I shop fairly regularly at amazon.com, and often get email alerts about new products they think I'd be interested in buying. I definitely was interested when they notified me about a new book called Gay Life and Culture: A World History (Universe Publishing, 2006). Stuffed Animal loves books about Gay history! I was so anxious to read this one, I couldn't wait the couple of days it would've taken for amazon.com to mail it to me. I made a beeline for my local Barnes and Noble bookseller and grabbed a shelf copy.
The dust cover blurb describes its contents this way: "(An) extraordinarily wide-ranging book (in which) historians from nine different countries consider the evidence for same-sex relationships through the centuries . . . an important contribution to understanding what makes Gay life and culture universal throughout human culture and across time." How could anybody resist a teaser like that?
I don't think I've read such a thick volume since I was in college, and I had a hard time putting it down. Now that I've finished it, though, I doubt I'll ever want to read it again! As I review Gay Life and Culture for you, I'll explain how it's possible to love and hate a book at the same time.
This impressive (and expensive!) hardback tome does an exemplary job of tracing homosexual expression from ancient Greece to the modern day. It makes a convincing case that same-gender eros is not particular to any ethnic group or nation, but is a worldwide phenomenon with roots in many different cultures. It delivers a definitive rebuke to bigots of color who denounce homosexuality as an expression of Western decadence; the authors have painstakingly compiled historical evidence of it on every continent.
They've pored over yellowed journals and photos, fragile shards of painted pottery, crumbling frescoes, faded tapestries and aged parchments. What we call Gay sex today could be found throughout the Mediterranean, in eastern and western Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, Arabia, and the pre-colonial Americas.
It manifested itself in Japanese Samurai tradition, in the close comradeship of Caribbean pirates, in marriages of convenience between South African laborers, in transvestite patronage within the context of Chinese opera, in marriages between Native-American warriors and androgynous men, in British "romantic friendships" and New England "Boston marriages", in Indian eunuch prostitution, and in the intimacies Polynesian kings shared with their male attendants . . . and that's not the half of it, sugar!
So-called homosexuality has always existed in some form, and it's been practiced around the globe. The anthropological proof offered in the pages of Gay Life and Culture is indisputable. Unfortunately, the persecution of homosexuality has been just as widespread as its practice! At some point, same-gender coupling in society always suffered a period of suppression. The most frequent reasons for these pogroms (and they usually amounted to nothing less) was governmental régime change, a shift to Conservative political ideology, and/or religious crusades against perceived immorality.
It's quite unsettling to read page after page of documented starvings, maimings, torturings, burnings, drownings, disembowellings and beheadings! A two-page reproduction of a gory sixteenth-century engraving shows how the conquistador Balboa set vicious attack dogs on a group of Panamanian "Sodomites." The killer hounds are depicted gnawing limbs and heads off of bodies while their terrified Transgender victims writhe in agony. This picture will shake your nerves more than the bloodiest Hollywood horror flick you've ever seen!
Cruel punishments galore have been visited on homosexually-oriented men and women over time, and of course, atrocities still take place all over the world. Today, LesBiGay expression enjoys more tolerance than it has at any other time in history, but will it last? If the contents of this book has anything to teach us, it's that we can never afford to feel too secure.
Although the title is Gay Life and Culture, the fourteen scholars who authored the book take great pains to stress that it actually documents very little of that. There was no such thing as Gay identity in the ancient world. It's a concept of recent vintage, dating back less than one-hundred years; few of our forebears would have thought of themselves as homosexual (some definitely did, though, according to Gnostic Christian scripture that I've read).
What the book documents instead is the occurrence of homosexuality through the ages. In the process, its authors reveal that homosexual eroticism has traditionally had little to do with one's sexual orientation! Some ancient cultures actually encouraged same-gender coupling. Within those cultures, heterosexual folk no doubt indulged simply because it was the societal norm. You'd certainly think so when you consider the forms such coupling took.
Most of it was of a pederastic nature; mature men would openly pleasure themselves with boys in their early teens. In cases where both sex partners were mature, transvestism was often a necessary element. God forbid that the underage or effeminate partner begin to show even a trace of manhood! The masculine partner would break off their relationship in disgust.
Few people today would consider this kind of sexuality healthy, and it's certainly not typical of modern same-gender relationships. What's more, it almost never precluded the requirement to marry and sire offspring with someone of the opposite sex. In eons past, homosexuality was something you did "on the side," a view (too) many Pansexual and Straight people still hold!
Despite the misnomer of a title, and much too frequent use of the word "queer," Gay Life and Culture has a lot to recommend it. Its treatment of topic reflects impeccable scholarship, with one glaring exception: The book's final chapter. Written and compiled by a Dutch anthropologist, portions of it abandon historical objectivity for historical revisionism.
The distortions are sometimes subtle, and at other times quite blatant; for example, the chapter opens with a page-length reproduction of a "D*ke Action Machine" flyer that attacks the concept of Lesbian marriage. A Straight reader who saw this flyer and read the caption that accompanies it . . .
For some, marriage represents a heterosexual institution that has no relevance to they way they live their lives.
. . . might come away thinking a sizable number of Gay women oppose marriage equality. Polling has suggested the opposite is true! However, this particular author didn't allow factual evidence to divert him from the radical political agenda he seemed hell-bent on pursuing:
In the 1980s and 1990s, increasingly conservative Gay leaders came forward. In the United States, several authors defined the aim of Gay emancipation as "getting a place at the table" . . . yet such activists also wanted to get rid of those at the margins of the Gay world, in the first place, pedophiles, but also drag and leather queens, and men who cruise for sex in public places, because they spoiled the image of homosexuals (sic). These conservatives also believed in a "Gay gene," in the innateness of homosexuality. They were opposed by some who believed that the struggle should not stop with equality for homosexuals (sic), but should bring about sexual freedom for all; for them, the question of whether or not sexual preference was biologically determined was irrelevant.
It's not hard to guess which group of activists his sympathies lay with, given the way he casually vilifies those he calls "conservatives", and distorts the nature of their activism! However, his real objective in writing this passage was to establish that pedophilia, transvestism, sado-masochism, fetishism and the desire to have intercourse in public are all part of what it means to be Gay; note his deliberate use of the discredited term "sexual preference."
In effect, he takes all the controversial aspects of human sexuality (including some that are unquestionably harmful) and attributes them to Gay identity! This is a radical hedonist's definition of homosexuality, and one that an overwhelming majority of LGBT people don't ascribe to.
"The Pleasure Seekers" continues with Part Two.