The Queer Issue
It's impossible to know whether certain males and females crawled up out of the primordial sludge and immediately began making it with members of their own gender, but it's more than likely that they did.
For despite what the Christian right would have you believe, homosexuality is not some recent phenomenon. It's been observed in so many mammals that it likely predated the emergence, some 100,000 years ago, of Homo sapiens; if today's dinosauric gray whales exhibit homosexual tendencies (which they do), it's only logical to think their ancestors, the dinosaurs, did too. And despite what most pop-gay histories suggest, homosexual Homo sapiens did not first appear on this planet in 1969, at a New York watering hole known as the Stonewall.
No, gay people have been around a long, long time. But our history and our lives have generally been given short shrift—and we're just as guilty of this ourselves, what with all the focus on the Stonewall riots in 1969 and their aftermath.
Sing then, o muse, of the love between Achilles and Patroclus in Homer's Iliad, a love described around the seventh century B.C.E. When Achilles learns that Patroclus has been killed, he tears at his own hair, has to be restrained from suicide, and laments having lost the man "whom I loved beyond all other companions, as well as my own life."
Or tell us, Old Testament, of the love between Ruth and Naomi. Ruth "clave onto" Naomi in the same way that other Old Testament passages say a man is supposed to "cleave unto" his wife, and when the two of them were threatened with separation, Ruth uttered the lines that have become staples of straight and gay marriages ever since: "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay; your people shall be my people and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there I will be buried."
Alexander the Great, the Greek king and conqueror from the fourth century B.C.E., mourned the loss of his lover, Hephaestion, by shaving his own hair, crucifying (literally) Hephaestion's doctor, and commissioning a giant and very expensive funeral pyre. Gay drama, it should be evident, is not unique to the modern era.
Nor is gay drama unique to the West. Same-sex relationships pop up in ancient Persian and Hindu texts. In the pre-Columbus Americas, Native American tribes spoke of "two spirit" people, generally men, who had a mix of male and female spirit in their bodies and had sexual relationships with other men. One famous two-spirit woman, We'wha of the Zuni tribe, shook the hand of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Returning to the Western gay canon: There is Michelangelo, Renaissance painter, sculptor, and prodigious lover of men. There is King James I of England, who wrote love letters to the Earl of Buckingham that survive to this day, and made a speech about the earl in 1617: "You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled. I wish to speak in my own behalf and not to have it thought to be a defect." There is the 18th-century gay-rights tract, recently discovered in the British National Archives, that defended homosexuality, declaring: "Unnatural desire is a contradiction in terms."
And all this is to say nothing of somewhat more recent homos like Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein, who both died well before 1969, or of the homophile Mattachine Society (founded in 1950), or of the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis (founded in 1955), or of gay old Allen Ginsberg, who announced in 1956, in his poem America, that he was already here and already queer.
"America," he wrote 13 years before Stonewall, "I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel."
So why all the focus on the events from 1969 onward? Why devote the following pages to an exploration of each year since the Stonewall riots?
Because while biological evolution can be a plodding, epochs-long process, social evolution is not. Mammals may have pursued gay sex and gay relationships for many millennia, but the way some of those mammals—humans—deal with the homosexuals among them has changed rapidly in the last four decades.
The Stonewall riots, which we commemorate each June, kicked it all off. AIDS, outing, Ellen, and the marriage wars, to name just a few of the notable events, followed. It hasn't all been positive for the gays (Reagan and Rove come to mind), but the clear trend has been toward greater equality and acceptance for homosexuals, and it's worth looking at, year by year.
With research help from Sage Van Wing.