Following the victory in Arizona, a brief look at 2,000 years of gay history

With the defeat of Arizona’s Bill-o-Bigotry, it’s a good time to reflect on the history and future of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

Native Americans were fine with gay and trans people

Hundreds of years ago, when French missionaries traveled through North America, they recorded their observations of Native American culture.

Particularly fascinating to them was what physician-historian Dr. Francis Mark Mondimore described in his book A Natural History of Homosexuality as “The Berdache Phenomenon.”

This refers to transgender and gay people within Native American tribes who, far from inciting loathing, were “respected, even revered in some Indian groups.”

George Catlin (1796-1872), Dance to the Berdache. Drawn while on the Great Plains, among the Sac and Fox Indians, the sketch depicts a ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person.

George Catlin (1796-1872), Dance to the Berdache. Drawn while on the Great Plains, among the Sac and Fox Indians, the sketch depicts a ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person.

Enlightened western observers were rather aghast. After applying the French word “berdache” to such Indian men and women, they described them as disgusting “sodomites dedicated to nefarious practices.”

Native Americans tended to disagree. Their attitudes toward human sexuality were by stark contrast “relaxed and accepting.” Regardless of sexual preference, tribesman were treated with respect and dignity (including women who, as Mondimore puts it, enjoyed a status that was “much more egalitarian than among their European contemporaries”). Within certain groups the berdache was even revered for a “special connection with the gods and spirits.”

Clearly, the attitudes of Native American “savages,” as our ancestors dubbed them, were infinitely more progressive and civilized than Europeans of the time, and as the “religious freedom” debacle in Arizona shows, they were more civilized than those of many Americans even today.

With respect to the LGBT community, western culture often still genuflects to judgment and ostracism as opposed to compassion and acceptance. (Much debate is still had over whether one’s sexual orientation is a choice, as if that should affect how we treat gay people.) Even Native Americans, hundreds of years ago, with no access to a modern education, were above this cruelty.

And we know the Greeks and Romans had more permissive views than many today

As it turns out, a number of ancient cultures were rather tolerant as well. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans had words for homosexuality, though it was an accepted facet of both societies (reportedly, an actual “gay” identity didn’t begin to arise until the late 1800s, or later). In some ways, bisexuality was a social expectation for Greek and Roman men, within limits (Caesar was reportedly dogged by rumors that he was “gay,” to use the modern construct). It simply did not pose the same moral dilemma for them then, as it does for us now.

Isn’t it strange that while amorous or sexual relations among same-sex Spartans were encouraged (it was thought that men would fight harder beside compatriots with whom they had had intimate relations), Michael Sam’s coming out has been greeted with anxiety by many within the NFL?  The Spartans, as we know, represent the masculine warrior ideal, not unlike the spirit embodied by the game of American football. And yet primitive bigotry makes what should be a non-issue into something the NFL “isn’t ready for,” while a GOP lobbyist (who has a gay brother, no less) claims to be drafting legislation to ban gays from the sport altogether.

Jon Stewart had the final word about that during a recent segment in which he noted the violent criminal histories of several prominent NFL players, whom the league apparently is “ready for.”  A Dallas sportscaster recently noted the same.

When did ancient tolerance become modern animus?

There doesn’t seem to be a historical consensus about the reasons why the change from tolerance to animus occurred, but there is ample evidence to show when. In his insightful work Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe From the Beginning of the Christian Tradition to the Fourteenth Century, historian John Boswell dates the beginning of the transition to the end of the Roman Empire. And, perhaps surprisingly, he explicitly rejects a view to which many likely subscribe: It was not, he thinks, Christianity that fomented the tide of homophobia that came to pervade Western culture.

The reasons for Boswell’s doubts about the origins of modern homophobia are somewhat questionable; Mainly, he seems to think that criticisms by ancient church leaders of homosexuality, viewed within the context of their heedless attitudes toward other Levitical proscriptions, requires the conclusion that it was something more than religious doctrine that caused their homophobia. In other words, Boswell doesn’t think that early church leaders could be hypocritical and sincere, cherry-picking their offenses, which means Boswell probably doesn’t give the religious imagination, modern or ancient, nearly enough credit.

Regardless of the reasons, the fall of the Roman Empire (around 500AD) precipitated the widespread homophobia of the Middle Ages (an era spanning the next thousand years or so). During this period, Boswell describes a campaign of historical “whitewashing” by religious authorities aimed at purging references to homosexuality in Greek and Roman history. Some of the results are downright laughable, and are certain to remind readers of what Darwin called the “indelible stamp of [man’s] lowly origins.”

Alcibiades, son of Cleinias. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Alcibiades, son of Cleinias. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Consider, for example, the fate of Alcibiades, a known gay-lover of Socrates, when medieval Christian authorities retrospectively turned him into a “female famed for her beauty.”

In the same mirthful vein is this gem, for which I will use Boswell’s unmolested description:

In a manuscript of Ovid’s Art of Love, for example, a phrase which originally read, “A boy’s love appealed to me less” was amended by a medieval moralist to read, “A boy’s love appealed to me not at all,” and a marginal note informed the reader “Thus you may be sure that Ovid was not a sodomite.”

Use here of the word “sodomite” to degrade highlights the historical persecution embedded in Judeo-Christian tradition. That history is clear and unambiguous, even if the original reasons for the persecution are not.

Back to Arizona

Thankfully, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer took a courageous step in blocking the fanatical advance of the religious right in her state. Because of that we can all celebrate a small victory in a larger, ongoing war, which the forces of progress and human dignity seem to be winning. But where do we go from here?

In a recent Op-Ed, Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman reluctantly concluded that the Arizona “religious freedom” law, SB1062, were it to have become law, would have been constitutional. This is disturbing, but probably (I think) true. The Supreme Court has yet to hold that under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, laws discriminating against sexual orientation deserve “strict scrutiny,” which is the standard of review the Court applies to racial discrimination (but strangely not gender discrimination). The present standard for discrimination against gay and trans people is called “rational basis review” –t hat is, so long as a homophobic law is “rationally related to a legitimate government interest” it will pass constitutional muster.

Needless to say, this is a highly deferential standard. With four conservative Supreme Court justices virtually guaranteed to meet the challenge of any such law, by finding both a legitimate government interest and a manner in which said law is rationally related to that interest, the fate of LGBT rights likely sits in the uncertain hands of Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion striking down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) last June, 2013, leading to a flurry of recent gay rights successes in a number of states.

This is all the more reason for progressives not to wait for the Supreme Court’s false pretense of interpreting the Constitution (which it has almost never done in US history) to result in equal rights for the LGBT community. Gay and trans people have waited long enough.  I would argue that we need a constitutional amendment granting not “the equal protection of the laws,” which is what the Fourteenth Amendment says, but “the protection of equal laws” for all Americans, regardless of race, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation. This is the proper choice for a proud and free democratic nation. Patiently waiting for the unelected Supreme Court is something rather more obsequious. (I’ll likely expand on this proposal in a future article.)

With the recent striking down of Texas’ bigoted same-sex marriage ban, the veto of Arizona’s “religious freedom” bill, and the gutting of DOMA only half a year ago, America is inching ever closer (and ever more quickly) to civilization. Because the ancient Greek, Roman, and Native American cultures, among others, achieved sexual tolerance long ago, I hesitate to call these recent advances “progress.” But sometimes there is progress in regression.


David Delmar is a third-year student at Harvard Law School, with experience in both civil and criminal public interest law. His interests include law, politics, culture and society, philosophy, religion, and great fiction. David particularly likes to write about issues affecting human rights and civil liberties.

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