An Imposition of Meaning

The British Museum Press has published a book titled A Little Gay History. If this article on The Straight Dope is accurate, you would expect the book to cover male homosexuality from the middle of the twentieth century onwards; however, there is a picture of Hadrian and Antinous on the front cover. I would be surprised if Alexander and Hephaestion did not feature inside.
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I am sure A Little Gay History is an excellent book but I do wish they had found a different title for it. I do not know very much about Roman sexual identity but I would be surprised if Hadrian would have described himself as a gay (i.e. homosexual) man. Alexander certainly would not have done.
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I have said it elsewhere, but it always bears repeating; in modern terms, Alexander was, if anything, bisexual*. However, we should not use use this term to describe him as in so doing we impose our modern understanding, and definition, of sexual identity upon him. Calling Alexander bisexual, therefore, is both patronising towards him and irrelevant when it comes to comprehending how he understood himself, which is surely one of the the points of our engagement with him whether in fiction, a discussion, or an academic work.
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For obvious reasons I have focused on Alexander in this post, but what I have said about him applies to all Greeks in antiquity. This brings me to the second problem with the title. The Straight Dope article, written in 1986, mentions that lesbians are sometimes called gay. Twenty-seven years on I imagine instances of this are common but it is telling that we talk about the LGBT movement rather than ‘gay rights’ (except in shorthand). A Little Gay History talks about women’s sexuality as well as men’s. It might have been better, therefore, if the title – if it was going to insist upon using modern terms – at least reflected the broad range of sexualities it covers rather than using one which – though it has an umbrella usage – still popularly refers to one type.
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* There is no direct proof of Alexander having a sexual relationship with Hephaestion but the indirect evidence, which for me stems from his self-identification as Achilles and Hephaestion as Patroclus – who by the fourth century BC were regarded as having been lovers, means that I would not argue for what we would call his heterosexuality.

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