Monday, November 03, 2014

Goethe and the gay-friendly approach

The term "gay friendly" is commonly used to designate places and institutions that make an effort to welcome gay men and lesbians. Gay friendly, however, are also courageous individuals who without having any personal stake in the matter defend gay rights, sometimes vociferously. A case in point is the NFL player Chris Kluwe, whose energetically stated writings leave no doubt where he stands.
While this enlightened approach is currently prominent, it is not new. Perhaps the first eminent gay-friendly person was the German writer J. W. von Goethe (1749-1832). Basing himself largely on his studies of classical antiquity, Goethe repeatedly stressed the continuity and naturalness of same-sex love. Until recently, there have been efforts to obscure this aspect of the writer's work, especially in Germany, where he is a national institution. Conversely, a few have sought to "out" Goethe, even though it is unlikely that he ever gave physical expression to his perceptions.
The tendency to posit a "gay Goethe" illustrates an uncritical tendency that sometimes occurs in histories of homosexuality - to reason from the work to the life. Once the continuity of the gay-friendly theme is recognized, this mistake should become less common.