Homosexuality, Intolerance, and Christianity

A Critical Examination of John Boswell’s Work

Preface (2003)

by John Lauritsen

Image of leaflet advertising the September 1980 forum ‘Sex and the Medieval Church’
Leaflet advertising the 1980 forum

Now it is 2003, nearly a quarter of a century since our forum on Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Two of the four persons in the debate are no longer with us: John Boswell died in 1994, aged 47, from “complications of AIDS”; Warren Johansson died in the same year, aged 60, from cancer. The issues, however, are still alive. Many gay Christians still fervently wish to deny, in Boswell’s words, that “religious belief — Christian or other — has been the cause of intolerance in regard to gay people.”

The Supreme Court of the United States has recently struck down the nation’s sodomy statutes, on grounds that could have been stronger. Conspicuously lacking, both from the Court’s decision and from the amicus curiae brief filed by “gay scholars”, is the strongest argument of all: the United States Constitution forbids the “establishment of religion”, yet the condemnation of sex between males, as codified in sodomy statutes, stems from a particular theological tradition — from taboos formulated 2,500 years ago by the Levites, the priestly class in Judaea, as part of their Holiness Code. The Levitical taboo on all-male sex came to be shared by all three “religions of the Book”, and has ramified over much of the world — but, no such categorical condemnation was present in ancient Greece or Rome, where the foundations of Western Civilization were erected; nor was there any equivalent of the Levitical taboo among the peoples of Asia or pre-Columbian America.

The 14 September 1980 forum on Boswell’s book, sponsored by the New York chapter of the Gay Academic Union, was well attended. Prominent gay scholars and activists were there, most of whom had expected something less critical. A group of women left noisily during the first talk, as Warren Johansson was just beginning to discuss the Coptic text of a Pauline passage. During the discussion period a number of people denounced us, not for being wrong, but for being mean, envious, hypercritical, and so on. One gay historian chided us as though we were children: “Don’t you see?” he said, “If we take your approach, nobody will listen to us. We can’t win people over by attacking Christianity.” We were later accused of having conducted an inquisition, convicting poor Boswell of heresy. Some gay activists felt we should be ostracized as traitors, for having sabotaged their goal, to promote John Boswell as a gay hero. On the other hand, we were supported by serious scholars, as well as by activists from the older, “homophile” generation.

In the following years Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality became a best seller, and Boswell was much in demand as a speaker, earning four-figure honoraria. At Yale he was promoted to full professor, and then to Chair of the History Department. His next book, dealing with the treatment of foundlings, was The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (1988). His final book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (1994), concerned rituals which might be construed as gay marriages, or then again, merely as partnerships. It was not well received by critics, and has pretty much faded into obscurity.

As each of us made clear in his talk, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality was a major, if flawed, contribution to gay scholarship. Although Boswell was both deluded and deluding with regard to religion, he had sound judgment in other areas: for example, his understanding of male love in Classical Antiquity is far superior to that of classicists Kenneth Dover or David Halperin. Boswell was a traditional scholar, who had no sympathy with the fads and foibles of Academia; in later writings he provided an incisive critique of once-trendy “social construction theory”.

In person Boswell had a winsome personality and boyish good looks, blonde-haired and blue-eyed. On the one occasion I engaged him in conversation (in the kitchen of a Columbia professor), he was charming, playful, and seductive, and I almost felt like a brute for having criticized his scholarship. He was then in his forties, and looked scarcely half that age. Sadly, he had only a few more years to live.

In 1981 Wayne Dynes, Warren Johansson and I published our talks as a pamphlet, and we immediately sent a copy to Boswell. By return mail we received a note, which graciously thanked us, but made no reply whatever to our criticisms. Not once in the ensuing dozen years did Boswell ever respond to a single criticism, except in ad hominem terms (for example, implying that we, his critics, were doctrinaire leftists).

It’s too bad that we had to be unkind to Boswell, but scholars are supposed to tell the truth and respond to criticism. The gay liberation movement does not need to falsify history.

URI of this page : http://www.pinktriangle.org.uk/lib/hic/preface_2003.html
Created : Sunday, 2003-09-21 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys : webster@pinktriangle.org.uk