Sunday, 22 November 2009

Gay Soldiers? Role Models, at the Foundation of Democracy.

From this side of the Atlantic, the continued reluctance to do away with DADT seems odd, at best... In the UK, gay men and lesbians not only serve freely and openly in the armed services and in the police, but can be seen every year participating in London Pride, marching in uniform through the streets of London - and in other gay pride marches up and down the country. Elsewhere in Europe, LGBT participation in the military is at least as relaxed.

Military Pride

It’s not even as if gay soldiers were a new idea. To demonstrate, I want to pay a brief visit to ancient history – but first, I have to ask, “Why do we have a military?” Obviously, for defence – but what is it exactly, we wish to defend? For many of us, that answer is likely to include “democracy”, or even, more grandly “Western civilization”. Now, here’s the thing – a quick look at history shows that gay soldiers were there at the very start of democracy (Plato gives two gay lovers in particular the credit for its very foundation), and were conspicuous thereafter in the defence and development of both democracy and the broader notion of “civilization”. Now, granting that it is a gross oversimplification, let us begin by noting that both democracy as a form of government, and classical culture on which much of European civilization was built, began in Greece, particularly in Athens.

Harmodius & Aristogiton

The idea of male love was deeply embedded in early Greek culture. Even the gods enjoyed men. Zeus, leader of the pantheon, was renowned for his capture of Ganymede; almost all the remaining make gods also had affairs with men or boys. The heroes of Greek myth ere also affected – Achilles and Patroclus were celebrated by Homer for their prowess as warriors, by later poets and dramatists as lovers.

Athenian democracy began with the overthrow of the rulers known as the “tyrants”. What I didn’t realise until I re-read it in Boswell’s “Same Sex-Unions in Pre-Modern Europe”, was that this overthrow (and hence paving the way for democracy) was credited by Plato to two lovers, Harmodius and Aristogiton.

Athens at the time was under the control of two Tyrants, the brother Hipparchus and Hippias. Hipparchus made a pass at Harmodius, which was rejected.. After he had been rejected a second time, Hipparchus retaliated, then the two lovers got up a conspiracy to overthrow the two. In later years, their fame was such that they were the first men ever to have statues built to them in the public square of Athens, and had images of those statues imprinted on the city’s coinage. These images are said to have become ,as much identified with democracy in Athens as the Statue of Liberty is in New York. They had a popular song sung about them for centuries, recorded by Athenaeus 700 years later. Miltiades used their memory to inspire his troops before the battle of Marathon, saluting them as “Athens’ greatest heroes.” Callisthenes, described them as the men most honoured by Athenians, because they destroyed one of the tyrants and so destroyed the tyranny. Demosthenes called them

“the men to whom you have allotted by statute a share of your libations and drink-offerings in every temple…… and in worship, you treat as the equal of gods and demi-gods.”

With all this praise for the men what does this say about attitudes tot heir love? Plato clearly linked their action to their love, and had some harsh words for critics of their orientation –those whom we today would call the “homophobes”. Here’s Plato:

“Our own tyrants learnt this lesson. Through bitter experience, when the love between Aristogiton and Harmodius grew so strong that it shattered their power”.

Did you get that? Plato states clearly that the power of the tyrants was “shattered” by the strengthening love of two men. He continues with some observations on the origins of opposition to same sex love, which are pertinent to modern homophobia too:

“Wherever, therefore, it has been established that it is shameful to be involved in sexual relationships with men, this is die to evil on the part of the legislators, and to despotism on the part of the rulers, and to cowardice on the part of the governed. “

That’s right, folks. Homophobia originates in evil, despotism, and cowardice. Cowardice? But, wait, isn’t that typical of those weird queers, aren’t they the sissies? That’s not how the ancients saw it, and they had evidence on their side, evidence from the military record. The Greeks were familiar with male lovers among the heroes of with and legend, from Zeuss himself, at the head of the gods, who had abducted Ganymede to be his lover and cupbearer, through Achilles and Patroclus, celebrated by Homer for their bravery and for their love, and also Iolaus, companion of Hercules and participant in his celebrated labours, by whose tomb pairs of lovers were said to pledge their commitments to each other.

Gay lovers: the ideal warriors

Is it surprising that some people began to propose taking advantage of the courage of gay lovers in defence of the city? In Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus proposed the creation of an army of lovers, because men behave at their best when in love, and that no army could be better than one composed of lovers:

“No man is such a craven that love cannot inspire him with a courage that makes him equal to the bravest born.”

In about 378 BCE, this literary speculation entered historical fact, putting the notion to practical testing, when Georgidas applied Phaedrus’ reasoning to the creation of the “Sacred Band of Thebes”, a company of 300 soldiers, comprising exclusively pairs of lovers. Was Phaedrus right? Was the Sacred band successful?

You betcha!.

For forty years, the company was celebrated throughout Greece for their courage and military success. When at last they were overcome, fighting to the last man against vastly superior numbers, their conqueror Philip of Macedon, said of them that no man, seeing their valour, could possibly think their love shameful. (Now, note,that this was Philip of Macedon, whose son Philip II was himself not averse to a little man on man action, and whose grandson was Alexander the Great, conqueror of the world ,as far as it was then known - and renowned for his love of Bagoas).

Looking back some centuries later, Plutarch was able to record that he most war-like societies were noted for male love, and listed some famous heroes who were also known for the men they loved: Meleager, Achilles, Aristomenes, Cimon, Epaminondas, and Ioläus (companion of Hercules, and at whose tomb same sex lovers were said to make their vows of commitment.)

In short, for the Greeks, ideals of male were so firmly rooted in their heroes, that it was seen as a sign of real manliness. After listing some of the most famous, from every category of leaders and thinkers, Crompton observes:

This is an astounding record, including most of the greatest names of ancient Greece, during the greatest period of Greek culture. For many biographers, for a man not to have had a male lover seems to have bespoken a lack of character or a deficiency of sensibility.

So, the verdict of the Greeks:

Straight men, with no male lovers – lacking in character;

Homophobia - origins in evil, despotism, and cowardice.


But take heart, Americans. Even if you (officially) have no gay soldiers, every time you sing the Star-Spangled Banner, you are indirectly singing in praise of homoerotic relationships. The tune is based on a an English drinking song, “To Anacreon in heaven.” Before his poetry was lost to posterity, Anacreon was the most celebrated Greek lyric poet of male love.

This brief look covers only classical Greece - but the pattern is [repeated elsewhere, in the rest of Europe, in Lcassicl and modern times, in Asia - and prett well everywhere, in every age. More will follow.


Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in pre-modern Europe

Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality & Civilization

AMA Condemns the Dangerous Heterosexual Perversion.

Well, not exactly – but they could just as well have done, as I will explain later.  first, what they actually did say:
“The nation's largest doctors' group has agreed to join efforts to repeal the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.

The American Medical Association also voted to declare that gay marriage bans contribute to health disparities for gay couples and their children.

Both gay-rights policies were adopted Tuesday at the AMA's interim policy meeting in Houston.

The AMA says the 'don't ask, don't-tell' law creates an ethical dilemma for gay service members and the doctors who treat them.

The other measure declares that marriage bans leave gays vulnerable to being excluded from health care benefits, including health insurance and family and medical leave rights. The new AMA policy stops short of opposing the bans.”
American Medical Association

There is a delicious irony in a medical group condemning discriminatory practices against gay and lesbian people, as it is well known that the much abused word “homosexual” was originally coined late in the 19th century as a medical term to denote what was then seen as a pathology.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Homosexuality & Civilization: On Reading Louis Crompton

There are many good books available on homosexuality in history, and thank God for that. These have a range of approaches, including scholarly, specialist tomes, more accessible pen-portraits of single notable people, or of single eras or regions. There is after all, an awful lot of history, containing an awful lot of queers.

For any historian, trying to make sense of the full sweep of history is an impossible task – there is just too much of it. Try to be too inclusive, and the reader will drown in the detail. Try to provide an intelligible, rounded account of particular periods in particular places, and far to much will be omitted. Louis Crompton goes for the latter approach, and provides a valuable, immensely readable book – but with some unavoidable but notable gaps (about which more below).

I prefer to begin by reflecting on the strengths, of which there are many. Reputable experts have been enthusiastic in their praise, so I make no attempt to assess its value as historical analysis. Instead, I will comment only on my personal reaction, as a general reader with some prior knowledge, but no specialist expertise.

Crompton has done a fine job of negotiating a careful balance between inserting too much detail for the specialist, and the superficial for the casual reader. The result, is a book that reads easily, with vivid, lively prose, but is always informative and thought-provoking. There is enough material in its 622 pages to be satisfying, but not daunting. (The 16 self-contained chapters which can be read in sequence as a whole, or savoured one bite at a time. ) I also loved the pictures, which are big enough to be appreciated, spread through the text and sufficient in number to be illustrative and satisfying, but not so many that they crowd out the text.

There are numerous arresting details. Right on the first page of the main text, a section heading reads: “A Millenium of Greek Love”. One thousand years? If Boswell is to be believed, that the clear and formal condemnation by the Christian churches dates only from the second millenium, then this Greek millenium of acceptance is longer than formal Christian proscription. This alone is worth thin king about – and comes even before reading the text proper.

Crompton of course, does not accept that Boswell is to be believed on Christian “toleration” in the early church, and presents a substantially harsher judgement on the teaching and practice of he Christian church. Against that, his two chapters on China and Japan includes tales of monastic love by Buddhist monks, some of which have comes down not just as historic tales, but as inspiring spiritual lessons. (Buddhism i s just one of many religious faiths that makes absolutely no moral judgement against homoeroticism, or any other form of sexuality.)

Regrettably, providing adequate space for the satisfying treatment of the periods and cultures he does include have led to some unfortunate omissions. For a work published in the 21st century, he has a curiously limited, Eurocentric view of “civilization”: He does include a chapter each on Judea, China and Japan, but nothing on the great flowering of Islamic civilization, which was so important during the European dark ages, nothing the early civilizations of India or the Middle East, and nothing on the Americas, neither pre-colonial nor the US, and nothing even from Europe of the last two centuries.

To give some idea of the challenges he has grappled with, consider the case of the section on Judea, which is important to make sense of the Christian response which followed. Slotted awkwardly between early chapters on Early and Classical Greece, Crompton dispenses with 1500 years of Jewish history in a single chapter. To resent these gaps would be unfair – he had to make some choices, we must accept the ones he has made, and enjoy the excellent book he has written, not the one somebody else might have done.

This is one I heartily recommend, for reading, to keep, and for occasional reference or rereading.


“An encyclopedic survey of homosexulaity in Western and no-Western civilizations. Compton’s writing is vivid, lively and refreshing.” – David Greenberg (“The Construction of Homosexuality”)

“A minor masterpiece. Each chapter is a work of art in itself”. -William A Percy (“Encyclopedia of Homosexuality”)

“A master work of interpretative scholarship.” - Richard Labonte “A Different Light” bookshop).

“A one-of –a –kind, page-turning tour through gay history” – David Rosen (InsightOutBooks)

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Gay Couples on Noah's Ark?

Well, isn't the rainbow part of the story, as well as a major gay symbol? What other couples would you expect? Kittredge Cherry at Jesus in Love blog has some wonderful shots of a painting by Paul Richmond, depicting well -known gay coples, and same sex animal pairs, enjoying married bliss on the decks, with prominent foes of equality drowning in the sea.  Kittredge writes:


He was moved to create the work after California’s Proposition 8 banned same-sex marriage last fall. Demonstrations across the United Stin support of marriage equality inspired Richmond to paint a wickedly funny satire on the classic Bible story.

In Genesis 6-9, God commands Noah to gather his family and heterosexual pairs of animals into a boat to rescue them from the global flood sent to destroy human evil and the violence of nature. After the flood, a rainbow appears as a symbol of God’s promise never again to destroy all life on earth.
How appropriate that the rainbow has become a symbol of GLBT pride! Richmond puts a fresh twist on the Biblical epic with his sweeping vision of a gay-positive new world. A rainbow flag flies high on the mast of Noah’s gay cruise ship. “As the clouds begin to part, a heavenly rainbow appears in the sky to remind hopeful voyagers that full legal recognition and acknowledgement of same-sex love is just over the horizon,” Richmond explains.

This is huge fun, with the visual puns spelt out for those unable to instantly recognise each face.  Just what we need to cheer us in the aftermath of the loss in Maine:  a reminder that victory in the long run will still be ours. Treat yourself.  Go to Jesus in Love and have a look.

Apart from fun, of course, the idea of gay couples on the ark is entirely appropriate. Sexual diversity is everywhere in the animal kingdom, just as it is in human society. See "Natural Families: The Wildlife Rainbow", at Queering the Church.