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Of gay love, athletes and Greek warriors July 19, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology, Gay Life.

Haunted by high school memories, I started to hum when I learned that “Beotia” would be the opening song for Gay Games VII currently hosted by the City of Chicago, which got under way this weekend at Soldier Field.

It’s a hymn of praise to the ancient Greeks, who would have been stumped by the assumption I grew up with in the 1950s: that homosexuals and sports heroes are separate species. Far from finding homosexuality and athleticism mutually exclusive, they considered gay sex an excellent training regimen and an inspiration for military valor.

The song “Beotia,” which was composed for the start of this year’s Gay Games, celebrates one of the most famous Greek military units, the Sacred Band, 150 pairs of warriors who were lovers.

“If there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made of lovers,” the philosopher Plato had speculated, “they would overcome the world.”

Somewhere between the days of the Sacred Band and my school days, Plato’s idea was lost. As freshmen, we were lined up in gym class. A few assistant coaches went down the line, motioning the biggest boys to step forward. They became the guards and tackles of the junior-varsity team.

They weren’t asked if they wanted to play football. It was assumed any normal, red-blooded boy would. Turning down the opportunity would have been tantamount to proclaiming yourself gay, and that meant immediate ostracism at Lane Technical High School, where athletes were worshiped as gods in a pantheon that recognized only macho deities.

Consider, for a moment, the possibility of some sort of biological basis for homosexuality. By what logic should we assume it is linked to a gene for not being able to hit a baseball or slam-dunk a basketball?

Yet an axiom of high school culture 50 years ago was that athletic ability and heterosexuality were bound intrinsically. One was considered prima facie proof of the other. You didn’t want to be vulnerable to the reverse of that proposition, by looking dorky or uncoordinated.

One of the terrible side effects of prejudice is that it doesn’t just put people down. It places blinders on their ambitions, telling them what they can and cannot be.

Statistically, some of my classmates had to be gay; the student body numbered 5,000. How many of them never realized potential athletic abilities because the adolescent culture told them gays and athletes are twains, predestined never to meet?

You couldn’t sell modern homophobia to the ancient Spartans, who had the finest army in Greece. Like today’s opponents of gay marriage, they thought the marital bond between a man and a woman was one of the pillars upon which society rested.

Yet they also saw a virtue in men having male bed partners. Spartan boys were raised with the single-minded focus of making them fierce warriors. As part of their training, they were paired with older warriors. As the ancient writer Plutarch put it, “They were favored with society of lovers from among the reputable young men.”

Those gay unions were intended to foster a spirit that, in every generation, on every battlefield, the foremost thought in a Spartan’s mind must be never to let down their city. “The boys’ lovers also shared with them in their honor or disgrace,” Plutarch explained.

The Spartans’ military success made them the envy and role model of other Greeks. The city of Thebes formed the Sacred Band celebrated in “Beotia.” Beotia or Voiotia (in Greek) is a region of northern Greece of which Thebes is the principal city.

The Gay Games are expected to draw athletes from 70 countries for eight days of competition in 30 sports.

The reasoning underlying the Sacred Band long outlived it. During World War II, the U.S. produced a series of propaganda movies titled “Why We Fight.” They were designed to remind troops of family members whom they were struggling to protect.

The Thebeans anticipated that equation of bravery with feelings for loved ones. Members of the Sacred Band didn’t have to conjure up images of a loved one they had left at home. On a field of battle, they stood side by side, warriors who were lovers.

It is said that the Sacred Band was never defeated until its last battle, when Greece lost its independence to King Philip II of Macedonia. Even then, the Sacred Band’s final exploit moved Philip, father of Alexander the Great, to utter a sentiment that ought to serve as a dirge for all forms of prejudice.

Again Plutarch: “When after the battle, Philip was surveying the dead, and stopped at the place where the 300 were lying … and learned that this was a band of lovers and beloved, burst into tears and said: `Perish miserably they who think that these men did or suffered anything disgraceful.”

Editor’s Note > Article by By Ron Grossman, Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune.


1. thereserose - April 23, 2007

I thought that Spartan marriage ceremonies consisted of a Spartan man breaking into the home of his intended bride on his wedding night and basically raping her. ::shrugs::

They were some tough bastards, those Spartans.

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