Conceiving Historical Homosexuality Part 2
In my last blog post, I mentioned how some folks are spreading a myth or meme that homosexuality didn’t exist before modern times and that only homosexual acts existed. Often this myth is spread by well-meaning people who are trying a little too hard to be scientifically or historically objective.
Below are a couple of paragraphs from an article about photos of male intimacy over the past century or so that someone recently sent me. Overall, the article is great and shows through how male bonding and intimacy have changed in our culture as a result of stigma against the ever increasing visibility of homosexuality in our culture. These paragraphs are also a perfect example of this meme I’ve been talking about.
Here’s an excerpt from the article:
The term “homosexuality” was in fact not coined until 1869, and before that time, the strict dichotomy between “gay” and “straight” did not yet exist. Attraction to, and sexual activity with other men was thought of as something you did, not something you were. It was a behavior — accepted by some cultures and considered sinful by others.
But at the turn of the 20th century, the idea of homosexuality shifted from a practice to a lifestyle and an identity. You did not have temptations towards a certain sin, you were a homosexual person. Thinking of men as either “homosexual” or “heterosexual” became common. And this new category of identity was at the same time pathologized — decried by psychiatrists as a mental illness, by ministers as a perversion, and by politicians as something to be legislated against.
The whole article and photos can be found at:
While ultimately this could come down to an argument of semantics… “Of course there were no homosexuals in history because the term homosexuality is a recent thing.” My argument is that just because the word we use for something didn’t exist, it doesn’t mean that people with this disposition didn’t exist. In fact, exclusive homosexuality did exist in history alongside exclusive heterosexuality alongside varying degrees of bisexuality and ambisexuality. Other cultures did have terms for exclusive homosexuality before 1869 and forms of exclusive homosexual marriage and commitment existed as well. These terms just weren’t the same terms and what we think of homosexual or gay identity today was different contextually than it is today. Homosexuality wasn’t defined by gay bars, rainbow flags, and Lady Gaga. It was defined in terms specific to the historical and cultural context. I’ve mentioned in some of my podcasts and blog posts folks who are over the “gay scene” or who prefer to use other terms like androphile or queer or other terms rather than gay or homosexual. This doesn’t mean that homosexual orientations don’t exist or that people don’t have homosexual identities. It just means that human beings are complex and that there are many factors involved in the identities we adopt and put out to the world. Heterosexuals existed too in history even if they didn’t have the word homosexual to define themselves against. Even so, the heterosexuals of today, their families, and their assumptions about the world aren’t necessarily the same things they were even a couple hundred years ago.
The author of this article makes the assumption that identity doesn’t predate action and that an action one does regularly doesn’t create identity. My own life experiences and probably yours too would suggest otherwise. For example, in my own coming out process. I didn’t even know what homosexuality was, but when I hit adolescence I started noticing all the other boys around when all the other boys started noticing all the other girls. Was I not homosexual just because I didn’t know a word to call my attractions? At some point I became aware that there were others like me and when I got to college I joined the gay student group and a gay youth group. Was I homosexual before I was exposed to other gay folks and to gay culture? You betcha! Did I have a gay identity? That’s a more complex question and I can only answer that exclusive attraction to men is part of my personality and identity whatever you decide to call it and whether or not I choose to express it. If I’d grown up never knowing what homosexuality was or that there were others with the same feelings and attractions, if I decided to live a life of celibate bachelorhood, or if I had decided to suppress my natural feelings and attractions and marry a woman, would any of these things change the fact that I was inherently homosexual by nature? Could you still say homosexuality was just an action if I didn’t act on it, but I still had these inherent feelings and attractions exclusively toward other men? I think this is really similar to the argument over whether sexuality is an orientation or a preference. An orientation is something inherent and a preference might be more a choice on which to act.
The other part of that assumption is that an action one does regularly doesn’t create identity? In reality, how many people’s identities are wrapped up in what (or who) they do? How many people define themselves by their job, their hobbies, their spouse, or the families they’ve created? How many people’s identities are wrapped up in the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, or the types of shows they watch on television? If we do something, act on something, or associate with someone or something regularly — of course it’s a part of our identity. It would be no less so in historical times.
To me, the confusion over historical homosexuality comes down to a couple of things. The main thing is that at some point the Christian church railed against homosexuality calling it a sin and Christian nations made homosexual acts illegal in an effort support their religious sense of morality. They couldn’t make being homosexual illegal – only homosexual acts – because that might expose that there’s a whole group of people out there you’re prosecuting not because of what they do, but because of who or what they are. Somehow that makes it more of a hate thing and takes away some of your moral high ground if you’re prosecuting the alleged sinner for something they can’t control and not the alleged act of sin which supposedly they can. Because homosexual acts were illegal and considered more sinful than other acts, and because there was such stigma and resistance to homosexuality, those who were homosexual hid their orientations. Many even suppressed their natural inclinations in order to fit in. If they didn’t live a fully heterosexual life, they sought to fulfill their homosexual desires and attractions hidden away from even close friends and family, not to mention the public eye. Even in the U.S. such closeted situations have been common for many and even up to the present time, though many feel more free to be open about their orientations. The risk for many was too great for folks to live openly, so instead they lived in hidden pockets within the greater culture.
The other thing leading to confusion over homosexual identity is the dichotomy we place on homosexuality and homosexuality. Many people tend to see this issue as a strict dichotomy even though it never was and still isn’t. I do agree with the article somewhat on that point, but disagree that this precludes those exclusively homosexual or heterosexual now or in history. The Kinsey Report was a pioneering work in the field of human sexuality in the mid-20th century. The Kinsey research revealed that sexual orientation is not a strict dichotomy, but a spectrum fitting the form of a bell curve. Most people are actually varying degrees of bisexual whether or not they choose to act on their attractions to one gender or the other. The thing is, you’ve still got about 10 percent (give or take) who are exclusively homosexual or heterosexual in orientation at either end of the spectrum with those toward the middle more likely to acknowledge attraction to both genders. Of course, whether or not someone acts on their attractions comes down to cultural conditioning and other environmental factors. With a huge cultural, religious, and legal stigma against homosexuality and homosexuals acts as a part of our historical context, it skews the bell curve in favor of heterosexual expression even though a small percentage of exclusive homosexuals have existed throughout history and still exist today.
The 20th century didn’t create homosexual identity, though it did create a unique homosexual culture within a certain context of time and place. The 20th century didn’t create homosexuality or the “homosexual lifestyle”, but instead rediscovered and made known something that has been with us in one way or another throughout history and throughout the many cultures of the world.