What did it mean to be queer in the ancient world?
Author: Dr Catherine Armstrong
Historians working on the queer past often contend with naïve assertions questioning whether gay, lesbian, bi, trans people, or non-binary people even existed in the past. My answer to this is always ‘of course they did’. I then go on to explain the reasons why LGBT+ individuals, along with members of other marginalised groups, appear too infrequently in the historical record – archival and published works which tell us about our past.
Individuals belonging to groups fearing ostracization and persecution would naturally choose to go ‘stealth’ and reveal their true selves to very few people. Thus, the visibility of LGBT+ individuals is diminished in historical moments when they faced hostility. But more than that, there is an imbalance within the surviving historical record which ensures that few stories from the past about members of this community are told.
Writers of the record were often simply not interested in recording this information about someone’s sexual or gender identity. Writers themselves held prejudicial views and did not want to foreground the experiences and lives of those considered shameful by the values of their time. And unfortunately it is only recently that historians have deliberately challenged those views and have begun to truly value the diverse stories of LGBT+ people from the past.
It is wrong however to think that LGBT+ people have faced consistent persecution throughout history, in all times and in all places, or that there is a linear narrative of progress in which the nearer one gets to our own time, the better the situation gets. In the Ancient World intimate and physical gay, lesbian and bisexual relationships, or presenting a different gender identity to the one assigned at birth, was apparent and even highly regarded in specific circumstances.
However, as Alastair Blanshard, Chair of Classics at Queensland University has written, Ancient Greece was far from the ‘gay utopia’ depicted by Oscar Wilde. Same sex courtship was highly ritualised and there were often serious imbalances in power that suggest abusive relationships were common. And although in some of his works, the philosopher Plato said that same-sex relationships were the epitome of love, elsewhere he’s argued that being gay is unnatural.
Regarding gender identities in the Ancient World, eunuchs were present in aristocratic courts in China, India, the Middle East and parts of Africa. Some eunuchs such as the Hijras of India and Pakistan, mentioned as early as the fourth century BCE in the Kama Sutra, were trans individuals, assigned male at birth who identified as women. Others lived as non-binary people, while still others continued after their castration to identify as men. Many eunuchs were enslaved people who were castrated against their will, but then some of these occupied high status advisory roles and lived lives of luxury. Therefore, the experiences of LGBT+ people in the past are more complex and varied than at first appears.
Article image Cornelis van Haarlem, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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