I was reading a post today in PoliticusUSA about the legal battle over Proposition 8. The author, a fellow writer of mine there, takes the position that Christian bigotry is behind opposition to same-sex marriage and I have no argument with that; I think it is self-evident. There is no reason beyond religious objections – nor were lawyers for Proposition 8’s supporters able to muster any – when the case went to court. The battle lines are clear. Opposition to same-sex marriage is based on Christian biases (real or imagined) originating in their holy scriptures, the Bible.
There is no cogent reason to object to total equality in the marriage sphere. All other objections that have been raised have been proven myths, as I argued the other day at A Heathen’s Day, where I named Bryan Fischer a nithing for misrepresenting research to make these myths look like truths.
These myths dismissed, we are left with religious bigotry as the cause, and that is what I wish to address here.
It must be understood by those of us who are endeavoring to revive or reconstruct ancient forms of religion that our polytheistic ancestors did not have the most enlightened view of the matter either, with the proviso that their views were informed by cultural prejudices and not religious. To that extent, arguing over whether our polytheistic ancestors were tolerant or intolerant of homosexuality is problematic.
It is rendered meaningless once we understand that we can’t even talk about homosexuality in an ancient context, because the ancients did not have the same attitudes we have today, either of homosexual acts or of gender. I say this, and I believe it is an important point, because there are Pagan groups today that object to LGBT equality. Such objections, I argue, are misplaced.
Homosexuality has not been universally seen as immoral; it has not even always been seen as homosexuality. As often happens, the truth is much more complex than the simple black and white model offered modern Western audiences.
We claim to live in an enlightened age yet we are trapped by our own understanding of gender roles and categories. We are brought up to believe that there are boys and there are girls. Boys have penises and girls have vaginas. This is known as dimorphism (the belief that anatomy defines women and men). According to this view there is nothing in between and it is obvious how the pieces are supposed to go together. And no surprise: we are brought up to see the world in this way. But is this an accurate reflection of how things are? Is gender to be understood as biological or as a social construct?
Archaeologist Joan Breton-Connelly speaks of “presentist” assumptions – arguments based on or colored by “late twentieth -century political sensibilities.” With regard to genders as “fixed” categories Breton-Connelly appeals to Judith Butler’s questioning of “woman” as a fixed category in her Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) in which she “exposes the ways in which traditional feminist constructs decontextualize individuals from their historical, political, and cultural settings and identities.” The same can be said of homosexuals as a fixed category.
Few people realize that homosexuality is a modern concept. The pathology of the 19th century created the category from the male/female conceptualized as abnormal. Ancient ideas about sex and sexuality are far more ambiguous.
To claim therefore that modern distinctions and prejudices are simply continuances of ancient Pagan feeling on the subject is to misstate the case. As Marilyn Katz puts it, “the nineteenth-century notion of sexual pathology was unknown to antiquity.” As she goes on to say, “[T]here is a radical discontinuity between the ancient and modern discourses on sexuality.”
But what if gender was based on gender roles and not strictly on plumbing?
Take for example my own Norse ancestors. While a boy might be born with male sex organs, that simple fact did not in itself make him a man. Gender categories were not fixed and manhood was something that had to be earned – and maintained – through the activities normally associated with that gender category. This meant that while a boy and his penis could aspire to manhood, so could a woman. By laying aside one set of gender roles and embracing another, a woman could “become” a man. Conversely, a man could “become” a woman.
“This is a world in which ‘masculinity’ always has a plus value, even (or perhaps especially) when it is enacted by a woman,” writes one scholar. It was “a society in which being born male precisely did not confer automatic superiority, a society in which distinction had to be acquired, and constantly reacquired, by wresting it away from others.” Because women had no theoretical ceiling and men no theoretical floor, gender categories were flexible and movable.
Like the Norse, the Romans and Greeks lacked a modern understanding of “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” Once again, it was not what a Roman “was” but what a Roman “did” that determined things. A Roman male was supposed to be a penetrator, the “active” partner in sexual activity. It was manly to penetrate; it was feminine to be penetrated.
For example, a man would brag about penetrating another man, like Sinfjötl in the First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbani:
On Sága’s Ness full nine wolves we
Had together – I gat them all.
He is reminding Gudmund of how often he has “had” him sexually. One attempt to convert Iceland floundered on such accusations made against the Saxon bishop who had been penetrated by Thorvald, and Icelandic Christian working for him.
The bishop gave birth to nine children,
Thorvald was father to them all.
The Norse understood things in the same terms. “Anal penetration constructed the man who experienced it as whore, bride, mare, bitch, and the like – in whatever guise a female creature.”
The evidence suggests that for the Norseman’s “character was not either male or female, but lay on a spectrum ranging from strong to week, aggressive to passive, powerful to powerless, winner to loser.”
To be called a man was the highest compliment a man could pay a “woman,” as we see in Laxdaela Saga when Snorri of Helgafell says of Gudrun the Fair, “Now you can see what a man Gudrun is, when she gets the better of both of us.”
To be a man was to be hvatur – bold, active, and vigorous – and this was to be admired, whatever sort of plumbing you had. Likewise, to be blauður – soft and weak – was to be despised, whatever sort of plumbing you had.
We who seek to revive the religions of the past should not bring into the present the attitudes of our ancestors towards gender and especially not something as historically nebulous and indefinable as “homosexuality.” We do not share cultures with our ancestors even if we seek to share their religions. And we certainly cannot base our objections on religious grounds; the Christians can claim their god told them homosexuality is wrong (debatable) but our gods have told us no such thing. There is no real reason not to be open-minded and tolerant about gender and sexuality because there are no real arguments to be made against doing so.
 Joan Breton-Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (Princeton University Press, 2007), 19-20.
 Breton-Connelly (2007), 22. See also Cynthia Eller, Am I a Woman?: A Skeptic’s Guide to Gender (Beacon Press, 2004).
 Marilyn Katz, “Ideology and ‘The Status of Women’ in Ancient Greece,” History and Theory 31 (1992), 92. With regard to “homosexual” or “gay/lesbian,” and the effect of using one term over another see Steve Williams, “Gay and Lesbian or Homosexual? What’s in a Word?” http://www.care2.com/causes/civil-rights/blog/gay-and-lesbian-or-homosexual-does-it-matter/
 See Ray Laurence, Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome (Continuum, 2009), 84-86 for a discussion of views of “homosexuality”in the Roman world.
 Katz (1992), 92.
 Carol Clover, “Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe,” Speculum 68 (1993), 372.
 Clover (1993), 380.
 Robert Ferguson, The Vikings: A History (Viking Penguin, 2009), 234.
 Clover (1993), 375.
 Nancy Marie Brown, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt, 2007), 74.
 Brown (2007), 74.