Race and Sexuality

The importance of sexual stereotypes in the construction of the modern and contemporary racial rhetoric is well known. 19th– and 20th -century European colonialism required a form of ideological justification, and the nascent biological theories of race provided much-needed support, granting (pseudo-)scientific merit to the colonial expansion program.[i]

The result was an affirmation of ideas regarding the necessary ‘civilizing’ function of Western powers, which, because of their moral and intellectual superiority, had the ‘obligation’ to educate populations that were believed to sit lower on the evolutionary scale. Scientific observation of the sexual behaviour of colonized populations further contributed to the justification of Western domination. The field of anthropology benefitted greatly from the new horizons opened up by the conquests. Non-European peoples became a subject of study, and their religions, customs, traditions, physical forms and mental habits were all observed and documented in light of the classificatory impulse that remained one of the most decisive features of 19th-century scientific discourses.[ii]

The construction of racial theories in the 19th century was located within a specific social and cultural context. For a long time, historians have denied that “race” can be used as a descriptive category for phenomena that took place before the crystallization of this modern biological explanatory model. However, recent historiography has challenged these assumptions. Race is not a stable, rigid category that has materialized in “singular, static forms”.[iii] Ideas of fluidity and instability have now been largely accepted and are understood to be one of the main reasons for the adaptability and periodic emergence of racial discourses in different historical and social contexts.[iv] In medieval and early modern Europe, religious labels often assumed a more or less explicit racialized undertone”.[v]

In late medieval and early modern Spain, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim rhetoric gave birth to racialized religious stereotypes that exercised an enduring influence in shaping the terms by which Christians in Europe referred to non-Christians.The word “raça” in some of its medieval and early modern applications seemed to allude to a form of biological inheritance.[vi]

As we have seen in the previous blogs, sexual themes have been intertwined with anti-Muslim rhetoric since the late Middle Ages. This combination had large consequences in driving the inquisitorial persecution of Muslims, both converts and non-converts, across the Iberian Peninsula. This model of prosecution was exported overseas. The anti-Muslim rhetoric was one of the lenses through which Iberian observers scrutinised and interpreted the customs and habits of the populations they encountered along the paths of their foreign expansion. During their “conquests”, xenophobia and marginalisation, which had previously been configured upon a primarily religious basis, were selectively re-purposed to confront new political and cultural contexts. In this context, classic models exerted an equally decisive influence. In ancient times, Greeks and Romans had identified “barbarians” with a monstrous and unregulated sexuality. [vii] One of the models that contributed most to the ongoing “sexualisation” of the fear aroused by the foreigner in Western culture was the repertoire of monstruous races contained in Pliny’s Natural History.[viii]

As already argued by Rudi C. Bleys[ix] and, more recently, by Carmen Nocentelli,[x] Christians’ relationships first with Jews and Muslims and then with non-European populations profoundly changed the perception of sexuality in the Western world: it prepared the ground for an understanding of sexual behavior that moved beyond theologically-based moral categories. The belief that some ethnic groups were more prone to vice than others gradually shifted the axis of reflection on sexuality from moral reflection to naturalistic investigation. Greek and Roman medicine had already assumed a similar perspective in its considerations of the organic causes of homosexual desire, and a continuity was maintained in European medieval commentaries on classical texts.[xi] However, when this theoretical debate came to be conflated with proto-anthropological reflections on non-European peoples, the process accelerated and helped to formulate the image of the sexual deviant, even within European societies, as belonging to a “species” to himself. Notions derived from Galenic humoral theories reinforced naturalized interpretations of cultural differences. It was commonly believed that temperate climates favored a balance between moods and, consequently, the development of balanced complexions. On the other hand, those who lived in equatorial or torrid areas were believed to be characterized by more unstable complexions and to be more inclined to abandon themselves to the passions. “Within this framework”, Valerie Traub wrote, “inhabitants of southern climes were considered more prone to sexual ‘excess’ of various sort”.[xii] Burton’s theories on the “Sotadic zone”, with which we opened this introduction, thus had their roots in a very distant time.

From: Umberto Grassi, “Sexual Nonconformity: A Mediterranean Perspective,” in Mediterranean Corssings: Sexual Transgressions in Islam and Christianity, edited by Umberto Grassi, Rome: Viella, 2020, pp. 9-24.

“In September 2019, the Folger Institute and the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies co-sponsored an extraordinary gathering at the Folger Shakespeare Library to explore the history of the ways we understand race—in all of its meanings. The focus of the Race and Periodization symposium was the relationship between race and historical periods; it was part of the #RaceB4Race initiative, which launched in January 2019 at Arizona State University” (https://www.folger.edu/institute/scholarly-programs/race-periodization). Participating in this event has been a turning point in my understanding of the issue.

Further Readings:

Margo Hendricks was a pioneer in promoting the use of the category of “race” in premodern literary studies: Margo Hendricks, “Race: A Renaissance Category?”, in Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, ed. by Michael Hattaway, Oxford and Malden (MA), Blackwell, 2001, pp. 690-698.

Valerie Traub, “Sexuality”, in A Cultural History of Western Empires, vol. 3, A Cultural History of Western Empires in the Renaissance, pp. 147-180

David Nirenberg, Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Geraldine Heng, Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Carmen Nocentelli, Empires of Love: Europe, Asia, and the Making of Early Modern Identity, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

Rudi Bleys, Geography of Perversion: Male-to-Male Sexual Behaviour outside the West and the Ethnographic Imagination, 1750-1918, New York: New York University Press, 1995.


[i] Ann L. Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s “History of Sexuality” and the Colonial Order of Things, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 1995. On colonialism and sexuality, see also Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1990. On Orientalism and homosexuality, see Joseph A. Boone, Orientalism and Homosexuality, New York, Columbia University Press, 2015.

[ii] Jean-Raphaël Bourge, “Colonialismo, omosessualità e mondo islamico nell’immaginario erotico europeo tra Otto e Novecento”, in Le trasgressioni della carne. Il desiderio omosessuale nel mondo islamico e cristiano, secc. XII-XX, ed. by Umberto Grassi and Giuseppe Marcocci, Rome, Viella, 2015, pp. 187-203.

[iii] Jonathan Burton, “Race”, in A Cultural History of Western Empires, gen. ed. Antoinette Burton, vol. 3, A Cultural History of Western Empires in the Renaissance, ed. by Ania Loomba, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, pp. 203-228: 215.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Traub, “Sexuality”, in A Cultural History of Western Empires, vol. 3, A Cultural History of Western Empires in the Renaissance, pp. 147-180: 152. See also: Geraldine Heng, “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages”, Literature Compass, 8/5 (2011), pp. 258-274; and Ania Loomba, “Race and the Possibilities of Comparative Critique”, New Literary History, 40/3 (2009), pp. 501-522.

[vi] David Nirenberg, Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2014, pp. 169-190.

[vii] Joseph Roisman, “Greek and Roman Ethnosexuality”, in A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities, ed. by Thomas K. Hubbard, Chichester, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. 405-423.

[viii] Traub, “Sexuality”, p. 152.

[ix] Bleys, Geography of Perversion.

[x] Carmen Nocentelli, Empires of Love: Europe, Asia, and the Making of Early Modern Identity, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

[xi] Joan Cadden, Nothing Natural is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in Late Medieval Europe, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

[xii] Traub, “Sexuality”, p. 154.

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Online seminar: The Fall from Grace

This is a recording of a seminar organized by the Nathan and Jeanette Miller Centre for Historical Studies (Department of History, University of Maryland – College Park) where I discussed my Marie Skłodowska Curie research (and book project) SPACES. I hope you enjoy! Feedback and comments are highly appreciated. Special thanks to Karin Rosenblatt for organizing this and Rachael Kirschenmann for her logistic support

The Fall from Grace: Religious Skepticism and Sexuality in the Early Modern Mediterranean World

Friday, May 8 18:30 (Central European Time) Online via Zoom

Umberto Grassi. Discussants: Lucio Biasiori, University of Padua & Philip Soergel, University of Maryland




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An “Obscure” Object of Desire: Muslims in Spanish Homoerotic Sociability

We saw in the case of Hamete the extent to which Spanish secular and religious authorities used sexual transgressions to reinforce the boundaries dividing the Christian majority and the Muslim minority. Today we will shed light on the other side of the coin. The response of the institutions was, indeed, a reaction to deeply-rooted anxieties in a society where the lines dividing faiths were more blurred than the religious rhetoric of that time would make us think.

Religious miscegenation was an obsession in the Christian West. Unlike in Muslim countries, interreligious marriage was strongly prohibited in Christian Europe. Any kind of sexual intercourse between ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ had been strictly prohibited since the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).[1] Sexual intercourse with ‘unbelievers’ was regarded as a source of pollution. Moreover, civil and religious institutions feared that acquaintance with non-Christians could lead to apostasy. Notwithstanding this severe prohibition, what we know about Spain, and western Christianity in general, is that slaveowners expected sexual services from their female slaves, even when they were non-Christians. Often these relationships resulted in numerous offspring.[2] Concubinage with non-Christian women was also tolerated and largely practiced in the Iberian world.[3]

Homosexual acts were different. Although they could not result in pregnancies, the stain they were believed to carry with them was so polluting that their practice was no less feared than the risk of a ‘bastard’ offspring. By virtue of their forbidden nature, however, they called for the development of an underground sociability in order to be performed, one that ended up opening spaces for social interactions that could not have occurred in other, more out-in-the-open, settings. As Tomás Antonio Mantecón Movellán has shown, despite the barriers erected by the prejudices against Muslims, the most representative cases reported by Pedro de León (see previous post) show how in daily homosexual life in Seville, ethnic and cultural distinctions were easily transcended. Moreover, Muslim slaves who were not converts, moriscos, and mulattos – all subjects on which, notwithstanding their diversity, normative discourse placed the heavy and infamous accusation of indulging in sodomitic practices – were immersed in circles of homosexual sociability defined by a marked transversal social composition. In some cases, these individuals even occupied privileged positions (as objects of desire).

Pedro Dávila, the Sevillan noblemen we already met in the previous post, appears to have had a weakness for Muslims, sometimes having been seen with more than one simultaneously. Apparently, he was very demanding. He often “looked for Moors or Turks with big sexual organs [que tuviesen grandes naturales], to buy them for that purpose.” Yet there were others who were prepared to pay even more for that kind of service. A merchant admitted in court that “another gentleman gave him a hundred ducats every time he had been an agent with him.”[4]

Machuca, known as “the Black,” was captured in the late 16th century and “by the way he addressed young and handsome gentlemen,” he had earned deserved fame within the most frequented homosexual circle in Seville. He acted as a pimp [alcahuete], “arranging the meetings of one youngster with another one and telling them: certainly, you will be able to spend time with this one who is also prone to the vice of sodomy.” He also facilitated the love conquests of caballeritos (well-off men) among the youth of the popular classes. Maybe for this reason Machuca’s execution caused a great deal of anxiety across the city: some feared that the proceedings against him could also send others to their death, including some who enjoyed a good reputation among the local elite. This, however, did not take place.[5]

The activities of matchmakers like Machuca led to the proliferation of meeting points, reunion places, and rooms where several “of the most embellished and elegant young men” could freely express their emotions and passions. Notably, these spaces created room for interaction among members of different social classes. In this context, individuals such as the freedman Machuca were essential intermediaries in the secret contacts between men from diverse backgrounds. Prostitution was a way to put men of great physical prowess in contact with others such as Don Pedro Dávila, the soldier who had a weakness for moors with “large sexual organs”, or with other local caballeritos and members of the nobility.


To set an example and leave a deep impression upon the viewers, authorities carefully orchestrated the scene for Machuca’s execution on 21 October 1585: “he was carried in a carriage with his face painted, wearing a collar with many agave tips, curly hair and a big tuft [of hair], and on both sides of the carriage, which were also painted, there were very handsome and embellished youngsters with their own collars of agave tips and curly tufts of hair. The Black, who was depicted as being even blacker than he was, took the boys by the hand as if to marry them.” [6]

The decoration on the carriage and the personal ornaments, together with the skin colour and the gestural language, represented the punishable behaviour and manners that, because they were attributed to Machuca, were considered to be sins against nature. Machuca was a “moor” and a pimp among same-sex lovers, but also among clients and prostitutes. These facts rendered his actions particularly objectionable and punishable.

Some of the strategies we have already seen at work in Hamete’s case (see previous post) were functioning also in Machuca’s execution. The cases briefly presented here, however, shed light on the role played by homosexual transgressions in the relations between morisco and Muslim minorities and the Christian majority in early modern Spain. The sexual relationships reflected the unbalanced relations of power between the two groups. The eroticization of dark-skinned men was the flip-side of the racial stereotypes elaborated in centuries of anti-Muslim propaganda. However, this semi-clandestine network could also provide a place where men of Muslim origins could pursue a certain degree of social mobility. Homosexual practices played a role in cementing social bonds and favoring cross-religious and cross-class contacts that could hardly have taken place in other, more overt, settings. Prostitution allowed non-converted Muslims and black slaves to gain not only money, but also a position of dominance within these groups. We know that on the opposite shores of the Mediterranean Sea Christian slaves could enjoy similar social benefits, using homosexual relationships as a vehicle for social promotion.

It is clear, from what we have said so far, that these phenomena of mobility were influenced by racial constructs. I will deal in my next post with the issue of race and its problematic use in pre-modern history.

This article presents abstracts (in italics) from a research by Tomás Antonio Mantecón Movellán: “Beyond Repression: Gender Identities and Homosexual Relations between Muslims and Christians in 16th- and 17th-Century Spain,” forthcoming in U.Grassi, ed., Mediterranean Crossings: Sexual Transgressions in Islam and Christianity  (10th-18th Centuries), Rome: Viella. I thank the author for its authorization to share here this material.

[1] Marina Caffiero, Legami pericolosi. Ebrei e cristiani tra eresia, libri proibiti e stregoneria (Torino: Einaudi, 2012), 232.

[2] Children inherited their father’s status if he was willing to acknowledge his paternity. Mary Elizabeth Perry, The Handless Maiden: Moriscos and the Politics of Religion in Early Modern Spain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 51.

[3] Ragnhild J. Zorgati, Pluralism in the Middle Ages: Hybrid Identities, Conversion, and Mixed Marriages in Medieval Iberia (London, New York: Routledge 2012), 129-139.

[4]  Pedro de León, Compendio de las Industrias en los ministerios de la Compañía de Jesús con que prácticamente se demuestra el buen acierto en ellos (1628). University of Salamanca, MS 573, ff. 390-392.

[5] Ibid., ff. 282-283.

[6] Ibid., ff. 280-281.

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An Edifying Human Sacrifice

Last post I dealt with some of the methodological problems raised by working on the history of sexuality from a cross-cultural perspective. Today, we will get our hands dirty with a case study, and see what happens when we start to dig into the sources.

We’ll start with the story of Hamete, a Muslim slave who converted to Christianity right before being burned at the stake for the crime of sodomy in Catholic Spain in 1616. This case shows the role played by the control of sexuality within a context of religious conflicts. Hamete was prosecuted along with other Christian defendants, but the treatment he received was far more severe than that suffered by his accomplices. Moreover, his conversion was performed publicly to restore the moral order of a society that felt its balance being threatened by transgressive sexual behaviours and religious intermingling. As a historian, however, I do not want to write Hamete’s hagiography. After all, among his charges was the attempted abuse of a child. What is relevant to notice, though, are the authorities’ biased attitudes towards him, and the symbolic role of his conversion. Hamete, the stranger, was a scapegoat, and his death was staged theatrically as a sign of divine intervention in a corrupted world, which would supposedly reinstate both religious and social order.

First of all, let’s try to understand the context. How could a case like this take place in Spain at the beginning of the 17th century? During the middle ages, the Iberian peninsula—back then known as Al-Andalus—was under Muslim rule. Despite the ongoing war carried on by Christian armies against Muslims, in Al-Andalus Jewish and Christian minorities were governed by their own laws and authorities. Though marked by recurring outbreaks of violence, this experience represents the most enduring historical example of cultural coexistence in the Mediterranean region. This situation began to deteriorate around the fourteenth century, and came to an end in the fifteenth, when the Catholic monarchy gained control of the whole Iberian Peninsula with the conquest of the Muslim emirate of Granada (1492). Christians began to persecute Jewish and Muslim religious minorities, forcing their conversion to Christianity. The entire history of early modern Spain is the history of that trauma. In Spain, the Muslim population was forced either to embrace the Christian faith or to migrate by an edict of the 12 February 1502. The political option of mass conversions generated an ongoing conflict between the Christian majority and the moriscos population. Moriscos were forced to give up not only their beliefs, but also their language, clothes, make-up, hairstyles, habits, and diet. Every manifestation of cultural diversity was potentially seen as proof of religious and social transgression. This conflict came to an end when King Philip III, in 1609, undertook the radical decision to definitively expel the moriscos from the soil of Spain.

In this context, sexuality played a crucial role in exerting social control over religious minorities. Since the middle ages, a long-lasting tradition of anti-Islamic literature associated Muslims with sexual transgression. The accusation of sodomy took centre stage in these accusations. Beyond the rhetoric of polemicists, this attitude concretely influenced the administration of criminal justice in Spain. Quantitative analysis of the inquisitorial trials in Valencia shows that Moriscos, Muslims, and black men were the most strictly prosecuted for the “nefarious crime” of sodomy.

Hamete, first arrested in Seville for an attempted rape against a child, confessed to many other crimes. He admitted he had been paid by a Christian nobleman to be his active partner in several homosexual encounters. The noble, Pedro Dávila, succeeded in escaping trial, running away from Seville and taking refuge in Italy (1). Their story is narrated by Pedro de León, a Jesuit who at the time served as a confessor in Seville’s jail. He reported how he had taken Hamete “in his hands” to catechize him. “John the Baptist” was Hamete’s new Christian name. León was surprised to see “how eager he was to become a Christian.” The “desired” baptism took place the same day Hamete had to mount the steps to the scaffold (2). At 4:30 in the morning, the convicted travelled the route from the infirmary to the chapel of the jail, which had been adorned for the occasion with golden and silver plates and sumptuous curtains. Hamete’s own look was embellished by a garland of flowers. With his prayers, the godfather (the administrator of the jail) helped the new convert thank God “for the rich gifts he shared with him, by making him a Christian” (3).

After the sacrament was administered, the scene moved to the public stage. Four members of the Society of Jesus carried Hamete/John to the scaffold. The crowd admired the way he looked after the conversion and praised the lord for already “seeing him going to heaven straightened” (4). Before the ultimate sacrifice, he was asked again if he had anything to complain about, or if he felt any anger in his heart, but “with great joy”—and here de León reports a direct speech that mocks the ungrammatical Spanish of a non-native speaker— he replied that no, he did not have any “bad thought”, all “was beautiful,” “all good going to God,” “baptism water to wash all evil” (5). Everyone felt deeply moved, and also—with shameless bad taste, at the very least—envious of the destiny of “this man,” who was “a Turk until few hours before,” and was then worthy to be admitted to Paradise.

A horrific detail sealed León’s narrative of the event: after being burned at the stake, the slaughtered body was not so hideous (“tan feo”) as others used to be after the fire: his mouth was closed and his face looked quiet (6). After describing the execution, de León’s report turned into an astonished reflection on the mysteriousness of God’s ways, who mercifully saved some unbelievers by means of fire, consenting at the same time to the eternal condemnation of the free-born Christian who decided to run away.

Pedro de León radically opposed the “edifying” tale of the Muslim slave’s conversion to Christianity and the path of abjection undertaken by the runaway. In de León’s account, the Muslim slave burned at the stake in the public square is living proof that “the last are blessed because they shall be first,” but only after a disciplinary intervention that makes them “straight” (se iba al cielo derecho) by means of fire (7).

Many layers are intertwined in this complex narrative. The public mise-en-scene of the execution worked as a catharsis: those who were perceived as a threat to the social order were also the ones who would restore and reinforce it through their sacrifice. Clearly, Father de León had no doubts: the action of the judges and the performative power of the law derives directly from God’s will. The fact that many noblemen were able to escape the consequences of a trial because of their favourable social position is not even taken into account by the Jesuit. He also ignored the possibility that some non-Christians would have converted so as to, at least, avoid the horrible suffering of being burned alive.

The purifying fire not only worked as a deterrent. It also had the function of reinforcing the hierarchical order that regulated social relations between Christians and Muslims in Spanish society. Hamete’s sin was that he penetrated a Catholic nobleman, thereby completely subverting both religious hierarchies and the idealized conceptions of masculinity among the Spanish aristocracy, which was densely influenced by the military myth of the Reconquista of Spain against the Muslim “occupation.” On the other hand, Pedro Dávila “humiliated” himself by paying to be sexually penetrated by a Muslim man. According to the moral codes of the time, his subversion deserved the worse of the moral condemnations. Following León’s account, Hamete is, indeed, the “spiritual winner” of the story. However, the reality behind the narrative is that his social position granted Dávila impunity, while Hamete had to suffer the horrible agony of fire at the stake.

This blog is a translated adaptation of parts of my book: U. Grassi, Sodoma. Persecuzioni, affetti, pratiche sociali, Roma, Carocci, 2019

Suggested readings:

On Spain and Religious minorities:

David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996

David Nirenberg, Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, Chicago, University of Chicago, 2014

Mercedes García-Arenal (ed.), After Conversion: Iberia and the Emergence of Modernity, Leiden, Brill, 2016

On sodomy in Spain:

Rafael Carrasco, Inquisición y represión sexual en Valencia. Historia de los sodomitas, (1565-1785), Barcelona, Laertes, 1985

Cristian Berco, ‘Social Control and its Limits: Sodomy, Local Sexual Economies, and Inquisitors during Spain’s Golden Age’, The Sixteenth Century Journal 36, no. 2 (2005), 331-358

Vincenzo Lavenia, ‘Sessualità, islamofobia e inquisizioni nell’Europa moderna’, in Le trasgressioni della carne. Il desiderio omosessuale nel mondo islamico e cristiano, secc. XII-XX, eds. Umberto Grassi and Giuseppe Marcocci, Roma: Viella, 2015

On death sentences and ritual:

Adriano Prosperi, Crime and Forgiveness: Christianizing Execution in Medieval Europe, transl. by Jeremy Carden, in press with Harvard University Press


(1) “Este desdichado hombre que andaba en estas hediondeces estaba ya acusado por este mismo delito, y que pendían sus causas en la Audiencia”. Pedro de León, Compendio de las industrias en los ministerios de la Compañía de Jesus. The earliest manuscript dated to 1619. I refer to the critical edition Grandeza y miseria en Andalucia. Testimonio de una encrucijada Histórica (1578-1616), ed. Pedro Herrera Puga S.I. (Granada: Facultad de Teologia, 1981), 590.

(2) “Cogílo en las manos y catequicélo y era cosa notable el ver las ansias que tenía por verse cristiano… Llegóse el día deseado en que lo había de recibir, que fue el mismo en que había de morir, y no cabía de contento, y decía: ¡Ah Señor, y qué tarde te conocí!… Confianza tengo yo, Dios mío, en vuestra misericordia, que me habéis de dejar que yo vea esta hora tan dichosa”: ivi, 590-591.

(3) Ivi, 591.

(4) Ivi, 591.

(5) Ivi, 591-592.

(6) Ivi, 592

(7) Ivi, 591.


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Islamic (Homo)Sexualities

Today I would like to dive a bit more deeply in the themes I only touched upon in my last post. I want to do so by presenting a specific case study, the debate around a book published on Islamic sexualities in 2007—Joseph Andoni Massad’s Desiring Arabs—that shows the extent to which thinking of sexuality from a historical perspective can be a politically charged action in times of global conflicts.

I will briefly summarize a talk I gave in June 2018 at a panel titled ‘Illegitimate Sexualities’ in Times of Homonormativity and Homonationalism’ organized by PoliTeSse (see section “ABOUT” in this webpage) at the past annual conference of the Association for Social and Political Philosophy (Sapienza University of Rome), in which I presented along with Francesca Romana Ammaturo, Eyja M. Brynjarsdóttir, and Massimo Prearo

Joseph Andoni Massad is a Palestinian Christian, born in Jordan in 1963. He received his PhD in Political Science from Columbia University in 1998 and is currently Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. His academic work has focused on Palestinian, Jordanian, and Israeli nationalism. When he firstly conceived “Desiring Arab”, published in 2007, the book «was supposed to be an intellectual history of the modern Arab world revolving around the question of culture, heritage, and modernity». But, as he himself wrote, «the book would soon take a different turn altogether». «In fact – Massad goes on – the question of sexual desire did not come about due to an initial scholarly interest in the subject matter but rather out of political frustration with the nature of Western Political discourse and on journalistic representations of sexual desires of Arabs» (ix). «I argued with many westerners and a few Arabs who reproduced the discourse of sexual identities as “universals” and upheld the “right” to defend such identities wherever they are repressed» (ibid.).
«In the footsteps of the white Western women’s movement, which had sought to universalize its issues through imposing its own colonial feminism on the women’s movements in non-Western countries – a situation which led to major schisms from the outset […] the gay movement sought a similar missionary task» (160-161).

Massad held responsible for this choice the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). Massad collocate the foundation of ILGA (1978) into the «Carter administration’s human rights campaign against the Soviet Union and third world enemies», and he reduces its activity to an «Orientalist impulse» (161). The «Gay International» [sic!] – following Massad’s opinion – «produced two kinds of literature on the Muslim World in order to propagate their cause»: 1) academic literature explaining Arab and Muslim homosexuality in history; 2) journalistic account of the lives of «so-called “gays” […] and “lesbians” in the contemporary Arab and Muslim worlds» (161-162).
The aim of the «Gay International» is summed up by Massad as follow: «to help “liberate” Arab and Muslims “Gay and Lesbians” from the oppression in which they allegedly live by transforming them from practitioners of same-sex contact into subjects who identify as “homosexuals and gays”» (162). By doing so, Massad goes on, «the very discourse of the gay international […] both produces homosexuals […] where they do not exist, and repress same-sex desires and practices that refuse to be assimilated into its sexual epistemology» (162-163). Massad argues that Arab and Muslim men «polymorphousness» [that is, the ability to practice insertive same-sex and different-sex contacts] «confounds gay (and straight) sexual epistemology» (which leaves open the embarrassing question: who and where are the “bottoms” in the Arabic world?).

The increasing interest in Islamicate sexualities is strictly related to the present-day problems raised by the conflicts between the so-called Western world and Islamic-majority countries in the international arena . At the time Massad wrote, some serious academic studies on Islamic homoeroticism had been published already, reflecting a high degree of awareness of the methodological problems raised by the use of the category of homosexuality in a cross-cultural perspective . However, he willingly decided to ignore these works, quoting instead less refined studies written by non-specialists who mostly based their research on English translations of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish sources .

One of the first responses to Massad is contained in a groundbreaking volume edited by Kathryn Babayan and Afsaneh Najmabadi in 2008, titled Islamicate Seuxalities, which emerged from a seminar, held in Harvard in 2003 . Valerie Traub responded to Massad’s criticisms against the so-called “Gay international” . He oversimplified LGBTQI studies. By «selectively presenting a small sampling of historical, anthropological, and journalistic works on homosexuality in Muslim cultures, Massad produces a site of critique that has only a tenuous relationship to dominant trends in lesbian/gay/queer studies or the discipline of the history of sexuality» (5). Traub recognizes that Massad’s biased criticism reflects a relevant theoretical problem. Historians know that the expressions of homosexual desire have always been socially constructed and that same-sex attracted individuals in the past were not the same as lesbians and gays in the contemporary “West”. However, she points out that the celebration of Muslim men’s “polymorphousness” in Desiring Arab is another way to articulate a stereotype. No matter whether is celebrated or condemned, «the narrative of the emergence of homosexual identity as a function of modern discourses, institutions, and practices necessarily positions the non-West as premodern, traditional, anterior» (8).

Samar Habib is author of some relevant monographs on lesbian desires in Arabic culture. She was born in Lebanon from Palestinian refugees and studied in Australia. In her introduction to a collection of essays titled Islam and Homosexuality (2010) she denounced the epistemological violence of Western discourses on Human Rights which, in her opinion, are still caught in a «paradox or impasse» (xxii). «[T]hose who reject the view that Universals are possible», see the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an «imposition that does not take into consideration what is culturally unique about non-Western». However, Habib argues that by appealing to anything more than a «universally shared physiology» one can «dare say, virtually undeniably, that no human being would react positively and happily to prolonged detention, and physical torture, or to deprivation of sleep, denial of food, or to sexual assaults […] I can further argue – Habib goes on – that such factors as social oppression and ostracism, harassment, and bullying also lead to unhappy dispositions, to unnecessary misery. From these assumed universals I can postulate that a human being has a right to the protection of her life, and to the protection of the dignity of her person». In her opinion, since all these rights «are clearly applicable to sexual and gender minorities», the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human rights emerged as an initiative involving western Nations after World War II does not automatically make it a bad idea or one that cannot be universally applicable or agreed on» (xxiii).

It’s still a fact that, up to 2015, homosexual acts are prosecuted in many Islamic-majority countries . Although there is a lot still to be done also in the so-called Western world , it is undeniable that at the moment there is a disproportion between the risks one has to run through for being same-sex attracted in the West and in many Muslim-majority countries. But if we think historically, we can see that things has not always been that way.

Gender and sexuality studies and queer theories have already attempted to address the problems raised by thinking of sexual freedom in terms of “us” and “them”. After 9/11, racial issues have gained a prominent place in gender and sexuality studies, fostering both cross cultural approaches, and a strong criticism of the strategies of inclusion/exclusion that have underpinned the social policies of neo-liberalism. The coining of the term ‘homonormativity’ by Lisa Duggan in 2003 marked a turning point in undermining the supposed cohesiveness of homosexual identities. Duggan stresses the ability of neoliberal ideology to propose itself as a neutral solution to economic and material problems, while actually engaging in a merciless cultural struggle oriented to «attack and isolate» the legacy of the «cultures of download redistribution located within social movements since 1960s». Gay organizations have been recruited for policies of upward distribution, becoming «the lobbing, legal, and public relations firms for an increasingly narrow gay, moneyed elite». In 2007, Jasbir K. Puar pointed out to which extent racism was implicit in this turn. Intersectional queer identities—Muslims minorities, but also Sikhs who are often misleadingly confused with Muslims—have experienced since 9/11 increasing isolation within the queer community.

In which way historical studies can contribute to this debate? Looking back at a time past shows that not always the dichotomy tolerance/intolerance towards homosexual behaviour worked in favour of the so-called “West”. Many studies have recognized to which extent Arabic, Persian, and Turkish literature allowed the expression of male homosexual desire in a way that is not comparable to Europe and its colonies between the Middle Ages and the early modern period. What it may sound surprising is that the progressive concealment of homoerotic themes in the literary canons of Islamic countries was mainly due to the influence of “Western ideology” in the 19 and 20th century. The “modernizing” currents within Muslim-majority societies appropriated the repressive sexual moral of “Westerners”, and expurgated the literary canon from homoerotic themes, as Dror Ze’evi, Afsaneh Najmabadi, and Selim Kuru have amply shown .

In the light of what we just said, it is not possible to reduce the relations between Western and Islamic cultures to an essentialist dichotomy. Both worlds have constantly changed through time and they have always been characterized by a plurality of—often conflicting—positions and experiences that frustrates any reductionist attempt. Moreover, we cannot understand the history of sexuality without taking into account the constant interactions between “East” and “West”. Any discourse on Islamic radicalism and anti-homosexual campaigns in Muslim-majority countries has to be contextualized and understood in the light of the influence of the West in the development of Islamic radicalism since the end of the 19th and, above all, in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Further readings:

Joseph A. Massad, Desiring Arabs, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

K. Babayan and A. Najmabadi (eds.), Islamicate Sexualities: Translations across Temporal Geographies of Desire, Cambridge, Mass.: Center for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University (Distributed by Harvard University Press), 2008

Samar Habib (ed), Islam and homosexuality, Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2010.

L. Duggan, Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, Boston: Beacon Press, 2003.

Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.


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History of Sexuality: A Cross-Cultural Approach

Let’s start with some questions about my research project (click on the “SPACES” button in the bottom left of the image above to know more) and its relations with present-day social and political issues that I find particularly urgent and that have inspired my trajectory as a scholar since I was an undergraduate student. Why does it matter to talk about sexuality in a historical perspective? And why does it make sense to explore this issue from a non-exclusively Western-centric perspective?

We are living in times of political instability and uncertainty, one that produces anxiety and disorientation. Economic insecurity goes hand in hand with the fear of the “other” in a world in which massive migrations are taking place from the world’s poorest countries to the industrialized “West” (no matter where this “West” is actually located geographically).

At the same time, the tense relations between the so-called Western World and the Middle East have been increasingly presented in the public discourse as a “Clash of Civilization,” an easy solution that avoids tackling the complexity of the situation and the responsibilities of the West in the escalation of violence in Muslim-majority countries.

In this context, the complicated interactions between gender, sexual, religious and cultural issues are at the centre of public debates. The Muslim presence in the Western world is seen as a threat to the political and civil rights that women and LGBTQI people have fought for for decades, in an effort to undermine—at least in theory—patriarchal domination. At the same time, the rhetoric of civil rights is often used to justify the war waged by Western countries in the “Islamic World”. Strategic and geo-political interests seem not to play a role in the picture often portrayed by some news (not to speak of what happens in social media). As a result, Muslims in western countries—be they migrants or not—who are non-binary or do not identify as “straight”, have to face discrimination not only in their cultural and ethnic communities, but also from the LGBTQI community.

Studying the history of sexuality in the Mediterranean world can help us to rethink some of the issues on the table, at least in regard to the question of homosexuality. The unequal power relations between men and women are indeed more problematic. But what is currently happening with the abortion bans in many US states encourages us to reframe the problem of the control over women bodies in terms of patriarchy and male domination, a matter that appears to be more transversal than the dichotomy created in public discourses between the “progressive west” and the “regressive” Islamic world would have all of us believe.

As per homosexuality, same-sex attraction, and homoaffectivity, by looking at the past one may be surprised to know that, up to the 19th century, (mostly male) homoerotic desire was allowed to be represented in the figurative and literary expression of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman art to an extent that would have been inconceivable in contemporary Western Christianity.

The ban of homoerotic themes in the literary canon of Muslim-majority countries is a result of the influence of Europe in North Africa and the Middle East starting from the end of the 18th but mostly in the 19th century, as a result of the aggressive colonial policies of European states. The progressive disappearance of male same-sex desire in literary representations was precisely encouraged by those currents within Muslim countries that supported a process of “modernization” inspired by “Western” values.

That is to say, the internal cultural and political dynamics of change within Islamic countries cannot be understood without taking into account their relationship with the “West”. Despite the complexity of this subject matter, to understand the diverse cultures of the Muslim world we need to take into account their interactions with the “West” in a context of growing tensions and conflicts. Who is to be held accountable for what? The answer is often more complex than it may appear at a first sight…


On the influence of the West in the eradication of homoerotic desire in Muslim-majority countries’ art and society see:

Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards. Gender and Sexual Anxities of Iranian Modernity, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005

Dror Ze’evi, Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006.

On premodern conceptions of homosexuality in Muslim-majority countries see:

J.W. Wright Jr. and Everett K. Rowson (eds.), Homoeroticism in Classical Arabic Literature, New York, Columbia University Press, 1997

Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe (eds.), Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature, New York, New York University Press, 1997

Khaled El-Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005.

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