Art and homosexuality may seem like a strange combination, but both phenomena have been part of human history from the beginning of time, or at least from the beginning of recorded civilization. Bringing together two large concepts—art and homosexuality is, nevertheless, difficult and challenging. Both categories raise a host of conceptual problems and pose a series of unresolved nagging questions.
Unlike “art,” the other term in this book’s title, “homosexuality,” can be defined more specifically. Homosexuality and its emotional aspects have existed in all cultures and in all time periods long before the invention of the term. It is and always has been one aspect of the very complex domain of human sexuality. The way homosexual love and sensibilities are visually expressed is often a reflection of the status of homosexuals themselves within their particular cultures. These images are an indication of either the degree of tolerance in those societies, or the sign of an increasingly restrictive prejudice fostered by traditions and religion.
In the modern West, homosexuality is often thought about in binary notions of sex and gender. The very notion of homosexuality in the West implies that same-sex feeling and expression, in all the many different sexual and erotic forms they take, constitute a single thing, an integrated phenomenon called homosexuality that is distinct and separate from heterosexuality. However, in the ancient, pre-modern, and non-Western societies presented in this book, the sameness or difference of the sexes of the persons who engaged in a sexual act was less important than the extent to which sexual acts either violated or conformed to the rules of religion or to the norms of conduct or tradition deemed appropriate to an individual’s gender, age, and social status. For this reason, discourses of pederasty (from the Greek meaning “love of boys”) and sodomy (anal sex) as these related to class, age, and social status were more significant than the fact that the two partners were of the same sex.
Concerns over the morality of homosexuality or sexual inversion are typical of modern rather than pre-modern approaches. What we call homosexual behavior was not frowned upon, for example, in ancient Greece. However, there were strict social rules that governed such behavior. In ancient Athens, a homosexual relationship between a teenage boy and a mature man was generally regarded as a positive phase of a young man’s educational and social development. Indeed, such relationships were celebrated in the various dialogues of Plato, in vase and wall paintings, and in lyric poetry. At a certain point in his development, however, the adolescent was expected to marry and father children. What was frowned upon in such intergenerational sexual relationships was passivity and eager compliance in anal copulation. It should be stressed, however, that for the ancient Greeks, there was no underlying moral, religious, or social basis for censuring the erotic relationship between males that conformed to the expected hierarchical arrangement involving an adult male and an adolescent boy.
Homosexuality in the art of the non-Western world operated along the same lines as in ancient Western cultures. However, it was due to territorial expansion and campaigns of conquest beginning in the sixteenth century that Westerners forged contacts with previously unknown peoples and cultures in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Arab world. The moral values of the West were soon imposed upon those who were conquered. Cultures that had celebrated homosexuality in their past art, rituals, and native traditions, were soon forced not only to abandon them, but to perceive them as evil and morally reprehensible (see Saslow, 109–111).
The complex historical and social development of homosexuality in the Western world indicates that it is more than simply a conscious sexual and erotic same-sex preference. It has evolved into a new system of sexuality which functions as a means of defining the individual’s sexual orientation and a sexual identity. Homosexuality came to be associated with how individuals identify themselves. As such, it has “introduced a novel element into social organization, into human difference, into the social production of desire, and ultimately into the social construction of the self.” (David Halperin, “Homosexuality,” in Haggerty, 454–55).
One significant aspect of the history of homosexuality is that of language and labeling. It was the change from the use of the word “homosexual” to “gay” that best exemplified the importance of the political dimensions of individuality and identity as important components in how homosexuals viewed themselves. In the 1960s and 1970s, “gay” replaced “homosexual” as the word of choice because many gay activists felt that “homosexual” was too clinical and associated with medical pathology. By the time of the Stonewall riots in 1969, “gay” was the dominant term of expressing sexual identity for a group of younger, more overtly political homosexual activists. In contrast to “homosexual,” “gay” was thought to express the growing political consciousness of the gay liberation movement. “Gay,” like “homosexual” can refer to both men and women. However, some women have taken issue with their implied exclusion from the category “gay” and have preferred the designation “lesbian.” This haggling over names and labels is a very significant part of the history of homosexuality. The “lesbian” over “gay” debate reveals that the relation between homosexual identity and gender identity has always been vexed.
The rise of gay, lesbian, and queer identity, politics, and culture, appears inevitable given the interconnectedness between different peoples and cultures that typify the globalization process. There will continue to be resistance to difference, but it remains up to the visual artists of the twenty-first century to keep us on track and remind us of what has been accomplished and what still remains to be done…
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