Before Homosexuals: A Journey of Rediscovery

John Scagliotti sets up a shot leading into Renaissance-era same-sex poem by Poliziano.

History is always being rewritten, revised, and edited as new discoveries are unearthed, information once hidden is rediscovered, and perspectives are changed. The documentary Before Homosexuals is an important film not only in terms of tracing the lives of those in the LGBTQ community throughout the ages; it also sheds light on the ways in which certain social, political, and religious beliefs have influenced and shaped our ideas about queer culture around the world. Brought to the screen by John Scagliotti, the producer of the acclaimed documentaries Before Stonewall (1984) and After Stonewall (1999), Before Homosexuals serves to give viewers a wide perspective on same sex attraction and love throughout history. 

The documentary was written by Betsy Kalin, John Scagliotti, and JoAnn Wypijewski and was released with the telling tagline: “From Ancient Times to Victorian Crimes.” This 2017 film illustrates the long and undeniable contribution made by gays and lesbians across the globe over the course of thousands of years from ancient Greece to Victorian England and up to the present time. The documentary features a long list of distinguished historians, authors, activists, and academics including Louis Crompton, Bernadette Brooten, Tze-lan Sang, and Neil McKenna.

Before Homosexuals begins with John Scagliotti taking in the sights on the Greek island of Astypalaia where archeological research has discovered evidence of same sex love in the form of ancient rock engravings. Further research depicts records of homosexual relationships dating as far back as 514 BC. One of the film’s strengths is that it encompasses a wide range of cultures and time periods, including the role of two-spirited people in native communities in America and elsewhere, same sex relationships in Renaissance Italy (ie. artists such as Michelangelo), and examples of homosexual imagery in Chinese, Middle Eastern, African, and Japanese literature and art.

The Before Homosexuals crew while filming on the Greek Island of Delos. In this photo from left to right: Arnaud Lalanne, John Scagliotti, Maria Margaronis, Julie Ranjard, and David M. Hall.

The chief aim of Before Homosexuals is stated at the very beginning of the documentary: to excavate and preserve same sex stories. In terms of this mandate, the filmmakers have certainly accomplished their mission admirably. The film is both entertaining and informative as it provides viewers with a rich array of historical evidence, most of which might’ve been repressed, erased, ignored, destroyed or altered during the course of systematic efforts to conform our modern conception of history to so-called mainstream political, religious, or social “norms.”

The film also demonstrates how views on homosexuality have evolved and changed over the years. A prime example of this is ancient Greece, where same sex relationships especially those between older and younger men, were not only accepted, but expected and encouraged. This is in contrast with widespread religious persecution during the Middle Ages in places like the Netherlands when, as Louis Crompton notes, “near the end of the 16th century, there were more sodomites burned than heretics. The reason being they were running out of heretics. But there would always be a supply of men who were involved with other men.”     

Susan Bonthron shows John Scagliotti her tunnel book, inspired by a Chinese lesbian love poem.

Before Homosexuals is an important film because the material flies in the face of so many homophobic myths. Bigots and those against LGBTQ rights can often be heard crying out to return to some imaginary bygone era when, as Archie Bunker sang, “girls were girls and men were men.” Before Homosexuals serves as a powerful reminder that such a time before homosexuals never actually existed. Same sex attraction and love isn’t a modern invention, but has been around as long as human beings have existed. This idea of returning to some kind of heterosexual utopia isn’t only impossible, but contradicts historical fact. The documentary illustrates that when it comes to the history of the LGBTQ community, it’s more a matter of rediscovering queer culture and history rather than finding it for the first time. Before Homosexuals stresses the importance of acknowledging this storied history because, as stated by Bernadette Brooten, “without preserving this, our lives are totally wiped out.”

Before Homosexuals is now available on DVD.

About C.L. Illsley

I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia but have called Montreal home since 1999. I received degrees from Mount Saint Vincent University & Concordia University. I enjoy writing, watching movies, & most of all spending time with my 4 cats. Contact: Facebook | Twitter | More Posts