graphic by Ria Kotak
While the concept of a unified LGBTQ+ community is a fairly recent conception, the components that make the acronym are as timeless as time itself. Narratives around the LGBTQ+ community hint at it being a recent development of queer individuals. I cannot tell you how many times I have read online “everyone is gay these days” or “back in my day there were only TWO genders” from people who are less than delighted that their homophobic views are no longer tolerated. What I aim to do is explore queer history and bring to light what was once hidden from many people. Our first stop is a place that we all know very well.
Now, we all know that Ancient Greece was heralded as one of the cradles of Western civilization. We also know how gay the Greeks were.
The most common union for same-sex relations was pederasty. Essentially, this is when an older man pairs with a pubescent or adolescent boy (until he can grow a beard, then he is considered a man).
Pederasty is believed to be a remnant of Greece’s prehistoric tribal past, with texts alluding to similar rituals long ago. Tribal Greece was organized according to age groups, and in order to embrace manhood, young boys were paired up with men, to learn the ways of Greek life and adulthood responsibilities.
In tribal Greece, a boy would leave with an older man outside his tribe, and become a member of the older man’s tribe; once the rise of city-states began, boys would stay within the confines of their city and pair up with a man there, as opposed to looking for men outside his immediate vicinity. It was a convention for a man to court the boy he fancied, and for the boy to withhold interest for a while. The latter was used to prove the interest of the man was not purely sexual.
Intimate relationships in Greece were age-structured, regardless of gender. Same-sex coupling was dominated by men, mainly due to the increased autonomy awarded to men and held from women. This is not to say same-sex female relationships were uncommon. Sappho of Lesbos, arguably the most famous queer person in classical Europe, was a woman-loving-woman.
Famous Greek writers such as Homer, Plato, and Herodotus have all discussed same-sex relationships. The only caveat I would give is that Greeks did not view sexuality in the same frame modern Western states view sexuality. Each person’s role in penetrative sex was more important than their individual gender. The “active” penetrative role was associated with masculinity and adulthood, and the “passive” penetrated role was associated with femininity and youth.
Homosexuality played a vital role in the military ranks of ancient Greece. Its main use was to boost morale among soldiers. Thebes had an army unit reserved solely for men and their lovers. Homer’s Iliad, one of the hallmarks of ancient Greek literature, depicts the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, a prime example of how homosexual relationships in the military were used to make better soldiers. If you are fighting beside your lover, you want to show off.
Cultural standards and conventions all play a role in same-sex relations and how they are perceived. Greece today has strayed away from this mindset and has adopted an Orthodox Christian mindset, where same-sex marriages are not legally recognized, and hate crimes are common throughout the country. As someone who identifies with the LGBTQ+ community, it is very jarring to look at how a country so normalized to homosexuality become a homophobic place. It could mean, however, that the recent rise in homophobia is a relatively recent and modern development. The hegemony of the Christian Church could be the biggest factor in this. The Roman Empire contributed a lot to the Catholic Church’s spread, especially the Eastern Roman Empire’s adoption of Orthodox Christianity into Greece.
As we can see, ancient Greece, one of the powerhouses of the ancient world, helps us see how queer history is not recent inception. Queer people did not come into being with the Stonewall riots. We stretch far back. Ancient Greece, however, was not the only ancient civilization with queer people. I aim for this to be a multi-part series since ancient queer history is too much information for one piece.