Image Description: Two fists with “LGBTQ +” painted on the fingers
Today in the 21st century, our identities are often closely linked to gender and sexuality. While the former has been an identifying factor for centuries, if not millennia, although perceptions of gender have changed, the latter is a relatively new concept. We might not stop to think about it, but sexuality labels like straight, gay, and bisexual are frequently used to describe who someone is. These terms can be thought-provoking, restrictive, or maybe you don’t care much about them anyway. Either way, the history of labels is definitely worth examining.
Where to start if not in ancient Greece, or rather classical? Today the ancient Greeks are often credited with being tolerant of what we consider male homosexuality, and to some extent they were. There are many historical sources that speak of same-sex relationships as not only acceptable but desirable, one of the most famous of these texts being the Plato Symposium, which deals with the nature of love. Yet the ancient Greeks had no concept of sexual orientation like us. They wouldn’t have used terms like straight, gay, or bisexual.
The ancient Greeks had no idea of sexual orientation like us.
For them, different types of relationships were appropriate at different stages in a person’s life or, more specifically, in a man’s life. Sexuality was, in short, seen as a phase rather than a permanent identity. The type of same-sex relationship that was approved was that of an adult male and a teenager, where the male acted as the boy’s mentor. Without going into graphic detail, one of the reasons such relationships were approved of in city-states like Athens and Sparta was that the boy was clearly the submissive party. In other words, the boy has replaced the role normally considered to be that of the woman, being younger and therefore inferior. While two adult men entering into a relationship would hardly be punished for it, one of them “had to” be the female party. Femininity itself was the undesirable variable. What about real women? Apart from the poet Sappho who wrote homoerotic poetry about other women, we know relatively little. This is hardly surprising given the extremely patriarchal society that permeated most of the Greek city-states.
Turning to the medieval period, we can reject the idea that the church had total control over what ordinary people did or did not do. Yes, the church had considerable influence. Yes, the church did its best to regulate when, how, why, and with whom people had sex. But no, the church had no way of enforcing every one of its rules. The only acceptable romantic and sexual relationship in Catholic Europe during medieval times was that between a legally married husband and wife, with procreation as the sole object. If you deviate from this convention, you are committing what is commonly called sodomy. A husband and wife who engaged in sodomy without aiming for procreation faced by no means the same risk of prosecution as a gay couple, but prosecutions in general were rarer than you might think. Again, no modern label or concept of gender identity has been applied.
We can reject the idea that the church had total control over what ordinary people did or did not do.
In the 18e and early 19e centuries, friendship was often more valued than romance. Female friendships in particular were sometimes idealized, with letters between friends containing extraordinary amounts of emotion. To a modern reader, they can even look like love letters. As a result, we might wonder if these women would have recognized themselves as involved in a romantic relationship if they had lived in our contemporary Western society, or if friendship was really all there was to it. The answer is, of course, we’ll never know. In some cases, it was part of the time – the emphasis on emotion in romanticism, for example – and in other cases, relationships may well have been more than that. When they were, women were often easier to go unnoticed than men, largely because women were not taken as seriously as men throughout the ages.
So when were modern terms for various sexualities coined? The answer is, for the most part, between the middle and the end of the 19the century. The second half of the 1800s was also a time when laws and prosecutions against LGBTQ people were tougher than at many other times in history. In 1871, male homosexuality was banned throughout the newly formed German Empire; in 1885, the British Criminal Law Amendment Act said: “Any man who, in public or in private, commits /… / an act of gross indecency with another man, will be guilty of an offense, and will be condemned at the discretion of the court. to be imprisoned for a period not exceeding two years, with or without forced labor.
When were modern terms for various sexualities coined? The answer is, for the most part, between the middle and the end of the 19the century.
The truth is, this is an extremely brief account of the history of labeling sexuality; there are entire books written on the subject. I hope, however, that it can provide even a small perspective. Sometimes we are so inclined to categorize people and associate stereotypes with those categories that we forget how recent our thinking is. I’m not saying that we should model our treatment of others on the way things were in the past, on the contrary, nor that labels are a bad thing. It depends on each one. What I a m to say is that we should look at historical people without immediately resorting to anachronistic terms. And if you and your best friend happen to be exchanging letters worthy of fainting, feed that inner 18e-the energy of the lady of the century.
Image Credit: Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
Want to contribute? Join our group of contributors here or write to us – click on here for the coordinates