This is a reblog of a post I wrote some time ago, but in honour of LGBT History month here in the UK, which is where I am living until the end of March, I’m reposting it.
Lena’s World: Sexuality in the Empire: Empire’s Legacy Backgrounder IV
In Lena’s world, the world of the Empire, sexuality is varied and fluid. This is, I hope, presented simply as part of the background and the culture of this world, but to some extent it is also based on history.
Sexuality is both innate, sexual preferences and gender identity something we are born with (and that do not necessarily conform to the gender identity we are assigned at birth) but the strength of sexuality as a basic human need can also mean that sexuality can be situational. Men or women deprived of the company of their preferred sexual partners for long periods will seek and find sexual release and comfort where they can. In the Empire, the structure of the society, where men and women live separately for all but a couple of weeks per year makes situational sexuality a normal and accepted practice in the lives of both men and women.
But of course, there is a wide range of sexual preference within this society, as there is in any, so the partnerships range from the men and women who prefer their own sex: Finn, the young officer; Siane and Dessa, at Tirvan; those who prefer the opposite sex: Tali, whose love for Mar keeps her living alone throughout her life; and those who are more fluid: Lena, the protagonist; many of the women of the villages, many of the men of the army. One or two characters may be construed as transgendered: Halle would be one. My intent was not to define the characters by their sexuality, but let them be whatever they are, incidental, for the most part, to the story.
Where did this come from? Greek and Roman societies were well known for accepting sexual love among athletes and soldiers of the same sex. The Oxford Classical Dictionary, paraphrased on Wikipedia, states:
The ancient Greeks did not conceive of sexual orientation as a social identifier as modern Western societies have done. Greek society did not distinguish sexual desire or behavior by the gender of the participants, but rather by the role that each participant played in the sex act. (Oxford Classical Dictionary entry by David M. Halperin, pp.720–723)
The Sacred Band of Thebes was a 4th Century BCE troop of elite soldiers, comprised of 150 pairs of male lovers from the city of Thebes in Greece. The troop, whose historical existence is accepted by most scholars, given its mention by classical writers such as Plutarch, was destroyed by Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father) in 338 BCE. Indeed, some military commanders of the classical era believed troops of lovers fought the hardest, because they were defending those whom they loved, not just the state.
Less is known about female same-sex relationships. The Greek poet Sappho was head of a thiasos, an educational community for girls and young women, where same-sex relationships were part of life. The same may have occurred in Sparta.
Moving forward to the Roman era, many of the same attitudes regarding male to male sex continue, with the exception being within the military. In the Republican period (4th to 1stcenturies BCE) soldiers were forbidden, by penalty of death, to have sex with each other, although sex with male slaves appears to have been acceptable. In the Imperial period, this prohibition may have been lifted, as marriage was forbidden to soldiers.
Hadrian, the Roman Emperor from 117 – 138 CE, whose British wall is the model for the
Wall in Empire’s Daughter and Empire’s Hostage (and the upcoming final book in the trilogy, Empire’s Exile) had a lover named Antinous, one, likely, of Hadrian’s ‘harem’ of both male and female lovers. But when Antinous drowned, Hadrian mourned him publicly, founding the Egyptian city of Antinopolis in the boy’s memory and having him deified, suggesting (strongly) that his attachment to him was deep and serious. In the British Museum’s exhibition marking fifty years since the decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales, the heads of Hadrian and Antinous stand side by side, honoring their relationship. (Hadrian’s the one with the beard.)
So, like most of the cultural structures in the Empire’s Legacy series, the sexuality is rooted in historical fact, although I do not pretend it is historically accurate. I write alternative history, or historical fantasy, (choose your category), not historical fiction! But I also chose to honor the existence of these relationships in history, because so many books of this type seem to gloss over or totally ignore love that is not heterosexual, and that’s just not the way it was, or is.