How long have just “regular guys” been falling in love with other men? Oh, since about the beginning of time.
In a very popular series of pieces here on The Good Men Project, Mike Iamele recently wrote about being a “heterosexual man in love with another heterosexual man.” He talked about the sense of bewilderedness he’s had, the questions it brings up—and the awkwardness—as well as the stunning emotional pay-offs: the sheer gift of being in love. The truth is, men, all kinds of men, men whom we would never categorize as “gay,” that is categorically “straight” men who’ve been solidly “into” women and are comfortable in their own “regular guy” territory, have been falling in love with each other for thousands of years.
Historians and scholars of gender studies and sexuality have finally started to understand this, to piece together the evidence of it, but it’s been a hard slog because the last thousand-plus years of entrenched bigotry towards homosexuality and same-sex love have worked so hard to erase everything about it. To make it, in effect, so that even the slightest conversation around this subject has been either completely taboo or self-incriminating. (In other words to show that any “truly” objective reading of the evidence would prove that this did not exist, no matter how conclusive the evidence was.)
There has been such an effort to withhold the evidence or destroy it (this includes millions of pages of diaries, letters, photographs and other possessions destroyed by embarrassed families; church archives burned or locked away; or government legal and trial documents, just to name some of the material) that to understand the depth of feeling men have historically had for each other is like trying to learn a language in which ninety-seven percent of the words have been lost. It has been like trying to understand the lost roots of a culture, after most of the tree has been obliterated.
A good example is that the first, earliest example of deep human intimacy in the Old Testament is the story of David and Jonathan. In its intensity and detail, this story is unprecedented in Biblical literature.
“After David had finished talking to Saul, Jonathan’s soul became closely bound to David’s and Jonathan came to love him as his own soul. Saul kept him by him from that day forward and would not let him go back to his father’s house. Jonathan made a pact with David to love him as his own soul; he took off the cloak he was wearing and gave it to David, and his armor, too, even his sword, his bow and his belt. Whenever David went out, on whatever mission Saul sent him, he was successful, and Saul put him in command of the fighting men; he stood well in the people’s eyes and in the eyes of Saul’s officers too.” 1 Samuel 18:1-5 (Jerusalem Bible translation)
The real meaning of the story of David and Jonathan, like the ancient Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu (the oldest written story in the world; again about an intense, same-sex attraction and love), or that of Achilles and Patroclus from the Iliad (ditto: again, about a binding same-sex love between two warriors), has long been argued. But the emotional depth of the story—and in the Book of Samuel, it’s put there in black and white—is evident; it’s right there. Jonathan has disarmed himself for David; he loves him as he loves his own soul. Still, even now, the tabooaround male-male sexualized feelings is so threatening that it’s as if the entire structure of what we call “normal existence” is strictly supported by it.
This has not been the case forever. Even in the first three or four hundred years of the Christian church, romantic feelings among men were not so castigated. The early Greeks and Romans considered them simply part of human life. There were unmistakably “gay” saints in the early church. Two of the most recognized were the 4th century saints Sergius and Bacchus, Roman soldiers of high rank known to be lovers, who were martyred by other officers of the emperor Galerius after the pair would not offer up sacrifices to Jupiter. As part of their humiliation, the couple were publicly marched through Rome wearing women’s clothing, then severely beaten. They were asked to repent of their Christianity; Bacchus died after being beaten to death; Sergius was beheaded. In numerous pictures, the men are depicted as closely touching army officers. They were especially honored by Arab Christians and men in the Syrian army, and numerous churches were erected to them in the Middle East.
Later, in the Middle Ages, knights and other high-born men would make pledges of faith, constancy, and, because there was no other word to approach it, “brotherly” closeness to each other. These oaths became part of “courtly” literature; that is poetry and songs carried around from castles to villages by troubadours, so that the feelings in the oaths became standard. That is, anyone hearing them could understand them.
As in many cases of same-sexualized love, “normal” men could engage in this, but often they needed a catalyst of others who would bring them together, or make them feel that their own love was honorable. The second group were often in the more “queer” category, and the troubadours themselves were usually in this role. That is, they wore more colorful clothes, wore their hair longer, and engaged in less constrained or “merry” behavior. The troubadours had reputations for being sexually “ambiguous,” or loose. A famous example of this was that King Richard the Lionheart (Richard Coeur de Lion) had a passion for a troubadour named Blondel, who was instrumental in ransoming Richard from captivity. The two of them shared secret songs together, and Richard was known to desert his queen for Blondel’s company.
In medieval Italy the troubadours were known as “goia,” or “joyous ones,” a term that later became synonymous with gays who were known as persona de joia. In the Middle Ages, our ideas about privacy simply did not exist. Couples regularly had sex in front of their children; any time that you spent alone was suspect (you might be engaged, for instance, in witchcraft), so there was no language of same-sex attraction or love. You could not tell a man “I love you,” because you could not say that to a woman, either. The only woman you were supposed to love was the Virgin Mary; so many men who now might be considered “queer” joined the Church. Men did strongly attach themselves to other men, slept with them, and engaged in sexual activities, (which we are starting to see through finally-revealed court documents: when they were caught, they were tried for sodomy), but there was still no private language for love that men could use.
This situation remained fairly constant until the 19th century, when the idea of having a private, or romantic life, came into vogue. Men (and women) in America formed what were later termed “Boston marriages”: Same-sex unions that many more sophisticated people recognized but few openly discussed. At the same time homosexuality became synonymous not only with sinfulness, but was also declared “unpatriotic.” “Red-blooded” Americans were not queer, even in Boston. But this did not keep men from falling in love with each other.
Again, the “troubadours” came to the rescue, in the form of queens, that is, more overtly queer men who attracted categorically “straight” men who came to them for sexual (and often emotional) release. The queens preferred these men because they were more “earnest,” reliable and less self-conscious and self-hating than the denizens of the dark dangerous “gay world” before Stonewall. The straights were known as “trade,” because often the queens would pay them a nominal amount for sexual services. “Trade” were for the most part not professional hustlers, but they expected some kind of “tip” for putting out.
As it often happened, two “trade” would get together. They would find each other attractive and be drawn to one another. There were numerous stories of “trade”—men in very male professions like boxers, streetcar conductors, cops, or firemen—who fell in love. But the problem was: how to describe this? If they weren’t “queer,” how could they be . . . “gay”? This caused a famous joke in queen circles: That no matter how bluff and masculine they started out, you could never tell where “trade” might actually end up.
“Yeterday’s trade is tomorrow’s competition,” was the line. The guy who presented himself one day as perfectly “straight,” the next day might find himself in the bars, or the cruising venues of the parks and streets, looking for love himself.
These terms like “queens” and “trade” now seem old enough to be written in hieroglyphics. But the truth is that men who feel that they’re totally outside the “gay” label and only comfortable in the world of “regular guys” have been falling in love for thousands of years. And we are just starting to understand this.
Photo: phlubdr / flickr