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Mr. Kramer's Opus
December 28, 2009 11:17 AM   Subscribe

From a simple insight, it has grown to some 4,000 pages. ... Whatever it is (he grudgingly calls it a novel, for legal reasons), [Larry Kramer] believes it to be an entirely true work. Certainly it’s epic. From primordial Florida swamps to the homophilic colony at Jamestown to Lincoln’s male love and the “holocaust” of AIDS, he reframes the country as a gay creation, culminating with the advent of modern antiviral drugs: “the single greatest achievement that gay people have accomplished in history.” (previously)
posted by Joe Beese (127 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Larry Kramer is a hero. Thanks for posting this.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:18 AM on December 28, 2009


The new organ seemed to set Kramer’s clock back a few decades. His chest hair, white before it was shaved for the transplant, grew back black.

I sense a cure for baldness as well as a bootleg liver market!
posted by DU at 11:21 AM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


With Lincoln, at least, Kramer isn’t alone; recent academic studies, and articles in the popular press, have debated the nature of Lincoln’s feelings for his roommate Joshua Speed, with whom he shared a bed for four years and a loving correspondence thereafter. But Kramer says he has new evidence, including details of other male lovers, that expands on accounts that first came to light when a diary and stash of letters were supposedly found under the floorboards of a building in which Lincoln and Speed lived together.

no shit! god damn. hope the book gets published. i kinda skimmed the article a bit, so I'm not positive what's up. how much of what he's writing is intentionally fictionalised, and how much is based on evidence?
posted by shmegegge at 11:29 AM on December 28, 2009


Many thanks Joe. I would have missed this otherwise.
posted by ikahime at 11:45 AM on December 28, 2009


Speaking as pretty much a completely hetero guy, it would be the greatest day ever if proof that Lincoln was gay came out, as it were. Heads would explode.
posted by Justinian at 11:47 AM on December 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


And here all this time I thought their single greatest achievement was sending a penis-shaped rocket to the moon. What? It CERTAINLY wasn't vagina-shaped!
posted by uraniumwilly at 11:49 AM on December 28, 2009


This is one of those fawning mash-note profiles that tends to give away a bit more than the writer originally intended:
That the idea of “big queen” George [Washington] amuses us—I giggled at Kramer’s phrase, and was upbraided—is itself a historical problem. However thin the proof he adduces, why should it seem silly or sacrilegious to investigate the matter? In any case, Kramer isn’t interested in proof, or facts, or the historian’s dainty calculus of context and social construction. He’s interested, ravenously, in the possibility, surely the likelihood, that at least some famous American men before 1968 had sex with other men.
Well, I'm glad we got that out of the way.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:50 AM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Justinian: "Speaking as pretty much a completely hetero guy, it would be the greatest day ever if proof that Lincoln was gay came out, as it were. Heads would explode."

If nothing else, it would probably be the last time the GOP described itself as "the party of Lincoln".
posted by Joe Beese at 11:50 AM on December 28, 2009 [16 favorites]



Speaking as pretty much a completely hetero guy, it would be the greatest day ever if proof that Lincoln was gay came out, as it were. Heads would explode.

Yeah, say it like this: Lincoln; The first Republican president; The first Gay Republican president; The first Gay Republican president in long line of many Gay Republican Presidents. God bless America.
posted by tkchrist at 11:53 AM on December 28, 2009


He’s interested, ravenously, in the possibility, surely the likelihood, that at least some famous American men before 1968 had sex with other men.

Bunker Hill and Valley Forge. They were bitterly cold. And a man had to do what a man had to do. Several times. With a nice little cuddle afterward.
posted by tkchrist at 11:56 AM on December 28, 2009


Also worth noting that no one seems to be in a big rush to claim James Buchanan.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:01 PM on December 28, 2009


They were all gay. Every single one of them. Even if they never knew it. Even if they never acted on it. Sure, sure, you say, Rutherford Hayes never had sex with another man. And to that, I say to you: Rutherford Hayes never spent a night alone in a bedroom with David Bowie.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:02 PM on December 28, 2009 [10 favorites]


And, yet again, an online New York article that not only is completely unreadable without recourse to the so-called print version but is unreadable even then, since character encoding for all such pages is so thoroughly buggered it can’t be fixed. (Yes, I’ve reported it, but what does one expect from a magazine that believes articles should be paginated, that print pages are separate things, and that those separate things need to be outsourced to a site that prefixes all URLs with the multiply redundant hostname www.printthis.clickability.? Give me clickability or give me death.)

Lemme know if somebody has a scanned version I can print out, or I could wait an unforeseeable number of months to bump into it at the library.

Add New York to the Magazine Deathwatch.
posted by joeclark at 12:05 PM on December 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


To bigots, this will only appear as an attempt to slander American Heroes! or subvert their stature to "the agenda". And the rest of us don't need to believe Washington was a "big queen" to know that people of any orientation can be noble, brave, wise or heroic.

I mean if we actually find Millard Fillmore's love letters, that's an interesting story, but obessive piecing together of supposition and context-less passages in correspondece probably isn't going to open any ideas.
posted by spaltavian at 12:06 PM on December 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


They were all gay. Every single one of them. Even if they never knew it. Even if they never acted on it. Sure, sure, you say, Rutherford Hayes never had sex with another man. And to that, I say to you: Rutherford Hayes never spent a night alone in a bedroom with David Bowie.

Sigh... If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that one...
posted by Naberius at 12:07 PM on December 28, 2009


Astro Zombie: They were all gay. Every single one of them. Even if they never knew it. Even if they never acted on it. Sure, sure, you say, Rutherford Hayes never had sex with another man. And to that, I say to you: Rutherford Hayes never spent a night alone in a bedroom with David Bowie.

If being a man and having sex with David Bowie makes you gay...

Never mind, I was trying to come up with a punch line and got lost thinking about having sex with David Bowie.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:13 PM on December 28, 2009 [26 favorites]


No man has yet passed the David Bowie acid test.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:16 PM on December 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


I for one welcome our new old gay overlords.
posted by XMLicious at 12:21 PM on December 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


If only to get one step closer to Iman.
posted by tkchrist at 12:23 PM on December 28, 2009


Astro Zombie: No man has yet passed the David Bowie acid test.

And actually I was watching some old Rolling Stones concert footage (Gimme Shelter-era stuff) and I think Jagger's strut bumped me at least a solid point on the Kinsey scale.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:24 PM on December 28, 2009


I think it's also important to note that the liver transplant Kramer received was, itself, extraordinary. To put it succintly (and without the editorializing in the previous post), Only in the past decade that hospitals in the US have even begun considering HIV+ patients as candidates for organ transfers. Here's a fairly concise article talking about the ethical and (some) technical aspects of liver transplants in HIV+ individuals.
posted by Panjandrum at 12:25 PM on December 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


Lincoln Logs
posted by Babblesort at 12:25 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yet another gay Republican scandal!
posted by FuManchu at 12:26 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm sure Kramer's (normal) heart is in the right place but it's a terrible idea, because you either don't have solid historical evidence or it's simply beside the point -- Gay Lincoln sounds funny but then serious historians have already dumped the old hagiographies so you don't really need a revisionist take. And Lincoln scholars don't think the evidence is there (and anyway it's Bi Lincoln, if at all, since Herndon says Honest Abe caught syphills from a young woman).

It's sad that the three most prominent gay men who held a lot of power in Washington are J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn and, maybe, James Buchanan. It sucks. But the more you try to "prove" with shaky evidence and wishful thinking that dead Presidents and other great men were gay, the worse you look and the less you'll be taken seriously. And Eleanor Roosevelt was quite probably gayer than Lincoln anyway. Gayer than Walt Whitman, even.
posted by matteo at 12:27 PM on December 28, 2009 [11 favorites]


probably isn't going to open any ideas

And by ideas, I meant EYES.
posted by spaltavian at 12:27 PM on December 28, 2009


people of any orientation can be noble, brave, wise or heroic

Or nasty, brutish, and petty. That's sort of the point of equality. Gay revisionism makes me sick. So what if Lincoln got it on with men? The 'identity' of being 'gay' in North American terms is mostly a post-1968 construction and is largely irrelevant in discussions of historical homosexuality.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 12:27 PM on December 28, 2009 [14 favorites]


Did I ever tell you the time I had tea with David Bowie? Well. It was only for a couple minutes in a hotel suite after my friend interviewed him for Spin.

And how you ask, how did I get to have tea with David Bowie? I gave my friend a ride to the hotel and was waiting in the car while he interviewed Bowie and we were late and couldn't find parking. So I sat in the loading zone. I guess Richard mentioned he had friend waiting in a car and Bowie chastised him for being so rude to make a friend wait on the street and made him come down and get me. How fucking classy is that.

He came out and shook my hand and everything. He offered me tea and finished the interview while he was getting dressed.

I sat there for two minutes on this plush couch thinking holy fuck it's David Bowie sitting there in a robe in the other room, possibly naked underneath, and I barely touched the tea.

And you know how you think your gonna be all witty and shit? Yeah. No. You just kinda stare and blubber.

posted by tkchrist at 12:34 PM on December 28, 2009 [11 favorites]


Yeah, dirty bagel boy has it.

Even if Abe Lincoln had sex with men, he wasn't -- couldn't -- be "gay" in the sense we mean "gay" today. It would be anachronistic, even more anachronistic than thinking of Alexander Graham Bell a "steam-punk hacker" : even if the same actions were performed (making machines with wire, putting penises in rectums), the mindset, the weltanschauung wasn't there and didn't even then exist.

So it's kind of pointless. If Lincoln put his penis in rectums, he likely thought of himself as some sort of classical Greek, not as someone looking for both exclusively male relations and public acceptance of the same.
posted by orthogonality at 12:39 PM on December 28, 2009 [12 favorites]


And to that, I say to you: Rutherford Hayes never spent a night alone in a bedroom with David Bowie.

I would be willing, in the spirit of scientific investigation, to spend a night alone in a bedroom with David Bowie in order to test my possible heterosexuality. Email in profile.

posted by jokeefe at 12:50 PM on December 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


So I'm having difficulty in grasping from the article exactly what his oeuvre will be trying to portray, as it's more focused on Kramer himself. Is it a caricature of gay historical revisionism? Is it the gay version of Zinn's A People's History? Is there any real chance of it being of any importance to people who don't know the name Larry Kramer?
posted by FuManchu at 12:52 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


tkchrist: And you know how you think your gonna be all witty and shit? Yeah. No. You just kinda stare and blubber.

Staring and blubbering is me at my most erotic.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:53 PM on December 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


So it's kind of pointless. If Lincoln put his penis in rectums, he likely thought of himself as some sort of classical Greek, not as someone looking for both exclusively male relations and public acceptance of the same.

so, in the 19th century, people just thought of gay sex as a sort of classically greek leisure activity? it wasn't, for example, illegal, socially looked down upon and (if you were religious) sinful? it was just, "oh hey, we're gonna wrassle? well alright then, i'm on top?" i'm confused by this. I know that, obviously, the notion of being gay has changed radically in the past 150 odd years, but I didn't realize it was actually a different state of being pre-1900. I know the first use of the word "gay" in film to actually mean "homosexual" was Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby in 1938. So I imagine the word must have had considerable public exposure before then, since he must have heard it, and imagined it was publicly understood, by the time he improv'd the line on the set. but I can't for the life of me figure out when it must have first become what we understand it to be, today. I also cannot figure out when it was last considered simply "classically greek" to have sex with someone of the same sex. I'm pretty surprised it would be as late as the early 1800s.
posted by shmegegge at 12:57 PM on December 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thank God Larry Kramer has been fighting the battle against homophobia and bigotry so fiercely and for so long that his own past efforts have helped render his current ones irrelevant to the point of making young homosexuals sick. And I mean that sincerely.

I remember when I came out in the 80s, there were virtually no role models. The generations ahead of me were dropping dead almost overnight because of AIDS. The community was decimated. Kramer was a bright light in an otherwise abysmally dark room. And there was a time not too long ago when the only way you ever saw gays portrayed was in a negative fashion - nasty, brutish, petty, AND perverted, immoral, fiendish, etc. - and so I remember ardently searching history for examples of homosexual men and women who had made a positive impact on the world. They were hidden heroes, and the idea that gay guys and gals might be people you admire...well, that really was news.

Nice to know that's all over. Now take the freedoms that have been granted you by the blood and struggle of others and get off my lawn. And have a nice gay day.
posted by zylocomotion at 12:57 PM on December 28, 2009 [9 favorites]


I'm just off to watch John Hurt in the follow-up to The Naked Civil Servant, but am I misunderstanding this?

When Quentin Crisp went off renting himself to soldiers and truck drivers in the 1930s, was he *really* not being gay?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:04 PM on December 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Though I'd welcome a debate with bagel boy too: I see his "post-1968" point, but I think there may have been something recognizably "gay" (distinct from just the clinical definition of "homosexual") starting in San Francisco and in Hollywood and in NYC in the post-WW2 years.

I'd agree that post-1968 it becomes something different, but I think we need to look back to the founding of the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, etc., and not just post-Stonewall.

I'm generally more inclined to be a lumper than a splitter, but whatever Lincoln or George Washington were, they weren't gay as we understand "gay".
posted by orthogonality at 1:05 PM on December 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


I have never understood the aversion to using "gay" in a historical context. Would you semantic purists feel better if we said "men who have sex with men" to avoid any possible cultural baggage?

That's really the only reasonable way to unpack it. Surely no one thinks that if you claim Lincoln was gay, you're saying he had a fondness for Judy Garland and interior decorating.
posted by episteborg at 1:05 PM on December 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


I dunno, I'd still like to know if Lincoln ever had his buddy's dick in his mouth, and debate what it meant later.
posted by mediareport at 1:07 PM on December 28, 2009


Surely no one thinks that if you claim Lincoln was gay, you're saying he had a fondness for Judy Garland and interior decorating.

I heard he a really fancy dress made in Gettysburg that was all the rave.
posted by tkchrist at 1:09 PM on December 28, 2009


Kramer seems genuinely mystified, but this is a man who also says he can’t understand why “every gay person doesn’t agree with everything I say—and I’m serious!”

I'd agree that Kramer is a hero, but life has moved on since The Normal Heart. Kramer probably wouldn't want to hear that, but it's true. As the article asks near the end, "Who is the enemy now?" Kramer doesn't function unless he's railing against somebody, but life for gay Americans has improved by leaps and bounds in the last 25 years. I would hazard a guess that even life for Kramer himself has improved. There are still "enemies," but whether those enemies would shrink before an all-guns assault of the kind in which Kramer used to specialize is another question entirely.
posted by blucevalo at 1:15 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nice to know that's all over. Now take the freedoms that have been granted you by the blood and struggle of others and get off my lawn. And have a nice gay day.

See there's a feminist saying almost the exact same thing to her younger female colleagues. And an older black guy saying nearly the same thing to the rap generation.

This is what makes history interesting: ways of looking at the worls, teh very meaning of words, change. That's why the askme today, from teh lawyer who wants to write a political biography, was so naive: because without specialist training, he can read words written in, e.g., 1850, but he probably can't understand their subtext, because he doesn't have the training to understand the milieu in which those words had their original, written meaning.

Some things are universal: we know from the graffiti preserved in Pompeii that homesexual relations were common enough there in AD 79. But it's easy to understand an acxt took place, hareder to understand what the act meant.

And all the more difficult, because the same act can have many motivations and justifications: is bleeding an ill person with leeches forward thinkingf science or gross superstition? What if it happend in 1799? What if it happens in 2009? In the Congo? In the Mayo Clinic?

Putting a penis in a male rectum means different things when it happens on Fire Island, when it happens in prison, when it happens between an effeminate black guy and a married black guy "on the down low", when it happens between two Catholic priests, when a cabin boy gets buggered by a randy sailor, when a straight guy does "gay for pay" on a porn movie set, when a Brazilian "tranny" prostitute turns her "unsuspecting" john over and fucks him in the ass.

Are all these things gay, because a penis goes in a male ass? With the essential victory of Henry Hay and Frank Kameny and the Stonewall rioters and Larry Kramer, today our default answer tends to be "yes". But prior to the Gay Rights victory, some of these penis-rectum interactions were seen differently. Through classical Greek lenses (distorted, of course by intervening years and intervening interpretations), through the lens of the Biblical destruction of Lot, through the lens of the stresses of years long forced bachelor-hood on sea voyages and in frontier towns.

Today, yes, we call it all "gay", but that has more to do with the quirks of our culture, growing out of the various struggles for acceptance by ethnic groups and for women's rights, than anything like a necessarily "intrinsic", essentialist view of sexual relations.
posted by orthogonality at 1:27 PM on December 28, 2009 [7 favorites]


blucevalo: "I'd agree that Kramer is a hero, but life has moved on since The Normal Heart."

A resistance fighter's success may be best measured by their eventual irrelevance.

As to what gayness might have meant in Lincoln's context: I'm reminded of Vidal's observation that there are no homosexual people - only homosexual acts.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:28 PM on December 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


I had no idea that Buchanan County, Va was named in honor of James Buchanan, so thanks for the wikipedia history lesson. In Southwestern Virginia they say, "buh-CAN-non" and not "byu-CAN-non"; I blame David Bowie for this perverted pronunciation.
posted by peeedro at 1:29 PM on December 28, 2009


episteborg: I have never understood the aversion to using "gay" in a historical context. Would you semantic purists feel better if we said "men who have sex with men" to avoid any possible cultural baggage?

That's really the only reasonable way to unpack it. Surely no one thinks that if you claim Lincoln was gay, you're saying he had a fondness for Judy Garland and interior decorating.


I think the point is that, prior to a certain time, men and women who were homosexual or bisexual had no social construct for this fact about themselves, and thus probably saw themselves as heterosexuals who liked different and illicit sexual activities. There was no conception of a homosexual identity.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:32 PM on December 28, 2009


post, quoting link: “From primordial Florida swamps to the homophilic colony at Jamestown to Lincoln’s male love and the “holocaust” of AIDS, he reframes the country as a gay creation, culminating with the advent of modern antiviral drugs: ‘the single greatest achievement that gay people have accomplished in history.’”

Meanwhile, the single greatest achievement that lesbian people have accomplished in history has been to look around at the world and all the important historical achievements and great speeches made by great men and so on and say: "Fuck this noise. Let's go eat some pussy."
posted by koeselitz at 1:32 PM on December 28, 2009


The 'identity' of being 'gay' in North American terms is mostly a post-1968 construction

Then the "identity" of being "straight" in North America must be mostly a post-1968 construction. As well as the "identity" of being "Baptist" or "nerdy" or "educated."


For that matter, why pick on 1968? Why not 1998?
posted by Jimmy Havok at 1:32 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ortho, I think I'd have a lot more in common with a gentleman of the 1860s who grew up having to hide his same-sex attraction from himself, his family and his society than you're implying.

A *lot* more. Not everything, surely; the cultural differences are enormous. But your position goes way too far - unnecessarily far - in the other direction.
posted by mediareport at 1:33 PM on December 28, 2009


ortho:I'm generally more inclined to be a lumper than a splitter, but whatever Lincoln or George Washington were, they weren't gay as we understand "gay".

What the hell does that even mean? I've seen your little explication above but unless I'm mistaken you seem to be equating gay with "putting a penis in another man's anus." Which is patently absurd! How can you possibly assert that prior to the same-sex civil rights struggle men couldn't fall in love with other men? Because that's how your position is scanning to me. Please clarify - because your position sounds awfully bigotted. Who are you to claim that Lincoln couldn't have been passionately in love with another man if only because "gay" didn't exist back then?
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:34 PM on December 28, 2009


Don't forget that Christianity's founder actually was gay.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:34 PM on December 28, 2009


Also, Christianity's messiah.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:37 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Today, yes, we call it all "gay", but that has more to do with the quirks of our culture, growing out of the various struggles for acceptance by ethnic groups and for women's rights, than anything like a necessarily "intrinsic", essentialist view of sexual relations.

so, to put things back in the context of this thread:

how exactly would lincoln's feelings about being attracted to or possibly being in love with another man have been different from those of someone today? I mean, I get that there's a difference between different acts, and that how one act or another had been perceived through history has been different in different times and contexts.

but in this context, in the context of lincoln possibly having had a lover, what would be the difference?
posted by shmegegge at 1:40 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


And also his ancestors. everybody's gay.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:40 PM on December 28, 2009


>>From a simple insight, it has grown to some 4,000 pages.
>Kramer doesn't function unless he's railing against somebody ... an all-guns assault of the kind in which Kramer used to specialize

Apparently, everyone's afraid to edit him.
posted by msalt at 1:41 PM on December 28, 2009


Finally, while I'm out here hawking Jenning's work, his new book "Plato or Paul? The Origins of Western Homophobia" is absolutely amazing and should be relevant reading for everyone in this thread.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:44 PM on December 28, 2009


Awesome. The reaction against the simplistic over-reaction to the simplistic "They were gay in history!" is finally here.
posted by mediareport at 1:44 PM on December 28, 2009


Joshua Speed

With a name like that I'd be more considered with closet superheroing myself.
posted by The Whelk at 1:44 PM on December 28, 2009


orthogonality: So it's kind of pointless. If Lincoln put his penis in rectums, he likely thought of himself as some sort of classical Greek, not as someone looking for both exclusively male relations and public acceptance of the same.

I'm no expert on this matter but I've read that in the 19th Century the preferred sexual act between grown men was the clamping of penis between thighs followed by the standard backward and forwards thrusting motion. If you ever come across praise of a man's thighs in a 19th Century tex you can feel free to read between the lines.
posted by Kattullus at 1:48 PM on December 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


How can you possibly assert that prior to the same-sex civil rights struggle men couldn't fall in love with other men?

Huh? I think men could fall in love with men prior to the gay rights struggle. My point is that that love wouldn't have been viewed by those lovers as "being gay": it might have been viewed a Sodomite sin, or manly Greek love, or as Christian agape or as "what seamen do at sea" or a variety of other things.

Culture creates categories for us, and most people most of the time use the cultural categories rather than creating their own new categories (and most of those enlarge or reduce existing existing categories rather than creating new categories).

Imagine that the range of human experience is a field; culture digs pits in those fields. Imagine human acts as marbles rolling across that field, falling into the pits dug by culture and collecting there together. We tend to give each pit one name, and give that name to each marble that falls into a pit, no matter the initial trajectory of the marble, or which edge of the pit it rolled down.

"Gay" is a pit that connects, enlarges, encompasses or reshaspes the previous pits of Sodomite, and Greek love, and parts of the pits of agape and "bromance" and "fraternity culture" and "locker-room grab-ass" and ....

Marbles of human acts of various trajectories, that would have previously landed in and thus been labeled as one of those things, now land in and are labeled as "gay".

To understand what Lincoln considered himself, and how his contemporaries considered him, we have to at least begin by understanding the "cultural landscape" of his times; imposing our own landscape with its different pits is a useless anachronism.
posted by orthogonality at 1:54 PM on December 28, 2009 [8 favorites]


To be more articulate:

I admire and respect Larry Kramer, but I'm alarmed that he can have missed the point of equality so very much. The point of equality, and more specifically the point of the social movement aimed at creating an equal place for gay people in society, isn't to convince the straight unwashed that GAY PEOPLE ARE GREAT! It's to convince them that GAY PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE! - no more, no less, and someday (hopefully) when every straight person openly accepts and acknowledges that fact, the gay rights movement can have a jolly little cast party, pack up its things, and go home in the confident belief that its job is done. So this gay historical revisionism thing is only worthwhile insofar as it vividly illustrates to people that there have always been gay people and always will be. The whole point was supposed to be that whether liked boy-parts or girl-parts doesn't matter as far as your intrinsic worth and ethical value as a human being are concerned. Not even the silliest queen I've ever met (and gay people can be just as dumb as straight people - right?) would ever try to claim that gay people are simply superior human beings, clearly better than their straight counterparts. That would be mind-numbingly inane, wouldn't it? So why is Larry Kramer apparently so caught up in proving that gay people are Much More Important than straight people? It simply doesn't matter, any more than it matters whether or not Hitler was a vegetarian.
posted by koeselitz at 1:59 PM on December 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


I was long ago converted to the idea that gay people are fabulous, but that's what comes from a youth misspent in West Hollywood.

Dunno if Lincoln was gay, but he seemes to go for a little light BDSM, unless I have been misreading this quote: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy."
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:08 PM on December 28, 2009


Hitler was a vegetarian?!

*quickly eats meat*
posted by shakespeherian at 2:18 PM on December 28, 2009


... it would be the greatest day ever if proof that Lincoln was gay came out ...

Erm, what might The South do with this?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:20 PM on December 28, 2009


Then the "identity" of being "straight" in North America must be mostly a post-1968 construction.

Absolutely correct. I don't know enough to personally pin down the date, but recognition that heterosexuality is a marked thing is recent. Prior to that, it was just background noise not even recognized as a state.

Two more things. One, equating homosexuality with teh buttsecks is reductive. I know y'all know that, but it bears repeating. Two, if someone funnier than me could make a joke about broadswords in a pit, I'd be much obliged.
posted by stet at 2:29 PM on December 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


imposing our own landscape with its different pits is a useless anachronism.

Perhaps Kramer's understanding of relationships between two men go beyond your penis-in-rectum reductionism.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:32 PM on December 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


Astro Zombie: “I was long ago converted to the idea that gay people are fabulous, but that's what comes from a youth misspent in West Hollywood.”

Well, AZ, I had an ethical conundrum for a long time about the fact that I have a tendency to think gay people are better than straight people. It didn't make any sense to me, and yet every time I met a gay person I found that I liked them better, respected them more, and admired them more highly than I might have if they were straight. After long contemplation and reflection on what made me see people this way, I realized that this was just a result of a subconscious prejudice that I always harbored; without even realizing it, my whole life I've been judging every single person I meet almost entirely on the basis of how good they are at sticking a penis into my butt.
posted by koeselitz at 2:38 PM on December 28, 2009 [4 favorites]


Perhaps Kramer's understanding of relationships between two men go beyond your penis-in-rectum reductionism.

This. A thousand times. This was what I was trying to say.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 2:49 PM on December 28, 2009


Perhaps Kramer's understanding of relationships between two men go beyond your penis-in-rectum reductionism.

Perhaps it does. But if Larry Kramer -- or anyone else -- said "Lincoln had a very close relationships with men that didn't involve sex", most of us in 2009 wouldn't be convinced these were "gay". That physical sexual element, reductionist as it is, is probably a necessary element to convince anyone that Lincoln was "gay".

And it's that I was trying to speak to; I'm sorry if I seemed to reduce "gay" to merely penis in rectum.
posted by orthogonality at 2:50 PM on December 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


MetaFilter: Penis-in-rectum reductionism
posted by Joe Beese at 2:57 PM on December 28, 2009


Hmmmm....

I have read most of the gay Lincoln stuff including C.A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln--the evidence is suggestive but not convincing. But if it were anyone buy Lincoln the historical profession would be having a serious discussion about this. Instead we get professional historians piling on Tripp like so many enraged Greek wrestlers, manfully defending their hero against the "slur" that Lincoln might have been less than 100% heterosexual.

Dealing with the sexuality of historical characters brings us into a maze of historically shifting definitions and ambiguous evidence. But lots of historical research is like that. And to point out modern conceptions of homosexuality are, well, modern, does not mean that people we would call homosexual today did not exist in the past.

Tripp's work, and it sounds like Kramer's as well, is dreadful agenda-driven history. But that is what you get when the historical profession refuses to investigate such questions.
posted by LarryC at 2:57 PM on December 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


Ooops--"if it were anyone but Lincoln..."
posted by LarryC at 2:58 PM on December 28, 2009


I think this has been covered academically in a very good book by Jonathan Katz, Love Stories: Sex between Men before Homosexuality.
From the Publishers Weekly review:
"This highly provocative, often startling reconsideration of 19th- and early 20th-century male-male sexual relationships begins with a detailed description of what Katz depicts as Abraham Lincoln's romantic, erotic relationship with Joshua Speed, the man with whom he shared a decades-long intimate friendship, as well as a bed for three years. While Speed himself wrote that "no two men were ever more intimate," Katz is not arguing that these two men were homosexual; Katz makes it clear that referring "to early nineteenth-century men's acts or desires as gay or straight, homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual" places "their behaviors and lusts within our sexual system, not theirs.
...[Katz| finds these men engaged in deeply loving and erotic friendship with no specific labels of sexual orientation attached"
On the topic of whether or not these men who were intimate with men would have considered themselves gay, Katz is a follower of Foucault:
"In the 16th century, the focus was on regulating the sexuality of the married couple, ignoring other forms of sexual relations, but now [with enlightenment] other groups were identified: the sexuality of children, criminals, mentally ill and gays.

"The perverse" became a group, instead of an attribute. Sexuality became seen as the core of some peoples' identity. Homosexual relations had been seen as a sin that could be committed from time to time, but now a group of "homosexuals" emerged. Foucault writes: "The sodomite was a recidivist, but the homosexual is now a species."

"The homosexual of the 19th century became a person: a"past, a history and an adolescence, a personality, a life style; also a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mystical physiology. Nothing of his full personality escapes his sexuality."

Seeing gays as a group is now taken for granted, but before the 18th century the idea would never had occurred to ask the question whether homosexuality is a function of heredity or of upbringing. It was simply not seen as being a fundamental part of the person, but instead as an action, something s/he did."
posted by ts;dr at 3:23 PM on December 28, 2009 [8 favorites]


(sorry, I forgot to add the source of that quote)
posted by ts;dr at 3:25 PM on December 28, 2009


A resistance fighter's success may be best measured by their eventual irrelevance.

By which measure Marx is the worst revolutionary in human history.
posted by clarknova at 3:26 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Very interesting quote, ts;dr. So before the 18th century, homosexuality was used basically in the way people now sometimes say, "you were gay with him" (ie as an individual action)?
posted by msalt at 3:38 PM on December 28, 2009


That physical sexual element, reductionist as it is, is probably a necessary element to convince anyone that Lincoln was "gay".

To make a pop culture analogy, I don't think people would need to see Waylan Smithers sleeping with Mr. Burns to know that he is a gay man. With respect, I think people are bright enough to acknowledge a romantic relationship without necessarily having the physical elements shoved in their faces. That doesn't deny the fact that some people have a desperate need to know everything about that aspect of a romantic relationship, but that need seems more independent of sexuality, and more tied into the part of people's brains that tunes into celebrity gossip.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:01 PM on December 28, 2009


Joe Beese: "If nothing else, it would probably be the last time the GOP described itself as "the party of Lincoln"."

And the first time in years it would have been appropriate.
posted by brundlefly at 4:07 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


msalt: well, before the 18th century, there was no "homosexuality". The word didn't exist and there was no coressponding concept, as i tried to clarify with that quote. There might have been a sodomite, but he could as well be buggering animals. But there was distinct class of people we like to call "gay" today, or homosexuals.

Here is a longer excerpt from Katz's book with many cute accompanying photographs: A friendship of the strongest kind:
"In Dodd’s day, a sen­su­al pos­si­bil­i­ty was re­al­ized only in strong­ly con­demned acts of man- to- man “sodomy” or “mu­tu­al mas­tur­ba­tion.” Sep­a­rate and dis­tinct from those car­nal­i­ties, “love” and “friend­ship” in­hab­it­ed an­oth­er, lust- free world. Thus freed of lust, love and friend­ship were the two most com­mon terms men em­ployed to name and un­der­stand their in­ti­ma­cies with other men. It some­times took a bit of men­tal ma­neu­ver­ing, how­ev­er, to keep these in­tense at­trac­tions free of any con­scious taint of flesh­ly de­sire..[…]

Two days later, still try­ing to un­der­stand his wor­ries, Dodd thought that it may be „my ----- I dare not write it in full; or it may be that my thoughts run upon ----- as much as any other thing.“ He prayed: „O that I could for a time for­get all these sources of care, both great and small.“ He even half wished for death be­fore melo­dra­mat­i­cal­ly ban­ish­ing the thought: „Away fiend, tempt me not; Avaunt, ye blue dev­ils …“ […]

Here, some­one, prob­a­bly Dodd or a pro­tec­tive friend or rel­a­tive, has torn away the diary page, de­stroy­ing a pre­cious doc­u­ment of love’s his­to­ry. But clear­ly, Dodd was struck by the sim­i­lar­i­ty of his “af­fec­tion” for men and for women. That sim­i­lar­i­ty of feel­ing con­tra­dict­ed his so­ci­ety’s idea that man’s love for men was free of lust, man’s love for women po­ten­tial­ly lust­ful. No homo/het­ero­sex­u­al dis­tinc­tion told Dodd that he was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing two es­sen­tial­ly dif­fer­ent kinds of erot­ic feel­ings. […]
posted by ts;dr at 4:08 PM on December 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


(I'm done with quoting after this, I promise)
"The in­ten­si­ty of Dodd’s feel­ings ex­ceed­ed ro­man­tic friend­ship by in­clud­ing an erot­ic el­e­ment, as Dodd him­self ap­par­ent­ly began to see. Like many men of his cen­tu­ry, he was per­plexed about what to call and how to un­der­stand his strong at­trac­tion to men as well as to women. Like Lin­coln, Dodd floun­dered in a world with few af­fir­ma­tive words for his fer­vent re­sponse to other men. In the diary of Al­bert Dodd we see how men con­tend­ed against the ver­bal void that had also left Lin­coln and Speed at a loss for words to name their mu­tu­al feel­ings. Against such con­dem­na­to­ry terms as “mu­tu­al mas­tur­ba­tion,” “onanism,” and “sodomy,” men in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry strug­gled for a new, af­fir­ma­tive lan­guage of sex­u­al love. They began to de­vel­op a coun­ter­prac­tice, at­tempt­ing to re­name, re­think, and pub­licly af­firm men’s erot­ic de­sires for men, and, some­times, their sex­u­al acts with them. Through their op­po­si­tion­al search for words, they began, ten­ta­tive­ly, to come to terms, lit­er­al­ly and metaphor­i­cal­ly."
posted by ts;dr at 4:13 PM on December 28, 2009


Like Lin­coln, Dodd floun­dered in a world with few af­fir­ma­tive words for his fer­vent re­sponse to other men.

Again, this is not so far from what many modern gay people have gone through. And again, the same-sex arousal itself was almost certainly very, very real. You can argue the term "gay" isn't the most appropriate way to describe it if you want, and I certainly see the point, but what folks like ortho do is go beyond that in a way that appears to erase the arousal element completely. Too "modern," I suppose, to imagine folks of Dodd and Lincoln's time getting hard over each other.
posted by mediareport at 4:28 PM on December 28, 2009


And the more I think about it, the more it makes me laugh. No one would assert that opposite-sex attraction started with the modern world, but suddenly when we start talking about the existence of same-sex attraction before 1900 we get all this "Hmm, well, you see, times were different back then, there were no people there who could be called gay, you see..."

It's gone too far and is frankly beginning to feel like yet another kind of culturally enforced invisibility.
posted by mediareport at 4:36 PM on December 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


"Again, this is not so far from what many modern gay people have gone through."

No, it is very far. Because modern gay men grew up with an existing narrative for homosexual attraction that they have to come to terms with now, as opposed to the models of (romantic) friendships on the one side and sodomy on the other, that they were caught in between before the invention of heterosexuality.

"And again, the same-sex arousal itself was almost certainly very, very real"

Yes indeed, nobody denied this. You are misinterpreting what orthogonality wrote.

"You can argue the term "gay" isn't the most appropriate way to describe it if you want,"

I think here you are missing the crucial point, dismissing everything ortho and I wrote (or quoted) in order to stick to a misinterpretation.
Again, it's of course out of the question that same-sex attraction existed before the age of enlightenment, but the concept people had of this attraction differed from our modern identity constructs.
posted by ts;dr at 4:57 PM on December 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


I just spent a few months buried in Lincoln scholarship and very little of it agreed with the hypothesis that Lincoln and Speed were lovers. The subject was tangential to my research so I'm certainly no expert, but the scholarship in support of the idea doesn't really convince me that the (certainly suggestive) letters between Lincoln and Speed were out of the norm for male correspondence. I'd be excited to see Kramer's work, if it wasn't for the outright assertion that he "isn't interested in proof, or facts, or the historian’s dainty calculus of context and social construction."
posted by lilac girl at 5:01 PM on December 28, 2009


really, mediareport? because i sure as hell would be quick to say that trying to describe the pairing-off behavior of people through history according to modern conceptions of [homo or hetero] romantic love and partnership is shortsighted and goofy. it seems like a basic set of emotions and desires exist in the human, but how those desires are acted upon and how they are thought of by their actors is pretty dependent on one's culture. i think claiming that people behave in ways according to the culture they're in is a long fucking way from "culturally enforced invisibility".

furthermore the concept of "homosexuality" as a static identity is pretty goddamn recent, jesus, the whole concept of having a "sexual identity" is pretty goddamn recent. do i need to go dig out my historical sex books and get boring about this.
posted by beefetish at 5:03 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


On preview, I shouldn't have bothered.
posted by ts;dr at 5:05 PM on December 28, 2009


but the concept people had of this attraction differed from our modern identity constructs.

Yeah, I studied Foucault, too, and there was a time I'd have been right there with you. But debates about culture, nature, history and otherness are far from settled, and the notion that some pre-1900 individuals might actually have carved out sexual identities in at least some significant ways similar to modern ones doesn't strike me as on its face absurd. So the vehemence with which some folks in these discussions rush to dismiss the notion that someone from the past might in some ways be appropriately described as "gay" strikes me as too quick and too neat.

On preview, I shouldn't have bothered.

*shrug*

I'm just thinking aloud here. The cultural invisibility thought bubbled up; I don't apologize for seeing a parallel there, although I'm not implying that's the intent of anyone above. It just seemed clear to me that immediately moving to deny us the use of "gay" - or even "homosexual" - to describe same-sex lovers in centuries past has at least one pernicious effect: it denies to gay and lesbian people any sort of historical tradition, despite the clear evidence for homosexuality in just about every human culture and historical era (not to mention the sexual fluidity in the plant and animal kingdoms).

That doesn't strike you as at least a little bizarre?

beefetish: jesus, the whole concept of having a "sexual identity" is pretty goddamn recent.

First, historical sex books aren't boring. :) Second, the priority we place on sexual identity may be uniquely modern, but we can certainly start talking about what kind of sexual identities were available to previous generations, how they were enforced, etc., even if they wouldn't talk about them in the same way.
posted by mediareport at 5:59 PM on December 28, 2009


From where I'm sitting, there are at least two levels to ortho et al's argument. I'd say two and a half.

The first level is simply that the terms didn't exist, and that's hard to argue with. "Homosexual" is relatively new (18th C, according to ts;dr's source); "gay" in the sexual-orientation usage is mid-20th C at the earliest. But without linking to how people experience the reality they live in, it's a sterile point. (Which makes me doubt it's what ortho & ts;dr were about.)

Level 1.5 is essentially a "lite" variation on Sapir-Whorf: If you don't have the terms, then the reality means something different to you. This is much more controversial, but I don't really see anyone getting in to duke this out so far. That's interesting to me -- it argues that people aren't getting through to that level before they make objections. There are a lot of people on MeFi who have enough knowledge of linguistics to make that comparison and it surprises me that they haven't.

Level 2 is that the experience of being a person with same-sex sexual orientation was qualitatively different prior to the construction of a "gay identity" -- or, for that matter, a "homosexual identity." Level 2 is simply saying that if you're Abe Lincoln and you're romantically attracted to men, you have a whole different set of concepts to frame that with than you do if you're Larry Kramer and it's 1968.

What's it seems to me that people are having a hard time seeing eye-to-eye on about that is just how different it would be. And I don't think we get to an answer, here, unless someone shows up with some really surprising and interesting evidence. (I find the stuff ts;dr's quoting to have potential in that regard, but I don't expect anyone else to.)

ON PREVIEW: mediareport, you've got a point about the 'historical invisibility' of homosexual people, but i think there's a fine yet important distinction that should be made. If you want to look back and notice that they exist and say "here's how their lives were similar to / different from those of gay people today", that's fine, wonderful, illuminating. But the subtle shift happens when you identify them as "gay", and people come up with something like this. Which has its value, but the value is contemporary, and it doesn't really help us understand history.
posted by lodurr at 6:10 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


It just seemed clear to me that immediately moving to deny us the use of "gay" - or even "homosexual" - to describe same-sex lovers in centuries past has at least one pernicious effect: it denies to gay and lesbian people any sort of historical tradition, despite the clear evidence for homosexuality in just about every human culture and historical era (not to mention the sexual fluidity in the plant and animal kingdoms).

That doesn't strike you as at least a little bizarre?


mediareport.. god dammit i can't find my historical sex books.

my whole historical positionality softshoe comes from a fondness for classical history, i actually haven't read any foucault - and i know it's disingenuous to say that because sexual identities in antiquity were so different than our own that calling abe lincoln gay is bullshit, but i am more likely to err on the side of caution when it comes to comparing how people were then/there to how people are here/now.

as to denying homos "any sort of historical tradition", i guess i'm not invested in the idea of a historical tradition of gaiety, and in fact it strikes me as kind of disingenuous. i guess the term "tradition" is the part that bugs me since it doesn't particularly seem like you can trace modern fagdom back to historical fag concepts beyond last century or so. and on a moment's thought it seems somehow easier to trace male homoerotic bonding ritual back through Western tradition than female homoerotic bonding ritual, but that starts going into questions of who is writing history and how, and maybe i am being an ungrateful modern queer but gay culture as it stands is pretty damn fragmented and i really feel like it doesn't actually have a lot going for it.
posted by beefetish at 7:24 PM on December 28, 2009


Are gay people really better than straight people? No, not really....but it's not surprising that many people think so, since out gay people are almost always above average.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 7:40 PM on December 28, 2009


What's it seems to me that people are having a hard time seeing eye-to-eye on about that is just how different it would be. And I don't think we get to an answer, here, unless someone shows up with some really surprising and interesting evidence.

well, speaking only for myself I'd settle for just about anything at all that gave me some idea of what it meant to be sexually or romantically attracted to the same sex in lincoln's time. I mean, we're talking about a time where gay men or women couldn't marry each other, and presumably kept their love affairs secret for SOME reason, and while ortho has given me the impression that in lincoln's case it would have been because that would simply be so trivial as to not even be worth mentioning, I find that hard to believe. I mean, 30 years or so after lincoln's death, Oscar Wilde would be jailed for "gross indecency," and I find it hard to believe that a cultural demonization of homosexual love in a culture as similar to america's as england's was would spring forth spontaneously in 30 years without at least SOME cultural identity assigned (whether it had a name at the time or not) for the act of loving someone of the same sex.

so if anyone has something... ANYTHING AT ALL... to contribute to the discussion that would actually give a reasonable approximation of what the sexual identity of the time might look like for someone with homo-erotic feelings, you'd get a big ol' thank you from me. Because right now we have a lot of academia being flung around that basically says "it's not the same now as it was then" which, hey, nobody's denying that. what we're not getting is the "here's how it would differ" that would be way more informative.
posted by shmegegge at 7:44 PM on December 28, 2009


Marx is the worst revolutionary in human history.

Marx is only irrelevant if you deliberately ignore him. Every economic upheaval we are suffering right now is predicted by Marx's analysis of capitalism.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 7:46 PM on December 28, 2009


I mean christ. foucault? please. My BA is hung on a wall in a little frame that says "this piece of paper means that shmegegge never needs to hear about fucking foucault again." let's not make a liar out of my diploma frame, please.
posted by shmegegge at 7:47 PM on December 28, 2009 [3 favorites]


i am more likely to err on the side of caution when it comes to comparing how people were then/there to how people are here/now.

Fair enough. I'll just repeat a point I made above: the notion that some pre-1900 individuals might actually have carved out sexual identities that are in at least some significant ways similar to modern ones doesn't strike me as on its face absurd.

i guess i'm not invested in the idea of a historical tradition of gaiety, and in fact it strikes me as kind of disingenuous.

I don't know about "invested," but I majored in anthro and zoology, and the tradition I'm talking about is the widespread, consistent appearance of homosexual behavior across what appears to be all human cultures and historical eras. At the very least that's reason enough to explore the idea that there may in fact be similarities over time that are worth thinking about, even as we agree to keep the thinking as non-essentialist and malleable as possible.

modern fagdom back to historical fag concepts

Ugh. Could we please not do that here? It's kind of unnecessary.*

*yes my friends and I use them too but in a place like this they just make it harder to get the occasional bigot to stop using them
posted by mediareport at 7:55 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm, essentially making what lodurr is calling the "Level 2" argument. Though I'd hasten to point out that Lincoln clearly wasn't "a person with same-sex sexual orientation" if by that we mean exclusively same sex -- he had a wife, and I don't know of any evidence that his sex life with her was limited only to sex for procreation, and not sex for pleasure. (But Lincoln's contemporary Walt Whitman probably was exclusively homosexual.)

Which underscores two things: there are a number of ways men engage in same-sex sexuality, and only some of those, then or now, involve being homosexual ("gay"), as opposed to enaging in homosexual acts.

Men may engage in homosexual acts only when women are not sexually available; whether we call them "gay" or not is semantic quibbling, quibbling that doesn't obscure that we see them as qualitatively different than persons who engage in homosexual acts regardless of the availability of sex with women.

Some men regularly engage in voluntary homosexual acts, while maintaining regular voluntary sexual relationships with women: gay sex "on the down low". Arguing whether of not these men are "gay" is pointless. What's meaningful is that they chose both to pursue homosexual sex covertly, and to pursue heterosexual sex overtly; they are clearly in a different category than someone who pursues exclsively homosexual relations, whther "out" or "closeted".

Some men voluntary engage in homosexual sex, while refusing to be the "receptive" partner, referring to their partners as homosexual ("gays", "queers", "punks", "faggots") while at the same time vociferously rejecting such labels for themselves. (Ron Cohn being my favorite example.) Again, arguing about a label is pointless, but it's clear these men are in a different category than proud out gay men, even if you can find examples of both types in the same gay bars.

Now this is just a small sample of the varieties of persons engaging in homosexual acts not even including categories like "bisexual", "bi-curious", "gay for pay", etc. We can call all of these persons "gay", but if we do so, then we're implicitly saying that our only criteria is "engages in homosexual acts". And plenty of people, both those who engage in homosexual acts (the Roy Cohns, out gays who find "bisexuals" to be annoying fence-sitters, etc.) and those who don't, would argue that "gay" shouldn't apply to some of these groups.


And that's just the variety around today. If "gay" is too broad a brush to apply to all who today engage in homosexual acts today, it's certainly too broad to apply to everyone in every human culture over the last 10,000 years.

Are the men -- all the men of the tribes -- who practice ritual homosexuality in Melanesia "gay"?
...homosexual rites are practiced extensively by numerous Melanesian tribesmen in New Guinea and adjacent islands. Young boys must "accumulate" semen for several years, either by regularly receiving anal penetration, or by swallowing the ejaculations of older males they fellate. This ancient custom springs from a religious belief system that regards sperm as the essential conduit of masculine energy; puny boys, they believe, are only transformed into virile warriors if they ingest large quantities of sperm.

"If you boys don't drink semen, you won't grow big," a Sambian elder tells prepubescent initiates. "You should not be afraid of eating penises ... it is just like the milk of your mother's breast. You can ingest it all of the time and grow quickly. A boy must be ... inseminated... If [he] doesn't eat semen, he remains small and weak."
Or should we use another term for this?

So sure, if you want to emphasize that homosexual acts are practiced in all cultures, and that there are male-male love bonds in all cultures, do so. But calling it "gay" trivializes the complexity and variety of its expression and motivation. It's great propaganda and it may be a useful technique in the struggle for gay rights, it serves to disarm opponents who want to say "gay" is unnatural and bad.

But it's also really poor historiography and anthropology, because it imposes cookie-cutter modern, Western cultural ideas, culturally loaded concepts, that may or may not fit the historical or non-Western culture you're (ostensibly) trying to understand.

I say this because I don't want to hold up a cardboard cutout Lincoln to make a point; I want to understand him in the matrix of his time.

Lincoln may have had sex with men, and if he did, good for him, but calling him "gay" -- as that term is used today -- doesn't help us to understand Abraham Lincoln. It makes it harder to understand him, because that label, glibly and facilely applied, pulls along with it our own cultural baggage. If Lincoln did have sex with men, or did love men, let's honor that not by drafting Lincoln to serve in our culture wars, but by understanding him as a unique human person, who like any person, is a product of his own time and culture.
posted by orthogonality at 7:58 PM on December 28, 2009 [9 favorites]


Your points are good ones, ortho; like I said above, I understand your objection to the word "gay" in the Lincoln context, and you certainly don't need to tell me about all the various ways same-sexness can express itself in different cultural identities (gotta love New Guinea semen rites). My argument is that there's a somewhat too quick and facile dismissal of *any* similarities between, say, the same-sex attraction of 1865 and that of today, a dismissal that seems to go hand-in-hand with "they can't be called gay!" and leaves us little or no room to begin staking out more nuanced positions on questions about differences and similarities between various expressions of same-sex attraction.

Obviously, I believe the differences are often over-emphasized at the expense of the similarities, particularly by folks who pull the "it's not homosexuality before 1900" nonsense.
posted by mediareport at 8:30 PM on December 28, 2009


Oh, whatever. Everyone knows Lincoln was a black guy with Marfan syndrome.

But, more seriously: Oh, whatever. What the hell does it matter if Lincoln was into dudes? J Edgar Hoover, it matters like crazy, 'cause that's like finding out Joe McCarthy wore Red pyjamas. Lincoln? Meh.

Besides, everyone knows Abe was a bottom.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:41 PM on December 28, 2009


I don't know about "invested," but I majored in anthro and zoology, and the tradition I'm talking about is the widespread, consistent appearance of homosexual behavior across what appears to be all human cultures and historical eras. At the very least that's reason enough to explore the idea that there may in fact be similarities over time that are worth thinking about, even as we agree to keep the thinking as non-essentialist and malleable as possible.

by "invested" and "tradition" i mean doing history up like kramer is doing with American People according to nymag, and the intensity that comes up in the argument over, for example, whether lincoln was "gay" or not. i'm all in favor of a thoughtful examination of human sexual behavior and an attempt to consider sexual practices outside of the mainstream through history but trying to pin down whether prominent historical figure x could be declared gay by modern standards doesn't seem to stem from that kind of examination. it seems more like trying to claim various awesome people as part of our team, and i can't think of an example that doesn't make me uncomfortable in an ill-defined way.

it is hard as hell not to use just the nastiest language but i am trying for you media
posted by beefetish at 8:51 PM on December 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


beefetish: “furthermore the concept of "homosexuality" as a static identity is pretty goddamn recent, jesus, the whole concept of having a "sexual identity" is pretty goddamn recent...”

Frankly, not only is the concept of "homosexuality" very recent; it's also not very useful.

What's sort of funny to me when people begin to talk about these things is the way in which certain not at all self-evident premises are taken for granted from the very beginning, with no questioning whatsoever. So this whole conversation - here, in Foucault, and apparently in Katz - centers around the question: "were men who loved other men sexually in the past able to do so as deeply as we do now, given that they lacked many of the terms we have?" It doesn't even occur to us that there is a possibility that our current terminology is in fact limiting, that it leads us to draw conclusions about ourselves which are not necessarily valid and which, while they have some social function, might often present a barrier to a fuller appreciation of our sexual experience.

To be more specific: "gay," "lesbian," and "homosexual," and most other terms of so-called "identity" which people seem so quick to hang our understanding of ourselves upon, are inventions of a largely political function. They're useful particularly (one might even argue solely) in the social movement to disarm the old moral strictures surrounding so-called "deviant" sexual practices; they are absolute ways in which people can identify with one or more of those sexual practices, removing the obscurantist moral cloud with which the old moral regime surrounded it. This has been the method of the movement toward sexual equality: as more people identify themselves as males who have sex with males, as female who have sex with females; as these people begin more and more to openly state this identification, making it more and more public; finally, as the public presence of people who are gay is more and more accepted by all member of society, sexual equality moves forward.

This is unreservedly a good thing. Amongst us, those who differed with regard to sexual practices have suffered mightily in the past; and no one can coherently claim, I think, that an end to that suffering is not a good. But even movements toward social goods can have subtle drawbacks which we should take into account and try to correct; W.E.B. Dubois pointed out in The Souls of Black Folk that the death of slavery, a boon to the freedom of millions and the greatest legacy of justice in American history, also meant the going down of the South, and though many things in the South really had to die this also meant that many fine legacies there might as well. In the same way, it seems as though we shouldn't presume that the new political legitimacy of men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women, a powerful moment of justice in its own right, carries with it terms that describe the situation in a wholly accurate way.

I think the biggest and clearest drawback of these terms is that they are absolute in a way that sexuality might not be. The political act of "being gay" and its attendant public ritual, "coming out," would not have even been comprehensible, say, to a wealthy male resident of Crete in the fifth century BC; he might be married, have a mistress, or have a male lover, or he might have a predilection for teenaged boys, or, moreover, he might do all four of these things, but why would he want to announce it to anyone? More importantly, it would not have occurred to him to act as though he were identified absolutely with any of those things; and free experimentation would not have been restricted by the natural wish to preserve a political identity. There are still plenty of social pressures on men and women who have sex with those of their own gender that I don't believe anyone steps out and takes up the homosexual identity without some consideration and commitment, but that can't always be the case; what of an otherwise gay man who meets a woman he wishes to sleep with? For the Cretan I mentioned, this is no conundrum at all; he sleeps with her. For a modern American, there is something of a political riddle here; if one has publicly identified with one particular sexual arrangement, is it necessary to dis-identify in order to engage in another arrangement? And, though I think it's clear that the "homosexual community" is largely quite tolerant of its members (though I don't know - I'm not really that involved in it) there's still the individual's questions about commitment to the cause; if I decide to renounce homosexuality to sleep with a woman, will I do the cause of gay rights harm? Will I make my friends and family feel as though I "wised up," and that others could too if they wanted to? I know that these issues can certainly usually be resolved on a personal level, but the politicization of the underlying sexual acts is what gives rise to them in the first place; that's my point.

Most importantly, I think what many thinkers who have dealt with this point have missed is the fact that, while different societies provided people with different ways of seeing things, the words and moreover the ideas which provide all the essential context for a loving sexual relationship between a man and a man or a woman and a woman are common to all cultures. In fact, I'll go further: the ideas necessary for understanding one's own sexual relationship with someone of the same sex are original in all cultures; they are present from the very beginning. One of the things we seem for forget is that, given that homosexuality is present to a large degree in all animals, homosexuality in humans is just as old as heterosexuality in humans. Foucault, who had some interesting thoughts about words but ultimately was too dazzled by himself and his own era to really put paid to a historical consideration of them, saw heterosexual society as a dominant paradigm which homosexuals in all eras have had either to co-opt or to subvert. I submit, however, that same-sex love is built into the very fabric of society from the start, that it is present fully-formed in the credos and teachings of even the most repressive societies despite the best efforts of the leaders of those societies, and that it sees expression even in what are assumed to be heterosexual tropes.

To speak less like Foucault - that is, more clearly - love finds expression in all times and places in human history. And I think if you look closely enough you'll see that, even when people thought they were talking specifically about opposite-sex love, to the extent that they said something true about what love means to humanity, they said something which is equally true of same-sex love. To suggest that Lincoln and Speed struggled to find a way to conceive of what they had between them is to ignore the fact that they clearly already had a meaningful way to see themselves: lovers. People may believe that this is a simplistic way to look at it, and there are indeed many nuances and colorations here. (In particular, I think there's fertile ground for contemplation amongst the perennial groups of people who seem to desire to assert the unintended universality of society's teachings about love by taking on another gender and playing the part with complete authenticity.) But I don't believe the sexual run-up to love is essentially tied up with all of these complex political identifications, as useful as we may find them now. If Lincoln and Speed loved each other, if they kissed each other and fumbled in the dark and languished in firm embraces until both were hot and sticky, why in god's name did they need anything more to call it? Doesn't "love" cover it?

More personally: I know experiential evidence is difficult to appeal to when I can't know what experiences people have had, but aren't there those of you out there who felt these things before you had all these words to categorize it? Before you had an idea of what it would mean to be gay? Before you knew what was supposed to go where, what most people inserted into who, how all of it is usually done? Didn't anybody here have same-sex sexual experiences before they even had any idea of the ways the homosexual community itself makes sense of them? And were those experiences any less rich or fully-formed for it?

It just seems to me that sexual experiences, and the love which results from their maturation, are prior to words and explanations. The experiences come first, following on common urges, and they are experiences which people in all times and all places have undergone. Only later do we struggle to explain them.
posted by koeselitz at 9:07 PM on December 28, 2009 [13 favorites]


So, wait, do I invite Koeslitz to the Pan-Historical Bathhaus or not?
posted by The Whelk at 9:47 PM on December 28, 2009


I would totally do or be done by David Bowie.

Just puttin' that out there.

David, do you read Mefi?
posted by DecemberBoy at 10:34 PM on December 28, 2009


As Jewish history will confirm, arguing that there is a secret cabal of gay men running the world is surely not the best way to advance gay civil rights.
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:36 PM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


As Jewish history will confirm, arguing that there is a secret cabal of gay men running the world is surely not the best way to advance gay civil rights.

Eric: So when I Like someone, I do a internet search to see if they're gay and if they're not I'm a little disappointed.
Lucy: Oh I do the same thing, but with Jews.
posted by The Whelk at 10:44 PM on December 28, 2009


Eh... it's not like there weren't homosexual identities before the modern gay identity. Here's a ballad from the 18th Century, when homosexuals were referred to as mollies and gay bars as molly houses. Hell, I'll just copy and paste it into the thread. This is from 1728.
     Let the Fops of the Town upbraid
Us, for an unnatural Trade,
We value not Man nor Maid;
But among our own selves we'll be free,
     But among, &c.
We'll kiss and we'll Sw[iv]e,
Behind we will drive,
And we will contrive
New Ways for Lechery,
     New Ways,
&c.
     How sweet is the pleasant Sin?
With a Boy about Sixteen,
That has got no Hair on his Chin,
And a Countenance like a Rose,
     And a Countenance
, &c.
Here we will enjoy
The simpering Boy,
And with him we'll toy;
The Devil may take the Froes,
     The Devil,
&c.
     Confusion on the Stews,
And those that Whores do chuse,
We'll praise the Turks and Jews,
Since they with us do agree,
     Since they,
&c.
They're not confin'd
To Water or Wind,
Before or behind,
But take all Liberty,
     But take
&c.
     Achilles that Hero great,
Had Patroclus for a Mate;
Nay, Jove he would have a Lad,
The beautiful Ganymede,
     The Beautiful
&c.
Why should we then
Be daunted, when
Both Gods and Men
Approve the pleasant Deed,
     Approve the &c.
While it doesn't square fully with our social mores there's a fairly clear homosexual identity being expressed.
posted by Kattullus at 1:39 AM on December 29, 2009 [6 favorites]


That's really the only reasonable way to unpack it. Surely no one thinks that if you claim Lincoln was gay, you're saying he had a fondness for Judy Garland and interior decorating.

I lolled, but actually...

What would it mean if we found out that a disproportionate number of the "great" people of history were homosexual? Is it likely that "destined for greatness" is also determined by whatever determines sexual orientation?

It seems to me that a more likely explanation is that what I might call "hidden outsiders" are the key concept here. A person who is outside of a culture has a different perspective on that culture. Sometimes it's less accurate or helpful (cf European opinions on American race relations) but sometimes it's more accurate or helpful (cf European opinions on American healthcare). But nobody really takes outsider opinions seriously because pfff what do they know.

However, homosexuals are largely invisible or at least can choose to be so. You can't tell a homosexual person from a heterosexual one by looking at them. They are to some extent an outsider (by virtue of their presumably strong feelings that $X while being told that $Y) but aren't discounted because of it. Because of this, they are well-situated to (potentially) have useful outsider insights AND take a leadership role in implementing them.

Under this interpretation of "gay" it doesn't actually matter where Lincoln's penis was. All that matters was if he felt deeply alienated from mainstream culture because of his (possibly unrealized) sexuality. (This whole theory may be a recapitulation of the tl;dr above that I only skimmed.)
posted by DU at 5:39 AM on December 29, 2009


By the way, I'm sort of pondering this random side-issue:

Is it just me, or is there something weird and vaguely unsettling about the way that David Bowie is the token stand-in for 'gay person'? Of course, that fact that guys are always saying that they'd sleep with him probably has something to do with it. I guess the thing that's odd to me is that he's pretty much straight, and he's said many times in interviews that the whole gay side of him is extremely overblown.

Well, and I suppose having every straight man saying they want to sleep with some other man, even if that other man is a straight or mildly bi guy, isn't exactly a terrible thing.

Me, if I'm going to get tp be with a musician, I'm gonna request Billy Strayhorn. Dude was awesome - any silly doofus who thinks gay guys are weak-willed sissies should've hung with him for a little while. Open and out gay activist? And a black civil rights activist? In the 1940s and 1950s? This is hardcore, folks. And he was one of the greatest composers in the history of jazz, and music in general, writing hundreds of classic tunes, at least three dozen of which qualify as standards. He wrote this song - with the lyrics - when he was sixteen years old. And he wasn't hard to look at, either.
posted by koeselitz at 6:13 AM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Achilles that Hero great,
Had Patroclus for a Mate;


These two lines point to something else. There's a long tradition of LGBT folks seeking historical antecedents. Oscar Wilde's courtroom defense of "the love that dare not speak its name" is probably the most famous example, but this is a fairly strong trope still. James O'Neill's 2001 novel At Swim, Two Boys is both an example of that and has a character within it who is writing about historical gay men (IIRC, it's been a while since I've read it). Kramer's American People is squarely within that tradition.
posted by Kattullus at 6:16 AM on December 29, 2009


Obviously, I believe the differences are often over-emphasized at the expense of the similarities, particularly by folks who pull the "it's not homosexuality before 1900" nonsense.

I'm with you there, mediareport.

It reminds me of one of my favorite little quotes from an essay decrying the over reliance on Foucault and postmodernism in contemporary art and literature courses in academia: "Imagine, all those ancient Greeks banging away without ever actually having sex. They were just discoursing on power, you see." (I hesitate to mention that the author is Camille Paglia, due to the baggage that - often deservedly - attaches to her name. But I think this is one time where she has a point: a lot of this postmodern philosophy and criticism seems to split semantic hairs in ways designed to erase the bare realities of sex and attraction.)

I'm also reminded - since coincidentally I've just re-watched it this past weekend - of a scene in the film Maurice, set around 1905 in Cambridge University, where during a read-aloud translation of Plato, a student is directed by the professor to "omit the reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks." That film, and the book it's based on, would be a good starting point for someone wanting to get some idea of how people in history may have experienced and learned to understand their own attractions. The closest Maurice has to a concept of a gay identity is "an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort." But he struggles with the fact that his attractions and affections seem at odds to the idea of sex between men as filth and sin.
posted by dnash at 9:24 AM on December 29, 2009


Great thread, yay us! But:
moving to deny us the use of "gay" - or even "homosexual" - to describe same-sex lovers in centuries past has at least one pernicious effect: it denies to gay and lesbian people any sort of historical tradition, despite the clear evidence for homosexuality in just about every human culture and historical era

Boy, I just don't see this being a problem. The classical Greek and Roman periods are so closely associated with homosexuality that if anything, a lot of Americans would probably be surprised to find out they had hetero sex.
posted by msalt at 10:10 AM on December 29, 2009


The classical Greek and Roman periods are so closely associated with homosexuality

And yet, the most famous recent example of American popcult dealing with the ancient Greeks not only denied Spartan homosexuality but actually used them as hetero standard-bearers against the evil homo-ish villains. I just do see that being a problem.
posted by mediareport at 12:10 PM on December 29, 2009


But male-on-male sexual relationships in that era weren't really about sexual or romantic attraction, nor were they really about pair-bonding. More often than not, they were either about group cohesion (e.g. in Sparta) or dominance (elsewhere in the Greek sphere). Otherwise, we'd expect homosexual relations to occur in a subset of the population (10-12%). (See also Ortho's comments re. practice among some peoples of Papua New Guinea.)

So classical same-sex sexual or even pair-formation practices are actually great examples of why it might be a bad idea to use terms like "gay" or talk about "homosexual identity" with pre-modern or non-western cultures.

Step sideways to modern-day Uganda, where the powers behind that new anti-homosexuality law argue that homosexuality is a western disease, introduced to Uganda by colonial overlords. (I'm oversimplifying their position a little, but I really think it's only a little.) In a real sense, they're right, since there wasn't a 'homosexual identity' that was directly mappable to "gayness" in the modern, western sense. However, most traditional peoples have had some similarly defining (and usually somewhat constraining) concept of proper roles for a homosexual man (my impression is that there aren't as many such roles for lesbians) that allowed them to have a contributing place in society. (Why discard the contributions of 10-12% of your population, after all?*) In Uganda, though, those are not going to come back if "western" homosexuality is purged because the fucking assholes perpetrating this atrocity law-makers working to pass this law have defined "homosexuality" in terms of same-sex sex. They don't give a shit about cultural niceties of identity: It's all "gay" to them. They're applying their modern-day terror to everything that involves same-sex sexual behavior.

To me, this looks like the cultural identity working against gay people, as it affords their oppressors a means to mark and eliminate them as a class. Class identity can be very powerful, but anything that powerful can also be a weakness if your enemy figures out how to exploit it.

Aside: It's interesting that this thread has barely touched on same-sex relations between women. There are some obvious reasons -- e.g., Kramer's narrative is really all about threads of power through history, and women haven't traditionally been allowed to pull those threads -- but it also seems to me that most of the people I see participating here are men. (Hard to tell, of course.) But if Kramer's narrative does focus on gay men to the practical exclusion of lesbians (or will he try to claim Abigail Adams?), I'd say that's a lethal omission.

--
*I'm not up on Foucalt, but I would expect for simple utilitarian reasons that you don't typically find stigmatization of homosexuality in cultures that have never had a high population density.

posted by lodurr at 12:24 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


But male-on-male sexual relationships in that era weren't really about sexual or romantic attraction, nor were they really about pair-bonding. More often than not, they were either about group cohesion (e.g. in Sparta) or dominance (elsewhere in the Greek sphere).

See, I really don't buy that 100%. That kind of talk sounds like you're saying "they all did it but nobody liked it."

It's been ages since I studied this stuff but.. As I recall from a paper I wrote back in college, in Athens (I think this was) it was generally considered normal for the younger male to be the "passive" partner in sex. It was considered somewhat shameful and possibly humiliating for an adult male to take the "passive" role. But the fact that there had to be such a "category" means some men did it, which sure sounds to me like they enjoyed it. So is it really such a leap from all that to think that there was sexual and romantic attraction going on?
posted by dnash at 1:34 PM on December 29, 2009


That kind of talk sounds like you're saying "they all did it but nobody liked it."

Point taken: I can see how someone would hear that. But it would be contrary to the evidence. So nobody who actually studies any of those things would think that.

As for Athenian practices (and it's been ages for me, too), my understanding is that it's not something "some" men did -- it was something that men of a certain status were expected to do. It was part of contributing to the perpetuation of the order of society. There were some pretty specific ideas around it, too -- for example, you weren't supposed to reach-around. I forget the exact formulation, but basically that was somehow supposed to not sexualize it for the younger (subordinate) partner. Which to me says a) it's about power (think Roy Cohn, but not as much of an asshole), and b) some people did reach-around, or you wouldn't have to have an ethical rule around it.

My point would be that the practice wasn't "homosexual", though doubtless (because the distribution of people with same-sex orientation is pretty consistent as far as anyone knows) homosexual men did engage in it, and presumably it meant something different to them than it did to the "straight" men. We may be able to get glimpses of that through literature, or we may be seeing stuff we don't understand because we don't grok the context. I don't think we get to know for sure.
posted by lodurr at 3:06 PM on December 29, 2009


Couldn't remember why I was going to mention this but on re-read, now I do:

In Sparta, male-male pair bonding had a superficially similar structure to that in Athens, but it was much more oriented toward martial group-cohesion, and my understanding is that the pair-bonding was of a much more overtly emotional and sexual nature. So much so that Spartan men had notorious difficulties getting it up for their wives, who would often style themselves like young boys to make themselves more attractive to their husbands.

So, yeah, it seems pretty clear if that's accurate that Spartan men "enjoyed" it.
posted by lodurr at 3:10 PM on December 29, 2009


lodurr: “But male-on-male sexual relationships in that era weren't really about sexual or romantic attraction, nor were they really about pair-bonding. More often than not, they were either about group cohesion (e.g. in Sparta) or dominance (elsewhere in the Greek sphere).”

Ahem. The beginning of Plato's dialogue Lysis, translated by David Bolotin:
Socrates: I was on my way from the Academy straight to the Lyceum, along the road outside the wall and close under the wall itself. When I came to the little gate near the spring of Panops, I happened to meet there Hippothales, son of Hieronymus, Ctesippus of Paeania, and with them other youths, standing together as a group. And Hippothales, seeing me approaching, said, “Socrates, where are you on your way to and from?”

“From the Academy,” I said. “I'm on my way straight to the Lyceum.”

“Come here then,” he said, “straight to us. Won't you stop in? It's worth it, you know.”

“Where do you mean?” I said. “And who are you all?”

“Here,” he said, showing me an enclosure set against the wall and with a door opened. “We ourselves,” he said, “pass our time here, along with a great many others—good-looking ones, too.”

“And what is this here? And what is your pastime?”

“It's a palaestra [a sort of small gymnasium for wrestling training],” he said, “built recently. And for the most part we pass our time with speeches, which we would be pleased to share with you.”

“That's a fine thing to do,” I said. “And who teaches here?”

“Your companion,” he said, “and praiser—Miccus.”

“By Zeus,” I said, “the man is not an inferior one, but a capable sophist.”

“Do you wish to follow us, then,” he said, “so that you may see those who are there?”

“I would be pleased to hear, first, what terms I'm to enter on and who the good-looking one is.”

“Each of us,” he said, “has his own opinions about who he is, Socrates.”

“But who is he in your opinion, Hippothales? Tell me that.”

At this question he blushed. And I said, “Hippothales, son of Hieronymus, you no longer have to say whether you love anyone or not. For I know not only that you love, but also that you are far along the way in love already. I am inferior and useless in other things, but this has somehow been given to me from a god—to be able quickly to recognize both a lover and a beloved.”

On hearing this, he blushed still more. And then Ctesippus said, “How refined that you blush, Hippothales, and shrink from telling Socrates his name! And yet if he spends even a short time with you, he'll be tormented by hearing you speak so frequently. Our ears, at any rate, Socrates, he has deafened and has filled them full of Lysis. Indeed, if he drinks a little, it's easy for us to suppose—even when we wake up from sleep—that we hear the name Lysis. And the descriptions he goes through when he's talking, though they're dreadful, are not quite so dreadful as when he tries to flood us with his poems and prose writings. And what's more dreadful than this is that he also sings about his favorite, in an astounding voice, which we have to endure hearing. Yet now, when questioned by you, he blushes.”

“Lysis is quite young,” I said, “as it seems. I gather this because I didn't recognize his name when I heard it.”

“That's because they don't often say his name,” he said, “but he's still called by his father's, because his father is so widely recognized. For I know well that you're far from ignorant of the boy's looks' indeed, he's capable of being recognized just from that alone.”

“Let it be said,” I said, “whose [son] he is.”

“He's the son of Democrates of Aexone,” he said, “his eldest.”

“Well, Hippothales,” I said, “how noble and dashing in every way is this love which you have discovered! But come now and display for me too the things you display for these fellows, so I may know whether you understand what a lover needs to say about his favorite to him or to others.”

“Do you attach any weight, Socrates,” he said, “to what this fellow has been saying?”

“Do you deny,” I said, “even loving the one he speaks of?”

“No, I don't,” he said. “But I do deny making poems about my favorite or writing prose.”

“He's not healthy,” said Ctesippus. “He's raving and he's mad."
If I may be permitted to comment on this passage:

Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay.
posted by koeselitz at 4:10 PM on December 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


Sorry - I should say more about ancient Greek sexuality.

dnash: “It's been ages since I studied this stuff but... As I recall from a paper I wrote back in college, in Athens (I think this was) it was generally considered normal for the younger male to be the "passive" partner in sex. It was considered somewhat shameful and possibly humiliating for an adult male to take the "passive" role.”

lodurr: “As for Athenian practices (and it's been ages for me, too), my understanding is that it's not something "some" men did -- it was something that men of a certain status were expected to do. It was part of contributing to the perpetuation of the order of society. There were some pretty specific ideas around it, too -- for example, you weren't supposed to reach-around. I forget the exact formulation, but basically that was somehow supposed to not sexualize it for the younger (subordinate) partner. Which to me says a) it's about power (think Roy Cohn, but not as much of an asshole), and b) some people did reach-around, or you wouldn't have to have an ethical rule around it... My point would be that the practice wasn't "homosexual", though doubtless (because the distribution of people with same-sex orientation is pretty consistent as far as anyone knows) homosexual men did engage in it, and presumably it meant something different to them than it did to the "straight" men. We may be able to get glimpses of that through literature, or we may be seeing stuff we don't understand because we don't grok the context. I don't think we get to know for sure.”

Well, every discussion of ancient Greek homosexuality has to start with the caveat that we don't know as much as we might want to assume we do. For one thing, really only one region of ancient Greece that we know of had this habit of writing all kinds of things down—Athens. So Athens is really the source of everything we know about sexuality in ancient Greece, including our characterizations of Spartan and other sexual traditions. We have a whole lot of material from Athens, however, and many indications there about what went on elsewhere, since it's apparent that of all the Greeks Athenians were more likely to travel anyhow.

Now, it's common knowledge that on of the uniquely ancient Greek traditions concerning sexuality was a pedophilia which seems to have been a common theme within the upper class, at least judging from the literature we have: that is, an idealized conventional penchant amongst elder males for younger men and boys. And it's true that that this convention seems to have existed. But sexuality isn't so simple, and this conventional pedophilia was neither as widespread as it may seem to us today nor the only form of male-on-male sexual expression.

As I think the passage I quoted above demonstrates, simple male-on-male sexuality between males of the same age and equal social and political maturity and status was apparently common enough to seem unexceptional. Furthermore, all the evidence we have is from writings by largely upper-class or upper-class-associated males, and looking carefully at these writings it becomes clear that the pedophilia we see on display in Plato and Aristophanes was a penchant of a small portion of the population and moreover generally frowned upon, especially by the religious establishment. There were ways in which overt sexuality was mocked and seen as something somewhat silly - one of Aristophanes' plays, the Council Of Women I think, illustrates the Greek notion that a large penis was a sign of uncontrollable lust, and therefore worthy of ridicule, by having actors who play the sex-starved male population wear large phallic representations. And some clearly thought that dalliance in homosexual sex was an indulgence for children, and that in particular the penchant of some older men for young boys was a kind of childish nostalgia which lacked the seriousness that a real man would be concerned with. (These people tended to argue that sex for procreation was a more significant pursuit. I don't think it's ever explicit there, but Callicles' speeches in Plato's Gorgias somewhat illustrate this point of view.)

Athenians also seem to have had a habit of talking about these things more than people of other cities; from Plato's dialogue The Laws, which takes place in Crete (hence my mention of Cretan males above) it appears that in Crete pedophilia was an indulgence of the very powerful but a taboo subject and a topic of some shame to them as well, and it's clear that the Cretans lack such things as literature and a habit of writing things down which can help people form an idea of sexual roles.

In any case, I don't think that we can say either that pedophilia as a category was widely-accepted in ancient Greece or that it and other sexual roles were as rigid as we might tend to think. Plato tends to idealize things because he's so interested in the beautiful, and certainly Athens wasn't always as wonderful a place as it is in his dialogues (well, they did kill Socrates in one of those dialogues, I guess) but I do feel strongly that the indication is that in ancient Athens people who fell in love just fell in love, sometimes with men and sometimes with women, and to a large extent erotic love was a concept separate from the genders involved.

But as lodurr says, we don't get to know for sure.
posted by koeselitz at 4:58 PM on December 29, 2009


koeselitz, thanks for an obviously informed perspective.
posted by lodurr at 5:24 PM on December 29, 2009


Fantastic thread in the Best MeFi tradition. I'll leave most of the bloviating to the SoAn majors, but can I just submit that something is being missed in the simplistic dichotomy of "butt sex= gay" versus "no gay but modern gay"? Some of the best argument in here fully acknowledges this bit of silliness but fails to synthesize a middle ground therein. Which is, I think, the basic problem of Kramer's work. If he's trying to force historical figures into modern gay typology, what benefit does that do for either individuals or the gay movement?

Isn't the best thing that the gay rights movement offers society the right to forge individual sexual identities? Does it really improve things that much to trade one acceptable identity for two?
posted by norm at 6:07 PM on December 29, 2009


[... and as a small aside I really, really love that Plato passage above because I think it's fantastic and moreover really important that, in all times and places, young men have felt "that way" about other young men. Ancient Greece was no paradise to be sure, but it's pretty awesome to think about the fact that it's completely possible for society to let young men talk openly to each other and to grown-ups about how attractive they find other young men. Maybe it's not actually that big a revelation that this is possible, but in this day and age I think we get used to just not picturing what that would be like - what it would be like for a 15-year-old to be able to say he's in love with another 15-year-old boy, and for the worst thing he has to fear to be his buddies giving him some mild razzing about how he won't shut up about the guy - and maybe we should spend more time imagining what that would be like.]
posted by koeselitz at 6:44 PM on December 29, 2009


what it would be like for a 15-year-old to be able to say he's in love with another 15-year-old boy, and for the worst thing he has to fear to be his buddies giving him some mild razzing

Yeah, but for classical Athenians, "15 years old" has an entirely different meaning than it does now. To think of them as comparable to fifteen year-olds in a modern Western culture is anachronistic.

(Tongue slightly in cheek. Doing a bit of a reductio ad absurdum on my own comments. Not to be confused with reductio penis rectum. But not entirely tongue in cheek; different eras really are different, even though human nature (probably) isn't. Our gestalt concept of what it means to be "fifteen years old (and male)" carries with it lots of hidden assumptions that may or may not apply in different countries, including The Past.)
posted by orthogonality at 7:20 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Our gestalt concept of what it means to be "fifteen years old (and male)" carries with it lots of hidden assumptions that may or may not apply in different countries, including The Past

I'm glad you see the absurdity of your apparent position, that every era was so different from our own that we shouldn't even talk about them because we'd be imposing our own values inappropriately.

Forgive me for being naive, but I suspect that the makeup of the human body has remained constant enough that we can make a reasonably good guess as to the hormonal condition of 15-year-olds 2500 years ago. Sure, the contemporary culture dealt differently with it than we do, but that's part of what this discussion is about.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 8:10 PM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Forgive me for being naive, but I suspect that the makeup of the human body has remained constant enough that we can make a reasonably good guess as to the hormonal condition of 15-year-olds 2500 years ago.

Median age of menarche, contemporary US, 12.5 years (but earlier for black girls).
Median age of menarche in 1860: 16.6 years.
Median age of menarche among hunter-gatherers, 17 to 18 years.

Still sure that you can guess at "the hormonal condition of 15-year-olds 2500 years ago". And which 15-year-olds? Athenians? Celts? Chinese? Wealthy Athenians? Athenian slaves?

Now you're probably right about the "makeup" of the body -- but as some very recent research controversially suggests non-trivial evolutionary changes in human populations in the last 10K years, even beyond the stuff, like lactose tolerance and red hair, that are not controversial, even that is not something we can "just assume".

But diet and living conditions and culture varied widely (indeed varies widely among people living today, across the globe), and so no, we can't even assume a fifteen year old has experience puberty. Likely the wealthy Athenians koeselitz was telling us about had, but in the abscence of evidence, it's an assumption.

And these assumptions, these things that people -- people who aren't trained historians -- just blithely assume "must be true", lead them into all sorts of ahistorical blunders.

And one of the best sources of blunders is to take a term that has a lot of baggage, and retroactively, anachronistically apply it -- often in a sensationalist manner that leads to lay people uncritically applying the label as it is used today.

"Alexander the Great was gay!" "Egyptians were black!" "John Stuart Mill was a Liberal" (or: "Mill was a Libertarian!") "The Founding Fathers were Christian!" "King Arthur was English!" All of these things are sort of true, or can be kind of justified, in some sort of literal denotative sense, but are patently false in the sense that the loaded connotations of those labels don't apply in the way lay people almost reflexively construe them.

And that's what annoys me about this retroactive awarding of gayness: it just obscures historical truth, in order to score worthless "one more for our side" points.
posted by orthogonality at 9:32 PM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Further to koselitz's point, here are some bits from Plato's Symposium, a dialogue whose setting is a dinner party at which the greatest minds in Athens talk about love.

Early on, Plato has Pausanias put forward a theory of there being two Aphrodites:
And am I not right in asserting that there are two goddesses? The elder one, having no mother, who is called the heavenly Aphrodite - she is the daughter of Uranus; the younger, who is the daughter of Zeus and Dione - her we call common; and the Love who is her fellow-worker is rightly named common, as the other love is called heavenly. [...]

The Love who is the offspring of the common Aphrodite is essentially common, and has no discrimination, being such as the meaner sort of men feel, and is apt to be of women as well as of youths, and is of the body rather than of the soul [...] The goddess who is his mother is far younger than the other, and she was born of the union of the male and female, and partakes of both.

But the offspring of the heavenly Aphrodite is derived from a mother in whose birth the female has no part, - she is from the male only; this is that love which is of youths, and the goddess being older, there is nothing of wantonness in her. Those who are inspired by this love turn to the male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature; any one may recognise the pure enthusiasts in the very character of their attachments. For they love not boys, but intelligent beings whose reason is beginning to be developed, much about the time at which their beards begin to grow. And in choosing young men to be their companions, they mean to be faithful to them, and pass their whole life in company with them...
Later, Plato has Aristophanes tell a well-known story: human beings used to have two heads, four arms, four legs, two sets of sex organs; but they offended the gods, and Zeus used his thunderbolt to cleave them all in two [see also].
Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature. Some indeed assert that they are shameless, but this is not true; for they do not act thus from any want of shame, but because they are valiant and manly, and have a manly countenance, and they embrace that which is like them. And these when they grow up become our statesmen, and these only, which is a great proof of the truth of what I am saying. When they reach manhood they are lovers of youth, and are not naturally inclined to marry or beget children, - if at all, they do so only in obedience to the law; but they are satisfied if they may be allowed to live with one another unwedded; and such a nature is prone to love and ready to return love, always embracing that which is akin to him.

And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other's sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover's intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment. Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side, by side and to say to them, "What do you people want of one another?" they would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: "Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another's company? for if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live a common life as if you were a single man, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul instead of two - I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire, and whether you are satisfied to attain this?" - there is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.
Aristophanes was, in life, a mocker of philosophers (especially Socrates) and enthusiastic teller of buggery jokes; it's doubtful as to whether Plato intends him to be a philosophically sound voice. However, I've emboldened the phrases which seem to refer to the idea of categories of sexuality, which might indicate a classical precedent for the "homosexual" label. In any case, Plato's writings would certainly have been available to Lincoln in a variety of translations.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:12 PM on December 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pallas Athena: “Aristophanes was, in life, a mocker of philosophers (especially Socrates) and enthusiastic teller of buggery jokes; it's doubtful as to whether Plato intends him to be a philosophically sound voice.”

This doesn't impact your argument, but it's pretty clear to me that, while at first glance it may appear that Aristophanes is 'hostile' to Socrates, he wasn't really and truly hostile to him or to Socrates. First of all there's the simple fact that contemporary sources, chief among them Xenophon, refer to Aristophanes always and only as Socrates' friend. Second there's the niggling fact that by all accounts the beliefs and theories of the Socrates presented in the Clouds (Aristophanes' play in which the comic, silly character Socrates appears) bear absolutely no relation to the thoughts of Socrates recorded in Xenophon and Plato. There are indications of the reasons behind this throughout Plato; in the Phaedo especially (but also elsewhere) Socrates describes his "turn" earlier in life during which he realized through the words of the oracle that he must turn away from the sky and from astronomy and set his mind on human things. It's pretty clear to me that Aristophanes was describing in the Clouds the pre-turn Socrates, and that moreover Socrates, far from being stung or hurt by Aristophanes' criticism, probably saw it for what it was: the criticism of a friend.

And I think Plato knew full well the depth of mind of which Aristophanes was capable; the Symposium shows that, and Plato's Aristophanes here is one of the most interesting and (frankly) Socrates-like characters in all of Plato. I had a very good teacher once who actually made the argument that Aristophanes is in fact the only character in Plato who equals Socrates. At any rate, the Aristophanes of the Symposium isn't a hostile character - Aristophanes was never hostile to philosophy - and I don't think Plato saw him as such, at least any more than Nietzsche saw Plato, the man who he said was "always looking over my shoulder," as a hostile writer.

You're also leaving out the fact that the Pausanius of the dialogue is a pretty despicable character who nearly advocates rape; but that's not really part of the substance of the argument. Anyhow, very interesting stuff, thanks.
posted by koeselitz at 11:00 PM on December 29, 2009


So before the 18th century, homosexuality was used basically in the way people now sometimes say, "you were gay with him" (ie as an individual action)?

Well, that's what Foucault would have you believe, but it seems an inadequate explanation for the likes of the Theban Sacred Band, for example.

It's gone too far and is frankly beginning to feel like yet another kind of culturally enforced invisibility.

Kind of like insisting heterosexual men are such insensible, emotionally retarded brutes that any examples of emotional closeness are proof they are gay?

And, though I think it's clear that the "homosexual community" is largely quite tolerant of its members (though I don't know - I'm not really that involved in it)

The experience of bisexual man and women I know would suggest not, and neither would the ramblings of Dan Savage, the self-analysis of Alison Bechdal, or random other gay and lesbian work like Go Fish, although the latter two are at least thoughtful and introspective; Savage is just a bigoted dick.

And yet, the most famous recent example of American popcult dealing with the ancient Greeks not only denied Spartan homosexuality but actually used them as hetero standard-bearers against the evil homo-ish villains. I just do see that being a problem.

And being rude about the Athenians for being gay. Millar jumps through a lot of angry and disingenous hoops when given shit about that one in interviews, all the while claiming his comic is excrutiatingly historically accurate.

If he's trying to force historical figures into modern gay typology, what benefit does that do for either individuals or the gay movement?

Frankly, a lot of the "gay revisionist" arguments sound to me more like a bunch of homophobic fratboys - "You like spending time with your buddy, woah, there that's a bit too much time, queerboy. Talking about your feelings again? Must be a fag!"

So put me in the "thinking of it as not so helpful" camp.

Forgive me for being naive, but I suspect that the makeup of the human body has remained constant enough that we can make a reasonably good guess as to the hormonal condition of 15-year-olds 2500 years ago.

My grandfather, in common with men of his time, left school at the end of compulsory education at the age of 12 and went to work to earn money to support his family. I'm pretty confident the emotional life of a 13 year old who was in part responsible for putting food on the table of a typical large working-class family is quite a bit different to that of a modern 13 year old, biology be damned.
posted by rodgerd at 1:10 AM on December 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


jimmy Havok: I'm glad you see the absurdity of your apparent position, that every era was so different from our own that we shouldn't even talk about them because we'd be imposing our own values inappropriately.

I remain at a loss to understand why anyone here ever thought that was ortho's position.
posted by lodurr at 8:31 AM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


rogerd: My grandfather, in common with men of his time, left school at the end of compulsory education at the age of 12 and went to work to earn money to support his family. I'm pretty confident the emotional life of a 13 year old who was in part responsible for putting food on the table of a typical large working-class family is quite a bit different to that of a modern 13 year old, biology be damned.

Oh, jesus hallelujah here's an amen. Orthogonality did a great job with the nature, but honestly, thank you for adding the nurture.

And as "get of my lawn" as it sounds, "Kids Today" have very different attitudes from kids when I was a kid, and they were different then from what they were when my parents were kids. We have a hard enough understanding those small differences over time within the same culture -- why do we presume it's easy to understand the differences over 2500 years?
posted by lodurr at 8:44 AM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Millar jumps through a lot of angry and disingenous hoops

Frank Miller, not Mark Millar. Two different people.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 8:29 PM on December 30, 2009


koeselitz: good points all; thanks for the clarification. It's reassuring that the relationship between Aristophanes and the Socratic set might not have been that bad.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:32 PM on December 30, 2009


"He admitted to me that he made the whole thing up. He said he made it up to raise consciousness"

"That he is reviving this hoax is a little bizarre," said Holzer, whose day job is p.r. for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "For half his life, Lincoln shared his bed with other guys. It was the custom. People didn't have so many beds."

from the NY Post, quoting Harold Holzer, Lincoln scholar
posted by FuManchu at 10:03 PM on January 2, 2010


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