This rich, if eclectic, survey of homosexuality (and the intermittent social sanctions against it) from prehistory through the 1990s is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. Novelist and journalist Spencer (The Heretic's Feast: A History of Vegetarianism, LJ 5/1/94) betrays an idiosyncratically British bent as he focuses largely on white males in Western European cultures, including only occasional examples of people of color or women. The assemblage of sometimes surprisingly absorbing stories culled from a wide variety of sources is unfortunately marred by undistinguished prose, gross generalizations, shallow interpretation, and unsubstantiated declarations; it is further undermined by simplistic explanations of such topics as sadomasochism, AIDS, and transgender issues. Inconsistently citing almost exclusively secondary sources, using an unsatisfactory combination of starred footnotes and numbered endnotes, and providing a barely adequate index and incomplete bibliography, this wide-ranging overview of male homosexuality across time and (some) geography ultimately fails as the history it is intended to be.James E. Van Buskirk, San Francisco P.L.
Spencer's work will be welcomed by many because it bridges a long-standing gap between books that devote just a chapter to homosexuality throughout history and scholarly tomes on the subject that are so dense and crabbed that they alienate popular readership. Spencer advances chronologically from prehistory and early civilizations to the current day, but he presents material to facilitate easy reference by the browser: sometimes particular eras (e.g., "Rome, the East, and Early Christianity" ) and sometimes particular topics (e.g., "Colonisation ["sic"] by Medicine" ) are accorded their own chapters. No photographs, British spellings, and more thorough treatment of Britain than America may, however, disappoint some American readers. Some passages, such as a bisexual interpretation of Shakespeare's sonnets, clearly involve personal interpretation, yet the whole book seems carefully researched and thoroughly referenced.
A textbookish chronological overview of same-sex sexual practices, from early primates to Homo sapiens.
"Western societies have lately grown more homophobic. . . . It was with great relief that I discovered many societies of the past entirely free of such a taint," writes Spencer, a British journalist and novelist (The Tyranny of Love, 1968, etc.). He offers many examples of the latterfrom peaceful bonobo chimpanzees (the apes most closely resembling our prehominid ancestors), who practice incest, same-sex sex, and group sex, to ancient Greeks, Romans, and Celts, whose socially sanctioned customs included pederasty and bisexuality. Drawing from legal, religious, historical, and literary evidence, he demonstrates positive acknowledgments of homosexuality in the Bible (in the story of David and Jonathan), as well as in ancient China (he points to homoerotic poetry and tales from the Zhou Dynasty), Renaissance Italy (as documented by artists like Benvenuto Cellini), and the US during WW II (until the subsequent McCarthyite witch hunts). Spencer doesn't break new ground; much of his material is covered in recent histories by Martin Duberman, Randy Shilts, and others. But he collects a prodigious amount of information in one place. And while he expresses strong opinions, he is refreshingly reluctant to push a political agenda, preferring to let the evidence make its own case. He maintains that the more people respect both the male and female sides of themselves, the happier and more tolerant everyone will be; but capitalism, he feels, discourages this and promotes homophobia. He takes up the view of essentialists, that homosexuality is a natural phenomenon that has always existed but that levels of social acceptability have varied greatly.
However, throughout the book he passes quickly over too much material, overemphasizes British history, and admittedly limits his focus almost exclusively to the sexual practices of men, making this account at once too broad and too narrow.