The last acceptable prejudice

A chat with author Byrne Fone about his exhaustive study of homophobia from antiquity to the present.


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David Bowman
August 16, 2000 11:30PM (UTC)

Byrne Fone, editor of "The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature" and author of "Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Text," has just written the definitive history of the Judeo-Christian concept of homophobia and its tradition in the Western world. "Homophobia: A History" is about more than just faggots burning in the Dark Ages, however. As you read it, you understand that homosexuality is only as modern as the telegraph.

Before the 19th century, there was neither sexual preference nor sexual orientation, just raw (and unnatural) sodomy, practiced by sodomites, who were all born before Freud and the whole modern understanding of the psyche. As Fone told me: "If you and I were Greeks sitting over our wine and olives, and we tried to talk about concepts like heterosexuality and homosexuality, we'd probably look at each other rather blankly because for the Greeks it wasn't so much either or, it was and and -- yes, you did this and you did that."

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Fone and I did not sit over wine and olives, but talked on a telephone. During our long and pleasant chat, I had cause to identify myself as "straight." Half an hour after our interview, he phoned back and put it to me that this kind of announcement could itself be a form of homophobia.

Jeez. Can that be right? First, let's explain the term so an ancient Greek could understand it. "Homophobia is fear of homosexuals," Fone says. "What does this fear entail? That homosexuals will indeed violate the nation's children. That homosexuals will convert normal straight boys and girls. That homosexuals will undermine the foundations of the family. That homosexuality will undermine the rules of law because [homosexuals] will foist their rampant sexuality on society. Homosexuality will pollute the gene pool. Because homosexuality is so alluring it will undermine religion."

Fone believes homophobia is both a spiritual and a psychological disease. "Sometimes one almost feels that homophobes have an orientation to homophobia the way that gay people have an orientation to homosexuality. Certainly these things are learned on one's mother's knee."

I learned very little on Ma Bowman's knee, but I remember Pop saying, "I would rather see my son dead than be a homosexual." Was my heterosexual announcement to Fone latent residue from my father's teachings? Fone later wrote in an e-mail: "For gay people, coming out and announcing identity is a political act, since there is a stigma attached to being gay. For a non-gay person, what is an announcement of straightness? Not a political, but a personal or social act in the face of a gay context, and in the face of perceived danger, or fear. Is it a 'warning' to gay people that 'I'm not available' and is this derived from the old (homophobic?) notion that 'all' gay people want to seduce all straight people and so 'they better keep their hands off me'; or is it, when in a gay context, the need to publish a testament of sexual self-assurance; and is that based on doubt about one's personal sexual identity or a need to valorize it? 'Hey, I'm not gay and don't even think so; I'm a real man.' Who knows? My point was that in the ideal world, you wouldn't need to tell me you are straight."

If you were a bishop in, say, the 14th century, would you think sodomy was a specific perversion or universal?

Generally speaking I would probably think that sodomy was a general sin that anyone could commit. However, I would probably also think to myself that it seems to me that a particular brand of pervert, sexual deviant or religious deviant engages in sodomy more than most people.

Back in the 14th century, it seems for every lesbian burned, 50 men were set aflame. Is that because there were proportionately fewer lesbians or they were better at not getting caught?

Deviant sexuality among men, indeed then as now, was a more frightening thing to society than deviant sexuality among women. If I can jump to the 1950s and '60s, one would go to a high school dance and girls could dance together. It was never any problem. If they didn't have a date, girls danced together, fine. It wasn't threatening. But boys dancing? And the documentation itself -- now I'm back to the 13th century -- simply isn't as available. What did the church and poets write about? They tended to write about men. History was written by men. We're beginning to discover there were women writers, but if you go back to the 11th and 12th century, there are only one or two women writers to every 30 men. So the power of documentation about women doesn't exist. I suppose lesbianism may have been harder for men to conceive of. There is that famous story of Queen Victoria simply not believing that lesbians could exist.

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Back to medieval times, could the Catholic Church have acted any differently, considering adulterers got burned as well?

Probably not.

To draw the thread to today, adultery is a light offense (e.g., President Clinton), while being gay can get still you killed (e.g., Matthew Shepard).

Because adultery is still "natural" sex. When a man or a woman has sex according to the church, they are engaging in a natural practice. If they are not doing it for the sake of procreation they may very well be committing a sin -- and if they are doing it out of wedlock they are certainly committing a sin -- but nevertheless, it is still within the realm of nature. Homosexuality, on the other hand, according to the church and according to natural law theorists, is outside the laws of nature and therefore doubly heinous, doubly sinful.

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Was it in the 18th century that they said it was "against nature"?

No. That goes back to antiquity. You can find hints of that formulation in the Bible, in the Old Testament, but if you want the Christian testament of that, you find it in the first and second century, when Christian theorists start combining a whole lot of things -- neo-Platoism, aestheticism, anti-sexual and what we can say is homophobic religious doctrine. It began to develop into a theory of natural law. It doesn't get finalized until the 11th century when the church makes definitive statements.

So just what was going on back in Sodom in the Bible?

The classic interpretation, taught to us in Sunday school, was that angels arrived in Sodom and Lot took them in. The Sodomites came to the door and said, "Bring these men out so we may know them." That is, "have sex with them." Lot said, "No, no, no." The angels than smote the Sodomites. End of the story. However, a lot of biblical scholars believe that it wasn't a question of a sexual situation at all, but a question of hospitality. Only once or twice in the Bible does the word "to know" someone have a sexual significance. Many scholars believe the entire Sodom story is based on a mistranslation. What the Sodomites were saying was, "Lot, who are these people? How dare you bring them into Sodom without letting us know who they are."

You get the sense that it's a barely post-tribal society. It's as if you couldn't have friends sleeping over in your apartment without letting everyone in your building approve of them.

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Exactly. And Sodom was not as big as Chicago. It was probably a very small town, and you're right, it was a threat to the tribe as a whole to have strangers in their midst.

So the Bible story is wrong, but it gave us such a sinister word, "sodomite." It sounds so nasty. The idea of "sexual preference" or "sexual orientation" -- or even "homosexuality" itself -- didn't exist before the 19th century, did it?

It's a scientific notion that people started thinking about in the 19th century. However, it's evident that throughout history individual thinkers, theologians, people who created laws, seemed to envision a sexual actor who was not like most others. The terminology just wasn't available. Obviously, "sodomite" was the term used mostly throughout history.

What percentage of modern homophobia is just the so-called straight person's own repressed homosexuality?

That is a classic assumption: "Homophobes are just repressed homosexuals who hate what they are." In gay literature, for example, there is almost a classic stock character who is a homophobe but is a repressed homosexual. Everybody knows that what we called "internalized homophobia" has until very recently been part of gay culture. Back in the '40s and '50s, when gay people often would go around acting camp, that was a kind of internalized homophobia saying, "We're not as good as real men."

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I don't believe homophobia is a massive part of gay culture, but homophobia is certainly a massive part of straight culture.

So I'm the straight guy interviewing you, and your book made me rethink gay culture. Much of gay and straight culture is against women, such as the ancient Greeks letting teenage boys be penetrated like a woman, but not a full-grown man. The free-spirited gay culture of the late 1970s seemed a pure celebration of male sexuality ` la the Steve Reeves, virile Hercules-style masculinity.

Absolutely. Quite so. A basis of homophobia forever is straight, or let's say "nonhomosexual" (I never know what term to use for straight men), fear that homosexual men are not real men and they want to be women. In the 1970s, homosexuality did indeed seem to go to the extreme of ultramasculinity. Was this a reaction against women or a reaction against straight culture that presumed that gay man were somehow women themselves? I would vote for the latter.

This is maybe an ignorant question: What is the historical relation of drag to gay culture? Is drag a subset or superset of gay?

[Laughs] Drag is obviously an extreme and a commentary. Drag says that gay men aren't necessarily straight men. Drag says gender doesn't necessarily have to be one woman and one man head-to-head performing sex in a specific way. Drag says gender and sexuality are a vast spectrum and not fixed roles. Drag is satire. But also drag is real. Lots of men like to dress like a woman. Drag is saying this is part of the spectrum of sexuality and gender. Drag is also saying, "Listen, straight culture. We're going to satirize what you think a woman is." Drag is a statement of freedom and liberation. It's also a "fuck you" statement.

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A parallel history to your book would be a history of monogamy. How important is monogamy to gay history?

You mean monogamous gay people or monogamous straight people?

Gay people. Rampant gay sex is a threat to monogamous order. Your book is full of all these incidents of medieval gays joining secret sex clubs as opposed to living quietly in monogamous gay relationships.

Of course if I were writing a history of heterosexual promiscuity, I could have produced examples of heterosexuals defying monogamy. And one could write a story about monogamous homosexual couples throughout history. Yes, they do exist.

Are they the norm or an aberration?

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I don't know the answer to that throughout history. I can give you an example of here where I live in upstate New York: It is very difficult for me to go to a party where there are any single gay men. It's always couples. My lover and I have been together for 25 years. Practically everybody I know has been together in a gay relationship for the very, very long term. Up here the number of single gay men is an aberration. I don't know the answer throughout history. You don't hear about them. The reason you hear about homosexuality in the broadest sense is in legal, social, scientific attacks against perversion, sodomy, fairies, queens, whatever.

So if you were back in the 14th century, would your odds of getting arrested be less if you just frolicked in the woods as opposed to living for 25 years in a secret monogamous gay relationship? Could frolicking in the woods be safer because it's only an occasional thing?

I don't know. That depends on the amount of surveillance. In my chapters on Italian cities, people who were suspected of being sodomites were reported by their neighbors and their houses were burned. That's an interesting question you bring up, the question of monogamous homosexual relationships throughout history. Maybe I'll write the book.

So is there such a thing as a totally straight person?

Really and truly, I think there probably is.

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Can a straight person be free of homophobia?

I would like to believe that is the case. And again, such a broad question -- I know some straight people, friends of mine, who are a little uncomfortable with this book. They are liberal Democrats, if you will. Yet, there's something about homosexuality that makes them uncomfortable. They would never say, "Homosexuals are sinners." They would never say, "Homosexuality should be against the law." They would never say, "Homosexuals should not teach in school." And they would probably even say, "Yes, homosexuals should have the right to marry." But when it comes down to the actual, "What do you do in bed?" and "Why is it that you're not quite like me?" I sometimes think that most straight people who identify themselves as solely straight -- and here of course is the key to the whole thing -- probably are uncomfortable in some way or another with gay people. Some years ago, my lover and I went to a benefit dance at the Hudson Opera House. We danced. We outted at the ball. A straight couple I know looked over and saw us -- they were pretty liberal types -- and the wife said to the husband, "Oh, my god! Two men dancing!" I know them pretty well. They would say, "Sure, gay people can get married. Sure, there is no problem." Yet somehow deep in their hearts, they don't get it. Maybe they never can.

So how do I come off? Gimme the lowdown, I can take it.

Let's have a date. I have not felt any particular repugnance to what I'm saying or who I am. You've asked good and sometimes great questions. You seem interested in the answers. I'd have to go out drinking with you and see where you're really coming from to know that.

Your book wasn't written for an exclusively gay audience. What kind of reader did you envision?

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The general "educated" reader. I didn't write this for historians at all. This is not a book for gay readers. I want gay readers to read it, obviously, but I'm really more interested in trying to present this spectrum of history that homophobia has an origin and has a past and it is still with us unfortunately. I want everyone to read this book and draw their own conclusions. [Pause] Homophobes are going to read this and say, "He's absolutely right. Homophobia has always been there."


David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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