Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash
Lovers and Fighters:
Not as Far Apart as They Seem
by Con Chapman
In 338 B.C., a troop of soldiers known as The Sacred Band of Thebes fought valiantly but were vanquished by the Macedonians along with their fellow Greeks at the Battle of Chaeronea. The other Greek soldiers who died that day were mourned by their wives back home, but not The Sacred Band of Thebes; their unit was composed entirely of homosexual lovers, and not only that, but couples separated by a difference in age that we would consider pedophiliac today if the junior member of the pair were a bit younger.
While The Sacred Band of Thebes were unique in their one-on-one erotic link between buddies, the conjunction of homosexuality with the armed warriors of a nation, so controversial in 21st century America, was commonplace in ancient Greece. “The most widely accepted generalization about Greek homosexuality . . . is that it originated in the military organization of Dorian states,” writes K.J. Dover in his comprehensive study Greek Homosexuality. While Dover hedges this claim a bit, he cites contemporary sources ranging from Plato to Hesykhios, a grammarian, and Aristarkhos, an astronomer and mathematician, in support of it.
The phenomenon of sexual relations between a younger man (an eromenos) and an older one (an erastes) in a martial context grew, according to Dover, out of the fact that Greek city-states maintained a posture of constant defense against outside enemies. Boys were taken from their families and placed under the supervision of the military, and were thus exposed to unrelated adult males in messes and barracks. Drily noting that “in our own day . . . segregation of males into armies, ships or prisons promotes homosexual behavior,” Dover concludes that the truth of the matter lies between two extremes: on the one hand, the official position of Sparta and Crete (two Dorian communities) was that an older man who took on the training of a boy must abstain from sexual relations with him; on the other, Athenians—the enlightened and cultured blue state opposites of the warlike Spartans—considered man-boy love (paiderastia) among their red-state rivals to be a truth that needed no proof, and invoked it as a stereotype for comic purposes, as in Aristophanes’ plays The Birds, The Knights, and The Clouds.
Today our wars are thankfully fought in far-off lands, often by soldiers of lesser client states. And so for domestic consumption and satisfaction of our atavistic appetite for violence, we turn to proxy wars in the form of sport, as did the Greeks. In times of peace among the city-states, sports became a substitute for military training and Spartan boys, whose protectors would otherwise have hardened them out of doors in preparation for war, were moved inside to gymnasia. Over time, the attention of mature males for young athletes practicing there became a problem; a law was passed that barred adult men from wrestling arenas, but the rule was routinely evaded or ignored. Lucian of Samosata, a Greek satirist, said of one such boy-lover “You care for gymnasiums and their sleek-oiled combatants.”
On American soil, sports have similarly served as a substitute for battle from the days when native tribes had not yet been exiled from their homelands; the Iroquois, for example, referred to lacrosse, the sport they played in times of peace, as the “little brother of war.” While we are less candid, the language of our current-day sports reporting, in which the victors crush, blast and destroy their opponents rather than merely outscoring them, reminds one more of dispatches from a war zone than a dry report as to the tally of what are (we sometimes forget) just games. The symbols adopted by organized teams at all levels bear out the channeled aggression of sports as a substitute for mortal combat. Witness the many big cats (lions, tigers and panthers), birds of prey (eagles, hawks, and ravens), and other carnivores chosen by college and professional teams as mascots, the modern-day equivalent of a primitive tribe’s totem. There are even human mascots who embody in literal terms the military character of competitive athletics (Patriots, Rangers, Raiders, and so forth) as well as nods to the days of Homer — Trojans and Spartans.
The attraction that athletes of today exert on male fans approaches — without completely replicating — the phenomenon that developed among the ancient Greeks. Overly-obsessed fans are referred to as “jock sniffers,” and their relationship to their favorite athletes as a “bromance.” The longest treatment of this sort of sublimated passion is Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a 1968 fictional memoir of a man’s obsession with Frank Gifford, a handsome and talented running back for the New York Giants. Athletes themselves aren’t immune to it; Charles Barkley, the former professional basketball player, was recently quoted saying of New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady “he’s a pretty man. I looked him in the eyes, and I said, ‘Damn, you’re a pretty man.’ That’s what I was thinking to myself.”
Even sports writers, whose job it is to trek to every game and who thus are assumed to be case-hardened cynics who have seen it all, catch this lovesickness. The sport that — more than almost all others — dispenses with the support of teammates and the niceties of legalistic protections (off-sides, foul shots, the award of a base when hit by a pitch), is boxing; man stands against man, nearly naked, free to beat each other into submission. In the twentieth century heavyweight Muhammad Ali attracted the sort of attention from sports scribes that Aeschylus noticed in a “noisy haunter of gymnasiums” eighteen hundred years earlier. Writers swooned over Ali in prose that would have embarrassed a boy band reporter for a teen girls’ magazine: George Plimpton wrote that Ali had “great good looks”; Norman Mailer said the first round of the Ali-Frazier rematch was the “equivalent to the first kiss in a love affair”, and later the fighters “moved like somnambulists slowly working and rubbing one another, almost embracing . . . locked in the slow moves of lovers after the act”; Pete Hamill remarked that Ali had “beautiful legs.”
As with much else about Ali, there is nothing new about the afflatus that boxers blow upon writers. In Pugilistica, an earlier 20th century history of British boxing, the author quotes the following description by a correspondent for the Morning Post, of Jem Belcher, Champion of England from 1798 to 1809: “He . . . strips remarkably well, displaying much muscle . . . a braver boxer never pulled off a shirt.” Such descriptions abound in 19th century newspaper accounts of prize fights, which at the time were, like homosexual relations, illegal.
It is an irony for the ages that the prevailing regulations that govern boxing today are based on the Marquis of Queensberry Rules, published in 1865 by John Sholto Douglas, the eighth Marquess (the English version of the title) of Queensberry and the father of Lord Alfred Douglas, the younger man whose homosexual relationship with the older poet, playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde started the chain of events that resulted in a sentence of two years’ hard labor for Wilde.
Wilde sued for criminal libel in 1891 after Queensberry, enraged by the attentions Wilde was paying to his son, sixteen years younger, left a calling card at Wilde’s club in London for “Oscar Wilde posing somdomite” (sic). To the charge of libel Queensberry raised the defense of truth, and produced evidence that Wilde had consensual sex with “rent boys,” young male prostitutes from the lower classes. Wilde denied the charge, but later admitted he was lying. He, like the Spartan elders, was what we would consider a pedophile.
Wilde was also, as it turns out, a bit of a boxer. At Trinity College, Dublin, Wilde confronted a bully who sneered at him after he recited one of his poems in class, and asked by what right he did so. When the other boy laughed, Wilde struck him in the face. The two took matters outside of school, where Wilde bested his opponent. At approximately 6’ 3” in height, Wilde would no doubt have been a heavyweight, and he suffered from a form of gigantism known as acromegaly, which gave him outsized hands to punch with. Nonetheless, the outcome probably surprised schoolboy odds-makers. Wilde was an indifferent and lackadaisical athlete at Oxford; when asked what outdoor games he preferred, he said “I have sometimes played dominoes outside French cafés.”
While Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellman says this incident may have been apocryphal, there were others. In one, a gang of students burst into Wilde’s rooms, intending to beat him and destroy his furniture. Wilde booted out one, doubled up a second with a punch, threw out a third, and taking hold of a fourth — a man as big as himself — carried him back to his room and buried him beneath the furniture.
Wilde and Queensberry never came to blows, but on one occasion they came close. Determined to break off relations between Wilde and his son, Queensberry came to Wilde’s residence accompanied by a prizefighter. While he stopped short of accusing Wilde of sexual relations with his son, Queensberry told the poet “You look it and you pose as (a homosexual), which is just as bad.” Wilde sent the two away with a witticism: “I do not know what the Queensberry rules are,” he is supposed to have said, “but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”
Despite this intertwined history between the rules of boxing and homosexuality, it is of course verboten to suggest that a boxer is gay — even if he is. The practice of taunting one’s opponent by questioning his masculinity dates at least to the days of Samuel “Dutch Sam” Elias, who in an 1805 fight responded to a wild rush by his opponent by calling out to the crowd that the other boxer was trying to kiss him. The suggestion by one boxer that his opponent is homosexually inclined is nonetheless considered the rankest form of abuse in the trade.
The act of doing so proved fatal on the night of March 24, 1962, when Emile Griffith defeated Benny “Kid” Paret by a knockout in the twelfth round of a welterweight championship fight broadcast on national television. In a doleful footnote to the contest, the Ring Record Book notes that Paret died ten days later from injuries received in the bout.
The two men had fought twice before in the previous twelve months, swapping the welterweight crown back and forth. They had thus come to know each other, perhaps a bit too well; at the weigh-in Paret called Griffith a maricon — vulgar Spanish slang for “homosexual,” or more precisely, the younger man or catamite in a homosexual relationship, the one on the receiving end of anal penetration. The term “catamite” is the Latinization of “Ganymede,” the Trojan youth who was abducted by Zeus because he was the most beautiful of mortals. According to Plato, the Cretans were accused of inventing this myth to justify man-boy love.
As explained by Griffith many years later, “I knew maricon meant faggot, and I wasn’t nobody’s faggot.” Angelo Dundee, trainer of Muhammad Ali among others, has given the most detailed account of the incident. According to Dundee, Paret grabbed Griffith’s ass from behind and thrust his own pelvis forward in “an obscene manner.” Then, Paret said “Mericon (sic), I’m going to get you and your husband.” Griffith was enraged by Paret’s taunt at the weigh-in, and retaliated in the fight that evening.
In the twelfth round Griffith backed Paret into the corner and unleashed a flurry of blows that left the latter dazed and unable to defend himself. Paret slumped against the ropes, his body partly out of the ring; Griffith held Paret’s shoulder, keeping him from falling out of range, while using his free hand to punch. Paret was unable to protect himself by moving his head or blocking blows with his arms, and Griffith repeatedly landed right uppercuts to his head. Finally, after twenty-nine consecutive punches the referee stopped the fight, awarding Griffith a win by technical knockout. Paret, who had remained upright against the ropes throughout the beating, fell to the floor and collapsed. He never regained consciousness, and died ten days later.
While it wasn’t reported at the time, Griffith was homosexual, or more precisely bi-sexual. How Paret knew this is unclear as Griffith was not open about his sexuality, although he had held a job as a women’s hat designer that would have been considered atypical for a heterosexual man. An allegation of homosexuality was a particularly grievous insult in the macho culture of boxing, but by Griffith’s own subsequent admission he frequented gay bars, and in the early ‘90’s he was almost beaten to death as he left one in a drunken state. So it wasn’t necessarily the allegation that Griffith was gay that infuriated him; it was more likely the implication that he was somebody’s eromenos or boy sexual object, the wife to the husband that Paret threw in to his taunt.
The Marquess of Queensberry prevailed in Wilde’s libel action against him, and was cheered as he left the courtroom. Wilde was booed as he left the courthouse, and sank into despair. He went to the hotel where Queensberry’s son was staying; there, a reporter informed him that a warrant had been issued for his arrest. When this news was communicated to Wilde he became “very grey in the face” according to one witness, but refused offers to help him escape to France. Instead, like Socrates on the night he drank the hemlock, he accepted his fate with resignation: “I shall stay and do my sentence, whatever it is,” Wilde said after settling in a chair. An hour later two detectives arrived and arrested him.
Wilde was taken to the Bow Street jail where he was met by a shouting mob. He was charged with a violation of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885; specifically, that he had procured or attempted to procure another male to commit an act of “gross indecency.” The law had been in place for less than a decade, and was intended to address the problem of underage female prostitutes by making it a criminal offense — statutory rape — to have sex with a girl younger than thirteen, even if she consented. Henry Labouchere, a member of Parliament who was opposed to the bill, moved to amend it to cover all acts of “gross indecency” — a vague term without definition — to be punished by a term of up to one year, “with or without hard labour.”
In offering his amendment Labouchere tried, by expanding the bill’s scope to all persons, young and old, man and woman, or partners of the same sex, to undermine its chances of passing by turning it into an absurdity. Opposed to the bill as a naïve attempt to impose bourgeois Victorian morals on the lower classes, whose women often married young, Labouchere warned that it “would be more correctly described as a measure for facilitating every sort of extortion and blackmail.”
To Labouchere’s surprise and dismay, the amendment was accepted by the bill’s proponents in the government, with insult added to injury; the Attorney General moved that the maximum penalty be increased to two years instead of one. As modified, the bill passed in a sparsely-attended session of the House of Commons. Labouchere’s gambit, an exercise in cleverness, had failed by succeeding.
Wilde was convicted under the law and sent to prison in 1895, where he remained until he was released in 1897. He then went into exile in France where he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which begins with a description of a hanging at the jail while Wilde was incarcerated there. The convict executed was a British cavalryman who had murdered his wife, and Wilde compares himself to the hanged man with one of his most famous lines: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves,” since his ill-advised affair with Queensberry’s son had caused him to be separated from his wife and sons.
The poem was published under the name “C.3.3.,” for cell block C, landing 3, cell 3, Wilde’s location in the Reading jail. Even without Wilde’s name, the poem became an instant popular success, back when poems were the equivalent of a newly-dropped single by pop singers. The first edition sold out within a week, and over 5,000 copies were sold within six months.
At the conclusion of James Toback’s 2008 documentary on Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champion is seen on a beach, awkwardly wearing street shoes à la Richard Nixon, as he recites The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The scene is a convergence of harmony and dissonance, like a piece by Duke Ellington; yes, both fighter and writer went to jail, but Tyson was a brutal man, accused and convicted of heterosexual rape, while Wilde was the quintessential aesthete whose only crime was consensual (if commercial) sexual relations with boys. Surely no stranger pair of lips could be found to mouth Wilde’s words than Tyson’s.
Or perhaps not. In 2002 Tyson, who speaks with a lisp, an impediment commonly associated with effeminacy, grabbed his genitals and threatened a reporter at a press conference with violent anal sex. Other boxers — Mitchell Rose and Mitch “Blood” Green — have accused Tyson of being gay, and Tyson seemed to suggest as much himself in an interview with the Guardian, saying the two decades of constant media attention he had endured would make anyone a homosexual. In this light, he appears to be a sort of homophile/homophobe Möbius strip; a man who confounds sex and violence with other men, because he can’t separate the two impulses within himself.
Wilde and Queensberry’s son Lord Alfred Douglas, though they were associated in the public mind as lovers, each preferred sex with boys. By offering himself up as a martyr in the Oedipal struggle between the boxing enthusiast Queensberry and his effeminate son, Wilde made sex between males socially acceptable — within limits.
Queensberry’s family tree included a cannibal who ate an entire kitchen boy, making Tyson’s bite into Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997 seem an hors d’oeuvre by comparison; yet it was Queensberry who reclaimed boxing’s good name after it was banned as a public nuisance by creating a set of rules that elevated fist-fighting from the barbarity to which it had sunk. In so doing, he made violence between males socially acceptable — within limits.
The 19th century’s domestication of previously-forbidden sex and violence has left us a legacy of muted passions. Boxing seems tame by comparison to mixed martial arts or “ultimate” fighting, to which it is losing spectators. The battle lines on gay rights have moved to a front where the debate is no longer about sex, but about the humdrum issue of gay marriage — state sanction for an arrangement that Wilde ridiculed by saying “Twenty years of romance makes a woman look like a ruin; twenty years of marriage makes her look like a public building.”
What Wilde wrote about his forbidden relationship with a younger man in “De Profundis” was true as well of boxing in his time: “It was like feasting with panthers. The danger was half the excitement.” Perhaps violence and love between men are two tributaries of the same river.
About the author:
Con Chapman is the author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges (Oxford University Press).