To the best of my knowledge, my YA novel Seidman is the only book that describes what it might have been like to grow up in the Viking Age, knowing that you feel a strong attraction to another boy. I’m not boasting — I’m merely commenting on the fact that, after twenty years of researching this time period (mostly focusing on Viking Age Iceland), I’ve never come across a novel that explores this subject. If anyone reading this knows of such a book, please feel free to tell me about it in the comments.
This statement can be said about many historical periods and cultures: with the exception of adult gay romance, I haven’t seen many depictions of LGBT men and women, or LGBT youth, in different historical periods. There are some — Dorien Grey’s Calico; Jere’ M. Fishback’s Josef Jaeger — but not nearly enough.
There are people who make a concerted effort to pretend that the LGBT community sprang whole cloth from the 20th-century, as if we simply didn’t exist before before Stonewall. I’ve angered people on discussion groups about Vikings for suggesting that there may have been gay Vikings. I was told that only “decadent” civilizations, such as ancient Greece, would have allowed homosexuals to exist. The Vikings (more properly called “Norse,” since not all of them were Vikings) would never have permitted such a thing!
Except that they had no choice. The idea that any culture, no matter how homophobic or obsessed with “manliness,” could prevent people from being born gay is utterly ludicrous. It’s true that, until people first began being diagnosed as “homsexual” in the mid 1800s, people didn’t tend to think in terms of being gay or lesbian or bisexual or trans. It was more something that a person did or did not do. A man might feel an attraction to another man, or a woman might prefer to learn swordsmanship and wear men’s clothes. If they acted upon those feelings, they could be big trouble. Both of these things were punishable by death in many cultures throughout history. But keep in mind that behavior that we would consider to be “gay” or gender related was more often viewed as “manly” or “unmanly”; “womanly” or “unwomanly” — not specifically “homosexual.” It was about the role you were expected to play. People played the role society had cast them in and remained discontent, unless they found themselves in a situation where they could act on their desires in secret.
But the fact that it was kept secret doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. GLBT men and women have always been here. We didn’t just miraculously appear. Many people want to believe that. They want to believe that, if we suddenly came into being with the advent of “gay rights,” then taking away “gay rights” will make us go away. But that isn’t the case. We are simply lucky enough to live at a time when it’s less dangerous for us to be open about ourselves than it used to be (though obviously we have a long way to go), and that is due to the hard work and suffering of the GLBT men and women who came before us. They existed and their existence should be celebrated. It’s time for us to reclaim all of those centuries that we’ve been expurgated from.
Part of the YAM Magazine 2012 LGBT Blogathon.