( 10 ) Southern Europe
In ancient Greek cosmology there were originally three sexes—male, female and hermaphrodite. Zeus, the king of gods, divided each of these in half and created three different types of sexualities. The two male halves, once divided, aspired to unite with other men; the two female halves desired other women, and the two hermaphrodite halves became men and women who sought out their opposite sex. Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) conceived of gender in the form of a ladder; with virile men on the top, fertile women at the bottom, and impotent intermediates in between.
Many ancient Greek and Roman deities are clearly portrayed in homoerotic and bisexual relationships. Zeus, for example, known as Jupiter in Rome, became so smitten by Ganymede that he took the beautiful youth to Olympus and made passionate love to him there. In a similar story, Poseidon (Neptune), god of the sea, takes young Pelops to the celestial mountain for the same purpose. Apollo, a sun deity worshiped in both Greece and Rome, is vividly described falling in love with the handsome youth, Hyacinth. At a sporting match together, Apollo once threw his discus with all his might to impress the boy. Hyacinth, in turn, ran to catch the weapon but it was blown off course by the wind-god, Zephyrus. The errant discus killed Hyacinth and Apollo was completely devastated by the loss of his beloved. He forbade Hades from taking Hyacinth to the underworld and created a flower in the boy’s memory. Several other Greek and Roman deities are also portrayed in homoerotic relationships such as the nature god, Pan (Faunus), and Dionysus (Bacchus), god of wine.
Greek moralist Plutarch (46-127 A.D.) wrote that Heracles (Hercules) had so many male lovers they were beyond counting and included Apollo, Aberus (son of Hermes or Mercury) and several of the Argonauts. Nestor was considered Heracles’ favorite but Iolaos also had a prominent place in the Greek hero’s heart. Aristotle recounts that in his time, male lovers pledged their faith to one another at the tomb of Iolaos. Achilles and Patroclus of Homer’s Iliad were also considered icons of male homosexuality and their relationship inspired the Greek philosopher, Plato (427-347 B.C.), to argue in favor of an army comprised of same-sex lovers. Such a battalion was indeed formed in the fourth century B.C. and known as the Sacred Band of Thebes. Comprised of more than three hundred soldiers, the homosexual army was renowned for its valor in battle until being defeated by Phillip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), in 338 B.C. Alexander himself was well known for his love of men and maintained a lifelong union with his beloved friend, Hephaestion. Considered one of the most successful military commanders in history, Alexander the Great unified Greece and went on to conquer Egypt, Asia Minor, Syria, Babylon, Persia, Bactria and western India.
In both Greek and Roman society, bisexuality and dominant homosexual behavior were considered normative and extolled as signs of male virility and strength. In the fourth century B.C. it was not at all uncommon for two male lovers to share a home together or engage in homosexual relations at public bathhouses and symposiums (aristocratic clubs). Men that were excessively effeminate, however, or that exclusively assumed the passive role in sex with other men were typically disparaged and treated like women. Known as eunouchos, such passive homosexuals served as valets, chamberlains, male concubines and guards of the gynoecium (female apartments). The modern term “eunuch” is derived from eunouchos and means “in charge of the bedroom.” Like the Hebrew word saris, eunouchos originally referred to an administrative post wherein appointees were typically homosexual or effeminate men but not necessarily so; the etymology of the word itself has nothing to do with castration.
Early Greeks employed male emasculation chiefly as a punishment for rape and adultery or sometimes in warfare. Greek historian Herodotus documents one of the earliest known instances of castration in his work, The Histories, wherein it is described how the seventh century B.C. Corinthian tyrant, Periander, condemned eight hundred young nobles of Corcyra to such humiliation. Most scholars do not consider the systematic castration of male servants to be a traditional practice of ancient Greece; rather, it was more closely associated with slaves imported from the East. Herodotus wrote that in Greece, the custom was considered “undignified, with only a few exceptions.” He also describes how Sardis—the ancient capital of Lydia in what is now western Turkey—served as a hub for Eastern slave traders selling young, castrated boys known as ektomias. The ektomias were viewed as exotic novelties in the fifth century B.C. and sold to satisfy the lust of wealthy customers throughout the Mediterranean.
Male castration was even more despised in Rome where the practice was attributed to the Assyrians and eventually outlawed in the first century A.D. As in Greece, male castration was less common than often assumed and more related to imported slaves rather than freeborn citizens. A few notable exceptions include the various transgender cults of the time that practiced voluntary castration as a means of celibacy and sex change. The Cybele cult of second century B.C. Rome, for instance, held initiation rites to the goddess wherein men castrated themselves, wore women’s clothing and assumed female names and identities. Another popular goddess worshiped by male-to-female transgenders was Atagartis, a matriarchal deity imported from ancient Syria. Such transgender worshipers were called galli in Rome and considered tertius sexus (a third sex). In a well-known narrative concerning the origin of transgenders, Prometheus, while drunk and half asleep, mistakenly places male genitals on women and female genitals on men.
In both ancient Greece and Rome, homosexual apprenticeships were quite common wherein younger, adolescent pupils known as eromenos served as loving partners to their accomplished masters or erastes. Plato and Xenophon, two prominent disciples of Socrates (470-399 B.C.), described their teacher as “helpless” among beautiful, adolescent boys. Plato considered erotic relationships between men as love’s highest expression and dismissed those who thought otherwise. “Same-sex love is regarded as shameful by barbarians,” he said, “and by those who live under despotic governments, just as philosophy is regarded as shameful by them.” Later in life, Plato envisioned an ideal world in which all earthly pleasures were foresworn and procreative sex was pursued solely as a matter of duty.
On the island of Lesbos, Sappho (630-570 B.C.) was highly regarded as a female poet and honorably referred to as “the Tenth Muse.” She was devoted to goddess Aphrodite, ran a school for girls, and wrote many poems speaking of love and infatuation between women. In ancient Greece and Rome, lesbians were known as tribas (from the Greek verb, “to rub”) and the term virago described mannish women associated with masculine Roman goddesses such as Minerva and Diana. Virago women made love to other females and delighted in manly pursuits such as handball, running, jumping, wrestling and lifting heavy weights.
Greece reached its zenith in the fourth century B.C. and then slowly declined until becoming a Roman province in 146 B.C. Rome reached its height in the first century B.C. but fell to Germanic barbarians in the fifth century A.D., when the empire was effectively divided in half. Christianity arrived in both countries during the first century A.D. Although the new religion was initially ridiculed and persecuted, it slowly became popular and ultimately convinced Greeks and Romans to abandon their traditional polytheistic beliefs. In 324 A.D., Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, which at that time extended from Spain, Britain, and Gaul (France) in the west to Pontus (Turkey), Egypt, and Palestine in the east.
Attitudes toward homosexuality, eunouchos and third-gender citizens in general declined rapidly throughout Europe under Christian rule. In 389 A.D., Rome took away the right of eunouchos to make or benefit from wills. A year later, an imperial Roman decree criminalized sex between men with a prescribed penalty of death by burning. Although widely ignored at first, the new law stigmatized homosexuals and pushed them underground and behind closed doors. In 538 and 544 A.D., Justinian I enacted further laws against homosexuality in the East Roman or Byzantine Empire. Two centuries later, the Visigothic Code was established in West Roman Europe ordering the castration or death of anyone found guilty of sodomy.
With traditional Greek and Roman homosexuality relegated to the underground, third-gender eunouchos were gradually reconceptualized as sexless, castrated eunuchs. The original Byzantine definition of eunuch was very broad and divided into three types—natural, castrated and ascetic. Natural eunuchs were essentially men lacking a natural desire for women and the Basilian Christians wrote of them as follows: “Some men by birth have a nature to turn away from women, and those who are subject to this natural constitution do well not to marry. These, they say, are the eunuchs by birth.” (Stromata 3.1.1.) St. Gregory Nazianzos, a fourth-century bishop of Byzantium, described natural eunuchs as “womanlike and, among men, not manly, of dubious sex.” Castrated eunuchs were those whose organs had been removed and ascetic eunuchs were men who foreswore women for the sake of God. By the twelfth century, however, most Europeans referred to eunuchs as castrated males alone and only privately whispered about their effeminate and homosexual natures.
The status of eunuchs in Christian Europe was a topic of debate for many centuries, with some religious authorities condemning them as poisonous, lusty, deceitful, conniving, unlucky, etc. and others defending them as gentle, talented, religious and deserving of compassion. In his well-known twelfth-century work, Defense of Eunuchs, archbishop Theophylaktos argued in their favor as an important and contributing social class of Byzantine society. Unfortunately, however, he limited his definition of eunuchs to castrated men alone and criticized the “unholy,” licentious eunuchs of Persia and Arabia. Although Theophylaktos adopted this new, limited definition of the eunuch to appease the doubts of his fellow clergymen, it nonetheless ushered in a disingenuous trend that would continue for centuries.
However defined or conceived, the eunuchs of Byzantine society occupied many different roles and worked as doorkeepers, house attendants, cooks, valets, bookkeepers, treasurers, secretaries, singers, actors, barbers, doctors and so on. They often served as go-betweens in transactions between men and women, and commonly controlled access to the emperor. Byzantine royalty traditionally kept their own corps of palace eunuchs and several sources hint at their service as sexual partners. Physiognomic texts of the day describe eunuchs as feminine in voice and gait, with raised eyebrows, slack limbs, shrill voices, shifty eyes and inappropriately giddy laughter.
The Byzantine Empire lasted until 1453 A.D., when Ottoman Turks led by Mehmet II conquered the nation and established Islam as the dominant religion. Under Mehmet’s rule, attitudes toward homosexuality became more relaxed and the eunuch class flourished. Mehmet himself kept a large harem that included many eunuchs, and after toppling Constantinople, the sultan added several young Byzantine boys to his collection. Homoerotic poetry was popular throughout the Turkish Empire for many centuries as were the third-gender dancing boys known as kocek and baccha. Bathhouses (hamam)—wherein young male attendants called tellaks washed, massaged and sexually gratified their clients for a fixed price—were commonplace, and there were also hamams for women that facilitated lesbian relations.
In the far western reaches of the Ottoman Empire in regions now known as Albania and the western Balkans, occasional cases of female-to-male transgenders were reported from the early 1800s onward. Known as tombelija (sworn virgins) or muskobanja (manlike women), such females lived and dressed as men, assumed male identities, performed male jobs, fought in battle and were generally accepted in their villages as male. As the name suggests, the tombelija would often live as celibates although in certain cases they were known to have female partners. The villagers sometimes called such women hadum (eunuchs) and described them as “neither female nor male.” By the late twentieth century, the number of sworn virgins dwindled as the Balkans began to modernize and traditional female roles became less restrictive.
Greeks rebelled against the Ottoman Turks in the 1820s, establishing an independent monarchy in 1830. Sodomy laws were enacted during this time but repealed over a century later, in 1951. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Greece was a mostly conservative, Eastern Orthodox nation with modern gay and lesbian communities in prominent cities such as Athens, Thessaloniki and Iraklion. The Balkan states were also conservative and had similarly decriminalized sodomy. Small countries in the north, such as Croatia and Slovenia, were somewhat progressive and offered limited civil rights for gay couples. Bulgaria, to the east, decriminalized sodomy in 1968 but remained very conservative, as did the modern Republic of Turkey, established in 1923. Although Turkey never officially enacted sodomy laws, homosexuals were often persecuted by authorities and legally banned from organizing, even into the early twenty-first century. Other conservative countries in the region included Albania, Serbia, Romania and, across the Black Sea, the former Soviet states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. None of these countries had sodomy laws but were very repressive toward homosexuals.
In Western Europe, the Holy Roman Empire (843-1806 A.D.) was established in the ninth century wherein homosexuals were strictly persecuted under the Visigothic Code. Forced to live in secrecy and shame, many third-gender citizens took refuge within the inner sanctums of early Christian monasteries. In the Middle Ages, the Empire was fractured into small rival states, each with their own separate laws regarding sodomy. The Roman Church launched Inquisitions to eliminate homosexuals but such hostile attitudes became somewhat relaxed during the artistic and culturally refined Renaissance period from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. During this time, many discreet homosexuals such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci became world-renowned for their artistic contributions. In 1599, Rome sanctioned the castration of boy singers (castrati) and during the Enlightenment period of the eighteenth century, advancements in science and social philosophy challenged traditional Church teachings. This led many Italian states to abolish sodomy laws by the mid-1700s and in 1861, Italy became established as a unified country, independent of the Roman Catholic Church. Boy castrations were outlawed in 1870 and sodomy was decriminalized throughout Italy in 1889. Homosexuals were persecuted under the Fascist Italian government of the 1930s but calls for resurrecting old sodomy laws were left unanswered. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Italy was a progressive country although somewhat constrained by longstanding Roman Catholic traditions and beliefs. Modern gay and lesbian communities thrived in cities such as Rome, Milan and Naples.
In France, homosexuality was accepted under early Roman rule but forced underground with the advent of Christianity in the second century A.D. In 486, the Frankish realm was established as a Christian state aligned with Rome and homosexuals were persecuted under Biblical laws. France was divided into three nations in 843, invaded by the Normans in 1066, and consequently ruled by the English until sovereignty was achieved in 1453. At this time, a powerful French monarchy was established known for its liberal, aristocratic culture that included discreetly homosexual figures such as Louis XIII. Homosexuality nevertheless remained publicly stigmatized and the Roman Church conducted random Inquisitions. Paris was a well-known hub for male prostitution in the late 1600s and in 1702, one of the last public burnings occurred wherein several men were burned at the stake following a well-publicized homosexual prostitution scandal.
France gained prominence in the world during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by launching naval expeditions and establishing colonies in the Americas, Africa and the South Seas. One notable commander of the French fleet in the Indian Ocean, Admiral Pierre-Andre Suffren de Saint-Tropez (1729-1788), was infamous for encouraging homosexual behavior aboard his ships and even matched up sailors in “marriages.” The Enlightenment of the 1700s nourished a homosexual and lesbian subculture among French artists and the upper class; homosexual literature was prominent at this time and the topic much debated. French writer Voltaire (1694-1778), for instance, proclaimed homosexuality an abomination but also argued for its decriminalization in 1777. Indeed, during the French Revolution (1789-99), a revision of the penal code in 1791 removed homosexual practices from its list of punishable offenses, effectively making France the first Christian nation in the world to decriminalize sodomy. This landmark revision was further ratified in 1810 when the Code Napoleon legalized all private sexual acts between consenting adults. The new legal code influenced many other European nations to abolish their own sodomy laws in the nineteenth century, including Spain, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and several German states. France became increasingly liberal up through the twentieth century with thriving gay communities in cities such as Paris, Lyon and Marseille. The world’s first anti-discrimination law protecting homosexuals was enacted in 1985, civil unions established in 1999 and same-sex marriage in 2013.
In Spain and Portugal, homosexuality thrived under Roman rule but became restricted when invading Germanic tribes established Christianity and Biblical law around 400 A.D. The Islamic Moors took over the Iberian Peninsula in 711, after which attitudes toward homosexuality and male castration became more accommodating and mirrored those found elsewhere throughout the early Islamic world. In the eleventh century, Christians began a war to recapture the Spanish Peninsula and by 1276, the Moors had been driven back into the southern state of Granada (Andalusia).
Portugal was recognized by Spain as an independent Christian state in 1385. Although sodomy was a punishable offense, homosexual practices thrived and medieval poems sung by Portuguese troubadours often spoke of same-sex attraction between both men and women. In 1492, Muslim Moors were driven out of lower Spain and the Roman Church began launching Inquisitions to enforce strict orthodoxy throughout the Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish Inquisitions were especially brutal, and Jews, Muslims, pagans and homosexuals were all fair game. In the Castile city of Zaragoza alone, 534 sodomy trials were documented between 1570 and 1630 with 102 citizens sentenced to death by public burning at the stake. In Portugal, over four hundred trials were held between 1536 and 1821 with thirty burned at the stake. Hundreds of others were forced to march in processions of shame and humiliation, after which they were tortured, deprived of all possessions and exiled. Many priests were also tried for sodomy during this time but in most cases they were silently sent away to other countries. Court records in Lisbon were particularly extensive and identified a persistent homosexual subculture in Portugal that included transvestite dancers and passive male partners known as fanchonos. The fanchonos were especially despised by court officials and nearly always convicted once brought to trial.
Both Spain and Portugal became important world powers from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century by launching expeditions around the globe and colonizing much of the Americas, Africa and Southeast Asia. After the European Enlightenment, Church Inquisitions were abolished and revised criminal codes omitted sodomy as a crime in both countries, including their overseas colonies, by the early 1800s. Portugal reinstated anti-sodomy laws under the Salazar dictatorship from 1926-1974 but removed them in 1982. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Portugal was a mostly conservative, Roman Catholic country with gay communities in large cities like Lisbon and Porto. In Spain, homosexuals were persecuted under General Franco’s unpopular dictatorship from 1936 to 1975. Although sodomy laws were never officially reinstated, three-year jail sentences were typically meted out to homosexuals under contrived charges. After the death of Franco and with the advent of democracy in 1978, Spain became increasingly secular and witnessed a rapid liberalization of social mores. In the early twenty-first century, gay communities thrived in Spanish cities like Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. The rights of third-gender citizens were protected and in 2005, Spain became the third country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. Portugal followed suit in 2010.
[Continued in Part 11...]