Last week we spoke about censorship and documentation of homosexuality in the 1980s. However, to understand the position of homosexuality in the twentieth century, one needs to go back in time and see how the attitudes towards same-sex relationships changed from acceptance and normality, to repression and penalisation.
My first point of reference was Craig Williams’s Roman Homosexuality where he says that in the Ancient Roman Empire no differentiation between ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’ existed. This is mirrored in Latin which does not contain any words specifically expressing these concepts.
From this I moved on to a Renaissance text Dialogue on the Beauty of Women written by a Florentine intellectual – Agnolo Firenzuola. Generally his treatise focuses on beauty and the features desired in a woman. However, he also dedicates a few pages for a summary of an ancient myth on Jupiter’s creation of women and men.
When Jove created the first men and the first women ha gave them twice the number of parts they now have, that is to say, four arms and four legs and two heads; and hence. Having double parts, they had double powers; and they were of three sexes: some male in both halves, other female; but these were few; and the rest, who were the greater number, were one half male and the other female. (…) They took thought together to overthrow Jove (Jupiter) from heaven. And he, being warned of the matter (…) determined to divide them all into two, and so to secure his estate. (…) And thus, everyone thenceforth was male or female, save a certain small number who escaped, but who by too much running wasted themselves away and were of no more use. These were named Hermaphrodities, which signifies fugitives from Hermes that is Mercury. Some which were, or had descended from, males in both halves, desiring to return to their former state, seek their other half and contemplate each other’s beauty. (…) Those which had been female in both halves, or are descended from such, love each other’s beauty. (…) These by nature scorn marriage and flee from converse with men. (…) The third kind, who were both female and male, and the most in number, were those who have husbands and hold them dear (…).
This fragment shows how the ancients understood and explained different sexual orientations. However, what does this reference signal about the Renaissance? During this period, it was a common practice to seek information and inspiration in the texts of the ancients who were viewed as the ultimate possessors of wisdom and knowledge. By this reference, Firenzuola might have expressed his opinion on the matter, in this way accepting homosexuality of Renaissance geniuses such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio or Leonardo da Vinci. Nevertheless, one needs to be aware of tension between homosexuals and the officials who at the time were fining a large part of this population.
Despite this, “at the beginning of the seventeenth century, a certain frankness” about sexual expression and orientation “was still common, it would seem”, says Michel Foucault in The Will to Knowledge. “Sexual practices had little need of secrecy (…), one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit.” But this changed in the Victorian times when “silence became a rule” in any disputes relating to sex. “Sexuality was carefully confined; it moved into the house”. This repression of homosexuality, in legal terms in Britain ended in 1967 with the introduction of Sexual Offences Act 1966. This act while marking the end of the repression, created a beginning for gay rights campaigns.
Agnolo Firenzuola, Dialogue on the Beauty of Women, p. 38-41
Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality (Oxford University Press, 1999, 2010), p. 304
Michel Foucault in The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality, volume 1 (1976), p. 3