Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Alexander the Great; these are just some of the names that are often mentioned when discussing LGBT+ identities. I’m not really talking about the historical evidence which proves or disproves what their sexuality was, but is it still accurate to describe them using current LGBT+ terminology?
Take Alexander the Great for example. The English language didn’t exist when he was alive, let alone the word “gay”. Our current conception of sexuality was foreign to ancient Greece. No one was defining their sexuality by the gender of their lovers. Obviously ideas surrounding sexuality would have changed in ancient Greece throughout the centuries, but generally it could be said that what was considered sexually acceptable depended on who was performing particular sex acts.
There were ‘active’ partners, and there were ‘passive’ partners. It shouldn’t be surprising that in a patriarchal society like ancient Greece, all women were inherently viewed as ‘passive’ partners. Following that logic, it was shameful for a man to be the passive partner, but many men in the era - particularly in the higher classes - enjoyed sexual relationships with men that were not seen as taboo due to their role as the ‘active’ partner.
So to describe Alexander, or any one of his contemporaries, as gay may not be entirely accurate as that wasn’t the framework society was using at the time. The word “homosexual” first appeared in print in 1869 in a German pamphlet arguing against anti-sodomy laws in Prussia. It would take many decades for the word and concept to trickle down to wider society. So, while same-sex activity spans millennia, our modern understanding of it is not even close to being as ancient.
Then again, language is first and foremost about communication. It may not be entirely historically accurate to describe figures from the past as some form of LGBT+, but ultimately that usually conveys a general understanding of what romantic and sexual relationships they enjoyed. It’s certainly quicker to describe Alexander as gay or bisexual than it is to enter a larger conversation about ancient Greek sexual customs.
But even then we’re still left in a tricky situation. Namely, whether certain people should be described as either gay or bisexual. Which is more accurate? Obviously it depends on a case by case basis. If we look at former Roman emperor Hadrian for example, he had a pretty unhappy marriage with his wife by all accounts. However, Antinous - a Greek youth - was said to be a favourite beloved of Hadrian. When Antinous tragically drowned, Hadrian had him deified almost immediately. He even had the ancient city of Antinoöpolis named in his honour. There’s almost no doubt that Hadrian and Antinous were lovers. But should Hadrian definitely be called gay as opposed to bisexual?
What’s most interesting though is that these conversations are largely seen as irrelevant or unnecessary for historical figures who are viewed as definitely straight. We live in a world that sees straight as the default. As such, unless there’s outstanding evidence to the contrary, most historical figures are labelled as heterosexual.
Earlier I mentioned how the word “homosexual” is quite modern - the same can be said for heterosexual. Yet the same reservations about labelling someone like Alexander the Great as gay are not taken into account when someone is presumed as straight. Like I previously said, the primary purpose of language is to communicate, and it’s okay to simplify ideas sometimes to get the general message across. But the same caveats that come with calling an ancient figure some variety of LGBT+ should also be used when describing someone as straight. It’s important to challenge the heteronormative aspects of teaching history.
OUR MISSION IS TO:
• Deliver the highest quality care and support to people living with HIV/AIDS or STIs.
• Empower those living with HIV to optimise their health and well-being.
• Raise awareness around HIV/AIDS, and STI issues and work to eradicate stigma and discrimination.
• Promote positive sexual health without prejudice or discrimination.
We closed our offices on Friday March 13 and immediately looked to see how we could continue to offer our support services as well as our prevention and education services. As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team at Sexual Health West had the challenge to try and provide support and services to our clients without having the advantage of face to face support.
We set up a remote helpline and continued to monitor our email addresses, social media etc to ensure that clients and service users could access our support. We reached out to service users and ensured we kept up-to-date and fully informed re: HIV and COVID-19. We contacted all schools, colleges and community groups where we had planned to deliver our WISER (West of Ireland Sexuality Education Resource).
We realised that this was going to be a long term lockdown, so we immediately looked to continue online and telephone support to our clients and service users. We set up a designated helpline number, email contacts and also ensured our social media and website shared key messages and support.
Sexual Health West
(formerly AIDS West) are a West of Ireland based charity working in the area of HIV and Sexual Health. Their offices are located in Galway. Here they share their mission and how they have adapted to COVID-19.
In our regular working year, we would be distributing up to 20,000 condoms to clients dropping into our offices, working with Universities and ITs, distributing at local events and providing condoms and lubricant to local support services. So, with the restrictions and our office closure, a ‘Safe Sex Package’ condom campaign was created. Assembling protection packages, which included; condoms lubricant and STI information, we heavily promoted our campaign on our website and social media platforms.
We successfully delivered over 2000 condoms to anyone who required protection. We set up a discreet service where anyone who was in need could reach out and one of our team members would answer their request, provide them information about COVID-19 and sexual activity, links and supports to our own website and send a discreet package to anywhere in Ireland.
The campaign continues to be a huge success. Thanks to the huge supply of condoms we received from the HSE National Condom Distribution service, we are making tsure they are getting to those who need the support the most.
We would usually deliver our Little WISER Programmes to young children in Sixth Class in spring / summer. As schools were closed we had to be creative, so we developed bespoke videos of our sexual health education materials to support the children, parents and teachers. These went online in June as we contacted all schools with links to these programmes across our region of Galway, Mayo and Roscommon.
We are now looking to develop virtual videos of our Junior Cycle and Senior Cycle Relationships and Sexuality Programmes – we hope these will be available to schools in Autumn 2020. These will be supported by a live link to our WISER Educators via Zoom, Teams etc. This is an exciting new venture for us made necessary because it looks very unlikely that schools and community groups will be operating at any kind of normal capacity in the foreseeable future.
We gradually opened services once again from Monday 10 August. It’s difficult as we are in a shared building with colleagues from other great organisations, therefore generic restrictions still apply. We are focusing heavily on developing our outreach programmes as it looks likely that we are going to be further restricted for the foreseeable future.
In the coming months, we are reopening and expanding our Rapid HIV Testing Programme.
We are developing virtual Sexual Health Relationships and Sexuality Education Programmes for young people in Schools, Youthreach Centres etc. and also for a wide variety of community groups across many sectors ie Amach! Teach Solas LGBT+ Resource Centre, The BRIDGE Project / Direct Provision, Disability Sector.
Unfortunately we have made the decision to cancel our traditional World AIDS Day Concert due to be held Tuesday December 1 – this would have been the 19th consecutive year of the concert. We are looking at alternative events however so watch this space!
Please see www.sexualhealthwest.ie and www.bewiser.ie for more information.