A. The Charge. This finding takes the following general form.
“The people of our sturdy nation would never have taken to homosexual vice on their own. Indeed our earliest records offer no indication of its occurrence. It was only when the corrupt [fill in blank], with their bad customs, came to our shores that some of our people succumbed to this temptation. Because of this intrusion, we have been troubled with this abomination ever since.”
B. Historical Background. Such slurs represent a subset of the disdain some human groups show in ascribing the origin - or at least prevalence - of social failings to neighboring groups or peoples. Thus we speak of German measles, of taking French leave, and of going Dutch. In former times Italians blithely dubbed syphilis the mal francese (or morbus gallicus), while Frenchmen returned the compliment with their mal florentin (or mal de Naples).
Abraham Roback coined a useful term for this tendency towards name calling with reference to other nations. When a disparaging word or phrase that incorporates the name of a rival foreign city or country enters into that country’s official lexicon - be it a phrase proper or even slang - it is called ethnophaulism.
In the case of homosexual behavior, ethnophaulism is not only a type of group slander, but it also reflects a curiosity to trace the custom to its purported source, in keeping with "popular diffusionism," which overlooks the possibility that such behavior patterns are human universals. Thus, in eighteenth-century England, where native homosexual behavior had been documented for centuries and when important innovations seem to have been occurring in the conceptualization of homosexual acts, the fashion continued to blame the custom on Italy.
Divided as they were into many competing city states, the Greeks were given to attributing unusual sexual predilections to their neighboring (albeit Hellenic) groups - as well as to foreigners.
Ostensibly special proficiency in fellatio obtained among the inhabitants of the island of Lesbos (its association with female homosexuality became commonplace only in comparatively recent times) and the alien Phoenicians. At various times unusual fondness for pederasty was remarked in Crete (Plato and others held that the institution began there), at Sparta, Chalcis, and on the island of Siphnos. Turning blatantly homosexual was sometimes called "taking ship for Messalia," after the ancient Greek colony on the site of modern Marseille, which perhaps acquired its renown through propinquity with the notoriously homosexual Celts. The Scythians, northern neighbors of the Greeks, were associated with a particular type of effeminacy. Among a basically tolerant people such as the Greeks, these ethnophaulic appellations have more the character of a bemused chiding than harsh reproof, much as we would say today "X is German and likes to work hard," or "Y's Scottish background makes him thrifty.”
In the first century CE the Roman writer Cornelius Nepos seems to have been the first to describe pederasty simply as "Greek love." The Romans themselves were often charged with special devotion to the "posterior Venus" with various word plays on the palindrome Roma = Amor.
In later times in Europe there were various expressions associating sodomy with Italy. In 1422 the Zurich Rat- und Rechtbuch, a legal text, designated the practice by the verb florenzen, suggesting that the city of Florence had developed a particular reputation in this regard. Pierre de Brantôme (ca. 1540-1614) described the fashion for lesbian liaisons in sixteenth-century France with the Italian phrase "donna con donna" (lady with lady). At the courts of Louis XII and XIV male homosexual proclivities were traced to Italy, as in the Sun King's sarcastic comment "La France devenue italienne!" In England Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634) maintained that Lombard bankers had introduced sodomy in the late Middle Ages, while in the eighteenth century Italian opera was held to be a source of new infection. Ironically, Mussolini was later to reject a proposal to criminalize homosexuality in his country on the grounds that its practice was limited to rich foreign tourists.
The rural inhabitants of Albania, who until recently boasted an indigenous tradition of pederasty, nonetheless sometimes designated their custom as madzupi, derived from madzup, "Gypsy," implying that pederasty had been brought in from the outside by this wandering people.
Some French writers localized the custom in other zones of the Mediterranean littoral. French trade with Arab countries and the occupation of North Africa (beginning in 1830) probably account for the popularity of such expressions as moeurs levantines and moeurs arabes. Just after the turn of the century, the Krupp and Eulenburg-von Moltke scandals contributed greatly to the popularity in a hostile France of the expression vice allemand, apparently reviving a notion current West of the Rhine in the time of Frederick II the Great - in the second half of the eighteenth century.
The temptation to hurl such charges becomes particularly great in wartime as seen in a shoddy pamphlet by Samuel Igra, Germany's National Vice (London, 1945), which even alleges that Hitler had been a male prostitute. A more general type of ethnophaulism, found in some Third World countries, claims that the Western industrial nations are declining because of their tolerance of "unnatural vice."
A recent variation of the meme is the notion circulating in some quarters of African American opinion that sub-Saharan Africa was originally untouched by homosexuality, this perversion being forced on its inhabitants and their descendants in the New World as part of the humiliation of colonialism. Ironically it is the fear of homosexuality as a purported obstacle to progress and modernity that was exported to Africa by "enlightened" western opinion, not the practice itself. The ultimate origin of the myth of the sexual exceptionalism of Black Africa is probably Chapter XLIV of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1781): "I believe, and hope, that the negroes [sic], in their own country, were exempt from this moral pestilence."
In April 2012 Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni remarked, “Before we came in touch with the Europeans, we had some few homosexuals. I want to inform the world that those homosexuals were not killed as some people are claiming... and they were not discriminated against. However, Africans are by nature discreet people. Even for heterosexuals.”
C. Response. With increased study, all these claims have been found wanting. Not only is homosexuality, as Goethe observed, as old as the human race, it seems to be a cultural universal.
Edward Gibbon, who originated the myth of absence of homosexuality in Africa, had never been outside of Europe. Benefiting from better information, modern anthropology has reached quite different conclusions. Africa south of the Sahara presents a rich mosaic of peoples and cultures, and ongoing study is gradually completing the picture. For example, Stephen O. Murray has established that in a number of indigenous cultures, such as the Azande of the Sudan, the taking of boy-brides was a well-established custom. Among the Bantu-speaking Fang, homosexual intercourse was bian nku 'ma, a medicine for wealth, which was transmitted through anal penetration.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Abraham Roback, A Dictionary of International Slurs, Cambridge, MA: Sci-Art Publishers, 1944; Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, Boy-wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.