What Was It Like to be a Gay Viking?

I’ve been posting a lot about being gay in a Christian world lately, because it is after all what most young people in this country have to deal with as they’re coming to terms with their sexuality.  But as I’ve stated in previous posts, I am no longer Christian.  Furthermore, religion in general isn’t the main thrust of this blog or of my YA novels.  No doubt relgion will come up again, but for now I thought I’d cover a topic that readers of Seidman might find interesting:

What Was It Like to be Gay in Viking Age Iceland and Scandinavia?

WARNING:  Though I’ve attempted to keep this discussion from becoming too graphic, it does contain some referrences to sexual practices.  It really couldn’t be avoided.  Anyone old enough to read Seidman (recommended 14+) should be old enough to read this post.

I’ve had people try to tell me that there were no gay people in the Viking Age.  This is flatly ridiculous.  First of all, there have always been people with same-sex attractions, throughout history, all over the world.  Always.  Anyone who thinks homosexuality suddenly appeared out of nothing in the past century simply hasn’t bothered to crack a book on the subject.

Secondly, we know that people experienced same-sex attraction in Viking Age cultures, because they had words to describe it and laws to regulate it.  You don’t make something illegal, if it doesn’t exist to begin with.

So how did the Norse actually feel about homosexuality?  Well, the answer is a bit complex.  In general, they didn’t approve of it, which isn’t much of a surprise.  But like many cultures, they mistakenly equated homosexuality with a lack of masculinity, as if being attracted to men (if you’re a man) somehow makes you behave in a “womanly” manner, and likewise being attracted to women (if you’re a woman) somehow makes you “mannish.”  (Obviously, this attitude is still with us in modern western culture.)

But this is where it got a little weird.

The key to understanding the Norse attitude towards same-sex attraction lies in their concept of “manliness.”  We don’t have much evidence one way or another that the Norse gave much thought to same-sex attraction or other forms of sexual contact besides anal intercourse between two people of the same gender.  But we do know that they were obsessed with manliness.

Men had to behave in a masculine fashion (and conversely, women had to behave in a feminine fashion).  Men who acted effeminitely really upset people and in some cases were put to death.  A similar fate awaited women who wore men’s clothing!  And for a man to be accused of being effeminite was a horrible insult — so horrible that the accuser could be challenged to a duel to the death, if he couldn’t prove his accusation, and the law would not protect him.

Two of the words commonly used to describe “effeminite” men in the Sagas are ergi (a noun) and argr (the adjectival form of ergi).  The definition of these words is uncertain, because they are used in so many contexts.  In general, it appeared to refer to a man allowing himself to be used sexually by another man.  (In other words, a man who took the passive role in anal intercourse.)  We might translate ergi as “effeminacy” and argr as “effeminate.”

But there were other usages that suggested somewhat different meanings.  For instance, when used to describe a woman, it meant that she was lecherous or immodest — in other words, too masculine.  It was also said that old age made a man argr and the god, Oðinn, was said to become argr after practicing seiðr.  (Technically, the phrasing was that the practice of seiðr was accompanied by a great degree of ergi.)  However, I seriously doubt that this meant old men suddenly turned gay or Oðinn became effeminite after performing trance magic.

What does make sense is that being old might make a man frail and performing trance magic might make a man feel temporarily weak.  As with the case of women who were called ergi or argr, the main implication appears to have been that a person was violating gender taboos.  The terms were also sometimes applied to men who were incapable of fathering children — another “failure” to be masculine — and argr was also synonymous with cowardice.

So the next question might be, did this association of ergi and argr with masculinity provide a loophole of sorts?  Did it mean that a man might have sex with other men, as long as he was still verifiably masculine?

It might have.

We know that Norsemen often violated male prisoners or slaves, and there did not appear to be a stigma associated with doing this.  (Yet it was still one more reason that being on the “bottom” had such a horrible stigma attached to it — because it was allowing another man to treat you like a slave or a defeated prisoner.)  We also know that there were male prostitutes who served men, and they seemed to have been regarded with contempt.  Yet men did avail themselves of their services.  And in Snorri Sturlusson’s Edda, a man named Sinfjotli boasts that he impregnated another man (as an insult to the second man), which might not be something he would boast about, if being a “top” had any great stigma attached to it.

So it may be that there were certain contexts in which sex between people of the same gender was considered acceptable or at least ignored.  Keep in mind that the only references we have to homosexuality concern accusations of anal intercourse.  We have no record at all of how the Norse felt about mutual masturbation or oral sex.

It was also not unheard of for men to live together as “bachelors” once they were past the age where they were expected to marry and father children.  While these would not have been open same-sex relationships, advanced age might have made it possible for others to look the other way.

One last point to keep in mind:  all of the information we have about Norse attitudes toward homosexuality comes from Christians who wrote about the Viking Age centuries after the events they were describing, and by this point homosexuality was widely condemned by the Christian Church.  It’s difficult to know how much the writers’ personal religious beliefs may have colored their accounts of their ancestors.


Probably the best source of information on this subject is Preben M. Sørenson’s The Unmanly Man:  Concepts of Sexual Defamation in Early Northern Society, but that can be hard to come by and it’s somewhat dry reading.  A more accessible discussion of the subject can be found at the Viking Answer Lady site:

The Viking Answer Lady doesn’t appear to be updating her site anymore, which is sad, because she really knows her stuff.  But as long as the site is still up, it’s a fantastic reference for a lot of aspects of Norse culture.

Sex and the LGBT YA Novel

Calico, by Dorien Grey, may very well be the first gay YA novel I ever read, not counting novels like A Separate Peace, which weren’t actually intended to be gay.

It was published in 2006 by Zumaya Boundless at a time when the very idea of a gay character in a YA novel was scandalous.  It came to my attention, in fact, because it was on a list of books people were trying to ban.  As I recall, the same people who were throwing fits about this novel were also in a frenzy over the children’s book Jennifer Has Two Daddies (by Dr. Priscilla Galloway and Ana Auml), despite the fact that that had been out for over twenty years.  I mention this, because it probably factors in to what I’m going to say later.

In the novel, young Calico Ramsey is hired to escort two 17-year-old siblings, Josh and Sarah, to Bow Ridge to live with their aunt.  Along the way, it becomes clear that somebody wants the twins dead and Calico finds himself falling in love with Josh.

Repeating History: the Eye of Ra by Dakota Chase was published a few years later in 2010 by Prizm.  It follows the adventures of two teens — Aston and Grant — who are sent back in time by Merlin to retrieve an Egyptian artifact (the Eye of Ra) from King Tutankhamen.  They manage to ingratiate themselves to the young king, but they soon realize that they might be in a position to thwart an assassination plot against him.  Can they change history and save King Tut?  And will doing so cause them to be trapped for the rest of their lives in Ancient Egypt?

Both of these YA novels are excellent and I highly recommend reading them.  They also share a loving attention to historical detail.  The tone is different, with Calico presenting the reader with a very gritty (and often dangerous) Old West and The Eye of Ra depicting a much lighter-hearted, but still richly detailed, story of two boys trapped in a time and place they’ve only read about in the history books.

I have one criticism of both of the novels, which is why I’ve grouped them together in this blog entry.  It just happened that, while I was reading each of these two novels, completely independently, I was struck by the same thought:  Where’s the sex?

Now, I’m not insisting that every YA novel should have sex in it, or saying that an author doesn’t have the right to choose whether or not to include sex.  Certainly, there are times when sex is appropriate in a novel and times when it is not, and one could argue that the latter is usually the case with YA novels.  I also recognize that both authors may have felt that their readers or their publishers may not have tolerated anything more than a chaste kiss or two.  Certainly I’ve seen plenty of reviews of YA novels with gay content where readers echo the tedious sentiment, “There’s a little gay romance, but not that bad.  You can ignore it and get into the story, if you like.”


But all that aside, what bothers me is when the lack of sex doesn’t feel true to the characters to me.  Now, keep in mind that when I was 17, I was shy and hated undressing in front of my classmates in gym.  I also went to a fundamentalist church that was extremely disapproving of same-sex…exploration…and as a result, I didn’t even know that I was gay.  Seriously.  I just thought I was a late bloomer.  Yet somehow even I managed to see quite a lot of male nudity and raunchy sexual humor amongst my friends.  And when I finally met another gay man (I was nineteen, by then) who was willing, I couldn’t wait more than a few days before “doing it.”

Of course, your mileage may vary.

But I do find it extremely unrealistic when two teenage boys are alone together and horny, knowing that they’re both interested…yet they refuse to do anything.  In Calico, Calico and Josh kiss about midway through the book.  Then Calico refuses to kiss for the rest of the novel, until the end, fretting that Josh isn’t legally an adult yet.  In The Eye of Ra, Aston and Grant start making out one night in the dunes and suddenly they feel they have to stop, because, as Aston puts it, “It would be bad.”  Bad?  What would be bad?  Both of these feel contrived.  In reality, a 17-year-old would probably have been considered adult in the 1800s and two hot-and-bothered teenage boys really need a better reason for putting on the breaks than, “It would be bad.”

Keep in mind that when two boys start groping at each other, the context is vastly different than when a boy starts groping at his girlfriend.  They don’t have all that baggage of “Good girls don’t do this!” and “What if she gets pregnant?” and “What if he’s just using me?” to contend with.

There is baggage, certainly, but it’s different.  There’s no chance of pregnancy.  There’s little sense of having to maintain an image of purity.  And even though there is some chance of exposure to HIV and other STDs, if both boys are sexually inexperienced, they’re unlikely to worry too much about that, assuming that neither could have caught anything yet.  (Not always true, of course.)

What there is, is fear of being of being labeled a “fag,” and that’s a real fear.  The social stigma is enormous, even today, and certainly would have been a major concern in the 1800s.  But there’s also a sense of mutual transgression:  it’s more difficult (though not impossible) for one to accuse the other without implicating himself.  (Whereas a teenage girl might risk losing her reputation, if her boyfriend chooses to boast about having sex with her, while his status with his friends would likely increase.)  There is also guilt, of course.  But my experience was that my brain tended to shut off at the time, and I didn’t fret about things until afterward, my religious bent notwithstanding.  Lastly, there is just plain shyness and anxiety about venturing into sexual maturity.

Again, everybody is different.  Some boys may just go for it; others may have too much anxiety about it and may push back.  Or perhaps one will be shy, while the other will be more aggressive.  All of these are valid options.  But the reader shouldn’t be left feeling that the reason the characters aren’t having sex is simply because it’s a YA novel and the publisher forbids it.

Again, both of these novels are terrific and I hope the authors aren’t offended by me using them for examples.  It just so happened that they both brought the same thought to mind, while I was reading them.  I do recommend them as good YA novels with gay characters.

Part of the YAM LGBT 2012 Blogathon.