7 min

The cycle unbroken

What can be taken from history's queer cultures?

Credit: (Xtra West files)

A woman at a party told me that the history of gays and lesbians was a fundamentally depressing one, a gloomy succession of horror stories leavened with the occasional episode of brave men and women overcoming the forces of bigotry and oppression.

Was this true, I wondered? After reading Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization, I concluded that she was wrong. If one goes back far enough, and ranges geographically wide enough, the picture is less bleak than the woman believed it to be. Homosexual behaviour, and even sometimes a nascent identity, has been successfully accommodated by a number of cultures and civilizations throughout history.

In this article, I shall take a look at three such cultures: ancient Greece, Imperial China and pre-Meiji Japan. However, it should be understood that tolerance is not acceptance, as the former suggests some degree of censure: behaviour may be tolerated but not encouraged. A practical example of this difference may be found in a country’s legal code: homosexuality may not be singled out for punishment, but that does not constitute active protection from discrimination.

It should also be noted that men and women of the past were unlikely to be homosexual in the way that we understand the word in 2007: that is to say, a legitimate affective identity upon which a community or subculture can be erected, as has been the case in some North American and European cities since the end of the Second World War.

Before then, homosexuality was seen as an individual behaviour that, if accommodated at all, was because it played a role in the transmission of masculine social values or because it was integrated into economic institutions and transactions like slavery and prostitution. Needless to say, the wealthy and the powerful were afforded a greater degree of tolerance than the humble and the poor, though that did not stop the latter from trying.


European and American homosexual apologists have been prompt for strategic reasons to cite ancient Greece, the cradle of Western civilization (and Rome, its triumphant successor) as a model of tolerance for modern states to imitate. In pre-Christian Greece, homosexuality was considered a consummately masculine behaviour, albeit within circumscribed limits: broadly speaking, between a man or a youth and a boy.

Centuries later, their spiritual descendants were inspired to draw from this tradition to develop complex apologias for pederasty, which indeed was the Greek norm. Yet there were also instances of pairs of males who, says Plato in his Symposium, “pass their whole lives together.” As was the case with successive heads of Plato’s own prestigious academy, including Polemo and Crates who lived together and “not only shared the same pursuits in life but grew more alike to their latest breath, and dying shared the same tomb.”

It is ironic that Greece, where male chauvinism sometimes passed into gay chauvinism, also gifted us with the most famous lesbian in Western culture: Sappho of Lesbos.

The island of Lesbos afforded its women a far greater degree of freedom than was customary in Greece, where women rarely left the home. Sappho was born into an aristocratic family in 610 BC. She married and bore a daughter. Upon her return to Lesbos from political exile-Greek politics of the period were nothing if not lively — she formed a coterie of women and girls. Her contemporaries held her in high esteem, with Plato going so far as to call her the 10th Muse for the quality of her poetry in which she expressed her passionate love for young women. Her face appeared on the local coinage of her island and monuments to her fame were erected throughout the Mediterranean world.

These signs of honour argue, I think, for a degree of tolerance for female love, at least in certain city-states such as Sparta where “this sort of love,” wrote the Greek historian Plutarch, “was so approved among them that even the maidens found lovers in good and noble women.”

But according to Crowley, such tolerance was lost by late antiquity. He cites a biography of Sappho dating from 160 AD in which she is said to have been “accused by some of being irregular in her ways and a woman-lover.” Her reputation suffered even more as the Roman Empire became increasingly Christianized: by 980 AD, it would be written of her that “she had three [female] companions and friends… and she got a bad reputation from her impure friendship with them.”


China undoubtedly holds the record for the longest period of tolerance: approximately 2,100 years, from 500 BC to the first reforming years of the Manchu Dynasty (1644), the last Imperial regime before the founding of the Chinese republic.

With such a long and varied history, it is impossible to offer even the scantest of overviews, so I shall concentrate on two expressions of Chinese homosexuality: Emperors and their male favourites and male couples.

Anecdotes concerning emperors and their male favourites have come down to us from the very earliest of times, including the legendary Yellow Emperor’s reign, but are only verifiable from 772 BC onwards when they become part of the official record. Male favourites are mentioned in the same breath as wives, concubines and ministers, and meet the same fates, happy or otherwise — otherwise being death or dispossession.

It would appear that the Chinese tacitly assumed bisexuality as the human norm as long as due respect was paid to one’s ancestors through marriage and children.

The famous historian of the Han Dynasty, Sima Qian, wrote a series of Biographies of the Emperor’s Male Favorites, which he summarizes in the following terms:

“Those who served the ruler and succeeding in delighting his ears and eyes, those who caught their lord’s fancy and won his favour and intimacy, did so not only through the power of lust and love; each has certain abilities in which he excelled.

“It is not women alone who can use their looks to attract the eyes of the ruler; courtiers and eunuchs can play that game as well,” he adds.

As far as the Chinese were concerned, lust and romance naturally played a role in affairs of state, and political writings from the first century AD contain advice such as, “A beautiful lad can ruin an older head” in a story on how a kingdom conquered its neighbour by sending its ruler a beautiful boy to undermine the influence of a wise minister.

The same tolerance afforded to the Emperor was extended to his subjects. As in the West, theatrical circles were easygoing in matters of morality, and in the 18th century, Peking opera stars were renowned for their romantic entanglements with leading scholars. Indeed this was the archetypical male couple in the Chinese popular imagination. But they were not the only kind: a story predating this period by centuries tells of two scholars who fell in love at first sight and slept like man and wife. A tree growing out of their common tomb, because of its intertwined branches, was called the shared pillow tree.

With striking pragmatism, the Confucian family order could even incorporate a male couple. The Ming dynasty commentator, Shen Defu, stated:

“[The men in the southern province of Fujian] are extremely fond of male beauty. No matter how rich or poor, handsome or ugly, they all find a companion of their status. [When the older partner moves into the family home of the younger partner] the parents of the latter take care of him and love him like a son-in-law. They love each other and at the age of 30 are still sleeping in the same bed together like husband and wife.”


Across the Sea of Japan, in addition to the usual aristocratic circles, homosexuality thrived in Buddhist monasteries and among that country’s military caste. As in many other aspects of Japanese culture, homosexuality was in the Chinese tradition, and is thought to have been introduced in Japan in 806 BC by the Buddhist sage Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism.

Centuries later, homosexuality (Way of Youth) was ingrained in Japanese Buddhist thought and celebrated in poetry. Witness this preface to an anthology of poems celebrating male love:

“This love surpassed in depth the love between women and men in these latter days. It plagues the heart of not only courtier and aristocrat (this goes without saying) but also of brave warriors. Even the mountain dwellers who cut brush for fuel have learned to take pleasure in the shade of young saplings.”

As in Greece, the ideal relationship is between a man and a youth, in this tradition a monk and an acolyte.

During the 12th century, male love was celebrated with typical Japanese phallic exuberance in picture scrolls and in tales, where male love often leads to spiritual enlightenment and religious salvation.

Male love also flourished during the chaotic feudal period of Japanese history, roughly six centuries long, where it became an integral part of the dominant samurai military culture. The founder of Japan’s first military government, Minamoto Yoritomo, had a lover in the Imperial Guard, Yoshinao, thus setting a precedent (in one line of 15 shoguns, or military rulers, six had male lovers).

The ideal relationship was one between a warrior and an apprentice warrior, and was thought to develop moral and military qualities in the latter. A 1482 essay by Ijiri Chusuke reads:

“In the world of nobles and warriors, lovers would swear perfect and eternal love… Whether their partners were noble or common, rich or poor, was absolutely of no importance… This way must be truly respected and it must never be allowed to disappear.”

Theatrical circles were also friendly to homosexuality; the No and Kabuki conventions of men interpreting female roles often led to actors undertaking parallel careers as male prostitutes. Their heyday seems to have been the 18th century, a time of peace and growing urbanization in Japan. A wealthy merchant class arose and, devoid of any political power and influence, it pursued pleasure instead, including actors/prostitutes who set the standards of taste in high society.

Homosexual literature flourished for two centuries until the Meiji restoration of 1868, hinting at the development of a homosexual consciousness and even community. This golden age came to an end when Japan was exposed to Western influence. In a bid to avoid China’s dire fate at the hands of European colonial powers, Japan under the first Meiji emperor decided to westernize; the country’s cultural elite decried many Japanese customs, homosexuality included. The latter retreated but did not altogether disappear, surviving in military and in academic circles until the end of the Second World War.


The lady at the party was right about one thing: periods of tolerance and freedom do inevitably come to an end. In the cases of Japan and China, both regimes had politically driven reasons to adopt a more repressive public policy towards homosexuality.

What about Canada’s current golden age, then? Gays and lesbians enjoy unprecedented cultural legitimacy, arguably derived from their presentation as one of Canada’s minority communities, and The Charter protects an increasing number of individual rights. But will it always?

Law student Myron Plett, who is currently writing a paper on same-sex partnership law in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, feels that vigilance is required.

“I think it is safe to say that the Supreme Court’s era of bold and progressive decision-making is over,” he says. “It is interpreting human rights within the Charter context more and more narrowly. Some might speculate that the court is wary of risking its legitimacy by incurring Stephen Harper’s wrath. Furthermore, access to the courts is closing. Many legal disputes are now mediated by administrative boards (such as labour and human rights tribunals) whose decisions are nearly immune to higher court appeal. Finally, litigation is enormously expensive. We must ally ourselves with other interests, win recognition as a community by building bridges to other communities. We will only enjoy a continued and accepted presence in Canadian society if we are part of a loud, coherent, coalition of diverse interests.