(Boylove Documentary Sourcebook) - On the Onabasulu of Papua New Guinea

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Mount Bosavi, Southern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea (2008).

From "Onabasulu Male Homosexuality: Cosmology, Affect and Prescribed Male Homosexual Activity among the Onabasulu of the Great Papuan Plateau" by Thomas M. Ernst, in Oceania, Vol. 62, No. 1 (September 1991).

The need to inseminate young males is a cosmologically significant cultural imperative among the Onabasulu and across the eastern Papuan Plateau. It has a basis in conceptualizations of what males are, and how they become that. As in most New Guinean cultures with prescribed male homosexuality, it is believed that males cannot mature and reproduce without being inseminated by older males. Also, as I have observed, although insemination previously took place in male initiation rites, they were never the only context for insemination, even before they were discontinued. Male homosexual activity always exceeded the limits of ritual, and continued in the absence of ritual.


When people did speak generally about male homosexual practices, they evinced very strong feelings about their importance. A number of men told me that to have male children who were never inseminated would be like planting a garden and not cultivating it. They were to a person adamant that whatever the previous fate of male initiation, insemination practices would continue.

These practices are uniquely Onabasulu, in that they differ from the practices of neighbouring groups, the Kaluli and the Etoro. The former inseminate youths by anal intercourse (Schieffelin 1978), and the latter by fellatio (Kelly 1977: 16). The Onabasulu rub the semen on the skin of the youth after he has masturbated the inseminator. The knees, elbows, sides of the torso and the buttocks are the areas specifically anointed. Application to the skin—which is itself, as throughout Melanesia, an indicator of the degree of a person’s well being—is a common Onabasulu method of applying medicines.


In many cases of homosexual activity, a special and long term relationship develops between an older man and a youth. The former becomes the primary, if not exclusive, inseminator of the youth. The relationship may last until the youth’s marriage, when he will inseminate someone else. The same regulatory rules which apply to heterosexual marriages apply to the homosexual relationships. This is interesting in that the homosexual relationships are not spoken of as marriages explicitly, and illicit heterosexual relationships do not, if rumour (and the boasting of young men) is even partially believable, necessarily follow rules of correct marriage partnerships. There is no explicit injunction to inseminate wife’s brother as is found among the Etoro (Kelly 1976:52, n.6). Such an explicit injunction might rob the Onabasulu relationships of much of their appeal and subtlety. Affinity is a factor, however. A young man may very likely be from a lineage into which the older man has married. Also, it may help chances of achieving a desired marriage to a second wife if a prior homosexual relationship is established with her ‘actual’ or close patrilateral classificatory brother. One relationship which I observed fairly closely from its inception could be seen in this light. The older man tried unsuccessfully to take a close lineage sister of the youth with whom he was in the homosexual relationship as a second wife. To apply this factor as the only, the major, or in some way most ‘real’ motive, however, does a disservice to the complexity of the relationship (and, as importantly, is bad anthropology, as it implies a strategic intention which cannot be verified without examining indigenous theories of motive). The marriage never eventuated, and from the beginning had little chance, but the relationship between the two males was a long and close one.


Homosexual partners among the Onabasulu court each other. The young man will act coquettishly and the older man will also flirt. They will exchange small gifts such as woven leg bands, seek each other’s company and engage in much casual body contact as preliminary to the full development of the relationship. Thus, the relationships are entered into in the way that most men would like to enter into marriage relationships with women. This dimension of the relationship, would not be possible if there were explicit prescription of partners, or even if considerations of established or future affinal relationships were primary. This is the sense in which an explicit injunction might rob the relationship of subtlety. Of course, because of the important social and political consequences of each marriage, men can only rarely establish relationships with wives in this way.

I saw a relationship develop between two people with whom I was friendly. The youth was about 12–14 years old and the older married man about 21–23. The young man began to act coy and sometimes flirtatious around his potential partner. The older man acted indulgently and occasionally flirtatiously in return, indicating his interest. Actually in this case, as probably in most, it was difficult to decide who was the initiator. For the observer, such an attribution is always retrospective, for both parties are responding to each other by the time notice is taken. In the case at hand, the youth responded to and firmly established the special relationship by presenting gifts of woven leg bands to the married man. By the time he enters such a relationship, a youth has probably already had some homosexual experience.


Homosexual relationships among Onabasulu males may last varying lengths of time. But they are usually ended by the time a youth marries, when he is supposedly mature and has begun losing semen in heterosexual intercourse. The friendships that are established in the relationships are usually permanent, even when not formalized in another context, e.g. by the two being brothers-in-law. The brother-in-law relationship is one of mutual support and with a heavy content of joking through sexual play. I recorded one case in which the relationship in its sexual aspect seemed exceptionally long term. The older man, a widower with few affines or close consanguines, took on some of the obligations of father or older brother to his orphaned partner who had no close siblings. He was trying desperately to find a wife for his young lover, the only person to whom he was close. Others recognized his position as a difficult and perhaps tragic one, for if he was successful in finding a wife for his young partner, he would transform the nature of their long term relationship. This makes more obvious the parallels with a parent-child relationship (excluding the explicit sexuality in the former, however). These parallels both emphasise a nurturing element and indicate a contrast with a marriage relationship. Marriage relationship, unlike that of inseminator-inseminated, or parent-child, does not ideally (even if sadly) end, (or become transformed and attenuated) on the maturation of one party. The homosexual relationships, then, have some of the affective load of marital and parent-child relationships and could profitably be considered in any analysis of (male) incestuous affect.

The Onabasulu believe that (a) every ejaculation is one more step in male physical decline; (b) youths must, however, be inseminated if they are to mature properly; and (c) women must be impregnated if life is to continue. Against this background, close relationships are formed. Both male homosexual relationships and husband-wife relationships have a major sexual component. Such tenderness and warm affect as are found in these relationships, (and both kinds are often of this character), stem in great part from their sexual nature. Men speak far more frequently of the necessity to inseminate youths than of their own physical decline. The decline is something brought to mind when men age, as they become more easily short of breath, as they weary more easily. It is not directly experienced by younger men. Despite it, sexual relationships are highly prized aspects of a person’s life.


Although Onabasulu practices are not ‘ritualized’ homosexuality, they are culturally imperative and a part of specific cosmological and social configurations. As such, they are interestingly comparable to male homosexual activity elsewhere in Melanesia. Aspects of cosmology are imbedded in intimate, personal, everyday life, and therefore are experienced and available for reflection. The growth of youths adds an empirical accent of reality to that cosmology (see Schutz 1964). But the cosmology need not be totally manifest in every act. The Onabasulu can preclude complex ramification while retaining the significance of these acts by giving a discursive and instrumental response to questions about practice, whether the anthropologist’s or their own. They usually say they inseminate boys to make them grow, just as they say they chew an aromatic bark and spit it on an infant just to stop its crying. Finally, despite the cultural imperative to inseminate youths and its conceptual relationship to decay, the practice becomes more than ‘duty’. The sexual intimacy established forms, partly in its own right, the basis for complex, affectively warm and tender relationships.

Portrait of profile of Papua New Guinean boy, seated, wearing neck ornament, armlet, skirt with belt (Late 19th Century). Photographic print made by Henry King Studio. Rev. James Chalmers Collection, British Museum, London.

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