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Gay life & culture
Gay Life and Culture: A World History
Edited by Robert Aldrich
Thames & Hudson, 2006, £25
WHEN I told a friend about being asked to review this book he asked if it was any more than ‘a coffee table book for queers’. Certainly, it pretends to a higher status, as do many coffee table books. Gay Life and Culture: A World History is a sumptuously, sometimes erotically, illustrated collection of essays on lesbian, gay, bisexual and (to a lesser extent) transgender (LGBT) history. The contributors are writers and academics specialising in the study of the LGBT past, as historians or specialists in particular non-western cultures.
Is any higher aim achieved? The essays forming the first half of the work are of genuine interest. These provide a historical overview of European culture starting with the ancients of Greece and Rome, for whom homosexual acts among men were charged with power relations between active and passive partners. Frequently, older ruling-class men penetrated youths or slaves. The relationships that resulted, usually alongside forms of heterosexual partnership, were not stigmatised or regarded as anything out of the normal run of life.
Christianity became the dominant religion and ideology of the feudal world. Same-sex sexual acts were part of the widely defined category of ‘sodomy’. When caught, perpetrators were severely punished for the acts both criminal and sinful. At the same time, intimate same-sex relationships flourished among aristocrats and in monasteries and convents.
As medieval society became ‘early modern’, enforcement of sexual morality was transferred from religious to secular authorities. Subsequently, the industrialisation and urbanisation of Europe and North America led to the emergence of a homosexual identity available to those who enjoyed and sought out same-sex erotic experience. Ideological and theoretical trends treated homosexuality as, first, a medical, then a social and political phenomenon. Interestingly, this book shows the roots of the modern homosexual (who would eventually be known as ‘gay’) stretching back to the 18th century; many historians place the emergence of a specific homosexual identity later, in the 19th century.
The historical essays have much to commend them, although perhaps not many great revelations to readers who are familiar with the subject matter. The later chapters, however, either thematic in scope or examining ‘gay’ life in non-western cultures, are not so successful. They tend to adopt the postmodernist view that cultural phenomena are the ultimate bearers of truth. This is misconceived. Truth is concrete. People’s lives within societies and the trends within those societies are not simple. They may be mediated and recorded via cultural experiences. However, they are ultimately based on material facts. Societies in all their aspects have an economic base rather than being formed from a cultural soufflé of ideas.
For example, it was not an ‘insight’ of Native Americans when one tribe believed that "sexual anatomy is achieved rather than determined at birth". The belief was wrong, being based on an unscientific understanding of biology. The postmodernist approach obscures the subject matter rather than illuminating it.
The essay, Homosexuality in North Africa and the Middle East, exemplifies the worst of the book’s approach. It examines homoeroticism in classical (feudal) Islamic culture. This was outside the cultural mainstream, more so than the essay explores, and is an important area of study. Even so, it is wrong for the author, an Italian teacher of the history of art, to insist on and seek a Muslim gay identity. He idealises pre-colonial society and bemoans young Algerian gay men having only superficial religious commitment. Why are gay men and lesbians of the Middle East and western ‘Muslim’ communities excluded from seeking and achieving a secular culture?
One result of the book’s bias towards academically fashionable theories is the absence of discussion of class. Other than by a sideways glance, there is no mention that the experiences of lesbians and gay men differ because of class status and economic pressure. You will not find out how working-class gay men and lesbians lived in the past from this book.
Allied to this, the question as to why LGBT communities are oppressed today is not properly raised let alone answered. Same-sex eroticism may once have been seen as sinful but the lingering effect of this cannot by itself explain today’s oppression.
The creation of homosexual identity at the same time as the birth of capitalism was not a coincidence. The new economy and society needed to give the family a special status, the husband/father being head and breadwinner, with women giving birth to and caring for children. The family was required to pass wealth and power down generations of the ruling class and, at the same time, ensure that the next generation of workers was bred.
Those who did not fit in with this were stigmatised and used as scapegoats to divide workers. With the opportunity to meet and form networks in urbanised and more anonymous societies, persecuted homosexuals could adopt pubs and clubs and find meeting places for sex. A gay identity came to be.
Rights were won in the last third of the 20th century only because battles were fought to win them, some of which are mentioned in this book. Groups such as the Gay Liberation Front, ACT-UP and others demanded the liberation of sexuality and campaigned on specific questions such as decriminalisation of gay sex or AIDS treatment.
Some groups were more radical than others. The late sixties and early seventies were especially fertile times for the radicals, activists being inspired by the anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements. Society as a whole was moving in a leftwards direction. Notably, the earliest North American gay rights group, the Mattachine Society, was founded by former members of the US Communist Party who sought refuge from the homophobia of the Stalinist left. Not that the impact of these wider shifts in society is analysed here.
The final chapter of the book attempts an overview of gay life today and the battles for equality to come. In some countries these will aim to fill in the gaps between legal gains already won while defending against future attacks. This is no small task. As I write, the Anglican and Catholic bishops of England are arguing for their churches (and by extension all religious bodies) to be exempted from anti-discrimination laws. Would they be so bold if the anti-discrimination laws were against anti-Semitism? As the experience of Germany shows, gains are not guaranteed once won. Gay Life and Culture details the vibrant gay and lesbian nightlife of Berlin between the world wars, which was smashed by the Nazi regime. Its habitués were given the choice of staying as far underground as they could manage or being sent to the horrors of the concentration camps.
Even if legal gains are won these do not guarantee equal treatment and safety of gays and lesbians. The threat of dismissal and queer-bashing will always be present. LGBT rights can only be secured for good by the socialist transformation of society, ending prejudice, the power of the bosses and the scarcity that sets workers against each other.
In many countries the battle for gay rights includes achieving the decriminalisation of gay sex and the right of free association with other LGBT people. As with other aspects of democratic rights only the organised working class can win this, where necessary in alliance with poor peasants. LGBT liberation is not completed unless it is international in scope, again linking it with the struggle for socialism.
A socialist society, by raising living standards, would free relationships between people from the constraints imposed by capitalism and enable everyone to live life, not merely survive it. Its positive effects would transform both individual and family life. For example, good quality childcare facilities could be made available alongside options for lengthy maternity/paternity leave. With a general liberation of sexuality, labels such as ‘homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’ could become obsolete. They may both turn out to be limiting concepts that humanity no longer needs.
You will find none of this analysis in Gay Life and Culture. Despite its strengths in the historical sections, it frequently frustrates, either because of analytical weaknesses or failure to do more than scratch the surface of interesting topics. Perhaps its main purpose will be to spur readers to more in-depth reading. For my friend I can say that it is not ‘just’ a coffee table book, but perhaps not much more.