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Cross-Dressing: Ancient and Modern Reappropriations of Homosexual Identity

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 276-295 | 10.1353/com.2013.0007

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It turns out that where homoeroticism is granted full social sanction, as it was in Rome, it flourishes . . . Men, we learn from ancient Rome, will enjoy sex with other men, if there is no social censure . . . And so now we come back to the idyllic day of free choice and tolerance envisioned by the gay and lesbian movement.

Joshua Berman

Without dispute, the understood schemata for sexual relations in the ancient world significantly diverge from those of the modern world, especially those that mediated behavior in same-sex sexual or social relations. Same-sex relations in ancient Rome—and in fact, all sexual relations—were largely predicated on notions of power, of domination and submission, and of social class. As Marilyn Skinner notes, "Sex relations were structured hierarchically, in contrast to our ideal of equality between the partners, and the gender roles of active and passive partner were not tied to sex—for the person in the submissive role, at least, structural 'femininity' was the consequence of lower status, not sex" (19). As far as a male Roman citizen's reputation was concerned, the biological gender of his sex partner(s) did not establish his identity—it was his role as the active or submissive sexual partner that legitimated or damaged his public identity as a masculine subject (see Miller and Platter; Wray 59-61). Despite what is often believed, there was not "homosexual identity" in ancient Rome per se (Wray 171-72). There was no word for "sexual" or "sexuality" in Greece or Rome, but rather we find ta aphrodisia ("matters of Aphrodite") in Greek or terms limited to body parts or specific sexual acts in Latin (Skinner 3; See Parker 48-50). Despite the wide acceptance among scholars of the ancient world that erotic behavior was dictated by social rules and notions of power rather than biology, contemporary writers and human rights activists who discuss homosexual identity continue to situate its beginning in the ancient world and, often, present this presumed foundational point of homosexual identity as a "lost" utopia in which a homosexual was accepted publicly, rather than pushed into the confines of a closet. Simultaneously, radical opponents of gay rights appeal to this same historical vision as a warning of the potential consequences were full civil equality for gay people granted.

Both contemporary and ancient writers often appeal to a prelapsarian golden age/utopia to mediate the struggle for the constitution of their identities. Contemporary male homosexual identity, the defining characteristic of which, according to society, is physical same-sex acts, often seeks to legitimate itself by citing a past, lost sense of a publicly accepted homosexual identity; however, same-sex acts in ancient Greece and Rome did not establish a homosexual identity but rather an assertion or disavowal of a masculine identity. Although same-sex relations are widely depicted in the ancient world, we find few texts that depict modern same-sex "relationships." Indeed, the idea that we can pin down exactly what same-sex relationships were like in the ancient world has been contested by more than one scholar (see for example, Drinkwater; James 6; Nikoloutsos, "Beyond Sex," esp. 55, 76 and "The Boy as Metaphor" 27). I do not wish to discount these arguments, particularly in the realm of the aesthetically rigid genre of Latin elegy, in which the poems are heavily constructed, interconnected, and often not about what the "surface level" dialog or action a particular poem contains. This paper aims to show, through Tibullus 1.4, a concrete example of an articulation of masculine identity grounded in an appeal to the past that exemplifies not only the same-sex freedom appealed to by the gay community, but also the anxiety over the supposed seductive, overpowering, and dangerous force of male same-sex behavior opponents of human rights point to in order to deny these rights to the GLBT community.

Tibullus's Marathus cycle (1.4, 1.8, and 1.9) has recently been discussed, by Konstantinos Nikoloutsos and Megan Drinkwater, as an integral part of the Tibullus corpus. Each argues that, rather than diverging from the subject matter, themes, or aims of the other poems in the collection and causing an...



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