Speaking of Greek Love
Simon Sheppard, QSyndicate.com
The Greeks, as they say, had a word for it. And that word wasn't "sodomy."
Back around the time the Hebrews were telling tales of God's wrath, in
ancient Greece – the glorious civilization that's the foundation of Western
culture – men, from the mythic to the military, were openly having queer
sex. Regardless of what you might have seen – or rather, not seen – in the
movies, the Trojan hero Achilles was in love with his bud Patroclus. The
great playwrights Sophocles and Euripides had a yen for their own sex. And a
celebrated military unit, the Sacred Band of Thebes, was made up of pairs of
lovers. The Greek Way sure sounds like a great gay heritage.
But, as one queer guy who knows the historical score says, "People try to
force the past to serve their own agendas. Just as the story of Sodom has
been distorted to further the goals of the antigay, on our side, it's a trap
to equate Hellenic homosexuality with what goes on at your neighborhood gay
Queer Greek love was highly structured. The culturally approved couple was
an older man and a youth; same-age pairings were not unknown, but rare. In
part, that reflected a strong bias in favor of masculinity. Boys, not men,
were made to be fucked. An Athenian was all-man as long as he was the
penetrator in anal sex, but adult bottoms – especially effeminate bottoms –
were viewed with near-universal scorn. (Unsurprisingly, there was also a lot
of male chauvinism.) And while Plato philosophically approved of
intergenerational love, his ideal was asexuality, an appreciation of
youthful beauty that surpassed physical expression: abstraction, not
As with all civilizations, classical Greece had its day (though its decline
was not due, as some moralists insist, to male/male sex; it was conquered by
bisexual Philip of Macedonia and his queer son, Alexander the Great).
Ancient Greece, for all its influence on what came after, gave way to a
Judeo-Christian view on homosex that was viciously antigay. Even so, some
Athenian attitudes have persisted to the present.
When Christianized Rome began to persecute homos, it was originally only the
passive partners who got punished, and there's still a sense in many macho
societies, from Mexico to the Middle East, that it's okay to fuck, but not
get fucked. And the less-than-butch are often still objects of amusement and
scorn; even some up-to-date homos view "straight-acting" as high praise, and
nelly queens as sexless comic relief.
Some homophobes may accept queer orientation but, like present-day Platos,
insist that acting on those impulses is wrong. And their disgust over anal
sex often confuses "getting fucked" with "trying to be a woman."
"There's one central aspect of Greek homosexuality," says our queer historian, "that would be damn near impossible for anyone to openly defend today.
The cross-generational thing – bearded men doing beardless youths – would
now, rightly or wrongly, be viewed as shocking exploitation and abuse."
So why should those of us simply trying to get laid on a Saturday night pay
attention to the past? Well, on the one hand, so much of what we feel about
our desires and ourselves has its roots in long ago. And what are seen as
"universal truths" about sexuality are often no such thing – hyping
homosexuality by citing famous cocksuckers of history can be a shade
misleading, given the changing contexts of male/male love.
But it is true that queer desire, far from being a product of decadence or
the Devil, has a long and often-noble history. So lift those togas and get
Simon Sheppard is the author of Kinkorama: Dispatches from the Front Lines
Sex Talk: Other Subjects
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