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From Before Homosexuals (courtesy First Run Features)

The term “homosexual” is relatively new. In fact, it was coined by Austrian journalist and author Karl-Maria Kertbeny in 1867. But homosexuality, of course, was by no means a 19th-century invention. The documentary Before Homosexuals, now available on DVD and VOD, acts as an introduction to the historical, artistic, and literary evidence of same-sex romance, from the ancient world until the Stonewall uprising. The film is the latest installment in a series on queer history from director John Scagliotti, who previously produced 1984’s Before Stonewall and directed 1999’s After Stonewall.

The film is divided into three rough parts. The first concerns same-sex relationships in antiquity. (As cliché as it might be, ancient Greece is the springboard for this discussion, but it also looks beyond the Mediterranean to Asian, African, and pre-Columbian civilizations.) The middle section explores the damage wrought by Christianity’s campaign of sexual repression. The last details the so-called “Greek Loophole,” showing how homoerotic Greek myths, such as Achilles and Patroclus, Zeus and Ganymedes, or Apollo and Hyacinthus, were used by intellectuals both in the Renaissance and in the 19th century to publicly reflect on same-sex love in a safe manner.

From Before Homosexuals (courtesy First Run Features)

Before Homosexuals aims to educate rather than astound the viewer. It doesn’t sugarcoat or sensationalize the subject to make it “user-friendly.” Some of the discussion is university-level, in fact. Scagliotti brings on a wide variety of scholars, who both discuss seminal pieces of art and recite pertinent literary works. We hear Love in Bloom by the 8th-century Persian poet Abu Nuwas, Sappho’s famed Poem of Jealousy, which likens being lovestruck to experiencing a series of physical ailments, and the Chinese “Story of the Cut Sleeve,” about a (historical) emperor who falls asleep with his male lover and is then summoned to a meeting — in order not to rouse his companion, he cuts the sleeve off his robe.

The movie also acquaints the viewer with an interesting cast of characters whose queerness was what made them thrive in their time. The tyrant-slayers and lovers Aristogeiton and Harmodius were the first non-deity subjects of statues in Athens in the 6th century BCE. Catalina de Erauso was a former nun who, after assuming a male identity, traveled Latin America in the early 17th century and escaped multiple death sentences. Queen Christina of Sweden dressed as a man and took female lovers. Their lives provide a personal grounding in the midst of the avalanche of scholarly material, making it more digestible.

Visually, the film is quite plain, sticking to talking heads and still images of the artwork being discussed. Beautiful as these pieces may be, it feels like a labor-intensive TED Talk at times. It at least has the good sense not to use corny reenactments of historical episodes or literary scenes. But that doesn’t undermine Before Homosexuals’s value. For anyone unfamiliar with queer history more than a few decades back, it will be eye-opening, and for those who are acquainted with the ancient world, it does some neat work in comparative analysis. In this regard, it’s similar to the seminal How to Kill a Dragon, which explored the myth of the dragonslayer across various cultures. If anything, the documentary is too stuffed, with so much presented in just 90 minutes that the viewer may feel like they watched it at 2x speed. There’s enough to discuss on the Greek Loophole that it could have been its own film, for example. But it’s always preferable for a film to have a wealth of ideas than a dearth of them.

From Before Homosexuals (courtesy First Run Features)

Before Homosexuals is now available on DVD and VOD.

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Angelica Frey

Angelica Frey is a writer, editor, and translator living in Brooklyn. Originally from Milan, she writes about the arts, culture, food, and fashion.