What is Homosociality?

Quick note: I apologize if none of this makes sense. I’m trying to explain a theory that Sedgwick wrote two whole books about, so I may have failed dramatically. 

In class on Monday, I mentioned that I noticed an intertwining of queer coding and religious imagery in Part 1 of Go Tell It On The Mountain. I’d like to expand on this observation considering our extensive in class discussions of the topic. Specifically, we discussed the “holy kiss” between Gabriel and Elisha (Baldwin 53). On a related note, we discussed the fact that Bigger Thomas masturbates alongside his male friend, an action which is only “ok” because the object of desire is, allegedly, a woman (Mary Dalton). All of these scenes invoke homosociality, a word which is actually a technical term in queer theory. 

I hear people use the word “homosocial” quite a bit. Many people assume the word merely refers to same-sex socialization, describing a space that is exclusively male or exclusively female. In academia, though, homosociality is a term popularized by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a literary scholar of queer theory and feminism. Attention to homosociality notes the intense male-male (or female-female) desire which is “at once compulsory and the most prohibited of social bonds” (Epistemology of the Closet 187). In wikipedia’s words, homosociality “connote[s] a form of male bonding often accompanied by a fear or hatred of homosexuality.” It is “a form of male bonding with a characteristic triangular structure. In this triangle, men have intense but nonsexual bonds with other men, and women serve as the conduits through which those bonds are expressed.” According to Sedgwick, same-sex spaces are structured around anti-queerness, using their hegemony to exclude and deny queer people. For example, players on a basketball team often grope and spank each other. Such behavior is socially obligated to some extent as a form of camaraderie and validation (e.g. “compulsory” same-sex desire). Yet such behavior is only “ok” as long as it is not explicitly “gay.” The basketball team itself will go to extreme lengths to exclude and bully queer men precisely to ensure that the team’s own manifestation of same-sex affection is not perceived as queer. They grope each other because they’re not gay, a paradoxical phenomenon. 

This definition of homosociality is in line with how we have been using it in class. After all, Baldwin pays special attention to the ways that same-sex religious spaces in Go Tell It On The Mountain are “gay” but also “not gay.” Men and women may kiss each other, as long as it is a “holy kiss” between straight men/women. Elisha and John can wrestle, as long as they do so in a (heterosexual) “manly” way. When Elisha and John wrestle in the back room of the Church, Baldwin writes, “Elisha let fall the stiff gay mop and rushed at John” (53). The paragraph is filled with phrases like “stiff,” “thrust,” and Elisha’s “damp fists, joined at the small of John’s back” (Baldwin 50). The language of the scene emphasizes that which, in almost any other context, would be queer. This same analysis can be applied to Bigger in the movie theatre, when he does a “gay thing” (masturbating with a man) because he is “not gay.” This, in essence, is homosociality: same-sex spaces that demand same-sex desire while categorically denying the rights of a person who desires the same-sex.

3 thoughts on “What is Homosociality?”

  1. Thanks, David, for your insights–it’s helpful to have vocabulary to describe religious environments that are at once homoerotic and homophobic. I wonder if the way in which homosociality cultivates fear around same-sex desire also negatively affects heterosexual relationships. We learn a lot about Gabriel in the middle chapters of the novel, and we don’t see him in healthy relationships with any of the women in his life, even as he climbs in the church and asserts that God prompts his marriage proposals, etc. We see an environment that causes John to feel shame about his sexuality and that doesn’t have models of healthy heterosexual relationships either.

  2. Your insights into homosociality were really helpful in providing more context to what work Baldwin is doing in Go Tell It On the Mountain. This raises questions about female homosociality and why it is not prevalent in these novels and why close female interactions would not be viewed as critically. In my Gender and Sexuality class, we’re discussing a similar phenomenon– the lesbian continuum. The lesbian continuum is a feminist model of sexual orientation, claiming that all women have a lesbian potential and that women’s bonding, defined as lesbianism but not necessarily based on genital sexuality. This is essentially the argument that women can have intimacy with one another that is not essentially sexual but enters this gray space between romantic love and friendship.

    We’re discussing how women are freer to express attachment with one another without being criticized but are more likely to have these relationships sexualized. This raises the question of if Sarah or Ruth would feel as shamed as John if they were experiencing same-sex attraction, or if it could be written off as a female friendship.

  3. David, this is so thoughtful and well-articulated, thank you!
    I definitely think you did a wonderful job explaining Sedgwick’s understand of homosociality in relation to Go Tell It on the Mountain and Native Son.

    I’m curious if this queer coding in Baldwin’s language exists when the protagonist is not John and is Florence, Gabriel, or Elizabeth instead. Does this language with an implicit queer connotation exist as purposeful for Baldwin, and if so, does it communicate to the audience John’s emergent sexuality? I would argue yes, as John’s struggle with his sexuality and the shame resulting is a main focal point of the novel. Another question I have is if Baldwin uses these homosocial experiences and John’s reaction to them as indicative of his sexuality. After all, John does admire Elisha’s “timbre, much deeper and manlier than his own” and “the leanness and grace, and darkness” of Elisha’s body. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying here, but definitely interested in how this idea develops in the future.

Comments are closed.