As I mentioned a little while ago, I am in the process of teaching The Epic of Gilgamesh. One of the themes we are concentrating on in my seminar this semester is "friendhip," so the relationship between the epic's two protagonists, Gilgamesh and Enkidu (pictured above), is a wonderful example with which to begin. Our next text is Homer's Iliad, in which we will follow the equally beautiful, equally tragic friendship between Achilles and Patrochlus. Of course, these stories are epics, so the friendships we are discussing are between larger-than-life men: strong, powerful, beautiful, and heroic men.
However, as many of you will remember, the love that fuels those friendships is often romantic, even erotic. It is almost impossible to discuss the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu without discussing the obvious homoeroticism. Gilgmesh has two dreams foreshadowing Enkidu's entry into his life, which his mother interprests as the coming of someone who will not only be Gilgmesh's equal, but whom Gilgamesh will "love like a wife." The first encounter between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is a passionate wrestling match, which ends abrubtly when the two embrace, kiss and decide that they are to be friends. And Gilgamesh's profound despair after the death of the friend he loved so dearly spurs him on to farthest reaches of the earth (and beyond) to seek his own immortality.
Pretty much ditto for Achilles and Patroclus.
I am amazed at the way that my students, in general, do not balk in any way at this passionate love affair between men in epic literature. Their reaction, or lack thereof, flies in the face of many studies concerning the contemporary tolerance (or lack thereof) of homosexual relationships. Those studies tell us that the hardest thing to overcome in the pursuit of gay rights is "the ick factor"-- that is, the unconscious, automatic revulsion at the very idea of homosexuality. Otherwise tolerant and even liberal people often cannot bring themselves to advocate gay rights because, once their imaginations are activated, they can only picture homosexuality in the basest of images.
The dissonance between my students' reactions to man-love of the "epic" sort and their reaction to the mention of it between their contemporaries illustrates an interesting, and pervasive, characteristic of modern homophobia. Homosexual relationships have been so over-sexualied that it is almost impossible for some people to consider any of the other factors that figure into human partnerships-- love, trust, compassion and friendship, tenderness and mercy. I wonder what it would take to re-shape the collective imagination of homosexuality, such that it is not immediately reduced to the sexual act. I hope that working through texts like Gilgamesh and the Iliad aid a bit in that transformation. These are beautiful, and ultimately heartbreaking, stories of love-- love so powerful that the (gender-)identity of the lovers seems to melt into the background.