Queer Experiences in the Ancient World That Became a Source of Hatred in Christianity

No such terms as LGBTQ+ existed in different cultures of the ancient world, because there were no certain borders between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Gender identity and sexual orientation wasn’t a reason to divide people and who someone fell in love with was only their business.


Stigma in relationships between people of the same sex was based solely on class differences. In Greece, Rome, and other civilizations, there was an opinion that a free citizen who played the role of the opposite sex in a relationship gave up their gender identity, however, nothing was said about the nature of such a relationship. Ancient authors didn’t even talk about the issue of sexual orientation separately, only in those times when it had an impact on a particular event, because sexual identity was simply not a topic of conversation. In Mesopotamia, called the “cradle of civilization,” same-sex relationships were equated with heterosexual relationships, as evidenced by the existing works of art and literature.


Scholar Bruce L. Gerig comments:


“Making love was a natural activity that should not be demeaned, they believed; and it could be practiced as one pleased as long as no third party was harmed, or prohibition broken (such as the banning of sexual activity on certain days and some women reserved for the gods). In fact, scholar William Naphy notes that a striking feature of the ancient Near East was “how few cultures seem to have any significant ‘moral’ concern about same-sex activities…most cultures seemed to accept that males might have sexual relations with other males.”


With the spread of Christianity, signs associated with other religions became the target of prohibitions, the establishment of boundaries, so that sexual self-exploration and same-sex relationships were gradually banned. Relationships between people of the same sex were not condemned from the onset, they simply became a threat to Christianity for everything that non-Christian countries considered to be the norm, primarily sacrifices to pagan gods and non-Christian religious festivals.


There are no such terms in the ancient languages that would correspond to terms homosexual and heterosexual, which were first mentioned in 1869. The Greek term Arsenokoites (translated into English as homosexual in the Bible only in 1946) did not exist until the apostle Paul used it in his epistles. This compound word combines “man” and “bed sharing” (sex), which does not refer to relationships between people of the same sex, but to non-Christian sexual relations (including violence against minors by men of the privileged class, sex work, etc.).


The ongoing talk of sexual identity and the statements about a return to traditional values are ironic, because long before the spread of Christianity, equal relations were traditionally considered non-degrading and had been the norm for millennia.



In ancient Mesopotamia, the priests and priestesses of the popular goddess Inanna (better known as Ishtar) were bisexual and transgender. According to their beliefs, the goddess had the power to transform humans and could turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man. According to legend, the goddess’s father created people of the third gender who were Inanna’s servants. Non-binary identity existed over 3,000 years ago and was considered to be a manifestation of the divine will. The gods also blessed same-sex relationships as is clearly seen in the document The Almanac of Incantations, which contains prayers for both opposite and same-sex couples. In Mesopotamia and other cultures, even voluntary sex between people of different social backgrounds, was considered a source of trouble.




Woman Spying on Male Lovers – Unknown


In China, men of high social class could have lovers of the same sex, even from the lower class. It was believed that the love of a nobleman could even ennoble a person of another social stratum. Relationships between men in Chinese sources date back to at least B.C. Found 600 years ago, same-sex couples are portrayed in poems, anecdotes, and other historical sources that date back to the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 B.C.). Female same-sex relationships are ignored in Chinese literature in the same way women are generally passed over by male ancient historians. Male couples were associated with the ennobling aspect of love by which both the lover and the beloved are elevated and made better by the association.


Scholar Louis Crompton, commenting on the stories which came to define same-sex relationships in China, writes:


“Clearly, these normative tales, if we may so call them, show an unselfconscious acceptance of same sex relations, an acceptance that was to persist in China for twenty-four centuries. They contrast strikingly with the myth that dominated the imagination of Western Christendom – the story of Sodom with its supernatural terrors. But they are also quite distinct from the traditions of ancient Greece. Instead of legends of heroic self-sacrifice in a warrior society, we have piquant tales of delicate consideration and tenderness.”


One of these tales, The Cut Sleeve, relates how Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty (r. 7-1 BCE) was resting with his lover Dong Xian who had fallen asleep on the sleeve of Ai’s robe. Rather than wake him, he cut off his sleeve and went out to hold court in a disheveled state. The phrase “the cut sleeve” came to be used to reference same-sex relationships along with others which also come from stories exemplifying the consideration a lover has for his beloved.




Same-sex relationships in Japan were also considered ennobling during the Pre-Meiji Period (800-1868 CE) and were not only blessed but encouraged by the great Buddhist sage Kukai. The Japanese referred to these relationships as nanshoku (“love of males” or “male colors”), and they were legitimized by the aristocracy and the literate elite who were influenced by the model of Chinese same-sex relationships. The Japanese regarded romantic attachments and sex as a natural part of life whether the object of one’s desire was one’s own sex or the opposite.


In Lady Murasaki’s famous novel The Tale of Genji (c. 1020 CE), the hero seduces the younger brother of the woman he is trying to court, but he is not regarded less for doing so, and his obvious bisexuality is of so little concern to the author that she never mentions it again.




Fluid gender identity was recognized in Egypt throughout its long history and, as in other cultures, drew little notice and no condemnation except when a male of a certain social status “played the part of the woman” in sex. Scholar Colin Spencer notes, “Bisexuality in the male was accepted as natural and never drew adverse comment, but passive homosexuality made the Egyptians feel uneasy. What if a king showed such a feminine disposition?”


The only problem Egyptians had with same-sex relationships was a show of weakness, of overt femininity, in a male of certain status. Although the Egyptians respected the power of the feminine, as evidenced by their many powerful female deities, they did not believe mortal women could effectively wield power.




The cult of the Phrygian goddess Cybele and her consort Attis flourished in ancient Greece c. 300 BCE, and one of its defining characteristics was the galli (also given as gallae), the transgender clergy who identified as female. The myth may have been influenced by the goddess Inanna, although homosexuality was widespread in Greece way before that


Plato praises the relationship between men in a number of dialogues, although he re-evaluated this view in his writings on old age, which may be due to the devastating passion that accompanies such relationships. Homosexuality bothered Aristotle only when a man gave up his own masculinity in such relationships. The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, considered the relationship between men as a source of sorrow and nobility. In Sparta, sex between soldiers was considered favorable, because it was believed that a soldier would fight with a much greater attitude to protect a loved one. This paradigm is famously proven by the Sacred Band of Thebes, a troop of same-sex lovers, who were undefeated for a long time until they were killed, to a man, at the Battle of Chaeronea.




Hadrian an Antinous


As in Greece, the sexual aspect of the relationship was the least important, and there had to be genuine affection and respect shared by both parties for their association to be considered honorable. The only dishonor or stigma attached to such a relationship was a male of some standing playing a passive role, although criticism of other sexual positions has not been confirmed. Julius Caesar (l. 100-44 BCE) famously engaged in same-sex relationships, and attempts were made to disparage his character for assuming the passive role in sex. Among the most famous committed same-sex relationships in Rome was that between the Roman emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) and his young lover Antinous (l. c. 110-130 CE), but there are many others recorded and, no doubt, many more among people no historian ever cared to write about.


Gender Identification in Other Ancient Cultures


These same paradigms existed in virtually every other culture in the ancient world. In Thailand, a third gender, known as the Kathoey (“lady boys”) have been recognized since the 14th century CE, although they almost certainly existed previously.


Native American tribes recognized a third gender known in the present day as a Two-Spirit who was both male and female. Sadly, the ancient term for this gender has been lost. The Two-Spirit was greatly valued by the community and, as with the adherents of Inanna and Cybele, were thought to have been transformed from male to female by the gods. A boy who embarked on the vision quest rite of passage to manhood would be visited by a deity and shown who he truly was and, if chosen as a Two-Spirit, would return to his community and begin dressing as a woman and performing work associated with the female members of the tribe.


The concept of a third gender also existed in Africa. Those people that are marginalized today, used to be equal members of society in the past, participating in tribal life and even getting married.


The first change in this paradigm came with the rise of Christianity and its intolerance of other faiths and earlier practices. Once it was embraced by the Roman Empire after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and its precepts were understood as ultimate truth, there was no room for consideration of other, alternate narratives.


The Bible itself, however, does not condemn same-sex relationships and has nothing to say on third genders at all. One of the most commonly cited lines condemning LGBTQ+ individuals in the present day is Leviticus 18:22 – “Thou shalt not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination” – which is only articulating the same position many ancient cultures took regarding a man “playing the part of a woman” in sex; it has nothing to do with a same-sex relationship.


Same-sex relations in all of the above cultures were negatively impacted at first by Christianity and Christian missionaries before that same kind of religious intolerance was spread by Islam and even faiths such as Buddhism, which, as noted, initially encouraged same-sex relationships. This kind of intolerance is born of and fed by ignorance and fear which is perpetuated by societies and communities trying to preserve what they see as “traditional values” without understanding that among the most basic of such values is love and respect for other people.


Spencer comments: “Sexuality exists in all its depth and complexity regardless of how society tries to control or guide it. Some would say it is the greatest force within us and perhaps this is why we show such fear of it, continuing to subjugate and tame it, often when there is no need. “Uncontrolled sex” is linked in our minds to barbarism, to the decay of the fabric of civilization, perhaps to our own evolution. Perhaps this is why for so many centuries society has reserved its greatest moral censure for unorthodox sexual behavior. What a different history we might have had if “morals” had been exclusively concerned with how humane and tolerant a society was, instead of being obsessed with how we have an orgasm.”


The LGBTQ+ community remained marginalized for almost 2,000 years until the latter part of the 20th century when individuals began asserting their right to live as freely with their own sexual identification as anyone else. With the Stonewall Riots of 1969 people stood up for their rights in a way that left a permanent mark in the history. The example of the freedom fighters at the Stonewall Inn inspired others around the world to emulate them in demanding an acceptance from the modern world which was freely given by the ancients.


Source: World History Encyclopedia

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