Nobody’s Born Gay

Say the gay scientists. No, seriously.

Sexuality LogoKnowing about the phantom gay past when everyone else is certain gayness has always existed can be frustrating. Gay history professor Dr. John D’Emilio (University of Illinois-Chicago) once lamented that even while gay historical scholarship accepts the “core assumptions” of the social-construction idea, “the essentialist notion that gays constitute a distinct minority of people different in some inherent way has more credibility in American society than ever before.”

Today’s categories for sexuality correspond poorly with times past. Dr. Duberman put it this way: “Were people always either gay or straight? The answer to that is a decided no.” Instead, people from other eras who slept with members of their own gender “haven’t viewed that as something exclusive and therefore something that defines them as a different category of human being.”

Many popular attempts to portray an age-old history of gayness start with ancient Greece. We do have much documentation — the poetry of Sappho, Greek vases depicting men in flagrante – that same-sex relationships and intercourse were common in that culture.

But scholars don’t think the ancient Greeks had a gay minority. Rather, that civilization thought homosexuality was something anyone could enjoy. In addition to a wife, elite men were expected to take a younger male as an apprentice-lover, with prescribed bedroom roles. The system was so different from ours that to describe specific ancient Greeks as gay or straight would show profound disrespect for their experiences, and violate the cardinal historical rule against looking at the past through present-colored lenses.

Another example in which evidence of same-sex relations has been misinterpreted to depict a gay minority involves 18th-century upper-class female romantic friendships. Even those women who probably had genital contact with each other in that context thought about sex, gender, and intimacy in such culturally specific ways that scholars have spurned the viewpoint (nearly universal among non-scholars) that any two females who wrote each other love letters and shared a bed were obviously lesbians.

Read the whole thing. It’s basically the same argument Mills makes in Love, Covenant and Meaning.

And to be fair, the piece is less about being (or not being) born gay and more to do with the idea that throughout history no-one ever really considered that a valid question.

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12 Comments on “Nobody’s Born Gay

  1. Thanks for this article–by a historian who actually teaches
    at gay and lesbian centers and writes for LGBT publications! I guess the “yeah, duh” moment for me in it was upon realizing what you don’t hear in the public discourse, which
    can be far more illuminating. You don’t hear—“In 800 there was an island
    where the like-desired people lived” or “such and such colony outside of London
    had the gay people.“ There are no documents talking about the gay men or letters
    mentioning the lesbians. As his article mentions this current false statement–“There have
    been people in all cultures and times throughout human history who have
    identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT)”–and
    then Benkoff observes, “If that were even partly true, gay and lesbian social
    scientists would have reason to celebrate. Identifying the first gay minority
    outside our milieu would make their careers.” Right. But you don’t hear it. If x
    percent of the population is homosexual by nature then history should be full
    of such info. Hopefully I have this right?

    • I think it’s even more subtle. Even if x% of the population have same-sex attraction (to a greater or lesser extent), the idea that that becomes a sexual identity is a modern construct. People (ssa or otherwise) have been doing same-sex sex for centuries, but no-one thought that was because they were “gay”, it was simply what you did or didn’t do regardless of your sexual attractions.

      • “People (ssa or otherwise) have been doing same-sex sex for centuries,” Peter Ould

        Am I being a bit slow here, but why would people who weren’t attracted to others of the same sex, have sex with people of the same sex? Are you saying that there were cultural expectations (e.g. in marriages in Ancient Greece), where men took younger male lovers even when they didn’t have any sexual attraction towards men, perhaps as a badge of masculinity i.e. by dominating the younger man?

        • Er, yes!

          Look at some tribes in New Guinea. The boys at age 12 or so move into a teens hut where the older boys bugger the younger ones. This is because they believe that semen makes a man. When they leave the hut they marry and never have same-sex sex again. Indeed to do so is deeply frowned upon. In this environment EVERY male is a homosexual for four years of his life.

          In Ancient Greece older sophisticated men were expected to take a younger man whom he would groom for adulthood (impart wisdom) and have sex with. In Roman environments men took male lovers to have sex with since women were for procreation. The list goes on.

          The notion that only gay men have (or want to have) gay sex is a modern construct. It was not so (is not so) for most of history.

          • Interesting stuff. I still find it difficult to understand how successful (for want of a better word) such sexual encounters would have been where there was no actual sexual attraction/arousal by the older man doing the penetration. Leaving aside 21st century semantics for a moment (and yes, the word ‘gay’ is unhelpful in an Ancient Greek context), penises tend not to be very good at lying.

            • Thing is, there WAS sexual arousal because you lived in a society where you grew up expecting to have sexual arousal in that environment.

              Your problem is you’re looking at the question with a C21 lens that presumes sexual orientation prescribes sexual practice. That’s a modern idea which history clearly debunks.

              • So how exactly do you account for people who grew up in a society – Britain in the latter decades of the 20th century, to take an example at random – fully expecting to experience sexual attraction and sexual arousal in relation to (some) people of the other sex, but found, to their surprise and consternation, not only that it never occurred, but that they experienced sexual attraction and sexual arousal only in relation to (some) people of the same sex?

                  • Ah, so presumably some people (a small minority?) have some kind of biological / emotional rootedness to same-sex attraction and others (the vast majority?) do not. Those in the former category are those whom we call “gay” or “homosexual”. If there is no term for this phenomenon in other cultures or was no term for it in previous eras – at least so far as we know – that is an interesting fact, but what difference does it really make to us? And even more importantly, what practical difference SHOULD it make to us? None, I would say.

      • Thanks. Right–I think “spectrum” is a much better word. Even I, who have never had sex outside of with my husband have experienced ssa at various times of my life that I’ve not acted upon, just as I haven’t acted upon heterosexual attractions I’ve had outside of my marriage. To realize that probably everyone has ssa to some extent which even changes throughout their lives puts the discussion upon much more accurate terms, rather than labeling people.

  2. David Benkof is a conservative who believes that gay sex is wrong. This doesn’t invalidate his opinion; it does explain where he’s coming from.

    Some of the article’s very weak indeed, such as appealing to the absence of 10th century gay love letters. Exactly how many 10th C. love letters do we have in toto? Why would we expect 10th C. homosexuals to frame their attraction in anything approaching modern terms?

    “Orientation” may be a Victorian category, but that scattergun article doesn’t show that the thing it points to is a social construct.

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