All the Periods in History When Homosexuality Was Celebrated & Embraced
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, globally speaking, and 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.
- Photo: Simeon Solomon / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The Isle of Lesbos, 600 BCE
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, 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.
All of this history has turned Lesbos into a popular tourist destination for queer travelers over the years, which has, in turn, had the effect of turning Lesbos back into a lesbian haven. While there has been some minimal pushback from the locals, LGBTQ+ tourism has been taking place since the 1970s.
- Photo: Mountain / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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 mentorship — that is, mentorship 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," but rather a loose collection of city-states 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.
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.
- Photo: Jastrow / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Tribal Africa, Pre-Colonialization
Many present-day African nations have strict anti-homosexuality laws in place, but contrary to assertions by the former President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, homosexuality is not "anti-African" — and far from it. Before Christian ideas of morality were introduced to tribal African cultures in the late 1800s, there was little to no stigma attached to homosexuality. Most tribes had unique words for different LGBTQ+ individuals and practices, and many tribes shared the belief homosexuality was just something adolescents engaged in as natural part of the development process.
Additionally, there are records of long-term sensual relationships between women in Lesotho called motsoalle that were celebrated alongside heterosexual pairings — up until the missionaries came in. Colonialism brought not just slavery, disease, and environmental exploitation, but also homophobia as well.
- Photo: Olaf Tausch / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0
Pharaonic Egypt, 330 BCE-30 CE
The ancient Egyptians were anything but uptight about same-gender and queer relationships. In a society that was known for their sacred concubines, condoning inter-familial relationships, and believing in afterlife intercourse, homosexuality was seen as nothing out of the ordinary. The Egyptians didn't view sexuality in binary terms and male-male relationships were accepted under a number of circumstances.
- Photo: George Catlin / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Indigenous Americans, Pre-Colonialization
The term "two-spirit" was introduced by indigenous Americans in 1990 as an umbrella term used to describe a long-existing caste of individuals who do not fit within traditional gender binaries. Many native tribes have recognized gender as fluid and have held specialized and even sacred roles in their cultures for two-spirit people, such as potters, matchmakers, storytellers, or oral historians.
While sex work was something that some two-spirits engaged in, it was not stigmatized by the native populations the same way that it was by the European explorers, and they were often afforded sexual rights and privileges that other tribe members were not.
- Photo: 99grand / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
Cherry Grove/The Pines, 1950-Present
New York's Fire Island has been a quiet place for queer people to get loud since New York artists, actors, designers, and bohemians of all types started taking the ferry there in the early '40s. By the 1950s, elite Manhattanites had taken over the small enclave of houses and vacationers included luminaries like Greta Garbo, W. H. Auden, and Xavier Cugat — and an increasing quantity of LGBTQ+ New Yorkers that wanted somewhere they could go to be themselves. When former male model John B. Whyte bought a hotel in The Pines in 1959 and began openly courting gay clientele, Fire Island's reputation as a queer paradise became the stuff of legend.
In 1965, Playboy magazine sent Shel Silverstein to do an expose on the culture and his piece painted — or rather line-drew — a clear picture of the lifestyle on the island at that time. Even when the specter of AIDS muted the party for a time, people didn't stop going to the island. Instead it became a place of refuge for the community, and eventually, the party spirit returned. Calvin Klein, David Geffen, Michael Musto, and Wanda Sykes have all at times called Fire Island home, and today The Pines and Cherry Grove remain one of the most celebratory places in America for the LGBTQ+ population.