Outing History

Article excerpt

They call it "the love that dare not speak its name" for good reason. Even after the explosion of literature on gay issues since the 1970s, comprehensive examinations of homosexuality in history have been few. An exception is Louis Crompton's new Homosexuality and Civilization (Harvard University Press), a sweeping account that was 18 years in the making. Crompton, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Nebraska, presents both a catalog of horrific abuse and persecution in the West and a surprising history of tolerance in some Eastern cultures, such as Japan, where homosexuality was "an honored way of life among the country's religious and military leaders." Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez spoke with Crompton in December.

Q: What in your research surprised you most?

A: The material on the widespread acceptance of homosexuality in Chinese and Japanese culture, which had been obscured because in the 19th and 20th centuries those countries became much more homophobic. Also, Islam theoretically allows for the death penalty for homosexuality, but the love and appreciation of young males was prevalent in poetry. The pretense was that those relation ships were platonic, but the feelings were acceptable, whereas to write a love poem to a boy in 11th-century England would have been unthinkable. …