I have made it no secret that I am not pleased with the caliber of the debate on gay issues. Gay writers and activists repeat the same mantras over and over again and label nearly every idea they disagree with as “anti-gay.” Their social conservative opponents are no better; they seem to think that all gay people have the same “lifestyle,” that we are incapable of committed monogamous relationships and that such relationships are little more than two individuals shacking up so that they can more easily pursue sexual dalliances.
It never occurs to those people that gay relationships can have as transformative and effect on the individuals involved as marriage has for straight individuals. And with few exceptions (for example, Andrew Sullivan’s first piece on gay marriage), it doesn’t seem to occur to gay people to talk about that “civilizing” potential of gay marriage.
Fortunately, for my class on Græco-Roman Mythology (part of my graduate program), we are required to read a book that has long been on my list of books to re-read. As I began reading Plato’s Symposium, this weekend, I realized that although that it was written 2,400 years ago, it remains the best book on gay relationships ever published. And remains as fresh as relevant today as it was in classical Athens.
When several Athenians, including Socrates, gather at the home of the playwright Agathon, ostensibly to celebrate his victory in the competition for best tragedy, but in reality to discuss love, a number of celebrated citizens, including the comic playwright Aristophanes offer their theories of love and relationships, with a focus on, what we today would call, gay male relationships. Phaedrus observes how such love can be effective in “implanting something which gives lifelong guidance to those who are to lead good lives,” to help one gain a “sense of shame at acting disgracefully and pride in acting well.” (All quotations are from the Gill translation.) And learning such behavior would not only benefit us in our individual lives, but make us better citizens as well, better able to serve our community — and our nation.
Pausanias held that “not every type of loving and Love is right and deserves to be praised, but only the type that motivates us to love rightly.” But neither he nor anyone else at the dinner party interprets loving “rightly” as narrowly as do many social conservatives in America today, limiting it to relationships between individuals of different genders. Those who “love rightly” shun tricking younger men and don’t leave their one-time beloved “with a laugh, running off with someone else.” A relationships is not a ruse nor a casual endeavor. An individual who loves rightly seeks to “produce virtue” in his beloved — to “help him improve in wisdom.” Thus, relationships served to increase one’s understanding and make the lover a better person.
I only begun to tap into the wisdom of this great work, but encourage you all, indeed, all those who seek to participate in a serious discussion of gay marriage to read, re-read and ponder Plato’s Symposium. And let these ancient ideas influence our thoughts today so we can better contribute to the contemporary conversation.
-Dan (AKA GayPatriotWest): GayPatriotWest@aol.com