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The history of a love that dares speak its name

Homosexuality and Civilization; Louis Crompton; The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press: 640 pp., $35 / Toward Stonewall: Homosexuality and Society in the Modern Western World; Nicholas C. Edsall; University of Virginia Press: 384 pp., $45 / Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality; Jonathan Ned Katz; University of Chicago Press: 426 pp., $20 / Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century; Graham Robb; W.W. Norton: 352 pp., $27.95 forthcoming / Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985; James McCourt; W.W. Norton: 416 pp., $27.95 / Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography; John lbson; Smithsonian: 238 pp., $32.95 / The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall; Edited by Terry Castle; Columbia University Press: 1,100 pp., $45

November 30, 2003|Edmund White | Edmund White is the author of numerous books, including "Fanny: A Fiction," "Genet: A Biography" and "States of Desire: Travels in Gay America."

Homosexuality is the most obvious and often-practiced erotic alternative to heterosexuality and the one, because it shades into friendship and rivalry, fealty and rebellion, that calls on an extraordinarily wide range of human sentiments and institutions. In the 20th century, it became a theme that haunted most of the best writers of fiction: D.H. Lawrence and Andre Gide, Jean Genet and Marcel Proust, Christopher Isherwood and Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather. Whether thought of as a literary theme or as a social force, homosexuality is the reverse side of the tapestry, and the design can best be made out in its scrambled threads. So interesting is it as a subject for novelists and historians that a library of books about homosexuality has accumulated in the last 25 years. This season more compelling volumes have arrived, deepening our sense of the historical trajectory -- and complications -- of human sexuality, as well as the history of human intolerance.

Homophobia, though gradually receding, can be exacerbated when gays are seen to be invading the basic institutions of our society, including marriage and adoption. Gay marriage will undoubtedly be the most discussed social issue in the upcoming presidential election. The recent decision by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts that denying homosexual couples the right to marriage violates the state constitution has alarmed the Christian right and its conservative allies, among others.

This is hardly surprising since Christianity, it turns out, has long been homosexuality's great enemy. For the 600 or 700 years before the political triumph of Christianity, the classical world of Greece and Rome honored love between males as being superior to heterosexuality. Indeed (as Louis Crompton points out in his brilliantly researched "Homosexuality and Civilization") Plutarch made a splash in the 2nd century arguing in the "Eroticus" that conjugal love is preferable to the love of boys.

"Plutarch has from the first presented himself as a defender of conjugal love," Crompton says. "But his panegyric is in fact a paradox. Since he chooses to draw on episodes from traditional Greek history and myth and the commonplaces of popular opinion, the vast majority of his examples are inevitably homosexual. Whereas the first part of the 'Eroticus' accorded equal time to two differing points of view, and though Plutarch will later defend matrimony, heterosexuality assumes a distinctly minor role in the panegyric. So strong was Greek tradition that to reconstruct the idea of love on a primarily heterosexual basis would have been extremely difficult, even at the end of antiquity, and Plutarch does not try. Nothing could be more revealing of the prestige male love still held in late Hellenic culture."

About 150 years later the "Amores" attributed to Lucian takes up once more the debate between the defenders of women and the defenders of boys. One of the heterosexual apologists argues that homosexuality threatens the survival of the race and is unnatural since it is not to be found in the animal kingdom. The defender of pederasty replies that in the early days of civilization men were struggling to subsist and did not yet know "the proper way to live." The love of males -- "the privilege only of philosophy" -- is not to be found among other animals because it is a gift of humanity: "Lions do not have such a love, because they are not philosophers either. Bears have no such love, because they are ignorant of the beauty that comes from friendship." (Interestingly, a book published in 1999, Bruce Bagemihl's "Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity," establishes that homosexuality is found in more than 450 species.)

The classical preference for pederasty vanished with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity. Suddenly the polite debates about boy love versus heterosexuality were replaced by legal persecutions of homosexuals. Constantine's own sons passed stringent laws against sodomy, and these were codified and expanded under the Emperor Justinian. As Edward Gibbon wrote in the 18th century, "Justinian declared himself the implacable enemy of unmanly lust and the cruelty of his persecution can scarcely be excused by the purity of his motives.... " Men -- even bishops -- accused of sodomy had their penises removed and were paraded naked in the streets.

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