Homosexuality in History

Edited from
Encyclopedia of Religion
Second Edition
by Lindsay Jones (Editor)

Sexual activity between persons of the same sex is known from many places far and near throughout history. Because the word homosexuality derives from the Greek homos, meaning "same," and not from the Latin homo, meaning "man," the term refers both to sex between males and sex between females, though in practice lesbianism is used to refer to sexual relations between females. The image of homosexuality has a special history in the social, medical, and religious discourse of Western culture. This image equates the sexual behavior, personal identity, and sociosexual orientation of a person, often under a negative rubric. Other cultures, however, do not make this equation. Thus to say that someone engages in homosexual activity is different from saying he or she is "homosexual." Moreover, since about the eleventh century CE homosexuality has been seen as antithetical to Western ideas of church, family, and state; this attitude generally reflects a traditional Judeo-Christian cosmology. Homosexual relations in religious contexts outside the Western tradition have a wider meaning.

It has been argued both that homosexuality is universal and, to the contrary, that it is culture-bound to certain societies or historical periods. Part of this controversy depends upon how homosexuality is defined. Victorian scholars such as Krafft-Ebing suggested that homosexuality as an essence indicated nervous degeneracy that produced an inversion of innate instincts. Others, such as Havelock Ellis, saw it differently; and Freud believed that it was "remarkably widespread" in simple societies, because "all human beings are capable of making a homosexual object-choice" based upon bisexual potential and social experience (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, New York, 1962, pp. 5–11). The ancient Greeks were an especially puzzling case, as Jeremy Bentham noted, to Victorian scholars, who admired their beautiful art and their accomplishments in literature and philosophy but who detested their customary homosexuality.

Modern research has confirmed Freud's view that homosexual activity occurs in many simple societies. In a classic comparative study of sexual behavior patterns, Ford and Beach (1951) found that homosexual activity was considered socially acceptable and normative for certain people in 64 percent of the seventy-six societies studied. Moreover, institutionalized homosexuality is known among peoples from parts of Africa and Asia, among North and South American Indian tribes, among peoples on the islands of the Pacific, including New Guinea, and among the Australian Aborigines; it occurs as a religious theme in the ancient world among the Greeks (especially the Dorians and the Spartans), the Celts, and the Romans, in ancient Arabia and Islamic fringe areas, in feudal Japan, in ancient China and Indochina, and in selected Indo-European traditions. Here, religious-or, to be more precise, ritual-homosexuality occurs in relation to phallic cults and fertility symbolism, mythology, and ideas about spirit, seed, and soul, particularly as they concern the creation of the cosmos and maleness in humankind. In some societies, however, same-sex relationships are disliked or defined as taboo; certainly ritual homosexuality is not universal. An analysis of cross-cultural sexual variations does show that in the cultural traditions listed above homosexuality plays a role in respect to the experience of the sacred.

It has been demonstrated that there are three forms of the cultural structuring of homosexual activities and organization the world over: (1) age-structured homosexuality, in which people of the same sex but of different ages are sexually involved; (2) gender-reversed homosexuality, wherein a person adopts the dress, mannerisms, and sexual activities of the opposite sex; and (3) role-specialized homosexuality, in which a person, by virtue of his or her social or religious role, is entitled to engage in homosexual activity. In simple societies these forms usually do not occur together but are mutually exclusive. As described below, most cross-cultural examples of these forms concern only male homosexuality; institutionalized female homosexuality is rare. Contrary to popular Western thought, the first type-age-structured homosexual behavior-seems the most frequent. These social types can be studied in different ways, each of which provides a somewhat different interpretation. A focus on overt homosexual behavior, for instance, may reveal little about the experience or identities of the persons involved. But it is clear that such ritual homosexual forms do not create the lifelong, habitualized identity that in the West is labelled "the homosexual." Nor do non-Western homosexual customs necessarily indicate the sexual orientation of the persons involved, because participants in the age-structured type later marry, have children, and may or may not engage in extramarital homosexual relations. The exact causes of these homosexual forms are still unknown. Moreover, to ask what causes these types of homosexuality is very different from understanding how they function or affect individuals and societies. This article shall here examine the latter dimension, on which reliable information exists.

AGE-STRUCTURED HOMOSEXUALITY. The most common form of ritual homosexuality is organized through customary sexual relationships between older and younger males. In some cultures the practice is obligatory and universal for all males, usually early in the life cycle and, for the junior partner, before marriage. Age-organized homosexuality is associated with militarized societies as well. Ritual and ceremonial practices frequently provide a social basis for it, thus linking sexuality and religion, though this association is by no means true of all the relevant examples.

Of all age-structured systems, that of the ancient Greeks, the West's cultural ancestors, is the most famous. In the Hellenic world homosexuality is known among the militaristic Dorians at least as early as 800 BCE. Senior and junior males engaged in homosexual relationships as a part of masculine development. Among the Dorians on Crete, Ephoros describes the experience as an initiation that begins with a ritual capture (harpage) of a boy by his lover; the community acknowledged this by gift giving and feasting, recalling the myths of the pederastic captures of Chrysippus by Laius and of Ganymede by Zeus (see Bremmer, 1980, p. 285). Early Greek homosexuality was fundamentally related to the concept of arete, which in Homer's time meant "warlike prowess." Arete implied masculine valor, beauty, and nobility, symbolized, on the earthly plane, by the heroic strength of warrior and athlete, by the spirit and speed of horses, and, on the spiritual plane, by the power of the gods (Jaeger, 1945). Male lovers were known as eromenos ("boy, beloved") and erastes ("senior, lover"). The ideal was for the senior to transmit the noble qualities of arete to his junior through teaching, love, and sex, the senior receiving sexual pleasure.

The military aspect of Hellenic homosexuality is widely noted. Some scholars feel it has been exaggerated (Hoffman, 1980); certainly it changed over time. The Thebans and Spartans were said to have taken boy lovers with them as comrades and bedmates. The youths in turn learned warrior values and the military arts. The Theban military corps known as the Sacred Band was said to derive its strength from the homoerotic unity of male warrior couples. Many ancient texts tell celebrated stories of how male lovers overthrew tyrants and defeated invaders. And Plutarch says that "an army consisting of lovers and their beloved ones, fighting at each other's side, although a mere handful, would overcome the whole world" (Westermarck, 1917, vol. 2, p. 479). In Classical Attic culture, however, the educational and social dimensions of homosexual love were stressed over the military aspect (Dover, 1978).

What did male love mean to the ancient Greeks? The subject has long been a source of controversy, for the ancients have only their texts and art to speak for them. While homosexuality was not directly supported by Greek religion, the polymorphous sexuality of the Greek gods-Zeus himself, for instance, engaged in homosexual love capture, and Aphrodite served as patroness of both heterosexual and homosexual love-is noteworthy. Perhaps polytheism in Greece and in non-Western cultures contributed to the acceptance of homosexuality.

Certainly there is no question that the widely known figures of Greek philosophy, the teacher Socrates and his students Plato and Xenophon, among others, engaged in homosexual relationships as a part of the educational process. The teacher transmitted the noble qualities of arete, knowledge, and virtue in the context of homoerotic love with his students (Dover, 1978). In the Hellenic world, an act could be described as homosexual or heterosexual, but not a person-a view markedly in contrast with the modern one. This was no doubt complemented by the sexual segregation and the taboo on adultery among the Greeks. Still, homosexuality was frowned upon between peers (except with slaves, as among the Romans), and the eromenos went on to marry, father children, and play the role of erastes, which strove toward honor and beauty, "the very heart of the Greek view of life" (Jaeger, 1945, p. 13).

Plutarch reports that in Sparta, at least, noblewomen loved girls as well. There, female initiation involved agestructured lesbian relationships like those of males. The writings of Sappho suggest a similar ritual background.

Age-asymmetric homosexuality was also known in ancient Rome, though the Roman attitude toward it was more ambivalent. The Romans drew upon and emulated Greek culture in many ways, and Livy reports male homosexual intercourse as a part of Bacchic rites in the early Roman Republic. Homosexuality among nobles seems to have elicited a mixed reaction among Romans. Most Romans focused upon the negative character of effeminacy, seduction, and prostitution among those who engaged in homosexual activity, consistent with their patriarchal culture and imperialistic worldview. Nonetheless, there was probably no law against homosexuality until late in the Roman Empire. The masculine senior role in homosexual relationships was widely regarded and honorable; one need only recall the emperor Hadrian's unending devotion to his dead male lover, the Greek youth Antinous, as a renowned expression of erotic fidelity. The complexity of the Roman response to homosexuality may have to do with many and diverse influences, which, through Roman conquests, trade, and the advent of Christianity, introduced heterogeneous standards into Roman culture and cosmology.

Age-structured homosexuality appears as a more general theme in various Indo-European traditions from which historical evidence has survived. Most sources suggest that the Celts practiced ritual pederasty, whereas the Irish and Welsh probably did not (see Bremmer, 1980, p. 288). Obligatory homosexuality existed in ancient Germany and Albania and was no doubt linked to their warrior traditions. Here again, age-structured homoeroticism belonged to a transitional period before adulthood, young men engaging in anal intercourse with boys. Because these peoples strongly condemned passive homosexuality in adults (as did the Greeks and Romans), it is reasonable to conclude that whereas for boys the passive role was required, honorable, and masculine, for adults it was dishonorable and despised.

The evidence indicates that homosexuality was broadly accepted and known from the Near East and Mediterranean in biblical times. Homosexual prostitution was known in ritual cults of Mesopotamia and Canaan. Mesopotamian law codes do not mention homosexuality. The Hittite code prohibits only father-son incest, and the Middle Assyrian code forbids only homosexual rape. In the Hebrew scriptures only Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 generally prohibit male homosexuality. It has been argued that negative attitudes toward homosexuality, however, did not take hold until late antiquity. Both Hebrew and Christian dualistic oppositions between good and evil, spirit and flesh, male and female promulgated an ascetic ethos, which repudiated pleasure of all kinds as detrimental to salvation and spirituality. Early Christianity assimilated a view that opposed all sexual pleasure and was generally antagonistic to homosexuality (Greenberg and Bystryn, 1982). Following this, church doctrine was ambiguous regarding homosexuality until about the eleventh century CE; thereafter, ecclesiastical law and centralization of the church in the context of European state formation increasingly restricted and criminalized homosexual contact.

Islamic societies held a different and more tolerant, informal attitude toward homosexuality. Indeed, Sufis saw homosexual relations as an expression of the spiritual link between man and God. Some authorities suggest that Islamic ideas influenced the biblical practice of oath taking on the father's penis. They point to Genesis 47:29–31, wherein Jacob, on his deathbed, makes his son Joseph swear he will remove him from Egypt, pledging loyalty by touching Jacob's penis. This practice may have been a symbolic survival of noble homosexuality in ancient Arabia that involved a primitive rite of transference of male force, from a powerful adult warrior to a younger recruit homoerotically attached to him in order to acquire military and civic education. The same authorities compare the practice to Dorian homosexuality. Modern examples of male homosexuality are known from North Africa and Morocco, and female homosexuality is reported in harems of certain Muslim societies around the world. Age-structured homosexuality of the ancient Arabian form has been reported in modern times in the Oasis of Siwa.

Love between men in ancient China was seen as an alternate erotic expression not antagonistic to the family or to heterosexual marriage. In some respects the dualistic cosmology of the ancient Chinese, with the principles of yin and yang, was neutralized in the homosexual act. Homosexual love appears to have reached a popular high point in the Han dynasty, when the emperor Aidi cut off the sleeve of his robe when called to court audience rather than awaken his male lover; after this, in Chinese literature, homosexuality was known as "the love of the cut sleeve." Many similar stories are found in feudal Japanese literature.

Age-structured homosexuality was prevalent and esteemed in the militarized feudal order of Japan up to the beginning of the Meiji era (1868). Some of the great shoguns and samurai kept male lovers to provide emotional and sexual support. The youth in this role was esteemed and was given a secure position in the feudal hierarchy. In the seventeenth-century Japanese novelist Saikaku Ihara's book Comrade Loves of the Samurai (Tokyo, 1972), are found romantic tales of how samurai sons were urged by their families to form homoerotic alliances with warriors that matured into lifelong companionships, alongside their marriages. The Japanese attitude toward women was similar to that of the ancient Greeks: Women were to be married and produce heirs, whereas boys were for pleasure and companionship. "Samurai warriors would select a particular youth as a favorite and like the Homeric Greeks, a samurai would keep a particular lover by his side during battle" (George DeVos, Socialization for Achievement, Berkeley, Calif., 1973, p. 269). Because of this homoerotic interest, both male and female houses of prostitution were known in feudal Japan, though the male inmates were probably not boys of noble or samurai birth. The Kabuki theater of Japan is said to have originated from a shogun's preference for male performers.

The Azande of Africa also practiced an age-structured kind of "military homosexuality." The king's household contained hundreds of wives and some boys, all of whom were "married" to him. Young warriors married boys, and a commander could have more than one "boy-wife." When they married, the boy was given spears by his lover; warrior and boy addressed each other as "my love" and "my lover." They traveled together, and the boy kept the senior's household in order. When he matured, the warrior gave him bridewealth so he could marry in turn and take boy lovers of his own. The example of the Azande suggests that asymmetric homosexuality flourished in a situation in which few females were available for marriage because of polygyny, complexity of marriage arrangements, and warrior segregation (themes also present in Pacific island societies).

The most recent and detailed studies of age-structured homosexuality come from Melanesia, a culture area in which the ancient influence of phallic cults and initiation rites provides striking parallels with the warrior homosexual ethos noted elsewhere. It has been demonstrated that between 10 and 20 percent of all Melanesian societies, ranging from Fiji and New Caledonia to Malekula Island in Vanuatu and other off-lying islands and lowland areas of New Guinea, practiced ritualized male homosexuality; in the Papuan Gulf region of New Guinea it was universal. Moreover, various Australian Aboriginal tribes, especially those of the Kimberleys and central desert area, had similar customs. The current evidence indicates that these traditions resulted from an ancient migration of peoples into the area around Melanesia some thousands of years ago.

In these societies ritual initiation customs placed homosexuality in a highly structured socioreligious context. The adjective ritualized applies best to the Melanesian situation because (1) homosexual practices were implemented through male initiation rites (2) that had sacred significance for society and the individual, (3) the cultural rules and social roles of which were supported by the wider moral-jural force of society or of a secret men's society, (4) which prescribed sexual intercourse between senior and junior males based upon social and kinship taboos. Typically, Melanesian homosexual contact made older adolescent or married men the dominant partners and prepubescent or adolescent boys the passive partners. In most groups age-asymmetric homosexuality was obligatory for all males. It was by nature a transitional sociosexual form that masculinized boys, making them into mature men who eventually married. However, in certain societies, such as the Malekula, the Marind-anim of southwest New Guinea, and the Ingiet secret society (of New Britain), older men were expected to be dominant inseminators of boys, even though they were married and could be grandfathers. In such societies, then, it is appropriate to speak of a pervasive bisexual orientation in the male life cycle.

The military character of Melanesian homosexuality was elaborate and should be underlined. Virtually all of the relevant cultures were caught in a web of intensive and constant Stone Age warfare. Their phallic cults and secret societies not only promoted fertility but constituted the warriorhoods that defended the community and raided neighboring tribes. Initiation into the men's club thus meant entry into military life. Women and children were excluded from secret cult activities, as would be expected in the extreme form of patrilineal culture found there. Phallic worship was omnipresent. John Layard in Stone Men of Malekula (London, 1942, p. 489) states that in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) the penis is held in "high esteem" and the glans penis is accorded "extreme reverence"; elsewhere he refers to these groups as "male admiring societies."

Melanesian homosexual rites involved the transmission of male power by physical means, anal or oral insemination strengthening a boy's penis, body, and masculine character. Little wonder that Arnold van Gennep, in his classic Les rites de passage (Chicago, 1960, pp. 169–171), refers to coitus as a rite of great efficacy, and to homosexual insemination as a final ceremony of incorporation into these male cultures. Such rites should be seen in the broader context of customs that effect boys' submission to the sacred authority of gods and elders. For the Marind-anim, ritual homosexuality was bound up with daring headhunting raids into distant enemy groups; for the Keraki of Papua and the Sambia of the Papuan fringe, the attainment of manhood required participation in war raids, followed by serving as dominant homosexual partners for initiated boys. Homosexuality thus went hand in hand with military training and socialization into the masculine role.

Sexual antagonism is a prominent theme in these Melanesian tribes; some sexual segregation of men and women occurred in all of them. Institutionalized secrecy was supported by ritual sound-producing instruments, such as sacred flutes and bull-roarers, that both protected the cult and symbolized its power over others, thus serving as symbols of male religious orthodoxy. The secret significance of these instruments has been shown to stem from heterosexual hostility and segregation and from men's envious imitation of women's procreative powers. In this context the Dutch authority Jan van Baal goes so far as to refer to Marind-anim homosexuality as the "dark secret" of a phallic religion. Women often were perceived by men as fertile, polluting, and depleting of male life force. Strict taboos on adultery, menstruation, childbirth, and virginity were common. Marriage practices were political arrangements without much freedom of choice. Sister exchange and bride-wealth marriage customs created alliances between clan groups or villages and enemy groups. It has been found that senior men were expected or allowed to inseminate their wives' younger brothers (i.e., their brothers-in-law) in tandem with impregnating their wives. Polygyny and a shortage of women, too, made institutionalized homosexuality a pragmatic sexual outlet for unmarried mature males. Among the Big Nambas tribe of Vanuatu, it reached an extreme form, in which chiefs were said to exercise a monopoly over females as wives and over boys as lovers, some chiefs becoming so attached to boys that they preferred them to their wives. It is notable that Vanuatu is the only Melanesian area in which institutionalized lesbianism is known.

In the Melanesian world, ritual in general and homosexual rites in particular drew a special boundary between the sacred and profane arenas of culture. The belief system underlying the differences between male and female development must be noted. Females were widely perceived to be "naturally" fast-growing, fertile, and reproductively competent, males slow to grow and not "naturally" fertile or reproductively competent. Here semen and menstrual blood were antithetical; groups such as the Sambia believed they must eradicate "female blood" from boys and then inseminate them through homosexual intercourse in order for them to attain manhood. Thus, women naturally procreated, and men used ceremonies to create spiritually and symbolically "reborn" boys. Insemination thus placed boys in the sacred realm, and initiation created a years-long liminal phase of development ultimately leading to the profane and sexually dangerous adult experience of heterosexual marriage.

This dichotomy sheds light on a puzzling bifurcated pattern of homosexuality in Melanesia. Are homosexual relations "real" or "mythical," in Layard's terms? In the vast majority of these societies it has been found that actual homosexual activity occurs for years, as noted. In a small number of societies, however, actual homosexual intercourse may or may not occur, may occur only once, as among the Ingiet cult, or may occur only as a theme in social consciousness or mythology. In most groups, homosexual penetration and submission stress a stronger relationship to the sacred; those cultures that de-emphasize it place homosexuality closer to the profane arena. An intermediate example is the Kaluli of New Guinea, for whom homosexuality was voluntary rather than obligatory, and who stressed symbolic marriage to female spirits as a transition into actual heterosexual relations later (Schieffelin, in Herdt, 1982). Thus the Kaluli saw homosexuality as a profane counterpart to heterosexuality, which was, for them, socially and spiritually higher.

Many scholars have noted the similarities between age-structured homosexual organizations the world over. The comparison of the ancient Greeks and Melanesians is widely cited and seems appropriate, in spite of the cultural differences between their worlds. The Melanesian systems are more closely like those of lowland Amazon tribes, wherein ritualized homosexuality, warfare, and sexual antagonism are also prominent. Yet, Jane Harrison's idea (in Themis, New York, 1961) that among the Greeks and primitive peoples, initiations transform boys from a "woman thing" into a "man thing" seems to be borne out. The trend of agestructured homosexuality everywhere was to promote and accomplish the masculinization of boys.

GENDER-REVERSED HOMOSEXUALITY. A different social form is based on the adoption of the gender role, dress, and mannerisms of the opposite sex, leading to a different type of homosexual contact. Sometimes this is referred to as institutionalized transvestism, or cross-dressing. It has been found to occur in selected indigenous societies of North and South America, island Polynesia, and Southeast Asia, and among preliterate and peasant groups in mainland Asia and Africa. Gender-reversed homosexuality is associated, although not exclusively, with shamanism as a religious institution. Though the phenomenon is reported in both sexes, male examples are more frequent in the literature. Usually this form exists in societies where it is believed that a small number of individuals in each generation aspire to the gender role of the opposite sex. Gender reversal usually begins in childhood, has recognized customs associated with it, and is acknowledged by the society.

Gender-reversed homosexuality is inextricably linked with symbols of sexual ambiguity in many cultures. Role and erotic inversion here make this symbolic association understandable. If blurring of the genders is present in the cosmology of a society, gender reversal can be expected in socioreligious practice. In the Greek pantheon, for instance, Athena and Dionysos were born of Zeus, blurring on the cosmic plane the boundary between male and female reproduction. In India, Shiva reproduced by spilling his sperm, and Samba, the divine son of Krishna, not only engaged in homosexuality but also dressed as a woman to seduce the wives of other gods. Likewise, the hijada role provides a contemporary example of actual gender reversal in Northwest India. Males in this role wear women's clothes, beg alms, and perform as women in ceremonies, though it is unclear whether they engage in homosexual activity. Other examples from ancient and modern times reveal the same link between cosmic sexual ambiguity and actual gender reversal (Carrier, 1980; Hoffman, 1984).

The institution of the berdache (from the Arabic word bardaj, meaning a boy slave kept for erotic purposes) is perhaps the best-known anthropological example of gender-reversed homosexuality. Some 115 North American Indian tribes had this traditional role. Most of these groups were hunters and gatherers, some of which permitted a surprising degree of sexual equality. Among the Plains Indians, warfare was also common. Though the male-to-female form of gender reversal is most famous, some 35 of these cultures also recognized female berdaches, who as girls acted and dressed as boys. Three signs indicated that a person could become berdache: preference for occupations of the opposite sex, the adoption of dress and mannerisms indicative of the other sex, and the choice of same-sexed persons as sexual partners. Some berdaches became ritual experts and shamans, and cases are reported of female berdaches who were skilled hunters and great warriors. Few berdaches were biologically abnormal or hermaphroditic. These societies both recognized and legitimized the berdache "calling," which occurred usually in childhood or by vision-quest experiences in adolescence. Berdaches could marry, adopt children, acquire property, and generally participate in most aspects of tribal life. Hostility to the institution of berdache by white settlers and missionaries resulted in the abandonment of the role by the late nineteenth century, though a recent report suggests the survival of acculturated berdaches in some places.

The ranked societies of Polynesia, Tahiti in particular, are associated with gender-reversed homosexual organization. The role of the mahu in Tahiti has been reported in depth, and the cross-dressing and feminization of mahu males appear very similar to those of the berdache. Female mahu are also historically reported. In modern times community response to the mahu has varied, with approval of gender-role reversal but disapproval of homosexual behavior. Religious activity seems unrelated to the role.

The obvious sociosexual trend of gender-reversed homosexuality for males is feminization; this is in marked contrast to the age-structured form. Moreover, these traditional gender-reversed roles suggest a lifelong pattern of exclusive homosexual activity, a pattern also at variance with those developed where the age-structured type is practiced. It should be noted that among Melanesian societies, cross-gender and transvestite behavior are very rare (Herdt, 1984), as was true for the ancient Greeks and others. Hermann Baumann (1955) was perhaps the first scholar to recognize that the agestructured masculinizing form of homosexuality is fundamentally different from the feminizing gender-reversed type found elsewhere. Moreover, he demonstrated that the masculinizing role should not be equated with the androgyne figure in myth or ritual.

ROLE-SPECIALIZED HOMOSEXUALITY. The third form of homosexual organization is based solely on the entitlements of a status or role not widely held in a culture. Thus, for example, the person who became a shaman among the Chukchi tribe of Siberia was entitled by supernatural intervention to reverse gender roles and to engage in homosexual behavior, though this was disapproved for others in the society. Here one must consider the element of what Mircea Eliade calls "divine bisexuality," the idea that a special role-usually religious-"is fraught with sacredness" (Birth and Rebirth, New York, 1958, p. 25). In simple societies this is different from the obligatory involvement in age-structured homosexuality for all males and from individual expression of gender reversal for selected people noted above. However, examples also show that role-specialized homosexuality in complex societies diverges from a purely religious basis to encompass wider meanings. Because some complex examples do not involve gender reversal, moreover, it is important to avoid confusing the categories of gender-reversed and role-specialized homosexuality.

In ancient societies numerous examples of role-specialized homosexuality drew their support from the religiosity of divine bisexuality. Male and female temple prostitutes who engaged in homosexual activity under the protection of religious cults in Mesopotamia and Canaan are relevant. In the Roman world Semitic cults that utilized gender reversal and homosexuality were role-specialized, the most famous priest in this context being Elagabalus. In these social settings religious morality legitimized homosexual conduct. One should not forget, however, the negative and chaotic consequences of "good" versus "bad" moral choices that could flow from homosexual customs in certain ancient traditions like that of the Greeks. Here a combination of divine royal power and aberrant homosexual choice, as in the Greek myth of Oedipus, arises repeatedly and hangs over the mythology of Western sexuality. It will be recalled that Laius, the father of Oedipus, abducted the boy Chrysippus out of homosexual desire. In rage the goddess Hera, guardian of marriage, sent the Sphinx to destroy Thebes. Eventually, by trickery, Jocasta produced a son from Laius: Oedipus, whom Laius tried to kill. The rest of story is well known; it ends in incest, patricide, Oedipus's self-inflicted blindness (symbolic self-castration), and madness, themes reflected in Shakespeare's great tragedy, Hamlet. These mytho-symbolic images of "bad" moral choice foreshadow the ambiguous status of role-specialized homosexuality in the modern Western era.

Role-specialized homosexuality in tribal societies is strongly identified with shamanism. The divine or celestial origins of shamanic curative and medicinal powers is widely attested. What is more, transvestite shamans having important supernatural powers are known on both sides of the Pacific and into Indochina as well. The Chukchi shaman is particularly well known in this respect, and it has been demonstrated that Chukchi shamans cross-dress and engage in homosexual relations, some even taking husbands. Among those who remain heterosexual, their spirit guides still oblige them to dress as women.

An intermediate case of role-specialized homosexuality, which began in a shamanic tradition but changed into a secular form, is provided by the so-called flower boys (hwarang) of Silla, known from the Yi dynasty in Korea. Here the concept of midong ("good-looking boys," with pederastic overtones) is noteworthy. These boys dressed as girls and accompanied wandering musicians and players. They were sometimes married to the latter, and served as entertainers; they would thus seem to suggest attributes of both agestructured and gender-reversed homosexuality. Yet, they were historically associated with popular shamanic performances and were referred to in terms of the literary and theatrical homosexual traditions of China and the chivalrous homosexual code of medieval Japan.

A more recent and secularized role-specialization example-this one concerning lesbianism is known from the nineteenth-century Canton Delta in China. Certain villages in this patriarchal class society established girls' houses, wherein girls formed strong affectional and economic bonds with each other. It was notorious throughout China that many of these girls formed lesbian relationships. Non-Buddhist religious sects influenced the young women by stressing sexual equality and purity through nonmarriage. The introduction of the silk industry in this area in the 1860s supported the practice of lesbianism, because families encouraged their daughters to take vows of "popular spinsterhood," rather than lose their income. These spinsterhood bonds were not deviant but were accepted at the time; no other institutional form of lesbian contact occurred in these communities or was acceptable. Remnants of this lesbian sisterhood are still to be found in Hong Kong and Taiwan today. In other words, this role-specialized social form involved homosexual relations but was not gender-reversed or age-structured.

How is homosexual behavior in modern Western society to be interpreted, particularly in light of the trichotomy described here? A partial answer to this question was provided in the historical perspective on homosexuality, noted above, following the fall of the Roman Empire. Role-specialized homosexuality is the most complex category of the three, for it implies elements of social support and ambivalence, normative and gender-reversed behavior, and specialization of socioeconomic and cultural interests. Over the past century homosexuality has undergone a dramatic transformation, from the "disease of effeminacy" to the modern gay rights movement. It must be made clear, however, that the modern social category and erotic identity signified by the term gay is not the same as homosexual organizations or roles found in ancient times and in other cultures (cf. Boswell, 1980); it is in several respects a unique development in human society. This suggests a change from a predominantly gender-reversed feminization to a more frequent masculinization of overt homosexuality in popular culture. In Latin American cultures, such a symbolic transformation is problematic, for as Joseph Carrier notes, gender roles are still defined with respect to the hypermasculine ideal model known as machismo. Western culture, more broadly, has seen a gradual change from the specific identification of genderreversed homosexuality with specialized roles in the theater and art world. Was it not Freud (Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, 1960, p. 94) who said, "In the great artificial groups, the church and the army, there is no room for woman as a sexual object"? In this sense, contemporary age-asymmetric masculine homoerotic bonding in complex societies was until recently restricted to male clubs, military boarding schools, and the armed services. The gay rights movement and related social changes are altering this view, as homosexuality is increasingly decriminalized and removed from the medical category of psychopathology in Western countries.

Recent Western attitudes toward homosexuality are strongly linked to religious history and theology, but broader socioeconomic trends since the late Middle Ages have played an equally powerful role. Historical research has challenged the widely held view that hostility toward homosexuality was merely the result of the Judeo-Christian tradition (Greenberg and Bystryn, 1982). It has been demonstrated that polytheistic societies are generally more tolerant of homosexuality than are monotheistic ones (Hoffman, 1984), though exceptions to this generalization are plentiful. Perhaps the institutionalization of religiously supported sexual morality, as much as anything, fosters disapproval of sexual behavior deviating from heterosexuality. Other factors, such as trends to urbanization and the establishment of capitalistic industrial apparatus, have undoubtedly contributed to changes in Western attitudes toward homosexuality (Boswell, 1980; Foucault, 1978), yet these trends too cannot account for certain historical examples (Greenberg and Bystryn, 1984). The development of complex state and church bureaucracies, with associated unconscious responses to all deviance, including homosexuality, may eventually provide more adequate institutional and psychosocial explanations of the special image homosexuality occupies in Western discourse.


The literature on homosexuality is immense and varied, though much of it is limited to study of modern Western nations. The classic, and still useful, cross-cultural study of the subject is Clellan S. Ford and Frank A. Beach's Patterns of Sexual Behavior (New York, 1951). Of the older encyclopedic surveys, Havelock Ellis's Studies in the Psychology of Sex, 7 vols. (Philadelphia, 1900–1928), and Edward A. Westermark's The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, 2d ed., 2 vols. (London, 1917), are still valuable. Hermann Baumann's Das doppelte Geschlecht: Ethnologische Studien zur Bisexualität in Ritus und Mythos (Berlin, 1955) remains the classic sourcebook on bisexuality and homosexual images in comparative symbology. For recent anthropological surveys, see Joseph M. Carrier's "Homosexual Behavior in Cross-Cultural Perspective," in Homosexual Behavior: A Modern Reappraisal, edited by Judd Marmor (New York, 1980), and my collection of essays titled Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia (Berkeley, 1984).

The material on the ancient Greeks and related classical traditions in this article is based on Richard J. Hoffman's "Some Cultural Aspects of Greek Male Homosexuality," Journal of Homosexuality 5 (1980): 217–226, and "Vices, Gods, and Virtues: Cosmology as a Mediating Factor in Attitudes toward Male Homosexuality," Journal of Homosexuality 9 (1984): 27–44; Jan Bremmer's "An Enigmatic Indo-European Rite: Paederasty," Arethusa 13 (Fall 1980): 279–298; K. J. Dover's masterpiece, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge, Mass., 1978); and Werner Jaeger's Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, vol. 1, Archaic Greece: The Mind of Athens, 2d ed., translated by Gilbert Highet (Oxford, 1945).

For Melanesian materials, see my book Guardians of the Flutes (New York, 1981) and two collections of studies that I have edited: Rituals of Manhood (Berkeley, Calif., 1982) and Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia (Berkeley, Calif., 1984), mentioned above. In Rituals of Manhood, which presents comparative findings on male initiation rites, Edward L. Schieffelin's "The Bau A Ceremonial Hunting Lodge: An Alternative to Initiation" is particularly noteworthy. For an examination of androgyny and ritual in Melanesia, see Fitz John Porter Poole's superlative study "Transforming 'Natural' Woman: Female Ritual Leaders and Gender Ideology among Bimin-Kuskusmin," in Sexual Meanings, edited by Sherry B. Ortner and Harriet Whitehead (Cambridge, U.K., 1981), pp. 116–165. For the most comprehensive study of comparative religious ethics, with special reference to Melanesia, see Jan van Baal's fascinating study Man's Quest for Partnership (Assen, 1981). These works also contain useful bibliographies for reference to the wider literature.

A recent survey of the North American Indian berdache can be found in Harriet Whitehead's "The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look at Institutionalized Homosexuality in North America," in Sexual Meanings, pp. 80–115.

For studies on homosexuality in the Western tradition, see Evelyn Hooker's "Sexual Behavior: Homosexuality," in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by David L. Sills (New York, 1968), vol. 15, pp. 222–233, and the more recent Bisexual and Homosexual Identities: Critical Theoretical Issues, edited by John P. Decco and Michael G. Shively (New York, 1984). Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality (New York, 1978), although specialized and controversial, provides a new philosophical and sociohistorical critique of homosexuality in Western discourse. Also notable is John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago, 1980), which surveys homosexuality in western Europe from the beginning of the common era to the fourteenth century. Finally, two studies by David F. Greenberg and Marcia H. Bystryn brilliantly rethink the history of intolerance and cultural structuring of homosexuality in the West: "Christian Intolerance of Homosexuality," American Journal of Sociology 88 (November 1982): 515–548, and "Capitalism, Bureaucracy and Male Homosexuality," Contemporary Crises 8 (January 1984): 33–56.

New Sources
Boswell, John. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. New York, 1994.
Calimach, Andrew. Lovers' Legends: The Gay Greek Myths. New Rochelle, N.Y., 2002.
Dynes, Wayne R., and Stephen Donaldson, eds. Homosexuality and Religion and Philosophy. New York, 1992.
Elledge, Jim. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Myths from the Arapaho to the Zuñi: An Anthology. New York, 2002.
Highwater, Jamake. The Mythology of Transgression: Homosexuality as Metaphor. New York, 1997.
Hold, Donald J. Out of Order: Homosexuality in the Bible and the Ancient Near East. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1998.
Jennings, Theodore W. The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament. Cleveland, 2003.
Kripal, Jeffrey John. Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism & Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism. Chicago, 2001.
Stone, Ken. Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible. London; New York, 2001.
Webb, William J. Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Downers Grove, Ill, 2001.

Revised Bibliography


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