Acceptance of same-sex partnerships is growing in many countries of the Western World. Robert Aldrich, Professor at the University of Sydney, is an expert on the history of homosexuality. He tells us about cultural differences and trends in the field of gay rights.
unique: Do you think that the fact that popular people in history have been gay, as you describe in your book Gay Lives, could influence our judgment of homosexuality?
Aldrich: History teaches us about the diversity of lives and desires, and it is also important for people to remember how varied those experiences were across the years and around the globe. In times and places when gay people were the objects of discrimination or persecution, they indeed often looked for notable figures who were gay to justify their urges: Socrates or Michelangelo, Frederick the Great or Oscar Wilde. In them, they saw gay men – and lesbians as well, such as Sappho – who had pursued their homosexual desires, but also excelled in their professional or cultural pursuits, and who often braved social condemnation. In this way, they affirmed themselves. However, nowadays, we more often think of gay rights in terms of human rights or equal rights of all citizens rather than just the activities of famous “gay ancestors”.
Your book had also the goal to broaden our definition of homosexuality: It’s not just about sexual attraction, but also emotions and relationships. Would a broader definition change the level of tolerance towards homosexual partnership?
Often the public has been obsessed with the sex lives of gay men and lesbians: what they did with their genitals, how they did it, where they did it… But gay sexuality is also a question of affection, intimacy, companionship and love. And gay people don’t have sex ‘twenty-four seven’ – though some might like to try, perhaps. As gay life becomes better known, others realize that gays are interested in work and recreation, politics and philosophy, art and sport, and all sorts of other things – they are very ‘normal’ people. And much of what goes on in their private lives is indeed a question of emotional attachments, friendships and relationships, whether casual or enduring, and not just fucking. So perhaps those around them can view them as people, not sex machines.
You also see a more liberal or ‘fancy-free’ dealing with sexuality to be characteristic for homosexuals. Doesn’t this cause even more rejection, especially by conservatives?
By their very sexual choices, gay people rejected many of the conventions of traditional life, often because society forced them to do so. They didn’t marry their same-sex partners because they were not allowed to marry, for instance. But it is true that there is a contestatory, even revolutionary, side to gay sexuality: sex for pleasure not just procreation, sex with multiple partners not just in a monogamous relationship sanctioned by law and religion, without the constraints of old ideas about virginity and absolute fidelity. Maybe some straight people have been jealous of this sexual freedom! Therefore, so-called moralists have damned gay people for vice, immorality or perversion. This is judgmental, even dictatorial, but it is also hypocritical, especially if – as social scientists – we look at the number of divorces, of births outside of marriage and the frequency of ‘adultery’ in the past. But the challenges to traditional moral codes mean that – at least in some countries – society has changed dramatically. Die-hard homophobes are now on the defensive, at least in many countries of Western Europe, and places like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Asia, because they have lost their battle against gay rights.
Anthropologists often claim a correlation between monotheism and intolerance towards homosexual relationships. Why then is persecution in Muslim countries so much more rigid than in regions with Christian-Jewish tradition?
Monotheistic religions place an emphasis on exclusiveness: one scripture, one God, one type of salvation, and also – in traditional belief – one type of sexual behaviour. Other religions or systems of belief, such as Hinduism or Buddhism, don’t really have a concept of sin, and are not so much concerned about the sexual activities of those who follow them. In the modern Western world, we live in a secular society, partly because of the ideas of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and positivist science. Church and state are effectively separated. But that is not the case in many parts of the world and, in particular, in many Islamic countries. Homosexual acts are of course widespread in the Islamic world, as they are everywhere, but the situation of gay people in many Muslim countries is appalling. It would be good if more Islamic clerics and other Muslims stood up and proclaimed their support for equal rights for gays and lesbians.
What effects had antique religions or have Buddism or Hinduism on a society’s dealing with homosexuality?
In the Greco-Roman world, homosexuality – though it wasn’t the same as our sort of homosexual behaviour and identity – was not only widely accepted, but celebrated. That was true of the Japan of the samurais as well, and even of traditional China. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, however, attacked homosexuality, partly because for them it represented pagan vice. When these religions triumphed, they imposed their new codes of sexuality, not only in their own countries but also the countries the Jews, Christians and Muslims conquered and converted. In those places, they fought against what they considered heathenism, and many ‘heathen’ societies had very different ideas about sexuality than those of the conquerors.
Large parts of Africa and Asia, and the islands of the world, were colonized by Europeans, and the Europeans introduced their own law codes. In the case of the British empire, their laws made homosexual acts criminal, and for countries like India, the fact that homosexual acts were illegal was an inheritance of the colonial age, even though Hinduism and some of the other Indian religions are not much concerned with homosexuality. Recently, the Indian high court has ruled the anti-homosexual laws invalid, but a large number of people are still not supportive of gay rights there. Many of the politicians and regimes of the non-Western world – one thinks of Robert Mugabe in Zimbawe – have no reservations expressing their hatred of homosexuality.
Male homosexuality is more often criminalized than female homosexuality. What is the reason for this – is there a broader tolerance for lesbians?
I’m not so sure. Historically, in the West, women’s sexuality was often regarded as dangerous, but women were also seen as sexually passive. What was important was the man: sexually, politically and otherwise. A man who did not possess a woman, who did not father a child or who did not behave in a conventionally masculine manner, however that was defined, was a traitor to his sex – unless, perhaps, he was a priest. What a woman did was, in a general sense, not so significant so long as she ultimately remained under the rule of men. That’s why the lesbian movement was so often intertwined with the movement for the emancipation of women that had broader objectives: Gay men had to gain equality with straight men, but all women – straight or gay – had to seek equality with all men.
What is the reason that especially our generation has experienced an increase of tolerance towards homosexuality and same sex marriage, regarding, let’s say, the last ten years?
Many things enter into the change. A long time ago now, there was the sexual revolution, which produced a more public discussion of sexuality and changes in attitudes towards such issues as divorce. More recently, the AIDS epidemic showed how gay people could suffer, but also respond positively through campaigns for health promotion and political activism. In a more general sense, more gays and lesbians have now come out; in our countries, there are few people who do not have – and, one hopes, accept – a gay relative, neighbour or colleague. Education has played an important role, and so have the media. In the West, traditional religious beliefs no longer have the grip they once held on society. Medical views have changed, too.
But I think it is important to recognize the long years of work by gay people themselves. Think of the pioneering efforts of Magnus Hirschfeld and the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee of the 1890s: calls for homosexual emancipation and law reform, the establishment of a sexological institute, the publication of the first gay journal, Hirschfeld’s work in the setting up of a world society for sexual reform. A wide-ranging change, even in a country like Germany, took a century to achieve, not just a decade.
What further development would you predict in terms of tolerance towards homosexual partnerships?
I think we can be optimistic about many countries. Who would have thought just a few years ago that there would be gay marriages in Britain and South Africa, Spain and Portugal? Or that Paris and Berlin would have gay mayors, and that Iceland and Belgium would have gay prime ministers? Increasingly countries, most recently New Zealand and Uruguay, have recognized gay marriage – though gay marriage is not necessarily the most important objective for many gay people. There is an increasingly liberal attitude towards homosexuality in many other places, such as Singapore, for instance, a country once considered puritanical but that now has a lively gay culture.
In other parts of the world, however, it is difficult to be optimistic: in parts of Africa and the Middle East, but also in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe. Political interests, social conservatism and traditional religion all combine, sometimes violently, in an assault on gay rights. Unfortunately, one of the big divides in the world may be between those states that recognize gay rights – at least implicitly – and those that do not. It is always worthwhile repeating that gay rights are human rights, and there is an urgent need for both vigilance and for reaction against regimes that refuse to extend basic human rights to gay men and lesbians!
Thank you very much, Professor Aldrich!
The interview was conducted by Frank.
Robert Aldrich (born 1954) is Professor of European History at the University of Sydney. His research focusses on modern European and colonial history and he published several books on the history of gender and homosexuality, including Gay Life and Culture: A World History (2006, as editor) and Gay Life Stories (2012, German title: Gay Lives. Lebensgeschichten).