In Ancient Greece...
Male homosexual acts normally took place between an erastes (lover), a young man, ideally a bachelor, and an eromenos (beloved), a beardless, adolescent boy between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Both would belong to the elite. The erastes would court the eromenos with such things as hunting gifts and, if successful, consummate his desire through anal sex. As the boy turned to manhood in the period between the ages of eighteen and twenty the transitional period of life associated with service as an ephebe (a border-guard) he would himself cease to be a passive partner and pursue other boys in turn. Later on, by around the age of thirty, he would give up homosexual activity altogether in favor of marriage. The role of the erastes was one of dominance, the role of the eromenos one of subjection, and they participated in a zero-sum game of social advantage and disadvantage. As a result, the pursued boy was in a morally precarious situation, but he could retain his honor so long as he was extremely discriminating in his acceptance of a lover, took extravagant gifts for his favors but money on no account, and did not make any show of enjoying the anal sex. The lover would use his dominant position to give the boy valuable help, material or ethical, in becoming a full adult member of the community, as is reflected in Plato’s Symposium. So far as the Athenians were concerned, only an extremely deviant grown man would put himself in the role of the eromenos, and those who did, whether as prostitutes (as Timarchus was alleged to have been in a well-known speech of Aeschines) or as kinaidoi (men who simply enjoyed and sought to receive anal sex, were conceptualized as effeminate and reviled, and at Athens the former group was deprived of at least some citizen rights. (Gilbert, Conceptions of Homosexuality and Sodomy in Western History, p. 37-38 in A Cultural History of Sexuality Volume I In The Classical World editors Mark Golden, and Peter Toohey Editors)
In the Roman Empire:
By the end of the second century BCE a change in sexual mores was apparent....If a Roman wanted secure affection, respect and faithfulness, then he chose a wife. But if he wanted sexual passion, anguish and romantic ardour, he chose a youth. This now became a fashionable as well as socially acceptable practice and was celebrated in literature. (Homosexuality in History, p. 72, Spencer, C., 1995)
Aristotle (In Politics) observed that the Celts esteemed love between men. Diodorus Siculus gave us a fuller picture: 'The men are much keener on their own sex; they lie around on animal skins and enjoy themselves, with a lover on each side. The extraordinary thing is they haven't the smallest regard for their personal dignity or self respect; they offer themselves to other men without the least compunction. Furthermore, this isn't looked down upon, or regarded as in any way disgraceful: on the contrary, if one of them is rejected by another to whom he has offered himself, he takes offence.
Homosexuality in History, p. 94
In all human societies, other than those under the influence of the Christian religion, it has been legitimate for males to have sexual relations with each other. There were two restrictions: that they also married and produced families and that the adult male was always the penetrator....In the ancient world there was no need for such a word as 'homosexuality' because the concept of it did not exist...but gradually, as the world neared 1700, a radical change took place; the idea crept in that all men who enjoyed same-sex experiences were both effeminate and criminal, and a homohobic society was born.
Homosexuality in History, Spencer, p.9-10.
There does not seem to be, however, any reference in Torah literature to the phenomenon of 'homosexual orientation'. Consequently, there is no discussion in rabbinic writings about whether or not it is possible for a person to 'choose' or 'select' his sexual orientation. In the absence of any contrary teachings, it is reasonable to believe that a faithful Jew has no cause to reject the current appreciation of an exclusive homosexual orientation -- developed by nature or nurture -- as indicated by so much empirical, scientific and psychological evidence.
Judaism and Homosexuality, C. Rappaport, p.20
The End of the 17th Century: Gender and Capitalism
The largely agricultural society, in which both men and women were labourers, gave way to a mercantile society, in which feudalism finally died to be replaced by the petit-bourgeoisie...Middle class people now redefined gender roles and the role of the family itself. They placed a high-premium on self-discipline, hard work and frugality, for class distinctions were now comparatively fluid and by these means a person could rise in the world to positions of power, wealth and authority...We had a new social structure in which everybody watches everybody else, eager to discover new styles and modes, the details of public display...publishers were booming, women's journals, stories and novels were being read and they all had one theme - romantic love. It now became fashionable to marry for love. Before, marriages had been planned by the parents and the suitability of partners was worked out strategically, for land property and class...Respectable society found this concept appealing, though it would have been horrified at the idea that romantic love might exist between people of the same sex.
Homosexuality in History, p.194-6
The basic tools of history and cultural difference upend the biological determinism position on sexuality just as they do on race. If sexual identity is biologically determined, we should find evidence of what we today define as gay men or women in our past, as well as across different cultures. As we begin such an exploration, we see that ‘gayness’ – which I define as a permanent and self-defining same-sex attraction that constitutes a distinct social identity – is very rare. We certainly find countless examples of what I would call ‘queerness’ – or of sexual expression that does not fit what is today’s norm. This includes same-sex sex and even relationships, but also pederasty, polygamy, pan-sexuality, transgender and ‘third-gender’ expression, and many practices that are difficult for my contemporary American sensibility to comprehend. But while gayness can be a kind of queerness, it’s a small subcategory. Gayness is an almost exceptional expression, mostly limited to contemporary Western life; this plants serious doubt upon the idea that it is biologically determined.
Some might think of the Greeks and note that they practiced gayness. But their sexual expression would disgust most of us, for it was pederasty (παιδεραστία, meaning, ‘love of boys’), not contemporary gayness. Adult men would enter into sexual unions with pubescent boys, with men typically performing what they considered the ‘masculine’ or ‘active’ sexual role. The passive role was mostly limited to the subordinate – youths or women. The relationship was not limited to sex, but entailed a moral and cultural education of these young boys. The sexual aspects of these relationships almost always ceased as youths grew older. To claim temporary pederasty as historical evidence of the immutable and permanent gayness is, at best, a stretch.
We do, however, find such pederasty in many cultural contexts. The practice existed in Spain under the Moors, in some areas of Italy during the Renaissance, and throughout areas of the Middle East and China at different time periods. While such commonality might lead some to believe that this is evidence of a fundamental biological drive, such thinking is inaccurate. For the Greeks, pederasty was a form of moral education which could either involve sexual contact or not – such expression most often was limited to boys (not men); to the Chinese, it was rather limited to prostitution; to the Romans, penetration was allowed only against slaves, and violating this strict rule could result in extreme punishment. In most of these instances, sexual relationships between male adults were forbidden. We find a variety of sexual acts and relationships across time and place, but we almost never see the social identity of gayness.
The biological commonality here, if there is any, is sexual desire; the tracks of that desire – how it is expressed and what it meant – vary from time and place. The implication is that sexuality is a physiological desire whose expression is socially constructed. Some of that construction turns desire into love. Some of it converts desire into pederasty. Some of it converts desire into power, either through sexual domination (being dominated), or through the acquisition of multiple wives. The radical implication is that there is nothing natural about love, particularly as the basis of marriage. But there is nothing ‘normal’ about human sexuality more broadly, whether it is heterosexuality or homosexuality.
True, many gay and lesbian people will note that they ‘always felt different’ or that they knew about their homosexuality for as long as they’ve been aware of themselves as sexual beings. Is this not evidence of a powerful biological drive? Not necessarily, because it is also consistent with the idea of sexuality as co-determined by biology and environment. Race is a social construct, and its experience is felt from the moment we begin our lives. Two common mistakes we often make when thinking about social constructions are to imagine that because something is socially constructed it isn’t real, or that it’s easy to change. Money is a social construction; its value and meaning are contingent not on its inherent quality but instead on what we ascribe to it. A physical dollar has no real value – its value is in the fact that we collectively acknowledge it. If you think that things that are socially constructed aren’t real then I propose you give me all of your money. The reason you’re not going to do that is because even though it might be socially constructed, money has deeply material consequences; the same can be said for most social constructions.
Often our biology is more mutable than our social constructs. We can change our gender assignment, the presence or absence of hair and its colour; we can augment and remove, enhance and make youthful, fundamentally transform. We can become fatter or thinner, muscular or soft, grow and embellish our nails or remove them. We age, surely. But even this experience and its effects we have altered.
Social constructs are another matter; their transformation requires moving mountains of people, many of whom have commitments to, and define themselves by, their present location. Were I to dress, quite regularly, as Henry VIII, I would be unlikely to transform our conceptualisations of masculinity. And this is not because I don’t have a big enough stage. Were Clint Eastwood to engage in a similar project, he would be more likely to find his mental health questioned than to transform our collective understanding of masculinity.
Of course, social constructs do change. They are always shifting, in often nearly undetectable ways. The formation of ‘gayness’ – of gay identity itself – has been a gradual transformation of the structure of sexuality. Rather than be a kind of act that men and women engaged in (as it once was), same-sex attraction has become a kind of person you are. In essence, homosexual went from being an adjective, describing certain actions, to a noun – a kind of person. A permanent, encompassing, immutable identity…For embracing the fiction of biological determinism risks consistently misunderstanding the most important part of our lives – our intimate relationships. We invented romantic love. And homosexuality. And just about every other kind of relationship. That doesn’t make any of these things less important or less real. But our inventions are not part of a biological nature: they are part of a conversation between a biological and social order of life."