Homosexuality: as old as mankind

Article published on Jan. 10, 2005
community published
Article published on Jan. 10, 2005

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Although the term ‘homosexual’ is a fairly recent one, having only been coined in 1868, homosexuality has always existed. But its status has varied widely over the ages

Homosexuality has not always been a taboo subject. Indeed before the arrival of Christianity, homosexuality was an accepted part of life all over Europe. In ancient Greece, for example, adult men were expected to educate and train younger boys, and sexual relationships were considered a natural part of this preparation for political and social life. But with Christianity came the condemnation of homosexual relations as ‘sinful’ acts carried out only in ‘barbarous’ societies. The Roman Emperor Constantine, a convert to Christianity, was the first to punish homosexuality with castration in 342. From then onwards, various national laws were passed across Europe criminalising homosexuality, with punishments ranging from castration to the death penalty, and homosexuals became the object of persecution for centuries.

Forbidden love

Although forbidden by law and condemned by society at large, love between men was often the subject of art. This is particularly true of Renaissance literature, painting and sculpture, which glorified the masculine body. Behind closed doors, homosexuals were largely unaffected by the laws preventing homosexual behaviour and during the Enlightenment a distinctive gay subculture emerged. An example of this is the “Molly Houses” (a type of private men’s club) which sprung up all over London during the 18th century. In these, men would place themselves voluntarily on the edge of society: drinking, dancing, flirting with each other and parodying the bourgeoisie life. With the decriminalisation of homosexuality in France following the revolution, it seemed as though perhaps homosexuals were finally being accepted. But although prosecutions were no longer exercised on the basis of “homosexuality”, homosexual acts could still be punished as “offences to good morals”.

There was some progression towards the recognition of homosexuality during beginning of the 19th century. However, as the German attorney Karl Heinrich Ulrichs found out when he publicly disclosed his homosexuality during a lawyers’ conference in Munich in 1867, the public was not quite ready to accept any deviation from the norm. The coining of the term “homosexual” in 1868, by the Hungarian psychiatrist Károly Mária Kertbeny, introduced a new approach to homosexuality. On the one hand, it was liberating as it gave homosexuals the opportunity to identify and organise themselves. On the other, the term was repressive as it officially identified homosexuals as ‘other’, further stigmatising them and designating homosexuality as a social deficit.

The beginnings of acceptance

It is commonly thought that the gay anti-discrimination movement only emerged in the past couple of decades, but in fact its roots lie in the end of the nineteenth century with the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. Founded in 1897 by the German-Jewish neurologist Magnus Hirschfeld, this was the first socio-political group to strive for homosexuals’ rights.

His efforts were aided by the First World War, which redefined the social foundations of Europe and raised awareness about homosexuality. In 1919 Hirschfeld opened the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin, which brought together the largest collection of works on relationships between men. However, the German homosexual scene was driven underground by the Nazi regime, during which homosexual associations and publications were declared illegal. The Hirschfeld Institute was destroyed in 1933 and until 1945 homosexuals were deported in large numbers to concentration camps.

Discrepancies in EU member states

The post-war period, being concerned more with economic reconstruction than gay rights, saw little in the way of progress, but the latter half of the century saw an explosion of acts legally recognising homosexuals as having equal rights. However, in the EU, the recognition of homosexual relations varies widely from country to country, with northern and western countries being, in general, ahead of the southern and eastern member states. On the European level, the introduction of articles 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty and II-81 of the Constitution mean that there can be no discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. On this legal premise, the non-recognition of homosexual partnerships could be brought before the European court, which might force legislative change. In the future, homosexuals will hopefully see their rights recognised fully, but only time will tell.