In this article:
- It’s easy to forget that homophobia is a relatively modern intervention because heteronormative history obscures LGBT+ figures and tries to portray non-heteronormative genders and sexualities as if they’re new.
- The truth is that if you go back far enough in time, you’ll find that neither homophobia nor any of our current ideas about gender and sexuality norms existed.
- There are many ancient civilizations that we know of where it was okay to be gay, and likely even more that have been lost to history.
- Acknowledging this history is an important reminder that LGBT+ people have always existed and that, for most of human history, they have been loved and accepted for who they were.
We tend to think of homophobia as dated and archaic. Homophobic slurs and sentiments are things of the past that conservatives resolutely hold on to, lest society fall into the horrors of women loving women and being happy for it.
In contrast, being open to people of all genders and sexual orientations is the progressive thing to be. After all, it’s 2021. Most of today’s modern world is past thinking that homosexuality is a disease, and global acceptance is on the rise (and rightly so).
However, if we are to go back in time far enough —say, up to 3000 BC — history seems to suggest something else entirely: homophobia, like heterosexuality as a concept, is a relatively modern invention.
The trouble is, a lot of ancient LGBTQ+ history has been obscured over the years. This is either through centuries of oppression and erasure, or the waning of oral traditions. Some details, too, have simply been lost in translation.
But what historians can attest to is that homosexuality and same-sex relationships have been around for as long as humans have been around, and we are present in every documented culture across the globe — just in different ways.
In some cases, we might know of ancient queerness through western colonizers writing about their travels, though these accounts, of course, are far from unbiased. But there is also proof in ancestral tongues, with words that often do not fit into the western LGBT+ framework.
We know of the muxes in Juchitán, Mexico, who are neither men nor women. The Māori have takatāpui, a term traditionally used for same-sex intimate partners that has now become something of an umbrella term.
In Tagalog, you have the babaylan, shamans who were either women or gender-crossing men and were revered before the Philippines came to be “discovered” and named after a Spanish king.
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These clues point us to one thing: If we go back to what conservatives like to think of as “the good old days” of moral virtue and then go further back another few hundred years or so, the people of ancient history weren’t all that cis or straight (though they are no less virtuous for it).
And as a species, we never were —whether it’s cross-dressing and gender-crossing, or same-sex partnerships and families.
So, though it’s impossible to actually go back in time to check for ourselves, here’s what we know so far about ancient civilizations where being gay may have been okay.
Ancient Civilizations Where It Was Okay to Be Gay
Also known as the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia is the oldest civilization we know of, and it had some pretty queer gods.
Inanna, the goddess of love, sensuality, fertility, procreation, and also of war, had the power to turn men to women and women to men. Her priests and priestesses not only had relations with both men and women, but they were also trans people themselves.
Her sometimes-father-sometimes-uncle Enki was the god of wisdom, fresh water, and magic who made people of a third gender, who were neither male nor female.
And when it comes to us mortals, The Almanac of Incantations points out that gods were pretty ambivalent about whether or not your partner is the same gender as you are, and there are prayers for both hetero and homosexual couples.
In fact, the gods are much stricter about class: Trouble will come to you if you have a relationship with someone who is above or below your status —whether or not you’re straight.
Scholars have also argued that the Mesopotamian version of same-sex love and gender-neutral people don’t neatly fall into today’s concept of homosexuality.
The Greek Pantheon, which continues to inspire much of our media today, had plenty of queer gods, too.
There was the sun god Apollo, who was lover to the Macedonian Prince Hyakinthos and Hymen, the god of marriage; Hermes, the god of speed, who had his own roster of male lovers; and Pan, the god of music, who chased both men and women.
Dionysus, the god of wine, also serves as the god of intersex and transgender people, while Artemis is depicted by different texts as either asexual or a lesbian.
But among us mortals, there was the poet Sappho, fondly known as the first lesbian influencer in history. There was also Pindar, whose songs were performed in celebrations for men who loved men.
The Ancient Greeks often had older men in relationships with adolescent boys in a practice called Pederasty, which is questionable by today’s standards, but it was believed to help younger men grow towards becoming a good citizen under the guidance of their older lover.
Spartans, meanwhile, even encouraged relationships among men in the Agoge, as they believed lovers would be better fighters —both to protect and impress each other.
Embodying this belief, the Sacred Band of Thebes were a troop of same-sex lovers who were undefeated between 371 and 338 BCE.
There’s evidence that homosexuality was not only widespread, but also tolerated in Ancient China. Though the country today isn’t exactly friendly towards its queer community, records of same-sex relationships in poems, anecdotes, and histories date as far back as 600 BCE.
Most of these records reference love between men, however, because sapphic relationships were ignored the same way women in general have been ignored in history. But it’s probable that lesbians existed, too.
In contrast to Greece’s tales of heroism among homosexual men, China’s stories are a bit more tender. For instance, in one story called The Cut Sleeve, the Han Dynasty Emperor Ai had been resting with his lover Dong Xian, who fell asleep on the sleeve of Ai’s robe.
Instead of waking him when he had to go hold court, Ai decided instead to cut off his sleeve and attended to his duties all disheveled. “The cut sleeve” went on to be a term used to reference same-sex relationships.
In the Egyptian pantheon, the first god, Atum, was both male and female.
Atum’s great-granddaughter, Isis, went on to solve one of Egypt’s first gender-based crises in the story of Iphis, who was born female but raised male because his father wanted a male heir. Eventually, Iphis fell in love with a woman named Ianthe.
At Iphis’s prayer, Isis transformed his body to be what people would describe as male.
Information about queerness among mortals is a little harder to come by, but one story is of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, royal servants whose records have stirred quite a debate. That’s because they were buried in a way that was usually reserved for Egyptian lovers.
Scholars have also noted that bisexuality was seen as natural among Ancient Egyptians, but the uneasiness people had about it was rooted in misogyny: Though they did worship female gods, they didn’t have much esteem for mortal women.
And so, same-sex relationships among men were alright as long as they didn’t show overt femininity, which was seen as a weakness.
Homosexuality and non-conforming gender identities were not only present in Ancient India, but sacred texts have shown that they were accepted.
Of the eight different kinds of marriage that existed in the Vedic system, for instance, one between two men or two women was known as “gandharva” or celestial — “a union of love and cohabitation, without the need for parental approval.”
This openness towards non-cishet unions carried over in the centuries after the ancient period. We can see this in the overtly homosexual imagery of sculptures found in Madhya Pradesh’s Khajuraho temples, built sometime in the 12th century.
The homoerotic sculptures are just a few of the temples’ pieces depicting everyday life — showing how relationships between two men, two women, or sometimes more, were normal.
Not Quite Ancient Honorable Mentions
The thing with history is that a lot of it depends on what humans have been able to preserve for historians to study centuries later, and this endeavor is an ongoing process.
Looking beyond ancient history — a period that ended between 450-500 CE, though this, too, is contested — we find plenty of pre-modern histories of queerness in societies that may not be as open-minded today.
In these places, LGBTQ+ people may well have existed as far back as what we consider ‘ancient’ times, but the records we do have place them in the centuries that followed.
Various African Societies
Before colonizers decided to invade and divide the African continent, many African societies were actually places of acceptance for queer people. In fact, same-sex marriage was documented in more than 40 pre-colonial African societies —a fact that confused European colonizers.
The Langi of northern Uganda, for instance, were home to the mudoko dako, or effeminate males who were treated as women, and could also marry men. King Mwanga II of Buganda (within modern-day Uganda), was also openly gay.
Meanwhile, the Dagaaba people of modern-day Ghana didn’t assign gender based on anatomy, but instead, on energy.
Pre-Meiji Era Japan
Like Ancient Greece before it, Japan had partnerships between older men and boy-lovers in the Nanshoku tradition, which had Buddhist roots and involved mentorship as well as emotional and physical elements. These relationships were especially common among samurai warriors.
Pre-Columbian Latin America
Muxes, mentioned earlier, were seen as a blessing from the gods. They can’t be easily mapped onto the LGBTQ+ framework, partly because pre-colonial Zapotec language didn’t have gender.
Meanwhile, in the Nahuatl language, spoken among Aztecs, the word patlachech was used to refer to women who did what men did, including having relationships with women.
In present-day Peru, traditional Moche pottery celebrated same-sex relations.
Meanwhile, the Inkas of the Andes called on a revered figure called chuqui chinchay, the mountain deity of the jaguars and the patron of dual-gendered people who served as shamans called the quariwarmi.
These people were seen as a creative force between the feminine and the masculine.
Third-gender shamans, or babaylan, were common in pre-colonial Philippine islands as well, in the form of the bayoguin, bayok, and binabae, among others. Born male, they dressed in women’s clothing and played a key role in religious functions and connecting the visible and invisible worlds.
These gender-crossers also married men, enjoying a comparatively esteemed status at the time. That’s because women, too, were held in much higher regard than they were in succeeding colonial periods.
Here, Queer, and Historical
What all this tells us, aside from the fact that different genders and sexualities have existed across the globe for far longer than our ideas of heterosexuality have, is that the journey from oppression to acceptance, and from intolerance to freedom, is not linear.
Today, even among what many consider to be progressive countries, the battle for LGBTQ+ rights — or, more bluntly, human rights — continues.
We can all do our part by learning more about our own history and supporting local and national organizations working for the welfare of the LGBTQ+ community around the world.