Ancient cultures


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Ancient cultures_________________________________________________

From the earliest societies for which we have records, there are reports of men having sex with men and women having sex with women, often with ritualistic or religious significance attached. Gender variance or androgyny was often linked to the sacred. Some cultures regarded semen as the essence of male energy and blood the essence of female energy. Both fluids were considered magical substances.

In ancient Babylon around 3000 BC the goddess Inanna or Ishtar was served by gender-variant women, probably lesbians as well as gender-variant men. The Babylonians believed that these priests and priestesses carried magical power in their bodies. Similarly, the main goddess of the Canaanites was Athirat, the consort of Baal served by gender-variant priests called "qedishim." Even among the Hebrews before the Babylonian exile homosexuality was common and accepted and social status accorded to male temple prostitutes. That the deities' obviously approved of same-sex activity probably meant a rather free expression of it in the lives of ordinary people.
This mural is from the Tomb of the Two Manicurists near Memphis. The tomb dates from the reign of Niuserre (2453-2422 B.C.), in the 3rd Dynasty in the latter half of the Old Kingdom. The inscription over the entrance reads, “joined in life and joined in death.”

Ancient GREECE_________________________________________________

For the Greeks, same-sex activity, especially among men, was acceptable and natural. Homer presented the example of Achilles and Patroclus, admired through the ages as an example of love. Plato discusses the nature of their love in his Symposium and goes on to equate the acceptance of homosexuality with democracy. The Sacred Band of Thebes was made up of pairs of male lovers who perished bravely to a man at Charonea in 338 BC against Philip of Macedon. For soldiers the proximity to women was thought to be weakening and their femininity catching in some way. This male-male bond was considered to be the only real love.

The golden age of Greece is filled with pairs of famous male lovers and graced by Sappho, one of the world's greatest love poets, who lived on the island of Lesbos and wrote her poetry to other women. Zeus himself, king of the gods, fell for a beautiful young shepherd named Ganymede and carried him off to Olympus for sex. Alexander the Great had a male lover named Hephaestion. Hercules is said to have had fourteen male lovers. Plutarch reports of Sparta that same-sex love was held in such honor that even the most respectable women became infatuated with young girls.

Ancient ROME _________________________________

The early Etruscans were open about accepting same-sex couples and the Romans who followed showed a comfort with it at all levels. Julius Caesar had a well-known love affair with Nicomedes. Many of the later emperors, both good and bad, had male lovers and performed public same-sex marriages which were legal in Rome up until 342 AD. The famous historian Edward Gibbon observed that among the first 15 emperors, the only one with the "correct" taste in love was Claudius.

The most famous gay emperor was Hadrian. He had an official wife, who he never saw, and he lived with his beloved Antinous. The main concern of Romans was that the right of a Roman citizen over his wife and children was not to be violated. Only married women were expected to be faithful. Men were expected to sleep around with men or women. In Augustan Rome there was even a legal holiday for male prostitutes. There appeared to be complete moral indifference toward love between those of the same sex as expressed in the writings of Vergil, Ovid, Horace and Tibullius. Zeno and Seneca claimed that there was no distinction between men or women as the "love-object" and Epictetus claimed both to be of equal quality. Petronius, Juvenal, Martial and Plutarch all wrote about same-sex love affairs at every level of society.
Europe in the Middle Ages & Renaissance ______________

The court of Charlemagne was graced by Alcuin, the greatest scholar of his day. He and the rest of his scholars were widely known to have been gay. Many prominent churchmen were gay. Ralph, archbishop of Tours, installed his lover as bishop of Orleans. St. Anselm refused to condemn homosexuality saying that it was so common that hardly anyone was embarrassed by it. Richard the Lion heart had a well known romance with King Philip of France that was reported to have astonished the both of them. King James the 1st of England was another of several openly homosexual kings in Europe. Frederick the Great was another.

In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, there were gay sub-cultures in most large European cities mainly in the world of the theater and the world of the traveling minstrels and the troubadours. In London in 1725 there were gay clubs called "molly houses" part of a visible and continuous culture of men who dress as women that has endured for centuries. Many individuals during these times emerged from the subculture to make their mark on the human consciousness through their immense contributions. Here are just a few: Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) lived with Giacomo Caprotti and painted his friends and other beautiful youths. Michelangelo lived with Tommaso Cavaleiri. The great Erasmus (1466 -1536) was in love with one of his pupils. Francis Bacon ( 1561-1626) one of two gay sons.

For more information: Christianity, Social Tolerance & Homosexuality by John Boswell.

Lesbians in history ________________________________

At this point in the study of European history the apparent absence of women always arises. This is even more true of lesbians who don’t appear to have existed until the 19th century except for that shining star Sappho. It is a problem we are stuck with. In truth, the universal lot of women has been to bear the children, serve their husbands, cook, clean and do housework. There are notable exceptions like Laura Cereuta, Hildegarde of Bingen, St Joan of Arc, and now and again a queen, but male dominance was never in doubt nor did anything like parity ever come about during these times. Historians then and now paid all their attention to men and the activities of men. Women had none of the education nor the advantages of men it isn't until this century that we really see women coming into their own. this course is dominated by male issues partly because for men homosexuality was an issue! It was often a public issue. During much of this time women were not suspected of having an interest in sex let alone an interest in sex with each other!


From the time of the foundation of the United States by harshly religious Puritans, most references to homosexuality mention penalties or punishment. However, no one engaged in same-sex activity was thought to be a distinct kind of human being. It was a "sin" to which everyone was susceptible. The sodomy laws that still exist in some states date back to those earliest days.

As the country grew, many people, including writers and poets, were as open as they dared to be about their homosexuality including Walt Whitman (shown here with Peter Doyle) Horatio Alger, Willa Cather, Amy Lowell and Herman Melville. Abraham Lincoln is a controversial addition to this list, James Buchanan ( 15th president) is not.
The idea of two people of the same sex forming what is often called a "passionate friendship" is a constant historical theme. A few famous couples from American history: Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok; Ralph Waldo Emerson and Martin Gay; Henry David Thoreau and Edmund Sewall; Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville; Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; Susan B. Anthony and Anna Dickinson. These people wrote each other countless love letters. We do know that they loved one another, but we don't know if they ever had sex! Boston marriage” is a term that was in use in New England in the decades spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe two women living together. There is the assumption that during this era, it denoted a lesbian relationship.
For more information: The Spirit and the Flesh by Walter L. Williams

NATIVE AMERICANS_____________________________

The earliest Christian missionaries to the New World were appalled by the frequency with which they encountered homosexuality. They found it common and open among the Maya, much as it had been in ancient Greece. They found same-sex activity and relationships to be a part of cultures throughout the New World and, with few exceptions, a positive and integral part of tribal life.

One of the tribal traditions that they remarked upon was that of the “berdache.” This was found in most North American tribes. When a boy was found to prefer women’s activities over those of men, he was hailed as a special person and became something like a priest or shaman. This was considered a great honor to the family and he had special lifelong tribal duties. His position was that of a bridge between heaven and earth and between men and women. He wore a mixture of men's and women's clothing.
Shamans are spiritual functionaries who travel to other realms and hold special powers. They connect the tribe to the gods and the human to the divine. There are widespread examples of transformed shamans. . .that is cross-dressed or androgynous men. They are usually highly prized by the tribe. One example is the Native Alaskan goddess Sedna who lives with her female companion. The white whale woman of the Inuit is another as is the Mahatala-Jata of Borneo.
There are also many accounts of two women living together, with one being a fully accepted hunter-warrior (amazon). The missionaries forced these traditions underground but remnants and memories still persist in some tribes
Pictured above is We’wha (1849-1896) a Zuni berdache (“lhamana” in their tongue) born in a pueblo in New Mexico. This was one remarkable Native American. For six months, all of Washington DC accepted him as a woman.

An early explorer named the Amazon River for the Amazons of classical Greece after observing women of the Tupanimba with their hair cut like men, with bows and arrows, and with wives.

Several Indian tribes had “man-like women” who hunted and rode as warriors with the men. One of these was “Woman Chief” of the Crows, who excelled at traditional male pursuits as a girl. The Crow Indians came to revere her. So successful was she that they thought she was immortal—until 1854, when she was killed while on a peace mission. She had four wives.

For more information: The Spirit and the Flesh by Walter L. Williams

THE PACIFIC __________________________________________________

In many societies of Melanesia, especially in Papua New Guinea, same-sex relationships were, until the middle of the last century, an integral part of the culture. The Etoro and Marind-anim for example, even viewed heterosexuality as sinful and celebrated homosexuality instead. In many traditional Melanesian cultures a pre-pubertal boy would be paired with an older adolescent who would become his mentor.

New Zealand: Same-sex relationships and activities appear to have been acceptable amongst pre-European Māori. Some stories, for example that of Tutanekei and Tiki, seem to be about same-sex couples. A British missionary, Richard Davis, found homosexual relationships between men to be a familiar part of Maori life, and although homosexual relationships between women have not been well documented, they were certainly not condemned. There are a number of recorded examples of new settlers cohabiting in same-sex relationships with Māori. The most well-documented example is the Reverend William Yate, an English missionary, who lived with his male companion for two years in the Māori village of Waimate, before being expelled to England for homosexual behaviour. Richard Davis observed that ‘[they] showed no shame. They simply declared that they were unaware of any sinfulness in such practices.

Samoa: Fa'afafine are the third-gendered people of Samoa. A recognized and integral part of traditional Samoan culture, fa'afafine, born biologically male, embody both male and female gender traits. Their gendered behavior typically ranges from extravagantly feminine to mundanely masculine. Fa'afafine are known for their hard work and dedication to the family. In Samoa, the people claim that there is no such thing as being "gay" or "homosexual." Fa'afafine, as a third gender, have sexual relationships almost exclusively with men who do not identify as Fa'afafine, and sometimes with women. Traditionally Fa'afafine follow the training of a women's daily work in an Aiga.

Hawai’i: Few people appreciate just how gay-friendly Polynesia was before European contact. Captain Cook, who passed through Hawai'i, noted in his journals same-same (Aikane) relationships as well as transgenders (Mahu). The ancient Hawai'ians weren't uptight about relationships and possessed an understanding of human beings' dual nature comprised of both masculine and feminine qualities.  The concept of opposite sexes is foreign to Hawai'ian thought and their language contains no female or male pronouns like 'he or she'. This reflects the Polynesian emphasis on integration and balance of the male and female gods. The Mahu embody this ancient Polynesian principle of spiritual duality and are viewed as an honoured intermediate sex.


Homosexuality in China was traditionally widespread in the region prior to the spread of Christian and Islamic values via Central Asia. Historically, homosexual relationships were regarded as a normal facet of life, and the existence of homosexuality in China has been well documented since ancient times. Many early Chinese emperors are speculated to have had homosexual relationships, accompanied by heterosexual ones. Opposition to homosexuality and the rise of homophobia did not become firmly established in China until the 19th and 20th centuries, through the Westernization efforts of the late Quing Dynasty and early Republic of China

Formal historical data provided by ancient records dealing with male homosexuality in China can be dated back to the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century - 11th century BC),

There was a much-told story about Emperor Ai, whose name was Liu Xin, and who reigned from 6 BC to 2 BC. Unwilling to awaken his male lover Dong Xian, who had fallen asleep on his robes, Liu cut off his sleeves instead.

Interestingly, there are no records of lesbianism in Chinese history.

For more information: Passions of the Cut Sleeve: the male homosexual tradition in China. by Bret Hinsch

Homosexuality in Japan has a long and revered history and was practiced by artisans, artists, aristocrats, monks and Samurai. Unlike many Asian countries, Japan has a long history of homosexuality that has never been the source of official displeasure or sanctions. From the earliest writings and paintings same sex love has existed openly and apparently, at times, encouraged.

It was only in the latter half of the 19th century at the end of the Tokugawa period, when Japan started opening up to the “Western” world that external pressure influenced homosexuals and homosexual practices. Despite these alien influences it appears that Japan’s homosexual community continued and may have thrived.

There was no religious opposition to homosexuality in Japan in non-Buddhist kamin tradition. Nanshoku relationships inside monasteries were an age-structured relationship where the younger partner is not yet adult. The older partner would be a monk, priest or abbot. From religious circles, same-sex love spread to the samurai class, where it was customary for a youth to undergo training in the martial arts by apprenticing to a more experienced adult man. The older partner, in the role of nenja, would teach the wakashū martial skills, warrior etiquette, and the samurai code of honor. . .thus a shudō relationship was considered to have a "mutually ennobling effect.”

For more information: James Hadfield’s The Beautiful Way is one exploration of Samurai gay sexuality,


Homosexuality in India: Throughout Hindu and Vedic texts there are many descriptions of saints, demigods, and even the Supreme Lord transcending gender norms and manifesting multiple combinations of sex and gender."Ancient Indian materials, ranging from the Mahabharata to Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, expound the virtues of friendship and love between men and love between women as do writings from medieval India, in the Sanskritic traditions. Writings from Sanskrit and other Indian languages including from the Puranas and the Krittivasa Ramayana show how same-sex love has always been part of Indian culture, and how homoerotically inclined individuals have “contributed in major ways to thought, literature and the general good,” and have been respectable citizens of society in their time.
For more information: Same Sex Love in India by Ruth Vanitha and Saleem Kidwai

Homosexuality in Thailand: As a part of the cultural landscape of Thailand, the kathoeys are a modern expression of an archaic tradition. This is the statement of one author but a search for historical references to that “archaic tradition” turns up nothing. Many foreign observers are familiar with a narrow range of gender relations and sexual practices in Thailand, including the fanciful portrayal of 19th-century harem life in The King and I . Serious study of patterns of sexuality, femininity, and masculinity in Thailand is relatively new. I would also conclude here that the book on homosexuality and diversity in Siamese history remains to be written.

The only insights into homosexuality in Siam come from early Thai Buddhist attitudes towards homoeroticism expressed in the Vinayapitaka. Theravada Buddhist accounts of homosexuality are understood in the context of the religion's general disdain of sexuality and distrust of sensual enjoyment. (discussed at greater length when we get to religion and homosexuality)

The books I have found that treat the history of homosexuality in Siam are rather limited and very light on historical details. One book depicts gay paradises in Southeast Asia, and examines how images of paradise in Bali, Bangkok, and Singapore were used to create a sense of refuge. The Atkins book provides a historical account of the absorption of Western notions of romantic heterosexual monogamy in Thailand during the reign of King Rama VI, whose lack of interest in building up the harem expected of Siamese kings is said to have had an effect on the generally negative way Thai society has come to regard homosexuality.

For more information: Imagining Gay Paradise by Gary L. Atkins, Genders & Sexualities in Modern Thailand by Peter A. Jackson, The Third Sex: Kathoeys, Thailand’s Ladyboys by Richard Totman

These pages present just a few examples of cultures from around the world that once regarded homosexuality and being transgendered as not only natural and an integral part of the human condition but - in most cases – as playing an integral role in society and spirituality.

The big question is. . .




Judaism, Christianity and Islam are socially conservative religions with a long history of condemning same-sex activity based on strict interpretations of various Biblical and Qur’anic texts. It is the social conservatism that drives this condemnation not the sacred texts which are very light on the subject ( some possible references in the Qur’an, four in the Jewish Bible and four in the Christian Bible) no commandments anywhere. All of the above address the sexual activity and do not address a loving relationship between two people of the same sex. Hand in hand with this is the fundamental belief that celibacy is the high road because all sexual activity is sinful. Necessary perhaps but only for procreation within the strict confines of marriage, certainly not for pleasure.

The point is often made that the Qur’an, the Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible all contain reams of dietary and cleanliness regulations attitudes towards wealth and an abundance of other issues of great concern to pre-modern agricultural societies which, although these are the sections where you find the references to homosexuality, are never referred to. Another area where you find a huge discrepancy is the absence in these ancient texts of same-sex activity between women. Does this mean that lesbians were OK in ancient times? Perhaps. But realistically the omission is due to the general acceptance of the idea (among men) that after all, women do not enjoy sex, and that sex is impossible without the involvement of the penis.


The fact that Jesus Christ was apparently celibate encouraged those who wished to imitate him to follow the same lifestyle. The Third Council of Constantinople (680-681) dictated that "the spirit of unity is superior to the joining of bodies." Pope Gregory the Great said, “sexual pleasure can never be without sin”. The second Vatican council (1962-1965) urged married people to “ . . .exercise the virtue of conjugal chastity.” This is the Christian response to sexual activity and the stuff of church policy: sex is the work of the devil and the temptations of the flesh must be fought against with vigor. If all this is true for heterosexual sexual activity, it is easy to understand the Christian attitude toward homosexual sexual activity where even the excuse of procreation doesn’t exist.

In the Christian Bible there are only three references to homosexuality, all of them in the letters of St. Paul. Paul was one of the most important apostles, charged with converting the gentiles (non-Jews) He had serious issues with women. His three letters mentioning same-sex activity refer specifically to the pagan rituals of the prevailing Roman culture. Paul does not address sexual activity between two homosexuals or loving same sex relationships. In fact, same-sex marriages were common among the earliest Christians.

Paul also brought Christianity firmly into the hands of men. In his first letter to the Corinthians he writes, "Yes, it is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman. . .but if they cannot control the sexual urges, they should get married." (7:1,9) "Those who have wives should live as though they had none." (7:29) "About remaining celibate. . . .it is good for a man to stay as he is. If you are tied to a wife, do not look for freedom. (7:25-28) He also writes that women should not speak at services and must cover their heads.

Then there is the theory, very popular during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, that Christ was gay and St John the Divine his “beloved.” John is described in the gospel as "the disciple whom Jesus loved” using the prevailing term from the time for the younger man in a same-sex couple. Official Church doctrine teaches that Jesus was like us “in all but sin”. Since sex is sin, he therefore is always presented as totally sexless, as is his mother.

Homosexuality was not addressed by the Church until the Lateran Council of 1179.

Christ & St John (German c. 1320)


In Islam, homosexuals are condemned in the story of Lot's people in the Qur'an (15:73; 26:165) and in the last address of the Prophet Muhammad. However, attraction of men to beautiful male youths has been a part of the culture of some Islamic societies and the attraction is not generally condemned in itself. While homosexual desire and love might be accommodated, same-sex intercourse is prohibited.

Early Islamic cultures, especially those in which homosexuality was entrenched in the pre-Islamic pagan culture, were renowned for their cultivation of a homosexual aesthetic. This is a 17th cent. painting of Mahmud and Ayaz The love of the Sultan (center) for his slave (right) has entered Islamic legend as a paragon of ideal love.

In Islam, the term mukhannathun is used to describe gender-variant people. This term does not appear in the Qur'an. Muslims often have no clear idea of what homosexuality means or simply deny that there are any homosexual Muslims. An Islamic legal scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl concludes, ”The Qur’an not only expects but even accepts the reality of difference and diversity within human society. . .as part of divine intent and purpose in creation. . .” Some self-described liberal Muslims accept and consider homosexuality as natural, regarding these verses as either obsolete in the context of modern society, or point out that the Qu'ran speaks out against homosexual lust, and is silent on homosexual love. However, this position remains highly controversial even amongst liberal movements within Islam, and is considered completely beyond the pale by mainstream Islam.

Homosexuality In Islam: Islamic Reflection On Gay, Lesbian, And Transgender Muslims by Scott Kugle

A few recommended sources for more information:

Christianity, Social Tolerance & Homosexuality by John Boswell

The Spirit and the Flesh by Walter L Williams

Same-sex Unions in pre-Modern Europe by John Boswell

Blossom of Bone by Randy P. Connor Hidden from History by Martin Duberman

The Good Book by Peter J Gomes Gay American History by Jonathan Ned Katz
Lord Krishna dressed as a woman

Hindu views of homosexuality are diverse. Homosexuality is regarded as one of the possible expressions of human desire and Hindu mythic stories have portrayed homosexual experience as natural and joyful. There are several Hindu temples which have carvings that depict both men and women indulging in homosexual sex. Same-sex relations and gender variance have been represented within Hinduism from Vedic times through to the present day, in rituals, law books, religious or so-called mythical narratives, commentaries, paintings, and sculpture.

Unlike the West, the Hindu society does not have the concept of 'sexual orientation' that classifies males on the basis of who they desire. However, there is a strong, ancient concept of third gender, which is for individuals who have strong elements of both male and female in them. Hindu society, since ancient times, has not considered the men's desire or sexual activity with men to be the same as that of a third gender's desire or sexual activity with men.

Although Hindu society does not formally acknowledge sexuality between men, it formally acknowledges and gives space to sexuality between men and third genders as a variation of male-female sex. In fact, Hijras, Alis, Kotis, etc.— the various forms of third gender that exist in India today— are all characterized by the gender role of being receptive with men. Sexuality between men has nevertheless thrived, mostly unspoken, informally, within men's spaces, without being seen as 'different' in the way it’s seen in the West. As in other non-Western cultures, it is considered more or less a universal aspect of manhood, even if not socially desirable.
It is the effeminate male sexuality for men (or for women) which is seen as 'different,' and differently categorized. The extent to which these representations embrace or reject homosexuality has been disputed within the religion as well as outside of it. In 2009, The United Kingdom Hindu Council issued a statement that 'Hinduism does not condemn homosexuality', subsequent to the decision of the Delhi High Court to legalise homosexuality in India.” (wiki)
Same-Sex Love in India – Readings from Literature and History , ed. by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, St.Martin's Press, 2000.

According to the ancient Indian understanding, homosexuals were thought of simply as being ‘the third nature’ (trtiya prakti), rather than as perverted, deviant or sick. With its emphasis on psychology and cause and effect, Buddhism judges acts, including sexual acts, primarily by the intention (cetana) behind them and the effect they have. A sexual act motivated by love, mutuality and the desire to give and share would be judged positive no matter what the gender of the two persons involved.

It is also important to keep in mind that Buddhism began as an order of celibate male renunciates, the sangha, and that the Vinaya is predominantly a clerical not a lay code of conduct. Most contemporary Thai Buddhist writers follow early Buddhist attitudes and describe sex as extremely distasteful, even for the laity.
Therefore, homosexuality as such is not considered immoral in Buddhism or against the third Precept, although this is not always understood in traditional Buddhist countries. If a homosexual . . .enters into a loving relationship with another person, there is no reason why he or she cannot be a sincere practising Buddhist and enjoy all the blessings of the Buddhist life.

In most Buddhist countries today, homosexuality is usually considered strange and laughable although not wicked or evil. Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mongolia, Japan and South Korea have no laws against homosexuality between consenting adults. Homosexuality is illegal in Burma and Sri Lanka mainly because their legal codes were drawn up during the colonial era. Traditional Tibetan culture, like most cultures, has very skewed and confused ideas about homosexuality. Tibetan Buddhism does not derive its ideas about homosexuality from the earliest teachings of the Buddha but from Mahayana sutras and sastras. . .500 years after the Buddha. By this time Indian Buddhists were being influenced by various popular Indian notions and incorporating them into their understanding of the Dhamma; sometimes with not very happy results.

If homosexuality is ‘unnatural’ then celibacy is more so and all Gelupa monks are breaking the fifth Precept by abstaining from sex. The Buddha’s criteria of right and wrong is not based on ideas of ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ which are usually social constructions, but on the intention behind the act.”

Homosexuality and Theravada Buddhism,’ A. L. De Silva,

in The Buddhist’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2001.


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