Much as I despise trigger warnings, which make me instantly stop reading or watching, please be aware that this post necessarily deals with subjects that may not appear altogether polite to those of a more sensitive disposition (and are certainly not appropriate for children).
Also, don’t shoot me for the title: it was suggested for me when I gave a talk on this subject to raise money for Chester Pride in 2015.
The Roman world is familiar to everyone, it seems: in popular culture, the classical past needs no introduction. It may be ancient, but it is not exotic. Until we look at how academics think and write about it, though, then we discover that the Roman world is quite different from its popular portrayal. Even so, it holds a cultural resonance that allows fictional representations to be made that do not need lengthy explanations about society, customs and beliefs. Students can hold toga parties where basic expectations about behaviour mean that detailed instructions are unnecessary and whose excitement comes from the anticipation of unbridled sexuality.
Thus, we find a world where loose sexual morals are considered the norm: the Roman orgy is a commonplace that underpins the frisson of such parties, while certain emperors are notorious and fascinating for their diverse and exotic sexual proclivities. The film Caligula (Penthouse, 1979) – regarded by some critics as the worst ever made – was a thinly disguised attempt to bring hardcore pornography into the mainstream. It did so by casting significant stars in roles that loosely followed a screenplay by Gore Vidal, which he disowned, with lurid sex scenes added in post-production, in a first-century Rome that was a reflection and exaggeration of 1970s California.
A few years earlier, the BBC had been able to commission and broadcast a popular comedy series, Up Pompeii!, based around the adventures of one fictional family. The family’s principal slave, Lurcio, narrated it, as in many Latin comedies from the Roman world. The character was played by the camp, but closeted comedian Frankie Howerd. The plots were typical situation comedy fare: paper-thin tales based around stock characters. The basic premise was that Lurcio attempted to keep the entirely heterosexual family members – the lustful but near senile paterfamilias, Ludicrus Sextus, his nymphomaniac wife, Ammonia, their ineffectual and effete son, Narcissus, and naïve but busty daughter, Erotica – from discovering each other’s sexual escapades. The characters were lifted from ancient Roman comedy with little need to modernise for a late-twentieth-century audience. Lurcio would have to fend off the amorous advances of the occasional over-the-top homosexual character, but none of the family’s exploits involved any hint of same-sex activity. It was not thought appropriate in the early 1970s to portray gay men in anything but negative or unflatteringly humorous terms.
Up Pompeii! is an excellent example of how the Roman world can be portrayed unproblematically as sexually liberated in a way that resonates with attitudes since the late 1960s but performed in obsolete costumes. It demonstrates how a comedy form deriving from Classical literature can be presented to a modern television audience without altering its basic format. Does this, therefore, mean that Roman attitudes to sex and sexuality were so close to our own as to be virtually indistinguishable? Where do we derive our understanding of Roman attitudes? What was life like for men attracted to other men in the ancient world? Was it the ‘gay paradise’ that some have suggested?
Rome: decadence and Eros
The Roman world has been portrayed for centuries as one devoted to sensual pleasures, decadent and immoral. The portrayal of the mob baying for panem et circenses (‘bread and circuses’ in the satirist Juvenal’s phrase), the aristocrats indulging their sexual appetites in novel and depraved ways, and an obsession with the sexualised body were developed not by writers in the recent past but were already present in commentaries by Roman authors. Roman literature was written by members of the wealthy, educated elite for their peers. These writers were mostly aristocratic social conservatives who believed that their world was in decline from an earlier golden age when shared and mutually respected traditional values upheld by all regulated everyone’s lives. Much of the historical literature that survives from the late Republic and Empire was clearly written with a moral purpose, to show how some individuals could maintain good Roman virtues even when such things were allegedly despised.
The historian Tacitus, whose principal intent was political – he aimed to show how good men can exist under a tyranny – used salacious sexual stories to underscore despotic rulers’ wickedness. His principal theme was that monarchic rule (which the early emperors barely hid behind a pretence of being primus inter pares (‘first among equals’)) was incompatible with the public good. Like so many socially conservative writers, he presents only criticisms, not solutions. His old age coincided with the first writings of Christian moralists, struggling to define the moral bases of their new religion, the controversies between competing variants to gain control and the realisation that the end of the world was not as imminent as the first Christians had believed.
The so-called Church Fathers amplified the conservative view of contemporary society as hopelessly corrupt, ruined by a libertine ruling class and a mob whose only instinct was to fulfil its basest needs. On a non-sexual theme, Tertullian, for instance, condemned gladiatorial shows not for the shows’ cruelty but for the way they would raise the passions, especially blood-lust, of the spectators. Augustine’s massive De Ciuitate Dei (‘On the City of God’) contains an entire section (Book XIV) dedicated to exploring and explaining lust, judging sexual desire in all its forms to be sinful and unnatural, taking his lead, of course, from no less an authority than St Paul.
Sexual behaviour in Rome
As well as providing moral condemnation, these writers also (usually inadvertently) give evidence for sexual practice in ancient Rome. Like all such literary material, primarily upper-class authors produced it for consumption by their peers who shared the same basic ideas about decent behaviour. The audience of a senator such as Tacitus was intended to be other members of the senatorial class and, perhaps, their provincial equivalents. Of course, this means that any description such writers include of how those outside their social circles behave is unlikely to be sympathetic or derived from direct experience.
What we get from these authors is a distorted view of the world, filtered through a lens of conservative and aristocratic attitudes. Such writers disapprove outwardly of others’ behaviour but, at the same time, show more than a hint of voyeuristic interest. Much of this literature displays attitudes like those of journalists for newspapers such as The Daily Mail: it is prurient, ostentatiously not sparing the reader the most sensational details of allegedly shocking private lives, resorting to the wildest fantasy where experience and knowledge are lacking (an entirely imaginary description of what lesbians do in bed by Juvenal in his thoroughly misogynistic Satire 6 is a perfect example) and underpinned by a moral outrage whose origins in envy are obvious.
Nevertheless, even if written by those who affected to despise what they describe, the literature suggests that a broad range of sexual behaviours was known, even if the upper-class authors had not experienced every nuance of them. The overriding impression is that a male citizen could indulge in just about any sexual behaviour that he wished, apart from sex with children, incest and bestiality. The overriding proviso was that he should be the active partner: in every case, he was supposed to be the one who penetrated the other or, at least, ejaculated. The object of his passion had to be a person who was not a male citizen: women (but not the wife of a citizen), adolescents of either sex and non-citizen males. For a man to perform oral sex on a woman was the basest, most depraved act he could indulge in, as he would supposedly be submitting himself to her.
There is one writer whose poetry gives a greater insight into the sexual mores of late Republican Rome than any other: Gaius Valerius Catullus, a younger contemporary of Julius Caesar. His collected poetry includes a very diverse group of works, from formal quasi-religious poems to satirical epigrams. At least some of them were designed for a published collection – Poem I mentions a shortly-to-be-published libellus (‘booklet’) – and it is evident that even those poems that were stinging (and even obscene) attacks on individuals deal with themes that were acceptable to his intended audience. He was from a generation of poets whose aim was to expand the thematic realm of Latin poetry, bringing everyday life and humour into a genre that had previously been overwhelmingly religious and historic.
Some of his most memorable poems deal with his bipolar relationship with Lesbia, the pseudonym for a married woman who has been identified since at least the time of Apuleius in the mid-second century AD with the notorious Clodia, wife of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer. Some twenty-five of the poems (slightly more than a fifth of the total) deal with the poet’s conflicted emotions, veering between blind infatuation and outright hatred. Some have sought to trace the trajectory of his affair with her through a chronological arrangement of the poems for which there is no external evidence. As a reading, it is far too simplistic, particularly in view of Catullus’s self-confessed emotional conflict in Poem 85 (the famous odi et amo). Additionally, there are six poems (about 5% of the total) addressed to or concerning a male youth named Juventius. It is unclear whether this is his name – the Juventii were a well-known family – or a generic description (the name means, simply, ‘youth’). The range of emotions is not as broad as in the Lesbia poems as there are fewer poems concerning Juventius, but they too encompass infatuation and jealousy. It is a comment on the writers of Wikipedia’s entry for Catullus, that Juventius is not mentioned once. At least six other poems deal with homosexual subjects, one (Poem 56) describing what can only be described as a gay rape performed by the poet passed off as humour.
Is there evidence for exclusive homosexuality?
It has been denied by Craig Williams, in his influential Roman Homosexuality, that there was a gay subculture in the Roman world. However, he bases this on a misapprehension of modern gay subcultures; although he believes that it exists in the contemporary West as a single, monolithic entity, he fails to recognise that the modern subculture is itself composed of smaller self-identifying groups. Thus, the modern subculture dominated by extremely feminine but not necessarily sexually passive gay men and that by otherwise masculine men who nevertheless enjoy being the passive partner are matched precisely by those of cinaedi and pathici (basically ‘queens’ and ‘bottoms’ in modern gay slang). That cinaedi, for instance, belonged to a familiar subculture is clear from Petronius’s account of the unnamed elderly and repellent queen who fruitlessly attempts to have sex with the narrator, Encolpius (Satyricon xxiii-xxiiii).
The Roman subcultures have no voice of their own, even though there were evidently men of the ruling class who were members of them. Instead, what we can learn about them depends entirely on the sneering comments of (presumed) outsiders, to whom they form part of a mysterious demi monde inhabited by contemptible perverts and non-citizens. There are a few graffiti that were evidently created by members of this underground, for instance in brothels at Pompeii, but many more by the customers of male prostitutes who enjoyed the opportunities offered by members of the subculture but without identifying themselves as members of those groups. A parallel can be found in the modern man who identifies as heterosexual but will nevertheless frequent gay saunas and public toilets for anonymous, emotion-free sexual encounters with other men.
The pathicus was the subject of both ribald humour – the hero of Pomponius’s lost farce Prostibulum (‘The Rent-Boy’) earns his living by penetrating male citizen pathici – and of condemnation. To be penetrated was to be less than a citizen, on the level of a woman, slave or immature youth. According to Suetonius, Bibulus referred jokingly to Julius Caesar as ‘Queen of Bythinia’ as his youthful affair as the passive partner of King Nicomedes was widely known, while the Elder Curio called him ‘every woman’s husband and every man’s wife’. Suetonius also claimed that Galba preferred exoleti (men ‘worn out’ by frequent penetration) to women, while Juvenal described his successor Otho as pathicus, although this may be an insult based on the emperor’s notorious obsession with his appearance, a supposedly womanly trait. Pathici were clearly a familiar phenomenon in Roman society and, while conservatives might tut-tut behind their togas about what these people got up to in bed, they could clearly be otherwise respectable members of society.
It is also well recorded that two men could contract a marriage. In the Roman world, marriage was a purely civil affair, although it could be blessed by a priest, which involved the two parties swearing vows, exchanging rings and clasping their right hands together in front of witnesses. The marriages of the ruling classes were recorded in the acta diurna (the official record, equivalent to Hansard in modern Britain) at Rome but a comment from Juvenal (Satire ii) suggests that it was not usual to record the marriage of two men in this way; it does not exclude the possibility that some were, of course. A ruling of Constantius II and Constans, dated 342, made the marriage of one man to another a capital offence for the man who put himself ‘in the place of a wife’, in other words, the passive partner was the subject of condemnation. No punishment is specified for the ‘husband’, on the other hand, suggesting that traditional mores about what it was permissible for a ‘real’ man to do prevailed. It is equally the case that no examples are known of anyone actually being punished under this law.
A second form of creating a bond between two men was for one to adopt the other as a “brother”. Roman literature contains numerous instances of male couples describing each other as fratres, brothers, and several examples of female couples calling each other sorores, sisters, when there was no blood relationship. This avoided the legal complications of traditional marriage, where the roles of each member were (theoretically) rigidly defined: legal adoption as a sibling emphasised the equality of the partners.
There are two well-known instances of prominent aristocratic individuals contracting same-sex marriages: the emperors Nero and Elagabalus. Nero conducted two such marriages, the first to a freedman, Pythagoras, in which the emperor took the role of the ‘bride’ and invited members of the court to witness his official ‘deflowering’, modestly performed behind curtains. His second was to a youth named Sporos, whom he had castrated, in an effort to make him a woman. This marriage was officially and publicly celebrated, so it was presumably entered in the acta diurna. After Nero’s suicide in AD 68, there were suggestions that his successors Galba and, later, Otho should marry Sporos to cement his claim to the throne. This is a clear sign that Nero’s marriage was treated perfectly seriously and had a legal meaning that could legitimise the claims of his usurping successors.
A century and a half later, Emperor Elagabalus referred to Hierocles, a freedman who was a successful charioteer, as his husband. After granting him his freedom, the emperor attempted to have him declared Caesar, a junior partner in rule and intended successor. A second lover, an athlete named Zoticus, was appointed cubicularius (keeper of the bedroom). The ancient sources suggest that Elagabalus also married him and three other men in addition to his official husband, Hierocles; the historian Cassius Dio refers to the emperor’s relationships with these four other men as adultery, showing that the marriage to Hierocles was treated as a serious legal matter. If they were alive today, we would probably think of Elagabalus as transgender, as he reportedly asked whether a surgical procedure could make him female. Hierocles did not survive the assassination of the 18-year-old Elagabalus in 222, being executed by the emperor’s murderers (organised by his aunt). It is worth noting that it was not his sexual behaviour that made him disliked among the aristocracy but his attempt to introduce an eastern religion into Rome.
The origins of intolerance
Although pathici and cinaedi were often the objects of ridicule and satire, they were nevertheless an accepted element of Roman society. At no point before the fourth century was there any indication that their behaviour might be seen as immoral or illegal, while it was considered perfectly normal for a man to be attracted to male adolescents. Even when Constantius II and Constans promoted their edict in 342, it was aimed purely at the passive partner in a same-sex marriage. It was part of a religiously based attempt to redefine morality along specifically Judaeo-Christian lines. This was passed despite near-contemporary, if hostile, sources describing his passion for handsome barbarian captives.
Popular resistance to this attempt to change behaviour came to a head in April 390, when Butheric, the Magister Militum of Illyricum, arrested a popular charioteer in Thessalonica on the grounds that he had raped a male cupbearer. It is unclear that this was rape rather than consensual sex as at least one source regards them as lovers. An outraged mob then attacked Butheric, demanding the release of the charioteer, and killed him when he refused. The Emperor, Theodosius I, sent troops to punish the citizens, who rounded up those suspected of rioting and massacred them in the amphitheatre. According to the church historian Theodoret, seven thousand people were killed. Although the number may be exaggerated, it was clearly large and shocking as Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, refused to give communion to the Emperor for seven months until he repented of his harshness.
The Thessalonica massacre underlines the ambivalence of the church’s attitude to homosexuality during Late Antiquity and the early medieval period. Theodosius I was a Christian determined to wipe out paganism – today we would probably regard him as a fundamentalist theocrat – and same-sex behaviour was viewed as a pagan practice. Theodosius outlawed pagan worship in 392 but made no rulings against gay sex. The first attempts to criminalise all forms of homosexual activity between men were Justinian I’s edicts of 538 and 544. These were framed specifically in terms of ‘corrupting the young’, a recognition that the long established practice of mature men taking adolescent youths as lovers was still socially acceptable to the populace in general, even if the church found such behaviour troubling.
These laws of Justinian were applied retrospectively, causing outrage. The Patriarch of Constantinople complained that the laws were unjust and the historian Procopius reported that they were used as a political tool to get rid of enemies of Justinian I and, especially, of his wife Theodora. That such specific laws could be used against almost anyone the emperor wanted to eliminate is evidence that sex between mature men and teenage youths was so commonplace that most men were ‘guilty’ of it.
The church’s opposition to this attempt to make male homosexuality illegal was based partly around its support for what was known as the ‘marriage of likeness’. This was a ceremony for uniting two men in a legal bond that was not marriage as such but that was known as adelphopoiesis (‘making brothers’), the second form of same-sex relationship formalisation mentioned above. The legal fiction was that the two men effectively adopted each other as brothers under the protection of SS Sergius and Bacchus, legendary fourth-century army officers whose joint martyrdom reflected their close bond in life. The ecclesiastical ceremony continued in the Roman Church until at least the eleventh century when Pedro Díaz and Muño Vandilaz were married in 1061 and in the Orthodox Church in Serbia up to the eighteenth century. At Siwa Oasis in Egypt, similar unions but under a Muslim guise, survived into the twentieth century, being outlawed only in the 1930s.
Homosexuality in the wider world
Most of the surviving Roman literature was written in Rome by aristocrats for aristocrats; even provincial writers belonged to the same senatorial class. As a result, we cannot assume that what such authors record was representative either of society or of the Empire at large. Rome was a diverse and cosmopolitan city and the Empire even more so. The ordinary farmer living in what is now Northumberland can have had little in common with a farmer in Petra.
This is where archaeology can give insights that texts cannot. The wealthy may have owned more ‘stuff’ than the peasant or slave, but we can find the homes, workplaces and graves of just about all levels of society. Since the 1980s, there has been a move to use archaeological evidence to document and understand the experiences of those on the fringes of society and those whose lives are left unrecorded by well-to-do writers. This opens up areas of historical enquiry that ancient literature cannot.
Although archaeologists cannot recover evidence for people’s private lives, they can find objects that give insights into what was considered acceptable, what was shameful and what had to be kept hidden. They can identify objects associated specifically with a particular biological sex or social gender role and look further afield to see if any examples are found of these objects occurring in the ‘wrong’ place or with the ‘wrong’ people. When trying to document homosexual behaviour, the most obvious place to look for evidence is in homoerotic art. There are a few well-known objects, while several inscriptions repay a closer look.
In Chester, for instance, a centurion whose name has been lost died at the respectable age of 61 and received a memorial from his heir, the freedman Aristio. Did the centurion have no children or wife? Might Aristio have been not just his freedman but a former slave whose sexual relationship with his master resulted in a life-long loving relationship? And what of Gaius Lovesius Cadarus, whose heir Frontinius Aquilo set up the tombstone of the deceased 25-year-old? They were clearly not blood relations and the reason for nominating Aquilo as heir is unknowable. While it might be argued that these tombstones belong to men in an all-male environment, this is not the case: the tombstones include those of several women, including soldiers’ wives.
Of all the homoerotic objects from the Roman world, the Warren Cup is perhaps the best known (or most notorious). It was bought by the British Museum for £1,800,000 in 1999, having first been bought in Jerusalem by Edward Warren (from whom it takes its name) in 1911. Unfortunately, that is as far back as we can trace its history. It is thought to have been found in Battir (or Bittir), an ancient town south-west of Jerusalem, while the style of its decoration dates it to the middle of the first century AD. It depicts two sex scenes, both between males, with one penetrating the other. In one scene, one man is shown to be older than the youth he penetrates, but in the other, both partners are adult men. One of the scenes is watched by a third man, peering round a slightly open door. Although its explicit imagery led the art historian Luca Giuliani to brand it a modern forgery, the presence of silver sulphide corrosion products on its surface demonstrates that it is a genuine antiquity.
In Britain, the best known archaeological example of supposed sexual ‘deviancy’ is the burial of the so-called ‘Catterick transvestite’, a male burial discovered at Bainesse near the Roman walled town of Cataractonium. The individual had been buried decked in jewellery normally associated with female burials. Although the excavators suggested that he may have been a eunuch priest of Cybele (whose priests took on a female persona following their ritual castration), this is far from certain. The man may have performed the social role of a cinaedus, dressing in a feminised way. This is to assume, of course, that he wore this jewellery in life and that it was not put on him for burial as a post-mortem statement about his behaviour in life or even as a slight on his masculinity.
There are a number of other burials where men were buried with what would otherwise be seen as female jewellery. At Cirencester, a man wore a copper alloy bracelet, a decoration usually found only with women and girls. The skull of a male skeleton at Trentholme Drive in York was ‘associated with’ red glass beads: this information is hidden in the specialist bone report and is not mentioned in the published description of the grave, as if the excavator could not accept that a man might be buried with a necklace. At the very least, these uncommon burials show that some Romano-British burials could place the man in ‘unmanly’ dress.
A further burial involving probable sexual innuendo was found at Baldock in 2009. Here, a man had his feet removed before burial, his left hand clenched tightly around a jagged flint, his right hand over his crotch and a cannon-ball sized sandstone lump that was hot when put in the grave lay beneath his genitals. Removal of the feet was presumably a punishment designed to prevent him from journeying to the Elysian Fields (or Andumnos, the British equivalent) after death. The meaning of the flint can only be guessed at, but it is found in other graves in Baldock, especially around the head; as the only local durable stone, it may symbolise strength or eternity. The focus of the right hand and the hot stone on his genitals suggests that he was thought to have committed some kind of sexual offence. Whether this was something truly reprehensible, such as rape, or something attracting social stigma, such as adultery with a married woman or penetrating a male citizen, will never be known. Nevertheless, there is something sexually unsettling about this Late Roman burial.
Beyond these few burials and inscriptions, the evidence for same-sex relationships in Roman Britain is poor. It is possible that archaeologists have not yet developed the analytical tools that will help to uncover such personal details of ancient lives; it is equally possible that this is something we will never know. The few examples we possess are a tiny sample of a much larger social phenomenon and should serve to alert us to the different attitudes to sexuality between the ancient and modern worlds.
What does the Roman evidence tell us about sexuality?
Historians have long insisted that we can and should learn lessons from the past. If this is the case, what does the Roman attitude to and experience of sexuality tell us about human sexual behaviour in general? Superficially, it resembles the early 21st century west, with a broad range of behaviours that were broadly tolerated. This has led a lot of writers of popular history – and especially gay writers – to portray the ancient world as something of a ‘gay paradise’.
Once we look in detail, though, the picture changes and turns slightly sour. Sexuality in the Roman world was focused entirely on what a citizen man did with his penis. So long as he inserted it into someone (other than a child, a woman married to a citizen or another citizen), no-one really cared who was on the receiving end, least of all him. It was widely accepted that some men enjoyed having a penis put into them, but that this made them less of a ‘real man’; it may have carried a slight social stigma but had no legal repercussions. All men were believed to find women and adolescent boys attractive; for a man to find mature men of his own age attractive was seen as a bit of an oddity, but not a moral failing. Suetonius remarked that Claudius’s sole sexual interest was in women, which he found a curiosity. Of same-sex female activity, we hear only incoherent guesses by men of what lesbians might do in bed, although the fact that they tried to describe it shows that lesbianism was known: it simply didn’t matter or require detailed investigation because women didn’t matter.
Attitudes to all forms of sexual behaviour began to change under the influence of Christian sexual morality. For the first time, ideas of what was ‘natural’ behaviour began to dominate discussions of sexuality; ‘natural’ sex was defined purely as a means of creating new souls to worship god. St Paul’s well-known antipathy to sex in general made it just about acceptable between a man and his wife, but he regarded this as a concession to human weakness. Because the early Christians were convinced that they were living in the ‘end times’, the need to create new souls was not an important consideration. As Christians came to occupy positions of power, they were able to legislate according to their own views of correct sexual behaviour, which, as we have seen, did not always match the views of the majority. We are left with the legacy of these early medieval bigots, who (contrary to what Christian fundamentalists today assert) were the first to ‘redefine marriage’.
The lessons of history
The Roman experience of sex shows us that same sex attraction is a human universal, which is something that modern anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists generally agree on. What is more controversial is whether or not it is legitimate to think of those in the past who were attracted solely to their own sex as possessing a ‘gay” identity. In other words, did they see themselves as different from most people and did they have their own ways of behaving, specialised slang, known meeting places, clothes to signal their membership of the subculture and so on?
The Roman evidence seems to show that there was a group of people – cinaedi – who were highly visible in terms of their behaviour and who were known to have unusual sexual preferences; similarly, pathici were not only willing to be penetrated but actually sought to be. What is remarkable is that although the sexual ideal was for a man to penetrate, the pathicus attracted no social or legal sanctions. They might be ridiculed for being less than ‘real men’, but plenty of ‘real men’ were happy enough to have sex with them.
Anthropological evidence from around the world also shows that acceptance of same-sex behaviour and relationships seems to be the norm for most societies. The only widespread exceptions to this are where Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are dominant and even there, religious sanctions have been ineffective at preventing same-sex behaviour, even when it is treated as a capital offence.
It is clear that same-sex behaviour is a natural and widespread expression of human sexuality, even if exclusive homosexuality is rare. Many societies show a greater number of functionally bisexual men than in the 21st century west: it is contemporary society that is unusual and much of this is probably cultural, a result of more than a thousand years of church condemnation. The fact that men and women in societies dominated by Abrahamic religions have been prepared to risk opprobrium and punishment ought to be enough to show that it is not the ‘lifestyle choice’ that so many religious fundamentalists and social conservatives would have us believe.
Social acceptance of homosexual behaviour has been the norm in the majority of societies and there is some evidence to show that it was tolerated even in places such as medieval Europe, despite legal sanctions. Coupled with this tolerance, though, there has often been a mixture of voyeuristic horror (‘what do they do in bed?’) and a complete lack of understanding the realities of attraction, lust and love. The only ‘problem’ that homosexuality poses stems from a religious intolerance with historically specific origins in Late Roman politics. We ought to have moved on from there centuries ago.
This week’s post for LGBT+ History Month features a personal reminiscence from the Leader of North Hertfordshire District Council, some insights into the equalities policies that the council has created and a reminiscence by the blog author.
NHDC leader Martin Stears-Handscomb, a 70year-old councillor who lives in Letchworth and is married to Ian, writes:
Growing up in Isle of Wight in the 1950s and 60s, being gay was not an option. Indeed, ‘being gay’ didn’t mean what it does now and by the time I went away to Uni in 1969, I was engaged to a girl. I was questioning my sexuality and maybe that was why that relationship didn’t last.
Homosexuality was illegal until 1967 and only then in private. As far as I knew I had never met a gay person – apart from an older lad at school who had been made fun of and accused of “being a homo”. I didn’t want to be “one of them”.
I met a lovely woman when I came to work in Stevenage. One thing led to another and in 1976 we got married. Twenty years and four children later the marriage ended – mainly because for me, political activism came first.
That was the time of the Clause 28 attack on gay people, but I knew I was gay. Being married to a woman had always been something of a miracle to me and it wasn’t likely to happen again.
There were few gay role models then (Warren in TV’s This Life only seemed to manage a one-night stand. I was interested in finding a companion).
As a Baptist Christian, I was fortunate to attend a church in Hitchin where the Minister knew me well enough to listen when I came out to him and accompany me on my journey of accepting myself. I became part of LGBT Christian groups helping churches understand who gay people are. It is not a matter of choice but a matter of integrity!
In 2001 I attended the national conference of Baptists in Blackpool and there met Ian, who was to become my Civil Partner in 2008, the day before he retired. Yes, we do meet our needs as partners, but it is as much the little things that cement our relationship. Holding hands on a quiet beach and getting our feet wet. ow I feel when he takes me in his arms…
While I have been very fortunate, I am conscious that many LGBT people are much less fortunate, such as the 21% who suffered hate crimes in the last year. That’s why people like me need to share our stories and why I am so proud that Hitchin is planning its first Pride event.
North Hertfordshire District Council has put in place policies to ensure that everyone, regardless of ethnic or national origins, race, colour, gender or transgender, age, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, trade union membership, political beliefs and religious beliefs. There are nine so-called ‘protected characteristics’ under the Equality Act 2010 (age discrimination, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief (including lack of belief), sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity), things that define who we are. The council’s policies state:
Equality focuses on valuing these differences in employee’s background and skills to create a diverse workforce.
It is recognised that to treat people equally does not necessarily mean to treat them all the same; it may involve the provision of different or extra facilities for people to enable them to achieve their full potential.
To achieve this aim the Council commits to apply the principals of equality (i.e. fairness, dignity and non-discrimination) to recruitment and selection, terms of employment, access to training, promotion and transfers and other employee benefits. No applicant or employee will be treated less favourably than another on grounds that are not relevant to the post.
The Council must follow The Public Sector Equality Duty, dated April 2011, which created a single equality duty covering all the protected characteristics. Under this, every employee has a responsibility to deliver services to the public without discrimination. The Council wants employees to never suffer any form of unfair behaviour such as bullying or harassment at work, and from the outset of their employment it asks that employees afford their colleagues with the same standards of behaviour as they expect from others.
If you go back little more than fifty years, none of these ‘protected characteristics’ were recognised and people could be discriminated against for the colour of their skin, their national origin, being a woman, being old, being of the wrong religion. Being gay wasn’t even legal for men and being outed in the press often spelt the end of someone’s career, the loss of their home and even imprisonment.
Thankfully, the world has changed, despite attempts to push back some of the gains (look at how the media deal with transgender people or how often ‘queer-bashing’ is reported, and you’ll see that there is still a long way to go). Society today is generally more open and accepting of differences, although it is always possible to point to exceptions. When I (Keith, the writer of the blog) was growing up, there were no positive role models: gay men were shown in fiction as tragic characters or as dangerous predators. On television, we were figures of fun (Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? was the tip of an enormous iceberg). Being a gay teenager in the 1970s meant believing that you were sick.
What changed, for me, was getting involved in the local punk scene in Lancaster, where I was at university in the late 1970s. The pub where the punks all met – the Ring o’Bells – was also the city’s lesbian and gay pub. This was no coincidence. Punks were as much outcasts as gay people, and gay nightclubs were often the only places that would let in people with green hair, nose piercings and bondage pants. I felt at home in the pub and got to know people on both the punk and gay scenes, which overlapped. I came to understand that I could no more hide my sexuality than I could hide the hair I had dyed blue. And, better still, that it made me feel better not to hide it. I became a DJ in an ‘alternative’ nightclub, playing punk, post-punk and New Wave music, thinking this was the only sort of career path open to me, despite my degree in archaeology.
The early 1980s – before HIV/AIDs became seen as a danger to society – was a time of ‘gender-bending’ musicians (such as target-“new”>Boy George and Annie Lennox), politically-motivated bands (Bronski Beat are perhaps the best known). It seemed for a while as if anything was possible and that full equality was about to happen. In the late 1980s, Denmark became the first country to recognise same-sex relationships and, slowly, other governments began to see that allowing same-sex couples to register their relationships was a good thing.
Progress was slow and, as I’ve already said, we still have a very long way to go. But the changes meant that I was able to enter into a Civil Partnership with my partner on 21 December 2005, the first couple in Hertfordshire to do so. In 2014, the Civil Partnership was converted to Marriage (and in a bizarre ceremony, the registrar dissolved the former to create the latter through the single press of a button on her keyboard, back-dating the marriage certificate to the date of our Civil Partnership). Bahkti and I recently celebrated our Crystal Wedding anniversary. As a teenager struggling to come to terms with why I didn’t fancy girls but paid a lot more attention to the men’s diving in the Munich Olympics of 1972 when sport didn’t interest me in the slightest, I would never have though that married bliss was something I could ever experience.
The world has indeed changed, and so have I.
There is a village to the south of Hitchin with a name that is notoriously difficult to spell. At one point, even the road signs pointing to it had different spellings: I recall my father taking my brother and me on a car ride when I was about ten years old to see how many variations we could find (I think it was three or four). Named after the dedication of the parish church to Saint Hippolytus (one of only two in England), we probably ought to call the village St Hippolytus’s. No-one has tried that since the seventeenth century and the English Place-Name Society preferred St Ippollitts when it published its survey of Hertfordshire placenames in the 1930s, so that’s what I’ll stick with.
The early history of the parish – which includes Gosmore, Maydencroft and Almshoe to make matters more complicated – is obscure, as it’s not mentioned in documents until the thirteenth century. The church is nearly two centuries older than the first mention of the village it serves! What is going on?
Here’s my version of the early history of St Ippollitts, to about 1400. I’m not promising that this is a definitive answer, but it’s a proposal.