A Celebration of Men who have Loved Men – Gay History

Last Monday at the Gay/Bi/Trans men’s meditation group I led a meditation where we visualised standing in a sacred circle. Each person then invited people to stand on the edge of that circle  – first those who had helped them as they came out, then the gay men in recent history who have helped make possible our current freedoms – the activists and campaigners, and then the gay men throughout history who have loved men. 

I found it to be a very moving visualisation. We then look further back at men who loved men throughout history and invited them to join the circle, standing around us in celebration of who we are. Gay men were often the Druids, Shaman and healers in pagan cultures. African tribes had a word that meant “the two eyed ones” and Indian tribes referred to the “two spirit people”. Both these terms acknowledged the acceptance these tribal cultures had of gay men as having a unique mix of perspectives that brought together both the masculine and feminine qualities into one being. Far from being ostracised, if a family had such a son they would be respected and the child seen as an asset to the tribe. 

In last week’s email I was referring to ‘The Velvet Rage’ and the process of coming into greater authenticity and  a through a feeling of self-worth through facing shame and healing where we were wounded by being told our sexual desire made us bad, wrong or not wanted.

Last night I went to see ‘The Normal Heart’ at The National Theatre. There’s a wonderful moment where the main character is saying, to paraphrase, “we are not just our cocks, we are not just what we do in bed, as gay men we are whole beings who offer so much to society….”and he lists different gay men throughout history who have brought their skill, sensitivity, intelligence and care to helping to shape and form culture.


So, let’s start our journey through time by going back to a time when love between men was an accepted part of society: Greece and Rome. 

Hadrian (76 – 138 CE) and Antonius (c.111 – 130 CE) – Emperor and Lovers

At the top of this email we have images of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his Greek lover Antonius. Hadrian was Roman emperor from 117 to 138 CE (CE Common Era = AD, and BCE Before Common Era = BC) and is known for building Hadrian’s Wall and his military prowess. 

Despite being married, ancient sources make it very clear that Hadrian formed a homosexual relationship with a young Greek male called Antinous. Homosexual relationships were not considered unusual in ancient Rome, but the intensity with which Hadrian mourned the 20 year old Antinous’ premature death through drowning in the Nile was without precedent and he encouraged those who wanted to create a cult which made Antonius a god. The statue below was found in Hadrian’s Villa in Rome and is one of 2000 made throughout the Roman Empire to be worshiped as a god. To read more clichere

The Braschi Antinous, on display in the Musei Vaticani
Achilles and Patroclus (approx 1250 BCE) – Warrior and Healer
Another pair of lovers from the Ancient world are Achilles and Patroclus. Achilles was believed to be half god, half human and he fought with distinction in the Trojan war. Patroclus was his constant companion and lover from early boyhood until their death and their relationship is a key element of the story of how the Trojan War played out and is central to Homer’s Iliad ( written in the 8th century BCE). Homer simply states a close bond between the two men, but In the 5th and 4th centuries BCE the relationship was portrayed as same-sex love in the works of Aeschylus, Plato and Aeschines.Whilst Achilles excelled at warfare, Patroclus was trained in medicine by Chiron and he cared for the Greek soldiers, tending their wounds and excelling as a surgeon and healer. Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles (2011) is a coming-of-age story told from Patroclus’ point of view, showing the development of a loving homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. It is a beautiful read, moving and gentle and immersing  the reader in a world where two men are fully in love.


Epaminondas (died 362 BCE) – military general
Epaminondas, was a Theban general and statesman of the 4th century BCE who transformed the Ancient Greek city-state of Thebes, leading it out of Spartan subjugation into a preeminent position in Greek politics. In the process he broke Spartan military power with his victory at Leuctra and liberated the Messenian helots, a group of Peloponnesian Greeks who had been enslaved under Spartan rule for some 230 years,

In matters of character, Epaminondas was above reproach in the eyes of the ancient historians who recorded his deeds. Contemporaries praised him for disdaining material wealth, sharing what he had with his friends, and refusing bribes. One of the last heirs of the Pythagorean tradition, he appears to have lived a simple and ascetic lifestyle even when his leadership had raised him to a position at the head of all Greece.

Epaminondas never married but is known to have had several young male lovers, a standard pedagogic practice in ancient Greece, and one that Thebes in particular was famous for. Click here for more info on the practice of Pederasty in Ancient Greece.  An anecdote told by Cornelius Nepos indicates that Epaminondas was intimate with a young man by the name of Micythus. Plutarch also mentions two of his beloveds (eromenoi): Asopichus, who fought together with him at the battle of Leuctra, where he greatly distinguished himself;  and Caphisodorus, who fell with Epaminondas at Mantineia and was buried by his side. Click here to read more about Epaminondas.

The Theban army was know as the army of lovers, The Sacred Band of Thebes was a troop of select soldiers, consisting of 150 pairs of male lovers which formed the elite force of the Theban army in the 4th century BCE. Its predominance began with its crucial role in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE. It was annihilated by Philip II of Macedon in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. To read about the sacred band of Thebes more click here
Alexander the Great  (356 BCE – 323 BCE) – King and Warrior

Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a King of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon. Born in Pella in 356 BCE, Alexander succeeded his father, Philip II, to the throne at the age of twenty. He conquered most of Greece, Persia, Asia Minor, India & Egypt and was acknowledged as a military genius who always led by example, although his belief in his own indestructibility meant he was often reckless with his own life and those of his soldiers. The fact that his army only refused to follow him once in 13 years of a reign during which there was constant fighting, indicates the loyalty he inspired.Alexander’s boyhood friend, Hephaestion, was his closest friend and most likely also his lover. Their tutor, Aristotle, described their intense closeness as “one soul abiding in two bodies.” According to Arrian, Alexander and Hephaestion publicly identified with Achilles and Patroclus, each laying a wreath on their tombs. Both Plato and Aeschylus acknowledged that the Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, so this wreath laying ceremony would have been seen as a very public declaration of their love.


In 324 BCE, Hephaestion contracted what a now appears to have been typhoid, while he was in Susa. Alexander, hearing the news rushed to be at his side, but the time he arrived, Hephaestion has passed away. Plutarch says “… Alexander’s grief was uncontrollable …” and adds that he ordered many signs of mourning, notably that the manes and tails of all horses should be shorn, the demolition of the battlements of the neighboring cities, and the banning of flutes and every other kind of music. Arrian related that “… he flung himself on the body of his friend and lay there nearly all day long in tears, and refused to be parted from him until he was dragged away by force by his companions …” . Arrian states that “… for two whole days after Hephaestion’s death Alexander tasted no food and paid no attention in any way to bodily needs, but lay on his bed now crying lamentably, now in the silence of grief. Alexander ordered a period of mourning throughout the empire. Alexander sent messengers to the oracle at Siwa to ask if Amon would permit Hephaestion to be worshipped as a god. Word came back that he could not be worshiped as a god, but as a divine hero. Alexander erected many shrines to Hephaestion; there is evidence that the cult took hold. Hephaestion was given a magnificent funeral. Alexander gave orders that the sacred flame in the temple should be extinguished, something that was only done on the death of a Great King.

Alexander’s most telling tribute: he cut his hair short in mourning, this last a poignant reminder of Achilles’ last gift to Patroclus on his funeral pyre. According to Arrian “… he laid the lock of hair in the hands of his beloved companion, and the whole company was moved to tears.”

To read more click here  

Plato (c.428 – 347 BCE) – philosopher
As well as Kings and warriors from the Ancient world there is also Plato, the philosopher whose works provide the foundation for much of Western thought. The most celebrated account of homosexual love comes in Plato’s Symposium, in which love between men is discussed as a more ideal, more perfect kind of relationship than between men and women. Obviously this has to be placed int he context of the society at the time and is not exactly the same as gay love now. But in Greek thought there was a place for an older man to be in a relationship with a younger man in order to care, educate and help the young man enter his maturity. 
Acceptance and Celebration of Same Sex relations in Ancient Cultures

When I was traveling in Italy in my 20s I visited the ruins of a Greek settlement in Paestum. As well as being some of the best preserved Greek Temples in existence, there are also some amazingly well preserved murals. Imagine how it was for me as a young gay man, only recently out to myself and the world to see this depiction of men enjoying such easy intimacy. The images below show a symposium where men have gathered to eat and socialise. The look between the two men says so much: tender, loving and sensual. The two men below are not in such an intimate pose, but the ease of their physical intimacy says so much of a society where men were not afraid to be intimate.

I had this as post card on my wall for years, the intimacy, care and love each man shows to the other was so beautiful and a real celebration of same sex love that porn and modern photo shoots of hard, cold objects for objectification didn’t seem to express. As well as the tenderness and intimacy shown here other art works from the Ancients openly celebrated same sex love in its more passionate expression. The Warren Cup at the British Museum shows a culture that was much more at ease with depicting and celebrating sex between men. 

Same Sex Love in Ancient Egypt


The oldest ever known chat up line was apparently said between two men. A mythological story from the 20th dynasty of Ancient Egypt is between Horus and Seth, who quarrelled for 80 years on who should rule. Seth attempted to persuade Horus to sleep with him, saying: ‘How lovely are your buttocks! And how muscular your thighs!’ They then have sex. Egypt also has a record of the oldest know gay couple who lived in 2400 BCE. Two male royal manicurists named Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were found buried together in a shared tomb similar to the way married couples were often buried. Their epigraph reads: ‘Joined in life and joined in death’.
The Oldest Recorded Porn is Bi-Sexual

One of the world’s earliest carvings conveying human sexuality shows bisexuality was normal, even over 3,000 years ago

The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs, rock carvings found in a remote region in northwest China, show a fertility ritual.

Archaeologist Wang Binghua discovered the symbols in the late 1980s, but little has been written about them.

In a new report from Mary Mycio, the carvings show 100 figures which abstractly depicts different ways of expressing sexuality. Over a number of scenes different sexual parings are depicted but the last full scene contains no women at all.

Mycio writes: ‘Ithyphallic males and a bisexual take part in a frenzied dance. One male seems to have his arm around another while a loner near the bottom seems to be masturbating as a parade of tiny infants streams from his erection. It looks a lot like a frat party.’

To read more click here

The Two-Spirit people of Indigenous North Americans

It was not only in Ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece where same sex love was honoured as part of society. As an article in the Guardian explains: “Native Americans have often held intersex, androgynous people, feminine males and masculine females in high respect. The most common term to define such persons today is to refer to them as “two-spirit” people, but in the past feminine males were sometimes referred to as “berdache” by early French explorers in North America, who adapted a Persian word “bardaj”, meaning an intimate male friend. Because these androgynous males were commonly married to a masculine man, or had sex with men, and the masculine females had feminine women as wives, the term berdache had a clear homosexual connotation. Both the Spanish settlers in Latin America and the English colonists in North America condemned them as “sodomites”.

Same sex relations in Africa

Just as missionaries and colonialists were met with evidence of same sex couples in America, likewise they were horrified to discover this in Africa as well, leading colonial administrators to prohibit them.  No longer setting dogs on the natives, but using the British 19th Century anti gay laws to punish people who were now made wrong by the law for behaviour that had been an accepted part of their culture pre-colonialisation. 


The last King of Uganda, King Mwanga II (1868–1903) was bisexual and had a male and female harem and was known to enjoy sex with men – his anger was roused when these men started to refuse to have sex after converting to Christianity and as punishment he had them executed for disobeying his authority. Eventually loosing his kingdom to the British after leading an army against the British in several wars he was deposed and anti-gay laws were then passed by the British colonial administration in 1902 and 1950 importing the anti-gay attitude of the colonial power. To read more click here
Persia and Turkey
Abu Nuwas (c.757-c.814) Arab poet Master of witty, erotic love poetry (ghazal), celebrating wine, beautiful boys and song. Famed for his mockery of taboos as the court jester in Baghdad: “Away with hypocrisy … I want to enjoy everything in broad daylight.”
Hafiz (Mohammad Shams Od-Din Hafiz) (c.1319-c.1389) Persian poet Dubbed Sugar-Lips for his sensuous lyrics, many in praise of rough trade. Regarded as a Sufi mystic, but preferred taverns to mosques. His tomb in Shiraz (southern Iran) is a place of pilgrimage.
Mehmet II, the Conqueror (c.1430-1481) Sultan of Turkey Captured Constantinople in 1453 (renamed Istanbul), defeated the Byzantime Empire and founded the Ottoman Empire (incl. Greece, Serbia, Albania). Captured Christian men were placed in his harem.
Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693) Japanese novelist Homosexual love was his major theme, esp. in The Great Mirror of Male Love (1687), a collection of short stories about love between samurai men and teenagers, monks & young men, and male actor-prostitutes in kabuki theatre. Similar to the Greeks, Japan had a tradition of older men mentoring teenagers and there being a sexual aspect to the relationship. This only came to an end in the late 19th Century after the influence of Western and Christian thinking. 
Emperor Ai became Emperor aged 20 and around 4 BCE began a relationship with Dong Xian, a minor official. Both men were married, but homosexual relationships were open secrets and generally tolerated. Emperor Ai bestowed many titles upon Dong Xian, and anyone who opposed this was swiftly punished. Eventually, Dong Xian was made the commander of the imperial armed forces. He was 22 and effectively the most senior official in imperial China.

Historians refer to Emperor Ai and Dong Xian as “the passion of the cut sleeve”, which refers to a time when the couple were napping and the emperor cut off his own sleeve rather than move Dong Xian’s head and possibly disturb his slumber. To read more click here

The Renascence Era

No longer free to express same sex love gay men in the modern era still carried something of the role of the healers, shamans and medicine men of old. As leaders, artists and philosophers they shaped their societies.
Leonardo (1452 – 1519), widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived. When he was twenty-four years old, Leonardo was arrested, along with several young companions, on the charge of sodomy but this was dropped due to no witnesses coming forward. He never married but had many handsome young students in his studio as followers. As with many figures in history the proof of his being attracted to men is limited, but feasible.
Michelangelo (1475 – 1564), considered the greatest living artist in his lifetime, he has since been held as one of the greatest artists of all time. Again any proof of his love for men is limited and contested. The clear delight he took in observing and depicting the male form is often taken as evidence of his interests and in 1532 Michelangelo met and fell in love with a young Roman nobleman, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, described by the humanist Benedetto Varchi as possessing ‘not only incomparable physical beauty, but so much elegance in manners, such excellent intelligence, and such graceful behavior’. Tommaso married in 1538 and had two sons, but Michelangelo remained devoted for the rest of his life, dedicating numerous poems and several presentation drawings to him.

My lover stole my heart, just over there– so gently! – and stole much more, my life as well.

And there, all promise, first his fine eyes fell

on me, and there his turnabout meant no.

He manacled me there; there let me go;

There I bemoaned my luck; with anguished eye

watched, from this very rock, his last goodbye

as he took myself from me, bound who knows where.

The Complete Poems of Michelangelo
translated by John Frederick Nims
©1998 by The University of Chicago
Gay Popes

And it was not only the artists of the Renaissance who liked men, but also, it is claimed, several Popes, including Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) and Pope Julius III (1550-1555). To read more click here

A Gallery Of Men Who Have Loved Men

In the centuries since gay men have been artists, composers, writers, poets, philosophers, leaders, sports men and scientists, as well as men history no longer remembers, simply living their lives in the hope of happiness. The following is only a snap shot and not at all  intended to be exhaustive. Names are listed below the photograph montage.



1. Economist and Playwright: John Maynard Keynes and Oscar Wild

2. King and poet: Ferdinand I of Bulgaria and Langston Hughes (1902-1967) Langston Hughes was an African-American poet and a central figure in Harlem Renaissance and founding father of black American literature.

3. The War Poets: Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen

4. Novelists: E.M. Forster and Marcel Proust

5. Art critic/ballet impresario and composer: Diaghilev and Tchaikovsky

6. Composer and playwright: Sir Michael Tippet and Tennessee Williams

7. Politician and poet: the two contentious men on this list! Abraham Lincoln and Shakespeare. Lincoln was known to have shared a bed with a male friend he lived with for several years as a young man and later as president his body guard was known to share his bed when Lincoln’s wife was away. This is explained as being usual 19th Century practice where men shared beds when traveling or were too poor to rent their own rooms. Lincolns marriage and fatherhood is presented as proof that he could not have been homosexual – but then Oscar Wilde was married and had children. There are some poems by Lincoln that describe a same sex relationship which were suppressed for some time from his published work and more recently a diary has been found that purportedly is Lincoln’s and gives evidence for his same sex love. We may  never know. To read more of this discussion click here.

With Shakespeare the discussion is contested and rests on the reading of some of the sonnets and the playing with gender identities in the plays. Sonnet 20 is most often looked at as evidence of Shakespeare’s longing for another man.

What’s in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what now to register,
That may express my love or my dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet like prayers divine
I must each day say o’er the very same,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love’s fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,
Finding the first conceit of love there bred
Where time and outward form would show it dead.
Sonnet 108, Shakespear
To read of the sexuality in his sonnets click here and a discussion of whether he was gay here

What the lack of clarity shows is how hard it is to find clear evidence from an age when such relations had to be secret and how many men have been presumed to be straight due to the silence they had to maintain. In this I’m reminded of how even in the 20th Century gay men in the public eye maintained that they were straight, which brings us to Dirk Bogarde.


8. Actors: in the closet and out. Dirk Bogarde directly denied being gay, saying “why should I lie about this” whilst actually living with his male lover in France. This despite his role in the ground breaking film Victim, which looked at the impact of blackmail on a gay man. Were we to only go on the evidence of interviews with him and his surviving written work we would have to assume Dirk Bogart were straight. To read more click here. How much harder then to find evidence from an age when, as in Shakespeare’s time, the punishment for sodomy was death?

Sir Ian Mckellen, who came out in 1988 aged 49.

9. Actor and philosopher of history: Rock Hudson and Michel Foucault

10. Scientist and musician: Alan Turing and David Bowie. Two men who shaped the modern age through science and art. Turing not only broke the German enigma code but was also the founder of computer science laying the foundations for the modern age of computing. Convicted for gay sex and chemically castrated he killed himself a few years later.

11. Polymath and activist: Stephen Fry and Peter Tatchell

12. Dancer and activist: Rudolf Nureyev and Harvey Milk

13. Gay rights campaigners: Allan Horsfall (1927–2012) was a British gay rights campaigner and founder of the North West Committee for Homosexual Law Reform, which became the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. In Horsfall’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Peter Tatchell described him as “one of the grandfathers of the gay rights movement in Britain” and “one of the truly great pioneers of LGBT equality in Britain” To read more click here

Antony Grey (1927 – 2010) is regarded as Britain’s first gay rights activist and was instrumental in forcing the government to push through the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which paved the way for modern law reform. He began campaigning for gay equality in 1958, when he joined the Homosexual Law Reform Society, which campaigned to change laws which criminalised gay men.To read more click here

14. Political activists: Keith Boykin, the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Clinton White House Kieth helped organize the nation’s first meeting between gay and lesbian leaders and a U.S. President.

Bayard Rustin, who campaigned with Martin Luther King for black rights and went on to campaign for gay rights. He convinced King of the value of non-violent protest and helped to organise the March on Washington.

15. Writer and musician: James Baldwin, author of Giovanni’s Room and Frank Ocean, the first Hip Hop artist to come out as gay.

16. Football and swimming: Justin Fashanu, the first professional footballer to come out as gay in 1990, who sadly killed himself. Tom Daily, Olympic swimming champion.

17. Rugby: Keegan Hirst: The first British rugby league player to come out as gay in 2015 aged 27.

Gareth Thomas: Thomas’ public confirmation of his sexuality in 2009 made him the first openly gay professional rugby union player.

18. Comedian and writer:  Julian Clary, whose show ‘sticky moments’ on channel 4 in 1989 was central to my coming out process. Seeing an openly gay man being cheeky and playful with a mainly straight audience gave me hope and helped me to realise that I was not alone.

G. Winston James is a Jamaican-born author and poet and a former fellow of the Millay Colony for the Arts. James is the former Executive Director of the Other Countries: Black Gay Expression artists’ collective and a founding organizer of Fire & Ink: A Writers Festival for GLBT People of African Descent. James is also co-editor of the historic anthologies Voices Rising: Celebrating 20 Years of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Writing and the Lambda Literary Award finalist publication Spirited: Affirming the Soul and Black Gay/Lesbian Identity. To read more about him click here

19. Fashion: Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent

20. Tech and banking: Tim Cook, CEO of Apple “If hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is … then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.”

Antonio Simoes CEO, HSBC Bank

21. Buisiness and banking: Michael Sosso, Vice President, Ethics and Compliance, BP and Peter Zorn, Managing Director, Deutsche Bank.

22. Entrepreneur and human rights activist: Jared Eng, founder of pop culture website justjared.com Just Jared was recently named to Yahoo’s Top 10 Bloggers Roll (alongside the Huffington Post & TMZ) and was previously highlighted by Vanity Fair & InStyle as one of the world’s leading Entertainment Sites.

Dan Choi became the face of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when he first came out on The Rachel Maddow Show in 2009. Lt. Choi, who’s Korean-American, was an Arabic translator in the Army National Guard and was discharged under the discriminatory policy that barred openly gay and lesbian soldiers from serving in the military. DADT was repealed in 2011.

23. Politics: Alan Duncan, MP for Rutland and Melton was the first Tory MP to voluntarily come out, in 2002.

Stephen Twigg was elected as a labour MP in 1997, defeating Micheal Portillo in what was thought to be a safe Conservative seat. He was elected as an openly gay man. There are now more openly gay MPs at Westminster than in any other parliament around the world.

To read more about the number of openly gay MPs in the UK click here

24. Royalty and Politics: Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil is an openly gay Indian prince who is the son and probable heir of the Maharaja of Rajpipla in Gujarat.

Leo Varadkar, came out whilst being Ireland’s minister for social protection and went on to be elected Taoiseach of Ireland, the first ever openly gay Prime Minster. He came out as gay during the same-sex marriage referendum campaign in Ireland in 2015.

And so the list could go on…….

If this selection has interested you to see a much more detailed list of men and women who have loved their own gender throughout history click here

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