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Today it’s a short post, coming to you straight (ironic) from the growing frustration caused by some ancient lesbian research. Scholars of Classics and Ancient History tend to use words like ‘same-sex desire’ or ‘homo-eroticism’ to describe the experiences of ancient LGBT+ people. It’s basically like how some people describe their ‘man-crush’, or ‘girl-crush’, it’s kind of a distancing method, making sure others won’t mistake their attraction for being gay.

Most scholars will agree that throughout history, there has been a tendency towards hiding the sexuality of gay and lesbian individuals, due to cultural homophobia, particularly the perceived impact of sexuality on morality. A good example of this is Sappho – a female poet who wrote about her love for other women. In other words, she was a lesbian, queer, gay af. While her poems seem to make this pretty clear, it is only recently that the scholars have generally agreed about it – historically, Sappho’s sexuality was erased.

It might seem surprising, but in Renaissance Italy, it was largely other women who promoted this erasure – she was their ‘proof’ that women could be successful in the arts, and they wouldn’t lose her to the religiously-condemned gay community. This ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy surrounding Sappho was later increased into active correcting of her sexuality – deliberately casting her as straight. In early English translations of Sappho’s work, the translators chose to change the pronouns of the lovers she described, in order to convince their readers that she was straight.

Even modern classical scholars aren’t immune to this (frankly homophobic) response, with one author writing:

“[Sappho] would have had no idea what people mean when they call her nowadays a homosexual”

Really dude? Really?

The most commonly used argument for why we can’t call ancient people ‘gay’ is because they didn’t have the same idea of sexuality as us. That’s true! In ancient Greece and Rome, men were supposed to be ‘the penetrator’ - regardless of who they were having sex with. If a man was having gay sex, that was cool – as long as he was topping. For the bottom however, he was acting ‘like a woman’, which the patriarchal societies were never too keen on. In modern times, while the gay community heavily uses labels like top, bottom, or vers/switch – it’s not suggested that these are different sexualities. So yes, I do agree that being gay in the ancient world wasn’t exactly the same as being gay in the modern world. But that’s because sexuality (and how we label it) is a social construct. Social constructs change and develop alongside their societies – just take a look at marriage. In parts of the ancient world, it was common for a man to be married to more than one person at once, like Alexander the Great’s dad, who had seven (!) wives. It’s easy to find tonnes more cases of ancient marital practices which we wouldn’t consider ‘normal’ today – such as marrying their siblings, or the worldwide historic practice of selling young girls to much older men. These practices are more than just ‘unlike marriage’, they’re often considered morally wrong. And yet scholars have no problem still identifying them as marriage. The only time you’ll see ancient historians skirting around the word ‘marriage’ is, in fact, when it’s considered gay – Nero’s marriage to his husband never gets discussed in the same way as his marriages to his wives.

So now we’ve chatted about that, let’s consider the double standard between how scholars talk about marriage, and sexuality. Marriage in the ancient world was by no means the same as marriage in the modern world, yet we still identify them as marriages. So what about being gay? Would Sappho understand us labelling her as a lesbian? Sappho’s poetry looks a lot like the 'yearning' of me and my lesbian friends, who all can see themselves reflected in her works. I’ve recited Sappho poems to not one, not two, but FOUR LGBT people I’ve dated and, like Sappho, constantly talk about how beautiful my girlfriend is. Would Sappho have identified herself with us? I think so.

By saying that Sappho can’t be considered gay, scholars are sending an underlying message that sexuality is cultural, rather than natural. I mean let’s go back to that quote: about Sappho having ‘no idea what people mean when they call her a homosexual’ – if I tweeted ‘erm – actually Augustus would have had no idea what people were on about if they called him a heterosexual’, I think people would have some problems with that.

Having romantic or sexual same-sex feelings isn’t solely a modern creation as Sappho’s poetry shows, so it’s ridiculous to state that ancient people couldn't identify as queer. But more than that it maintains the construct of shame around sexuality - when enough scholars repeatedly tell you ancient people weren't LGBT, an underlying message emerges that being gay is somehow inferior. Alexander the Great can’t have been gay, Julius Caesar wasn’t bisexual, Sappho wasn’t a lesbian. Honestly I’m tired of it. If you can say Alex the Great’s mum was married to his dad, you can use the word gay when you’re describing his relationship with Hephaestion. The idea of different sexualities might be a social construction, but no more than marriage, or childhood, or a tonne of other subjects that scholars don’t have any problems labelling. Gay isn’t a bad word – Classics please stop treating it as one.

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Andrew Hobley
Andrew Hobley
May 08, 2020

Well argued post. I think part of the issue is we are not ancient Greeks/Romans/whoeverians. So when I use a word, even a word used they used - say 'democracy' - you (that's a generic you, not Yentl) give the word a different meaning - perhaps 'free votes for all people in annual elections' than if Socrates uses it - 'votes for all male citizens (not slaves or women or foreigners) who can get to a daily public meeting'. So a populist politician with a classics background (no idea who I could be referring to here) can talk about 'Athenian democracy as a Good Thing' and 95% of the audience have no idea that, from our perspective Athenian democracy NOW…

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