Periods in History When Homosexuality Was… I

Here is your quick lesson on homosexuality throughout History

By David Sharp

What can we learn from homosexuality through history? With all the progress the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement has made in recent years, many see acceptance as the way of the future and homophobia as a marker of the past. The problem with this is that it paints all historical people with the same intolerant brush. While it’s true queer people through the course of history have been marginalized and oppressed in many cultures, there were many places and times in history when being gay was celebrated, or at least understood as a normal part of life.

The recorded history of homosexuality is rather short. The binary of “straight” and “gay” is a newly recorded and talked about concept. Before the introduction of intolerant religious moral codes, most pre-colonial societies had more fluid concepts of gender roles. As long as there have been humans, there have been same-gender relationships. Some societies have just been better about embracing that than others. Here’s a quick lesson on homosexuality throughout history.

The Isle of Lesbos, 600 BCE

In spite of considerable documentation about homosexuality in Ancient Greece Female-female relationships are largely undocumented in ancient Greece, with one significant exception.

Lesbos is a small island in the Aegean Sea (whose residents are indeed called “Lesbians”) and is known as the home of Sappho. Sappho is the lyric poet who wrote a number of passionate odes to female-female relationships. While the vast majority of Sappho’s work has been lost to history, her one complete surviving poem is “Ode to Aphrodite” (also known as “Hymn to Aphrodite”), a prayer to the goddess of love from an unnamed speaker who desperately seeks the affections of a young woman. While there has been much debate about whether Sappho herself was actually attracted women, many have deemed her an international symbol for LGBTQ+ individuals.

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All of this history of homosexuality has turned Lesbos into a popular tourist destination for queer travelers over the years. It has, in turn, had the effect of turning Lesbos back into a lesbian haven. While there has been some minimal push-back from the locals, LGBTQ+ tourism has been taking place since the 1970s.


Square Cuts

Ancient Greece, 500-400 BCE

There is considerable documentation surrounding homosexuality in ancient Greece. 

The most documentation and debate revolves around the practice of paiderastia, or pederasty. In modern connotations, that word refers to sexual relations between a grown man and an underage boy. The Greeks attached no such moral judgements to the word and used it instead as a descriptor of the wide-spread, legal, and socially sanctioned practice of mentor-ship. Mentor-ship that involved the mentor (or erastes) taking liberties with the mentee (the eromenos), which the mentee may or may not have consented to. Adult, consensual intercourse between two male partners, on the other hand, was frowned upon. Plato once wrote of homosexual relations that it was “utterly unholy” and “the ugliest of things.”

Ancient Greece itself was similarly divided. Especially when considering there was no unified “Ancient Greece.” It was rather a loose collection of city-states. They were in a similar geographic region that shared some similarities and some cavernous differences. In Sparta, for example, pederasty between young and senior officials in the military was thought to be particularly prevalent.

Instrumental in the victory for Greece was a group of soldiers known as the Sacred Band of Thebes. A legion of soldiers composed entirely of men that were partnered with each other. The legend is their deep love for their fellow soldiers led them to fight tenaciously and unselfishly. Fiercely protecting their mates in battle. 

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After the Romans conquered the Greeks in 146 BCE, the acceptance of homosexual lifestyles in society began to erode. Despite the prevalence of male prostitutes and slaves among the Roman rulers and nobles, laws prohibiting passive anal sex between men were put in place. And then the empire converted to Christianity — which reinforced homophobia.

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