Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2005

Homosexuality and Civilization, by Louis Crompton

reviewed by Richard Dey

Belknap Press is to the US as Clarendon Press is to the UK, even though Harvard is the Cambridge rather than the Oxford of America. I have found one error in this book: an Orientalism spelled two different ways, which I have deplored and allowed. The production is impeccable, and the text perfected. Homosexuality and Civilization is the magnum opus of Louis Crompton, the Bentham and Byron scholar, historian emeritus of the University of Nebraska, where long Midwestern winters and a majoral bovine population allow for snowbound study and sparkling reflection.

Lest one presume, thus, that Crompton is a bumpkin, let it be known that he has travelled for many decades in the most erudite of essentialist circles, bravely standing up to constructionists, deconstructionists, pseudo-psychohistorians, postmodernists, post-postmodernists – and other nonessentialists – for decades, risking life, limb and liberty to insist that homosexuals by any other name, as Gertrude Stein might have noted, have always existed.

He has contributed to W. Dorr Legg’s One Institute, now at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, to the Jim Kepner library there (dating from 1944), to the essentialist (and essential) Encyclopedia of Homosexuality of 1990 edited by Wayne R. Dynes, William A. Percy III and the late Warren Johansson – all essential essentialists in homophilics, and has been published in all the best homophilics and historical journals. Crompton’s credentials could be tossed aside, however, with Homosexuality and Civilization, for he stands monumentalised by it.

Crompton does not view homophilia as resultive, as some failure of civilisation, but, rather, as a causative agent. Nor does he make light of such an assertion for, as his text explicates, he is fully aware of the historical ridicule heaped upon homosexuals in history, their extirpation by homophobes throughout history, and their attempted vaporisation by vapid anti-essentialists in our own times. He is an expert on the Spanish Inquisition.

One expected from Crompton a very grand panoply of essential homosexuals, and he gives a Sistine Chapel ceiling of them; one even expected from Crompton an explanation of why homosexuals have been essential to civilisation, but in his litany of great gay thinkers and doers he tends to veil homophilic hubris. He is not here to beatify but to place his saints upon a hellish backdrop of historical homophobia. Nowhere do the moralising Abrahamic religions get a chance to squirm before Crompton as Inquisitor General; his rhetoric comes naturally, allowing him to pay attention to the peripherals of his argument.

As all gay historians know, homophilics has been divided for nearly two generations between “constructionists” and “deconstructionists”, who decry homosexuality as a “modern” invention (1868 and thereafter), and those who hold that there is an essential difference between “gay” and “straight” and that these differences are universal in time and ubiquitous in all populations. In short, homophilia is not a construct of varying degrees of homophobia but homophilia is an innate, gay, cultural phenomenon regardless of the degrees of homophobia raised against gay people themselves. Carefully, by name, Crompton takes on Michel Foucault (who suggested that homosexuality was a social construct – just like himself!) and wonders why it was that humanism and the Enlightenment were so largely homophilic enterprises; dropping lorryloads of case histories, Crompton takes on Jeb Bosworth (the Yale apologist who tried to whitewash the Church’s role in mass homophobic murder).

If the reader is aware of the huge battle for Gay History behind the scenes, he/she will find Crompton the master of a field that until this work was only a projected showdown between the scientifically artful and the artfully scientific. Here the essentialists win, feet down – and the deconstructionists lose, standing on their heads. Behind Crompton’s genteel, humanist expressionism is a hard-nosed scholar who expects and gives concision.

No-one, not even essentialists, will deny that mobs can create minorities, but that is not the essential or the essentialist point. The essentialist holds that homosexuals, more so than heterosexuals, are individuals because they wake up in a hostile heterosexist environment. If not this, what? the homosexual asks his four-year-old self. Essentialists allow homophilic responses to homophobia – but do not allow homophobes to draw the basic gay picture. That is a gay right. That is the gift of the gay heritage: to be oneself, to make oneself.

Homosexuality and Civilization is as elegant an argument for gay history in our schools as has yet been set forth. What is gay does not belong to the public but belongs to gay children, and it is the obligation of the gay child to put it in the public pot marked “gift of the gay people”. One would have thought this a common courtesy; instead we have millennia of theft and persecution. It’s not easy for a homosexual to live up to homophobic expectations, after all. The Church, if confused about its modus vivendi, was not ignorant of its modus operandi. When the homophobic church-state burned Duquesnoy at the stake in Brussels, it was not about to destroy his valuable sculpture: the church, then the state, confiscated gay property when it condemned a homosexual to death. Indeed, we find that greed and avarice played a mortal role in the Christian persecution of homosexuals – and has left an ineradicable stain on its vestments for eternity.

Only a handful of times does Crompton allow that the Abrahamic religions have done well by homosexuals in history. Now, he suggests – ignoring the beheading of homosexuals in Islamic countries – Christianity is finding its conscience and leaving most of its irrational hatred behind. He is not disingenuous, but he says, “About the future one may be modestly hopeful, though the controversy will doubtless be long and impassioned. But scholarship has now brought to light the long sad record of oppression and abuse, and men and women who call themselves Christian can no longer plead ignorance or avoid the burden of a deplorable, long-obscured past.” Indeed they cannot – nor should homosexuals allow them to forget what their ancestors did.

Crompton does not deal with Gilgamesh but begins with the Greeks, from the founding of the Olympics of Heracles in 776 BCE, using the homophobic founding of Judaism as an unfortunate interlude. His chronology is right – and often reversed by lesser scholars. His comprehension of the classics is exemplary. He is also fully aware that the Roman Empire, founded largely by homosexuals, was not destroyed by homosexuals but, rather, by destroying homosexuals – shutting down the Greek academies and the Olympic Games and instituting capital punishment for sodomy. Rome fell on the Christian watch, and, as his chapter describes it, “Darkness Descends”.

His depiction of the Dark Ages and the Inquisition (with lots of original research) is condensed with galaxies of material into a black hole. His comprehension of why homosexuals held the keys to unlock this explosive enigma – and how they created the Renaissance – will amaze the reader who looks upon homosexuals as a “helpless, put-upon minority” invented by a German-Hungarian publicist in 1868! He might have written a book on the Florentine Academy alone. Crompton even manages to incorporate in his homophilic essentialist view both China and Japan – whose gay research is burgeoning.

This might well be the first major exposé of gay history that takes the Abrahamic religions to task for homophobia that Christian homophobes might feel obliged to read. It is the ultimate statement of homophilica to date – and a rip-roaring condemnation of Abrahamic homophobia. It reminds one of the gay lines, “The sins which Jesus fought in vain / were carried onwards in his name”.

The bibliography compares with the work of his associates Wayne R. Dynes and Vern Bullough; his exegeses are immaculate; his index is faultless. But be not daunted. Homosexuality and Civilization is copiously, colourfully – and cleverly – illustrated.

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Created : Sunday, 2005-06-05 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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