Saturday, May 23, 2009

Some Thoughts on a Homosexual Tradition

I began this piece Saturday night and have been adding to it progressively. At the time I'm writing this intro I have decided to not pretend a continuity but just add bits. as I go along.

As is often the way with things, I have been sidetracked tonight. I had intended to write something on various New Testament issues which were getting my attention over the last few days but I might come back to that in the next couple of days. Instead what's on my mind right now is a jumble of thoughts around the notion of a homosexual tradition. I have been wanting to re-read some Plato but instead am at last reading Luce Irigary's Speculum of the Other Woman. Just superb! But I'm still on her on Freud and while I love how she deconstructs and exposes Freud I'm itching for her to get into Plato. Why? Because I want to re-read Plato, in particular the Symposium and the Phaedrus. It's all part of my concern about the European Homosexual Tradition.

A couple of years ago, I attended (and presented at) a one day LGBT community forum here in Brisbane. During the course of the day the notion came up that homosexuality was somehow invented in the late 19th century - a very crude constructionism that seems to constantly recur over the last few years and might even be a form of orthodoxy in some quarters. Now I am neither a constructionist nor an essentialist in any strict form but I certainly do not accept the simplistic constructionism that posits the homosexual as an invention, generally by establishment sexologists, of the 19th century. In fact those sexologists were actually appropriating the discourse of early homosexual activists working for a change in social attitudes to homosexuality, in particular, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Ulrichs was both the first public gay activist and the first theorist of sexuality. He was prompted to action by the impending unification of Germany under Prussia. Thanks to the Code Napoleon many of the German states had no legal sanctions against homosexuality. However, as Prussia had not been conquered by France it retained its own legal code which criminalised homosexuality.

Ulrichs campaigned to change these laws because a Prussian led Germany would mean that German LGB people outside Prussia would face recriminalisation. As part of his campaigning Ulrichs wrote and theorised about homosexuality and used a notion of a third sex as his model. He developed an entire taxonomy of sexuality which pretty much underpins our contemporary models. His system included not only gay men and lesbians as types but also bisexual men and bisexual women and MtF transgender women and FtM transgender men. It was quite a comprehensive system which would be subsequently appropriated by the sexologists and subsequent psychologists and other clinicians as a way of classifying and dealing with the 'problem' of non-heterosexuality. In many respects it was a tragic turnaround or subversion of Ulrichs' work.

For Ulrichs' goal was to transform social attitudes to homosexuality so that rather than it being something to be dealt with (or even worse cured) it would be accepted and acknowleged rather than stigmatised, criminalised and suppressed. As I said Ulrichs took as his model the notion of third sex or intermediate type. In part this model drew on European exposures to third gender people in colonial contexts (Rudi Bleys documents some of this history in The Geography of Perversion) although Ulrichs could no doubt draw on Hermaphrodite motifs from ancient mythology. Ironically Ulrich's model could be said to be an inversion of Aristophanes' three sexes as found in Plato's Symposium. Here the hermaphrodite as a male female unit ironically represents what we might term the heterosexual as opposed to the man-male-couple and the woman-female-couple. That's how Dante uses the term in his Purgatory Canto 26 when he encounters a group of repentant hermaphrodites guilty of heterosexual sins of lust. As he speaks with one such sinner, they are interrupted by another column of repentant sinners, this time sodomites and it is clear that in their case their sins are those of same sex desire. But they are never allowed to address the poet or even identify themselves to him unlike his hermaphrodite speaker or the sodomites he meets in Hell. It would appear that for Dante the only good sodomite is a closeted one.

In Dante's Purgatory, two diferent elements of the homosexual tradition meet, perhaps for the first time, one old, one new. The first is the Platonic tradition, of which the hermaphrodite is but one example and the other is the sodomite, newly invented in the 11th century by the monk, Peter Damian. In his Book of Gomorrah, Peter Damian draws together a variety of threads of Christian homophobia to create the sodomite as a species with a distinct lineage and history and sacred site, i.e. the Cities of the Plain, Sodom and Gomorrah. The model for his classification is that of the Jew, so there is a Sodomite society and a Sodomite covenant just like Judaism but unlike Judaism, whose adherents are identifiable and set apart from the body of Christendom, sodomites have thoroughly ensconced themselves within the Christian body, most alarmingly for Peter Damian, within the clergy and the communities of monastics themselves.

In some respects Peter Damian's book is the opening salvo of a religious struggle that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. His book is addressed to the Pope of the day and it's a call for a thorough purge and cleansing reform of the Church, especially the orders of priests, bishops and monks, of the sodomite infection. Unhappily for Peter Damian, but no doubt happily for everyone else, the Pope of the day was not all that interested in his paranoid clarion call and after sending a thank you note filed the text away.

(Sunday night)
But the category that Peter Damian created was based on sexual activity. Prior to his day there was only one sex act that seems to be clearly denoted with the tag of Sodom: anal sex between men. All the other things that men can do with each other, as well as all the things that women can do with each other, in contrast were not tagged with Sodom's downfall. Peter Damian, however, took everything that men can do with each, oral sex, inter-femoral sex, mutual masturbation, and even added solitary masturbation for good measure, and rolled them up with anal sex to call them sodomy (sodomia in his Latin). His text is the first instance of that word in any European language (a word that can be translated as sodomy appeared in a Syriac Christian text two centuries earlier but it's context does not give it the same meaning that Peter Damian conveys with sodomia, although post-sodomy, the Syriac word, sedoomayootha, becomes assimilated to Peter Damian's neologism). Peter Damian's world is very much a man's world and so there is no mention of lesbians here although subsequently in the later medieval period the idea developed that while the sodomite's ancestral home was Sodom the lesbian was a daughter of Gomorrah.

Peter Damian might have invented sodomy and the category of the sodomite but it would take time for his invention to catch on. Foucault could famously observe that in the texts he read sodomy was a completely confused category but there was no such confusion for Peted Damian. For him Sodom and sodomy signified a species of males marked by same sex desire. His invention however had to contend with older homphobic models based on the fear of the penetrated/feminised male. The feminised male was monstrous and anal sex could be made equivalent to bestiality, an expression of bestial lust, and eventually sodomy would come to bear the the added burden of signifying bestiality as well (and really there was none too bad that could not be imputed to Sodom). And in time the lesbian would likewise come under Sodom's shadow rolling up all same sex desire together with the bestial as examples of monstrous bestial lust. Peter Damian's sodomy could be blurred/confused a bit to take up a variety of monstrous sins but its potency lay in the ability to denote a whole category of humanity by monstrous (same-sex) desire (lust) and associated sexual practices.

When I first read the Book of Gomorrah I was struck by the level of paranoia in the text. Thinking back on it now it seems most equivalent to contemporary homophobic products of the Christian Right (e.g Jack Chick's Doom Town). These are likewise paranoid texts and they work by exagerating, distorting, misrepresenting LGBT people and our lives. But behind the distortions, there is something real, our existence. Even in Doom Town I can recognise something real that has been twisted out of all reality by Chick's text (and check out another such distorted representation text here). And so I wonder, does Peter Damian's Book of Gomorrah similarly misrepresent a world of real people. In the century after his time there is an extraodinary flowering of celebratory discourses on same sex love and friendship most noticeably within the monastic environments themselves. The most outstanding example is St Aelred of Rievaulx who celebrated and encouraged particular friendships and love amongst his monks. The consesnus today is that Aelred was what we would now term gay. And so after reading Plato I want to read Aelred's writings on friendship and love. And rememebr that monasteries and convents are great places for those who are same sex attracted and thus for whom marriage and its supposed joys would have no appeal.

And if the world of Plato, Sappho and Greek mythology (not to mention Hadrian and Antinous) could stand as a dangerous memory from which to cultivate a homosexual tradition, the Christian mythos could likewise be called on to put its own weight behind it too. The Old Testament contains two remarkable stories of same sex love, David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi (not to mention all those eunuchs). Furthermore, Ruth Vanita has highlighted that the fragmentary Sappho can be reinforced by the model of the Virgin Mary herself. Mary in medieval times was not your compliant woman submissive in wifely roles but instead Queen of Heaven, a Mother without a husband, a patron of and model for priests, and, while Ever-Virgin, Mary showed a special favour for those who were always falling by the way of rigid sexual mores. It's no wonder the oh so heteronormative Reformers attacked her cult with persistent ferocity and why even today, conservative Protestants regard Mary as almost equivalent to Satan. And those same Reformers attacked with due heteronormative vigilance all those same-sex households of monastery, abbey and convent.

However, as Mary of Agreda used to say 'those who know the Mother know the Son' and Jesus himself is also deeply implicated in homosexual associations. His love for his Beloved Disciple, John (by tradition), has not only been long celebrated from the days of the early church but is a model for Christian discipleship. It is also a most uncomfortable memory. At his trial, Oscar Wilde cited Jesus and John together with David and Jonathan, Socrates and Alcibiades, and Achilles and Patroclus as models of his relationship with his beloved Bosie, of that special love, the love that binds an older man and a younger. Not for Oscar the notion of being an intermediate type, a third sex but instead the beauty and nobility of love between men. And Aelred of Rievaulx, himself celebrated the love of Jesus and John as a heavenly marriage and model for his monks.

But the mention of heavenly love brings me back to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs although he drew on the notion of the intermediate type, the third sex, the invert, his classification system drew on the Platonic model that ironically, his would displace. Ulrichs might have spoken of inverts but he never spoke of homosexuals. Instead he coined the terms urning for gay man, urnind for lesbian and uranodioning for bisexual. This final term gives away the source for his classification. Urning/urnind is a form of Uranian and Ulrichs is here citing Plato's Symposium, in particualr Pausanias' tale of the two loves, the two types of love: that of heavenly Uranian Aphrodite, which repsented the love of the older man for a younger, and the more earthly love of man and woman represented by Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus and Dione. So even though he was abandoning the Platonic pattern of age variant love between men (and between men and youths), he set up a taxonomy based on love, heavenly Uranian (same sex) love and earthly Dionian (opposite sex) love.

The sexologists (some of whom wanted to advance Ulrichs's cause of liberation) ironically dropped the love based nomenclature and, like Peter Damian before them, based theirs on sex as well as inversion, a psychological rendering of the intermediate type. In my opinion the homosexual is not so much a new thing but rather a scientific positivist version of that old monk's sodomite. They are both classified by sex and sex alone. Consequently both intermediate types and uranians resisted the term homosexual. Edward Carpenter used the term homogenic love and for him love and friendship, often involving gender variance, were the basis of definition of what we now call LGBT or Queer folks. Later in the 20th century many preferred the term homophile as a descriptor to homosexual. Carpenter himself would publish his Iolaus - An Anthology of Friendship, a collection of texts form ancient, medieval, renaissance and modern sources representing varieties of same sex love and sacral gender variance (an early edition of which I found in the University of Qld Library had originally been part of the Brisbane Trades Hall workers' library in the 1920' and 30s before being donated to the university in the late 1940s. Who, I wonder, was responsible for getting that book into the Trades Hall library and make it available for ordinary workers. It's the sort of book that may well have saved lives).

The notion that the homosexual and homosexuality were 'invented' in the late 19th century is especially problematic because the implication is that ours is a very recent movement without connections to any past. But the homosexual could only be invented through a rejigging, a reworking of pre-existing traditions, and in part by drawing on homosexual traditions from elsewhere on the planet. And there are homosexual traditions in other cultures. The blitzkrieg of European colonialism and imperialism has had a devastating impact on many of them (Africa especially) but they mostly still continue. Even to speak of a European Homosexual Tradition in a singular form would be too simplistic. In Europe, the tradition draws on the Greco-Roman past, Sappho, Plato and Christianity. All contain dangerous memories and models which can be appropriated and reworked and, most importantly, have been periodically, and employed to imagine alternatives to the homophobic and heteronormative.

And I wanted to draw on Adrienne Rich and highlight the age variant lesbian relationship that was the poet Michael Field. That is why I'm reading Irigaray before I return to Plato. Unsurprisingly, being refracted through a patriarchal society, the homosexual tradition in Europe mostly manifests as a male tradition. However there are female traditions, too, but more fractured, fragmentary like Sappho's poetry. I know that Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus can be extraordinarily affirming and empowering for a gay man. And also for lesbian women... at first. But Plato is talking about love between males. Does Plato even care about love between women? Does he care about women at all? Irigaray's critique is a necessary corrective.

I'll end here for now but I'll probably return to add more thoughts at a later stage. Or maybe pick up these themes in a subsequent post. But on reviewing what I have written I am struck by how central love is to the homosexual tradition, love and desire, but love first of all.


  1. Hi Michael. Have you read Sheila Rowbotham's newish biography of Edward Carpenter? I saw it cheap at a bookshop an month or so back but didn't buy it and I'm kinda regretting it. I've heard great things.

    P.s. funny reading this post and looking over to see a link to Jim West's blog post claiming that if California's same-sex marriage ban is overturned it will be a step towards tyrrany!!!

  2. Hi Ibrahim, I haven't but I'll have to look out for it or better yet (given my current state of poverty) recommend it to the UQ Library.

    As for Jim West, sadly, he's not alone with such views in the biblioblogosphere. It's quite a conservative space. But I guess if we can see/read him/them maybe they can see/read me/us and do so. Here's hoping.