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.
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.