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 A textbookish chronological overview of same-sex sexual practices, from early primates to Homo sapiens. ``Western societies have lately grown more homophobic. . . . It was with great relief that I discovered many societies of the past entirely free of such a taint,'' writes Spencer, a British journalist and novelist (The Tyranny of Love, 1968, etc.). He offers many examples of the latter--from peaceful bonobo chimpanzees (the apes most closely resembling our prehominid ancestors), who practice incest, same-sex sex, and group sex, to ancient Greeks, Romans, and Celts, whose socially sanctioned customs included pederasty and bisexuality. Drawing from legal, religious, historical, and literary evidence, he demonstrates positive acknowledgments of homosexuality in the Bible (in the story of David and Jonathan), as well as in ancient China (he points to homoerotic poetry and tales from the Zhou Dynasty), Renaissance Italy (as documented by artists like Benvenuto Cellini), and the US during WW II (until the subsequent McCarthyite witch hunts). Spencer doesn't break new ground; much of his material is covered in recent histories by Martin Duberman, Randy Shilts, and others. But he collects a prodigious amount of information in one place. And while he expresses strong opinions, he is refreshingly reluctant to push a political agenda, preferring to let the evidence make its own case. He maintains that the more people respect both the male and female sides of themselves, the happier and more tolerant everyone will be; but capitalism, he feels, discourages this and promotes homophobia. He takes up the view of essentialists, that homosexuality is a natural phenomenon that has always existed but that levels of social acceptability have varied greatly. However, throughout the book he passes quickly over too much material, overemphasizes British history, and admittedly limits his focus almost exclusively to the sexual practices of men, making this account at once too broad and too narrow. (16 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: June 3rd, 1996
ISBN: 0-15-100223-1
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1996


NonfictionGAY BERLIN by Robert Beachy
by Robert Beachy