49 Constructing Queerness: Pederasty
by Alissa Martinez
I grew up in Central Florida, the middle of nowhere, in a town that hosted two Trump rallies. I’m no stranger to bigotry. I’ve heard every argument there is against queer rights. A point that’s always made is how new and fabricated queer identities seem. People struggle to wrap their heads around queerness because it’s new and other to them. It only makes sense that we started grabbing for roots wherever we could find them, holding up forgotten histories as proof that we have always existed and deserve to exist now. We map ourselves onto the past in the hopes it will validate our present.
The past we most often turn to is the past most revered by our oppressors. We turn to Greece, to Rome. We say, “look, they had gay leaders, and you respect them, so why can’t you respect us?” We tell them about Hadrian turning Antinous into a god. We call it a gay love story, as if making them queer makes us more acceptable. And maybe it does in some ways. It lends us the credibility of the classical world and makes our voices worth listening to in the minds of the powers that be.
Constructing queerness in this way has dangerous consequences, however. It erases important and harmful histories by burying them within queerness. This is the case of pederasty, a Greco-Roman tradition that involved older, aristocratic men undertaking sexual relationships with pubescent boys (12-18). Pederastic relationships were often understood as nurturing, but the sexual aspect cannot be denied, and neither can the inherent power imbalance of these relationships. Yet these points often are erased or otherwise obfuscated. The truth is overshadowed by a deep need to establish queer histories that ‘matter’—that we imagine as being relevant to the present.
Antinous is Hadrian’s ‘favorite.’ He’s never referred to as a boy or child in any discussions of his relationship with Hadrian. His age is hidden or obscured. Even lauded biographies of Hadrian don’t explicitly state the fact that Antinous was approximately 12 when their relationship began (Birley 1997, 158). The entry for Antinous in Encyclopedia Britannica lists him as Hadrian’s, “homosexual lover.” In yet other works, he is described as a, “handsome attendant,” and, “the most famous homosexual in history (Waters 1995, 194).” These academic works frame the relationship between Antinous and Hadrian as akin to modern homosexuality with no mention of its pederastic nature or historical context.
Withholding this information, insisting on the queerness of figures like Antinous and Hadrian, leaves laymen with no understanding of pederasty. This is easily seen in receptions of Antinous and Hadrian. In all of the blogs and articles I’ve read, only two make any mention of pederasty, and one of those treats it as a passing curiosity instead of a fundamental aspect of their relationship (Lynch 2017). Most pieces simply focus on Hadrian’s deification of Antinous and present their relationship as a gay love story for the ages. They were, “banging each other’s brains out from Britain to Byzantium,” and after Antinous drowned in the Nile, “Hadrian’s reaction to the death of his boyfriend was nothing short of absolutely epic (ROMEO 2018).” Antinous is held up as the god of the gays, seen as, “the first and the longest lasting Male supermodel,” and lives on, “in the hearts of homosexual men all over the world, his gentle spirit [ ] rising up from the vineyards (Antinous the God 2002).” The relationship between Hadrian and Antinous is, thus, not only seen as gay, but something to be aspired to.
This deep romanticization of their relationship normalizes pederasty, embedding it into the queer identity. Looking back at pederasty and labelling it ‘queer’ eliminates the distance between the two and creates a space for pederasty in the present. It buries the realities of our changing morals and norms regarding childhood, power, and trauma. It is in this carved out space, absent of true context, that men like Thomas K. Hubbard, Dean Durber, and Bruce Rind craft arguments defending acts of pederasty today. They are able to claim it as queer and separate from our understandings of pedophilia because that is how academics themselves have presented it in their studies of relationships like Hadrian and Antinous’s.
Hubbard is likely the most infamous of these men and was a well-respected classicist until recently, when many of his students exposed the content of his publications and alleged he created an abusive classroom environment. Pederasty has been central to Hubbard’s studies since the beginning of his career, with publications spanning from the 1980s through today. Many of these works have either been scrubbed from the internet or are hidden behind paywalls, and given my reticence to support Hubbard financially, my sources here are limited, but I believe they are still compelling. In his work, Hubbard directly questions modern age of consent laws by examining Greco-Roman pederasty. He states that, “the Greeks certainly did not buy into the canard that adults always have more power in a relationship with someone younger (128).” Pederastic relationships are understood as essential to the development of queer boys because, “as with most other skills, doesn’t one learn by doing? (132)” There is a consistent emphasis on Greece and Rome as the gold standards of civilization that the West must return to. Hubbard refers to them as, “the historical norms of most advanced societies,” when arguing against age of consent laws as “aberrant suppression of adolescent male sexuality (Hubbard 2010, 148).” Pederasty, to Hubbard, is a tried and true part of social and sexual development for queer boys and is worthy of reinstatement due to its place in Greco-Roman culture.
Many of these points are reiterated by Durber, an independent scholar based in Australia. While Durber claims his main concern is preserving the freedom of academics to discuss controversial topics, he presents many claims about the legitimacy of pederasty today without any examination or critique. When it comes to man/boy relationships (another term for pederastic relationships), Durber states that, “it is it not [his] aim to condemn these unions, bodies, and desires,” because he does not wish to, “participate in this act of oppression (3).” It is through this point of oppression he ties the movement to legitimize modern pederasty to the gay rights movement. He argues that this oppression and the lack of social acceptance for man/boy relationships is the main source of trauma for the boys involved, rather than the relationship dynamic itself. It is, “hid[ing] their desires in the dark,” (Durber n.d., 7) that damages these boys, much like being closeted affects queer folk. Additionally, Durber (2006) explicitly states that, “four decades ago, the homosexual was met with similar political, legal, social, and moral condemnation,” (489) as men participating in pederastic relationships. In this way, Durber deepens the ties between queerness and pederasty that was already established by classicists and capitalized on by Hubbard.
Similarly to Durber, Rind does not claim to be advocating for modern pederasty, but his work and involvement with Hubbard brings this point into question. He presents a historical survey of pederasty in a volume on the subject that was edited by Hubbard. In this piece he states that, “the conclusion [of his work] is not an advocacy for [pederasty] in our society,” (2) yet he still presents many of the same arguments as Hubbard and Durber in his analysis. He reiterates the classical history of pederasty, stating that it, “was viewed as functional, youths’ successful development was attributed to the practice, and men’s disposition for the behavior was considered normal and even noble (1).” Furthermore, he dismisses studies on sexual trauma conducted within in the realm of clinical psychology due its shortcomings as illustrated in, “the case of homosexuality (4).” This is yet another way of tying pederasty to queerness, referencing the fact that homosexuality was a diagnosable psychological condition in America until 1973 (Drescher 2015, 565). The assumption to be drawn here, then, is that theories on the sexual trauma of boys may very well prove to be just as flawed. Rind makes this point to continue his analysis, “without being tied down by the ideological assumptions of sexual victimology,” (Rind 2013, 12) completely dismissing this important context. Excluding this allows Rind to consider the case studies of contemporary pederasty that he presents without addressing concerns involved in our modern cultural understandings of abuse, such as grooming and power imbalance. This excision is purposeful and creates a wider realm of reason for arguments justifying modern pederasty, especially those dependent on tying it to queerness.
The arguments of these men, and others like them, is dependent on the obfuscation of reality. They are predicated on the exclusion, misrepresentation, and undermining of both the historical contexts of pederasty in the classical world and the cultural contexts of modern queerness. These rhetorical strategies were not made up by these men, however—they are rooted in academic moves to ‘queer’ pederasty as discussed with Hadrian and Antinous. Those works were the first to gloss over the legally required power imbalance between Hadrian as an emperor and Antinous as a foreigner (Steintrager 2016, 145). They began the pattern of labelling Greco-Roman pederasty as queer, building the ties modern justificationists expanded. They started the romanticization of these relationships and let it bleed into public receptions. It was queer classicists, desperate for validation and representation in their work, that created the space of reason where these men operate and provided the foundations of their arguments. And it is our responsibility now to address that harm and find a new way forward.
Queer history is important and should continue to be studied and crafted, but that process needs to involve more care. We need to consider why we choose to label certain histories as queer, what we gain from that process, and what we’re possibly losing. In the case of pederasty, we lose far more than we gain in claiming it as queer. We lose almost all historical context in order to make the act of queering more palatable. Instead of queerness providing a deeper analytical lens to the history of pederasty, it narrows the scope of scholarly consideration. It requires us to turn a blind eye to Antinous’s age, to power dynamics, and to shifting norms because looking at those points directly destroys the façade of queerness we’ve built around Hadrian and Antinous and other pederastic relationships.
Whatever queering pederasty has achieved, we don’t need it. We don’t need the justification of pedophilic behavior. We don’t need the discourse of men like Hubbard, Durber, and Rind. We don’t need to erase the boyhood and struggles of Antinous and those like him. And we don’t need validation of our own beings and experiences from our oppressors. The reality of my existence as a queer person, and of all queer people, does not depend on the opinions of anyone, least of all the power structures within the West that glorify the classical world. I’m here, I’m queer, and that is enough.
Antinous the God, 2002. http://www.antinopolis.org/god.html.
Birley, Anthony. 1997. Hadrian : The Restless Emperor. Roman Imperial Biographies. London:
Drescher, Jack. 2015. “Out of Dsm: Depathologizing Homosexuality.” Behavioral Sciences 5
Durber, Dean. “Haworth’s End to the Pederasty Debate.” Sexualities 9, no. 4 (October 2006):
——— .“The Imagined Dangers of Man-Boy Love” (presentation, unknown conference, n.d.)
Encyclopædia Britannica. n.d. “Antinoüs.” Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed November
Hubbard, Thomas K. 2010. “”Sexual Consent and the Adolescent Male, or What Can We Learn
from the Greeks?” Thymos 4: 126-48.
Lynch, Patrick. 2017. “How Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Gay Lover Became a God.”
Norman, Max. 2019. “The Most Beautiful Boy in the Roman Empire.” Apollo Magazine.
Rind, Bruce. 2013. “Pederasty: An Integration of Empirical, Historical, Sociological, Cross-
Cultural, Cross-Species, and Evolutionary Evidence and Perspectives.” In Censoring Sex Research: The Debate Over Male Intergenerational Relations, edited by Thomas K. Hubbard and Beerte C. Verstraete, 1-90. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
ROMEO. 2018. “Gay History: Hadrian and Antinous.”
Steintrager, James A. 2016. The Autonomy of Pleasure : Libertines, License, and Sexual
Revolution. Columbia Themes in Philosophy, Social Criticism, and the Arts. New York:
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Waters, Sarah. 1995. “‘The Most Famous Fairy in History’: Antinous and Homosexual
Fantasy.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 6 (2): 194–230.