The homosexual in America; a subjective approach by Donald Webster Cory (the pen name of Edward Sagarin) published 1957, recorded the development of queer culture during the early to mid twentieth century. To set the scene he offered this historical overview of homosexuality around the world, which shows that some gays in that time of pre-decriminalisation were more aware of the ancient association between homosex and spirituality than most queers are today.
Cory wrote that homosexuals have been “the priests in some societies, the pariahs in others, and both at the same time in still others…”
“Homosexual practices were found in abundance when European travellers studied the lives of the American Indian tribes. Men were discovered dressed as women, acting as wives for their warrior-husbands, performing all the duties of the household, and accepted by the women of the tribes. Renunciation of one’s own sex was a tribal ritual of the Chukchis, and the youth who voluntarily performed the renunciation took a husband. The shamans, or high priests, were usually effeminate, and gave evidence of being homosexual. They were regarded by their tribe as magicians, having supernatural power and the ability to interpret dreams.
“Early travellers and explorers found homosexuality in many of the Malayan Islands, in New Guinea, the Marshall Islands, Hawaii, Tahiti, New Caledonia, and Australia. In her studies of life in the South Sea Islands, Margaret Mead found homosexual practices among adolescents prevalent and free from condemnation, but such practices seldom continued after the youths matured. In some of the primitive cultures a homosexual prostitution thrived. In others a warlike fraternity of men in which sexual relations took place was widely accepted. Native communities in Australia (before the conquest of that island by the white man) went through all the rituals and taboos of marriage between a man and a boy, such marriages being characterized as ‘exceedingly common’. The Japanese knew no punishment of public opprobrium for the homosexual until the influence of the West was felt, and the Japanese man who loved a man, it is said, was considered more heroic than the woman-lover in the great era of chivalry in Europe. The Chinese were likewise free of any attitude characterizing love of one’s own sex as wrong, until the influence of the Christian world became dominant.
“A great mystery surrounds the homosexual in early civilizations and among primitive peoples. The Scandinavian rulers were harsh; pederasty was form of sorcery, and sorcery was a supreme crime. But the Mexicans tolerated, permitted, nay encouraged the practices, even attributing them to their deities. The literature and history of ancient Greece show that homosexuality thrived, that it was fully and completely accepted by the people, but that it was seldom the exclusive channel of love for either man or woman. For the Greeks, pederasty was a noble form of love. It was linked with courage, devotion, sacrifice on the battlefield; with athletics and physical prowess. It was a glorification of both strength and tenderness. Plutarch pointed out that love of youths was found in the greatest and most warlike of nations, and among the greatest and most warlike of heroes, and Plato said that an army made up of lovers and their beloveds, fighting at each other’s side, could overcome the whole world, even though these lovers be a mere handful. In Rome, during the most successful days of the Empire, homosexual love was glorified by the great poets. Catallus wrote a love lyric to Juventius, whose ‘honeysweet lips’ he sought to kiss; and Vergil, Horace and Tibullus sang praises to love of youths. Ovid delved into this pathway of love, and Petronius found it equal to love for women. Thus from the Romans and the Greeks was received the first heritage of a literature in which the homosexual theme is acceptable and in fact is even dominant. At the same time, the portrait of these cultures shows that the homosexual activity, widely practised and accepted, justified as having a place in society, neither dominated nor conflicted with the position of the family.
“Nevertheless, the voices against homosexuality were beginning to be heard. The population of Rome was diminishing, and a code of morality was required which would tend to increase childbirth. Justinian spoke in strong words, striking fear into the hearts of the people: “It is on account of such crimes that famines and earthquakes take place and also pestilences.” No culture had been more severe in its condemnation than that of the Hebrews – despite their early approval of homosexuality. About six to seven centuries before Christ, a campaign against the homosexual practices was undertaken, on the grounds that they belonged to a foreign people. The Hebrew moral judgements became the inheritance of the Christians.
“During the Middle Ages, homosexuals were likened to sorcerers and linked with heretics. They were burned at the stake. With the revival of learning on the European continent, a new interest in homosexuality was displayed by the men of genius. Leonardo was accused of having had an ‘abnormal’ relationship and Michaelangelo of having addressed his love sonnets to a male. The spirit of the Renaissance culture was imbued with an undertone of homosexuality.., There were many trials and death sentences during the years that followed, but seldom a word of protest. The homosexuals feared to defend their practices, yet no severity of punishment sufficed to diminish the desire or inhibit the fulfilment.
“The first expression of a changed attitude appeared in the Napoleonic Code, which omitted homosexuality from its list of crimes….
“Punishments for homosexuality and sorcery were identical in many lands, and even the same word was used to denote the practice of homosexuality and of witchcraft.”