Same-sex Sexuality in the Middle East’s Past

Our panelists will be discussing how same-sex acts and attractions were practiced and understood in the Middle East’s past.  Our panelists are not the only scholars interested in such issues.  Indeed, many other scholars—not only historians, but also specialists in literature—have also shown an interest in exploring the way that desire is depicted and articulated in historical texts.  From 1516 until World War I (1914-1918), the countries that are now referred to as the Arab World were part of the Ottoman Empire.  The study of Ottoman literature, whether written in the Turkish or the Arabic language, has yielded a number of important insights about the ways that same-sex relations were part of the Ottoman social world. 
One such study, The Age of Beloveds, by Walter Andrews and Mehmet Kalpakli, compares the erotic sensibilities of England, Italy and the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century.  Breaking down any easy distinctions between such sensibilities in Christian Europe versus those in the Muslim world, Andrews and Kalpakli find that the expressions of passion, love and sexual attraction in these three places were quite similar to one another.  Furthermore, they stress that the erotic sensibilities of the sixteenth century were quite different from those prevailing today. They carefully explore the tendency in Ottoman poetry to idealize attractive young men as the epitome of beauty and treat them as objects of erotic longing.  Far from being an aberrant behavior confined to a minority, such attractions were considered entirely normal for adult men. For a preview of the book, see
For another perspective on what we would today call ‘homoerotic attraction’ in the Ottoman Empire, please read about and listen to the interview with Selim Kuru. 

The History of Orientalism and the Middle East

In the scholarly debate about the history of sexuality in the Middle East, one not infrequently encounters the concept of Orientalism.  The link below explains the meaning of this term and some related ones.  In Orientalist discourses, sexuality becomes an arena where the Middle East and its peoples are portrayed as ‘different from’ and also ‘inferior to’ an idealized West. 

Michel Foucault and The History of Sexuality

      The thought of French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) has had an enormous impact on the liberal arts and social sciences.  His investigation of sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular has played an important role in shaping the conversation about the history of homosexuality in the Middle East.  To some extent, the panelists’ differences of approach and analysis are rooted in the differing ways that they accept, modify or reject Foucault’s methods and conclusions.
      The link below succinctly explains some of the major arguments of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality.  There are several issues that Foucault addresses in the first volume that are of particular relevance and are likely to come up in the panel discussion on February 27th: the thesis that sexuality is a construct rather than a biological phenomenon; the relationship between sexuality and identity; and the emergence of homosexuality as a classification.

Panel explores the importance of history in the present

     On February 27th at 4 PM, the University of Louisville community and the public are invited to attend the panel on History and Homosexuality in the Middle East, either live at Chao Auditorium on the University of Louisville campus, or on the web through the live stream at mms://
     Our panel is composed of three distinguished scholars: Samar Habib of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Joseph Massad of Columbia University, and Everett Rowson of New York University.
     Historians of same-sex sexuality in the Middle East play an important role in shaping the way in which sexuality is understood in that region. By examining same-sex love and relationships in the past, these scholars influence politics and social attitudes in the Middle East today. However, historians differ greatly in their understandings of these histories and of contemporary LGBT movements and individuals. For instance, Samar Habib maintains that female homosexuality has existed in the Middle East for centuries.  By contrast, Professor Rowson stresses that in the past people did not identify as “gay” or “straight” but adhered to an entirely different code of sexual conduct that needs to be understood on its own terms.  Professor Massad agrees that conflating past sexual acts or categories with homosexuality is a distortion.  Moreover, he claims that this distortion obscures an ongoing process wherein the older sexual concepts and behaviors are being erased and Middle Eastern peoples forced to identify as gay or straight.
     In our upcoming event, these scholars will discuss how the history of same-sex attraction influences the the social acceptance (or lack of it) for homosexuality in the Middle East today.   They will also consider  the relationship between the Middle East and the “West” concerning the history of sexuality. The event is free and open to the public. Also, follow our twitter page for updates: