Conceiving Historical Homosexuality
I have often heard historians and historical writers on the topic of homosexuality suggest there was no such thing as homosexuals or gay people in ancient history, only homosexual acts. The implication is that there were no folks in the past with exclusive homosexual orientations and that homosexuality and gay identity are a fairly modern concepts. It’s become a trendy concept even among LGBT historians and writers. I say “bullshit” for a number of reasons.
While I see these historians and writers taking on the role of gay apologist, I get where these people are coming from. They’re just trying to show objectivity. A basic concept in scientific method and reason is that something can’t be said to exist unless it has been proven conclusively. These folks are just doing their due diligence, or are they?
Science and history are not entirely the same things, and historians and anthropologists frequently make inferences about history, ancient cultures, and the people who lived in them based on everything from existing primary source documents to comparisons of contemporary or similar historical cultures to making educated guesses about what might have been going on.
When reading historical or mythological stories about same-sex folks who were close friends or where homoerotic undertones can be read in, many would be reluctant to reach the full conclusion that homosexuality was actually involved. It’s all part of being objective after all.
I’ve been reading The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Society by James Neill. Very early in the book (I can’t pinpoint the exact page, but somewhere within the first three chapters), he makes a startling suggestion that I like very much. He suggests that in cultures where homosexuality exists openly and even in those cultures that just don’t condemn it, that it’s actually a bigger stretch to assume that these weren’t examples homosexuality and homosexual relationships.
There are several reasons to come at things from this angle:
For one, we come from a culture that assumes homosexuality and homosexual relations are unnatural and an exception to the rule, whereas homosexuality and ambisexuality are actually quite natural and common. They even exist in cultures that strongly oppose same-sex expression, though in such cultures they often must remain closeted under the ruse of being just close friends.
Early Christians went to a lot of trouble to destroy cultures, cultural references, and primary sources related to anything that went against their teachings – this included destroying people, cultures, and primary sources related to homosexuality especially where it was treated positively. Homosexuality and most other alternate forms of sexuality were effectively written out of history.
In many writings of the time, it was not necessary to say what people already knew or culturally accepted. It’s kind of like recent arguments over the term “gay” marriage. Once homosexuality is finally accepted into society, it may just be referred to as… get this… “marriage” without the “gay” qualifier.
There’s also the “none of your business” principle. The sex lives and sexual acts and preferences of most people regardless of their sexual orientation is rarely written about or accounted for unless there’s some overriding reason for doing so.
Heterosexual bias and heterosexism permeate most historical research into the sexuality and sexual norms of most cultures until recently and still permeate some pockets of historical researchers today. Even fairly recent anthropologists have brought this bias into their research into modern tribal cultures, and the people in those cultures are often reluctant to share practices they believe will cast them in a negative light to the researchers.
With all that said there are plenty of primary sources that suggest exclusive homosexuality and homosexual relationships did exist in ancient civilizations. Plato in his Symposium talks about how some people seek out their same-gender soulmates who are literally their “other half”, how some are drawn exclusively to one sex or the other, and how same-sex lovers have a higher and more spiritual love because they aren’t weighed down by reproductive obligations. The Native Americans had a special place for effeminate men who took on female roles including female sexual roles and women who took on male life and sexual roles. They were identified as children – suggesting some naturally occurring predisposition. Among the Norse, priests of the god Freyr took on feminine roles including passive homosexual roles in religious rites. Celtic warriors were reported to have male lovers, and perhaps even prefer them to females. Blood brotherhood rites in many cultures have been equated as homosexual relationships. The list goes on for many other cultures.
I will relent one point that is often made about historical homosexuality. In general, men in ancient societies had both homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Often as young men, homosexual relationships were part of their education and rites of passage. This includes the ancient Greeks, the Norse, and many warrior societies. After a certain age, these men were generally expected to marry and have families, except some didn’t. There are historical reports of men who continued their homosexual relationships beyond the accepted age and were said to prefer the company of men. There have been reports of homosexual “marriages” or at least marriage type relationships in many ancient civilizations. There were always ways one could escape the heterosexual marriage obligation – joining the military or joining a priesthood are among the top options for such individuals and these institutions always have had more than their fair share of reported homosexuals and homosexual acts.
Now back to my original argument about the existence of historical homosexuality. Some say that no gay people existed, but I beg to differ. I will concur that modern gay identity is a new concept and but so is modern straight identity. We don’t argue that there were no heterosexuals in the past even though the modern nuclear family is a relatively new concept. In ancient times, heterosexual marriage was often a political arrangement, a barter of some kind, or an economic arrangement. Having many wives and many concubines was not at all unheard of. Women were often treated as property rather than equal partners. Marrying for love or even sexual attraction was not always the norm for heterosexuals, but we don’t claim a heterosexual orientation didn’t exist in the past.
I personally believe that there have always been people of both heterosexual and homosexual orientation and there probably always will be. There are probably also lots of bisexuals out there who blur the lines for those seeking an exclusive binary between homosexuality and heterosexuality. I recommend the works of Alfred Kinsey who suggested that human sexuality is actually on a natural bell curve with exclusive homosexuality or exclusive heterosexuality making up only a small proportion on either end of the scale. Perhaps as society becomes more accepting and open we’ll see many more bisexuals coming out of the closet, in addition to those who claim to be exclusively gay or straight. That’s not even touching on other sexual and gender orientations that may come to light once society stops viewing them as deviant and starts accepting them as human.