Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 287-302
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Toward a Global History of Same-Sex Sexuality
Leila J. Rupp
Ohio State University
This is the presumptuous title of a paper I delivered for what I believe was the first-ever session on "Gay and Lesbian History/L'histoire de l'homo-sexualité" at the International Congress of Historical Sciences, held in August 2000 in Oslo. As I did there, let me hasten to say here that I do not claim knowledge of same-sex sexuality in every time and every place. But the blossoming of research on a wide range of manifestations of same-sex sexuality calls for an attempt at global thinking. Although my own work is rooted in U.S. and European history, I would like to make use of the work of scholars focusing on different parts of the world to reflect on what patterns might emerge. I take up this task from the perspective of one firmly committed to a social constructionist perspective on sexuality. Thus, I recognize that making transhistorical comparisons can be a risky business. Nevertheless, I think we can learn something by thinking about same-sex sexuality from a global viewpoint.
I favor the term "same-sex sexuality" as one that gets beyond the use of terms such as "queer," "gay," "lesbian," or "homosexual." Yet I would like to proceed by looking at manifestations of what we call "same-sex sexuality" in different times and places both to explore global patterns and to consider how those patterns make the two parts of the term "same-sex sexuality" problematic. That is, sometimes such manifestations cannot really be considered "same-sex," and sometimes they should not really be labeled "sexuality." These complications suggest that even the attempt to avoid assumptions about the meanings of desires, acts, and relationships by using a term such as "same-sex sexuality" may inadvertently lump together phenomena that are quite different. This is the difficulty of thinking about a global history of same-sex sexuality.
There are various ways that sexual acts involving two genitally alike bodies may in fact not be best conceptualized as "same-sex." In some cases, what is more important than genital similarity is the fact of some [End Page 287] kind of difference: age difference, class difference, gender difference. As numerous scholars have pointed out, across time and space those differences have in more cases than not structured what we call same-sex acts in ways that are far more important to the people involved and to the societies in which they lived than the mere fact of the touching of similar bodies. 1 (My favorite way to explain this to my students is through the story of my colleague's five-year-old son, who was one day playing with the family dog and a girl from his school. The girl said, "I love Lily [the dog] so much I wish I could marry her. But I can't because she's a girl." My colleague's son, viewing the relevant categories in a different way, responded, "That's not the reason you can't marry Lily. You can't marry Lily because she's a dog!") Looking at the whole question of sameness and difference from an entirely different angle, Jens Rydström's work on homosexuality and bestiality in rural Sweden reminds us that these two categories of deviant acts were not conceptually distinct in the past. 2 Thus, the lines between same-sex and different-species acts were not clearly drawn.
To start, probably the most familiar example is from ancient Athenian society where age difference between older and younger men determined the ways they engaged in sex acts, and such relationships had educative functions that were as much the point as the sex. Furthermore (although this is a bit controversial), the lack of an age or other differential was considered deviant, while same-sex and different-age (or different-status) relationships were not. Adult male citizens of Athens could penetrate social inferiors, including women...