Last edited: December 14, 2003

Annals of Homosexuality: From Greek to Grim to Gay

New York Times, December 13, 2003
229 W. 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: 212-556-3622

By Edward Rothstein

In Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which concludes tomorrow night on HBO, homosexuality is associated with religious martyrdom; salvation is found in the embrace of sexual identity. In American courts, homosexuality is being associated with bourgeois family life; salvation is being sought in social routine.

And in Louis Crompton’s sober, searching and somber new history, “Homosexuality and Civilization,” homosexuality is associated with the inner workings of civilization itself. The book provides the background to the resentments and passions that erupt in Mr. Kushner’s play and haunt debates about gay marriage, and it, too, offers a promise of salvation.

It begins in the gladness of early Greece, where homosexuality had an “honored place” for more than a millennium and concludes with the madness of 19th-century Europe. In between is what Mr. Crompton calls a “kaleidoscope of horrors” lasting more than 1,500 years. In the 13th century, a French law stated: “Whoever is proved to be a sodomite shall lose his testicles. And if he does it a second time, he shall lose his member. And if he does it a third time, he shall be burned.” Beginning in 1730 in the Netherlands, 250 trials of “sodomites” took place, followed by at least 75 executions. Between 1806 and 1835, 60 homosexuals were hanged in England.

Mr. Crompton, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Nebraska and the author of “Byron and Greek Love,” a much-praised study of Byron’s sexuality, was one of the first American professors some 30 years ago to teach the history of homosexuality, a project that was at the time both daring and inherently polemical.

But this is a restrained, careful, clear book of scholarly exposition; it is no martyrology. It also hopes to be a post-mortem. Mr. Crompton ends the book “at the moment when executions finally cease in Europe,” promising both the fading of homosexuality’s stigma and the slow healing of its stigmata.

But what led to this “kaleidoscope of horrors”? In ancient Greece, homosexuality was philosophically praised and institutionally sanctioned, associated with virtues of courage and mentorship. In ancient Rome, it was primarily cultivated in relationships between masters and slaves, but homosexual behavior was common to Pompey, Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavius. “Of the first 15 emperors,” Gibbon pointed out, “Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct.”

Why did such indulgence, tolerance and even sanction disappear? Mr. Crompton offers a very different interpretation from the influential theory outlined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. In Mr. Crompton’s view, the concept of homosexuality was not something created in 19th-century Europe when it was first considered a medical condition, nor was it, despite cultural variations, so drastically different in other times and places.

Mr. Crompton argues that Christianity created the most radical change in attitudes toward homosexuality. “The debt owed by civilization to Christianity is enormous,” he writes; but so, he believes, have been Christianity’s sins. In Japan, for example, before the mid-19th-century Western influence, homosexuality was “an honored way of life among the country’s religious and military leaders so that its acceptance paralleled, and in some respects even surpassed, ancient Athens.” It was common among Buddhist sages, part of samurai culture and an accepted aspect of the Kabuki theater world.

Christianity attacked such customs when it gained access, Mr. Crompton argues, but its assault began in the West as early as the 4th century (not the 12th century, he says, as the historian John Boswell believed).

Mr. Crompton traces Christian hostility to Leviticus, which may have been written around 550 B.C., at the very time that homoerotic poetry was thriving in Greece. It mandated death for homosexual acts. Mr. Crompton suggests that this law was an attempt to differentiate the Jews from Mediterranean cults in which transvestite priests, eunuchs and sexual activity played a central role in ritual and worship.

As filtered through the severity of the writings of the Apostle Paul, though, that condemnation became central to Christianity, strictly distinguishing it from Roman and pagan cultures. In Mr. Crompton’s view, it also ended up influencing the later criminal codes of France, Spain, England, the Holy Roman Empire, the Italian states and Scandinavia.

Judging from this history, though, prohibition seems to have been unable to quash the practice in any social class; in the European aristocracy, at any rate, it flourished. In 1610, when Louis XIII came to the French throne, Mr. Crompton notes, “one ‘sodomite,’ James I, ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland; another, Rudolph II, presided over the Holy Roman Empire; and France had its second homosexual king within a generation.”

The relationship between homosexuality and political liberty is also marked by peculiarities. Mr. Crompton points out that by the Enlightenment, in Roman Catholic countries anticlerical feeling swept ancient antisodomy laws away, along with the church’s authority. But countries already affected by the Reformation had no need to rebel; their antisodomy legislation remained intact. So by the 19th century, homosexuality was tolerated far more in countries like France, Spain and Italy than in England, the Netherlands or the United States.

What, then, does contemporary salvation consist of? For Mr. Crompton, it is heralded by figures like Jeremy Bentham, who argued for reform of antisodomy laws in the late 18th century. But history, while it provides context for contemporary debates, offers no clear guidance. Homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome, for example, involved pederasty, and in Rome, slavery. Liberal democracy has recognized that neither is compatible with human autonomy; both take advantage of those unable to exercise their will and reason fully. So whatever evolves in coming years will not be based on past models but on ones yet to evolve, models in which martyrdom, at the very least, should become superfluous.

[Home] [News]