AboutContact Us

A global perspective of LGBT history
In part one of three, we consider the LGBT experience from the ancient world up until the advent of the Industrial Revolution

by Jack Kirven . Q-Notes staff

History is more than simply analyzing cause and effect. It is the story of human drama and the world is its stage. Although social conservatives believe that their ideas concerning family, gender, marriage and sex-appropriate behavior are universal, it is an anthropological fact that peoples of different places and times have exhibited a truly vast array of gender expressions and sexualities.

Pederasty and transgender persons in pre-monotheistic cultures
In most parts of the world, prior to contact with Abrahamic traditions, there are many situations where pederasty (men teaching boys to be men) was practiced, most notably in Greece, Persia, China and Oceania. Part of that training sometimes included sex between male youths and their adult male teachers. This was the norm, not the exception. In fact, same-sex attraction was so common that the true irony is seen when one considers that the homophobic religion of a tiny group of tribes came to overshadow the belief systems of nearly all other nations. Judaism’s strict rules regarding sex, as a means of differentiating itself from its neighbors, would go on to influence Christianity and Islam. In the course of history those two religions (and their sexual mores) will come to convert, conquer, or colonize nearly every other culture on the planet.

Greece and China in particular have a history of pederasty. In Classical Sparta, boys were forcibly taken from their mothers at the age of six. From that point on they were trained to be soldiers, and almost always lived in violence in close quarters with other males. Relationships with women were generally valued only for the production of new sons. Boys in Athens were given much broader social instruction by their lovers, and were taught not only to fight but to appreciate culture and learning. Similarly, from the earliest days of the Chinese Empire the emperors took male lovers, a custom that was widely practiced and encouraged, and spread to the realms under China’s influence as well, such as Japan, Mongolia and Southeast Asia.

In the Americas there was a third gender. Those people whose behavior or attitudes did not match their biological sex were treated with utmost respect. The two-spirit people were seen as being spiritual representatives because they had elements of the masculine and the feminine in one body. Men who lived as women were valued for their sensitivity, wisdom and endurance at physical labor. Women who lived as men were respected as warriors and chiefs. This attitude towards fa’afafine in New Zealand can still be seen to this day.

See “Pederasty and Pedagogy” by William A. Percy, “Homosexualities” by Stephen O. Murray and “A Natural History of Homosexuality” by Francis Mark Mondimore.

Saints Sergius and Bacchus. 7th Century icon. Officers of the Roman Army in Syria who were tortured to death for their refusal to worship Roman gods. Bacchus is thought to have died from severe torture while Sergius survived the original torture to be beheaded. They were the protectors of the Byzantine Army with a feast day of October 7th. Yale historian John Boswell considers the saints to be an example of an early Christian same-sex union reflective of tolerant early Christians’ attitudes toward homosexuality, based not only on this icon depicting what some claim is a religious wedding with Jesus as best man, but also extant writings from the period.

The invention of sodomy in Europe.
Contrary to what many suppose, the notion of sodomy has always been tenuous at best. Even in modern law codes it can include just about any kind of sexual practice that isn’t between a married man and woman in the missionary position. To compound the complexity of what exactly sodomy is, it should be recognized that the word itself didn’t even exist until over 1,000 years after Jesus’ death, thus precluding Christ from using the term or discussing it in a context as we understand it today. This, in short, is the convoluted process of inventing sodomy.

St. Jerome, one of the four original Latin “doctors” of the Church, when discussing the crime of the Sodomites, says that their sin was brazen pride born of an opulence that wasn’t shared with the poor in the region around their city. No mention of sex at all, let alone same-sex intercourse. Shortly after that St. Ambrose, the second of the four original “doctors,” narrows the field to lust, but doesn’t indicate what kind. St. Augustine, third in line of the “doctors” (and famous for his own sexual antics), believed the Sodomites were guilty of incestuous rape and inhospitality.

Although the concept is being honed from pride, to lust, to sexual violence, there is still no exclusive reference to consensual anal sex after nearly four centuries of discussion. Two hundred years later, in about the year 580 C.E., St. Gregory, the last of the four Latin “doctors,” uses a phrase meaning “the crime of the Sodomite.” This includes a particular word in Latin: sodomita.

Yet another 500 years later, in approximately the year 1050 C.E., St. Peter Damian comes across a copy of one of St. Gregory’s works. The term sodomita is misspelled sodomia, changing the meaning of the phrase from “the crime of the Sodomite” to “the crime of sodomy.” St. Peter Damian, confused, felt the need to define specifically what the crime of sodomy was, and in a definitive moment, over 1,000 years after the death of Christ, he is the first person of spiritual authority in the West to say unequivocally that sodomy is anal sex and that the Sodomites were men guilty of having sex with other men — all because of a typo.

At this exact same time male-male marriages are being carried out in China, and various other non-heteronormative sexual practices are common throughout the world. It is even purported that there existed a Christian “marriage” ceremony called adelphopoiesis (brother-making ritual) whereby two men could be committed to each other. In what is now France the term used was afrèrement. The brother-making ceremony in Albania, established in the ninth century and continuing for hundreds of years after, was called vellmeria. By contrast, Islam had spread across all of Arabia, North Africa, Spain and the Middle East. Sharia, an Islamic code of laws based on the Hadith (not the Q’ran), which developed in the seventh century (over a century after the death of Mohammed), has strict laws concerning sex. The stage is now set for homophobia to spread throughout the world.

See “The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology” by Mark D. Jordan.

Plague, sin and the middle class
The Black Death swept throughout the world in its most virulent form in the mid-14th century, obliterating up to 90 percent of the people in some regions. In the West we tend to think of it as the plague that killed one-third of Europe in only four years; however, it was devastating in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa as well. Some areas were lucky and lost only 20 percent of their people, but England may have lost up to 70 percent. Some individual cities saw an attrition of 90 percent or higher. To people who knew nothing of microorganisms and infection, this looked like the end of the world.

As with the HIV/AIDS pandemic today, spiritual zealots used religion to explain that those who were sick deserved to die. It is a very old belief that a person who is physically ill is morally corrupt. This attitude can be seen in the treatment of lepers in the Middle East during the time of Christ. Similarly, the Plague was God’s punishment on a sinful people.

This particular plague forever changed the face of the world. There were essentially two responses to it from local governments: To become more liberal in order to encourage the poor to be more productive and thus rejuvenate collapsed economies, or to more deeply entrench the poor into servitude to force them to be more productive and thus prop up collapsed economies. A look at the political and economic situations in the nations of Eurasia today is a fairly good barometer for judging which areas chose which practice.

In Western Europe newly rich merchants were created in the aftermath of the Death. These people, rejected socially by the nobility, were seen as upstarts. The bourgeoisie rejected the nobility in turn, calling them decadent and blaming them for the divine retribution the world suffered. In an attempt to be separate from the nobility, the nouveau riche took on attitudes of extreme religious conservatives. They adopted plain clothing in order to contrast with the nobles further and they accused the nobility of being Sodomites. By doing this they set up the attitude that beauty equates with femininity equates with same-sex desire equates with evil. Later, same-sex loving men adopted “noble” dress, poses, gestures and manners of speaking as a form of resistance to the sobriety of “proper” society, thus creating the embryo of Camp humor and cementing the connection between effeminacy and male same-sex attraction.

Muslim Expansion, Colonialism and the Industrial Revolution
The expansion of Muslim-held territories carried with it the spread of strict Sharia laws. This, combined with the exploration and colonizing Europe was about to undertake, would bring codified homophobia to nearly every part of the world in the next few centuries. As lands were absorbed into the realm of influence of either religion, the peoples of those newly conquered countries would adopt the religions of their conquerors. LGBT people around the world came under attack with unprecedented ferocity as they fell under domination by patriarchal monotheisms. This process continued unabated around the world until the French Revolution when the new French penal code decriminalized same-sex acts by merit of excluding to mention them. This, however, did nothing to lessen the practice of violence against same-sex loving individuals and trangender peoples.

In the New World the Spanish Conquistadors immediately set about destroying the two-spirit priests of all the various tribes they encountered, thereby undermining each group’s sense of organization and identity. Aside from the mass forced conversions to Catholicism practiced by the Spanish and Portuguese, the English Puritans brought their own violently homophobic ideals to the Native Americans of New England. Over the course of four centuries the honor that was once reserved for transgender persons was eroded to shame. Today many Native American tribes do not honor their two-spirit members.

The pattern is repeated throughout the world, whether it be the rae rae and fakaleiti of Oceania, the mukhannathun of Arabia and Afghanistan, the hijra of India or the khatoey of Thailand. During the “Scramble for Africa” at the beginning of the 19th century, same-sex love was all but obliterated as Europe carved up the African continent and forced it to accept homophobic law codes and religions. A similar situation occurred in India and Southeast Asia as well.

To make the matter of sexuality even more complicated, a book entitled “Onania,” written by an anonymous “physician” using the pseudonym Dr. Bekkers, was published in 1715. The pamphlet used “medical knowledge” to make masturbation and all forms of non-procreative sex symptoms of neurosis and psychopathic illnesses. This work, among others, is responsible for the attitude that LGBT people are in some way ill, disturbed or suffering from a treatable medical condition. This situation will set the stage for the medical, scientific and psychological research of the 19th and 20th centuries that will ultimately lead to the invention of sexual identity and the Gay Rights Movement. (See “Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror” by Jean Stengers and Anne Van Neck.)

WWW Q-Notes.Com

Ride ’em cowboy! Queen City Stomp spurs up
Technology tests candidates
N.C. House expulsion could have LGBT impact
Center finds new home
Pride releases 2007 finances
European Scouts take liberal stance on sex, drugs
N.C. gay rights profit from Senator’s wife
10-year study debunks bisexual ‘phase’
Ketner files for coastal congressional run
AFFA celebrates year of achievement
Neal receives key endorsement, makes another
Couples face tax headaches
New website refutes the ‘ex-gay’ myth
HRC to launch second annual True Colors tour

Organically yours: a labor of love
Organic gardening and food tips
Easy ways to live greener
‘Stop-Loss’ examines unjust war policy
Kaki King dreams of another brilliant year
A call for rural queer youth support


find a Q-Notes Newspaper near you
A call for rural queer youth support