Monday, June 9, 2014

Book Write-Up: Homosexuality and Civilization

Louis Crompton.  Homosexuality and Civilization.  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

I learned of this book from Kevin Brown’s Diglotting blog.  Kevin was discussing his summer reading plans, and he said the following about Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization: “Most thorough book I’ve seen on the topic (a little over 600 pages long). It covers how homosexuality was perceived in a variety of cultures, from ancient Greece and Rome to imperial China and pre-Meiji Japan. It is pretty inexpensive too!”

I’m holding off on buying the book, but I did check it out from a local library and read it.  It is thorough.  It is also honest scholarship.  Crompton was a prominent figure in the field of gay studies.  Yet, Crompton is not afraid to disagree with other pro-gay scholars like John Boswell.  Whereas Boswell argued that Christianity was fairly tolerant towards homosexuality up to a certain point in time, Crompton paints historical Christianity as homophobic, even supportive of death for people who engaged in sodomy.  Crompton acknowledges that Christianity made positive contributions to the world, but he does not consider its stance on homosexuality to be one of them.

You may hear arguments by gay or pro-gay Christians that attempt to place the Bible in a positive light, to argue that the Bible does not really condemn homosexuality.  Crompton either questions those arguments, or the facts that he presents call the arguments into question.  Some argue that the ancient Israelites prohibited homosexual activity because they wanted Israel to have a large population in a world in which she was vulnerable; Crompton does not buy this, for he does not believe that is a sufficient explanation for the hostility towards homosexuality in Leviticus 20:13, which calls for death for same-sex activity, when there are peaceful ways to incentivize fertility.  Crompton does, however, speculate that the association of transexuality with pagan worship may have contributed to ancient Israel’s animus towards homosexuality.  Some note that Jesus did not criticize homosexuality.  Crompton himself finds this odd, for there were Gentile cities in Galilee, and same-sex activity probably occurred there, so Jesus was presumably aware of same-sex activity.  Still, Crompton concludes that Jesus probably absorbed the prejudices of his Jewish environment.  Some argue that Paul in Romans 1 was criticizing pederasty (love for boys) and had no conception of same-sex marriage or two people of the same sex entering into a lifelong union of commitment.  While Crompton talks at length about men’s love for boys in the ancient world, he also notes ancient examples of lifelong love and commitment between two people of the same sex.

Overall, what I saw as I read Crompton’s book was a history of cultural ambivalence towards homosexuality.  Some cultures were more open than others, but most of the cultures that Cromtpon discusses had pro- and anti-homosexual voices.  There were voices that regarded homosexuality as unnatural (since it did not produce children), as disruptive to family loyalty, and as responsible for ills that the culture was experiencing (due to divine displeasure, or other factors).  Ancient Greece was quite open, but Plato in his later work (Laws) was critical of homosexuality.  China was really open, too, but there were people who believed that homosexuality contradicted Confucian family values.  Japan was open but became more opposed to homosexuality with Western influence.  Within Christianity, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, there was stern opposition to homosexuality, and yet there were plenty of people, including high-ranking people, who engaged in sodomy.  One Christian conservative said to me that homosexuality was universally stigmatized until recently; that is far from true, for there were plenty of cultures that were open.  Still, many cultures had some voices that were critical of homosexuality.

The book also covered interesting details: odd attempts by thinkers to account for homosexuality (i.e., it’s due to not enough women being around), anti-sodomy laws in early America (Thomas Jefferson thought he was being more humane by advocating castration rather than death as the punishment), and such fascinating figures as the seventeenth century Queen Christina of Sweden, who was rather skeptical of religion and abdicated the throne when she converted to Catholicism, perhaps to be with a woman.  One can learn a lot about history from this book.

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