Monday, June 16, 2014

Same-Sex Desires: "Immanent and Essential Traits Transcending Time and Culture"


The Wild Reed series celebrating Gay Pride Month, or, as I like to think of it, Queer Appreciation Month, continues with an excerpt from Gay Life and Culture: A World History. (To start at the beginning of this series, click here.)

Edited by Robert Aldrich, Professor of European History at the University of Sydney, Gay Life and Culture provides a comprehensive overview of the long history out of which today's rich and varied queer cultures have emerged. The following excerpt is from chapter one, "Gay and Lesbian History."

Since time immemorial and throughout the world, some men and women have felt a desire for emotional and physical intimacy with those of the same sex.

. . . The epic Gilgamesh – the earliest complete version of which dates from 1700 BCE – recounts the adventures of a mythical king who, as foreshadowed in a dream, meets a wild man, Enkidu, whom he comes to "love as a wife." The ancient Greek and Judaeo-Christian traditions, the foundations of Western culture, also provide tales of the bonding of bodies and souls.

Homer's Iliad describes the companionship of Achilles and Patroclus in the context of the Trojan War, traditionally dated to the early 12th century BCE, while Sappho, the lyric poet of the 6th century BCE, charts the pangs of female-female love so movingly that her home island, Lesbos, has provided the term "lesbianism." The ancient Greeks world famously celebrated relations between males, seeing the love of beauty (as vaunted by Plato in his Symposium) as an initiation into philosophy.

Although Judaism condemned sodomy, the Jewish scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) provided examples of women-centred women and of men passionate for their fellows, including the Israelite Naomi and her widowed daughter-in-law, Ruth, and the shepherd-turned-giant-killer David, who was befriended by Jonathan, son of King Saul. This, Oscar Wilde remarked almost three thousand years later, exemplified "the love that dare not speak its name."

A world away from Greece and Judaea is a Chinese story told in the 3rd century BCE of the friendship between Duke Ling of Wei, a contemporary of Confucius, and his favourite, Mizi Xia. Because the young man famously offered a peach to his friend as they walked through an orchard, rather than eating it himself, the "love of the shared peach" became a description for homosexual intimacy for centuries to come. Meanwhile, in India, the epic Mahabharata (probably composed from c. 200 BCE) chronicled the friendship between Krishna and Arjuna as the force propelling them to immortality.

In the ancient world, therefore, intimate partnerships between men and between women were recorded and celebrated; they were situated in heroic legends and real-life friendships, seen a part of the culture of the gymnasium or of the court, and even led the way, according to some cultures, to philosophical and spiritual enlightenment. This suggested to many later observers, such as Wilde in his reading of the Bible, scholars translating Greek poets, or lesbians reading Sappho, that physical and emotional desires for those of the same sex were immanent and essential traits transcending time and culture. However, most historians now emphasize the fact that these basic yearnings have been expressed in various ways, including all sorts of affection and companionship, but also different types of sexual intercourse. Often those who have felt these passions have cohabited with partners, formed networks and cultures of sociability and solidarity, and occasionally engaged in political activism to promote or defend their sentiments.

In some societies same-sex behaviours and attitudes have been generally accepted, even honoured. In other times and places they have been considered reprobate, branded sinful and immoral; legislators have made same-sex acts illegal, while doctors have diagnosed and treated same-sex desires as illnesses. The wide range of sexual feelings – and different societies' reactions to the ways in which they are expressed – serve as a reminder of the inherently unstable nature of both sexuality and social mores.

– Robert Aldrich
Excerpted from Gay Life and Culture: A World History
Thames and Hudson, 2006
pp. 1-2

Related Off-site Links:
Love, Historically: Artist Ryan Grant Long's History of Gay Love – Christopher Harrity (The Advocate, May 2013).
Artist Paints History’s Gay Couples: Interview with Ryan Grant Long – Kittredge Cherry (Jesus in Love Blog, December 7, 2011).
Ruth and Naomi: "Whither Thou Goest, I Will Go" – Kittredge Cherry (Jesus in Love Blog, November 4, 2012).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
North America: Perhaps Once the "Queerest Continent on the Planet"
John Corvino on the "Always and Everywhere" Argument Against Gay Marriage
Parvez Sharma on Islam and Homosexuality
Manly Love
Michelangelo: Gifted Artist, Lover of Male Beauty, and Secret Reformer of the Church
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
Alexander's Great Love
The Bible and Homosexuality
The Song of Songs: The Bible's Gay Love Poem
Jesus and the Centurion (Part 1)
Jesus and the Centurion (Part 2)
Sergus and Bacchus: Martyrs, Saints, Lovers
Honoring (and Learning from) the Passion of Saints Sergius and Bacchus
Polyeuct and Nearchus: "Brothers by Affection"
Boris and George

Image 1: Frontispiece of A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep: "Then I knew my Soul stood before me, and he and I went forth together. . ." by Simeon Solomon, c. 1871.
Image 2: Cover of Gay Life and Culture featuring a detail of "Women's Pub" by Rudolf Schlichter, c. 1925.
Image 3: Detail from a cup by the Sosias Painter showing Achilles binding Patroclus' wounds, c. 500 BCE.
Image 4: "Ruth's Wise Choice," a Bible card by the Providence Lithograph Company, 1907.
Image 5: "Emperor Ai of Han + Dong Xia" by Ryan Grant Long. Writes Long: "
Legend has it that one day, while the two men were sleeping in the same bed, the Emperor was roused from his slumber by pressing business. Dong Xian had fallen asleep across the Emperor’s robe, but rather than awaken his peaceful lover, the Emperor cut his robe free at the sleeve. Thus, 'the passion of the cut sleeve' became a euphemism for same-sex love in China."
Image 6: Krisha and Arjuna (artist unknown).
Image 7: "Mahmud of Ghazni and Malik Ayaz" by Ryan Grant Long. Writes Long: "Mahmud of Ghazni founded the Ghaznavid Empire and ruled as a sultan. He fell in love with Malik Ayaz, a Turkish slave, and their relationship became the epitome of idealized love in Islamic legend and Sufi literature. As the story goes, Ayaz asked Mahmud who the most powerful man in the kingdom was. When the sultan replied that it was himself, Ayaz corrected him, claiming that in fact Ayaz was the most powerful, since Mahmud was his slave. The "slave to a slave" became a favorite trope in Persian literature."
Image 8: "Men Dressed for Dancing in Tahiti" (1887), photographer unknown.
Image 9: "Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene" by Simeon Solomon, c. 1864.

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