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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