300 & The History of Sexuality

 

Upon reading David Halperin’s Is There A History of Sexuality? I immediately connected it to the 2006 film 300, directed by Zack Snyder and starring Gerard Butler, which is based on the 1998 graphic novel of the same name. The film focuses on the historic Battle of Thermopylae in which a small contingent of Spartan warriors took on a vast Persian army. The film and novel are clear fictionalizations of these events, but are interesting to look at for their representations and misrepresentations of a central tenant of ancient Greek civilization: masculinity and sexuality.

The film is ripe with eroticism and hyper-masculinity as the warriors themselves are near naked, incredibly buff and constantly cast in a romantic light. Spartan culture was indeed focused on the ideal male form, to the point of instituting a ritual in which weakness is discarded even as early as birth. Shaved Spartan boys are then thrust into a world of violence enduring what they called the agōgē in which they are taken from their mother’s and raised by men.

What the film completely ignores is the pedagogic relationship boys were required to develop with an adult male Spartan who would be their tutor. There is some hint of this between the soldier Stelios and his younger friend Astinos but what homoerotic behavior might be inferred from this is overruled by the quote early on in the film where the main character King Leonidas refers to Athenians as “boy-lovers” with a tone of disdain. The Persians, meanwhile, are portrayed as much more sexually open, having orgies and presenting themselves effeminately with makeup, piercings and perfumes. They are also portrayed as the villain however, and their legion of inhuman monsters fighting for their lustful androgynous masters makes the film seem even more homophobic.

The monstrous Persian representation, as well as Leonidas’s remark against homosexuality (or potentially pedagogy), is in stark contrast to the rest of the films conception. In addition to worshipping the male form, the film is overflowing with imagery of penetration. This is mostly in the form of spears and swords bursting through Spartan enemies and spraying blood everywhere. Indeed the fighting is glorified at an erotic level, frequently being slowed down to highlight the Spartan prowess at an almost pornographic level. These visualizations fit better with Halperin’s exploration of Greek culture and its focus on male dominance and insertion. The films few sex scenes also revolve around penetration, represented in one scene by the involuntary gasps of air Leonidas’s Queen must release with each thrust of his spear. In another scene the Queen gives her body to a politician to help win support for her husband’s war, and the climax of the film culminates in her penetrating him back with a sword in the gut.

This brings us to the role of women in Sparta, which was unique even amongst the Greeks of this time period. When a Persian messenger challenges the Queen for speaking out of turn, asking, “what makes this woman think she can speak among men?” she retorts “Because only Spartan women give birth to real men.” Even having more rights than most women of their time is somehow still summed up by male dominance, in this case Spartan ego. Still the Queen plays an important role in the plot of the movie and in the war effort, speaking at the Senate to rally support for her husband. Despite this the film emphasizes that love is a weakness in the eyes of the military. This could have to due with the male superiority in Greek culture, as women were seen as inferiors and objects of desire alongside boys. Real Spartan men were not permitted to live with their wives and could only visit them secretly in the night, though leaving the barracks at all was discouraged.

To me, Halperin’s purpose was to display that while today’s society views sexuality as a binary that has existed since the days of Adam and Eve, it in fact has a much more vibrant history. Indeed it seems Greek and Spartan sexual cultures were so different from our own that we cannot completely understand what it was to live within them, let alone expect a movie audience to grasp the cultural differences as historical realities.

The New Black: Homophobia in the African American Community

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The New Black is a documentary that was filmed in Maryland and produced in 2013 by film director, screenwriter and producer, Yoruba Richen. Richen was born in 1972, graduated from Brown University, lived in San Francisco and currently resides in New York City. The New Black won the audience award for AFI Docs, Frameline Film Festival and Philly Q Fest, and was also nominated for the NAACP Image Award and GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary. Yoruba Richen has also produced and directed other films such as Promised Land, which received an award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Her documentary gives the perspective of the African American community struggling with, the then idea of gay rights—it gave insight on gay rights and how it intersects with religious politics and civil politics. The documentary highlights the legalization of same sex marriage and focuses on the different families and religious leaders on both sides of the campaign. The documentary critically analyzes homophobia within the African American community and attempts to determine whether same sex marriage is a religious issue or civil.

“The way I look at civil rights in that order is discrimination is based on something that I had no control over. I had no control over the fact that God made me Black, and I had no control over the fact that God made me a female. So if you discriminate against me on those basis, but being gay and lesbian, to my way of thinking, is something you chose to do.”~ Member of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland.

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Hope Christian Church is a church in Maryland that is led by Derek McCoy. The documentary follows him and a few other people, Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Black Justice Coalition; American minister and Senior Pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church, Reverend Delman Coates; Karess Taylor-Hughes, field organizer for Equality Maryland and The Human Rights Campaign; Samantha Master,Youth and Campus Outreach Intern for the Human Rights Campaign; and gospel singer Tonéx.

Religion versus politics is an obvious theme throughout the documentary, but another theme was “Is this a religion issue or civil rights issue?” From the religious political perspective there was Pastor Derek McCoy who was campaigning to stop the redefinition of marriage. He believes that marriage is meant for man and woman and that’s it. During his campaigning he involved children, who appeared to be around 7 and 8 years old, because he thought they were educated enough on the subject. Children only know what they are taught so it is hard for children to form an opinion of their own. From young ages boys are taught they cannot play with dolls because it is feminine and the parents “fear” that their son will become gay. This is especially true within the Black community. Growing up in that setting, on top of growing up in a Black conservative church, homosexuality was something that you didn’t speak about. It is “wrong, damned and ultimately a choice”. Most Black churches believe that being a homosexual is a decision that you made because God did not make man gay and woman lesbian. Pastor Derek McCoy believed that this was a religious issue and nothing more.

“The Black church to this day remains fundamentally conservative.”~ Rev. Delman Coates

On the other hand you have Reverend Delman Coates who was also a religious leader at his church but he believed that same sex marriage was a civil rights issues. He recognized that giving homosexuals, Blacks specifically, this right was another form of freedom.

Oppression on Blacks has existed since slavery and still exists to this day. Homosexuality is not something “new” or “generational” as some religious leaders like to put it. Bayard Rustin was an openly gay Black man who marched beside Martin Luther King, Jr., and was one of the main driving forces of the Civil Rights Movement, but he couldn’t be the “face” of the marches because he was a gay man and that was frowned upon. Reverend Delman Coates critically examined homophobia within African American community because he believed that Blacks are oppressed enough. He didn’t think that African Americans should oppress their own people even more, when the rest of the world is already doing that.

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“They use the pulpit as a space of hate, to undermine people’s rights…”

There is a sense of power that exists when one is in a position to persuade people. There is especially a greater sense of power when religion is involved because when people feel as though they have nothing, they fall back on their faith. Pastors, priests, deacons, etc. use their position to preach what they believe to be true. They use religion and scream what is right and wrong, but forget that denying a human their right to make a decision is wrong. They also turn people away from the church and religion as a whole. One of the gay rights activists in the documentary, Samantha Master, turned away from her faith and fell into a deep depression because the church shunned her sexual orientation.

Saying no to same sex marriage is taking away that freedom—for Blacks it is another form of oppression and is something else that needs the fight.

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“I believe that there is a lot in the African American experience, that same-gendered families can draw from. How to have a family when you are marginalized.”