Books Culture

A Little Gay History

There are a few reasons why I’m writing this post.
1) I studied a lot of sexual history at university and I think it is fascinating and so so important.
2) I recently quit my part-time job and one of the main reasons I did that was so I could spend more time reading and researching about sexuality and gender so I could become more informed.
3) I want to write blog posts more regularly than once a month. So this is an attempt at that I guess.

Today I read A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World by R. B. Parkinson.

I picked this up in the gift shop of The British Museum a few months ago and it got immediately added to my pile of books that I’ve bought but not read. Seriously, I have a problem. But now I’ve read it! This isn’t going to be a full review or anything, I just wanted to share with you some of the interesting things I learned from it (and some things that I re-learned because you forget a lot of things after university) in the hope that you’ll fall in love with gay history too.

Firstly, we need to talk about the word ‘gay’ being used in a historical context. Gay is a modern identifier and imposing current labels on people of the past does an injustice to their unique and diverse behaviours and identities. As Parkinson explains, different terms are more culturally and historically accurate to use; such a ‘same-sex desire’ for ancient societies and ‘homosexual’ in the 19th and 20th centuries. I could talk about classification and labels when talking about sexual history for ages but that’s all you need to know for now!

Interesting facts about the history of same-sex desire

  • The first known chat up line was between two men. In an ancient Egyptian poem (c. 1800 BC), a male god tries to seduce another by saying ‘What a lovely backside you have!’
  • Phallic images on buildings in Mediterranean cities are not indicating brothels (as I thought in my video about my trip to Rome). An erection was often a symbol against the evil eye and these images were protective devices to ward off evil.
  • ‘The passion of the cut sleeve’ was a way of describing male-male love in Chinese culture. In the Han dynasty the emperor Ai (ruled 21-1 BC) loved a married man, Dong Xian. In an official history from the period it is said that when they were sleeping in the day time Dong Xian was stretched out across Ai’s sleeve and when Ai wanted to get up he did not want to wake him so he cut off his sleeve and got up. That was an expression of his love.
  • A lot of same-sex relationships in the ancient period across cultures were structured by age. Power played a huge role in them and young boys were often desirable and having an older male lover was seen for some as a rite of passage.
  • There were many sub-cultures of homosexual communities in Europe but because they were sub-cultures they are difficult to trace and often the only documentation we have of them is when the authorities and institutions that were suppressing them intervened.
  • In ancient Greece love between men was considered by some as beneficial to the state and army: it would have “better organisation… a handful of such men, fighting side by side, would defeat practically the whole world” (Phaedrus). Now that’s what I call the gay agenda!
  • A Japanese print exists from 1801 which shows two women preparing to use a sex toy together and one of them is saying, “Hurry up and put it in”. Brilliant.
  • During the Nazi regime, homosexuals were one of the ‘undesirable’ groups arrested and sent to concentration camps. After the camps were liberated some were re-imprisoned because homosexuality remained illegal in Germany. It wasn’t until the 1980s when these forgotten victims began to be acknowledged.
  • Great point made: full equal rights have not been achieved yet in many countries of the world, and being LGBTQ+ remains a crime in some, often as a legacy of earlier British legislation.

I hope you enjoyed this blog post, I hope to do more like this so please let me know if you liked it! One of the reasons I think gay history is so important is because as Parkinson says, “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have often felt excluded and silenced, and without a history”. But they do have a history and it’s equally as important as the history of other groups. It gives a sense of community, identity, a shared history can help normalise things considered taboo in society. History can give marginalised communities a voice, you just have to look for it.

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12 Comments

  1. Very interesting post! I would totally be in favour of you doing more of these posts. The videos I enjoy most from you are the ones about sexology, sexuality, gender, sexual health etc. so getting more posts like this one would be great 🙂
    M

  2. Very interesting post! I would definitely be in favour of you doing more of these blog posts! The videos I like most from you are the ones on these subjects, so reading more on them would be really cool 🙂
    I should dedicate more time to my pile of books on sexology/gender/etc as well… Going to the Wellcome Collection doesn’t help with the piling up!

  3. Very informative! It’s always so interesting to see how things have changed, yet how they still remain the same. I’m a huge history buff, so I would totally be down for more of these post 🙂

  4. That was really interesting, and from what I know (which admittedly isn’t much) plus this post, it seems that homosexuality was more accepted/encouraged in what I (as a non-historian) would call ancient times; is there a reason to this or did people just become less accepting more recently for no reason?

  5. This came up on my Facebook feed, and it was an interesting read but I take objection to a couple of points. Firstly, the phallus had a broad spectrum of meanings, and I’m no expert in classical art specifically, but as a Classicist I’m aware that it primarily symbolised fecundity, from this good luck and ward in off the evil eye. Given its also vey obvious sexual function it is not out of the realm of possibility it also was a guide to where brothels are, but to be honest I doubt many people would have needed such symbols and it would have been pretty overt when a brothel was a brothel.

    Secondly Ancient Greece is complex notion. It certainly existed and the Greeks identified with each other, but then each polis had its own separate identity. You could compare it with modern Europe. An Englishman (or woman!) can identify as a European and see commonality with an Italian or a German, and one can certainly see shared ideals and values across national borders, but then each nation jealously guards its own laws and way of life. So to say that “love between men was considered by some as beneficial to the army and state” is literally accurate but misleading. So far as I’m aware, only Thebes in their brief period of power actually encouraged love between hoplites in its famous Sacred Band, but this group of warriors did not account for the rise of Thebes entirely. Elsewhere in the Greek world, it was generally the case that an adult male citizen being penetrated was unmanly and unbecoming. I’m more of a Roman historian so I’m no expert on Greek sexuality so I could be wrong but I don’t recall widespread acceptance of male citizen with male citizen relationships anywhere in the Greek world. In the Roman world a penetrated Roman citizen could forfeit his citizenship.

    Lastly, again I feel it’s a bit misleading to say that equal rights is often a legacy of British rule. Undoubtedly the British legal system imposed on the colonies did formalise the relationship (pun intended) between the law and homosexuality in many colonies, which became colonies. But then often British law displaced law in parts of the world where homsexuality was also not tolerated, where people came up with prejudice and discrimination all by themselves.

    I agree with your overall aims, but I don’t feel it should be at the cost of convenient omissions or inaccuracy.

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