The first post in what I hope will be a sporadic series. Dedicated to Jonathan Harvey, E.M. Forster, Dan Savage, and all those who believe in happy endings.
Recently, I watched Maurice, the Merchant-Ivory movie based on E.M. Forster’s 1913 novel about a young, middle class, English homosexual man. It was a subject so controversial, that the novel was not published until 1971, the year after Forster died. Forster, himself a gay man, knew the book was publishable, but the subject matter was too far ahead of its time. Maurice was shocking for two reasons: (1) the title character ends up in a happy same-sex relationship; and (2) his lover, Alec Scudder, is from a different (i.e. lower) social class. Although this would not scandalize the modern audience, when Maurice was written, the ensuing fury would have destroyed Forster’s career and possibly his life. When Maurice was written, sodomy between consenting adults was illegal and punishable by imprisonment.
Archeologists have found evidence of same-sex relationships from thousands of years ago. Given the prevalence of homosexual behavior throughout the Animal Kingdom, it is probably safe to assume that human same-sex relationships date back to before the dawn of mankind. It is difficult to determine the extent of same-sex relationships throughout written history however, because later generations, up until very recently, tried to suppress that information, either by destroying it, ignoring it, or misinterpreting it. (Forster captures such a scene in Maurice, when a Cambridge don tells his pupils, who are translating a passage of Classical literature, to “Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks.”)
The most famous proscriptions against homosexuality, or more accurately against male/male sexual acts, are those in Bible–specifically passages in Leviticus that call homosexual acts an abomination and condemn to death those who engage in such acts. Although not the first time homosexual sex was forbidden in recorded history, the Bible was the most powerful and far-reaching prohibition. It is the primary (although not only) wellspring of much of today’s homophobia.
Christian Europe, was unsurprisingly, extremely intolerant of homosexuality and those who engaged in homosexual sex acts (usually men.) In England, sodomy was made a capital crime in 1533 and the penalty of death was not abolished until 1861. European moral dislike of homosexuality spread spread throughout their colonial empires (in the early 16th Century, the conquistador Balboa supposedly killed a group of natives on the Colombia/Panamanian border for engaging in same-sex sexual relationships. He had his dogs attack them.)
Since Forster wrote Maurice, the LGBT rights movement has made astronomical gains in many parts of the world. Barring places such as the Middle East and most of Africa, homosexuality is neither a capital or imprisonable offense. Sodomy has not been a crime in England and Wales since 1967, in Scotland since 1980, and in Northern Ireland since 1982. Compare that with the United States, whose final state sodomy laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003. Despite the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, sodomy is still a crime according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In a post-repeal, post-Lawrence v. Texas world, it is unclear whether that is still effective. Same-sex marriage is now legal in ten nations and four continents (Europe, North America, South America, and Africa), and Nepal has been consistently trying to refashion itself as a leader in gay rights. Surely this is beyond anything that Forster would have dreamt of–and less than a century after Maurice was written.
Yet the opposition to equality has not changed, at least not at its core. In the United States, the LGBT community is locked in an existential struggle with opponent of gay rights–perhaps the most prominent of which is the United States Republican Party. Save for the most rabid homophobes, equality opponents will not (cannot?) outright say that they hate gay people. Only the most vile call for a resurrection of sodomy laws. The political climate has moved too far forward for that to be effective rhetoric.
Nevertheless, the goal is essentially the same: those who oppose LGBT rights want us (gays and lesbians) to not exist. It is why the Republicans and conservatives fight tooth-and-nail on every gay rights issue. Even when they clearly lost, such as with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, they still try to turn back the clock. Hence the attempts to reinstate DADT, despite the fact that it is a battle that will not be won. Every time the opponents fight against a pro-equality measure–be it same-sex marriage, pro-gay immigration reform, employment discrimination laws that protect sexual orientation and gender identity, etc.–they are trying to turn back the clock to a time when homosexuality was a crime.
The next installment of this series will be about how this struggle over the existence of visibility of the LGBT community has spilled over into the schools.