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Ecce Homo

HOMOPHOBIA A History; By Byrne Fone; Metropolitan Books: 480 pp., $32.50

August 20, 2000|RICHARD CANNING | Richard Canning is the author of "Gay Fiction Speaks," a book of interviews with gay novelists to be published by Columbia University Press in December. He is writing a biography of English novelist Ronald Firbank

Is there a history of homophobia in the West? Surely few would deny it. Still, it should not surprise us that the subject has received little attention, academic or otherwise--at least, by this name. For thousands of years, as Byrne Fone's substantial but frustratingly uneven book illustrates, anti-gay sentiment has been as omnipresent as the air, as invisible and as rarely called into question.

In his introduction, Fone contrasts the attention paid to the history of homosexuality with the dearth of comment on his chosen topic: anti-homosexual prejudice, rhetorical, legal or social. The reason for this dearth is obvious: Homosexuality and homophobia have danced a deux throughout their long existences. Every effort to consider one in isolation from the other is doomed. Whether we like it or not, the cultural understanding of homosexuality has stemmed from the ranting of homophobes, the quieter muttering of a few liberals and the defiant rhetoric and behavior of a handful of sexual radicals.

Homosexuality, then, we can imagine as a triangular term stretched around these three crude groupings. Think of it as resembling New York's Flatiron building: fragile, slim, almost invisible from one perspective and, from another, massive, overwhelming, almost on the march.

Perspective is key, and its variance over time is what gives Fone's book some sense of narrative. Still, though the recent past gives some grounds for optimism, the topic of homophobia necessarily prescribes a pretty depressing read. Four brief chapters on same-sex mores in Greek and Roman civilizations lead Fone swiftly into the dismal mire of two millenniums of Judeo-Christian bigotry.

The last 700 years cast the darkest shadow of homophobia. Since the first recorded burning at the stake of a "sodomite"--historically often a less precise term than today--in 1292, the severest punishments and acts of violence have been dealt to lesbians, gays and the many others who variously threatened to overturn an apple cart of strictly enforced gender roles laboriously introduced by Adam and Eve.

Fone's comprehensive rebuttal of any defense of homophobia that relies on biblical sources impresses. Niceties of theological scholarship--especially readings of the Sodom and Gomorrah story--are intelligently explored. Ironically, the misreadings started by way of a misinterpretation of the Hebrew verb yadha (to know). But the truth here pales beside the reality of the forces--political, military, social--exerted behind such errors and the misery consequently endured over time.

If the Bible brings out the activist in Fone, the chapters on classical culture are comparatively inert. Keen, perhaps, not to eulogize Greek culture unconditionally, as many did in the Renaissance and the 19th century, Fone is cautious over which forms of sexual relationship were held to be legitimate. One wonders if Fone's scholarship in these early chapters is out of date. Kenneth Dover's "Greek Homosexuality" (1978)--solid but dated--is relied upon throughout. Recent scholarship scarcely features--especially Michel Foucault's vital "The Uses of Pleasure." James Davidson's marvelous recent corrective to Foucault's idealism, "Courtesans and Fishcakes," is mentioned, though credited to "James Henderson." Fone is reluctant to pursue Davidson's bold claim that the Greeks did not "see a gulf between a desire to penetrate and a desire to be penetrated." He merely calls the idea "intriguing."


Early Christians reacted angrily to the Hellenic example, concentrating their fire on its sanctioning of pedophilic and ephebophilic relations (the first with pre-pubescents; the second with older adolescents). In this period, Fone draws heavily upon the late John Boswell's still indispensable "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality" (1980). As Boswell first showed, in the second century, Clementine of Alexandria warned against "fruitless sowings" of the seed and was the first to invoke natural--that is, procreative--law. Nature, Clementine argued, "should be obeyed, who discourages [such things] through an arrangement of the [body] parts which make the male not for receiving the seed but for sowing it."

Clementine's ideas set the tone for both ethical and aesthetic hostility to same-sex relations for the next 1,800 years. They also underlined the strong ongoing link in popular thought between the identity of the pervert or sodomite and the dangers of behavior deemed inappropriate to one's gender. Sodomites, Clementine insisted, could be identified by an untoward lack of facial hair or by effeminate conduct: "He who disowns his manhood by day will surely be shown to play the woman at night." The depravity of homosexuality would henceforth be considered starkest in those men who allowed themselves to be sexually taken by other men and so conquered by lust itself.

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