Writing Ourselves Back Into History

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.

7 thoughts on “Writing Ourselves Back Into History

  1. Uh huh, I had never thought of gay Vikings… and I dunno about the “decadent” Greece comment LOL but there’s many instances of homosexuality in Chinese and Japanese literature and ancient culture. There’s the story of the Cut Sleeve where the Emperor, who had a male lover, was resting with his lover in his arms and instead of disturbing him when he had to wake up, he cut his sleeve to let him rest on it.

    And apparently it was pretty common for Japanese males to “adopt” younger men into their family registry and have relationships with them.

    It wasn’t until the West went there and tried to teach them “western” culture that homosexuality became wrong or taboo in the region.

  2. Oh, absolutely! I’m fascinated by feudal Japan and I’ve been working on an adaptation of one of the gay samurai tales of Ihara Saikaku. I did have to decrease the age difference, though, and make the boy eighteen, in order for it to be palatable for modern readers.

  3. Also, I wasn’t really saying that I think Ancient Greece was decadent. Just that some people think so, because of the same older men “adopting” younger men that existed in feudal Japan and elsewhere.

    • Oh, I know. The perception of decadent Greece because of this issue is crazy by some other people. xD In any case, I would be looking forward to the adaptation of the samurai tale!

  4. Hi James,

    I studied history in college and have been drooling over your book. The study of gender roles and sexuality is a relatively new field of study in history and I’m so glad that you not only covered the experience of living in one of my favorite periods but covered being a gay teen in a time when it had no real definition. 🙂

    I’m devouring this currently and looking forward to more. Best of luck with your writing.


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