Ugh, women. They can be real witches sometimes, am I right?
I can just picture William Stoughton, the Chief Justice of the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer [aka where they prosecuted “witches” during the Salem Witch Trials], expressing this sentiment to his all male colleagues in the late 1600s.
Between February, 1692 and May, 1693, around 200 women and men were accused of practicing witchcraft. Instigated predominately by the strange behavior of Elizabeth “Betty” Parris, 9, Abigail Williams, 11, and Ann Putnam Jr., 11, intense paranoia seized the Massachusetts Bay Colony for 15 months. While only 20 people were actually put to death, 19 by hanging and 1 by crushing, the ramifications of the Salem witch trials completely transformed the village.
And internalized homophobia may have been a cause.
In the United States, Memorial Day is a time to remember all those who have died in service to our country. Social media will likely flood with images of widows and widowers mourning at grave sites, videos of soldiers reuniting with loved ones at airports and stories about selfless acts of valor. This somber, commemorative day is intended to evoke a deep sense of patriotism in all Americans.
But what’s missing from this picture? Would stories about military personnel mourning, rejoicing or sacrificing elicit the same sense of pride if the soldiers were members of the LGBT community? Unfortunately, the military has a long, complicated history with mistreating queer people.
Until President Obama repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011, being gay was grounds for termination from the military. This makes it nearly impossible to determine how many queer people made the ultimate sacrifice for our safety. But, being allies and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, we have an obligation to remember these unsung heroes with vigor equal to that of their straight and cisgendered counterparts. This blog post is an attempt to highlight the service of these queer voices and depict the hardships they faced throughout history.
Sergeant Leonard Matlovich famously contested the armed forces’ discriminatory policies against queer people in 1975. Matlovich, who had served for 12 years in the Air Force, was a highly respected member of the military. He had received a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and shrapnel wounds during the Vietnam War. Simply put, Matlovich was an exemplary member of the military. However, when he chose to disclose his sexuality to his superiors, Matlovich was immediately discharged.
In September of 1975, his story made the cover of TIME magazine and prompted outrage in both proponents and opponent of gay rights. Some called him “a disgrace to the uniform of an honorable service” while others supported his bravery in challenging an outdated system. Tragically, Matlovich died of AIDS in 1988 but used his tombstone as a poignant and permanent reminder of the prejudice he endured. It reads: “A Gay Vietnam Veteran… when I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
Despite the severe repercussions of homosexual activity, some members of the military still risked their lives to have profound relationships with members of the same sex. In 1939, Gordon Bowsher and Gilbert Bradley did exactly that. Before he joined the British Army, Bradley was already in love with Bowsher.
In fact, the two men were so enamored with each other that they exchanged hundreds of romantic letters throughout the war that were only recently discovered. Bowsher and Bradley risked imprisonment and death just to write about their desire for one another and fantasies for their future together. Unlike their heterosexual counterparts who could proudly discuss their sweethearts back home, these men were forced to hide their affection. The hopeful, albeit melancholic, tone of these letters is best summarized in the line: “wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our letters could be published in the future in a more enlightened time? Then all the world could see how in love we are.”
In discussing these letters, Peter Roscoe, a gay rights activist, explains that they serve as an important reminder that “there is a gay history and it isn’t always negative and tearful…despite all the awful circumstances, gay men and lesbians managed to rise above it all.”
Two decades after Gordon Bowsher and Gilbert Bradley penned these letters, Fannie Mae Clackum became the first person to successfully challenge her discharge on the grounds of homosexuality from the U.S military. During the late 1940s and early 1950s Fannie served as a US Air Force Reservist and developed a close relationship with fellow Air Force Reservist, Grace Garner. Due to the pair’s intimate relationship, they were suspected of homosexual activity. In an attempt to prove these suspicions, the Air Force arranged for Fannie, Grace and a fellow solider to stay overnight in a motel together. In a cruel act of deception, the fellow solider served as an informant for the Air Force. Shortly after their motel stay, and despite Fannie’s and Grace’s denial of anything romantic occurring, the two women were dishonorably discharged from the Air Force.
Once discharged, Fannie and Grace moved in together, under the pretense of better fighting their dismissal. After eight years of court hearings, the pair finally prevailed in 1960 and the Air Force invalidated their discharges. Both women were awarded back pay for the remainder of their enlistment periods. [It’s important to note that both women denied having a sexual relationship but, considering that they lived together and had a very close relationship, it’s highly likely they were closeted.]
An article written prior to the establishment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” examined the role of allowing lesbians to serve in the military. The article cited a 1984 study in the Journal of Homosexuality that found gay women were “significantly more likely to have served in the military than heterosexual women” and referenced research that estimated 25% of all woman in the armed forces were gay. Unfortunately, this presumed prevalence of lesbians in the military made all women easy targets for discharge and dismissal.
We all know that Jesus Christ, the son of God, hung out with multitudes of men, spent nearly all his time with “sinners” and had an affinity for rainbows. But was Jesus Christ a member of the LGBTQIA+ community?
According to several theologians, the answer is a resounding yes.
Dr. Reverend Bob Shore-Goss, openly gay pastor and author of Queering Christ, argues that Jesus’ rejection of gender codes alone is proof of his queerness. He claims that since there was no term for homosexuality in ancient times, the fact that Jesus did not ascribe to the rules of his culture implies a subversion of heteronormativity.
In addition, Shore-Goss believes that Jesus had a homoerotic relationship with the disciple he called “beloved.” [While this disciple is never named, it’s widely believed to be John.] In an interview with Vice, Shore-Goss elaborates on his theory by describing a particularly personal exchange between the two men just before Jesus’ death.
(Jesus laying half naked with another man at dinner seems pretty gay to me, but what do others think?)
Theologian Theodore Jennings, author of The Man Jesus Loved, also agrees that Jesus indisputably had relations with men as evidenced by the intimate biblical descriptions of the John. Aside from Lazarus, John is the only one ever referred to as “beloved” by Jesus. (Not too many platonic friends call each other beloved).
Gerard Loughlin, a queer theologian and religious scholar, takes Jesus and John’s relationship even one step further in his book Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body. He argues that Jesus and John were married and the famous parable, the Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2:1-11), is actually about their gay wedding. (Now wouldn’t that be quite the twist for the religious conservatives? They’d all have to end their marriages, repent and become gay themselves!)
In fact, the wide spread belief of Jesus and John’s queerness is well documented in surviving art from that time period.
In The Calling of St. John (12th century), the artist depicts two scenes: Christ coaxing John away from his female bride and John resting his head upon Jesus’ chest. Jesus, in turn, cups the chin of his “beloved” which, in artistic convention, is used to indicate romantic intimacy. The Latin reads: “Get up, leave the breast of your bride, and rest on the breast of the Lord Jesus.”
But that’s not the only artistic display of Jesus and John’s affection for each other.
We’ve all heard the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet but did you know that a queer love story was just as popular in archaic Greece?
I’m talking about the love affair between Patroclus and Achilles, whose friendship was established in Homer’s epic poem the “Iliad” but was immortalized as a homoerotic relationship by the ancient playwright, Aeschylus. Only fragments from Aeschylus’ once massively popular tragedy survive but his portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is indisputably romantic. In his three-part series titled, “Achilleis,” Aeschylus wrote about the life and love of Greek mythological hero, Achilles.
For those of you unfamiliar with Homer’s “Iliad”, Achilles was prophesized to either die a hero in battle or live a long, uneventful life. Ultimately, Achilles decides to become a soldier and fights in the Trojan War with his best friend, Patroclus. Sadly, Patroclus is slain by Trojan Prince, Hector, and Achilles goes wild with grief. He beats his chest, smudges ashes on his head and acts like a recent widow. Motivated by sadness and, despite being warned that pursuing vengeance will result in his own death, Achilles murders Hector.
In “Myrmindons”, the first installment of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship differs from the “Iliad” because it’s made to be explicitly sexual.
An example of this blatant eroticism can be seen after Achilles finds Patroclus’ body stripped naked on the battlefield by the Trojans. Achilles laments his dead lover by saying, “Had you no reverence for the unsullied holiness of your thighs/ Ungrateful for the many kisses I gave you?” (Can’t get much gayer than that).
It’s important to understand that these plays of Aeschylus were so popular that the content was considered common knowledge even a hundred years later. To put that in context, the Great Gatsby was published just under a hundred years ago and most people in modern society are aware of the book’s plot. In fact, Aeschylus’ rendition and interpretation of Homer’s epic poem was nearly universally accepted or recognized in ancient Greece.
When I was 23-years-old I handed my mother a 13-page coming out letter. This letter read like a dissertation and I’m honestly shocked I didn’t include citations or a bibliography. It was structured linearly and I proceeded to argue my case for being a lesbian. I’m talking biblical references, well-developed ethical arguments (with counter-points and rebuttals), appeals to ethos, pathos and logos AND academic quotes. [Is it obvious I had just completed my first argument course?]
Needless to say, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (diagnosed) and an insatiable desire to learn.
Prior to coming out, this led me on a quest to consume as much information about homosexuality as humanly possible. I would like to share this information in case another could benefit from my extensive research when coming out to his/her/ their family.
I found a historical understanding of homosexuality to be especially important when conversing with people who claim it is “unnatural” or the byproduct of a liberal agenda.
Here are some facts about homosexual activity (the Greeks did not have a word for homosexuality as we understand it today) in parts of ancient Greece.
Pederasty was an important part of Greek culture where an older man (erastes) would teach a younger, most likely teenaged, man (the eromenos) all about politics, war, sex and essentials to becoming an ideal citizen
Homosexual activity is extremely common among the Olympian male gods
In fact, all primary male gods on Olympus had homosexual relationships attributed to them with the exception of Ares (the god of war)
Socrates, Plato and Xenophon spoke or wrote about the power of love between men (albeit denying physical expression of this love)
Stoics, or people who ascribe to self-control as a means of overcoming emotions, such as Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus lauded boy love
Phidias’s love for Pantarces was memorialized in marble.
In Plato’s Symposium, the character Phaedrus praises the “male eros.”
“For I know not any greater blessing to a young man who is beginning life than a virtuous lover, or to a lover than a beloved youth. For the principle that ought to be the guide of men who would nobly live—that principle, I say, neither kindred, nor honor, nor wealth, nor any other motive is able to implant so well as love.”