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In 1814, just two hundred years ago, the radical philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) began to write on the subject of religion and sex, and thereby produced the first systematic defence of sexual liberty in the history of modern European thought. Bentham’s manuscripts have now been published for the first time in authoritative form. He pointed out that ‘regular’ sexual activity consisted in intercourse between one male and one female, within the confines of marriage, for the procreation of children. He identified the source of the view that only ‘regular’ or ‘natural’ sexual activity was morally acceptable in the Mosaic Law and in the teachings of the self-styled Apostle Paul. ‘Irregular’ sexual activity, on the other hand, had many variations: intercourse between one man and one woman, when neither of them were married, or when one of them was married, or when both of them were married, but not to each other; between two women; between two men; between one man and one woman but using parts of the body that did not lead to procreation; between a human being and an animal of another species; between a human being and an inanimate object; and between a living human and a dead one. In addition, there was the ‘solitary mode of sexual gratification’, and innumerable modes that involved more than two people. Bentham’s point was that, given that sexual gratification was for most people the most intense and the purest of all pleasures and that pleasure was a good thing (the only good thing in his view), and assuming that the activity was consensual, a massive amount of human happiness was being suppressed by preventing people, whether from the sanction of the law, religion, or public opinion, from engaging in such ‘irregular’ activities as suited their taste.
Bentham was writing at a time when homosexuals, those guilty of ‘the crime against nature’, were subject to the death penalty in England, and were in fact being executed at about the rate of two per year, and were vilified and ridiculed in the press and in literature. If an activity did not cause harm, Bentham had argued as early as the 1770s and 1780s, then it should not be subject to legal punishment, and had called for the decriminalization of homosexuality. By the mid-1810s he was prepared to link the problem not only with law, but with religion. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was taken by ‘religionists’, as Bentham called religious believers, to prove that God had issued a universal condemnation of homosexuality. Bentham pointed out that what the Bible story condemned was gang rape. Paul’s injunctions against homosexuality were also taken to be authoritative by the Church. Bentham pointed out that not only did Jesus never condemn homosexuality, but that the Gospels presented evidence that Jesus engaged in sexual activity, and that he had his male lovers — the disciple whom he loved, traditionally said to be John, and the boy, probably a male prostitute, who remained with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after all the disciples had fled (for a more detailed account see ‘Not Paul, but Jesus’).
Bentham was writing after Malthus had in 1798 put forward his argument that population growth would always tend to outstrip food supply, resulting in starvation and death until an equilibrium was restored, whereupon the process would recommence. Bentham had been convinced by Malthus, but Malthus’s solution to the problem, that people should abstain from sex, was not acceptable to him. He pointed out that one advantage of non-procreative sex was that it would not add to the increase of population. Bentham also took up the theme of infanticide. He had considerable sympathy for unmarried mothers who, because of social attitudes, were ostracized and had little choice but to become prostitutes, with the inevitable descent into drink, disease, and premature death. It would be far better, argued Bentham, to destroy the child, rather than the woman. Moreover, it was kinder to kill an infant at birth than allow it to live a life of pain and suffering.
Bentham looked to ancient Greece and Rome, where certain forms of homosexual activity were not only permitted but regarded as normal, as more appropriate models for sexual morality than that which existed in modern Christian Europe. Bentham attacked the notion, still propagated by religious apologists, that homosexuality was ‘unnatural’. All that ‘unnatural’ meant, argued Bentham, was ‘not common’. The fact that something was not common was not a ground for condemning it. Neither was the fact that something was not to your taste. It was a form of tyranny to say that, because you did not like to do a particular thing, you were going to punish another person for doing it. Because you thought something was ‘disgusting’ did not mean that everyone else thought it was disgusting. You might not want to have sex with a sow, but the father of her piglets thought differently.
These writings were, for Bentham, a critical part of a much broader attack on religion and the ‘gloomy terrors’ inspired by the religious mentality. By putting forward the case for sexual liberty, he was undermining religion in one of the areas where, in his view, it was most pernicious. Bentham did not dare publish this material. He believed that his reputation would have been ruined had he done so. He died in 1832. He would have been saddened that it still retains massive relevance in today’s world.
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Image credit: Jeremy Bentham, aged about 80. Frontispiece to Jeremy Bentham, Principles of Legislation, edited by John Neal, Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1830. Public domain
Here’s my question about gay superheroes (and superhero sexuality in general)…
If one reads the old Golden Age stories of Superman or Batman (pre-1960), and assumes the main characters were gay, would it change the stories any?
Were there any overt romantic relationships? The unrequited love quadrilateral of Lois Lane – Superman – Clark Kent – Lana Lang was resolved in a few “imaginary” stories, but did Clark Kent ever date? (There is the “Woman of Kleenex” hypothesis…)
Northstar has been gay since Alpha Flight #1, although editorial dictates prevented this announcement until Alpha Flight #106. (Has Jim Shooter discussed this decision publicly? John Byrne comments over at Byrne Robotics. Some point to the Comics Code, which wasn’t amended until 1989.) Do those stories read differently with this new knowledge? How subtle was the inference?
How many characters are actually in relationships, or have made their orientation known in comics? Has Superboy or Supergirl stated their preference? (Perhaps Kryptonian society has a different system of courtship and gender identity. And pregnancy, as viewed by Superman’s birthing matrix.) Even if a character has stated his/her/shklir preference, could that be a ruse (such as Daken or Power Girl)? Just another secret identity to keep
The great actor Sir Ian McKellen, who is also well-known as a gay activist, was recently quoted in the press as saying that Shakespeare himself was probably gay. Invited to comment on this, I pointed out that there was nothing new in the idea, which for a long time has been frequently expressed especially because some of his sonnets are clearly addressed to a male. Nevertheless none are explicitly homoerotic in the manner of some of his contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe, Richard Barnfield, and Michael Drayton, or for that matter of some modern poets such as W. H. Auden or Thom Gunn.
All those that are clearly addressed to or written about a young man, or “boy,” are among the first 126 to be printed in the 1609 volume. Yet Number 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment ….,” one of the most famous love poems in the language, is frequently read at heterosexual weddings. And other poems in the first part of the sequence – such as Number 27 – could even be love poems addressed to the poet’s wife.
Shakespeare’s most idealized sonnets fall among those that are either clearly addressed to a male, or are non-specific in their addressee. His explicitly sexual sonnets, all concerned with a woman and all among the last 26 to be printed, suggest severe psychological tension in a man who has to acknowledge his heterosexuality but who finds something distasteful about it, at least in its current manifestation. An example is Number 147, which begins:
My love is as a fever, longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’uncertain sickly appetite to please.
None of the poems that celebrate love between the poet (whether we think of him simply as an identity assumed by Shakespeare for professional purposes or as Shakespeare speaking in his own person) and a “lovely boy” is explicitly sexual in the manner of the frankest of the “dark lady” sonnets. But many of these poems would have had, and continue to have, a special appeal to homoerotic readers. They have also met with castigation from homophobic readers for this very reason, as the history of their reception over the centuries makes abundantly clear. And a number of the sonnets addressed to a male are deeply passionate if idealized love poems which one can easily imagine being addressed to a young man with whom the poet was having a physical as well as a spiritual relationship. Consider for example Number 108:
What’s in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what now to register,
That may express my love or my dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet like prayers divine
I must each day say o’er the very same,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love’s fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,
Finding the first conceit of love there bred
Where time and outward form would show
Banned Books Week goes on and today’s booktalk is GEOGRAPHY CLUB by Brent Hartinger. It was successfully banned for its homosexual content in Brent’s own hometown in 2005 – read Brent’s great post about it – and has continued to appear on the most challenged lists. In Brent’s blog post, he quotes a local parent who defended GEOGRAPHY CLUB at the time: “This is the most bogus thing I’ve heard of [...] It is about gay students. However, the most important part of the book is that it’s about bullying, outcasts, about tolerance [...] This is a really good book for any student to read.”
Generously contributing a booktalk today is the eloquent, often provocative, teacher, librarian, and blogger Jonathan Hunt (you can also visit him over at School Library Journal‘s blog Heavy Medal):
When is a Geography Club not a Geography Club? When it’s the front for a Gay-Straight Alliance, of course! Russel Middlebrook believes himself to be the only gay student at his high school, but when he makes an online connection with a job from his school, he begins to realize there may be others, too. Ultimately, seven students will come together to form the Geography Club, offering support to each other through thick and thin. Readers will fall in love with Russell – regardless of sexual orientation – because his voice just rings so true: funny, angsty, yet wise. There’s been an explosion of gay and lesbian young adult fiction in recent years, but this gem remains one of the very best.
Thanks so much, Jonathan! For more information, you can see this interview with Brent, check out Brent’s website (in particular, his information for LGBTQ kids is a wonderful resource), and follow Brent on Twitter.
“Growth of Overt homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern”
-New York Times (headline in 1963)
The world recoiled when the gay community started receiving credit for its influence in fashion and culture, but at least, according to Christopher Reed, they were being acknowledged. In his new book Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas, Reed argues that for some time the professional art world plain ignored the gay presence.
We had the chance to speak with Reed recently at his Williams Club talk, where he laid out the tumultuous relationship between art and activism. Below we present a few of the controversial things we learned.
1.) Art that didn’t get a chance…
During the most formative years of the gay rights movement in the 70s and on through the late 80s, arts publications and professionals, and even museums like the Museum of Modern Art, ignored imagery associated with gay and lesbian identity. Imagery like the graffiti pictured below which emerged in urban areas during the 70s:
Grafitti on “The Rocks,” Lincoln Park, Chicago, mid-1990s.
According to Reed, “These sites of visual history were destroyed with no organized documentation when rising property values prompted local governments to reclaim these areas.”
Is right for people to ban art today? Even if it’s in the imaginary town of Pawnee, Indiana? Reed surprised us with his answer, making us consider that there’s actually a worse kind of censorship. Listen below to hear what he said.
Censorship is an interesting question because there are overt examples of censorship like what just happened with the Hide/Seek show and the David Wojnarowicz piece, where particular politicians make a statement to their constituency by removing something that’s on exhibition. And then the kind of thing that you’re talking about where institutions simply don’t show things or don’t buy things – in the case of libraries – or don’t do things or don’t let particular people in, which often doesn’t read as censorship because people never realize what they could be seeing or could be reading, or could be going on, because the institution has already created a kind of logic in which that kind of thing doesn’t exist.
And so in a lot of ways I actually think that’s the most dangerous kind of censorship because people aren’t aware of it and they can’t make a
Richard Dawkins is the bestselling author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. He’s also a pre-eminent scientist, the first holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and is a fellow of New College, Oxford. Called “Darwin’s Rottweiler” by the media, he is one of the most famous advocates of Darwinian evolution. His most recent book is The Oxford Guide to Modern Science Writing, a collection of the best science writing in the last century.
DORIAN DEVINS: Alan Turing, another British scientist, computer mathematician…
RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes. Alan Turing. Well, one of the fathers of the modern computer. So Turing was, I suppose, the nearest British approach to the father of the modern computer, apart from [Charles] Babbage in the 19th Century. Turing was the leading code-breaker in the Second World War at the Bletchley Park code-breaking establishment, which was phenomenally successful in breaking German codes. The famous Enigma code that the Germans used—the Germans never realized that their Enigma code had been broken. And the result of breaking the Enigma code was that Allied British and American generals would sometimes get German orders more or less at the same time as German generals were getting them. So it was a most extraordinarily valuable contribution to the Allied war effort. However, Turing committed suicide after the war because he was arrested for homosexual activity, and in those days in Britain, homosexual behavior was illegal. And Turing, who should have been given a medal and a knighthood, feted as the savior of his nation, was instead arrested for homosexuality and was given a choice between a two year prison sentence or being given a course of hormone injections which would have had some kind of feminizing effect and would have made him grow breasts. He chose instead to eat an apple that he’d injected with cyanide. One of the most tragic stories in British science. He was a great mathematician, a brilliant mathematician, a brilliant philosopher, and one of his contributions was the Turing Machine. Another one was the Turing Test, the hypothetical test for whether a computer could think; the so-called Turing Test, where you have a human in one room and an entity, which might be a computer and might be another human in another room, communicating by teleprinter. And the task of the real human, the subject, is to discover whether what he’s talking to is a computer or another human. The Turing Test, if the computer passes the Turing Test, what it means is that a human can’t tell the difference between the computer and another human. And the Turing Test you very often find mentioned in philosophical works about the nature of consciousness and machine intelligence.
DEVINS: It’s quite interesting to be able to read something by him, rather than just about him too.
DAWKINS: Yes. He was a real eccentric, a very, very strange man, and as I say, his downfall and his death is one of the most tragic and actually wicked stories that I know.
Garth has more than being short for his age as a problem: his father drowned sailing, and he is gay, but no one knows beside his mom and Lisa, Garth’s best friend. Mom is constantly tired and does not want to deal with Garth coming out, and she is afraid some looney will harm him. Then Uncle Mike, twin brother to his dad shows up to stay for a few weeks. Before Garth knows it he is involved with Mike’s money making scams. Before he knows it, Mike helps him be comfortable with himself. Before he knows it, there is trouble. Congrats to Ryan on his characterization, particularly Garth, Lisa and the dog-loving old lady! This YA novel can be enjoyed on so many levels, and a good discussion: we do trust Mike?
I liked having a NY author share how the sorrow of three teens affected their perceptions of the world and their relationships. Claire, Jasper and Peter's lives intertwine starting at a party the night prior to the twin towers attack on September 11, 2001, and gel a year later. I like the fact that Levithan shows how a traumatic experience of a city and of a nation affects individual lives. My favorite image of the book was the candle re-lighting, never letting a person's light go out.
Can you believe the word “bromance” has now made it into the accepted lexicon through its addition to the New Oxford American Dictionary? I, for one, could not be more tickled. Imagine: men now have their own word that captures our platonic affection for each other. Will “manfriend” be far behind?
To what can we credit this? Men have always had guy friends but, until fairly recently, showing affection physically and verbally toward that guy might brand you as gay. Many years ago – think back to the 19th century and earlier – it was okay for men to share their affection for each other. Sociologist Peter Nardi notes that men would express love to each other in their letters. Abraham Lincoln, before he became president, shared his bed with his good friend, Joshua Speed. These non-sexual relationships, born in Lincoln’s case out of financial necessity and physical warmth on cold Springfield nights, became frowned upon by the late 19th century. With changing women’s roles and with blacks entering the workforce, white men were threatened. They adopted a hyper-sexualized sense of masculinity, according to sociologist Michael Kimmel, which came to exclude the physical and emotional expression of positive feelings towards another man. Freudian psychology further concretized beliefs about “normal” development which did include homosexuality. All of this fit well within the American culture’s sense of “rugged individualism” that obtains to some extent today. Many heterosexual men would not feel comfortable today sharing a bed with another man or going to an intimate French restaurant and opening a bottle of Pinot Noir. Relocate to the sports bar instead. There, men can carry out their shoulder-to-shoulder friendships as they get together with friends to “do something.” Contrast that with women’s face-to-face friendships where they feel more comfortable talking to each other without the distractions of sports.
Given this, it is interesting that the culture has grown within the last few years to allow men the freedom again of expressing their affection for each other. Movies like, “I Love You, Man” starring Paul Rudd have helped. Commercials that joke about men being close with each other also help. To my thinking, anything that allows men (and women) to express themselves more openly is a good thing. If giving a term to close male friendships is what it takes, I am for it because people with friends live longer, healthier lives.
Ben Campbell's life is thrown into turmoil when his dad announces that he is divorcing Ben's mother, and then chooses a boyfriend! Ben is furious that his dad would destroy their family and plots revenge. If he find trouble, he is there. And he brags about it. Make the old man's life miserable. So what does his father do? Plunks him down into population 400 Normal, Montana. Let the games begin. Did I mention Ben arrives with spiked hair? A real hit in a cowboy community. Soon the plot thickens as Ben discovers that even a town of 400 has some secrets.
It is noteworthy when eight ideologically diverse justices of the U.S. Supreme Court all decide a First Amendment case the same way. Thus, Snyder v. Phelps is a noteworthy decision. The Westboro Baptist Church is well-known for its demonstrations at military funerals. Indeed, the Westboro Church, led by (and, some say, principally consisting of) the Phelps family, has the rare distinction of having been denounced by both Jon Stewart and Mike Huckabee.
Members of the Westboro Church demonstrated near the Maryland funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, killed in action in Iraq. Mr. Albert Snyder, the corporal’s father, sued the Westboro Church and its members for various torts including intentional infliction of emotional distress. Mr. Snyder prevailed in a jury trial. In invalidating the jury’s verdict, the U.S. Supreme Court, except for Justice Alito, said that the Church and its members were exercising their free speech rights in a constitutionally-protected fashion.
As the Court described the facts of the case, it is hard to disagree with this conclusion. According to those facts, the Westboro Church and its members told the local authorities of their intention to demonstrate at the time of the Snyder funeral and “complied with police instructions in staging their demonstration.” The Westboro demonstrators stayed “behind a temporary fence…approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held.” The demonstrators went neither to the church where the funeral was held nor to the cemetery, and were nonviolent throughout their demonstration.
The problem is: Those were not all the facts of the case. Only Justice Alito confronted this reality. After the funeral, a member of the Westboro Church posted on the Church’s website a hate-filled message aimed specifically at the Snyder family. Among its other assertions, this website message accused Mr. and Mrs. Snyder of having “raised [Matthew] for the devil.” The Snyders, the web message continued, “taught Matthew to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery.” Then the Snyders sent their son “to fight for the United States of Sodom, a filthy country that is in lock step with his evil, wicked, and sinful manner of life.”
Media accounts of the Court’s decision have largely ignored this web-based attack on the Snyders. Media accounts have also largely ignored the eight Justices’ acknowledgment that, if this web-based attack is considered, Westboro and its members may indeed have stepped over the line, forfeiting First Amendment protection by this vicious internet attack on the Snyder family. As Chief Justice Roberts put it in a footnote to his majority opinion, this “Internet posting may raise distinct issues in this context,” issues which the Court declined to consider because of the failure of the Snyders to press this point in their petition to the high court.
Justice Alito disagreed with his colleagues in his willingness to confront the facts of the case as they were presented to the jury: Westboro and