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Homo Urbanus or Urban Homos?: The Metronormative Trope, Philo’s Therapeuts, and Ancient Queer Subcultures

James Hoke

Luther College

“Metronormativity,” a term coined by J. Halberstam for the purpose of queer critique, can be deemed a contemporary queer trope. This trope is exemplified by the stories shared as part of the “It Gets Better” campaign: it gets better when gay kids in homophobic (often more rural; see Johnson, Gilley, and Gray) communities come out of the closet, pack their bags, and move to a big city, where they live happily ever after—usually in affluent, marital, white, cis-gendered, fit and able-bodied, gay male coupledom (see Puar 2011).

This paper argues that an ancient version of this metronormative trope existed, and one of its manifestations can be found in Philo’s presentation of rural-dwelling Therapeuts in his Vita Contemplativa. Philo’s metronormative construction of these wo/men is characterized by a form of first century sexual exceptionalism, as theorized by Puar (2007) and applied to first-century Rome by J. Marchal. Philo’s metronormative sexual exceptionalism in his Vita Contemplativa is emphasized by this community’s rejection of “queer” urban spaces, as attested by Philo’s consistent portrayal of the city as a space of sexual excess (almost always in homoerotic terms). Exemplifying an ancient instance of what Halberstam calls the metronormative essentialization of queer space, Philo explains that these Therapeuts abandon their city lives for the country because of the threat of infection posed by proximity to urban vice. Extending the work of D. Runia, who calls Philo an “ambivalent homo urbanus,” I show how Philo’s ambivalence stems from his discomfort with the “urban homos” who perpetuate a city’s vice. Philo’s rejection of urban sexual immoderation is sexually exceptional because it is also rooted in a racialized, Roman depiction of the city and its sexuality (see M. Niehoff): its infectious nature is compounded by the “barbaric” (Greek and Egyptian) ethnic groups whose religious and sexual deviations pervade Alexandria (alongside other Roman metropoles). Given this infectious threat, Philo’s cure (θεραπεύω) is literally embodied in the Therapeutic rejection of the city and of all sexual praxis: they become a rural sexual exception to barbarically queer urban life.

But tropes are made to be subverted; so, in spite of Philo’s attempt to quarantine this community, it turns out that queerness cannot infect the Therapeuts because they may already be embodying queerness. Reading this text outside of its metronormative trope, it is plausible that the “contemplative life” evokes what Halberstam calls a queer subculture (akin to Richlin’s subcultural cinaedi), an alternative time and space wherein participants “believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside those paradigmatic markers of life experience” (2). While different from the contemporary queer subcultures Halberstam has in mind, the Therapeuts can be called “queer” when considered vis-à-vis Roman norms regarding gender (i.e., the Therapeuts evince certain egalitarian impulses; see Kraemer, Beavis) and sexuality (in terms of their pronounced asexuality). Ultimately, by examining Philo’s metronormative trope, this paper demonstrates how queerness, as its own subcultural and defiant trope, can be found in myriad—and sometimes unexpected and even resistant—times and places.

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Turning Queer: Queerness and the Trope

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