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With same-sex marriage now legal throughout the UK and most of the developed nations of the world, including the USA, it might seem that we've never had it so good. But with growing conservatism and previous appointments under the last President to the US Supreme Court, there's now increasing concern that the progress of gay equility could go into reverse in America - in just the same way as it has under the tyranny of the current Russian regime, in EU nations like Poland and Hungary, and many countries in Africa.

OutUK's Adrian Gillan has been getting a historical perspective from Robert Aldrich, Australian gay historian and co-editor of Who's Who in Gay & Lesbian History and finds out what we can all learn about the gay present from our queer past.

OutUK: What's struck you most as you've studied homosexuality through its history?
Robert: The sheer variety of same-sex relationships throughout history is particularly striking: from life-long partnerships to casual encounters, from intimate platonic friendships with no stains on the sheets to steamy liaisons and initiation rites. And LGB history is a way to recover a past that was often hidden, even denied. But it is also a way of gaining a different perspective on more general historical issues.

OutUK: So what insights have you into the root causes of homophobia and why it is some people get so upset about same-sex relations?
Robert: In many societies, pleasure is considered dangerous. So homosexual practices - minus marriage, procreative sex and child-rearing - have been viewed as unacceptably hedonistic and authorities have tried to control it. Homosexuality has also challenged notions of masculinity and femininity in places where religion, medicine, the law and the economy sought to maintain social and gender divisions. And many heterosexuals, including some rabid homophobes, are afraid of the queer within.


Robert's latest book Colonialism and Homosexuality is a thorough investigation of the connections of homosexuality and imperialism from the late 1800s. Robert traces a number of gay affairs involving famous historical figures like Cecil Rhodes, founder of the De Beers diamond mining company who had the British colony of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, named after him. Amazon.

OutUK: What do you think was the most homo-friendly culture in Western history?
Robert: We mustn't idealise periods of the past but perhaps it is the one that has emerged in Europe, North America and Australasia in the last couple of decades. Just think of the mayors or Paris and Berlin, 'Queer as Folk' or the Sydney Mardi Gras. Though homophobia endures, never before have gay people been so protected - in some countries at least - by anti-discriminatory laws. From dark back rooms to the ivory towers of academia, contemporary Western society is remarkably open to gay culture.
OutUK: So what about the most homophobic?
Robert: Being a homosexual in places like Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia was life-threatening. However, some societies are ostensibly homophobic, yet a homosexual life flourishes. McCarthyism in America was an era of grim homophobic repression, but even there, gay men and women created opportunities in bars and bath-houses and set up early gay political organisations and social groups. There may even be a certain frisson of pleasure for practicing homosexuals dodging priests, parents and policemen.

OutUK: How do you think current Western attitudes to homosexuality - particularly in the US, UK & Australia - relate to the past that has shaped them?
Robert: Though it's only in some countries and discrimination and repression hasn't completely gobe, contemporary Western law codes have only recently freed themselves from the centuries-old influence of Judeo-Christian beliefs. Also, contemporary sexual cultures are often embedded in social contexts. Look at the exuberance of gay life here in Australia. Here it is linked to beach culture, to a certain 'larrikin' tradition in Australian history, to the sexual experimentation in Australia's past - in convict prisons or the outback - and to the notion of 'mateship'.

OutUK: Do you think it a blinkered arrogance of modern Western culture to see ourselves as more enlightened on sexuality than past cultures?
Robert: Homosexuality remains illegal in many American states, though the Supreme Court decision may force a change. In Britain there remain vestiges of the attitudes and political policies of the 1980s conservative regime. That said, many non-Western societies do practice extraordinary homophobia: the beheading of homosexuals in Saudi Arabia, the attitudes of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe or the criminalisation of homosexual acts in much of Africa.

And few historians believe in a straight - much less narrow - path of history. Consider Germany. The first homosexual emancipation movement in Europe emerged there in the 1890s, and by the 1920s there was a flourishing gay and lesbian culture in Berlin and other cities. It all came to an end with Hitler in 1933: the sexological institute library was burned, the homosexual movement outlawed and thousands of homosexuals went to concentration camps. This is a reminder of the need for continual vigilance.

OutUK: If you had to choose the four or five most significant homosexual figures in Western history, in terms of their sexuality, who would you chose and why?
Robert: Although I've co-edited a Who's Who in gay and lesbian history with biographies of some one thousand gay and lesbian figures, I cannot isolate a handful. We were not trying to compile a 'best of' listing. Who is and is not important depends on personal perspectives and cultural traditions. Would a man and a woman compile the same list? Would a Spaniard or an Australian? Would a sportsman or a musician? And perhaps we should also think of the countless unknown figures - the 'average' women and men who battled discrimination and disease, who created a life for themselves and their lovers or who expanded and animated gay and lesbian culture.

Robert Aldrich is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney and has written numerous books on gay history. He co-edited two volumes of Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History with Garry Wotherspoon.

You can order books by Robert Aldrich direct from Amazon.

 

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