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Modern Gayness and Medieval Friends: Homoeroticism and Homophilia

Paul Halsall, 3/27/96


What qualifies as "gay history"?

The issue is reasonably clear for the past hundred years. But before that there are complications. This is especially the case for Medieval studies.

Some commentators, both avowedly gay and otherwise, wish to distinguish sharply between historical evidence about same-sex sexual activity in the past and other evidence about same-sex relationships. In other words they wish to argue, as I take it, that while the evidence about sexual relationships may indeed relate to a history of homosexuality, other non-sexual affective relationships must be subsumed under the sign of "friendship". Often, but not always, there seems to be a belief that while sexuality is complex and constructed in particular ways, "friendship" is an unproblematic category. Some commentators, religious ones in particular, seek to see "friendship" as in some sense "purer" and cleaner than sexual relationships.

When looking at same-sex relationships in the past, use of the sex/friendship dichotomy induces problems. We very rarely know that two people had sexual relations. For discussion of same-sexual activity, we are often thrown to legal codes, penitentials, denunciatory sermons and so forth. We very rarely have, before the late middle ages when court records begin to survive in number, any real idea of how laws were applied. Careful analysis of Byzantine documents - but not court records - from the 12th century on, for instance, seems to indicate that the provisions against sodomy of the Justinianic code were not applied; and yet such laws are frequently taken as indicators of social attitudes centuries after they were legislated. They are no more compelling, than for instance, the argument that anti-sodomy statutes in the US stop heterosexuals having oral sex.

On the other hand we have a huge amount of material on same-sex emotional relationships: poems, letters, sometimes even sermons. We also have quite certain evidence that such relationships were, in various times and places, publically celebrated. (This is the minimal interpretation of the Greek adelphopoiia relationships: but has also been attempted, by Pierre Chaplais for instance, as an explanation of Edward II's relationship with Piers Gaveston; similar interpretations have been given to medieval accounts of men sleeping in the same bed - for instance Philip Augustus and Richard the Lionheart.) Such relationships, it is asserted, were not "sexual" and reflect a variety of other forms of male-bonding.

Let us, for a moment, accept such a point of view - that is that all the socially affirmed same-sex relationships we see in the past eschewed sexual activity: that David and Jonathan, Alexander and Hephaestion, Hercules and Hylas, Patroclus and Achilles, Tully and Octavius, Socrates and Alciabides - that all were never understood in the past to have had sexual relationships. What would such a point of view say about our own western society? We would have to note that a very narrow range of same-sex relationships are in fact possible. The intense emotional and affective relationships described in the past as "non-sexual" cannot be said to exist today: modern heterosexual men can be buddies, but unless drunk they cannot touch each other, or regularly sleep together. They cannot affirm that an emotional affective relationship with another man is the centrally important relationship in their lives. It is not going to far, is it, to claim that friendship - if used to translate Greek philia or Latin amicita - hardly exists among heterosexual men in modern Western society. Indeed we use the word "friendship" today to describe human relationships so different from those indicated in the ancient and medieval texts that to apply the word "friendship" to those past relationships seems, to me at least, to be actively misleading. I wish to acknowledge that this may indicate a serious failing in modern society, and to admit that I may simply not understand modern friendship.

Turning out attention to modern "gayness" we find a number of interesting points, points that affect how we understand the relationships of the past, and the texts which refer to and refract those relationships.

I use "gayness", because to seems to me that altogether too many commentators have been willing to reduce "gayness" to sexual activity. In some parts of the world this may be true (leaders of the Egyptian gay community in New York have specifically claimed to me that same-sex sexuality in Egypt is "purely sexual": whether this claim is true or not, I am in no position to judge). But in the modern West, "gayness" or its predecessors, have not been understood by gay writers in this way. From the mid 19th century on writer such as Karl Ulrichs in Germany, Edward Carpenter in England, and Walt Whitman in the US have claimed that same-sex relationships are much more than sex. Specific claims about "Uranian" (or "heavenly" love, a reference to Plato), or "homophile" love were made. Famously, the early gay male organizations in the US and Britain made use of the concept of "homophilia" to describe what they were concerned with.

Now it is true, gay leaders in the 1970s rejected the term "homophile" as conformist, and as a deliberate elision of sexuality. I think, for historical consideration at least, it may be time to resurrect this terminology. "Homophilia" points to a very important aspect of modern gayness - its support of a wide array of same-sex emotional relationships, with a an equally wide degree of sexual expression. Because of AIDS there are now many fairly well formed psychosocial studies of the gay male communities of large cities. I am most familiar with the Martin-Dean study conducted from Columbia Presbyterian School of Public Health in New York City. What these studies have found is that homophilia is a central aspect of modern gayness, in relationships between men whether sexually expressed or not. Some gay men form couples in which sex plays little or nor part. Many other gay men form "families", often of other gay men (some of whom may be former sexual partners) and sympathetic heterosexual women, families in which a high degree of emotional and personal closeness is achieved in a specifically "gay" context but where sex is not central.

Given that human beings in the past do not "belong" to anyone modern group, I would still argue that "gay history", as an aspect of "the history of human relationships" is specifically one focused on same-sex relationships. Since "gay" in modern use covers "homophilia" as well as "homosexuality", I wish to continue to claim that placing the study of philia and amicita in the past exclusively under the sign of "friendship" and excluding from the sign of "gayness" is not only unnecessary but misleading.