Ancient Societies That Allowed LGBT Sexuality and Relationships
Article by: Nicholas Velotta
The LGBT community has had it rough throughout most of human history. After all, it was only three years ago that same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S. and only seven weeks ago gay sex was decriminalized in the world’s largest democracy, India. But that’s not to say there have never been pockets of “acceptance” for LGBT people around the world. Different societies and communities in the ancient world practiced various forms of same-sex unions and sexual behaviors.
Speaking of the world’s largest democracy, Indian mythology is chockfull of gender-bending gods and humans. The hijras, kinnars, and aravani (depending on the region of the country) are chief among the gender nonconforming groups in India, however to call them transgender may be a bit of a stretch. Hijras, the most prominent group, are generally assigned male at birth but do not identify as such. Traditionally seen as spiritual eunuchs with fertility-boosting capabilities, hijras were important guests to weddings and births. Come 1871, the hijra’s elevated status was stripped from them by British colonists who injected the country with a potent culture of discrimination against sexual minorities. Today, hijras are barred from most jobs leading many to sex work and begging on the streets to make ends meet. In 2014, India legally recognized transgender as a “third gender” which has helped the hijras situation some, but the veneration they experienced in ancient times will likely never return.
Located near the Yucatan, pre-Columbian Maya society had a particularly interesting take on male sexuality. A combination of valuing female virginity and delegating heterosexual sex to marriage led to institutionalized gay sex and relationships among male adolescents. The rulers saw it as killing two birds with one stone: (1) young women were off the table—and with, them their virginity was too—and (2) men still got to enjoy sex and companionship with another person. Unfortunately, in order to implement this, slave boys were forced to be the sex-slash-playmates of Maya male adolescents. Although, for male adults gay sex held little stigma too.
You may have heard of the Native American tradition of “two-spirit” people. Two-spirited individuals were gender-nonconforming members of their communities revered for their connection to the spiritual plane. A lot of people think two-spirited means trans, but it’s actually a blanket term for everyone in the LGBTQ+ community. The gays and lesbians were pretty chill here before European settlers decided to force, among many other things, homophobia onto the Native population. In fact, the Cherokee language has 10 different gender-neutral pronouns.
The gay utopia that many hold up ancient Greece to be was not exactly utopic so much as it was profoundly complicated and sexist. Athenians engaged in pederasty, an honorable relationship between an older male mentor and his adolescent mentee, which included sexual and romantic components. Spartans and other warrior sects also engaged in male-on-male sex and romantic relationships. Most Greeks saw male-male love as the purest and strongest form of a relationship. However, gay bottoms who weren’t mentees of an older pederast were admonished as womanly (Greeks were virulently sexist, so being an Athenian woman or even resembling one was social suicide, sometimes literally). Because they saw P in the V penetration as the only legitimate form of sex, lesbianism went relatively unnoticed in ancient Greece. A case of out of mind out of sight, I suppose.
Hawaii (alkāne and māhū)
Yet again, Western colonists really screwed over the native LGBTQ community, and this time they did it in the gay wedding haven of Hawaii. Prior to the West’s 18th-century cultural intervention (a nice way of describing colonizers supplanting Hawaiian culture with their own), the mahu people were a respected part of traditional Hawaiian society. Mahus identify as what most of us would call gender fluid, exhibiting both masculine and feminine qualities. Today mahus face much of the same discrimination that other LGBTQ people face across the U.S., although Hawaii’s liberal-leaning government is starting to make that discrimination fewer and far between.
Nicholas Velotta is a sex and relationship researcher and writer located out of the University of Washington in Seattle.