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LGBTQ Pedagogy and Classics: Finding a Happy Medium when Discussing Ancient Homoeroticism in the Classroom

Walter Penrose

San Diego State University

In a course that I taught recently, the students and I were discussing the relationship between masculine women and female homoeroticism when a student abruptly interjected.  He asked “What about a conservative perspective that sees homosexuality as wrong, and equates it with pedophilia and bestiality?”  This was not the first, nor the last comment that this student made that led to disruption in the classroom.  Although I normally allow students to discuss varying points of view, I decided to address this one myself.  I began by discussing my own homosexuality, and then I pointed to the fact that teachers who were gay in the 1980s could be banned from the classroom, but that is no longer the case because homosexuals are not pedophiles.  I took a deep breath and began to explain the difference.   Then I turned back to the chalkboard and picked up where I had left off in the lesson.  I made a conscious decision not to take the comment personally; rather, I said to myself “educate, educate, educate.”  The student who asked the question later sent an email to the entire class apologizing; I don’t think he expected my response.  Other students also emailed and approached me after class and in the office; they were upset by the comment that the student had interjected.  He had earlier asserted the women were inferior to men; thus, this was not the first uproar he caused.  

How does one deal with such an outspoken student?  And furthermore, how does one teach ancient sexuality, in particular the subject of pederasty?  First and foremost, one must begin by understanding the policies of one’s institution.  At San Diego State University, where I teach, students are free to express their own opinions, but they are not entitled to disrupt a class with constant interruptions and digressions.  It is important to take a disruptive student aside and explain to him or her what the policy is.   In so doing, I might explain to a student how his or her opinions can be hurtful to others as well.  Keeping documentation and alerting the appropriate authorities of any policy violation is vital.  Setting guidelines for discussion can also help; students must respect one another’s points of view.  Secondly, one can find ways to handle certain ancient topics with care.  When teaching ancient history, I usually begin by explaining that among the Greeks, homoeroticism was not hidden.  As the text of Xenophon’s Symposium (1.2) indicates, parental guidance was part of the process when a youth was courted by an older male.  The Olympic victor Autolycus is being courted by Callias in Xenophon’s text, and Autolycus’ father is at the symposium to keep things on the up and up.  I often draw a comparison to a teenage girl being courted by a teenage boy; in such a situation, where the parents are completely aware of what’s going on, a chaperone is provided, or is already present at say, the school dance.  I point to the fact that each society has its own norms, and we need to understand the ancients through their own lens if at all possible.   If we avoid the topic of homoeroticism altogether, we will not be able to fully understand the political and cultural history of ancient Greece, as well as the legacy of that history.  Would democracy have evolved in Athens had it not been for the tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton?   Would Agesilaus have gained the throne of Sparta had it not been for his lover Lysander?  Would lesbians be called lesbians today had Sappho never lived?   Though these topics may cause discomfort among some students, they are also of great interest to many (perhaps the majority).  Incorporating them into the curriculum in a calm, thoughtful way can enrich the Classics curriculum. 

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LGBTQ Classics Today: Professional and Pedagogical Issues

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