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A Very Queer History of the World

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A white woman with rainbow bangs in a white tank top  and jeans holds a rainbow flag for LGBTQIA+ pride against a pink backdrop.
Dang kids and their rainbows on your lawn! (Anna Shvets / Pexels.com)

Certain groups of people like to claim that, in some golden past, queer people didn’t exist. They act like gay people, lesbians, and other identities that fit under the LGBTQIA+ banner are a fad. If you’re lucky, they might admit that queer history extends back a couple of centuries.

Almost nothing could be further from the truth. Although the language we use is different today (and always evolving), queer people have existed since time immemorial.

So, let’s take a look at the very queer history of the world as we know it.

The Queer History of Ancient Greece and Rome

Let’s hop to a fairly well-known example: Ancient Greece and Rome. These two civilizations are revered as the basis of Western culture, the beginnings of Europe.

I’m not quite sure why people today claim Greece and Rome were the “cradle” of European civilization, then go on to say queer people are an invention of modernity. Both Greece and Rome were hella queer.

In Ancient Greece, the highest form of love was between two men. What we term pederasty—love between a younger man and an older man—was considered the pinnacle of love.

By and large, heterosexual marriages were about reproduction, not love. Love no doubt did happen, but women were generally seen as some kind of burden. Marriage and children were duties, to some extent.

What about the Ladies?

Of course, with all the man-loving going on, you might think women were out in the cold. Not so: we get the word “lesbian” from the Greeks. It originally referred to the island of Lesbos, where there was a colony of women who practiced woman-loving. Their most famous member is the poet Sappho—which is where we get the word sapphic. Sappho’s poetry is full of references to loving women.

Even the Greek gods were in on the act. Apollo mourns the loss of his male lover Hyacinth, and Achilles and Patroclus were more than just good friends. Historians in later eras have attempted to push the myth that queer people did not exist by suggesting that characters like Achilles are merely experiencing deep platonic friendship, but given Greek culture, it’s more likely that these relationships are representations of romantic and sexual love.

All right, what about the Romans? Bisexual/pansexual was the basic identity for the Romans.
This was later turned against them, of course, by the Christians. Christianity argued that part of the reason Rome fell was due to “hedonism,” including sexual sin. If you’ve heard anything about wild Roman orgies, that’s partially Christian myth. The intent was to make Roman civilization seem completely debauched, so that people would turn to Christianity.

Medieval Europe Was Less Straight Than You Think

All those monks were totally celibate, right? Actually, there’s some good evidence that some monks and nuns were gay. If you were a gay man or a lesbian, wouldn’t it make sense to go live in in a cloister with other members of your sex?

There’s also some suggestion that many of these people were actually asexual. Yeah, the Middle Ages was a good time to be asexual! Sex was sinful, although some saints acknowledged it as being necessary. Celibacy was the ideal—no sex, no romantic love. Becoming a saint and marrying Jesus was much better.

You might imagine that asexual individuals did fairly well in that environment.

Not Everyone Was Saintly or Straight

We know same-sex coupling is still going on in this era, as even Chaucer talks about it. The Pardoner’s Tale is full of hints that the pardoner himself is, well, less than straight. The church also promulgated sodomy laws (which can include heterosexual acts). If someone is making laws to ban it, someone is probably doing it.

If we look beyond Christian Europe, though, we see a wider world of queerness happening. Just outside of Christian Europe, there’s the Viking civilizations of the north, which make reference to same-sex couplings between men. Norse mythology also tells us about shapeshifting Loki, who gives birth as a mare and, in some variants, as a man. Thor himself does some drag in a few of the myths.

Looking beyond Europe, we can see all kinds of queerness existing in many cultures the world over. In Japan, we see shunga art, which includes homosexuality among the depictions. In some parts of China, men were allowed to marry men until the end of the 1700s. And in North America, two-spirit individuals existed and even occupied important roles in many Indigenous groups. Even the Muslim world and the Hindu world were, well, pretty queer (what, you thought the Kama Sutra was straight-only?).

We can always look to mythology here as well. In Hindu myth, we can see tales about gods and heroes who change their sex, perhaps representing something similar to transgender narratives.

Renaissance and Early Modern Europe Throw Back to Greece and Rome

The Renaissance was obsessed with Greece and Rome—which is why all those Renaissance paintings include Roman gods and goddesses. Renaissance scholars wanted to go back to the good old days. They believed the Roman empire had been the pinnacle of European culture and power. They also believed the Middle Ages were a backwards blight, when a lot of the knowledge of the ancients had been “lost” to Europe. Medieval India, China, and the Muslim world had kept that knowledge alive and even improved on it. Europe had stagnated.

Renaissance scholars sought to undo that trend, seeking to “restore” the knowledge of Greece and Rome. They eschewed what they saw as the Church’s backwards stance against science and reason. Notable here is that we get the Reformation out of this, with Martin Luther arguing against stuff like the veneration of saints and their relics—“magic.”

The Elizabethan Notion of Same Strengthening Same

Also notable is that same-sex love came back into vogue. Yes, Christian Europe adopted the idea that the highest form of love was between people of the same sex.

This was particularly popular in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare’s works are full of homoeroticism, and some scholars even believe that he may have had male lovers. (Some people also aren’t sure if Shakespeare is a single person, so take that as you will.)

A painting of William Shakespeare dress in black with a white collar, showing a gold hoop in one ear; Shakespeare's sonnets are thought to be addressed to a man, making good ol' Bill part of queer history.
Gaaaay! Or maybe bi or pan. We don’t really know.

The theory was that whomever you loved, you would become more like them. So, when a man loved a woman, he would become more feminine. In turn, she would become more masculine.

People thought that was less than ideal; women should be feminine and men masculine, so the ideal was to love someone the same as you. In this way, men became more masculine, and women became more feminine.

Into the early modern period, we can see queerness persisted, via legal records. We can also see stories about many of the monarchs into the Enlightenment era. James I of England, for example, was believed to have taken male lovers, most famously the Duke of Buckingham. There is a passageway between their bedrooms in certain castles, and we can look at their correspondence to see the affection.

In France, Louis XIII was known to take a shine to certain men, and he likely had sexual relations with them. In Sweden, Queen Christina presents an interesting case: contemporaries describe her, on occasion, as boyish or manly. She never married, and eventually abdicated the throne. Was Christina a lesbian, an asexual woman, an intersex individual, or even trans masc? We don’t really know, but it’s quite possible that she might identify as “some kind of queer” today.

Queer History Beyond Europe

The Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment were also the Age of Exploration, when Europeans were busy “discovering” new places. Many of these “new” cultures have rich histories of queerness. I’ve already mentioned Japan and its tradition of shunga, and China’s legal gay marriage lasted well into the 1700s.

In the Americas, many Indigenous peoples recognized and respected two-spirit individuals, those who channel both male and female spirits. Third genders are well-represented in Asia and Polynesia as well. Third-gender traditions exist in Tonga, Thailand, and, yes, India, just to name a few. And we’d be remiss not to mention African peoples as well.

So, in short, people were doing a lot of queer things all around the world for a lot of history!

A Biological Precedent

We can look to biology for support that human beings are pretty much pansexual by default. You’ve probably heard that chimpanzees are our closet living relatives.

We actually have another very close cousin, one that we don’t talk about much: the bonobo.

Bonobos are pretty chimp-like in appearance, but they are all about sexual promiscuity. Females get it on with females, males get it on with males. Everybody is just doing everybody in bonobo society. Almost any social interaction can be a precursor to sex—from greeting a friend to apologizing. You don’t even need to be mates!

What we can see from our close cousins here is that there’s a biological hardwiring for queer activity. We’re the only ones who get weird about it. And really, a lot of human cultures and societies have actually been pretty down with sex and queerness.

Biology Supports Queerness as a Strategy

There’s some support for the idea that queerness is a good thing in a hyper-social species like humans or bonobos. First, it helps strengthen social bonds, which are really what we rely on to keep each other alive. Human beings succeed because we’re really good at communicating and working in groups.

Second, queer couples and queer sex don’t always result in reproduction. That can be helpful in an environment where it takes a lot of time, effort, and resources to raise offspring. If not every adult has kids, then there may be more adults to provide resources to children. In turn, more of those kids thrive and survive to adulthood.

In an environment where illness, injury, and death are common, queer couples can become adoptive parents. Asexual individuals don’t necessarily reproduce, but they can take on parenting roles or provide extra resources for strained parents. Gay couples may not have children of their own, but they can adopt orphaned children or, again, provide extra resources. Queer individuals might reproduce, but they might also form multiple relationships (polyamory), which gives their children access to more resources.

So, yeah, queerness within a social species is actually an advantage! Not every adult will be bogged down with their own kids, so there are more resources to help raise kids up.

And in social species like bonobos and humans, sex is much more than just reproduction.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

As noted, probably the majority of human cultures and societies throughout history have been kinda chill about queer people. So what the heck happened?

Christianity, for one thing. Rome was vilified by early Christians as a bedlam of sexual sin. Christian missionaries came to the Americas and Polynesia and tried, in many horrific ways, to stamp out Indigenous cultures. Two-Spirit people have suffered and continue to suffer under the Christian paradigms imposed by missionaries and settlers alike. The same is true in Africa.

But Christianity can’t be the only thing, not when we can look to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to see some pretty blatant examples of queerness. So while it is one factor, there is a truly tangled ball of multiple influences, including colonialism, racism, religion, misogyny, and capitalism.

All of these influence intertwine to create the kind of virulent rhetoric we see today. Patriarchy wants dominion over women. It’s thus hyper-invested in defining who is a woman and who is a man. Once it has definitions, it restricts rights for women and punishes men who fail to comply with their assigned “role.”

Why Everyone Has Their Nose in Your Business

Patriarchy also looks to control reproduction. It holds that children (and women) are property. This plays right into colonial/racist fears about needing to keep white women “safe” from Black men and others. Women are held to be the key to upholding the “purity” of the so-called white race.

Capitalism, of course, intertwines with these narratives. Slaves and indentured servants are types of workers. They are particularly exploitable, particularly vulnerable—and capitalism loves to chew them up and spit them out. Capitalism seeks to control reproduction to ensure a steady supply of cheap labor. If everyone reproduces, then we can maximize the workforce, while also creating fierce competition for scarce jobs. That drives down labor costs as people fight tooth and nail over the shittiest jobs imaginable.

It doesn’t hurt to mention that capitalism is also invested in property. Under patriarchy and racism, property includes women, children, and anyone of color.

The erasure of queer history, the effort to make queer people look like some “new fad” is all part and parcel of efforts to corral queerness, to ensure most people adhere to the “straight, cisgender” narrative Western society likes to peddle.

Acts of Rebellion

Being queer and learning queer history are thus acts of rebellion against these destructive forces.
A queer future isn’t something to be afraid of. People in the past were queer, and they got on just fine. In fact, it’s arguable that they got on better than we do, in some ways. Ancient Greeks and Romans were bisexual or pansexual, but they still got married and had kids. In China, gay men got married, for centuries. It didn’t cause the downfall of the empire or Chinese civilization to stop existing. The Renaissance was pretty dang queer, and it gave us some of the heights of European culture—in painting, in literature, and so on.

And, if we want to talk strictly on a biological front, bonobos are still here. Their biggest threat is humanity—not sexual promiscuity, other bonobos, disease, illness, or anything else.

It’s time to ditch the Victorian-era notions and move fully into the twenty-first century, by reclaiming history in all its queer glory.

About the author

By Cherry

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