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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

International Social Science Review: Fone, Byrne. Homophobia: a History.(Book Review)

Byrne Fone's Homophobia: a History

Reviewed by Edward Jay Mills, III

© 2003 Pi Gamma Mu
© 2004 Gale Group. Used with permission.

New York: Picador USA, A Metropolitan Book, Henry Holt and Company, 2000. 421 pp. Cloth, $32.50; Paper, $17.00.

Byrne Fone has written a tour de force, documenting the consistent, unrelenting animus of Western culture toward gay and lesbian people since late Antiquity. It has been and often remains, as the author amply documents, "a panic close to madness" (the title of Chapter 21). Homophobia is divided into eight parts, each containing several chapters. These parts follow an introduction that is, in itself, a "must read." Each part follows the former chronologically, beginning with Antiquity and ending in the modern age in his epilogue. Fone clearly has an agenda--a plea for an end of Western homophobia--but Homophobia is good history writing in the making of that plea.

Beginning in Antiquity, Fone amply documents the acceptance of--even preference for--same-sex genital relationships: first in Greece, and later, to a lesser degree, in Rome. He documents the accepted practice of paiderastia (a mentor relationship between an older man and a younger sexually adult male--not to be confused with modern pedaphilia) that "implied a relationship that combined the roles of teacher and student with those of lover and beloved, and ... carried the expectation of sex between the two" (p. 19). He also studies many culturally esteemed and long-lasting relationships between famous gay men (i.e., Socrates and Alcibiades), and, to a lesser extent, lesbians (Sappho, for example).

Fone is very articulate and historically accurate in pointing out that the taboos--cultural and legal--that did exist in Antiquity were issues of class and status and also reflected the misogyny of Greek and Roman culture. These taboos had nothing to do with the object of desire, whether for the same or the opposite sex, as homosexuality is defined today. A male citizen could desire another man and love him sexually, generally without censure. What was culturally unacceptable was to force sex upon a minor child of a citizen or another adult male citizen (slaves were fair game), to function as a prostitute, or to consistently desire to be "penetrated" in sexual intercourse (and thus act as a woman). The central issue at hand was to remain on the top of the class structure as a male citizen. In fact, because of this, lesbian history all but disappears from Antiquity because lesbians were women, and thus generally of little interest to ancient writers.

Fone then examines the beginning of the end of this cultural world that also dovetailed with the rise of Christian Rome and its negative views of sexuality--particularly homosexuality. He points out that by the end of Antiquity the foundation of the rest of Western history's homophobia bad been poured. That foundation was the caricature of "the (primarily male) homosexual monster" who was a ravenous predator upon children, an offense against the deity and nature, sexually passive (thus unmanly), insatiably promiscuous, and effeminate. In time, this distortion (itself a distortion of the class- and status-based disapproval of some homosexual acts in Antiquity) was embraced by the Church and used by it to justify the worst sorts of persecution of gay and lesbian people.

Fone then documents how little the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, if translated and interpreted accurately, have to say about homosexuality--or, more properly, homosexuality as defined in the modern age. Perhaps Fone's best work in this regard is found in Part Two/Chapter Five where he demonstrates that there is no known "homosexual" interpretation of the Genesis Chapter 19 story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah until the first century of the Christian era (in both The Second Book of Enoch and the works of Philo). By the time the reader is finished reading Part Two, he/she clearly understands how the Church erroneously came to believe that its Bible forbade sodomy (the term of the era) and came to view sodomites (again, the term of the era) as enemies of God and the social order.

For the rest of Western history, as Fone demonstrates in great detail, sodomites would be feared and viewed as vermin and destroyers of all that is good: the social order, family life, masculinity, and femininity. In fact, anyone who ran afoul of the Church, and later the State, was almost always accused of this villainy. If one was a Jew, for example, he was assumed to be both an enemy of God and a sodomite worthy only of death. If one was a heretic, or a Templar, or a Moslem, one was assumed to be an enemy of God and a sodomite worthy of the same fate. The same accusations appear in almost all of the European descriptions of the native peoples of the Americas beginning in the fifteenth century. They, too, shared the fate of all other "sodomites" because of their "depravity." The reproduction of de Bry's c. 1590 "Balboa Feeding Indian Sodomites to the Dogs" (p. 316) is grizzly testimony to the fate of native sodomites. This sad recitation continues in Homophobia up to modern times in Fone's epilogue.

This review concentrates on Fone's well-researched and copiously noted history of the roots of Western homophobia in Antiquity and the biblical writings because this is the area of history in which the reviewer has the requisite expertise and languages to check the author's facts. Fone has represented the Greek, Roman, and biblical writers fairly and accurately. It is therefore safe to assume that he does so for the later periods of history. In fact, he has where this reviewer has checked the author's references. Not only is Fone's book well-researched, it is also well written; the author's sense of humor often comes through the text.

The book suffers from two shortcomings, however. First, in his masterful history of homophobia, Fone entirely omits the persecution and murder of homosexuals in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Second, Fone's book focuses almost exclusively on homophobia against gay men. To be sure, he mentions its effect upon lesbians, but this seems always peripheral to his history. Perhaps this reflects the invisibility of women even in modern times. Or, perhaps, it is the sad result of the paucity of the sources in history about lesbians, because, being women, they tended not to be of interest to the male authors of most of Western history.

Edward Jay Mills III

Kingsport, Tenn.

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