John Eastburn Boswell (1947-1994) ranks as one of the most significant scholars in gay and lesbian studies. His career as an historian at Yale University spanned 20 years and he profoundly influenced a generation of students in the fields of medieval history, religious studies, and queer studies.
A convert to Roman Catholicism as a teenager and an observant Catholic until his untimely death at the age of 47, Boswell is perhaps best known for his 1980 book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, which won the 1981 American Book Award for history. In this groundbreaking study of homosexuality in the Western world, Boswell argued against “the common idea that religious belief – Christian or other – has been the cause of intolerance in regard to gay people.” He also claimed the existence of a highly-developed “gay subculture” in Western Europe from the mid-eleventh to the mid-twelfth century.
Due to his contention that gay people have existed in a variety of cultures throughout time, Boswell was labeled an “essentialist” (a moniker which he accepted only with qualification). In contrast to the “social constructionist” view (which posits that gay identities are the creation of modern Western societies), Boswell staunchly defended his views that gay people were present in such diverse settings as classical Athens, imperial Rome, and medieval Europe. As he stated in an oft-quoted article, “If the categories ‘homosexual/heterosexual’ and ‘gay/straight’ are the inventions of particular societies rather than real aspects of the human psyche, there is no gay history.” In 1989, Boswell defined gay persons “as those whose erotic interest is predominantly directed toward their own gender (i.e., regardless of how conscious they are of this as a distinguishing characteristic).”
In 1994, Boswell published his second book-length exploration of homosexuality in history: Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. In this work he argued that same-sex union ceremonies had become highly-developed church rituals by the 12th century. Boswell likened these voluntary same-sex unions to heterosexual marriages and argued that they were entered into freely by male couples who desired to celebrate sacramentally their emotional bond with one another. While Boswell never claimed that all such ceremonies necessarily celebrated sexual relationships, he did not preclude the possibility that some of these relationships may, in fact, have had sexual components to them.
Scholarly reaction to Same Sex Unions was highly critical and overwhelmingly skeptical, but Boswell’s uncovering of over 60 manuscripts containing liturgical rites of same-sex union was widely acknowledged as an important scholarly find with potentially relevant implications for contemporary Christianity. Boswell’s argument did receive, in fact, a positive reception among Christian readers interested in promoting same-sex marriage ceremonies within their respective denominations. The book’s thesis was also communicated to a popular audience via the widely-syndicated comic strip Doonesbury.
A linguistic genius who read more than 15 ancient and modern languages, Boswell was an authority on the history of Jews, Muslims and Christians in medieval Spain; in addition, he published (in 1989) a well-received history of the abandonment of children in Western Europe from ancient times to the Renaissance. An important force behind the creation of Yale’s Lesbian and Gay Studies Center in the late 1980s, Boswell was known not only as a popular lecturer and highly-effective teacher but also as a deeply moving speaker on a variety of topics, including aspects of his own life journey as an “out” gay Christian man. John Boswell died of AIDS-related illness on Christmas Eve in 1994.
(This biographical statement written by Bernard Schlager, PhD, Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion)