The exploration of friendship as a historical site for same-sex love can be traced to Edward Carpenter (1844–1929), who, in Ioläus: An Anthology of Friendship (1902), examines famous examples of same-sex friendship from ancient Greece, through medieval Persia and Europe, to his own times. Ioläus was the supposed beloved of Hercules, at whose tomb male lovers were said to have pledged fidelity to each other. Carpenter's anthology includes Sappho (c. 600 bce), Princess Anne of Great Britain (1950–), Lady Sarah Churchill (1921–2000), and the Ladies of Llangollen (Eleanor Butler [1739–1829] and Sarah Ponsonby [c. 1755–1831], who eloped in 1778 and lived together for fifty years). Carpenter drew on earlier work by Walter Pater (183–1894), Oscar Wilde (1845–1900), and the painter Simeon Solomon (1824–1862), all homosexual men who celebrated famous passionate same-sex friends, both male and female (Vanita 1996).
Lesbian and gay studies have always paid close attention to the institution of friendship—from pioneering excavations of female romantic friendship, such as those by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Lillian Faderman, and Janice Raymond, to later studies, such as those by Alan Bray, Martha Nell Smith, and Martha Vicinus. Even scholars such as John Boswell and Bernadette Brooten, who are interested in historical formulations of sexual categories, nevertheless also focus on friendship as a site for desire (as in Boswell's work on adoptive kinship and on medieval Christian paradigms of friendship, such as those developed by Aelred of Rievaulx [1109–1167]).
Some scholars object to the study of friendship as a site for homoeroticism, claiming that friendship is by definition nonsexual, so unless documentary evidence exists of genital intercourse, a friendship may be considered homosocial but not homoerotic. This argument ignores several facts. First, friendship and love often overlap and are inextricably intertwined in many societies' understanding of love. Thus Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–40 bce) points out that amicitia, the word for friendship, is derived from amor, the word for love. While Plato (c. 427–348 bce) argues that male-male friendship can be either sexual or nonsexual, Aristotle (384–322 bce) insists on the rareness and exclusivity of true friendship and calls a friend a second self. He considers male-female marriage a type of friendship and male-male friendship the most excellent type of friendship. Later, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592) argues that ideals of same-sex friendship have influenced those of marriage, thus the idea that spouses should share all possessions is modeled on the classical ideal of friends sharing everything.
Second, ideas of what constitutes sexual relations and eroticism vary widely across time and place and even at the same time and place. For example scholars have demonstrated that in seventeenth-century England, sodomy was narrowly defined as anal or oral intercourse, hence many men probably considered other types of intimacy, such as kissing, embracing, mutual manual sex, or even intercrural sex (sex between the thighs), permissible (Bray 1982). Third, documentary evidence of genital relations rarely exists, even within male-female marriage, except insofar as childbirth may be read as evidence.
The heterosexist assumption that male-female desire is more normal and natural than same-sex desire is responsible for conventional scholarship's establishment of a higher standard of proof for eroticism between same-sex friends than between cross-sex friends. That a particular same-sex friendship was more than what Aristotle terms a friendly relation based on convenience or utility is sufficiently indicated by cumulative evidence of intense intimacy and/or the desire for such intimacy, including embraces, kisses, the writing of passionate letters or poems, choosing to share a bed over time when not constrained to do so, and, most important, living together or spending long periods of time together for many years. Whether or not or how often genital intercourse took place is ultimately much less important than the primacy, intensity, and continuity of an intimate relationship—same-sex or cross-sex.
Ancient Hindu texts posit friendship as the most sacred and highest of all relationships. Marriage is conceived of as a subset of friendship—the final vow of seven in the ancient Vedic wedding ritual of Saptapadi, still central to Hindu weddings in the early twenty-first century, is a vow of friendship, and the formulation of friendship in this vow is the same as the conventional formulation of same-sex friendship (seven steps taken together and seven words spoken together constitute friendship) in ancient texts. The eleventh-century Sanskrit story cycle, the Kathasaritsagara, recounts several stories of same-sex friends, both male and female, who are spontaneously and strongly attracted to one another, an attraction attributed to their connection in a previous birth. Such friends vow fidelity to one another, live together, and often die together. Each views the other as a second self, and they are termed swayamvara (self-chosen) friends; the word Swayamvara is also commonly used for the ceremony in which a girl chooses her own groom. The ancient epic, the Ramayana, describes a friendship ceremony in which two men walk around a fire, and exchange vows of mutual fidelity. These rituals are also part of the wedding ceremony. Such overlapping tropes, rituals, and terms indicate that friendship was viewed as a type of marriage and marriage as a type of friendship. The fourth-century sacred text, the Kama Sutra, describing oral sex performed on men by men of the third nature (those men who have a predilection to desire other men), also notes that two male friends who trust one another completely can enter into a union that is sexual and marriage-like (Vanita 2005).
In later texts these formulations of passionate same-sex friendship are imbricated with other models of union. For example, some fourteenth-century Sanskrit and Bengali devotional texts tell the story of two co-wives who enter a divinely blessed sexual union that results in one of them becoming pregnant and giving birth to a heroic child. In another vein a nineteenth-century genre of poetry in Urdu depicts clandestine sexual relationships between female relatives and friends as well as private rituals of union between women, which establish them as lovers and even spouses. In these poems and the glossaries attached to them, specific terms are used to refer to a woman's female lover; here, friendship functions simultaneously as a dimension of amorous relations, as a cover for those relations, and as an alliance among groups of women inclined to same-sex relations (Vanita 2005).
In premodern Hindu texts, an explicitly sexual same-sex relationship may sometimes be acknowledged as positive and virtuous, but in Christian texts, same-sex friendships, in real life or in literature, have historically been celebrated only as long as they were not acknowledged as fully sexual. This is because same-sex sexual relations had come to be viewed as sinful, and those engaging in them were often persecuted and sometimes executed. Hence, even when a relationship was sexual, like that of Anne Lister (1791–1840) with Anne Walker, the public celebration of the union could not include an acknowledgment of its sexual component (Bray 2003). When friends are aware of the need to carefully conceal the sexual aspect of their relationship, friendship has at least two dimensions—it is a felt and lived reality for the partners, but it is also a cover or front, intended to play into observers' assumption that friendship is always nonsexual. Possibly as an effect of colonization and the importation into India of a new, Christianity-based homophobia, nationalists and other European-educated Indians begin to scrutinize and denounce same-sex desire, with the result that friendship increasingly began to function as a façade.
Following the rise of industrialization, urbanization, and individual mobility, the male-female married couple is increasingly expected to fulfill all of each of the individual's needs and desires, and friendship is gradually demoted to a secondary position. At the turn of the twenty-first century, this unit takes primacy over all other relations, familial and friendly. However, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and North America, same-sex friendship continued to be seen as a crucial component of the good life. Romantic same-sex friendship sometimes functioned as complementary to and sometimes as an alternative to romantic cross-sex love. The tropes, language, and conventions deployed in writing about romantic friendship both influence and are influenced by writing about cross-sex romantic love. Both male and female writers, such as Katherine Philips (1632–1664), Thomas Gray (1716–1771), Lord Byron (1788–1824), Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892), wrote passionate poems, including epithalamia and elegies, to and about same-sex friends.
Women writing about women friends also develop particular codes—Paula Bennett has uncovered Emily Dickinson's use of the clitoral imagery of jewels and flowers in her poems to and about women friends. Some writers construct a literary ancestry for themselves by using the trope of friendship to simultaneously reveal and conceal same-sex passion. Thus, Katherine Bradley (1846–1914) and Edith Cooper (1862–1913), lovers and aestheticists, who wrote together under the pen name Michael Field, frequently invoked Sappho, Plato, and Shakespeare (1564–1616) to frame their celebrations of their own loving friendship.
Women activists and educationists through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often invested intellectual, emotional, and physical energies in passionate friendships with one another, and drew their primary support from such relationships (Faderman 1999). An underresearched type of friendship is that between homosexually inclined men and women, a relation simultaneously erotic and nonsexual (Castle 1996, Vanita 1996).
By the twentieth century, friendship becomes almost completely subordinated to family; this reversal is clear in the linguistic shift from the eighteenth-century use of the word friends as inclusive of kin to the modern description of friends as like family. With the development of sexual identities such as gay and homosexual, friendship increasingly functions as a way for lovers to pass as or be read as just friends. For instance, Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) and Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962) were long viewed as just friends until the publication of their letters and diaries established that they were lovers as well. Lesbian and gay studies scholars are building awareness of the erotic component of friendship and the friendly component of eroticism and are also exorcising excessive anxiety around same-sex desire. This is helping break down binary constructions of heterosexual and homosexual, so that we may acknowledge the rich, messy complexity of human relationships that often escape categorization.
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