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Queer History

Tim Farron, the Bible and Queerness

Tim Farron

Queer biblical studies involves reading the Bible closely and asking questions about what preconceptions influence the ways we approach and engage with the text. I’d like to invite Farron to ask himself similar questions because, in his resignation statement, he cited his commitment to biblical teaching as incompatible with leadership of his liberal political party.

Farron’s Christianity has long been a focus in (not of) his leadership, and he has been subject to persistent questioning about his stance on LGBT+ issues in light of his religious beliefs. For much of his tenure he obfuscated when asked whether he considered gay or same-sex sex sinful, only providing a definitive answer – no – in the run up to the 2017 general election, shortly before his resignation. The delay in providing a clear answer, the earlier inconsistency, and the citation of biblical beliefs have led to scepticism of his asserted standpoint. As such it is worth reconsidering the relationships between politics and biblical Christianity, particularly in the intersection with LGBT+ issues, in contemporary public life.

There has been much discussion of the continuing presence of religion in political discourse. Yet Farron’s claims seem out of kilter with not only the political climate but with the complexity of Christian belief and practice. Farron grounds his sense of integrity in the Bible, and that must be core to the way his politics and theology are undertaken. So let’s look again at these biblical teachings, and ask whether it’s possible to approach them from an LGBTQ+-inclusive stance with integrity.

In doing so, we must go back to the question of what assumptions and preconceptions underpin our reading before asking what the texts may say to us today.

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that sexuality, as we understand it today, is a relatively new concept. Let me make the implications of this abundantly clear: there is no heterosexuality in the Bible, no homosexuality, no bisexuality. It does not and cannot exist in the text.

Instead, we have a collection of stories of relationships and moral teachings with afterlives. They have legacies and meaning placed upon them, which in turn are used to justify and reinforce androcentrism, patriarchy, rape culture, homophobia, cisnormativity, heteronormativity.

Specific texts, like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 (from which we get the term ‘Sodomy’), have become synonymous with God’s condemnation of homosexuality so that the texts themselves end up barely distinguishable from the meanings they’ve acquired.

It shows how the Bible is far from a benign text, entirely divorced from wider society, and it warrants considered analysis. It is therefore all the more important to articulate the distinction between what a text says, and what it means.

So when Tim Farron, and others, suggest or imply that the Bible justifies their stance, they have a point. Stories like Adam and Eve are used to justify the gender and sex binaries and to deify heterosexuality, especially through the model of complementarity,

Ken Stone describes this story as the heterosexual contract, because that it what it has come to mean and how it is used today. It is no surprise at all, therefore, that the assumptions of heteronormativity, cisnormativity and male supremacy predominate readings of the Bible. What I would like to emphasise, however, is that it can be read differently: the conclusions about gender and sexuality are not foregone.

Challenging these perceived norms is an ongoing and contested field of work, partly because it is so difficult to admit the impact of such preconceptions on the way we read. That doesn’t diminish the importance of doing so, and Farron’s resignation statement highlights exactly why such work is so important.

The biblical texts themselves provide indications of alternative readings if only we are willing to see them. We rarely stop to ask whether it is in any way anachronistic to identify heterosexual and model relationships amongst cisgender characters in the Bible. In which case, why shouldn’t we consider the possibilities of homosexual/homoerotic relationships and trans characters?

In the recently published Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Studies, Deryn Guest explores how the chaotic source of God’s creation (Tehom) is genderqueer/nonbinary and is described in both male and female terms. Guest argues that this has repercussions for those who identify outside the gender binary.

The assassin Jael (Judges), depicted in art as a femme fatale, similarly is described using both male and female terminology. These examples are far from isolated and offer insight into gender diversity and complexity rarely acknowledged in the majority of biblical scholarship or acts of worship.

The patriarchal families of Genesis headed by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph include myriad examples of gender and sexuality (Genesis 12-50). Joseph – of the amazing technicoloured dream coat – could consider that coat as a beautiful princess dress. Jacob performs drag to convince their father they are their hypermasculine twin brother, Esau, while Esau comes across as a ripped and muscular bear.

Beyond the patriarchal narratives, David and Jonathan – whose love is described as beyond that for a woman– and Ruth and Naomi have long been recognised as queer role models for LGBTQ+ religious practitioners. Ruth‘s words of love to Naomi are regularly used in (different-sex) marriage services.

All these stories are found within the biblical canon. Far from being anachronistic or irreverent, these readings apply on well-established research methods and draw out themes which are masked through the perception that heteronormativity and cisnormativity are beyond scrutiny.

If that is the case, then it is cisnormativity and heteronormativity that are praised and valued far beyond the biblical teaching which Farron references as so essential to his politics and theology: what a sad and disappointing state of affairs!

Perhaps that is exactly why he is suspicious of the scrutiny placed on what he believes and who his faith is in. So, as religion and politics finds itself once again in the public consciousness, and the Liberal Democrats try to find another leader, let us intentionally place politicians under scrutiny and question their – and our own – integrity.

Let’s ask: what and who do you believe in, and how are you going to enact that in your politics and, if appropriate, your theology?

Jo Henderson-Merrygold is a WRoCAH funded PhD student in SIIBS. Jo’ research uses and adapts queer theory and gender studies in order to propose a new genderqueer hermeneutic for reading biblical narratives. Taking queer biblical studies away from a focus solely on sex and sexuality, Jo asks readers to consider the ways we infer gender on to characters, and then reflect those back into contemporary life. Jo is also co-director of Hidden Perspectives. You can find Jo on Twitter @Jo_H_M.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

This post was slightly edited for clarification on the author’s decision to frame this piece in the context of Tim Farron’s resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Header image: Tim Farron speaking at a rally [via Flikr].

You can find the original version of this article at The Queerness.

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Earinus: A Roman Civil Rights Activist?

Bust_of_a_Roman_emperor,_probably_Emperor_Domitian_(r._81–96_A.D)_MET_7021

We tend to assume that the struggle for civil rights is a modern invention and that, before the Enlightenment, the world was ruled by despotic kings and emperors. And yet, democracy as we know it was invented by the ancient Greeks. The idea that a state could be run by (some of) the people was a founding principle of the Roman Republic, and was not forgotten when Rome decided that it needed emperors. Romans could, and did, advocate for their civil rights. Even, it appears, the most marginalised among them: figures like Flavius Earinus.

Born in Greece, Earinius was apparently so comely as a boy that he was castrated and sent to Rome to be the cupbearer of the Emperor Domitian. 1 The exact nature of their relationship is not clear, though a sexual element would have been by no means unusual. The Romans, like the Greeks, thought little of using boys for sex. Unlike the Greeks, they tended not to see pederasty as a mentoring relationship, an essential part of the growing boy’s education, but rather as a matter of sexual dominance. A Roman who had a favourite boy might not want him to grow into a man, and a simple way to stop him doing that was to have him castrated.

Despite this unequal power relationship, the Emperor Domitian became very fond of his young slave and granted the boy his freedom while he was still a teenager. What Earinus did next is extraordinary. He made a public show of cutting his hair. His friend the Emperor ordered the court poets, Martial and Statius, to write verse commemorating this act.

In Rome cutting your hair was a coming of age ritual for boys. By making this public statement Earinus was saying very clearly, “I am a man!”, despite having been made a eunuch.

This statement of identity was important as the Empire contained many eunuchs of different types whose gender and social status were seen in different ways. Some were foreigners captured in war and castrated before being sold as slaves in the hope of guaranteeing their docility. Some may have been entertainers, similar to castrati opera singers. We have evidence from Ptolemaic Egypt of ‘kinaidos’ (a Greek word meaning ‘one who wiggles his hips’) being employed as musicians. 2 And then there were the Galli, devotees of the goddess Cybele who underwent ritual castration and lived as women for the rest of their lives, much as hijra do in India today.

But, even more interestingly. It seems that Earinius may have been something of an early civil rights activist because, between his arrival in Rome and being granted his freedom, Domitian made the castration of children illegal.

The Emperor’s reasons for doing this are unclear. The usual theory is that the prudish Domitian was trying to establish himself as a more moral ruler than his unpopular elder brother, Titus, and his greedy father, Vespasian. 3 But given his willingness to grant boons to Earinus, it is by no means inconceivable that the Emperor was persuaded to his course of action by eloquent pleas from the young slave.

Having achieved his manhood, Earinus slips from the pages of history, but the legal fight against child castration continued. The Emperor Nerva expanded the legislation by making it illegal to knowingly sell a boy to a slave trader who practised castration. Later Hadrian banned all castration, even if the subject was willing.

Why this happened was a mystery to me until I happened to talk to the anti-FGM campaigner, Nimco Ali. She explained to me how families would get around laws against Female Genital Mutilation by hiring other people to perform the operation, or by claiming that their daughter had submitted willingly to being cut. As such, additional legislation was necessary to close the loopholes. It seems to me that something similar was happening in Rome. Child eunuchs were valuable goods, and traders would use every trick available to get around the laws.

You may be wondering what happened to the Galli. Had Hadrian banned young Romans who wished to live as women from having surgery? It seems not. A letter from Justin Martyr, an early Christian, to Hadrian’s successor, Antonius Pius, reveals that you could buy a castration licence. 4 The wily Hadrian had not, after all, completely banned castration, but rather was taxing it. Ordinary people might fight for rights, but governments throughout history have never been averse to making money from them.

Cheryl Morgan is a writer, publisher and broadcaster. She is co-chair of OutStories Bristol, an LGBT local history organisation. She has delivered papers on many aspects of trans history and trans characters in literature, and is a regular speaker at LGBT History Month events. You can find Cheryl on Twitter @CherylMorgan.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

Header image: Bust of a Roman emperor, thought to be Emperor Domitian [Via Wikicommons].

Notes:

  1. In mythology Zeus (or Jupiter as Romans called him) seduced many women, but also a pretty boy called Ganymede whom he whisked off to Olympus to be his cup bearer. Any ambitious Roman, seeking to be like the King of the Gods in all ways, would want a cupbearer too.
  2. The Latin form is Cinaedus. See T, Sapsford, ‘The Wages of Effeminacy? Kinaidoi in Greek Documentary Sources from Egypt’, EuGeStA, 5 (2015), pp. 103-23.
  3. Vespasian was a fascinating man. He had a successful military career, including the conquest of south-west Britain, and had brought order to Rome after the chaos of Nero’s reign and the subsequent Year of the Four Emperors. But he was always short of money, and was said to be very tight-fisted.

    One story told of Vespasian was that he became a mule trader. This sounds unlikely. It is hardly a fitting career, and in any case not the sort of trade that an emperor would have any advantage following. However, careful reading of Latin texts suggests that the “mules” he sold were not equine, but human. Eunuch slaves were a luxury good, and just the sort of thing an emperor might profitably sell.

  4. Walter Stevenson, ‘The Rise of Eunuchs in Greco-Roman Antiquity’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 5.4 (Apr., 1995), pp. 495-511.
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The Past is Not a Straight Line

Napoleon_Alexander_Tilsit 1807

This is the first in a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

The first time I thought about LGBTIQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, Intersex, Queer/Questioning and other identities) representation was when I was teaching. It was a small group of around twenty first-year undergraduate students, and at the time we were focusing on Napoleonic France. Amidst the Code Napoléon, the Confederation of the Rhine, and the Battle of Nations, I happened to mention the theory that Napoleon may have fallen in love (or lust) with the strikingly handsome Russian emperor, Alexander I. This elicited a mixed response. Some students nodded, others jotted notes, a few stifled amused giggles. One in particular, however, visibly flushed and fidgeted. ‘Excuse me’, he butted in. ‘We shouldn’t be talking about this. I’m uncomfortable.’

Later, I wondered what should have caused such a reaction. In another course, someone had strenuously objected to studying George Chauncey’s Gay New York because there had been ‘hardly any gays’ in America then. Another queried why heterosexuals should learn about gay people. Both complained that the course ‘normalised’ homosexuality.

It was only later, that I realised that these students all had a point, albeit not the one they thought they were making. In a sense, we were normalising homosexuality, in the sense that we were introducing queerness into a space that these students had grown up believing was essentially queer-free.

Representation has long been an area of revision in fiction and, though entertainment still has its own problems to deal with, LGBTIQ+ characters and themes are increasingly visible. The same is not true of history, in which queer history remains a niche field, accessible only to those deliberately seeking it. Chauncey’s research into the open secret of New York’s turn-of-the-century gay, bisexual, and transgender subculture is unlikely to find its way into a ‘mainstream’ general history of New York, nor American culture. 1

Simply put: students will have difficulty knowing anything about this queer side of history if they don’t know to look for it. All too often, queer history is ignored, with the unspoken consensus seeming to be that queerness is a modern affectation. In the mind of the aforementioned student, it made little sense to be studying gay culture in New York City around 1900 because there was no gay culture in New York City around 1900. That it exists now was surely the result of modern liberalism, degeneracy, the decline of traditional values – or, in the current alt-right vocabulary, the ‘snowflake’ phenomenon. 2

Conversely, if LGBTIQ+ history is mentioned, it is used as a warning in a morality tale. Hitler began his murderous rampage largely as a result of his ‘repressed homosexuality’; the Nazis were ‘entirely controlled by militaristic male homosexuals’; Weimar Germany was debauched and depraved and its gay scene was a clear example; the Roman Empire fell due to a moral decrepitude on the inside, propagated by widespread homosexuality. 3

These narratives are, of course, hideous distortions. However, they borrow much from the camp devoted to denying historical queerness: if queer people did exist in the past, they were an aberration, and these examples demonstrate their disastrous strangeness. Both ideas undermine the ‘legitimacy’ of homosexuality and queer identity, either arguing that queerness has never existed before, or that, when it has, it was the purview of deviants, monsters, and the pitiably decadent.

It is this sort of intellectual baggage that students unknowingly bring into the classroom, and the lack of LGBTIQ+ representation in history classes accounts not only for those who respond to its sudden appearance with shock and discomfort, but also for those who try unsuccessfully to mask their giggles. In the first case, gay history is obscene. In the other, it is titillating, and learning about it is like being whispered a dirty little secret.

The fiftieth anniversary of the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, and the sixtieth anniversary of the Wolfenden Report, afford historians the perfect opportunity to reappraise our approach to presenting the past to our audiences. Embodied in the decriminalisation was an implicit (if incomplete) acknowledgement that queer people were not some hideous subset of humanity; homosexuality was neither a temporary trend nor a debauchery that would destroy the fabric of society. In historical circles, we remain to some degree all of the above: unmentionable to the mainstream, the objects of snorted laughter, flushed cheeks and discomfort.

There are, though, some hopeful signs, and these are being driven by public interest. The passing of the Turing Law in Britain occurred in the context of a new appreciation for the mathematician Alan Turing, and his shameful treatment at the hands of a government that owed him much. Marriage equality in the United States prompted the online magazine Salon, via the History News Network, to write about James Buchanan as ‘America’s first gay president’. And the recent publication of a number of love letters between gay soldiers in the Second World War has brought the reality of LGBTIQ+ relationships into military history, one of the strictest bastions of queer-less hyper-masculinity.

It is incumbent upon this and the next generation of historians to ensure that these lessons, and more, are integrated into the historical curricula, so that queer history is no longer considered a trivial diversion that only interests queer people. Instead, queer history must be recognised as a vital component of a universal, human history. One can only hope that future students are not made uncomfortable by the presence of historical queerness, but rather by its absence.

Bodie A. Ashton is a research historian in the Faculty of Law at the Universität Passau, Germany, and a visiting research fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Adelaide, Australia. He is the author of The Kingdom of Württemberg and the Making of Germany, 1815-1871 (London: Bloomsbury, 2017). You can find him on twitter @manwithoutatan.

Image: Napoleon and Alexander I, Adolphe Roehn,Entrevue de Napoléon Ier et d’Alexandre Ier sur le Niemen / Treaty of Tilsitz, 1807 [via Wikicommons]

Notes:

  1. The same can be said of Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin, which makes a magnificent case for the German capital also being the epicentre of a burgeoning and vibrant queer scene in the early twentieth century. This fascinating, colourful, vital Berlin is all but absent in the standard histories students and the reading public are most likely to come across – unless, that is, they are specifically searching for a gay history of Berlin.
  2. The modern development of the queer lexicon, it should be noted, has arisen from the ability of the queer population to exist within public spaces and define themselves with greater freedom. The non-existence of the LGBTIQ+ vocabulary in earlier times does not imply that the people defined by it did not previously exist. Cf. David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 490 n. 18.
  3. The latter, which was also argued by none other than Richard Nixon, has recently reared its head in the marriage equality debate.
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