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Five years ago

Born to be Gay

Despite its ridiculously clichéd, pink cover (in the edition I read, at any rate), this is a very interesting book. It is replete with fascinating information on sexuality in a variety of geographical areas during a large part of human history. William Naphy traces sex between men (and occasionally sex between women) from the beginnings of human history to the present; and in each chapter (covering a period of time) he discusses a number of cultures from all over the world, thereby presenting a series of synchronous slices which also allows a semblance of diachronic lines of development): a world history of homosexuality.

If this sounds like it might be too ambitious, that would be right. The book is just under 300 pages long, which makes any in-depth investigation of such a wide topic unattainable. Possibly as a result of the same restrictions it is at times a little careless with regard to methodological considerations: because there is no room to discuss the complex reasoning behind interpretations of sources that only contribute a very little, there is a tendency towards simply skirting over the evidence for homosexuality (or, rather, sex between people of the same sex, homosexuality being a terribly anachronistic term) in periods and areas where there is little written material. Quite often I found myself wishing there were footnotes with sources for me to look at (simply saying "there is evidence that X" makes me want to see the evidence).

There is also a tendency towards generalisation: despite nominal awareness of the differences between the treatment of cross-dressing men (and the occasional woman) in Native North American cultures, for example, Naphy uses the same word for all, berdache, thereby obscuring the differences. I can only assume this is due to an unfortunate attempt to make things simpler for the reader, possibly another result of the book's overreaching.

Simultaneously, he makes much of the interpretation of gender images in mythology, which is very interesting and fun to read, but which may possibly not be the best source for finding out how the society which held these beliefs functioned (Loke fathering (wait, mothering -- another of those gender shifts that would fascinate Naphy) Sleipnir after a fling with a horse does not mean bestiality was an accepted part of Norse culture). Still, the readings of mythology is very compelling, particularly when he discusses Hindu myths. It is very useful as an illustration (for a Western audience, which is what Naphy is aiming at) of the use of alternative categories for thinking about gender.

I have one other objection to get out of the way before telling you why you should read the book anyway: women are all but absent. This is not to be laid entirely at Naphy's door: I imagine the restrictions are very much there in the source material. And women do pop up occasionally. But I believe he omitted Sapho entirely during his discussion of the Greeks, and as a whole the book is rather too focused on penetration as a classification tool. It is always sad when a book which sets out to redress a marginalisation ends up committing the same sin all over again.

Despite the flaws, however, this is a very well written and interesting book full of fascinating details about remote cultures (geographically or historically or both -- certainly from a Western point of view), described and discussed in order to place the current attitudes to homosexuality in a wider context. And it is here that the main interest of the book lies. Rather than taking the Judeo-Christian culture(s) as a norm and marvelling at the strange things people elsewhere and -when have been up to, it sets out to show the Judeo-Christian (and to a certain extent the Islamic) as the "other", the aberration in human history.

It argues that the focus on sex exclusively for procreation was an idiosyncrasy of Jewish culture which Christianity and Islam took up and spread to the areas in which their cultures became dominant. Naphy spent a great deal of time establishing the older sources of traditions of same-sex sexual relations as well as alternative gender roles in areas that later came to present the received perception of sex and gender as their "true traditions" and homosexuality as a decadence of the invaders (Africans calling it an Islamic tendency, Hindu nationalists referring to it as either a Muslim or British tradition). He also discusses the changing attitudes in Europe, seeing the Black Death and similar cataclysmic events as triggers for periods of homophobia (that correspond to persecutions of Jews, for example).

The aim of the book is to show that a homophobic rhetoric based on what is "natural" must fall flat if history is taken into account. Because it is written (to a great extent) in the context of the American debates surrounding the rights of gay people to adopt/marry/serve in the armed forces/be gay it has a polemic tint at times; but as I agree wholeheartedly with his position on the matter, this does not bother me. It does make me worry that the people who ought to read this book, will not, however, because a polemic is more easily dismissed.

Even for those who, like me, need no convincing, however, it is a very interesting book which will (I am fairly sure) point out something you did not know/had not thought about with regards to human sexuality and the way we fall into classifying things as if our constructions are already there as "nature".
Are likes this


I think the cover and title will already have put off 99.9% of those people.


Camilla,  11.06.11 12:36

which is a shame.