Those who belong to marginalised communities are probably familiar with the (often infuriating) retort that ‘things are better now than they were!’ And for the most part this is objectively true; industrialised slavery is now a thing of the past (and, if you didn’t know, we just had the first black American president); the battle for Women’s suffrage has been won (almost); and gay men and women can now legally marry in a small, but growing proportion of the world. With all of this behind us, we don’t have much to complain about, right? Should the social justice warriors finally call it a day, and bask in their gratitude for how far we have come? Nope. And in fact, when it comes to issues of progress, and equality, we ironically might learn a thing or two from ancient civilisations.
Queer history is something that has been largely erased out of our collective consciousness; same sex relationships and ideas about gender fluidity still carry a lingering taboo, and as such, remain issues that we like to ignore when teaching children about the world. We rightly expect schools to be zero-tolerance against homophobia and sexism, but simultaneously, have yet to reach a point where gender and sexuality are discussed in a mature and detailed way which acknowledges, and celebrates, that every individual inhabits a unique position on a borderless spectrum – and should have the unadulterated freedom to do so.
A first step to addressing this would be to add LGBTQ history to school curriculums – something that Jeremy Corbyn has previously come out in support of. It wasn’t until recently, when I visited the British Museum exhibit – Desire Love Identity: Exploring LGBTQ Histories – that the full importance of this became clear to me. Because all too often, matters of sexuality and gender are considered modern ones, and almost out of place during older times of supposed rigid tradition and fixed social norms – before ‘political correctness’ took over and made everyone loopy. Indeed, The narrative of queer history that is replayed in our society often begins in the twentieth century – and purposely or not, conjures an untrue perception that queerness is something that isn’t as natural, or as ingrained in our human history, as cishet identities are.
It’s slightly embarrassing to concede that as a gay man, even I was taken aback by the exhibition – which (in commemoration of the 50-year-old sexual offences act) features a display of objects, from old to new, which narrate the queer experience. In addition, the museum has created a trail of LGBTQ-related objects dotted around the premises that give visitors the chance to explore the geography and timeline of queer culture and think about how that pertains to today’s reality.
The exhibition highlighted that although millennia have transpired between us and our ancient ancestors – in many cases, their handling of gender and sexuality was far more allowing of nuance. Indeed, it’s quite something that in 2017, the likes of Piers Morgan refuse to accept the legitimacy of anything outside a gender binary. But in 18thC (B.C) Mesopotamia, the Kurgarrus – followers of the deity Ishtar – were men who were recognised to have had their gender ‘flipped’ by the goddess. A reverence for androgyny and gender interchange can also be traced to societies in South America, Asia, and the Pacific: The Mayan maize god and the Hindu god Shiva have historically both been depicted with male and female aspects. It’s clear that the artists could comprehend gender in a complex way, and think beyond the restrictive, illogical, binary system of categorisation.
The European part of the trail provided a much more vivid expression of sensuality – and the objects narrate a story of eroticism and desire that borders on the hedonistic. Greek trinkets and cups on display are overtly suggestive and speak of an age where sex was viewed very differently to today’s consensus. Seemingly, the prudishness surrounding sex was non-existent: These were a people who acted on impulse – pleasure seekers who weren’t restricted by prohibitory social norms that dictated acceptability within the realm of sexual expression.
This theme apparently continues into ancient Rome, where for a time, same-sex relationships (including marriage) between men were culturally accepted, and mainstream enough to be depicted on objects such as the Warren cup – which vividly depicts a scene of homosexual sex. It amused me to think about how shocking this would be today if people casually drank out of mugs embellished with photographs of gay men having sex. Of course, this would be an absurdity, because sex still has a lingering sense of shame attached to it – it’s an impolite and embarrassing topic, and not something couth, civilised people are open about.
So what happened? Well, the rise and dominance of Christianity no doubt has a lot to do with the conversion to sexual conservatism. The first Christian Emperor, Constantine, was the first to outlaw same-sex relationships and marriages in 4thC B.C, and it seems that things went downhill from here. As Christianity expanded its reach across the globe, constructs of masculinity and femininity were cemented into stricter binary gender roles, where the nuance of the human character was lost. Language to describe same-sex relationships was invented, separating them from ‘normal’ heterosexual ones, and ‘sodomy’ would be punishable by death for centuries to come.
In colonial times, the British Empire’s ‘civilising mission’ included the exportation of these gender-restrictive, homophobic values to the African communities they colonised; unbeknownst to me, the Bamana people of Mali had also shown tolerance of same-sex couplings and had an awareness of gender outside of the binary. But Empire brought an end to this, and like many other indigenous societies, the Bamana were no doubt forced to adopt the correct, civilised way of being that the West had formulated.
Now, I concede that this notion that things were great and free before things were ruined by conservatism is a bit simplistic and perhaps naïve. The exhibit makes it clear that although same-sex relationships were not unusual in Greece and pre-Christian Rome, context was everything – and such relationships were only accepted as long as masculinity (as it was understood then) remained intact; male lovers usually had a significant age difference that by today’s standards would be considered non-consensual.
Furthermore, it’s well known that the Roman’s attitude towards sex and gender meant that abuse of women was commonplace – the rape, abduction and literal ownership of women during this time somewhat mars the glossy picture of gender equality. It’s also not difficult to notice the lack of lesbian relationships on display – in a patriarchal society that granted men ultimate sexual freedom, women were most likely restricted from such liberation. And make no mistake, this is a story that largely ignores ordinary people – men and women alike – who didn’t live the lavish, opulent lifestyles of those who left physical mementos for us to scrutinise. We must be careful not to assume that the lives of exceptional beings who stood the test of time are representative of whole societies.
And finally, there are issues with translating content that is thousands of years old – it is difficult to temporarily inhabit the mindset of somebody who lived an existence totally, and incomprehensibly different to our own. Language was used in a very different way, and our interpretations of written sources possibly fall flat in revealing their true meaning; although it is tempting – especially as someone in the LGBT community – to draw definitive conclusions, the reality is that there are probably multiple possibilities and explanations to many of the artefacts, that don’t imply a utopian, genderless world.
With that said – the exhibition remains incredibly powerful and thought-provoking. Whether we are able to translate these sources 100% effectively is honestly beside the point, because there is concrete information we are still able to take from them. Masculinity and femininity are evidently constructs that are far from static; today, a ‘real man’ involves being straight – gender and sexuality are inextricably entwined – but millennia ago this was not the case. Indeed, homosexuality was allowable within the confines of masculinity – so much so that archetypal male figures like Zeus and Hercules were understood to engage in gay relationships. An understanding of the frail, shaky nature of gender as a construct is so crucially important if we hope to transform society into one that is accepting of people’s own identities. And at the very least, an appreciation that gay people have lived and loved for as long as humanity has existed, and that trans/homophobia (like racism) is something that was constructed and learned, is something that benefits everyone.
When we are taught about the Roman Empire, it would be revolutionary for example to talk about how Nero had not one, but two gay marriages. And Hadrian, who fell in love with a young man called Antinous, grieved so much after his death that he apotheosized him, founded an entire city on his behalf, and erected statues to remember him by across the world. To teach this history would be a huge step to empower LGBTQ-identifying children, and allow future generations to see the world in a way that is more inclusive and open. A retreat back to 400 B.C may not be the cure for our unhealthy relationship with LGBTQ issues, but an understanding, and appreciation of our history certainly could be.
The ‘Desire Love Identity: Exploring LGBTQ Histories’ exhibition will be featured at the British Museum until the 15th October. Further information about the objects on display, and a broader overview of the history of same-sex desire can be found in the fascinating book, A Little Gay History.