As I mentioned previously, my first response to the gay marriage debate was off the cuff and somewhat flippant. After much discussion and debate with others, I realized my initial post had been too reactionary. I therefore wanted to redress that mistake by taking a more thorough, deliberate look at the subject. This is the first part of my continuing discussion of gay marriage — a view of the relevant historical information which can shed light on society's current impressions of and feelings about homosexuality. The historical context of homosexuality is important within the discussion of gay marriage since the points of view against the idea are rooted in the past.
There is no question that homosexuality has been around as long as heterosexuality has been. They are nothing more than different manifestations of the same biological function — the desire to experience emotional and physical fulfillment. The surprising fact for many is that acceptance of homosexuality was prevalent and normal throughout the ages, at least until the dawn of the 12th century.
More importantly is the depth and breadth of the anthropological evidence dating back more than two millennia which supports the premise that homosexuality has been around as long as man has and that it was widely accepted.
Romantic love in the late 7th and 6th centuries BC was primarily directed at members of ones' own gender. This can be seen clearly through even a cursory examination of the Greek historical record from that period. Various aspects of Greek homosexuality can be discovered through literary prose and poetry, historical texts, and representational art, and all of these sources make clear the geographical and chronological extent of the phenomenon within Greek society, its level of social acceptance and its distribution amongst different classes and age groups. Exclusive preference for one sex or the other was not an issue, and many men who can be uniquely studied appear to have liked both sexes. In fact, all but one of the first 14 Roman emperors were either bisexual or exclusively homosexual.
Over the course of two centuries during the height of the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), China was ruled by ten openly bisexual emperors. The names of the emperors and their significant others were recorded in the official histories of the period. Brett Hinsch, author of Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China, also noted that at least nine emperors from later periods had open homosexual relationships.
Evidence of homosexuality in prehistoric African cultures is limited. This is due largely to the late-Middle Age European views of Africans, of homosexuality, and of course, the reason for Europeans to be in sub-Saharan Africa in the first place — the slave trade. Some of the records of the Inquisition in Brazil are among the earliest references to it. We can see from much of the available evidence that homosexuality was present in Africa from at least the earliest of European contact. It wasn't just central Africa, either. While European proprieties made such graphic descriptions of African homosexual behavior uncommon, there are enough references to it to know that it was indeed present. Not surprisingly, some of the reference material indicates that it was used as a reason for considering African cultures primitive enough to rationalize slavery.
Homosexuality continued to be practiced openly, and dare I say rampantly, through the 11th century. The open practice of homosexuality not only continued throughout the Middle Ages, but it actually flourished in the monasteries of the time (yes, I did just say that homosexuality once flourished in monasteries). Many of the priests and abbots not only left us literature celebrating their gay lovers, but some of their poetry was blatantly erotic. There are literally thousands of poems from this period, many of them written by monastics, which celebrated relationships with gay lovers. St. Aelred, St. Anselm, and St. Bernard are just a few of the many such authors. Surprisingly, St. Aelred put pen to paper to create some of the most detailed writings celebrating gay love in this period.
As is common with other times, most of the records we have from this period are from either the clerics, the most commonly literate (educators and such) or from the upper classes. So that means there's a good picture of homosexuality from this period among the clerics and upper classes, but less so from the poor and working classes. From the available writings we know that it was as tolerated at all levels of society. Hilderbert of Lavardin, who left us some of these writings, said, "no walk of life escapes it [homosexuality]."
English and French-Canadian fur trappers, as they became acquainted with the various cultures of Native Americans, were surprised to find that there were significant numbers of men dressed as women among the many tribes of the region. What intrigued them the most, however, was the esteem with which these men were held by their fellow tribesmen. It's now known that these men were considered spiritually gifted, a special gift to the tribe by God, men with a particular insight into spiritual matters. As they were encountered in most tribes, the trappers chose a French word to describe them all: berdache. Ultimately pejorative in its roots, the term is offensive as it can be traced to Arabic where it's roughly translated to mean "male prostitute," a thoroughly unacceptable term to be used for highly respected spiritual advisers and elders.
I could continue with pointing out historical references to the wide practice and acceptance of homosexuality, but I would hope that the examples already given provide a chronologically, geographically and ethnically diverse representation of the practice throughout history.
So, with this level of acceptance and practice, how was it then that homosexuality became so reviled and persecuted?
Early church leaders, especially those who founded the monastic orders, mistakenly relied on nature to provide examples of morality and immorality. Nature was poorly understood at the time, so this practice was wrought with difficulties and peril. Still, nature was considered inherently beautiful and moral (this despite the fact that practically all activities man can come up with that might be considered immoral can be shown to be engaged in by animals). The churches simply ignored that inconvenient bump in the road or were unaware of it. Despite this fascination with nature-based morality, not all things in nature were considered good fodder for the moral compass. This included animals that were considered revolting or disgusting for one reason or another, or those believed to engage in "bizarre" behaviors (um, that would be everything man does…).
For example, a common belief at the time was that hyenas enjoyed digging up graves and eating the bodies they unearthed. Sounds yummy, huh? It was also a widely held belief that rabbits (or, in the vernacular of the time, hares) grew new anal openings every year. Oh, better yet, one of these documented "bizarre behaviors" was that weasels mated through the mouth and — what 'til you hear this — gave birth through the ear.
Huh? That's what I thought, too.
OK, back to the hyenas.
Hyenas were considered a rather disgusting animal. It was believed at the time that they predominantly engaged in homosexual sex, so, as you can guess, it wasn't long until homosexuality itself soon earned the "disgusting" label simply because it was wrongfully associated with an animal that was considered disgusting (based on a complete misrepresentation of the animal, too).
"Bestiaries," books that claimed to describe the natural history of animals (and usually failing miserably), promulgated and circulated these falsehoods about nature. If you ever want a good chuckle while you gain an understanding of how far we've come, take a look at Bestiary of Barnabus and the Historia Animalium. Both of them contain some really interesting stuff.
Well — and this can't be a hard leap to follow — as homosexuality became associated with hyenas (remember, hyenas were thought to rob graves and eat corpses and have homosexual sex most of the time), early church fathers and monastics quickly decided that homosexuality itself must likewise be repugnant.
And that's when things got ugly.
Certain church fathers began a campaign against homosexuality. You've heard their names. Augustine, a very bad man — and I do mean a very, very bad man — who is the first known zealous advocate of forced conversions. Clement, a man who, in his religion-induced psychosis, wrongfully associated homosexuality with a kind of child slavery — one in which male children were often sold into forced prostitution. These men and all the others like them began associating homosexuality with all sorts of things they didn't like (not just the "bizarre" animal behaviors they thought they had all figured out). Eventually they went so far as to actually link homosexuality with paganism and pederasty (we still see the latter association today).
Then here comes the 12th century. A sudden fascination with order and uniformity began to spread. The church and state married and immediately became intertwined. There was also a nostalgic longing for a society more akin to what was believed at the time to be the height of the Roman Empire.
The marriage between church and state strengthened as the two snuggled closer together (a "you watch my back, I'll watch yours" kinda thing) and, before anyone noticed, the line between the two blurred. And all of this in an attempt to restore the order of the Roman Empire. This increasing emphasis on order and uniformity brought with it an explosion in the number of new laws being enacted. With the church heavily involved with the state — Puh-lease! Come on, you were thinking it, too! — With the church running the state, religion suddenly found itself in a position to regulate standards and legislate morality, especially those intended to govern society's bedroom activities.
This led to all kinds of repression, of course.
When repressing, always target your own minorities first, I always say… Anyway…
For Europe, their own Jewish and Muslim populations were easy targets and found themselves living where their very presence was increasing the hostility toward them. While regulations were often intended to protect the minorities from repression originating within the civil population, they usually did just the opposite: increasingly regulating behavior instead of actually addressing the complaints from the electorate. These regulations came to include "sodomites" and other sexual minorities, but because the laws regulated behavior, they often became the source of repression instead of protection.
Despite a lot of effort with crusade after crusade, Europe couldn't get the Muslims out of the holy land. Because of this, Muslims became the target du jour for most propaganda. Yes, that included the anti-gay propaganda. William of Ada wrote:
According to the religion of the Saracens [Muslims], any sexual act whatever is not only allowed but approved and encouraged, so that in addition to innumerable prostitutes, they have effeminate men in great number who shave their beards, paint their faces, put on women's clothing, wear bracelets on their arms and legs and gold necklaces around their necks as women do, and adorn their chests with jewels. Thus selling themselves into sin, they degrade and expose their bodies; 'men working that which is unseemly' they receive “in themselves” the recompense of their sin and error. The Saracens, oblivious of human dignity, freely resort to these effeminates or live with them as among us men and women live together openly.
Now, when you've been viciously repressing a people and begin to associate them with things that your own "civilized" society has vilified, how do you think they'll react?
More repression! Very good, class.
To prove that the Christians were clueless gits and wrong as always, Islam cracked down on homosexuality, only they did it on a level that the Christians, with their inferior work ethic, had failed to achieve even with the unfair advantage of a head start.
By the latter half of the 12th century, the quest for order had created an increasingly conformist Europe which found minorities of all kinds, including homosexuals, to be, shall we say, irritating. Tracts against them began to appear, and propaganda intended to incite anger became common. And, as you might expect, someone had to start slingin' mud. One of the popular "repressionist" pieces was the simple accusation that minorities were guilty of killing Christian children.
As the years marched by, the intolerance didn't subside. It increased. Remember the witch hunts in France that depopulated whole regions of that country? Remember the Spanish Inquisition which continued its harsh repression into the 17th century?
Side note: We all remember the Spanish Inquisition since it was the nastiest piece of work they could put together, but the Inquisition itself was a church-wide phenomenon that ensured unrelenting repression hit every corner of the Catholic world.
Don't think that the Muslims and Jews were the only ones getting smacked around with the repression stick. The Inquisition took special interest in targeting sexual minorities as they were considered the basest representation of nonconformity. Gay people began to be singled out for special persecution. Peter Cantor, who died in 1197 (since that should tell you something), was the first person to argue that Romans 1:26-27 referred specifically to gay people. Against all theological precedent, and for the first time in church history, the term "sodomy" came to refer exclusively to homosexual sex.
In 1179, the Lateran III Council, at dear Mr. Cantor's behest, became the first governmental body to specifically outlaw homosexual acts. It might also be important to know that, in the same session, they also, for the first time, outlawed money lending, heresy, and the church's two equal and most favorite enemies, the arch-heresies of Judaism and Islam. If you look at the laws passed, the wording in the regulations on sex appears specifically targeted at all non-procreative sex, but this was eventually construed as meaning homosexual sex specifically. And this little tidbit eventually passed into the permanent collections of canon law in the very next century (and thus became the foundation of the Catholic church's "God-given" rules against homosexuality; yes, it's a leftover from the Inquisition).
Society's intolerance of nonconformists grew to epic proportions by the end of the 13th century. Spain made all Jews wear a "Jewish badge" (hmmm, doesn't that sound familiar? perhaps reminding us of a certain Nazi some six centuries later who had a morbid fascination with seeing Jews wearing the Star of David…). Britain, not interested in making a fashion statement, simply expelled all of its Jews. By this point in time, nonconformists were considered heretics, the worst sin of all.
But I can only take so much repression before you just piss me off.
And I'm not alone in that sentiment. The intolerance, at a fever pitch and still rising, finally pushed the wrong buttons, so the people pursued their only recourse — a revolt. But this revolution wasn't political. At first, it was intellectual.
It was the Enlightenment.
Society's members began to realize, finally, that all this emphasis on conformity, and its subsequent repression of alternate ideas, was a tremendous loss. In their quest to build the new Roman Empire, they lost the civility that actually made classical Greece and the Roman republic what they had been. So a quiet rebellion was started by the intellectual community, led by Martin Luther and his rebellion against Catholic corruption. More and more great thinkers followed his lead and cried out against the marriage between church and state. Then the Enlightenment had a baby — the American Revolution. , followed in short order by revolutions in France and the rest of Europe. Society began pursuing democracy for the first time since the Roman republic.
Yet the church held on. It was convinced that the church alone was the keeper of ethics and morals and was therefore the moral authority even if it had been forced to yield its political sovereignty. By teaching in church the moral standards it alone expected, it was able to utilize the only political machinery available to it (lobbying) in order to get moral legislation through the government.
And what do you think one of the morals was that just had to be included in the government legislation? You guessed it — the ban on homosexual sex.
With the repression of homosexuality so complete, and because it was so emotional, with the propaganda so hoary, the church successfully maintained its repression of sexual minorities.
And this hasn't changed much in the centuries since the Enlightenment.
So here we are in 2004, a world where the nature of homosexual sex has encouraged homophobia that had its origins in a complete misunderstanding of nature itself (the "bestiaries" of the early Middle Ages). Encouraged by political trends, intractable illiteracy and widespread ignorance, it has become so established that only the forced education imposed by the AIDS epidemic has begun to break it down.
It should be obvious by now that homophobia has its origins in ignorance. It is spread by ignorance, by repression, social conservatism and the alliance of church and state.
The history of homophobia in western culture is instructive. It tells us how, when we make untested assumptions, we can easily be led into error that can be very destructive.
So I finish this little jaunt through time with this thought…
We are a country which claims to value freedom. Can we not learn anything from all of this? Are we still America or do we now stand for repression, segregation, inequality or prejudice?
Is the church in charge again?