is more like whether one likes or dislikes opera than whether one has a penis or a vagina. Searching for scientific laws that explain who likes and dislikes opera, without paying much attention to the culture that one is in, is surely an absurd pursuit. Social constructionists think that those of us who study the origins of sexual orientation are, likewise, spin- ning our wheels. Some of the cultural and historical phenomena that social con- structionists have focused on include: . Ancient Greece, where it was common for men to form sexual relationships with adolescent boys and where most men were bisexual (according to the constructionists). · The Romans, who were tolerant of male homosexual behav- ior, provided that normal free men were penetrating male slaves and prostitutes. · Fifteenth-century Florence, where nearly half of all men came to the attention of the authorities for committing sodomy. · The Sambia, a tribe in New Guinea, in which boys live for years only with males and practice oral sex with men. . British public schools, all-male boarding schools, which were famous for their high levels of homosexual activity. What do these examples have in common? First, these cultures had much higher rates of homosexual behavior between men than exist now in the West. Second, the constructionists assert that none of these cultures thought about sexual orientation the way we do. In- deed, the social constructionists claim that the idea that people vary in
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126 the Plan TAlho Would He Queen whether they prefer to have sex with men or women began recently, during the nineteenth century. Before then, there were only homo- sexual and heterosexual acts, not homosexual and heterosexual people. Perhaps the most surprising claim the social constructionists make is that the way that cultures think about sex actually influences the sexual feelings of their members. In cultures that don't classify heterosexuals and homosexuals, men are capable of sexual attraction to both men and women. Social constructionists call those who disagree with their major points "essentialists." Essentialists believe that sexual orientation is an essential part of human nature. I am an essentialist. ********* How can we know anything about the sex lives of Greeks who lived 2,500 years ago? It is difficult enough to know about the sex lives of Americans today, even though we can discuss the question with at least some current inhabitants of our culture. Furthermore, social sci- entists have completed several large and ambitious surveys on this topic during the past decade.These studies required millions of dollars and thousands of subjects.Typically, the researchers identified a representa- tive sample (ofAmericans, for example), and telephoned them, asking them to participate in a sexuality survey. A standard interview was used that included questions such as:"How many same-sex partners have you had during your lifetime?""Do you consider yourself het- erosexual, bisexual, or homosexual?""Are you attracted more to mem- bers of your own sex or to members of the opposite sex?" Interviews were conducted in private, and subjects were assured that their an- swers would remain secret. We know exactly what percentage of people declined to participate, and some studies even tried to get at the reasons for non-participation. Still, these studies did not eliminate all uncertainty about American sex lives. There remains controversy about how frequently people commit adultery, for example, and the estimated prevalence of homosexuality varies widely, from less than
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Is Homosexuality a Recent Invention? 127 1 percent to more than 4 percent.This is a wide range, with the higher estimate four times the lower one.The fact that we can't get complete accuracy is not all that surprising, given the sensitivity of the topic. Historians have a much more difficult task.They can't go back in time to ask people what they feel and think. They have no access to surveys. Rather, they get remnants and pieces, from art, law, myth, fiction, graffiti, history, philosophy, politics, and poetry. They can make educated guesses.To the extent that different sources of information all convey a similar picture, we can be more confident. Still, there is no reasonable dispute that we can be much less certain of facts about Ancient Greek sex lives than we can about the facts ofAmerican sex lives in our own time. Historians' work is important, but it just can't be nearly as conclusive as even contemporary social science can be. The best historians are appropriately careful about the conclusions they draw. As one prominent historian put it: "A scene on a vase may not tell us any more about a middling Athenian than a Wedgwood china pattern tells us about aVictorian hackney driver." Here is what we know for sure. In parts of ancient Greece, includ- ing Athens during the fifth century, B.C.E., some men formed homo- sexual relationships of a different type than that which commonly exists now in theWest. Typically, these relationships involved an estab- lished older man and a younger adolescent boy, the younger partner (the "eromenos") being near the age of first growing a beard, the older ("erastes") often an older (bearded or lightly bearded) adolescent or unmarried young man. The older partner could also be a married man—marriage was largely non-companionate in Greece. The rela- tionship was cemented by the older partner giving the younger a gift, often shown on vases as a cockerel (a young rooster).These relation- ships were sexual ones.The main sexual activity depicted on vases was intercrural intercourse, in which the older partner inserted his penis between the thighs (but not in the anus) of the younger partner, thrust- ing until ejaculation. Nobody on either side of the social construc- tionist debate denies that this practice existed.
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128 . the Plan TAlho Would He Queen But the most important social constructionists' claims have not withstood close scrutiny of historians and classical scholars. Not sur- prisingly, careful scholars admit that there is much we don't know about the sexual practices and desires of the Ancient Greeks. One problem is that Ancient Greece included many diverse cultures- Sparta, Athens, Crete, among others and several centuries. To make any generalizations about "the Greeks" is risky. What we do know . contradicts the social constructionist account. For example, far from being widespread,"pederastic" relationships between men and adoles- cent boys were viewed as a decadent practice of the aristocracy. Par- ents often tried to prevent their sons from entering these relationships (as the younger member). If money changed hands, the younger mem- ber could lose citizenship. The Greeks were especially intolerant of receptive anal intercourse, which they viewed as an abomination against nature. More important, the record we have shows that some Greeks rec- ognized that at least some people had a homosexual preference. For example,Aristophanes portrayed Agathon as a feminine man who en- joyed receptive anal sex. In Plato's Symposium, Aristophanes related a creation myth in which originally there were three sexes: men, women, and a combination of the two. Zeus cut each sex in half, and from that point, each person was driven to find the missing half.Thus, the man created by cleaving a complete man in half was homosexual, whereas heterosexual men and women were created by cutting the original androgyne in half. The historian John Boswell documented the exist- ence of obviously heterosexual or homosexual characters in Greek literature. The Romans, just a few centuries later, had a word to describe feminine, exclusively homosexual men: cinaedi. These men were so common that the Apostle Paul offered homosexual behavior as his chief example of the capital's decadence.They appear to have shared a flamboyant style of distinctive dress, hairstyles, and mannerisms, as well as regular cruising grounds, and typical occupations.To me, they sound a lot like the guys on Halsted Street.
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Is Homosexuality a Recent Invention? ********* 129 Fifteenth-century Florence had a reputation as a bastion of sodomites." (This is why "Florenzer" in German meant "sodomite.") In 1432 the city created a commission, "the Office of the Night," to solicit and investigate charges of sodomy. For example, boxes were placed so that people could make anonymous accusations.The popu- lation of Florence was 40,000, and the Office of the Night lasted 70 years. During that time, 17,000 men were implicated. Assuming there were 20,000 men in Florence at any one time, and that 70 years means two complete generations, 17,000 is nearly half of the men of Flo- rence during that time. Florentines generally accepted sodomy as a common misdemeanor, to be punished with a fine, rather than as a serious crime. Fewer than 3,000 of the 17,000 accused men were convicted. The primary historian of homosexuality in fifteenth-century Flo- rence, Michael Rocke, emphasized the social constructionist line, that these men were not considered"homosexual." However, at least some clearly were. One man confessed to his acquaintance, Machiavelli, that had his father"known my natural inclinations and ways, the] would never have tied me to a wife." There was a core minority of "notori- ous sodomites" who committed a disproportionate number of offenses. And accused men were more likely to be bachelors than married men. All this argues that some men preferred men to women. Florence seems to be a special case at that historical period. Other similar-sized cities in the region don't seem to have had its high rate of homosexual behavior. There is some evidence that some men mi- grated to Florence precisely because of its reputation, making it a kind of Renaissance-era San Francisco. Thus, it is unclear to what extent the beliefs and culture of Florence influenced the sexual desires of its inhabitants. Perhaps the influence was primarily the other way around. *********
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130 the Plan TAlho Would He Queen The Sambia live in an isolated forested area on the edge of the New Guinea Highlands. Sometime between ages 7 and 10, Sambian boys are taken from their mothers and made to live in an all-male house in their village.They will live there for the next 10 years, learn- ing Sambian ideology and Sambian practice. The ideology stresses the importance of semen, which is consid- ered necessary for male virility and health. In contrast, women's essen- tial substance is menstrual blood, which is potentially poisonous to men. Women are born with the ability to secrete menstrual blood, although they don't do so until adolescence. In contrast, males are born without semen, which they will need in order to maintain health, risk sex with women, impregnate women, and even help provide women with milk. But how do males get their semen, if they have none at birth? They get their semen by sucking it out of older males. Older boys teach them how to do this. Although the older boys obviously get enough sexual pleasure to enable them to ejaculate, everyone consid- ers them to be doing a favor by donating their semen to the younger boys. The younger boys who fellate the older boys don't usually say that they're sexually aroused.The younger boys suck semen from older boys a few times a week for several years (remember, they are still segregated from their families and all women) until they undergo pu- berty. This event "shows" them the value of eating semen. Soon, the mature boys will begin supervising the initiation ritual of a new crop of 7-10-year-old boys, now as the older, fellated, partner. , ~ ~ In a few more years, in their late teens or early twenties, these now young men are ready to be married to women. At the first stage of marriage, they don't have vaginal intercourse, but instead, have oral sex with their wives. They also continue to donate semen to younger boys. Soon, however, the men stop having homosexual encounters with younger boys and begin having vaginal intercourse with their wives. Most men make this transition, from completely homosexual behavior during adolescence to completely heterosexual behavior
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Is Homosexuality a Recent Invention? 131 during adulthood, with no problem. A small minority of men remain bachelors and seems to prefer the boys. The other Sambia ridicule these men and think they are odd. We might call them"gay." ********* At a scientific conference I was talking to a British colleague about homosexuality. My impression of him was of a strict heterosexual, but he revealed that he had had numerous homosexual encounters as an adolescent at public boarding school. (In Britain,"public school" refers to the fancy kind of school that Americans call "private school.") This activity consisted of mutual masturbation, and he found it exciting at the time. He puzzled over his transition from those days to now, in which he found the idea of sexual contact with other men "disgusting." His experience reveals three facts that I think might be important. First, his homosexual experiences occurred in a context of female unavailability. The same was also obviously true of the Sambia, but it was also true to a somewhat lesser extent of the Ancient Greeks, who sequestered women until marriage. Men seem more likely to resort to homosexual behavior if they have no heterosexual outlets. Second, his enjoyment of homosexual behavior was evidently normal for him; his later disapproval required him to learn that homosexuality is disgusting. (He does not, however, believe he could have enjoyed fellatio or anal sex even at that time.) Perhaps, then, many if not most men could enjoy homosexual encounters of some form if they hadn't learned to be disgusted by them. Third, there might be something to the idea that young or adoles- cent boys are especially attractive as homosexual partners for males. They are relatively hairless and less muscular; in these senses they look like women. None of these possibilities destroys the idea that sexual orienta- tion is a meaningful concept. To say that many men who don't have access to women will have sex with men is not to say that this is their first choice.That a high percentage of men might enjoy homosexual
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132 the Plan TAlho Would He Queen sex if they were not socialized otherwise does not mean that they wouldn't prefer heterosexual encounters given the choice.To say that men find relatively immature males more attractive than mature, bulky, hairy men is not to say that they prefer young males to females. Sexual encounters in prison are illuminating. Men in prison gener- ally have no heterosexual outlet, except through fantasy. It is remark- able that a high percentage of men who have always been heterosexual outside of prison engage in homosexual sex in prison instead of con- fining sexual activity to masturbation. Evidently, there is something pleasurable about being with another person that is more rewarding to some men than merely rubbing their own penises. Many, if not most, incarcerated men have the capacity to enjoy homosexual behavior. The most favored partners are the young, weak, and feminine. A1- though sociologists have tended to interpret this in terms of power relations stronger inmates want to dominate weaker ones it seems more likely to me that this is because the young, weak, and feminine make better female substitutes.There is one type of prisoner that pre- fers the big, masculine men as partners.This is the "queenie" prisoner, the feminine gay man, who receives a good deal of sexual attention from other prisoners. When they leave prison, men who had been heterosexual before entering usually return to a strictly heterosexual lifestyle.Their prison encounters did not indicate that their sexual preference had changed. The men were simply doing the best they could, given constraints. It would be important to know what these men were thinking when they were having their penises sucked by other men, for example. Were they thinking of the men sucking their penises, or were they imagining their girlfriends at home? The former possibility would indicate more flexibility of true sexual preference than the latter. The social constructionists have offered Greek pederasty, the Sambia, and the British boarding school experience as proof that men are innately bisexual. Although there may be something to their argu- ment, it can't get them as far as they'd like to go. They can't explain
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Is Homosexuality a Recent Invention? 133 the contemporary western gay man. All these men grew up in a cul- ture that gave homosexuality an inferior status compared with hetero- sexuality. Many of them were at some point highly motivated to be straight, and some tried through prayer, therapy, or marriage. If bi- sexuality meaning indifference to the choice between male and fe- male sex partners were in them, then it should have been easy for them to conform to the heterosexual norm. But it wasn't. Recall gay men's skepticism about men who claim to be bisexual. ("You're either gay, straight, or lying.") My lab has been trying to find bisexual men by studying men's erections to male versus female sexual stimuli. A truly bisexual man should become substantially aroused to both sexes. Out of approximately 30 men who claim to be bisexual, only 2 have sexual arousal patterns that might be classified as bisexual. Most of the rest had a gay arousal pattern; a few had a straight pattern. In the right culture, most men might be capable of some sexual arousal to both sexes. However, this doesn't mean that they wouldn't have stronger feelings for one sex or the other. Most would probably have much stronger feelings for women, and a minority would have much stronger feelings for men. ********* Social constructionists have made a positive contribution to un- derstanding sexual orientation by their insistence that we attend to different cultures rather than assuming everyone is like us. There are interesting differences between the types of homosexual behaviors and relationships across cultures, and we don't yet understand them fully. However, the contention that homosexual orientation (as distinct from homosexual behavior) is a recent and local phenomenon is not sup- ported by the evidence. Men who look awfully similar to the men I've been talking about in previous chapters seem to have existed through the ages and in vastly different cultures. Social constructionists' refusal or inability to see this suggests that they are trying to keep their eyes closed.
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134 She Plan TAlblo Should He Queen ********* Transgender homosexuality occurs when one man takes on a femi- nine role, often dressing as a woman and taking a woman's name, and has sex with masculine men. Transgender homosexuality is probably the most common form of homosexuality found across cultures. It occurs in the West (although it is much less common than egalitarian homosexual relationships), and has been documented in a number of other societies. One of the most extensively studied transgender homosexuality traditions has been that of the berdache, among some Native American tribes. The berdache tradition involved males who typically were identified in childhood by their femininity and placed in a role that would allow them both spiritual leadership and sex and marriage with men.As one observer said about the berdache among the Crow of the Plains in 1903: "I was told that when very young, those persons manifested a decided preference for things pertaining to female duties." The hijras of India are a group of very feminine men who worship the Mother Goddess, Babuchara Mata. Most of the men are homo- sexual. Many of the men undergo an operation in which their penis and testes are removed.This surgery is illegal and can be quite danger- ous; it is performed by a member of the group, or sometimes by a cooperative surgeon. The hijras are paid to perform at weddings and the celebration of male births, but this service is actually more ex- torted by the hijras than solicited by families. If a family does not pay, the hijras make trouble, perhaps even flashing their mutilated genitalia. Many of the hijras also engage in male prostitution. When he visited Tahiti, Captain Thigh (commander of the Bounty) noted that the mahu participated in the same ceremonies as women did. At first, their feminine behavior and speech led him to believe that they were castrated, but he learned otherwise. He observed with disgust the practice of men rubbing their penises between the mahus' thighs. The contemporary mahu fellate the men they have sex with who do not return the favor.
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Is Homosexuality a Recent Invention? 135 The xanith perform women's chores in highly sex-segregated Oman and are classed with women for many social purposes. Their clothing and physical presentation is a mixture of male and female, perhaps because they are denied by law the right to dress as women. Their attractiveness is judged by female standards of beauty (white skin, large eyes, and full cheeks, for example), and they serve as homo- sexual prostitutes. Evidence for the cross-cultural ubiquity of transsexuals comes from newspapers as well.Thailand holds an annual transsexual beauty pageant. (The most recent winner, 22-year-old Thanaporn Wongprasert of Bangkok, said she would spend the $1,300 prize money to make herselfmore beautiful.) A recent article in the Bangkok Post discussed Thai television's excess of drag queens: "Tune into any daytime television channel these days, and before long you may well see a character who is male, but whose behavior is a wild parody of female mannerisms: exaggerated ladylike daintiness, drag-queen Minx, campy verbal acrobatics they're all in the repertoire. No woman could hope to compete with their version of over-the-top super- femininity. And evidently audiences love it. Male cross-dressers are now familiar figures, guaranteed to bring an instant laugh in TV com- edies, dramas, talk and game shows, commercials, and even films." FromTonga:Thirteen contestants entered the annual Miss Galaxy transgendered beauty pageant July 9-11 in Nuku'alofa, capital of the South Pacific nation of Tonga. In the end, Natasha Pressland, 18, emerged victorious. Her hobbies are "dancing, praying, and meeting people." She plans to become a flight attendant. The sociologist Fred Whitam has spent much of his career study- ing homosexuality in non-Western cultures. Based on his observations in Brazil, Guatemala, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and the United States,Whitam is convinced that drag queens and transgender homosexuals exist in all societies. Furthermore, Whitam has found that within homosexual communities, the more important distinction is between conventionally masculine gay men and the very feminine
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136 She Plan TAlho Would He Queen drag queens and transsexuals. Despite particular cross-cultural wrinkles, Whitam has recognized several cross-culturally universal characteris- tics among the latter. Invariably, drag queens and transsexuals were highly feminine boys who exhibited low levels of athletic interest and high levels of interest in activities considered feminine. As adults, they use female pronouns to talk about themselves, and they adopt female names.They tend to dress in a theatrical, glamorous manner. All drag queen and transsexual communities of any size produce conspicuous entertainment forms, and the most appealing occupations to the mem- bers are entertainment-related (primarily singing, dancing, and act- ing).Transgender homosexual men often work in occupations that are viewed as traditionally female or"gay," such as prostitution, hair styl- ing, sewing, housekeeping, or manicuring. They have high levels of interest in having sex with men, and their partners tend to be hetero- sexual or bisexual, rather than gay men. Whitam believes that one of the most culturally variable phe- nomena is the willingness of straight men to have sex with very femi- nine gay men. In America, this appears to be a rare practice. However, in some other cultures Whitam says it is common. For example, in the Philippines many straight adolescent males have their first sexual con- tact with bayot, or members of the transgendered gay male tradition there. Sexual liaisons with bayot are thought of as adolescent peccadil- loes no worse than smoking and drinking. They are certainly more acceptable, in certain respects, than spoiling the virginity of "nice · . .. girls. Whitam's observations are necessarily limited to contemporary societies, although it is unlikely that any of the transsexual and drag queen subcultures has arisen recently (due, for example, to the inter- national televising of daytime talk shows).The cross-cultural regularity of homosexual transsexuals and drag queens is highly suggestive of some fundamental biological influence that transcends culture. *********
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Is Homosexuality a Recent Invention? 137 Egalitarian homosexuality is the type of homosexual relationship most common in the contemporary West. Egalitarian homosexuality occurs when two individuals of similar age and class form a homo- sexual relationship. For some reason, during the second half of the twentieth century, this has become the predominant form of homo- sexuality in the West, while transgender homosexuality has become rare. However, these two forms of homosexuality are not as different as they appear. Take Danny Ryan. Chances are that when he grows up he will be a gay man practicing egalitarian homosexuality. There is a smaller chance that he will become a woman, and if he does, his sex life will be of the transgender type. If Danny had been born among the Crow Native Americans during the 1800s, he would almost certainly have been made a member of the berdache. Egalitarian and transgender ho- mosexuality are similar because they contain some similar people. Transgender homosexuality is rare in Western culture, but this is not because few men have the potential to be transgender homosexuals under the right circumstances. My research, which demonstrates a large degree of femininity among gay men, suggests rather that the Western gay community has plenty of men who would have been candidates for transgender homosexuality in cultures where this was th e main typ e o f h o mo s exu ality. The main difference between transgender and egalitarian homo- sexuality is that in transgender homosexuality, only one of the partners is truly gay. The partner in the feminine role is gay because "she" wants men. Furthermore "she" wants men who are masculine.What about these masculine men? Although they are in some sense engaged in homosexual behavior, because they are having sex with someone born a man, they do not view the transgendered partner as a man. Some view "her" as a woman; others as a member of a third gender, neither male nor female.The masculine partners prefer either women . · . . Or males Imitating women. In contrast, both the members of an egalitarian homosexual rela-
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138 the Plan TAlho Should He Queen tionship are gay. Both want masculine men. Neither partner in this kind of relationship would be excited to have a male partner pretend- ing to be a female. Even if one of the partners would actually enjoy taking the feminine role taking a female name, wearing a dress, pre- tending to be a woman, basically becoming a full-time drag queen- he would refrain in order to make his partner happy. If a gay man wants to attract straight men, he should imitate a woman. If he wants to attract gay men, he must stay a man. I think it is likely that many of the men on Halsted Street could have been members of the berdache or the hijras. Some may actually have been happier if they had been born into a society in which the transgendered role was more common. If Danny Ryan had been born into such a society, he would not have to throw off or hide his femi- ninity. It would be a necessary part of his role. Some cultures with a prominent tradition of transgender homosexuality even help feminine boys into the transgendered role. But in the contemporary West, this doesn't happen. Here, Danny must learn to act more like a boy, and he must become a man. Despite these pressures, a few males resist. They are reluctant to give up their ambition to become women, and they decide to pursue their dream.The rest of the book is about them.
Representative terms from entire chapter:
enjoy homosexual behavior, homosexual behavior, enjoy homosexual encounters, sexual orientation, social constructionists, transgender homosexuality, plan talho, sex lives, egalitarian homosexual relationships, receptive anal sex, enjoy homosexual, homosexual encounters, social constructionist, egalitarian homosexuality, feminine role, adolescent boys, drag queens, stronger feelings, egalitarian homosexual, homosexual relationships, homosexual relationship, sexual arousal, sexual activity, sexual contact, sexual preference, feminine boys, feminine gay, anal sex, transgender homosexuals, drag queen,