When Thames & Hudson, for which I'd already edited Gay Life and Culture: A World History and The Age of Empires, approached me about writing a volume on gay life stories, I was initially a bit reticent. I had already co-edited the two-volume Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History for another publisher. I wondered whether there was a danger of a "great man in history" perspective, or whether readers would think (wrongly) that this was a "greatest gays" compendium. But I was intrigued about putting together a series of essays on individuals and the historical context in which they lived, and bringing to attention some figures lesser known than Sappho and Socrates, and Wilde and Hall (though they, too, are incorporated into the volume). My specialities are modern European and colonial history, and I saw this project, as well, as a chance to learn about same-sex attitudes and behaviors in different times and places, and also to write some essays on my favorite characters.
On a practical level, I learned what a challenge it is to compress an individual life, the background to that person's experiences, and his or her legacy into just over 1,000 words. Intellectually, I learned about the variety of ways in which what we call "homosexuality" has been expressed through the centuries and around the world, what a significant impact it has had not just on personal experiences but on social debates, and how many misconceptions there are in the present-day world about same-sex desires and relationships. I learned, too, how much more research needs to be done, especially on the history of same-sex relationships outside the Western world.
I hope that when reading the book, readers take away several things. First of all, "we are everywhere," to quote the gay liberation slogan. Though individuals and their societies have lived out their same-sex yearnings in very different ways, the ancestors of today's gay men and lesbians were omnipresent. This doesn't mean that antiquity's "pederasts," the early modern age's "sodomites," and today's "homosexuals," "gays," and "queers" are all the same -- far from it. And in the non-Western world, the profile of those with same-sex orientation is different again. I hope readers will learn about the diversity of gay lives. The book includes essays on ancient Greek philosophers, medieval lesbian nuns, a Catholic cardinal, a London criminal, a Finnish painter, a Sri Lankan photographer, a Japanese novelist, a Vietnamese poet, and many more. Finally, I hope readers will see that much of the homophobia that is still prominent in many parts of the world -- opposition to recognized gay unions, discrimination against homosexuals, violence and vilification, sentences of imprisonment, and execution -- exemplify fear, ignorance, and intolerance. Learning about gay lives in the past can help us promote the rights of gays and lesbians in our own time. But I also hope readers will enjoy these histories of the famous, infamous, and unknown, the godly and the naughty, men and women who found ways of satisfying their erotic, romantic, and companionate aspirations. I hope they will find pleasure in this voyage "around the world with eighty gays."
Below see 10 gay men and women featured in Gay Lives: