Naz Foundation and Homosexuality: A humorous, historical aside (with a point)

The judgment in Naz Foundation, on appeal from the Delhi High Court, should be out either today or tomorrow – one and a half year after hearings concluded. As we wait to see whether the Supreme Court upholds the Constitution’s guarantee of equal citizenship to all persons regardless of their sexual orientation, here is a light-hearted diversion: a humorous record of homosexual practices in early sixteenth-century Rome, Florence and Northern Africa. This is an excerpt from Natalie Zemon DavisTrickster Travels, the account of a Muslim diplomat – Leo Africanus – from Fez, in the Maghreb, who was captured by pirates and brought to Rome, where he converted to Christianity and spent seven years. Over to Leo Africanus – or his Muslim name, “Yuhanna al-Asad”, then:

Both Aretino and Delicado [two famous scholars] mentioned in passing homosexual desire, Aretino recalling as inspiration an ancient marble statue in the garden of the banker Chigi: a satyr is attempting to penetrate a youth. Homoerotic practices were harshly condemned in Christian Italy as in Islamic societies, being considered sinful and now even diabolic, but they were carried on in various circles, with some caution and with more likelihood of actual surveillance and prosecution than in North Africa. During the very months al-Hasan al-Wazzan was being delivered to the Castel Sant’Angelo [in Rome], one papal court fined five men for “sodomy” in Rome, including a Spanish immigrant, a Jew, and a priest, and rewarded a sixth for providing information.

 Once released from prison, Yuhanna al-Asad would have readily discovered that the “beautiful boy”, the beardless youth, was an important figure in the male imagination in Italy as in North Africa. Among the humanist-clerical network in Rome, men were accused homosexual acts, including the bishop-historian Paolo Giovio, claimed in one learned poem to maintain a “cynaedus”, that is, a youth who was the passive partner. Castiglione, who redrafted his “Courtier” [a famous book] in Rome in the early 1520s, gave a playful exchange between two gentlemen visiting the city during Lent: one seeing some beautiful Roman women, quoted Ovid, “Your Rome has as many maidens [puellas] as the heaven has stars,” whereupon the other, seeing a group of young men, responded, “Your Rome has as many cinaedos as the meadows have lambs.” In 1524-25 Benvenuto Cellini [a famous sculptor] took on such a lad as his assistant while he was working on a vase for the bishop of Salamanca; so beautiful was this Paulino that Cellini was taken with love for him, played music for him just to see his beautiful and honest smile, and was “not at all surprised by those stories the Greeks wrote about their gods.”

 Meanwhile in Venice and Florence, whole groups of male adolescents had relations with older men as an expected initiation into sexuality. Some became young prostitutes, some sustained relations with men, many married women once they moved into adulthood. A web of languages, jokes, customs and meeting-places had sprung up around these practices, surviving despite surveillance, prosecution and punishment by the authorities and, in the case of Florence, despite Savanarola’s sweeping attack on “the abominable vice” during the republic of 1494-98. Long after the severe penalties for sodomy imposed during Savonarola’s years were softened, especially in regard to the young.  

 Linked as he was to Medici circles in Rome, Yuhanna al-Asad must have heard about his world. By the time he came to write his Lives and his Geography, he had picked up local words and turns of phase associated with homoerotic activities, the same words and phrases uttered to the Florentine Officers of the Night by participant-informers and found also in popular texts. For example, as Yuhanna al-Asad tells it, the youthful son of the current sultan of Tunis, sent by his father to administer the town of Constantine, was rebelled against by the townsfolk not only because he was “un cincedo et grande imbriaco” – that is, a youthful passive partner and coupler with men. Cross-dressing men in the Fez hostels “keep a man like a husband” as the older men in Florence talked of “keeping a boy like a woman.” The Fez populace wished death to such “giottoni”, Yuhanna al-Asad’s spelling for ghiotti, or gluttons. And in mentioning the “fregatrice” of Fez, he seems to have had a good ear for the popular words used at the time in Italy for erotic acts between women.”

Humorous as these passages are, their lurks underneath them, I think, a serious point. Recall that one of the arguments in Naz Foundation turns upon whether or not homosexual intercourse goes against public morality and Indian culture. But let us reflect for a moment upon what we have just read. Does it make any sense to talk about the “public morality” of Rome, or of Florence, or of Fez? Do we take as the arbiters of public morality the churchmen and the holy books, and the laws of crime and punishment, or do we consider as well the thriving counter-culture, this “web of languages, jokes, customs and meeting-places“? Is there any basis in logic or justice for choosing to ignore the latter, simply because these are the submerged voices that are never heard until a historian like Natalie Zemon Davis comes along and resurrects them for us? Is it not, in fact, a double injustice that we are in danger of perpetrating – to submerge a second time the voices that have been submerged for centuries by denying their existence in the construction of this amorphous, shifting idea of “public morality”?

When we try to identify the public morality of a society, and look to historical sources to do so, we invariably privilege the voices of those who wrote the histories, and end up with a distorted picture. Perhaps we need a Davis to resurrect our own “Indian” past for us in the mould of Rome and Fez, but until that happens, at the very least, our judges should not continue to perpetrate willful suppression of those on the margins by denying them protection of law over and above denying them protection of “our culture”. That is not the conception of equal citizenship that our Constitution commits us, as a nation, to uphold and defend.

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Filed under Non-discrimination, Sexuality

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