WONDERLANCER: James, thank you very much for participating in this interview. You dedicated no less than twelve years to the research and documentation of ‘The origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies’ which is considered a ground-breaking and vast account of the socio-cultural history of homosexuality and bisexuality.
It would be great if you could share with our readers how you arrived at the decision of taking on such a massive and important project as this book is, please.
JAMES NEILL: In my work with various news organizations in Washington in the 80s and early 90s, I had a front row seat to watch the political fights over gay rights—the controversy over gays in the military, outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation and same-sex marriage rights. I had been doing my own reading in some of the pioneering investigations of homosexual practices in human societies and in past historical periods—the works of Vern Bullough, John Boswell and David Greenberg particularly—in an attempt to better understand my own same-sex inclinations. And as I observed the controversies playing out on the Washington political stage I was struck by how the parties in the political debates seemed to be talking past each other.
Conservatives denounced homosexual behaviour as a sin and an abnormality and used that argument to justify restrictions on homosexuals. On the other hand, gay rights advocates based their arguments on the fundamental principles of justice and equality for all in the U.S. Constitution, but generally bypassed the moral arguments made by the opponents of gay rights. It was also clear to me that the debates were being conducted before a public with a profound ignorance of homosexuality, its nature and the basis for its disapproval in Judeo-Christian teaching.
It seemed to me that it would be difficult to adequately resolve the debate in the minds of the public without a better understanding of homosexuality, how it is that it appears in so many otherwise healthy, spiritually dedicated and hardworking people, and how it came about that a fierce condemnation of homosexuality became a defining feature of Judeo-Christian morality.
WONDERLANCER: Some of the most ‘controversial’ conclusions at which you arrive in this journey of meticulous investigation is that ambisexuality was “normalised” before the advent of major monotheist religions. Could this be the reason as to why many accounts on the true origin of this nature have been ignored or destroyed, throughout history?
JAMES NEILL: First I’d like to say that the fact that we would speak of ambisexuality being “normalised” in any era speaks volumes about the way the modern Western conception of sexuality, what I call the heterosexual myth, has distorted the way we perceive sexuality. Looking from the perspective of the broad range of human societies around the world and throughout history, in which diversity of sexual expression and variability in orientation was common, it would be more accurate to say that in the post-Medieval Western world ambisexuality became “non-normalised”. So, in fact, it’s really the other way around.
A principal reason the homosexual side of human sexuality became non-normalised in Western society is, indeed, as you suggest, due to the power and influence of monotheistic religions, not so much because of their rise, but because of the peculiar track the Christian Church took in its early centuries in attempting to define nature and the role of human sexuality within it.
Much of Christian sexual moral doctrine arose not from scripture, as many believe, but from the porridge of dualistic cults and philosophies that abounded in the late Roman Empire, and the conviction derived from them by Saint Augustine and other early church leaders that sexual pleasure is evil, and that therefore the only reason sexual activity could be justified was for the specific purpose of procreation.
An obvious correlate of this dictum is that any non-procreative activity, be it intercourse using birth control, homosexuality, masturbation or even a man making love to his wife out of affection rather than for the specific purpose of producing a child, was unnatural, and therefore a sin.
While this core belief on the evil associated with sex and the natural purpose of sex dominated Christian moral thinking on sexuality well into the 20th century, it actually took until the late Middle Ages in Europe before the church was finally able to exert the forces necessary to enforce its anti-sexual morality among the European population, and that only after several centuries of sometime very violent suppression. Because of the severe opprobrium that then became attached to the homosexual side of human sexuality—the sin we dare not name—and the extreme phobia Western society developed towards it, society in effect went into total denial about its existence.
Therefore since the late Middle Ages, where same-sex activity may have been observed among animals in nature or encountered in the Greek or Roman classics, it was studiously ignored, and a strictly heterosexual vision of sexuality prevailed in mainstream thought and scholarship. Indeed, so great was the stigma surrounding homosexuality that until the 1970s research into homosexuality outside of the fields of criminology and mental disease was virtually taboo in the academic world.
That is not to say that same-sex activity did not continue among some elements of Western society—and there is a vast amount of evidence to show that it did—but that in “proper” society and popular culture it simply did not exist.
WONDERLANCER: Another conclusion at which the book arrives is that, not only ambisexuality was natural but was also considered, and as it happens amongst many animal species, nature’s way to keep some control on reproduction. What other beneficial roles have been considered that it plays, both in the animal and the human societies?
JAMES NEILL: An enormous amount of research has been conducted over the past several decades on homosexual behaviour among various animal species, ranging from reptiles, birds, gazelles, buffaloes, giraffes and other herding species, to whales, dolphins and primates. I think most people would be astonished at the range and frequency of same-sex activity in the animal world, and the fact that it is the dominant sexual behaviour among some species— the giraffe and male bottlenose dolphins to cite just two examples. Researchers have, naturally, put forward a number of arguments as to the benefits same-sex activity would provide, such as promotion of sociability, reconciliation, dissipation of tension and competition among males, and establishing friendships or alliances between pairs. Among Big Horn sheep and other herding species, mating rights are achieved by the dominant male who wins his position through sparring bouts. The victorious males will then mount and penetrate the losing male after the fight. The sexual receptivity of the subordinate male to the dominant male—which, by the way, has been observed among a vast range of species—may have developed because the diversion of violence to sex would have conferred an evolutionary advantage through the reduction of violence and injuries among members of the groups.
As to benefits for human societies, it’s widely understood that one of the most fundamental human needs is for intimate companionship. In past historical periods homosexual bonds were very common among soldiers, sailors and individuals in other occupations that by their nature would make it difficult to carry out the duties of being a parent—the usual outcome of heterosexual relationships. Providing a means of achieving emotional and sexual companionship for individuals in carrying out these kinds of socially important roles is one clear benefit of same-sex relations.
Another clear benefit is the fact that same-sex activity cannot lead to the conception of a child. The most common pattern of same-sex behaviour observed among human societies is homosexual relations between adolescents and young adults. In most tribal societies, and among other world civilizations, marriage is generally not entered into until the couple is in their twenties, and before that time same sex relationships are common. Sexual bonds can provide adolescents with a stabilizing companionship during what can be a difficult period of their lives, and give adolescents a way to learn about the emotional aspects of sex and bonding without the risk of pregnancies with which they are not equipped to deal. But, the very fact that same-sex relationships are not procreative represents a significant benefit to the species. While humans generally reach sexual maturity in their early teens, and are at the peak of their sexual drive in their late teens, psychological, emotional and physical maturity is not generally achieved until the early twenties. It is no small irony that the tendency to sexual activity is the greatest at an age when the individuals are ill prepared to deal with the natural consequence of heterosexual coitus, that is, the conception of a child. By diverting the sex drive away from inappropriate heterosexual involvement, homosexual relationships between adolescents and young adults works to prevent pregnancies among these immature individuals, and helps to insure that the conception of children occurs within stable relationships between psychologically and emotionally mature adults, a clear benefit to the species.
WONDERLANCER: So, there is evidence that homosexuality or bisexuality have occurred frequently throughout time. It is also of great interest to note that there are even accounts of this happening in tribes, not only in industrialised or cultured societies. What tribal accounts would you highlight for our readers?
JAMES NEILL: Hundreds of anthropological studies over the last century, covering tribal people in every part of the world, have shown that same-sex behaviour in one form or another was virtually universal among indigenous tribal peoples before westernization and the arrival of Christian missionaries. Considering the prevalence of ambisexual practices among those tribal cultures unaffected by Western moral influences, there is considerable irony in the assumption of many scholars until only recently that homosexuality is a product of decadent urbanized societies and unknown among tribal peoples. For example, the conventional wisdom among anthropologists up through the 1980s was that homosexual practices were totally absent from Sub-Saharan Africa. To rebut this assumption the American historian Wayne Dynes compiled and published a list of articles and monographs found in professional journals on various aspects of homosexuality among Sub-Saharan African peoples.
That the list he published contained over 500 articles underscored the stubborn refusal of mainstream academic scholars up until that time to come to grips with the reality of homosexuality as a phenomenon of human behaviour around the world. In answer to your question on examples, recent anthropological studies show same-sex practices to be still widespread among many tribal peoples in New Guinea—the Sambia studied by Gilbert Herdt, for example, the Marind-Anim of south central New Guinea, and the Asmat peoples along the southwestern coastal regions. The continuation of same-sex practices has also been reported among tribal peoples in the Amazon interior and in remote areas of Peru. Among traditional Native-American peoples in contemporary America, same-sex relationships among adolescents are taken for granted and are tolerated as long as the individuals settle down and get married by their mid-20s.
WONDERLANCER: The truth is, and as you well document in this book, that some current cultures do also consider the ambisexual nature or ambisexual phases as normal as well as other practices that are not accepted in Western culture.
What would you say is the clearest example out of these current societies?
JAMES NEILL: As we discussed earlier, the principal reason the same-sex side of the human ambisexual nature has been suppressed in Western society was the fierce campaign of the Medieval church to enforce its restrictive sexual code on Western society.
When European colonialists and traders spread throughout the world from the 16th to the late 19th century, they brought their Christian sexual moral values with them and worked for centuries to enforce them among native populations.
To cite one example, the anthropologist William Davenport, who studied the sexual practices of the natives of the Santa Cruz Islands 1960s, found that homosexual relationships for adolescents and unmarried adults were the norm and were guided by longstanding traditions, and that heterosexual activity did not occur until the partners were in their mid-20s and had become married. Davenport returned to the islands in the 1980s, and he found that the pervasive same-sex traditions he studied were being suppressed through the efforts of Christian missionaries and the influence of Western popular culture, and were being replaced with extensive extra-marital heterosexual permissiveness and its attendant problems.
However, an excellent example of human ambisexuality among a large society today is among Islamic peoples. While this may be surprising to many today, due to the widely publicized anti-homosexual campaigns of conservative Muslim clerics, the highly vocal intolerance towards homosexuality from the conservative imams and mullahs is a relatively recent phenomenon, an attitude largely engendered through the influence of the Victorian attitudes of Western colonial powers in the 19th and early 20th century. Before the arrival of the European colonial powers, the Islamic world, from North Africa to Turkey was widely known for the prevalence of homosexual practices.
Because of the highly visible anti-homosexual attitudes of conservative Islamic leaders, the topic is not publicly acknowledged, even though its prevalence is taken for granted among the people. In fact, same-sex attraction and acting on it is taken so much or granted that many Muslim men have difficulty understanding the point of “gay liberation”. So, in the Islamic world, we have a near perfect example of ambisexuality as it has manifested among many human societies in the past: a social tradition in which marriage is not entered into until the individuals are in their twenties, where the virginity of unwed females is sacrosanct, and in which the primary form of sexuality for people not yet at marriage age, and even as an adjunct to marriage, is homosexual. Same-sex relations provides a harmless sexual outlet for the unmarried young, and as a result the phenomenon of teen-aged unwed mothers is largely unknown.
WONDERLANCER: What can be gathered of the Secret Gospel of Mark and its treatment of Carpocratian interpretation by Clement?
Aside from the fact that the youth in the Secret Mark episode comes to Jesus at night naked except for a linen cloth wrapped around him and then spends the night with him, the youth is later referred to as “the youth whom Jesus loved.”
There is a parallel episode in the Gospel of John (John 11:1-4), where Mary and Martha in a message to Jesus refer to Lazarus as “the man you love.” These two examples are in addition to the more well-known case of John the Evangelist, who laid his head on Jesus’ breast during the Last Supper and was referred to four times as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” in the Gospel of John.
The imputation of a sexual relationship between Jesus and John has been around for a while. King James I invoked the example in defending his decision to bestow on his lover, George Villiers, the title of earl of Buckingham. As the king put it, “Christ had his John, and I have my George.”
WONDERLANCER: What’s the most absurd and ignorant public statement you have ever heard with regards to ambisexuality?
JAMES NEILL: Probably that allowing homosexuality would lead to the extinction of the human race, an argument heard with some frequency from social conservatives. When you think about it, it is really absurd, because the argument seems to assume that if homosexuality was tolerated, everyone would abandon heterosexuality and engage in exclusive homosexuality.
WONDERLANCER: From your experience working for news organizations in Washington D.C. what have been the most blatant manipulations of public opinion for political gain on the subject of homosexuality? (There’s no need to say names but it’d be great if the argumentative-process could be described as to be easily identified by the general public).
JAMES NEILL: As far as the most blatantly cynical use of the issue for political gain, the same-sex marriage issue would be at the top of the list. In the 2004 presidential election, Republican political operatives in conjunction with the Bush campaign deliberately instigated movements in a number of states to get ballot initiatives banning gay marriages. The intent was solely to rouse their base and inflame the issue to get more of their religious conservative base to the voting booths.
WONDERLANCER: We highly recommend the reading of ‘The Origins and Role of Same Sex Relations in Human Societies’, and are grateful that we could count with you, the author, to reveal the base of its importance to our readership. Are you working on any other project at the moment or have in mind to continue with this subject?
JAMES NEILL: The issue that still engages me is bringing the attention of the public the enormous harm that occurs as a result of the continuing disconnect between Western moral teaching and social attitudes towards sexuality and the inherently ambisexual nature of the human species which I outline in the last chapter of the book. And I especially appreciate your interest in my book because of that.
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