A Historically Contingent Discrimination

Over the past few weeks I have been giving some thought to the Rights Revolution, which is characterized by the ongoing extension of rights to racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and homosexuals throughout the world.  This has been on my mind largely because, as many people, I have been following the ongoing American political drama revolving around the issue of gay rights and the legality of same-sex marriage.

The Rights Revolution was necessary because throughout the great majority of human history minority groups and women have been ostracized, discriminated against and have been prevented from acquiring equal access to state institutions.  Regardless of the time period, continent or societal structure, the great majority of humans organized themselves into patriarchal societies that favoured the dominant cultural, racial, ethnic or religious group, depending on the context of the cultural and geographic dynamic.  There are simple evolutionary reasons for these near-universal institutionalized manifestations of sexist, racist and xenophobic behaviours:

  • Humans organized themselves into patriarchal societies for the same reason many primates organize themselves into patriarchal societies; the faster reproducing sex (males) needed to control the reproduction of the slower reproducing sex (females).  This led to institutionalized customs that protected male reproductive interests.
  • Racist and xenophobic institutions manifested as a result of coalition membership.  In early human societies biological (skin colour, eye shape) or cultural (clothing, tattoos, jewelry) differences were the quickest and best indicator of ‘which side’ someone was on.

However, the same statements and evolutionary explanations cannot be made for the institutionalized discrimination of homosexuals.  Although people of homosexual orientation have been intensely discriminated against in most areas of the world during the past few centuries, this phenomenon was never ubiquitous throughout all of human history.  Furthermore, although racist and sexist behaviour – as well as their institutionalized manifestations – can be explained using evolutionary theory, the same cannot be done for analogous homophobic behaviours.  In fact, evolutionary theory predicts that all patriarchal human societies would approve of people of homosexual orientation, as it reduces competition for a scarce resource – the slower reproducing sex.

Homosexuality as historically contingent

So what does this mean?  I think it means that homophobic behaviour and the institutionalization of discrimination and prejudice against people of homosexual orientation is a historically contingent phenomenon that happened to become pervasive and global due to the disproportionate power of societies influenced by Abrahamic religious philosophy.

Unlike institutionalized sexism and racism, institutionalized homophobia was not pervasive throughout all of human history.  In fact, homosexual orientation was embraced and promoted by many societies on all inhabited continents.

In the Ancient World, there is evidence throughout Eurasia, the Americas, and Africa from art, burials and literature that homosexual orientation was practiced and embraced.  In one of the first known examples of human literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, several of the main characters were openly homosexual.  There is strong evidence that Ancient Egyptian society accepted a range of sexual orientation, with the first historically recorded homosexual couple, Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, living around 2400 B.C.E.  Throughout the 1st millennium B.C.E. many Mediterranean city-state governments supported a wide variety of homosexual orientation and several Greek intellectuals argued that homosexual love was the ‘highest form’, while heterosexual sex was simply lustful and utilitarian.  Also, two of the greatest leaders and warriors of the 1st millennium B.C.E, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, were bisexual.

Ethnographic evidence also strongly suggests that homosexual orientation was accepted or tolerated in many cultures throughout the pre-modern world.  In one survey, published in John Bancroft’s Adolescence and Puberty, of 42 different pre-industrial culture groups, homosexuality was accepted in 21% of the culture groups (an astronomically higher figure than the percentage of egalitarian or ethnically tolerant pre-industrial culture groups).  This is unsurprising when considered in the context of early European reports of American, African and Asian cultures during the first colonial expansion.  In pre-European contact sub-Saharan Africa, homosexual orientation was explored in a variety of forms and was embraced in several different societies of varying complexity.  In the Americas various people in indigenous civilizations like the Aztecs, Mayans and Zapotecs, experimented with homosexuality and some homosexual males were believed to have powers that ordinary shamans could not possess.

So why did discrimination against homosexuals become the cultural norm in the modern world?

Unfortunately for those who care about equal rights for all humans, all of the cultures described above did not become the dominant socio-political and economic group in the modern world.

Although the early dominant culture groups in western and central Eurasia largely embraced the heterosexual-homosexual continuum of human nature (thinking discontinuously helps to understand human sexuality as well!), this long tradition of acceptance of sexual variation was permanently eradicated after the western world became dominated by Abrahamic religious philosophy.  Abrahamic religious philosophy taught that homosexual behaviour was sinful, and as a result many early Roman Christian emperors believed Rome’s decline was a punishment from God for previously condoning homosexual behaviour.  As a result, it was not uncommon for homosexuals to become the target of lynchings and hate crimes.  After Rome collapsed, Christianity persisted and became a unifying cultural concept for all European kingdoms throughout the medieval period.  Most European monarchs not only believed homosexuality to be unnatural and sinful, but also made it punishable by death.  These homophobic memes, inspired by the Abrahamic religions, spread throughout the world during the European colonial era.  Europeans socio-political entities were disproportionately powerful on a global scale, and as a result their memes possessed cultural capital.  Understanding this phenomenon is integral to understanding institutionalized discrimination against homosexuals that is currently being practiced in the United States and throughout much of the world.

This is what I mean when I say that institutionalized homophobia is historically contingent.  In no way did Abrahamic religious philosophy directly and irreplaceably contribute to Europe becoming the most dominant socio-political and economic region of the planet.  However, as a by-product of an intensely homosexual culture dominating the social, political and economic modern world, the Rights Revolution is not just about eradicating discrimination against women and racial, ethnic and religious minorities, but it is also about eradicating discrimination against non-heterosexuals.

When Alexander the Great conquered much of the known western world during the 1st millennium B.C.E., his dominant cultural group institutionalized the acceptance of a range of sexual variation.  Had the European states that powered the globalization of the world throughout the modern era been culturally accepting of homosexuality, contemporary debates about the legality of same-sex marriage would be non-issues.


So when Obama openly acknowledged support of marriage equality (Yay! Watch below):

Think about the historical contingency of this support, and realize that we have the ability to eradicate the damage that was done by the homophobic hegemony that is Christianity.

In fact, as the erosion of Christianity’s monopoly in western culture has continued (from the French Revolution to contemporary times), so has acceptance and decriminalization of homosexuality.  In this case, correlation and causation are intimately connected (pun intended).


About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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