4 Historical Myths About Homosexuality That People Actually Believed

Sometimes, it feels like there can't be anything more ridiculous than some of modern society's views on homosexuality and gay marriage (it'll lead to polygamy! Climate change! Sex with goats!). But that view, regrettably, is wrong. Beyond the simple view that "homosexuality is a sin/wrong/whatever else," other beliefs, rules, and laws have collected around LGBT society in history that have made life as a gay person everything from needlessly complicated to frankly upsetting. Think about how hard it must have been in ancient Egypt, for instance, where one of its main myths centres on two male gods trying to dominate each other sexually as a sign of dishonour and shame. Not exactly an A+.

Some of the chapters in the history of homosexuality are actually charming. One traditional Chinese term for male homosexuality, roughly translating as "the passion of the cut sleeve" (断袖之癖), comes from the alleged incident where Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty was so keen not to wake up his sleeping male partner, who was asleep on his robe, that he cut off its expensive sleeve instead. But other incidents have been less happy. And even in societies where homosexuality was tolerated or celebrated, it was often only allowed to be performed in really select ways, involving everything from roosters to ritual kidnappings.

In an era where the idea of "conversion therapy" for gay people may finally be seeing its end — Cincinnati will debate today whether to ban it entirely for minors — looking back at the more ridiculous side of our beliefs about homosexuality can be tinged with a little more relief than before. But only a little.

1. That Lesbianism Was Caused By Womb Disorders

Thought your lady-liking ways were innate? Well, the ancient Greek medical establishment agreed with you; but you may not like what they thought was the cause. According to Greek medicine, there were two possible causes of lesbianism: a womb that hadn't emitted enough "seed," or a growth that looked like a penis. Yep. Welcome to your two options.

The first was the theory of famous physician Galen, who thought that both women and men had "seed" that needed to be combined via orgasm to produce a child. Lesbianism, he thought, was one of the symptoms of a woman who hadn't had enough intercourse to express her seed properly (i.e. with a dude), and he recommended that a midwife place hot poultices on the woman's genitals and induce an orgasm to "release" the seed. How a lady massaging your bits was meant to stop lesbianism is anyone's guess.

But it pales in comparison to the other option: a growth that protruded from a woman's vagina after some kind of traumatic experience in her womb, and was apparently used to have sex with other ladies. The Arabic scholar Avicenna labelled it "ragadia of the womb" and nobody dared to suggest a cure. Yeesh.

2. That Gay Lovers Needed To Be Ceremonially Abducted & Live In The Woods

This sounds terrible, but it actually isn't: according to the Roman historian Strabo, the ancient Cretans had a very highly regarded tradition surrounding the process of getting a gay lover. It involved a ceremonial "abduction," a lot of gifts and sacrifices, two months alone in the forest, and the chance to dump somebody in front of all their friends — and participating was seen as a huge honor. Grindr looks kind of tacky in comparison.

Strabo documents this elaborate ritual in detail: the boy being "abducted" by his lover (but not really, because his family all know about it beforehand and were allowed to decide whether the lover was of sufficiently high rank); the lovers living in the woods making sacrifices to Zeus for weeks on end; and then a huge feast, where the boy sacrificed an ox and declared the relationship either valid or invalid. It was considered a key bit of a man's honor to have experienced this ritual, and everybody who went through it was allowed to wear special clothing afterwards.

3. That Gay Courtship Involved Rabbits & Rubbing Up On Each Others' Thighs

The ancient Greek tradition of pederasty, a socially acceptable relationship between a young beautiful boy and an older man, gets a lot of scholarly attention as shocking or deviant. But it wasn't an "anything goes" situation. The relationship between the young eromenos and the older (but not too much older) erastes had to tick a lot of boxes: the two had to be of equal social status, the boy should put up some gentle resistance to the man's attentions, and if he was pursued by a lot of suitors he had to pick the one with the noblest background. Otherwise everybody else would get insulted, obviously.

The tradition was meant to be beneficial for both sides: boys got the wisdom and guidance of an older mentor, and the men were inspired by beauty and innocence. But it was all pretty regulated. Courting a young boy apparently involved gifts of an entire menagerie, from rabbits (pictured) to roosters to cats. And they weren't meant to have penetrative sex; it was all meant to take place between the eromenos's thighs. Oh, and it was all over when the boy grew a beard. Sorry.

4. That Testicle Transplants Could Cure Gayness

In one of the most misinformed pieces of medical experiment in history, Eugen Steinach, an early 20th century Austrian physician, came up with the possibility of curing homosexuality via surgery. Not by castration or anything so drastic: he just proposed translating the testicles of a heterosexual man onto a homosexual one, in the belief that it would "cure" the subject's gayness. Sit and think about that one for a second.

Sigmund Freud showed a lot of interest in Steinach's work, which claimed, amongst other things, to have found "female cells" in the testicles of gay dudes. The first test subject, a young gay man in 1916 who needed his testicles removed because of tuberculosis, was apparently so successfully de-gayed that "in the spring of 1917 he fell in love and got engaged; and in June of that year he got married." Unsurprisingly, the practise fell into disfavour when it was revealed in the 1920s that testicle substitution didn't stop anybody from having a gay old time. (Duh.)

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Image: Palace of Knossos, Mondino Dei Luzzi, Musee du Louvre, Briseis Painter, John Bell/Wikimedia Commons