Changing attitudes

Attitudes to same-sex desire and gender identity have always been varied.

Looking through possible historical evidence, different contexts clearly have different rules in different cultures. Works of art, for example, will give us a rather different view of the world from legal codes of the same period.

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A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the world by Richard B. Parkinson is published by the British Museum Press.
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The changing faces of Ganymede

As Christianity spread through late antique Europe, images from classical culture continued to be produced, although beliefs had changed. This twelfth century bowl has pagan mythological scenes, and one shows Jove as an eagle carrying off the young man Ganymede. To the right of this, Ganymede is shown acting as cupbearer to Jove and his wife in heaven.

These scenes of the myth of Ganymede are very different from Roman versions, and embody the attitudes of the new religion towards human sexuality. Here Ganymede is fully clothed and looks rather unhappy as he is grabbed by the eagle

In classical art, he is usually a sensuously naked youth who looks fully aware of the erotic aspects of Jove’s intentions, as in this Roman statue from the second century BC where he looks affectionately at the god’s eagle.

Executing sodomites


Broadside on the persecution of sodomy, Amsterdam, 1730 


Same-sex desire was actively persecuted throughout Christian Europe for many centuries. It was considered to be ‘against nature’.

The term ‘sodomy’ was derived from the Biblical story of god’s destruction by fire of the impious town of Sodom, and it covered many practises often deemed irregular and unnatural (including simply masturbation). It could carry the death penalty in some parts of Middle Age Europe.

In 1730, 75 men were executed in the Netherlands because of their sexuality and it is estimated that up to a thousand trials were held there in the following 80 years. In this broadside print there are six scenes showing sodomites being persecuted and executed in Amsterdam in front of the town Hall. Over two and a half centuries later, in 2001 the first same-sex marriage took place in the same city hall.

An Englishman abroad

Persecution in Europe affected many establishment figures. In nineteenth century England, sodomy remained a capital offence and one individual whose life was wrecked was the British dilettante, antiquarian, MP and close friend of Lord Byron, William John Bankes (1786–1855).

In this letter of 1818, the English polymath Thomas Young (1773–1829) writes to the father of Bankes asking it to be forwarded to his son who was travelling in Egypt. Young asks the gentleman traveller to look out for the missing fragments of the Rosetta Stone. In 1815 Bankes discovered an obelisk which later played a significant role in the decipherment of hieroglyphs.

In 1833 he was tried for soliciting a guardsman for sex in a public toilet. He was acquitted but retired from public life. Then, 11 years later, he was committed for trial for indecency with another soldier in Green Park: ‘against the order of nature to commit … the detestable and abominable crime of Buggery’. He fled into exile to avoid trial, and died in Venice in 1855.

Desire in the museum

Sculpture from the Parthenon

Figure of Dionysos, Greece, 438-432 BC 

For many people in modern Europe, ancient Greece offered images of a world where same-sex desire (‘Greek love’) was not considered abnormal or unnatural. Museums full of Classical statuary let people view the naked human form in a respectable way, and let men look at naked men. One male visitor to a museum at this period recorded that ‘I revelled in the sight of pictures and statues of male form and could not keep from kissing [them]’.

Mediterranean cultures offered a sense of freedom for the great English novelist E. M. Forster (1879–1970). His own sexuality informed all his works, but was embodied most openly in his novel Maurice, which was finished in 1914 but which remained unpublished until after his death. The novel tells of the growing self-awareness of a Cambridge graduate who eventually finds love with a gamekeeper, and the turning point takes place in the galleries of the British Museum. Here the two men quarrel and reach an understanding of love, as rough trade turns into romance and an enduring relationship. The novel was filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions in 1987.

C. P. Cavafy and David Hockney

The great Greek poet C. P. Cavafy lived and wrote in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. His verse often evoked the world of the Hellenistic Mediterranean with vivid recreations of ancient Alexandria, including erotic desire between men in both modern and ancient settings. Cavafy was one of the earliest modern authors to write openly about same-sex love.

This print is by artist David Hockney (born 1937) and shows two men lying in bed. It is an illustration for a poem by Greek poet C. P. Cavafy (1863–1933), called In the Dull Village. Another poem in this series, entitled 'Two Boys Aged 23 and 24' includes the lines:

'And once they’d run out of expensive drinks,
And since, by then, it was nearing four o’clock,
They abandoned themselves blissfully to love.'
(translated by Evangelos Sachperoglou)

The print was made in an age of liberal attitudes, when such desire could again be celebrated.

LGBT History Month badge

LGBT History Month badge

Badge for LGBT History Month, London, UK, 2009 

Western society in the mid-twentieth century was increasingly homophobic, but political activism tried to combat various forms of social oppression. In many countries gay liberation movements fought - and continue to fight - against discrimination and prejudice. In the academic world, studies on gay history and gender studies have risen in importance.

Law reform decriminalised ‘homosexual’ acts in private in Britain in 1967, following the recommendations of a government committee in 1957 which was chaired by Lord Wolfenden - who was later a director the British Museum (1969–73). Full equal rights are still not yet achieved.

LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) History Month takes place in the UK every year in February and celebrates the lives and achievements of the LGBT community. This badge was donated to the British Museum in 2009.