Rescuing Homosexual History

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

by John Boswell
The University of Chicago Press, 424 pp., $27.50

It is not uncommon for readers to get angry with a book before they have reached the end of the first chapter. It is less usual for them to become irritated before they have even finished reading the title. John Boswell’s subtitle to his absorbing and scholarly book will certainly annoy those who still feel that the printed use of the slang term “gay” to mean homosexual should be resisted. Mr. Boswell dislikes the word “homosexual.” It is, he points out, a neologism which was coined only in the late nineteenth century and was introduced to England (by J.A. Symonds and Havelock Ellis) in the 1890s. It has, he thinks, four major defects: it has disagreeable pathological overtones; it falsely suggests that homosexuals are more preoccupied with sexuality than are other people; it is seldom applied to women; and it is imprecise (for how many homosexual acts are needed to make a person a “homosexual”?).

As a way of describing “persons who are conscious of erotic inclination toward their own gender,” Mr. Boswell prefers the term “gay.” So, he believes, do most “gay people”; and their preference, he holds, ought to be respected. He also urges that the word “gay” had a homosexual connotation as far back as the twelfth century. But he has no real evidence for this assertion. In early centuries female prostitutes or persons of casual morals were sometimes described pejoratively as “gay,” but the term seems to have had no specifically homosexual overtones.1

History suggests that attempts to resist semantic change are almost invariably unsuccessful. Those who make such attempts usually end up looking absurd. But it seems a pity that the University of Chicago Press should in this case have capitulated so readily. Mr. Boswell declares defensively that the reasons for objecting to “gay” are “not obvious.” But two of them are very obvious, not to say wearily familiar. The first objection is political. A minority is doubtless entitled to rebaptise itself with a term carrying more favorable connotations so as to validate its own behavior and free itself from scandal. But it is scarcely entitled to expect those who do not belong to that minority to observe this new usage, particularly when the chosen label seems bizarrely inappropriate and appears to involve an implicit slur upon everyone else. (“Let’s call heterosexuals sad,” says Vernon Scannell in his devastating little poem on the subject.2 ) For Mr. Boswell, moreover, the opposite of “gay” is not “straight,” but “nongay,” an expression which, like “non-Jewish” or “non-Cornish,” may be useful in some contexts but seems distinctly contentious when used as a general term of historical analysis. As Boswell himself observes in another context, “to non-Christians, the standard division of the world’s religions into Christian and non-Christian must seem pointless and silly.”

The second objection to “gay” is linguistic. For centuries the word has meant (approximately) “blithe,” “lighthearted,” or “exuberantly cheerful.” To endow it with a wholly different meaning is to deprive ourselves of a…

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