Whenever I read some “accepted” text on homosexuality or see the section on homosexuality throughout history, I’ll be astounded by how many historical figures it labels as “gay.” Now, to be sure, with many of them, there is some evidence they took a same-sex lover, described the beauty of members of their own sex or had otherwise manifested such attraction. What was troublesome about the tactic of labeling such individuals as “gay” was the application of an identity established in our era to describe individuals from a period long gone.
The Native American berdache (or two-spirit) lived a far different lifestyle from that of modern gay men and lesbian. A berdache was an individual who lived in the guise of the opposite sex, marrying a member of his (or her) biological sex, but (usually) assuming the social responsibilities of his assumed sex and always wearing its costume. In many cases, this was not by choice.
But, could we say that they were “gay”?
Now, from what we know about Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, the evidence is pretty strong that each great writer was exclusively attracted to members of his own gender. And while some gay people want to claim Abraham Lincoln as their own, all available evidence suggests that he was bisexual at best (as it does for Cary Grant).
We today believe that our sexuality is an immutable characteristic, that someone is either born straight or gay, or that it is determined very early in our childhood. But, was our sexuality always so? We can peruse the documents that have survived of the world that existed before our forebears began considering the immutability of this characteristic. While the ancient Greeks allowed men to take a young male lover outside the bonds of matrimony, with strict rules governing their sexual expression. Aristophanes in the Symposium, posited that some people are drawn to members of their own sex, indeed pointing to the host of the gathering, Agathon, a just such an individual. That tragic poet lived together with Pausanias and did not marry a woman.
More than five centuries after Agathon’s death, the Roman Emperor Hadrian maintained the pretense of marriage while taking a Greek (male) lover Antinous. (All evidence suggests that his marriage was a most unhappy one.) But, was he, by contemporary standards, “gay”? Was he only attracted to men?
We will never really know. In the end, the real problem with calling Hadrian “gay” as it is with applying the same descriptor to Achilles and Alexander is the difficulty of applying contemporary standards to ancient individuals. What is important is that each did love a member of his own sex and that stories of homosexual love go back as far as the earliest historical records.
FROM THE COMMENTS: ILoveCapitalism builds on my point:
Guessing the orientation of historical figures is a fool’s errand because there is no way to know. We can make inferences based on the little information available to us; also known as “taking a guess”. How do we know what we know about Hadrian? He could have been a raving heterosexual who had some bizarre reason for pushing Antinous before the public, a reason that we don’t know. I’m not saying he did, only that the historical record is far more fragmentary than we usually admit or realize.