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.