Homosexuality and the historian

An article in the Guardian a few weeks ago caught my eye, discussing scientific research into the causes of homosexuality. (It doesn’t seem to be on the website now, but there is a version at http://www.boston.com/news/globe/magazine/articles/2005/08/14/what_makes_people_gay/?page=ful. I hadn’t realised that there had been so much progress, beyond simplistic ideas of finding a ‘gay gene’. There are obvious scientific/ethical issues: Eve Sedgwick (in Epistemology of the Closet) reckoned that the problem with ‘nature’ ideas of homosexuality is the lurking prospect that it might be possible to eliminate/prevent homosexuality. And if fetal environment is key, down the line I can see a range of alarmist newspaper articles about how if a pregnant mother does X,Y or Z their child is more likely to end up gay. (As an aside, it was only when I was pregnant that I realised how frequent pregnancy scare stories are and how deeply unhelpful, because so vague/impractical. The worst when I was pregnant was one about how too much worrying was bad for your unborn child (see http://www.bris.ac.uk/news/2002/stressedmums.htm). So to the natural worries about pregnancy, you then have to feel guilty about worrying).

I’m not sure about the wider significance of these findings, if they are confirmed. I suspect that it won’t make much difference to religions/denominations that condemn homosexual activity, even if they accept the science. The theologians can still argue that a genetic/environmental predisposition to particular behaviour doesn’t make it morally right. Though it would be good if it knocked on the head the idea of ‘curing’ homosexuality and claiming that gay people could deliberately change their orientation (as opposed to remaining celibate). It would also be helpful if it lessened concerns that gay people could ‘convert’/’corrupt’ others. (The best comment on the possibility of gay teachers ‘promoting’ homosexuality, incidentally, was from the comedian Mark Steel. He points out that he had teachers who spent 5 years of secondary school promoting algebra to kids and it had almost no effect, so what chance did a few odd remarks about homosexuality have?)

As a historian, one of the things that interest me is how much this new research goes against the prevailing trend of research on the history of sexuality, which follows closely a social constructionist line. In particular, it seems to me possibly a belated justification for John Boswell and his much maligned ‘essentialist’ views of gay people. I think Boswell, whose breakthrough book was ‘Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century’ (see http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/pwh/index-bos.htmlfor longer bibliography and discussion) has suffered from a lot of unfair criticism for using ‘gay’ for the Middle Ages. His definition of gay people as ‘those whose erotic interest is predominantly directed toward their own gender’ seems to fit very well with these scientific ideas, by concentrating on orientation/desires rather than acts. Boswell’s formulation sidesteps the problem that in the Middle Ages there are a lot of clergy and monks who weren’t (that we know) sexually active, but do nevertheless seem to have had gay sensibilities. The problem it introduces in return is deciding what counts as erotic. (There is a separate issue of whether Boswell was right in his interpretation of particular pieces of evidence, and in some cases he seems quite clearly wrong (e.g. on underestimating the significance of penitentials). But even if a lot of the detail in the book has been discredited, it’s still a very important work just for the questions it raises, about whether Christian theology and attitudes about homosexuality have always and everywhere been the same).

So where does this leave historians who hold to the social construction of sexuality? (I would include myself among that category). I think for moderate social constructionists, like myself, it isn’t really a major problem. I would make a distinction between sexual actions and desires, which are in principle almost universal, and the social meanings given to them. So a man who likes having sex with other men would be thought of in Ancient Greece as either a manly man or a degenerate (depending on what forms the same-sex sexual activity took), in the Middle Ages as a wicked sodomite and in modern liberal circles as someone expressing his natural sexuality.

The bigger problem is for the more hardline social constructionists, who see homosexuality as invented in the nineteenth century (as Michel Foucault, David Halperin etc do). You can certainly argue that that is the first time that word is used, and the invention of the word was closely tied up with a new medical/psychological discourse that pathologised the ‘homosexual’. But if the latest studies are right, even though the idea of sexual orientation as being a key facet of one’s sexual behaviour is a recent classification, and one that brings in all kinds of baggage, it may nevertheless be a relatively accurate representation of reality. (I’m an old-fashioned historian in that respect – I believe there is some reality out there).


3 thoughts on “Homosexuality and the historian

  1. Whatever your views are on homosexuality I am not that sure why it is necessary to be so concerned about it. The sexual preferences of an individual are their own concern.. and as long as said preferences are not actively promoted by them and foisted on others… so what?

    None of this is new. It is pre-Biblical.


  2. The key reason historically that Christian societies have been so concerned about homosexuality is the story in Genesis 19 about the destruction of Sodom. *If* you interprete this as being about the sin of homosexuality (rather than lack of hospitality or homosexual rape), then it shows that an entire community can be horribly destroyed by God for allowing this sin in their midst. This was a genuine worry at times in the early Middle Ages. I would argue that the Frankish elite were at times genuinely panicking about sodomy as endangering their empire. (They were not always panicking about homosexuality, and they often blamed other sins for their ‘punishment from God’, which argues against them simply chosing gays as a convenient scapegoat.)

    On the other hand, homosexuality is often a convenient sin to condemn, because it’s one that a lot of men are seemingly not particularly tempted by. If you have a sin that is likely to be committed only by a minority, it’s far more comforting to one’s congregation to focus on that as particularly wicked rather than a sin that everyone is prone to. (The key New Testament text on homosexuality is 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10, where St Paul lists those who won’t get to heaven. How many sermons are there on the fact that the greedy also won’t get to heaven?) I suspect that’s the reason that homosexuality (and abortion) have now come to be such key ‘religious’ issues. (I want to write more about ‘performance indicator’ Christianity if I ever get time).


  3. There is a comfort element in religion that demonises minorites such as homosexuals.. it’s true but maybe that is set to change.. at least in certain Christian enclaves. In fairness though, many sermons do get an airing on the subject of greed.. which is ironic in a way since that affects most people.. and particular “the church” in all its forms. This is not confined to material wealth either, but it is about greed for power too.
    your “performance indicator Christianity” sounds an interesting subject.. if you can ever define what Christianity is, and in whose perspective it is interpreted!


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