Burn This

Published in: July-August 2004 issue.

Homosexuality & CivilizationHomosexuality & Civilization
by Louis Crompton
Belknap / Harvard University Press
623 pages, $35.


TO “LOOK BACK on the history of homosexuality in the West,” writes Louis Crompton in Homosexuality and Civilization, is to view a kaleidoscope of horrors: Justinian’s castrated bishops; the dangling corpses of Almeria; the burning of the ‘married’ couples in Renaissance Rome; the priests starved to death in cages in Venice’s Saint Mark’s Square; women burned, hanged, or beheaded on the charge of lesbianism; men tortured and burned by the Spanish Inquisition; Indians savaged by Balboa’s mastiffs or burned in Peru; the deaths at the quemadero in Mexico City; the men and boys of Faan; and the scores of men and adolescents hanged in Georgian England. All these atrocities were committed with the certainty that they were the will of God, necessary to stave off the kind of disaster that had overwhelmed the Cities of the Plain.

Faan is a small town in the Netherlands where a local politico afraid of losing power instigated in 1731 a sort of homosexual Salem Witch Trial that resulted in the strangling and burning of 21 local men, nine of whom were teenagers (one fifteen, another fourteen). The Cities of the Plain, of course, are Sodom and Gomorrah.

These disparate places, so distant in geography and time, are linked by (what else?) the Christian religion—whose official persecution of homosexuals seems to have started when the emperor Justinian discovered that accusations of sodomy could be used to destroy people whose wealth he coveted (the same motive that would move the French king Philip the Fair to destroy the Knights Templar in the Middle Ages). This disheartening and fascinating history—which begins with Homer and ends with Bowers v. Hardwick—may leave you stunned. Between The Iliad and the repudiation of Georgia’s sodomy law, so many homosexuals were put to the torch that one has to surmise that this is the origin of faggots. This lexical link may be the only aspect of the subject that Crompton (an emeritus professor of English at the University of Nebraska) does not address in an account that, despite its reasonable, gentle tone, amounts to a devastating J’accuse!

In Crompton’s history homosexuals are simply scapegoats—the cause of everything from loss of tribal identity to famine to long hair. And it begins with the Jews. The famous proscription in Leviticus, Crompton writes, stems from a threatened tribe’s attempt to differentiate its religion from that of its enemies, whose temples and rites happened to include kadesh (transvestite

Solidus of Justinian I, 538–565. Minted in Constantinople.
Solidus of Justinian I, 538–565. Minted in Constantinople.

male prostitutes). Nevertheless, the claim that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis targets homosexuality is wrong, Crompton argues. To Ezekiel and later commentators of the Babylonian Talmud, Sodom’s sin was the selfishness of rich people who refused to help others—or, as a writer in 1644 put it, “pride, excess of diet, idleness and contempt of the poor.” Yet the claim that homosexual rape caused the destruction of these two mud towns doomed gay people for centuries to come.

Nevertheless, Judaism “in itself has had very little direct influence on the fate of homosexuals.” Its offspring, Christianity, is responsible for that. John Boswell (Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, 1980) was wrong, Crompton says; Christianity did not become homophobic in the 12th century; it was homophobic from the start. And because of Christian figures like Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Philo of Alexandria, it only got worse. Of the Piazzetta—that lovely site in Venice that connects the Doge’s Palace with the Grand Canal, where countless people on vacation have had their photos taken—Crompton writes: “In all likelihood more homosexuals died on this spot than anywhere else in Europe before Hitler.”

Homosexuality & Civilization is not only about persecution; it is also about the achievements of homosexual artists, soldiers, kings, and poets. Most people know by now that the ancient Greeks identified homosexuality with heroism and virtue. (The Romans, alas, associated it with buggered slave boys.) But this book made me reread Shakespeare’s sonnets and Thomas Gray’s elegy—and make a note to get the letters of the Duchess of Orleans.

The Duchess of Orleans (Madame) was married to Louis XIV’s brother (Monsieur)—a screaming queen who happened to be very brave in battle—and wrote letters to her relatives that described the homosexual goings-on in courtly Europe. There was nothing quite like Versailles—though Renaissance Italy was rife with faggots too (both kinds). At Versailles, homosexuality seems to have been tolerated because the homosexuals were aristocrats. In Florence, the Officers of the Night (the vice squad) were arresting tailors, butchers, laborers, and artisans. There the zeal for killing eventually turned the citizens off, and Savonarola himself was burned. In Spain, however, during the Inquisition the cruelty was enthusiastic.

It’s not a contest, obviously, though certain horrors stand out. When Justinian was Emperor, for instance, the people of a city in Greece whose favorite charioteer had been jailed for loving a boy were so upset when the general in charge refused to free him that they assassinated the general; Justinian then invited the townspeople to the Circus to see the games and while they were there massacred every one of them.

Justinian’s vengeance shocked the Empire, so he did penance (ah, Catholicism!) before St. Ambrose in the cathedral in Milan. Sadistic cruelty, however, characterized every European country’s pursuit of homosexuals—though this did nothing to remove the inclination. The most touching part of this book may well be when a prosecutor reflects in the midst of a pogrom that homosexuality might be something men are born with, as “a poet is born with rhyme.” (Evidently, when you consider the saying, popular in Europe, that this was a vice practiced by English monks, French aristocrats, and the entire country of Italy.)

The heroes in this sordid saga do not come till very late—the Marquis de Sade, Denis Diderot, Jeremy Bentham—though de Sade was considered a lunatic, Diderot’s reflections weren’t published till sixty years after his death, and Bentham thought it ill-advised to publish anything on the topic, since one could not even discuss the issue in a rational fashion without being accused of it oneself. In 18th-century England the spittle flew very thick—homosexuals in the pillory were subject to so much garbage they sometimes died before reaching the gallows—a climate Crompton described to great effect in his earlier study, Byron and Greek Love (1985). Not only were the English homophobic, they were homophobic with a self-righteousness that turns the modern stomach—unlike the Italians, if we ignore the very nasty Savonarola and Bernardino da Siena.

If one has misgivings reading Crompton, they have mostly to do with the slippery concept of same-sex friendship. (The Ladies of Llangollen—the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas of 18th-century Wales—threatened to sue when someone called one of them “masculine.”) For all the places where we recognize our modern selves (Paris had gay bars in the l8th century), there are others where, even after reading, say, Crompton’s interpretation of a letter from William of Orange’s lifelong favorite to the king (who Crompton argues was clearly homosexual), one wonders: What exactly is going on here? One wonders too about the treatment of China and Japan—countries with a rich cultural history of same-sex love. If the book bogs down, it’s in the survey of the literature from these golden ages—which the author lauds in contrast to Christian Europe’s sadism and superstition. (Though Crompton pauses more than once to say that Western culture owes an incalculable debt to Christianity, he does so only to resume his catalogue of its crimes.)

In the end it was the revolt against Catholicism—in a very Catholic country, France—that seems to have freed Europe from its murderous scapegoating of homosexuals. It was the Code Napoléon of 1810 that abolished penalties for sodomy—leaving Protestant England and its colonies with laws that were not wiped out until (in our case) the overturning of Bowers v. Hardwick. In England, homosexuality was not decriminalized until the Wolfenden Report in 1967. In Protestant Germany, Article 175—which the Nazis used to imprison 50,000 homosexuals in death camps (an estimated 15,000 did not survive)—was not abolished until 1969. In Paris the subdivision of the police department assigned to controlling homosexuals was eliminated in 1981. In Israel, the Knesset did not decriminalize sodomy till l988.

All this constitutes a deeply depressing record that makes the present moment of assimilation all the more bizarre. (But some things never change: although priests in previous centuries were often accused of sodomy, only rarely did the Church hand them over to civil authorities, since, when they did, they were burned too.) Homosexuals have been so recently reprieved that their release from ostracism, torture, and death resembles, in relation to the span of Western history, the one-minute-to-midnight analogy that scientists use to explain geologic time—yet we still have with us the Islamic crazies and the African Episcopalians disgusted by the English and American acceptance of a gay bishop.

Reading Crompton puts these homophobes in context. Handsomely illustrated, completely devoid of jargon, gracefully and modestly written, Homosexuality & Civilization is still a page-turner. Read it in a leisurely fashion, a bit before bed each night. Be prepared for the fact that some epochs and cultures will interest you more than others—and be warned that if you tend to view the human race as a bunch of murderous, paranoid, bullying baboons, Homosexuality & Civilization will not dissuade you.

Andrew Holleran’s latest book of fiction is a collection of short stories, In September, The Light Changes.