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Gay men

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Apollon et Cyparisse by Claude Marie Dubufe, 1821

Gay men are male homosexuals, or men whose sexual identity or sexual behavior is predominantly directed toward other men. It is generally used as a synonym for "male homosexual" and describes a portion of the population of men who have sex with men.

Gay men can be cis- or transgender. Some bisexual and homoromantic men may also dually identify as gay men. The term gay was historically used as a synonym for anything related to homosexual men. For example, the term "gay bar" even today describes a bar which caters primarily to a homosexual male clientele or is otherwise part of homosexual male culture. By the end of the 20th century, however, the word gay was recommended by LGBT groups and style guides to describe all people attracted to members of the same sex,[1][2] and colloquially it often refers to all homosexuals. In many English-language dictionaries, gay refers especially to men.

Male homosexuality without identity in world history[edit]

Some scholars argue that the term "homosexuality" is problematic when applied to men in ancient cultures since, for example, neither Greeks or Romans possessed any one word covering the same semantic range as the modern concept of "homosexuality".[3][4] Furthermore, there were diverse sexual practices that varied in acceptance depending on time and place.[3] Other scholars argue that there are significant similarities between ancient and modern male homosexuality.[5][6]

In cultures influenced by Abrahamic religions, the law and the church established sodomy as a transgression against divine law or a crime against nature. The condemnation of anal sex between males, however, predates Christian belief.[7] Many historical figures, including Socrates, Lord Byron, Edward II, and Hadrian,[8] have had terms such as gay or bisexual applied to them. Some scholars, such as Michel Foucault, have regarded this as risking the anachronistic introduction of a contemporary construction of sexuality foreign to their times,[9] though other scholars challenge this.[10][6][5]


The first record of a possible homosexual male couple in history is commonly regarded as Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, an ancient Egyptian couple, who lived around 2400 BCE. The pair are portrayed in a nose-kissing position, the most intimate pose in Egyptian art, surrounded by what appear to be their heirs. The anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard also recorded that male Azande warriors in the northern Congo routinely took on young male lovers between the ages of twelve and twenty, who helped with household tasks and participated in intercrural sex with their older husbands.[11]


Dance to the Berdache
Sac and Fox Nation ceremonial dance to celebrate the two-spirit person. George Catlin (1796–1872); Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

As is true of many other non-Western cultures, it is difficult to determine the extent to which Western notions of sexual orientation and gender identity apply to Pre-Columbian cultures. Evidence of homoerotic sexual acts and transvestism has been found in many pre-conquest civilizations in Latin America, such as the Aztecs, Mayas, Quechuas, Moches, Zapotecs, the Incas, and the Tupinambá of Brazil.[12][13][14]

The Spanish conquerors were horrified to discover sodomy openly practiced among native peoples, and attempted to crush it out by subjecting the berdaches (as the Spanish called them) under their rule to severe penalties, including public execution, burning and being torn to pieces by dogs.[15] The Spanish conquerors talked extensively of sodomy among the natives to depict them as savages and hence justify their conquest and forceful conversion to Christianity. As a result of the growing influence and power of the conquerors, many native cultures started condemning homosexual acts themselves. Among some of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in North America prior to European colonization, a relatively common form of same-sex sexuality centered around the figure of the Two-Spirit individual (the term itself was coined only in 1990). Typically, this individual was recognized early in life, given a choice by the parents to follow the path and, if the child accepted the role, raised in the appropriate manner, learning the customs of the gender it had chosen. Two-Spirit individuals were commonly shamans and were revered as having powers beyond those of ordinary shamans. Their sexual life was with the ordinary tribe members of the same sex.

During the colonial times following the European invasion, homosexuality was prosecuted by the Inquisition, some times leading to death sentences on the charges of sodomy, and the practices became clandestine. Many homosexual individuals went into heterosexual marriages to keep appearances, and many turned to the clergy to escape public scrutiny of their lack of interest in the opposite sex.

East Asia[edit]

A woman spying on a pair of male lovers. China, Qing Dynasty.

In East Asia, same-sex relations between men has been referred to since the earliest recorded history. Homosexuality in China, known as the passions of the cut peach and various other euphemisms, has been recorded since approximately 600 BCE. Male homosexuality was mentioned in many famous works of Chinese literature. The instances of same-sex affection and sexual interactions described in the classical novel Dream of the Red Chamber seem as familiar to observers in the present as do equivalent stories of romances between heterosexual people during the same period. Confucianism, being primarily a social and political philosophy, focused little on sexuality, whether homosexual or heterosexual. Ming Dynasty literature, such as Bian Er Chai (弁而釵/弁而钗), portray homosexual relationships between men as more enjoyable and more "harmonious" than heterosexual relationships.[16] Writings from the Liu Song Dynasty by Wang Shunu claimed that homosexuality was as common as heterosexuality in the late 3rd century.[17] Opposition to male homosexuality in China originates in the medieval Tang Dynasty (618–907), attributed to the rising influence of Christian and Islamic values,[18] but did not become fully established until the Westernization efforts of the late Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China.[19]


Classical period[edit]

The Death of Hyacinthos by Jean Broc (1801)

The earliest Western documents (in the form of literary works, art objects, and mythographic materials) concerning same-sex male relationships are derived from ancient Greece. In regard to male homosexuality, such documents depict an at times complex understanding in which relationships with women and relationships with adolescent boys could be a part of a normal man's love life. Same-sex relationships were a social institution variously constructed over time and from one city to another. The formal practice, an erotic yet often restrained relationship between a free adult male and a free adolescent, was valued for its pedagogic benefits and as a means of population control, though occasionally blamed for causing disorder. Plato praised its benefits in his early writings[20] but in his late works proposed its prohibition.[21] Aristotle, in the Politics, dismissed Plato's ideas about abolishing homosexuality (2.4); he explains that barbarians like the Celts accorded it a special honor (2.6.6), while the Cretans used it to regulate the population (2.7.5).[22]

Some scholars argue that there are examples of male homosexual love in ancient literature, such as Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad.[23] In Ancient Rome, the young male body remained a focus of male sexual attention, but relationships were between older free men and slaves or freed youths who took the receptive role in sex. The Hellenophile emperor Hadrian is renowned for his relationship with Antinous, but the Christian emperor Theodosius I decreed a law on 6 August 390, condemning passive males to be burned at the stake. Notwithstanding these regulations taxes on brothels with boys available for homosexual sex continued to be collected until the end of the reign of Anastasius I in 518. Justinian, towards the end of his reign, expanded the proscription to the active partner as well (in 558), warning that such conduct can lead to the destruction of cities through the "wrath of God".


During the Renaissance, wealthy cities in northern Italy—Florence and Venice in particular—were renowned for their widespread practice of same-sex love, engaged in by a considerable part of the male population and constructed along the classical pattern of Greece and Rome.[24][25] But even as many of the male population were engaging in same-sex relationships, the authorities, under the aegis of the Officers of the Night court, were prosecuting, fining, and imprisoning a good portion of that population.

From the second half of the 13th century, death was the punishment for male homosexuality in most of Europe.[26] The relationships of socially prominent figures, such as King James I and the Duke of Buckingham, served to highlight the issue, including in anonymously authored street pamphlets: "The world is chang'd I know not how, For men Kiss Men, not Women now;...Of J. the First and Buckingham: He, true it is, his Wives Embraces fled, To slabber his lov'd Ganimede" (Mundus Foppensis, or The Fop Display'd, 1691).

Middle East[edit]

An illustration from the 19th-century book Sawaqub al-Manaquib depicting homosexual anal sex with a wine boy

There are a handful of accounts by Arab travelers to Europe during the mid-1800s. Two of these travelers, Rifa'ah al-Tahtawi and Muhammad as-Saffar, show their surprise that the French sometimes deliberately mistranslated love poetry about a young boy, instead changing the poetry to refer to young females, to maintain their social norms and morals.[27]

Many governments in the Middle East often ignore, deny the existence of, or criminalize homosexuality. Homosexuality is illegal in almost all Muslim countries.[28] Same-sex intercourse officially carries the death penalty in several Muslim nations: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mauritania, northern Nigeria, and Yemen.[29] Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during his 2007 speech at Columbia University, asserted that there were no gay people in Iran. However, the probable reason is that they keep their sexuality a secret for fear of government sanction or rejection by their families.[30]

Pre-Islamic period[edit]

In ancient Sumer, a set of priests known as gala worked in the temples of the goddess Inanna, where they performed elegies and lamentations.[31]:285 Gala took female names, spoke in the eme-sal dialect, which was traditionally reserved for women, and appear to have engaged in homosexual intercourse.[32] The Sumerian sign for gala was a ligature of the signs for "penis" and "anus".[32] One Sumerian proverb reads: "When the gala wiped off his ass [he said], 'I must not arouse that which belongs to my mistress [i.e., Inanna].'"[32] In later Mesopotamian cultures, kurgarrū and assinnu were male servants of the goddess Ishtar (Inanna's East Semitic equivalent), who dressed in female clothing and performed war dances in Ishtar's temples.[32] Several Akkadian proverbs seem to suggest that they may have also engaged in homosexual intercourse.[32]

In ancient Assyria, male homosexuality was present and common; it was also not prohibited, condemned, nor looked upon as immoral or disordered. Some religious texts contain prayers for divine blessings on homosexual relationships.[33][34] The Almanac of Incantations contained prayers favoring on an equal basis the love of a man for a woman, of a woman for a man, and of a man for man.[35]

South Pacific[edit]

In some societies of Melanesia, especially in Papua New Guinea, same-sex relationships were an integral part of the culture until the mid-1900s. The Etoro and Marind-anim for example, viewed heterosexuality as unclean and celebrated male homosexuality instead. In some traditional Melanesian cultures a prepubertal boy would be paired with an older adolescent who would become his mentor and who would "inseminate" him (orally, anally, or topically, depending on the tribe) over a number of years in order for the younger to also reach puberty. Many Melanesian societies, however, have become hostile towards same-sex relationships since the introduction of Christianity by European missionaries.[36]

Gay male identity and gender role in modern western culture[edit]

The flag consists of shades of blue and azure, symbolizes the attraction of men to each other and the diversity of the gay community itself. Blue and azure shades for the gay flag were chosen on the basis that these colors are used for the symbolic image of men and homosexual men in particular.
Pride flag for gay men.
Flag for gay men.
Three iterations of pride flags for gay and homosexual men.

The use of gay to mean a "homosexual" man was first used as an extension of its application to prostitution: a gay boy was a young man or boy serving male clients.[37] Similarly, a gay cat was a young man apprenticed to an older hobo and commonly exchanging sex and other services for protection and tutelage. The application to homosexuality was also an extension of the word's sexualized connotation of "uninhibited", which implied a willingness to disregard conventional sexual mores. In court in 1889, the prostitute John Saul stated: "I occasionally do odd-jobs for different gay people."[38]

Bringing Up Baby (1938) was the first film to use the word gay in an apparent reference to homosexuality. In a scene in which Cary Grant's character's clothes have been sent to the cleaners, he is forced to wear a woman's feather-trimmed robe. When another character asks about his robe, he responds, "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!" Since this was a mainstream film at a time, when the use of the word to refer to cross-dressing (and, by extension, homosexuality) would still be unfamiliar to most film-goers, the line can also be interpreted to mean, "I just decided to do something frivolous."[39]

In 1950, the earliest reference found to date for the word gay as a self-described name for male homosexuals came from Alfred A. Gross, executive secretary for the George W. Henry Foundation, who said in the June 1950 issue of SIR magazine: "I have yet to meet a happy homosexual. They have a way of describing themselves as gay but the term is a misnomer. Those who are habitues of the bars frequented by others of the kind, are about the saddest people I’ve ever seen."[40]

Notable gay men[edit]

  • James Baldwin
  • Leonard Bernstein
  • Tim Cook
  • Truman Capote
  • Lee Daniels
  • Christian Dior
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Tom Ford
  • Michel Foucault
  • Allen Ginsberg
  • Keith Haring
  • Marc Jacobs
  • Elton John
  • John Maynard Keynes
  • Michael Kors
  • Yves Saint Laurent
  • Freddie Mercury
  • Harvey Milk
  • Isaac Mizrahi
  • Marcel Proust
  • Arthur Rimbaud
  • Bayard Rustin
  • Michelangelo
  • Stephen Sondheim
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
  • Alan Turing
  • Gianni Versace
  • Andy Warhol
  • Walt Whitman
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Tennessee Williams
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein

See also[edit]

Other articles of the topic LGBT : Queer Collaborations, Gayphobia, Nicky Doll, Tammarrian Rogers, Judy Garland as gay icon, Stone femme, RuPaul's Drag Race: The Mobile Game
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  • History of gay men in the United States
  • Gay
  • Lesbian
  • LGBT
  • Trans man


  1. "GLAAD Media Reference Guide - Terms To Avoid". GLAAD. 25 October 2016. Archived from the original on 20 April 2012. Retrieved 21 April 2012. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  2. "Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language". American Psychological Association. Archived from the original on 21 March 2015. Retrieved 14 March 2015. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help) (Reprinted from American Psychologist, Vol 46(9), Sep 1991, 973-974 Archived 3 June 2018 at the Wayback Machine)
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hubbard, Thomas K. (2003). "Introduction". Homosexuality in Greece and Rome : a Sourcebook of Basic Documents. University of California Press. p. 1. ISBN 0520234308. The term "homosexuality" is itself problematic when applied to ancient cultures, inasmuch as neither Greek nor Latin possesses any one word covering the same semantic range as the modern concept. The term is adopted in this volume not out of any conviction that a fundamental identity exists between ancient and modern practices or self-conceptions, but as a convenient shorthand linking together a range of different phenomena involving same-gender love and/or sexual activity. To be sure, classical antiquity featured a variety of discrete practices in this regard, each of which enjoyed differing levels of acceptance depending on the time and place. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  4. Larson, Jennifer (6 September 2012). "Introduction". Greek and Roman Sexualities : A Sourcebook. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 15. ISBN 978-1441196859. There is no Greek or Latin equivalent for the English word 'homosexual', although the ancients did not fail to notice men who preferred same-sex partners. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  5. 5.0 5.1 Norton, Rictor (2016). Myth of the Modern Homosexual. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9781474286923. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png The author has made adapted and expanded portions of this book available online as A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Boswell, John (1989). "Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories" (PDF). In Duberman, Martin Bauml; Vicinus, Martha; Chauncey, Jr., George. Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Penguin Books. pp. 17–36. Unknown parameter |s2cid= ignored (help) Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  7. "... sow illegitimate and bastard seed in courtesans, or sterile seed in males in defiance of nature." Plato in THE LAWS (Book VIII p.841 edition of Stephanus) or p.340, edition of Penguin Books, 1972.
  8. Roman Homosexuality By Craig Arthur Williams, p.60
  9. (Foucault 1986)
  10. Hubbard Thomas K (22 September 2003). "Review of David M. Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality.". Bryn Mawr Classical Review.
  11. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1970). "Sexual Inversion among the Azande". American Anthropologist. 72 (6): 1428–1434. doi:10.1525/aa.1970.72.6.02a00170.
  12. Pablo, Ben (2004), "Latin America: Colonial", glbtq.com, archived from the original on 11 December 2007, retrieved 1 August 2007 Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  13. Murray, Stephen (2004). "Mexico". In Claude J. Summers. glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. glbtq, Inc. Archived from the original on 2 November 2007. Retrieved 1 August 2007. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  14. Sigal, Pete (2003). Infamous Desire: Male Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America. The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226757049. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  15. Mártir de Anglería, Pedro. (1530). Décadas del Mundo Nuevo. Quoted by Coello de la Rosa, Alexandre. "Good Indians", "Bad Indians", "What Christians?": The Dark Side of the New World in Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478–1557), Delaware Review of Latin American Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2002.
  16. Kang, Wenqing. Obsession: male same-sex relations in China, 1900–1950, Hong Kong University Press. Page 2
  17. Song Geng (2004). The fragile scholar: power and masculinity in Chinese culture. Hong Kong University Press. p. 144. ISBN 978-962-209-620-2. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  18. Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. p. 77-78.
  19. Kang, Wenqing. Obsession: male same-sex relations in China, 1900–1950, Hong Kong University Press. Page 3
  20. Plato, Phaedrus in the Symposium
  21. Plato, Laws, 636D & 835E
  22. (Boswell 1980)
  23. Morales, Manuel Sanz; Mariscal, Gabriel Laguna (2003). "The Relationship between Achilles and Patroclus according to Chariton of Aphrodisias". The Classical Quarterly. 53 (1): 292–295. doi:10.1093/cq/53.1.292. ISSN 0009-8388. JSTOR 3556498.
  24. Rocke, Michael, (1996), Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and male Culture in Renaissance Florence, ISBN 0-19-512292-5 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png.
  25. Ruggiero, Guido, (1985), The Boundaries of Eros, ISBN 0-19-503465-1 Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png.
  26. Kurtz, Lester R. (1999). Encyclopedia of violence, peace, & conflict. Academic Press. p. 140. ISBN 0-12-227010-X. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  27. El-Rouayheb, Khaled (2005). Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500–1800. The University of Chicago Press. p. 2. ISBN 0-226-72988-5. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  28. Steven Eke (28 July 2005). "Iran 'must stop youth executions'". BBC News.
  29. "7 countries still put people to death for same-sex acts". ILGA. Archived from the original on 29 October 2009. Retrieved 24 August 2010. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  30. Fathi, Nazila (30 September 2007). "Despite Denials, Gays Insist They Exist, if Quietly, in Iran". New York Times. Retrieved 1 October 2007.
  31. Leick, Gwendolyn (2013) [1994]. Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature. New York City, New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-92074-7. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 32.4 Roscoe, Will; Murray, Stephen O. (1997). Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. New York City, New York: New York University Press. pp. 65–66. ISBN 0-8147-7467-9. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  33. Gay Rights Or Wrongs: A Christian's Guide to Homosexual Issues and Ministry, by Mike Mazzalonga, 1996, p.11
  34. The Nature Of Homosexuality, Erik Holland, page 334, 2004
  35. Pritchard, p. 181.
  36. Herdt, Gilbert H. (1984), Ritualized Homosexuality in Melanesia, University of California Press, pp. 128–136, ISBN 0-520-08096-3
  37. Muzzy, Frank (2005). Gay and Lesbian Washington, D.C. Arcadia Publishing. p. 7. ISBN 978-0738517537. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  38. Kaplan, Morris (1999). "Who's Afraid Of John Saul? Urban Culture and the Politics of Desire in Late Victorian London". GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 5 (3): 267–314. doi:10.1215/10642684-5-3-267. Archived from the original on 12 November 2015. Unknown parameter |s2cid= ignored (help); Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  39. "Bringing Up Baby". Archived from the original on 30 June 2006. Retrieved 24 November 2005. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  40. "The Truth About Homosexuals," Sir, June 1950, Sara H. Carleton, New York, p. 57.
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