Sun, Jun 27, 2004 - Page 18 News List

A love that cannot speak its name -- and why not?

It would seem that Westerners historically had a lot to learn from the East about tolerance of homosexuality

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

When Europeans first arrived in the Americas they found men engaged in erotic entanglements virtually on the quayside. They responded with the horror their religion had implanted in them, holding out their bibles and shouting "Abomination! Devilry! Wichcraft!" The problem was they found the same thing almost everywhere they set foot in East Asia. China and Japan both looked on this kind of activity with a cool shrug of the shoulders. But as the Europeans' colonizing push gathered force the hangings, disembowelment by mastiffs and burnings alive (especially popular) began to appear in these regions as well.

Luis Crompton is a veteran of the scholarly program to research gay history in ever greater detail. Because it was for so long looked on in the West as the "unmentionable" vice, it all too often remained just that -- unmentioned. Crompton's Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th Century England (1985) became celebrated for lifting the curtain on such things as the English poet's enthusiastic bisexuality, and on horrors such as the pillory -- not an Olde Worlde comic institution as many had assumed, but a lethal ritual in which men, tied to stakes on the back of a cart, were pelted with dogs' excrement specially sold at the roadside and implanted with rocks that could and did blind and sometimes kill.

All over Europe for 2,000 years the story was the same, an orgy of hatred and vilification ostensibly justified by a small number of biblical quotations, but in reality probably the result of the generalized sexual repression the same religion was imposing on all of its adherents.

China and Japan stand out as shining lights of philosophic sanity in this narrative. In the first act of the 18th century puppet play Love Suicides on the Eve of the Koshin Festival by Japan's greatest dramatist, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, three men compete for possession of a beautiful youth. Yet this was no coterie drama for a jaded elite but a piece of public theater, clearly reflecting general attitudes. In China, too, the missionizing Europeans encountered an amused public toleration. So long as sons eventually married and continued the family line, no great harm was done by such youthful escapades. It was part of human nature, after all.

Publication Notes

Homosexuality and Civilization

By Luis Crompton

623 pages

Belknap Press

Crompton is at pains not to exaggerate the picture. India was to some extent different, and Africa (where things were probably very different) barely gets a mention. Even so, his drift is abundantly clear. The source of anti-gay hysteria was Christianity, as it still is in, for instance, much of the US. And Christianity imbibed it from ancient Israel. Where did the Israelites get in from? Probably their being in religious competition with shamanistic transvestite cults then flourishing in the Middle East, Crompton concludes.

This is a major work from the Emeritus (i.e. retired) Professor of English at the University of Nebraska. It will be the the first book future researchers in the topic will turn to, and what they will find is a magisterial survey that delivers the fruits of a lifetime's study. Everything in the field is touched on and weighed in the balance.

Crompton is careful to give Christianity its due. It has been the inspiration over the centuries for much compassion, education and art, he writes, and many modern Christians have been able to put the concommitant hatreds behind them. Even so, gays have suffered terribly, even routinely, from its strictures.

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