Bathers at San Niccolo Domenico Cresti (called Passignano)(1560–1638)
Societal attitudes towards same-sex relationships have varied over time and place, from expecting all males to engage in same-sex relationships, to casual integration, through acceptance, to seeing the practice as a minor sin, repressing it through law enforcement and judicial mechanisms, and to proscribing it under penalty of death.
In a 1976 study, Gwen Broude and Sarah Greene compared attitudes towards and frequency of homosexuality in the ethnographic studies available in the Standard cross-cultural sample. They found that out of 42 communities: homosexuality was accepted or ignored in 9; 5 communities had no concept of homosexuality; 11 considered it undesirable but did not set punishments; and 17 strongly disapproved and punished. Of 70 communities, homosexuality was reported to be absent or rare in frequency in 41, and present or not uncommon in 29.
In cultures influenced by Abrahamic religions, the law and the church established sodomy as a transgression against divine law or a crime against nature. The condemnation of anal sex between males, however, predates Christian belief. It was frequent in ancient Greece; “unnatural” can be traced back to Plato.
Traditional pederastic courtship scene on an Athenian black-figure amphora from the 5th century B.C.
Many historical figures, including Socrates, Lord Byron, Edward II, and Hadrian have had terms such as gay or bisexual applied to them; some scholars, such as Michel Foucault, have regarded this as risking the anachronistic introduction of a contemporary social construct of sexuality foreign to their times, though others challenge this.
A common thread of constructionist argument is that no one in antiquity or the Middle Ages experienced homosexuality as an exclusive, permanent, or defining mode of sexuality. John Boswell has countered this argument by citing ancient Greek writings by Plato, which describe individuals exhibiting exclusive homosexuality.
Homosexual expression in native Africa was also present and took a variety of forms. Anthropologists Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe reported that women in Lesotho engaged in socially sanctioned “long term, erotic relationships” called motsoalle. E. E. Evans-Pritchard also recorded that male Azande warriors in the northern Congo routinely took on young male lovers between the ages of twelve and twenty, who helped with household tasks and participated in intercrural sex with their older husbands. The practice had died out by the early 20th century, after Europeans had gained control of African countries, but was recounted to Evans-Pritchard by the elders to whom he spoke.
The first recorded homosexual couple in history is commonly regarded as Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, an Egyptian male couple, who lived around the 2400 BCE. The pair are portrayed in a nose-kissing position, the most intimate pose in Egyptian art, surrounded by what appear to be their heirs and wives. This is contested, as many archeologists, including David O’Connor, believe these two to be blood relatives, most likely twins
Dance to the Berdache
Sac and Fox Nation ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person. George Catlin (1796–1872); Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Among indigenous peoples of the Americas prior to European colonization, a common form of same-sex sexuality centered around the figure of the Two-Spirit individual. Typically this individual was recognized early in life, given a choice by the parents to follow the path and, if the child accepted the role, raised in the appropriate manner, learning the customs of the gender it had chosen. Two-Spirit individuals were commonly shamans, and were revered as having powers beyond those of ordinary shamans. Their sexual life was with the ordinary tribe members of the same sex.
Homosexual and transgender individuals were also common among other pre-conquest civilizations in Latin America, such as thellohe Aztecs, Mayans, Quechuas, Moches, Zapotecs, and the Tupinambá of Brazil.
Balboa setting his war dogs upon Indian practitioners of male love in 1513; New York Public Library
The Spanish conquerors were horrified to discover sodomy openly practiced among native peoples, and attempted to crush it out by subjecting the berdaches (as the Spanish called them) under their rule to severe penalties, including public execution, burning and being torn to pieces by dogs.
In East Asia, same-sex love has been referred to since the earliest recorded history.
Homosexuality in China, known as the pleasures of the bitten peach, the cut sleeve, or the southern custom, has been recorded since approximately 600 BCE. These euphemistic terms were used to describe behaviors, not identities (recently some fashionable young Chinese tend to euphemistically use the term “brokeback,” 斷背 duanbei to refer to homosexual men, from the success of director Ang Lee’s film Brokeback Mountain).
Hokusai, Shunga Lesbians, painting, c. 1814
The relationships were marked by differences in age and social position. However, the instances of same-sex affection and sexual interactions described in the classical novel Dream of the Red Chamber seem as familiar to observers in the present, as do equivalent stories of romances between heterosexual people during the same period.
The Go Game Miyagawa Choshun(1682–1753)
Homosexuality in Japan, variously known as shudo or nanshoku, has been documented for over one thousand years and had some connections to the Buddhist monastic life and the samuraitradition. This same-sex love culture gave rise to strong traditions of painting and literature documenting and celebrating such relationships.
Similarly, in Thailand, Kathoey, or “ladyboys,” have been a feature of Thai society for many centuries, and Thai kings had male as well as female lovers. While Kathoey may encompass simpleeffeminacy or transvestism, it most commonly is treated in Thai culture as a third gender. They are generally accepted by society, and Thailand has never had legal prohibitions against homosexuality or homosexual behavior.
Roman man penetrating a youth, possibly a slave, middle of the 1st century AD. Found in Bittir , near Jerusalem
The earliest Western documents (in the form of literary works, art objects, and mythographic materials) concerning same-sex relationships are derived from ancient Greece.
In regard of male homosexuality such documents depict a world in which relationships with women and relationships with youths were the essential foundation of a normal man’s love life. Same-sex relationships were a social institution variously constructed over time and from one city to another. The formal practice, an erotic yet often restrained relationship between a free adult male and a free adolescent, was valued for its pedagogic benefits and as a means of population control, though occasionally blamed for causing disorder. Plato praised its benefits in his early writings but in his late works proposed its prohibition. In the Symposium (182B-D), Plato equates acceptance of homosexuality with democracy, and its suppression with despotism, saying that homosexuality “is shameful to barbarians because of their despotic governments, just as philosophy and athletics are, since it is apparently not in best interests of such rulers to have great ideas engendered in their subjects, or powerful friendships or physical unions, all of which love is particularly apt to produce”. Aristotle, in the Politics, dismissed Plato’s ideas about abolishing homosexuality; he explains that barbarians like the Celts accorded it a special honour ,while the Cretans used it to regulate the population
Youth females are depicted as surrounding Sappho in this painting of Lafond “Sappho sings for Homer”, 1824
Little is known of female homosexuality in antiquity. Sappho, born on the island of Lesbos, was included by later Greeks in the canonical list of nine lyric poets. The adjectives deriving from her name and place of birth (Sapphic and Lesbian) came to be applied to female homosexuality beginning in the 19th century. Sappho’s poetry centers on passion and love for various personages and both genders. The narrators of many of her poems speak of infatuations and love (sometimes requited, sometimes not) for various females, but descriptions of physical acts between women are few and subject to debate. There is no evidence that she ran an academy for girls.
Sappho reading to her companions on an Attic vase of c. 435 BC.
In Ancient Rome the young male body remained a focus of male sexual attention, but relationships were between older free men and slaves or freed youths who took the receptive role in sex. All the emperors with the exception of Claudius took male lovers. The Hellenophile emperor Hadrian is renowned for his relationship with Antinous, but the Christian emperor Theodosius I decreed a law on August 6, 390, condemning passive males to be burned at the stake. Justinian, towards the end of his reign, expanded the proscription to the active partner as well (in 558), warning that such conduct can lead to the destruction of cities through the “wrath of God”. Notwithstanding these regulations, taxes on brothels of boys available for homosexual sex continued to be collected until the end of the reign of Anastasius I in 518.
During the Renaissance, wealthy cities in northern Italy—Florence and Venice in particular—were renowned for their widespread practice of same-sex love, engaged in by a considerable part of the male population and constructed along the classical pattern of Greece and Rome. But even as many of the male population were engaging in same-sex relationships, the authorities, under the aegis of the Officers of the Night court, were prosecuting, fining, and imprisoning a good portion of that population. The eclipse of this period of relative artistic and erotic freedom was precipitated by the rise to power of the moralizing monk Girolamo Savonarola. In northern Europe the artistic discourse on sodomy was turned against its proponents by artists such as Rembrandt, who in his Rape of Ganymede no longer depicted Ganymede as a willing youth, but as a squalling baby attacked by a rapacious bird of prey.
A Rammeside period ostraca, depicting a homosexual couple in coitus (a man and man having sex together)
The relationships of socially prominent figures, such as King James I and the Duke of Buckingham, served to highlight the issue, including in anonymously authored street pamphlets: “The world is chang’d I know not how, For men Kiss Men, not Women now;…Of J. the First and Buckingham: He, true it is, his Wives Embraces fled, To slabber his lov’d Ganimede” (Mundus Foppensis, or The Fop Display’d, 1691).
Love Letters Between a Certain Late Nobleman and the Famous Mr. Wilson was published in 1723 in England and was presumed by some modern scholars to be a novel. The 1749 edition of John Cleland’s popular novel Fanny Hill includes a homosexual scene, but this was removed in its 1750 edition. Also in 1749, the earliest extended and serious defense of homosexuality in English, Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplified, written by Thomas Cannon, was published, but was suppressed almost immediately. It includes the passage, “Unnatural Desire is a Contradiction in Terms; downright Nonsense. Desire is an amatory Impulse of the inmost human Parts.” Around 1785 Jeremy Bentham wrote another defense, but this was not published until 1978. Executions for sodomy continued in the Netherlands until 1803, and in England until 1835.
Between 1864 and 1880 Karl Heinrich Ulrichs published a series of twelve tracts, which he collectively titled Research on the Riddle of Man-Manly Love. In 1867 he became the first self-proclaimed homosexual person to speak out publicly in defense of homosexuality when he pleaded at the Congress of German Jurists in Munich for a resolution urging the repeal of anti-homosexual laws. Sexual Inversion by Havelock Ellis, published in 1896, challenged theories that homosexuality was abnormal, as well as stereotypes, and insisted on the ubiquity of homosexuality and its association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Although medical texts like these (written partly in Latin to obscure the sexual details) were not widely read by the general public, they did lead to the rise of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which campaigned from 1897 to 1933 against anti-sodomy laws in Germany, as well as a much more informal, unpublicized movement among British intellectuals and writers, led by such figures as Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds. Beginning in 1894 with Homogenic Love, Socialist activist and poet Edward Carpenter wrote a string of pro-homosexual articles and pamphlets, and “came out” in 1916 in his book My Days and Dreams. In 1900, Elisar von Kupffer published an anthology of homosexual literature from antiquity to his own time, Lieblingminne und Freundesliebe in der Weltliteratur. His aim was to broaden the public perspective of homosexuality beyond its being viewed simply as a medical or biological issue, but also as an ethical and cultural one. In a backlash to this, the Third Reich specifically targeted LGBT people in the Holocaust.
There are a handful of accounts by Arab travelers to Europe during the mid-1800s. Two of these travelers, Rifa’ah al-Tahtawi and Muhammad sl-Saffar, show their surprise that the French sometimes deliberately mis-translated love poetry about a young boy, instead referring to a young female, to maintain their social norms and morals.
An Orientalist depiction (cunnilingus as exotica)
Among many Middle Eastern Muslim cultures egalitarian or age-structured homosexual practices were, and remain, widespread and thinly veiled. The prevailing pattern of same-sex relationships in the temperate and sub-tropical zone stretching from Northern India to the Western Sahara is one in which the relationships were—and are—either gender-structured or age-structured or both. In recent years, egalitarian relationships modeled on the western pattern have become more frequent. Same-sex intercourse officially carries the death penalty in several Muslim nations: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mauritania, northern Nigeria, Sudan, and Yemen.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Turkish Bath, oil on canvas, 1862. An example of erotica within the context of Orientalism
Today, governments in the Middle East often ignore, deny the existence of, or criminalize homosexuality. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during his 2007 speech at Columbia University, asserted that there were no gay people in Iran. Gay people do live in Iran, obviously, but most keep their sexuality a secret for fear of government sanction or rejection by their families.
In the ancient Assyrian society, homosexuality was not prohibited, condemned, nor looked upon as immoral or disordered. Instead, it was rather common and some ancient religious Assyrian texts contain prayers for divine blessings on homosexual relationships. The Almanac of Incantations contained prayers favoring on an equal basis the love of a man for a woman, of a woman for a man, and of a man for man. Freely pictured art of anal intercourse, practiced as part of a religious ritual, dated from the 3rd millennium BC and onwards.
Le Sommeil (Sleep) by Gustave Courbet (1866).
Anyone could visit a prostitute or lie with another male, as long as false rumors or forced sex were not involved with another Assyrian male. To penetrate a male who was of equal status or a cult prostitute was thought to bring goodfortune; but sex with a royal attendant, a fellow prisoner, or a household slave was thought to probably spell trouble. Both Zimri-lin (king of Mari) and Hammurabi (king of Babylon) had male lovers.
In Persia homosexuality and homoerotic expressions were tolerated in numerous public places, from monasteries and seminaries to taverns, military camps, bathhouses, and coffee houses. In the early Safavid era (1501–1723), male houses of prostitution (amrad khane) were legally recognized and paid taxes. Persian poets, such as Sa’di (d. 1291), Hafiz (d. 1389), and Jami (d. 1492), wrote poems replete with homoerotic allusions. The two most commonly documented forms were commercial sex with transgender young males or males enacting transgender roles exemplified by the köçeks and the bacchás, and Sufi spiritual practices in which the practitioner admired the form of a beautiful boy in order to enter ecstatic states and glimpse the beauty of god.
Muslim—often Sufi—poets in medieval Arab lands and in Persia wrote odes to the beautiful wine boys who served them in the taverns. In many areas the practice survived into modern times, as documented by Richard Francis Burton, André Gide, and others.
The Laws of Manu, the foundational work of Hindu law, mentions a “third sex”, members of which may engage in nontraditional gender expression and homosexual activities.
In many societies of Melanesia, especially in Papua New Guinea, same-sex relationships were an integral part of the culture until the middle of the last century. The Etoro and Marind-anim for example, even viewed heterosexuality as sinful and celebrated homosexuality instead. In many traditional Melanesian cultures a prepubertal boy would be paired with an older adolescent who would become his mentor and who would “inseminate” him (orally, anally, or topically, depending on the tribe) over a number of years in order for the younger to also reach puberty. Many Melanesian societies, however, have become hostile towards same-sex relationships since the introduction of Christianity by European missionaries.
The term homosexuality was invented in the 19th century, with the term heterosexuality invented later in the same century to contrast with the earlier term. The term bisexuality was invented in the 20th century as sexual identities became defined by the predominate sex to which people are attracted and thus a label was needed for those who are not predominantly attracted to one sex. This points out that the history of sexuality is not solely the history of different-sex sexuality plus the history of same-sex sexuality, but a broader conception viewing of historical events in light of our modern concept or concepts of sexuality taken at its most broad and/or literal definitions.
Historical personalities are often described using modern sexual identity terms such as straight, bisexual, gay or queer. Those who favour the practice say that this can highlight such issues as discriminatory historiography by, for example, putting into relief the extent to which same-sex sexual experiences are excluded from biographies of noted figures, or to which sensibilities resulting from same-sex attraction are excluded from literary and artistic consideration of important works, and so on. As well as that, an opposite situation is possible in the modern society: some LGBT-supportive researchers stick to the homosexual theories, excluding other possibilities.
However, many, especially in the academic world, regard the use of modern labels as problematic, owing to differences in the ways that different societies constructed sexual orientation identities and to the connotations of modern words like queer. For example, in many societies same-sex sex acts were expected, or completely ignored, and no identity was constructed on their basis at all. Academic works usually specify which words will be used and in which context. Readers are cautioned to avoid making assumptions about the identity of historical figures based on the use of the terms mentioned above.
Greek men had great latitude in their sexual expression, while their wives were severely restricted and could hardly move about the town unsupervised. It was said that a woman could travel about town freely only if she was old enough that people would ask not whose wife she was, but whose mother.
A Rammeside period ostraca, depicting a homosexual couple in coitus (a man and man having sex together)
Men could also seek adolescent boys as partners as shown by some of the earliest documents concerning same-sex pederastic relationships, which come from Ancient Greece. Often they were favored over women. One ancient saying claimed that “Women are for business, boys are for pleasure.” Though slave boys could be bought, free boys had to be courted, and ancient materials suggest that the father also had to consent to the relationship. Such relationships did not replace marriage between man and woman, but occurred before and concurrent with it.
Death of Hyacinth Jean Broc(1771–1850)
A mature man would usually not have a mature male mate, though there were frequent exceptions (among whom Alexander the Great) but he would be the erastes (lover) to a young eromenos (loved one). Dover suggests that it was considered improper for the eromenos to feel desire, as that would not be masculine. Driven by desire and admiration, the erastes would devote himself unselfishly to providing all the education his eromenos required to thrive in society. In recent times, Dover’s theory has been questioned in light of massive evidence of ancient art and love poetry that suggests a more emotional connection than earlier researchers liked to acknowledge. Some research has shown that ancient Greeks believed semen to be the source of knowledge, and that these relationships served to pass wisdom on from the erastes to the eromenos.
The “conquest mentality” of the ancient Romans shaped Roman homosexual practices. In the Roman Republic, a citizen’s political liberty was defined in part by the right to preserve his body from physical compulsion or use by others; for the male citizen to submit his body to the giving of pleasure was considered servile. As long as a man played the penetrative role, it was socially acceptable and considered natural for him to have same-sex relations, without a perceived loss of his masculinity or social standing. Sex between male citizens of equal status, including soldiers, was disparaged, and in some circumstances penalized harshly. The bodies of citizen youths were strictly off-limits, and the Lex Scantinia imposed penalites on those who committed a sex crime (stuprum) against a freeborn male minor. Male slaves, prostitutes, and entertainers or others considered infames (of no social standing) were acceptable sex partners for the dominant male citizen to penetrate.
“Homosexual” and “heterosexual” were thus not categories of Roman sexuality, and no words exist in Latin that would precisely translate these concepts. A male citizen who willingly performed oral sex or received anal sex was disparaged. In courtroom and political rhetoric, charges of effeminacy and passive sexual behaviors were directed particularly at “democratic” politicians (populares) such as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Until the Roman Empire came under Christian rule, there is only limited evidence of legal penalties against men who were presumably “homosexual” in the modern sense.
The Middle Ages
Two male lovers are burned at the stake, Zurich 1482 (Zurich Central Library)
Through the medieval period, homosexuality was generally condemned and thought to be the moral of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Historians debate if there were any prominent homosexuals and bisexuals at this time, but it is argued that figures such as Edward II, Richard the Lionheart, Philip II Augustus, and William Rufus were engaged in same-sex relationships.
Also, historian Allan A. Tulchin recently argued that a form of male same-sex marriage existed in Medieval France, and possibly other areas in Europe, as well. There was a legal category called “enbrotherment” (affrèrement) that allowed two men to share living quarters, pool their resources, and effectively live as a married couple. The couple shared “one bread, one wine, one purse.” The article received considerable attention in the English-language press, since Tulchin may have discovered the earliest form of same-sex marriage. Tulchin’s views have also sparked significant controversy, as they challenge the generally held view that the medieval period was one of the most anti-gay in history.
• Chaucer’s Pardoner
• Louis XIII King of France
• Philippe I, Duke of Orléans
• Oscar Wilde
• Boston marriage
• Edward Carpenter
• The single-sex public school
Freud, among others, argued that neither predominantly different- nor same-sex sexuality were the norm, instead that what is called “bisexuality” is the normal human condition thwarted by society. A 1901 medical dictionary lists heterosexuality as “perverted” different-sex attraction, while by the 1960s its use in all forums referred to “normal” different-sex sexuality.
Martin van Maële, print from La Grande Danse macabre des vifs, 1905
In 1948 Alfred Kinsey publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, popularly known as the Kinsey Reports.
Homosexuality was deemed to be a psychiatric disorder for many years, although the studies this theory was based on were later determined to be flawed. In 1973 homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in the United Kingdom. In 1986 all references to homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder were removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association.
The sexual revolution
During the Sexual Revolution, the different-sex sexual ideal became completely separated from procreation, yet at the same time was distanced from same-sex sexuality. Many people viewed this freeing of different-sex sexuality as leading to more freedom for same-sex sexuality.
The Stonewall riots were a series of violent conflicts between New York City police officers and the gay men and transgender women at the Stonewall Inn, a gay hangout in Greenwich Village. The riot began on Friday, June 27, 1969, (Canada had legalized sodomy earlier that year, whereas France had legalized it in the 18th century). The first riot began following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn when the patrons of the Inn resisted the police with violence, which resulted in the police using the Inn as a refuge from the angry patrons. This riot ended on the morning of 28 June, but smaller demonstrations occurred throughout the remainder of the week. In the aftermath of the riots, many gay rights organisations formed such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF).