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Attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people then and now: A retrospect (by Private)

As you know, June is Pride month, which means that, true to tradition, it has once again become time to devote an article to diving deeper into an issue with relevance to the LGBTQ+ community. Now, many would probably agree with the statement that society is progressive, or that, in Leona Lewis' words, it all gets better in time. This would in turn mean that acceptance of non-normative sexualities and gender expressions increases as time goes by. While this is largely true in a shorter perspective, the picture becomes less clear-cut if we go further back in time. In this article, we will therefore look into the history (and herstory) of LGBTQ+ acceptance. More specifically, we will explore this history in the context of Europe, since this continent provides an intriguing study into the development of attitudes through time.

We start our exploration of European attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in ancient times, which commonly refers to the time before the end of the (Western) Roman Empire in 476 CE. There are few records from the earliest period of this age, which makes it difficult to really draw any conclusions about the situation for LGBTQ+ people during this era. Still, there are a number of examples, which not only are a testament to the fact that LGBTQ+ people have always existed, but also suggest that they were an integrated part of their communities. The earliest depictions of male homosexuality date back to somewhere between 9600 and 5000 BCE, where stone carvings found on the Italian island of Sicily show pairs of men engaging in sexual activity. Fast-forwarding to the Neolithic and Bronze Age, drawings and figurines found in the Mediterranean area point to the existence of non-binary and/or intersex people, as the example of double-sexed figurines, featuring sexual characteristics of both females and males in one, shows. In a grave discovered near Prague, Czechia, which dates back to circa 2900 to 2500 BCE, a man was found buried in clothes that were traditionally worn by women, suggesting that it was a transgender person. Records from more recent times suggest that there was generally a positive view of LGBTQ+ people in Europe in antiquity. Still, it is important to bear in mind that our current understandings of sexuality and gender are modern phenomena, and that we therefore need to be careful when making comparisons and drawing conclusions about the nature of people's relationships and gender expressions until we come closer to the current point in history. For instance, records show that in some parts of ancient Greece, relationships between adolescent boys and older men were relatively common starting from around 630 BCE. These relationships were not necessarily primarily sexual in nature, but were rather seen as instructive, with the older partner often adopting a mentor-like role aimed at educating their younger counterpart. While no proper records of this can be found, some speculate that similar relationships between adolescent girls and older women were also practised at the time. This lack of records depicting lesbian desire and sexual activity is recurring throughout history, and points to the persistence of male dominance, which has been allowed to dictate the terms on which women could live their lives. The dominance of a male understanding of sexuality has meant that records of same-sex desire between women has largely been absent until more recently, making the act of revisiting history through a female gaze in order to uncover the existence of lesbian desire through time all the more important.

Sure enough, we cannot talk about ancient Greece without mentioning Sappho, whose poetry detailing desire between women gave rise to the term we use for women who have relations with other women today: Lesbian, derived from her home island of Lesbos (for more information about Sappho and her poetry, check out this article). In 385 BCE, ancient Greek philosopher Plato published a text in which a number of Greek intellectuals at the time deemed love between males the highest form, at the same time calling straight relationships lustful and utilitarian. Within the Roman Republic, sexual relations between men were allowed, but only if one of them was a slave or prostitute; relationships between adult male citizens were instead punished. During the reign of the Roman Empire that succeeded the Republic, the first recorded same-sex marriage occurred. The Emperor of Rome in 54 CE, Nero, married two men in legal ceremonies, while Trajan, who succeeded him, was well-known for relationships with other men. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 meant that a large collection of erotic art created during this time, featuring both female-female and male-male relations, was preserved, showing that same-sex relations are far from a modern invention. Emperor Elagabalus, who reigned between 218-222, had a relationship with a male chariot driver, and liked being called his mistress, wife, and queen. Elagabalus wore wigs and makeup, and offered vast sums to any physician who would be able to provide them with female genitalia. For this reason, the Emperor is regarded to be an early transgender figure, and one of the first to be recorded as seeking gender confirmation surgery. As these examples show, at least some groups of LGBTQ+ people seem to have lived relatively harmoniously within their communities throughout antiquity. Of course, there are also plenty of examples to the contrary, which unfortunately become more frequent and numerous as we move closer in time. For example, the emperor who ruled between 222-235, Severus Alexander, deported homosexuals who were active in public life, being an early example of the policies that have since attempted to rid the state and public sector of “deviant sexualities”. In the centuries that followed, attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people became increasingly negative. Same-sex relations were condemned, and those caught engaging in homosexual acts would be punished. A brutal example can be found in 506, when the laws of the Visigothic Kingdom (modern-day Spain and France) decreed burning at the stake for homosexual couples.

With the advent of Christianity across Europe, the situation for LGBTQ+ people indisputably took a turn for the worse. As we now find ourselves at the beginning of the second millennium, this is arguably the period during which LGBTQ+ people in Europe faced the most rampant forms of persecution: Where the Bible was seen as law, homosexuality was a sin. Homosexual acts were commonly considered to be “against nature”, and were punished thereafter. For instance, the penal code of 1260 in the Kingdom of France proscribed punishments in three steps for sodomites: First offenders would lose their testicles, second offenders would lose their genitals, and third offenders would be burned. Women caught engaging in same-sex activity could also be mutilated and executed under this law. Elsewhere, and further forward in time, we will see that lesbians were often “forgotten” in penal codes, because it was thought that women were not capable of “doing such things”. Nevertheless, negative attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people were widespread for much of the 11th to 18th centuries. During the inquisitions of the Middle Ages, led by religious institutions, thousands of people were persecuted and killed across Europe, mostly for engaging in same-sex activity. This coincided with the long period of European “exploration” of the rest of the world, which eradicated many of the traditional cultures, practices, and customs found among peoples worldwide. Here, it is worth noting that in the so called West, there is a general notion that in many parts of the world, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment is deeply ingrained into these countries' cultures and traditions, when in reality, this is hardly the case. Instead, much of the current homo- and transphobia stems from decades of conquest and Christian mission enacted by the West. Employing brutal methods, European colonisers spread their disparaging attitudes against LGBTQ+ among other peoples, dismantling the thitherto positive attitudes found in many cultures in the rest of the world. As an example, many indigenous peoples in North and South America respected and revered those we would now consider to have been part of the LGBTQ+ community, and many peoples in Africa practised ways of living together that were shunned by Europeans. The hostility and negative attitudes which unfortunately remain in place in many countries today can thus largely be said to have been imported, to the detriment of LGBTQ+ people worldwide.

As you probably know, the acronym LGBTQ+, and the terms it encompasses, is a modern development – it was not until the 19th century that sexuality as a concept began to take shape. Prior to that, terms like homosexuality had not yet been invented. In some cases, this meant that acts were considered separate from identity, in the sense that someone who engaged in same-sex activity was not marked as being a person of a certain, deviant kind. Instead, it was the acts themselves that were regarded as immoral, and thus deserving of punishment. Nevertheless, people resisted, finding ways to circumvent the narrow-minded attitudes and restricting societal values of their times. For instance, there are plenty of examples from the Renaissance of women who took on male personae in order to be able to pursue relationships with other women. One of the most famous such examples is Queen Christina of Sweden, who ruled the country from 1632-1654, and was known for her tendency to use male attire, and have relationships with other women. 17th century Europe otherwise provided an especially harsh climate for LGBTQ+ people, with the death penalty having been instated for same-sex activity in most countries at the time. Ironically, intimacy between women seems to have been regarded as fashionable in this same period, especially in the United Kingdom. Throughout history, it would often also have been easier for women to have close relationships with each other without being regarded negatively, since it was considered unproblematic for women to be intimate in homosocial environments.

Towards the end of the 18th century, and moving into the 19th century, things started to change significantly. In 1791, France became the first Western European country to decriminalise sodomy, with other countries soon following suit. The 19th century saw a significant shift in understandings of homosexuality, and marked the beginning of the development of terms describing transgender identities. It was during this time that the medicalisation of lesbians and gays really took off, locating the “problem” within the individual instead of, as before, mainly condemning the acts. While the conflation and equation of homosexuality and transsexuality with sickness is of course a problematic one, and one that is heavily criticised today, it is instructive to note the importance of this shift. The understanding of homosexuality and transsexuality as medical issues paved the way for a change in sentiment: Since gays and lesbians were now considered sick, it would be reasonable to conclude that they could not be faulted or held accountable for their actions. This also meant that they garnered a certain degree of sympathy from others, which would later open up the possibility for a more accepting stance among the wider public. Still, it was doctors and scientists like Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis who held a key role in developing new understandings of human sexuality, which would eventually lead to completely new ways of regarding sexual orientation and gender. The two aforementioned writers believed in the concept of homosexual or bisexual orientations occurring naturally in humans, but regarded those labelled as being of a “third sex” degenerate and abnormal. Our favourite psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, believed bisexuality to be inherent in all humans, but of course could not keep himself from also holding that lesbian desire was something immature that women were to overcome - through heterosexual marriage and male dominance.

The 20th century was a century of revolution in more than just a few ways. Going from being regarded as sinful, and then ill, LGBTQ+ people across Europe would finally see themselves rid of the derogatory designations used by state authorities to discriminate, exclude, and harm for centuries prior. Important milestones were reached during this century, including the performance of the first gender confirmation surgeries, allowing transgender individuals to finally live their lives fully as the men and women they were. A significant figure that deserves to be mentioned here is German physician Magnus Hirschfeld, who made important contributions in the field of sexology, and, contrary to his earlier counterparts who insisted on bigoted views, was an outspoken advocate for sexual minorities. World War II is a dark chapter in LGBTQ+ history, and is a testament to the danger of hateful rhetoric, and the consequences it can inevitably give rise to when coupled with authoritarian rule. During the second half of the 1900s, people began to demand equality, fighting for the rights that many now take for granted: legislation against discrimination, gender recognition laws, and same-sex marriage. With these gains, it would seem like society has indeed become more accepting as time has passed. However, while much has changed for the better, there is still a lot left to do in terms of improving the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Europe. In general, societal attitudes have changed in favour of those once considered deviants and outcasts of their communities, but that is only one side of the coin. Currently, we are experiencing a wave of backlash all across Europe, with anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, coupled with violent hate crimes, on the rise. This is happening not only in countries like Poland and Hungary, which are often being called out for their persecution of LGBTQ+ people, but also in countries which are generally regarded to be more progressive. As we reach the end of this article, I would very much have liked to be able to say that things are going in the right direction, but sadly, reality tells us otherwise. In spite of that, and in order not to end this article on a way too depressing note, I would like finish off with the season's greetings: Happy Pride Month everyone!



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Comment on the article Attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people then and now: A retrospect.
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Private wrote on 25-06 00:48:
Imani wrote:
Alam wrote:
Acidreflux wrote:
thank u for not using q**er. <3
How is that different to dyke though
dyke isn't an umbrella term
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BunnyButts wrote on 24-06 23:54:
BunnyButts wrote:
could just use queer as an umbrella term
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Private wrote on 24-06 23:41:
SkeIeton wrote:
Alam wrote:
Acidreflux wrote:
thank u for not using q**er. <3
How is that different to dyke though
what has that got to do w/ anything??
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Alam wrote on 23-06 20:25:
Alam wrote:
Acidreflux wrote:
thank u for not using q**er. <3
How is that different to dyke though
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MasileinDE wrote on 23-06 20:17:
MasileinDE wrote:
Bit saddened but not surprised the ace representation like usual is going so strong. I get that it's difficult to find information on the first google, but well, I guess that's just how it goes then.
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Private wrote on 23-06 20:13:
Acidreflux wrote:
thank u for not using q**er. <3
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Callum wrote on 23-06 18:36:
Callum wrote:
not in the words of leona lewis lmao 



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