In history there never was a ‘Gay Golden Age’ and here is why.
When faced with hardship, earlier generations of queer folk tended to escape into (romanticised) utopian pasts. But were those bygone eras so ‘golden?’
For some gay men, Classical Greece served as an enduring paragon of elite homosexuality at a time when male homosexuality was either punishable by death or by long-term imprisonment. However, as James Davidson now tells us, the era in question harboured a strictly limited concept of permissible and acceptable same-sex relationships, love and sexuality, predominantly focused on older male mentors and late adolescent beloveds.
This was beset with rules, regulations and restrictions. Woe betide any elite male citizen who liked being on the receiving end of anal sex from slaves, late adolescents or other elite male citizens. Added to which, pervasive misogyny and slavery don’t strike us as particularly pleasant aspects of life in that context.
Lesbians went further back in their pursuit of a mythical golden age, to prehistoric ‘matriarchies,’ where women enjoyed optimal religious, social, sexual and economic freedom. Unfortunately, this was primarily the result of antiquated, obsolete nineteenth century historiography and anthropology, since scientifically disproven. These societies were often matrilineal, which meant that veneration, lineage and inheritance were accorded to descent from prominent female ancestors.
For transgender and indigenous same-sex communities, precolonial societies are often reckoned as relatively idyllic. Certainly, colonialism was (and is) responsible for loss of life, material dispossession, loss of language, culture and spirituality and destructive of communities and whanau/families, while leading to modern social pathologies resultant primarily from such dispossession and assimilationism.
While precolonial societies may not have stigmatised male to female transgender and same-sex loving individuals, and may even have accorded them sacred roles, again, this status had its own responsibilities and limitations, just as transgendered female to male warriors had in some societies. Those societies had their own social hierarchies and share of ecological irresponsibility to deal with – although not to the same extent as that which later propelled western colonialism and imperialism from the sixteenth century onward.
We should therefore dispense with the concept of utopia altogether and perhaps instead adopt Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, which is about diverse, multiple and pluralist social spaces. Although some forms of inequality ease, others coalesce and take their place, while others are reinforced. HOWEVER – This doesn’t mean we should abandon working for social change.