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Other epithets may bring out fists, but “fag” often brings out guns. Homosexuality, as City University of New York historian Byrne Fone notes in his new book, “Homophobia: A History,” is the most powerful slur and “the last acceptable prejudice.”
His book, a history of homophobia beginning with antiquity and ending with the passage of the first civil union law for gays in Vermont, is without question the preeminent historical account of the hate that dare speak its name.
How did love and sex between men start out as a noble ideal, practiced by the majority of the population and approved for centuries by both religion and law, and turn out to be one of the most vicious and sustained persecutions in recorded history?
How did sex between men start out as an admired act of masculinity and end up as a shameful badge of effeminacy? How did homosexual love and sex, which were seen as important to the development of virtue, nobility and the foundation of a strong society, become an enemy of the state?
Fone answers these questions in exquisite detail with a masterful command of history, a balanced interpretation of contradictory documents and an explosive set of assertions that fly against the conventional view of not just homophobes but of gay people themselves.
This is the kind of work that, despite some enormous flaws, marks the beginning of a new understanding of history’s oldest hate — its ignition, trajectory, growth and, recently, its attenuation.
Fone begins his epic in antiquity, where the words “homosexual” or “homosexuality” did not exist, despite the fact that man-to-man sex was ubiquitous. Sexual identity didn’t exist, but sex between men did. In fact, “paiderastia” was a Greek philosophical concept idealizing same-sex desire. It was expected for older men to mentor younger men, teaching them how to hunt, fight and take their place as noble citizens. This teacher/student, love/beloved relationship was as sexual as it was social.
Paiderasty was governed by centuries of tradition and substantiated by scores of paintings (showing older and younger men copulating) and literature (poems in “Book Twelve of the Greek Anthology” are almost exclusively devoted to the love of young men). Fone paints antiquity with an expert hand, using chisel-trim brushes for corners and edges, and rollers for the flat areas that don’t need much detail.
The book is peppered with small examples of nearly every assertion he makes. For instance, proving Greece’s elevation of man-boy love to nobility, he quotes Phaedrus, a character in one of Plato’s greatest works, “Symposium.” Phaedrus declares “there can be no greater benefit for a boy than to have a worthy lover … nor for a lover than to have a worthy object of his affection.” Greeks saw love between men as a way to acquire virtue and “ambition for what is noble.”
Greek law and religion didn’t mention homosexual acts, but Greek society passed harsh judgment on them if they defied accepted norms. There were homo do’s and homo don’ts: Don’t shtup the underage, don’t rape, don’t prostitute yourself; and no congress with slaves.
Both homophobes and gay activists today would be shocked at the history Fone uncovered. The former because gay sex was revered as a way of building, not destroying, family values, and the latter because homosexual sex was reviled if the participants were effeminate.
Historians rarely discover rock-like truths. Truth comes in pebbles, in layer upon layer of sediment that often rises to the level of agreed-upon fact. Fone’s meticulous book, weighted down with 38 pages of footnotes, makes the ground of his asserted truths safe to walk on. There is no major or minor assertion that isn’t backed up with acres and acres of evidence.
Fone sprinkles his opinion like a gourmand — a pinch here, a pinch there — but at times he sounds like he’s writing a polemic rather than an account of history. You start wondering if he’s bending facts to fit his view. To his credit he avoids this through most of the book until he reaches the 1980s, where he starts sounding like a P.R. flack for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
Fone is at his best when he lets the facts speak for themselves. And one inescapable fact is that the greatest civilization on Earth, the civilization we still hold in awe several millennia later, was founded in part by a belief in the nobility of homosexual love. Today, society thinks men who engage in sex are fairies and sinners. Greeks thought they were masculine and virtuous. Warrior, hunter, citizen, husband and boy-lover: These were the characteristics of masculine identity.
Greeks didn’t care whether the object of desire was male or female. What they cared about most was upholding the status of the adult male, which could only be done if the object of his penetration was passive (women or boys).
Antiquity’s growing condemnation of effeminacy in males foreshadowed the historical construction of homophobia. It wasn’t gay sex that repulsed Greeks; it was effeminate men, who they believed subverted masculinity.
As the Roman Empire ascended, they too celebrated love and sex between men. Roman art pictured homosexual desire openly on wall paintings, coins, artifacts, jewelry, terra cotta lamps and flasks. The propriety of homosexual acts, as in Greece, was predicated more on the power and status of the penetrator and penetrated than with gender. Romans had an exalted term for men who properly engaged in homosexual acts: “vir.” It symbolized the ideal man, who penetrates other men but himself is not penetrated.
The biggest difference between Roman and Greek perceptions of same-sex desire is that the Romans didn’t believe sexual relations between men was a path toward political, spiritual and ethical ideals. They just thought it was a great way to get off.
Romans took the derision of effeminacy to newer and more vicious heights. It was masculine to enjoy penetrating or receiving oral sex from another man. It was effeminate to enjoy being penetrated or giving head. Being penetrated was a necessary indignity boys had to put up with to attain civic manhood. It was the price they paid to become a man, but once they became men they were to give up the passive role. Funny thing was, a lot of those men didn’t want to give up the passive role, infuriating Roman society.
And herein lies one of the truly startling points in Fone’s book: Greeks and Romans at first feared effeminacy not because it threatened family values or the social order, but because — are you ready for this? — it threatened to take the masculinity out of gay sex, making the act incompatible with the nobility of the male citizen. If effeminacy were associated with homosexual acts, as detractors were increasingly charging, then real men would have to stop enjoying it. The rising condemnation of effeminacy was, at first, an attempt to preserve the privilege of having sex with boys.
The contempt for effeminacy in men became increasingly rabid in later antiquity and set up a harbinger of the persecutions to come for any homosexual act, be it receptive or not.
The ascension of Christianity snatched same-sex desire off its historically noble pedestal and flung it into the fiery pit of hell. Christianity separated what antiquity united — flesh and spirit. Abstinence and celibacy, not pleasure and sex, were the road to the hereafter. Now, procreation was the only justification for sexual desire. Same-sex acts could not result in children; therefore they became the enemy of all that is good.
By the fourth century the Roman Empire officially became Christian. Fone does a great job of not only tracing the birth and direction of Christian laws against homosexual acts, but provides the law verbatim from historical tracts, making for unstoppable reading. For example, in 342 a new anti-homosexual edict became law: “When a man submits to men, the way a woman does … We order the statutes to arise, and the laws to be armed with an avenging sword, that those guilty of such infamous crimes … be subjected to exquisite penalties.”
Christianity cemented the transformation of what was once a noble ideal to an infamous crime, what was once enraptured pleasure to an “exquisite” penalty.
And that was just the beginning.
In 533 the emperor of Constantinople extended the death penalty to homosexual acts, translating Judeo-Christian condemnation into legal punishment and institutionalizing homophobia into law.
Soon, sodomy became the worst of all sexual sins. In the definitive canonical statement on sodomy, Thomas Aquinas in the mid-1200s said sex with the wrong gender is second only to murder in its seriousness, suggesting that men preferring sex with other men are a species apart, what Fone calls “a race of sinners.” Aquinas felt adultery, incest and rape were preferable to men loving each other because at least those sins result in procreation, God’s intention.
The biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah became the basis for the torture, imprisonment and murder of men with same-sex desires. Fone’s take on the story is one of the high points of the book. He presents clear and reasoned evidence that the interpretation of one single and very disputed word in the story of Sodom became a license to harvest so much of humanity from the church’s killing fields.
The dawn of the 14th century saw Europe’s first execution for sodomy. A knife maker was burned alive for engaging in what the church called an act “detested by God.” Thousands of executions followed in the next centuries, especially with the Inquisition. In France, officials burned records of sodomy trials along with the perpetrator because the sin was “so hideous that it should not be named.”
Fone’s biggest flaw, and it is big, is that he writes as if his themes were allergic to chronology. He often jumps back and forth between timelines, an annoying device for the linearly limited. For example, he’ll end a chapter on the Middle Ages, skip a couple of centuries ahead, then spend a considerable amount of time back on the Middle Ages again. Somebody needs to take the reverse thruster out of his time-machine rocket.
This back-and-forth may have even confused the author. What else could explain ending Chapter 8 with “… sodomy was increasingly taken to mean sexual acts between persons of the same sex …” and starting Chapter 9 with “… the Church introduced a powerful new word — ‘sodomy’ to name any non-procreative sexual act.”
At any rate, “sodomite” became an all-purpose epithet to disparage the church’s enemies, of which it had many. When Arab armies captured Jerusalem, they labeled Muslims with it. Whole cities would be accused of sodomy. One writer noted that “All Tuscans are drawn to cock.” Germans thought Italy, especially Florence, was the “mother of sodomy” and called sodomites “Florenzers.”
The church often used the charge of sodomy to acquire wealth and property. Laws were formulated so that conviction of the charge forfeited the perpetrator’s assets to the church. In a classic turnabout, King Henry VIII consolidated England’s power over the Roman church in much the same way. He created sodomy laws, charged Roman-controlled English churches with the vile practice and shut them down, conveniently forfeiting their wealth to his empire. Charging somebody with sodomy wasn’t just an ecclesiastic cleansing, it was a get-rich-quick scheme.
England’s shift of authority from church to state meant the adjudication and punishment of sodomy was now a government, not a religious, matter. The unmentionable sin was now a state-defined crime, and it offered up sodomites as a new class of villain — Enemy of the State.
The Enlightenment saw the European decriminalization of sodomy. Voltaire publicly opposed the death penalty, arguing sodomy was harmless and the Marquis de Sade was one of the earliest and most articulate defenders of tolerating sodomites.
In the late 1800s England reduced the death penalty for sodomy to life in prison. They also removed mention of sodomy and replaced it with “gross indecency,” a term with which Oscar Wilde became intimately familiar. England’s refusal to even name the act provoked Wilde’s lover to write the most famous description of homosexual love: “The love that dare not speak its name.”
By the early 1900s the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” coined by a journalist, became common. Conceptions of homosexuality as a medical problem also emerged then. Now the homosexual wasn’t just a sinner and a criminal, he was also medically sick.
After World War I, the military became obsessed with rooting out homosexuals from its ranks. In a 1918 essay, “Homosexuality — A Military Menace,” the writer states “… from a military point of view the homosexualist is not only dangerous but ineffective as a fighter.” It wasn’t explained then or even now how a homosexual is too weak to fight against the enemy, but too dangerous for his fellow soldiers.
In 1948 the Kinsey Report put homosexuality squarely in the mainstream consciousness of homophobic America, announcing that 37 percent of American males had some homosexual experience and that 4 to 10 percent of American men were exclusively homosexual. The report cleared the benches for a rumble in which Time and Newsweek led the pile-on.
Soon, Sen. Joseph McCarthy claimed that “sexual perverts have infiltrated our government” and were “perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists.” By 1950 the federal government had issued a document, “Employment of Homosexuals and other Sex Perverts in Government,” setting the stage for yet more labels for homosexuals: Communists, security leaks and, most of all, traitors.
The McCarthy trials, oddly enough, helped spur the creation of the modern homosexual rights movement in the United States. Harry Hay, the founding father of the American homosexual liberation movement, formed the Mattachine Society in 1951 as a response to the trials.
Fone’s book pretty much falls apart after that, replacing rigorous research with admonishments and hopes. His take on late 20th century events becomes a list without the fist of insight. Luckily, we’re at the end of the book when this happens.
Despite its flaws, “Homophobia: A History” is a major addition to the understanding of the calamity that befell what Greeks thought of as the highest love possible. It’s destined to become the tarmac for reconnaissance missions into the future of one of history’s longest-running hatreds.
Michael Alvear is the author of "Men Are Pigs But We Love Bacon," a collection of his sex advice columns, to be published by Kensington Press in May. He lives in Atlanta.More Michael Alvear.
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