"Words Came Much Later": Experiencing Different Sexuality in the Lack of Language, Israel before 1975
Sociology University of Haifa Haifa, Israel
History Hebrew University Jerusalem, Israel
We think with a language. Individuals cannot understand themselves, the other, and the world around them without the categories provided by the language they talk. This fundamental proposition raises the question what happens when someone experiences something she has no words for. In the Jewish community of British Palestine (1917-1948) and during the first decades after Israel independence Gays and Lesbians hardly penetrated the public sphere. Newspapers reported on sexual assaults on boys and male teenagers. The few guides on sexual relations scantly mentioned same-sex attraction as rare abnormal deviance. In some social circles "homo" was a frequent slur; in other circles the words "homo(sexual)" and "Lesbian" did not exist even as an affront.
How, then, could an adolescent who felt an attraction to other adolescents or to mature people of the same sex understand his/her own emotions? Current literature on the development of gay and Lesbian identities refers to social environments in which "Lesbianism" and "homosexuality" are perhaps undesirable but existing options. Developing same-sex identity in societies where such options are not offered by the spoken language must be entirely different.
Based on 30 Israeli Jewish male gays, who came of age between the 1940s and the early 1970s, the proposed paper explores this process. We tried to find out how our interviewees had understood their early feelings of attraction to other men/boys, how they had sought relevant information, and how it affected their self-concepts. We also asked them how they had told other people what they had felt and investigated how their haphazard encounter with the underground gay community had provided them with new language to think about themselves and make sense of their own passion.
One of our most interesting findings is the impressive creativity of many individuals in creating their own meanings to their perceived otherness. We believe that our study makes it possible to comprehend simultaneously the immense importance of the cultural repertoire for understanding reality and, at the same time, the autonomous, agentic, aspect each individual has in creating her own individual world image.