Image of two men kissingA History of Homophobia

Essays by Rictor Norton on the Historical Roots of Homophobia from Ancient Israel to the End of the Middle Ages

1 The Ancient Hebrews


In the early days of gay liberation there emerged the slogan "We are not so much fucked up as fucked over," and as usual the slogan contained more than a germ of truth. But however important it is for us to come to the full realization that we are quite normal rather than sick, it may be equally important in the long run to come to an awareness of how sick a good many heterosexuals are. There is in fact a sometimes-not-very-subtle form of neurosis, often reaching the proportion of mass hysteria, underlying most of the institutions and attitudes used to oppress and degrade homosexuals.

I readily admit that in current usage the concept of homophobia (invented by Dr Wainwright Churchill in Homosexual Behavior Among Males (1967) — though his actual term was "homoerotophobia") is often little more than a political metaphor used to castigate people who dislike homosexuals, and users of the term ascribe anti-gay attitudes more to ignorance than to clinical phobia. But homophobia does indeed exist as a specific classifiable mental illness, ranging from mild anxiety to paranoia, with physiological symptoms such as an involuntary gag-reflex, dilation of the pupils, and a shrinking in penile volume upon seeing a naked male — all of which have been scientifically measured in sporadic experimental research. Studies indicate that anti-gay prejudice is very deeply seated in the Western psyche, quite irrational (usually consisting of excessive fear tantamount to castration anxiety), and a clear indication of how difficult it will be to achieve homosexual equality by means of merely rational argument for legal reform.

My own belief is that homophobia generally originates in primitive taboo customs which are now largely subconscious, which is why I think that a specifically historical investigation of the subject is important to an understanding of it. At the same time, however, I recognize that on many occasions anti-gay laws were enacted solely on political rather than moral or phobic grounds, as when the English law against buggery was enacted by Henry VIII primarily to deprive the Ecclesiastical Courts of their temporal power. I am interested in how irrational homophobia has been supported by the specifically political oppression of homosexuals, which I think is usefully revealed by historical investigation.

So in this History of Homophobia series I use a combination of psychological and political analysis, usually resulting in a "radical" analysis in so far as I wish to uncover the "root" or radix of what is one of the most complex problems of modern society, a disease that often threatens heterosexuals as well as homosexuals.

One final prefatory note: I am especially intrigued not so much by homophobia in general as by specific anti-gay attitudes, such as the curious notion that homosexuality is contagious (which I think originated in primitive superstitions about the Evil Eye), and it is for this reason that I want to examine its history at some length and in some detail, for we need much more than an appreciation of prejudice in general if we hope to eliminate all of its ramifications in society.

Homophobia and the Ancient Hebrews

It is commonplace to say that anti-gay prejudice is "a medieval Christian attitude." Although it is true that such prejudice was certainly expanded and cruelly enforced during the medieval Christian ethos, homophobia nevertheless began long before Christ or the Church Fathers, and is quite specifically Jewish or Hebrew.

In comparison with other ancient legal codes, Mosaic law was relatively lenient — it listed a mere 36 crimes which were punishable by death. But of these 36 crimes, exactly one half were "crimes" involving sex, so in contrast to other legal systems the Hebrews gradually extended the notion of "crime" into the personal and private affairs of people rather than limiting it to the social and public level (such as the public crimes of murder or theft). Further, there rather quickly evolved the notion that crime and sex were intimately related. Unlike their contemporary Greek, Egyptian, and other civilizations, the Hebrews held the view that sex, the sex organs, and nudity were shameful.

In Leviticus 18.6-19 there are as many as 12 prohibitions relating entirely to nakedness ("Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy father"; "Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy aunt"; etc.) and most of the other death-deserving laws occur in the context of condemning "the uncovering of one's nakedness," whether for erotic purposes or not. In Exodus 20.26 and 28.42 nakedness is forbidden within the precinct of their cult deity, Jahweh or Jehovah, and the priests of Jahweh are commanded to wear linen breeches (the ephod): "from the loins even unto the thighs they shall reach."

Whereas the Greek term for the male genitals, medea, was an entirely neutral term having no positive or negative connotations, the Hebrew term for the male genitals, erva, means "hideous flesh." Virtually every psychologist, anthropologist, and student of comparative religion now recognizes that the Hebrew ritual ceremony of circumcision is a muted form of castration and a symbolic attempt at genital mutilation having virtually no justification in terms of hygiene. In Leviticus 15.16-18 semen is declared to be "unclean," and men are admonished to bathe after they emit semen, and any garments or the skin of other persons upon which semen has fallen are similarly considered to be "unclean."

This attitude towards sex, the male genitals, semen and nudity seems to provide evidence for a pathological anxiety, a barely suppressed paranoia that may have been a national trait of these tribes in so far as it extended even to highly regulated dietary habits revealing severe alimentary prudery. However, a strong political motive contributed to this attitude. The texts containing these prohibitions date from the sixth century BC, at the time when the Hebrews had returned from the Babylonian Captivity. It was a time of a wave of nationalism when for purposes of political survival the Hebrew leaders were attempting to distinguish themselves from the Babylonians, Canaanites, Egyptians, and Assyrians. One of the predominant features of the religions of these other cultures was "ritual nakedness" in the temples and ritual masturbation before the idol of Baal as a kind of symbolic fertilization of the deity. Thus a major goal of the Hebrew national religion came to be the stamping out of such heterodoxies in their people. It is entirely plausible, even probable, that this sex-loathing was not so much emotional and irrational as originally political and religious.

It is also quite likely that the prohibitions were more theological, more theoretical and formal, than practical or actual, for there is no evidence that any death penalties were even inflicted. The Mishnah and Talmud prescribed stoning to death (as does Leviticus), and in due course there were discussions among the rabbis resulting in agreement that 13-year-old sodomites (i.e. minors) were not guilty of a crime because the Biblical phrase "men with mankind" referred only to adult males. This was a purely theoretical discussion among the rabbis, and never applied.

Assyrian Priests

Assyrian eunuch This attitude toward sex, the male genitals, and nudity not only forms the background, but is directly linked to, the laws specifically against homosexuals. Unfortunately for us, homosexual rites were included in the religions of the Assyrians, and other ancient peoples of the area, that the Hebrews felt constrained to renounce. It was common practice for the Assyrian priests to be homosexual, to often don women's clothing and thereby acquire the magical powers of the Mother Goddess Ishtar; for the higher priests to castrate themselves in religious imitation of the god Attis; and for the lower acolytes to ritually prostitute themselves to all men who came to the temple (symbolically to collect fertilizing semen from the deity, and in more practical terms to collect money for maintaining the temple). They were called qadesh, which means "holy ones" — that is, those blessed or consecrated for this divine service. This term was used by the Hebrews as an exact equivalent for "sodomite," and the term for the female temple prostitutes, qedheshah, was used as an equivalent for "whore" (see I Kings 14.22-24, 15.12, 22.46; Deuteronomy 23.17-18; Leviticus 18.3, 24-30, 20.23, all of which relate specifically to Egyptian and Canaanite religious homosexuality).

What is really interesting in this respect is that the identical male homosexual religious rites were commonly practised in the Temple of Jerusalem itself, and were an integral part of early Jewish worship (see II Kings 23.7). But, burning with anti-Assyrian nationalistic fervour, the good King Josiah (640-609 BC) zealously burned out the room of the qadesh in the Temple, scattered and reviled them (though again there is no clear evidence of them being killed), and began the campaign against homosexuality that has never ceased since.

So militant homophobia began in what was basically the historical accident of a local sectarian feud. Unfortunately this prohibition of a specific religious practice quickly became a prohibition of male homosexuality in general, and we are left with Josiah's anti-gay laws such as "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination"; "If a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them" (Leviticus 18.22, 20.13), passages which occur in what is known as the "Holiness Code."

The actual Hebrew not very correctly translated as "abomination" is to'ebhah, which the Hebrews understood to mean "unholy" in the sense of being related to a "sacred" practice of a non-Hebrew religion, but which is actually derived from an Egyptian word meaning "holy". It was simply a matter of philological inversion which becomes a prime means of degradation. To'ebhah occurs 116 times in the Old Testament, virtually always in the context of idolatry, though sometimes as a sexual metaphor such as "lusting after strange gods."

The other relevant laws are in I Corinthians 6.9-10 and I Timothy 1.9-10, which specifically condemn malakoi, a term most often applied to men who take the receptor role during anal intercourse, not very correctly translated as "effeminate men"; and arsenokoitai, a term most often applied to men who perform the inserter role during anal intercourse, not very correctly translated as "abusers of themselves with men." Koitai means "to lie with"; arseno may come from the Ionic arsen, meaning "man, to be made wet with semen" or from the Doric orson, meaning "arse, buttocks". Romans 1.27 condemns men who "leave the natural use of the woman, and burn in their lust one toward one another," which may relate primarily to heterosexual men who go gay in a deliberate rebellious attempt to be perverse and lecherous, etc. Romans 1.26 condemns "women who change the natural use into that which is against nature," which is extremely vague and probably refers to non-conventional heterosexual practices or positions. Biblical scholars tend to agree that lesbianism is nowhere mentioned in the Bible. The Talmud, however, mentions lesbianism, considering it as a mere obscenity that disqualifies a lesbian from later marrying a priest.

The translations of the very influential Revised Standard Version of the Bible in the Twentieth Century use the word "homosexual" in the passages mentioned above. This is a grossly unjust distortion of the text, for it extends the prohibition to all male and female homosexual practices and personalities rather than what is really prohibited: anal intercourse between men, this and only this. But this perpetuation of intolerance comes much later in the history of the spread of homophobia.

(Likewise, at this early date the story of Sodom and Gomorrah had not yet acquired a homosexual interpretation. This developed around AD 100, and will be discussed when we reach that phase of the history of homophobia.)

The Wrath of Yahweh

The most remarkable fact in the history of the ancient world is that only the Hebrews condemned homosexuality. From this mere mutation in the history of humankind, from the petty local jealousies of a small nomadic tribe, we have inherited a tradition that has mangled half the world on an unprecedented scale, an anti-gay and anti-sex tradition that has spread into the Eastern and Arabian cultures. What impresses me most, with a kind of helplessness, is that it was largely an accident of historical circumstances that brought upon homosexuals the wrath of Jahweh.

Homophobia was originally a condemnation of specifically the male-to-male anal intercourse which was a feature of Assyrian and other religions and usually symbolized humility and subservience, though the Hebrews regarded this is humiliation. Laws proceed by precedent, and more than a millennium would pass before the "crime" was extended to include male oral copulation, and not until the twentieth century could mere male-to-male kissing in public be prosecuted as lewd behaviour. One historical pattern we will discover during this history is that as homophobia loses its direct link to its religious origins and becomes more secular, it becomes more subtle, all-inclusive, and increasingly prohibitive through the law.

Lesbian practices were rarely prohibited, not because "what women do doesn't interest male lawgivers" (a superficial feminist analysis), but because law proceeds by precedent and there was no precedent for lesbian prosecution, and because lesbian practices were not part of the religious rituals originally prohibited by homophobia. The Hebrew degradation of women, however, began simultaneously with their religious-based homophobia, for the male temple prostitutes worshipped Astaroth, Ishtar, Isis, Cybele, and other of the Mother Goddesses in the matriarchal cultures, and Hebrew patriarchalism busied itself with burying Cybele in order to elevate Jahweh. Men such as the qadesh who freely subordinated themselves to Cybele became anathema to the new dogma of male supremacy, and here begins the castration anxiety and impotence anxiety (which despite Freud's errors is much more common among male heterosexuals than among gay men). In a related area, male transvestism was condemned because it represented the qadesh's worship of the Mother Goddess.

Homophobia originally had nothing whatsoever to do with a prejudice against people who refused to procreate. In spite of the general opinion today, male homosexuals were not condemned on the grounds that they refused to "be fruitful and multiply." There is simply no evidence to support this modern interpretation of the Biblical attitude, and this particular homophobia does not occur until much later. Even "the sin of Onan," which came to be a condemnation of masturbation, derived originally from a prohibition against ritual masturbation before the idol of Baal, not because it violates a "law of procreation." The phrase "against nature" at this period still meant only "as a heretic" or "as an idolator," and would not be interpreted as "against 'natural' procreative 'law'" until much later. More specifically, "against nature" meant "as an apostate," one who goes "against true nature" in the sense of betraying and renouncing the true religion. In fact the trend of the Hebrew, and later the Christian, priesthood toward celibacy is a reaction against the fertility cults of which homosexual rites were an integral part.

Homophobia originally was a condemnation of idolatry, the worship of the phallic deity Baal in which homosexual rites happened to play an important part. I think this is still the essential factor of homophobia: it is so firmly rooted in the psyche of contemporary people that homosexuals are still seen as heretics and foreign or strange or queer worshippers of a system not held by the majority. More evidence for this will be adduced when we get to the active persecution of homosexuals in the eleventh century. Dr George Weinberg, who coined the word "homophobia", defined homophobia as "acute conventionalism", but it nevertheless has its historical source in the Hebrews' acute nationalism.

[ continued in Part 2 ]

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