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The Last Acceptable Prejudice
The terms "homophobia" and "homosexuality" may have been coined during the last century, but the behaviors associated with them have been around since the dawn of time. Byrne Fone, a professor emeritus at CUNY and a pioneer in the teaching of gay and lesbian studies, has put together a history of homosexuality, from ancient times to our modern era of supposed tolerance. That history, which highlights centuries of shifting attitudes that range from acceptance to extreme persecution, is the subject of Fone's latest treatise, the excellent Homophobia: A History.
Fone's examination begins with the formative origins of homophobic attitudes -- his sources include literature, philosophy, and religion -- and the ways homosexuality in general has influenced societal behaviors, lawmaking, and cultural mores. He closes with an extensive look at modern-day homophobia, as well as the theories, oddities, and perversions that have colored it. And while he concedes that modern-day attitudes are more relaxed and tolerant, the continued legitimization of homophobia by both religions and societies contributes toward making it one of the last acceptable prejudices.
Eight sections comprise the book; the history of homosexuality and its accompanying homophobia starts with the Greco-Roman period, when homosexuality was not only common but somewhat accepted. In a section entitled "Inventing Sodom," Fone examines the sacred texts, laws, and customs of both Judaism and early Christianity, including the Bible and its story of Sodom. Beginning with the fall of Rome, he highlights "A Thousand Years of Sodomy," demonstrating examples of religions creating and reinforcing homophobia throughout the ages. Looking at more modern times, Fone explores the legitimizing influence classical studies had during the 17th and 18th centuries (a period of supposed homosexual enlightenment) and the discrimination, persecution, and repression that occurred -- and still does occur -- in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
Fone's sources are varied and numerous: literary works as diverse as Elizabethan poetry and Hemingway novels; philosophical texts ranging from Plato to Walt Whitman. While his definition of homosexuality includes lesbians as well as gay men, there is little attention devoted to lesbians in the work, ostensibly because they remained largely invisible until recent times. Still, Fone's mapping out of the evolution of homosexuality and its effects on the social order, public attitudes, and laws of any given time manages to be intellectual, enlightening, and entertaining.