Premodern Traditions Of Same-Sex Love In The West

Though classical Greek homosexuality became a romantic, wistful reference point for Victorian, Edwardian, and modern Anglo-American homoerotic literature, its relative cultural norms must not be conflated with bourgeois romance or twentieth-century sexual democracy. The early Stoics, for example, rationally argued for gender and sexual equality and removed conventional morality from the discussion of sex, and Zeno of Citium (c. 335–263 B.C.E.), father of the Stoics, "never resorted to a women, but always to boy-favorites," according to his biographer Antigonus of Carystus, quoted by Louis Crompton. A more typical example of ancient Greek attitudes toward sexuality can be found in Plato's Academy, founded circa 387 B.C.E. Here, convention dictated a bisexual model of intergenerational mentorship and pederasty, whereby men fulfilled social obligations for marital, procreative sex while erotically tutoring beardless, flowering adolescent boys. For two adult male citizens to form permanent relationships was infrequent and slightly transgressive; yet the taxonomy of love found in Plato's Symposium, the greatest text on Greek eros, finds mundane heterosexuality pedestrian in contrast to an idealized vision of male love. Nevertheless, in his ultimate work, the Laws, an elderly Plato ascetically renounces erotic life. The only documentation for Greek female homosexuality is found in the fragmentary verses of the poet Sappho (fl. c. 610–c. 580 B.C.E.), whose literary influence has nonetheless been significant.

Homosexuality was common during the Roman Empire, but in this period militarism and imperialism turned Platonic mentorship into hedonistic relations between imperialistic Roman masters and conquered, penetrated slaves—a possible source of contemporary formulaic oppositions of masculine-aggressive and feminine-passive sexual and gender roles. Juvenal satirized a widespread homosexuality perceived as base and undignified, but Roman literature elsewhere bustles with lively homoerotica, most obviously in Petronius's Satyricon, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and the verse of Catullus and Virgil. With the rise of Judeo-Christian morality, antihomosexual prohibitions such as the infamous passages in Leviticus 20:13 crept into Western thought, prompting the emperor Justinian, in 533 C.E., to make homosexuality a capital offense in his Corpus juris civilis (Body of civil law), thus foreshadowing the Christian animus toward homosexuality throughout Anglo-Saxon, medieval, and Renaissance times.

Until recently, the image in the West of homosexual life in the succeeding centuries was grim. In the Middle Ages, sodomites were burned along with witches (the origin of the epithet "faggot"); in the Renaissance Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) was charged with espousing blasphemous (that is, homosexual) sentiments; and in 1644 the Puritans infamously banned all English theater, fearing licentiousness stemming from both the cross-dressed boys who played women's roles and the unladylike introduction of female actors in 1629. The Renaissance Neoplatonists abstracted Socratic male love into a purely intellectual bond, and in 1767 the first English rendition of Plato's Symposium was deliberately mistranslated to remove all elements of homosexuality.

More recent scholarship, however, has challenged this picture of unrelenting homophobia. Biblical revisionists now speculate that the Levitican prohibitions were more narrowly targeted than they appear, intended only to quash blasphemies and paganisms the Bible associated with sodomites (1 Kings 14:24), or to curb male prostitution and public bawdry. In the 1990s, scholars from the Conservative Judaic tradition interpreted homosexuality as no more sinful than not keeping kosher, breaking the Sabbath, or violating any of the other 613 Talmudic commandments. More controversially, John Boswell's landmark studies Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) and Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (1994) offer highly contested evidence that until the Middle Ages the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches actually condoned homosexuality and sanctioned pseudomarital homosexual partnerships.

Similarly, a wealth of new studies of Renaissance and early modern Europe offer a far more complicated picture of gender and sexuality. Nevertheless, the insights from early gay and lesbian studies of the 1970s remain significant. These studies rejected the Augustinian split between mind and body, identified sexual orientation in terms of undeniable desire and not repressible behavior, and reclaimed male and female homosexuality as two sets of desire distinct from both heterosexual power structures and each other. Though by current standards insufficiently nuanced, this liberal platform offered a critique of Western Christian thinking that nevertheless provided an important outline of the interrelationship between homophobia and misogyny that remains a significant cultural inheritance. Within this paradigm, the female body was perceived mainly as a procreative vessel, and female pleasure was considered nearly irrelevant prior to the discoveries and theories of Sigmund Freud (1859–1939). Homosexuality, meanwhile, was reductively understood as a corruptive male sodomy that produces the passive, womanly, and thus powerless identities into which patriarchal men fear falling. Male homosexuals, exercising the power of Christian free will, could redeem themselves by mastering (or, in Freudian terms, sublimating) their desires, as Augustine suggests; disempowered women, however, officially had no desires to willfully redeem, though they were, paradoxically, still open to charges of sinful lust.

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