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Romantic Friendship: Not Just a Code Word for Gay

by Heather Elizabeth Peterson

"I did not then entreat to have her stay;
It was your pleasure and your own remorse.
I was too young that time to value her,
But now I know her. If she be a traitor,
Why, so am I. We still have slept together,
Rose at an instant, learned, played, eat together;
And wheresoe'er we went, like Juno's swans,
Still we went coupled and inseparable."
—Celia in William Shakespeare's As You Like It (1600)

A number of writers of homoerotic fiction have remarked to me that they write about romantic love because they believe it has been the most intimate form of love throughout history. The above passage from Shakespeare would seem to be proof of that statement.

Yet in fact the passage is evidence of a belief that was once widely held in English-speaking countries but has now been largely forgotten: that romantic love need not be accompanied by erotic love.

Passages about friends offering romantic statements and gestures toward one another abound in historical literature and documents. A look at historical literature will turn up plenty of tales in which two friends send each other love letters, kiss each other on the lips, and cuddle together. Other activities, such as sleeping together or professing undying love, are also common. Modern readers tend to assume that these "romantic friendships," as they are often called, must have their origins in sexual attraction.

Romantic friendships cause problems for historians as well. When friends in history act romantically toward one another, is hidden sexual activity taking place? Are the friends sexually attracted to one another but not acting on their desires? Or are they (in the contemptuous phrase of a world that has devalued friendship) "just friends"?

The most historically honest answer seems to be, "All three." We know that same-sex lovers have sometimes hidden their erotic activities under the guise of friendship. We also have evidence that some of the friends who acted romantically toward one another throughout history were sexually attracted but did not realize this.

This second statement is as far as most historians are prepared to go. The fact is that romantic friendship has mainly been studied by scholars of gay and lesbian history. Living in a world where romantic friendship is no longer a living tradition, and seeking the roots of gay and lesbian history, many of these scholars have assumed that people who have romantic feelings for each other must be sexually attracted toward one another, even if they do not act on that attraction.

Yet in recent years a handful of people who are in romantic friendships have come forward and flatly denied this to be the case. Certainly one can argue that the division between sexual and nonsexual desires is hard to pinpoint. But in practice, we recognize that some relationships involve so little sexual desire that it is proper to refer to these relationships as non-erotic. Some participants in romantic friendships claim that their relationships are non-erotic.

If we deny this assertion, we must face the fact that modern-day romantic friends have the weight of history on their side. Only in relatively recent times has it been assumed that romantic feelings can only exist where erotic feelings are present. The very term romantic friendship was coined at the point in history (the nineteenth century) when this assertion began to be made. Until then, everyone assumed that, while not all friendships were romantic, romance was compatible with friendship.

For many centuries, in fact, romantic same-sex friendships played a much larger role in society than romantic erotic love between men and women.

"I know of these romantic friendships of the English and the Germans. They are not Latin. I think they are very good if they do not go on too long."
—Cara in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1944)

In classical times, the boundary between romantic friendship and erotic love was often blurred because nearly everyone, including people opposed to homosexuality, assumed that male/male sexual attraction was ubiquitous. Greek and Roman writers used the word "friend" interchangeably to describe men with same-sex feelings that were clearly erotic, men with same-sex feelings that were clearly platonic, and men who may or may not have held erotic same-sex feelings. Many classical writers saw personal relationships as being located somewhere on a continuum between sexual love and platonic love. Activities that we would now regard as romantic could fall on either end of the spectrum.

In the Middle Ages, Christians built a strong wall between erotic and platonic feelings, declaring that friendship was something entirely different from sexual attraction. One of the side benefits of this is that friendships between males and females flourished as they never had before, since it was somewhat easier now for men and women to declare their love for one another without being assumed to be lovers in the sexual sense.

The immediate question arose as to whether romantic activities, such as writing love letters, fell into the sphere of friendship or sexuality. Given how much distrust many medieval Christians had of sexuality and how highly they exalted spiritual friendships, it is perhaps not surprising that they declared such activities to be legitimate forms of friendship. Clerics wrote love letters to Jesus and to each other, apparently believing, in most cases, that their feelings were entirely platonic. As a result, the classical continuum between friendship and romance was preserved, although the continuum between romance and sexuality had been sharply broken.

By the time the late Middle Ages arrived, male romantic friendship, while still important, had begun to be eclipsed by male/female romantic love. Courtly love, as it was called, was something of a headache for church officials. Officially, the church view had been, since earliest Christian times, that friendships between men and women were legitimate forms of love. Courtly love, though, went beyond this, declaring that male/female erotic love that was not consummated could also play a legitimate role in society. Not surprisingly, some courtly lovers wanted to go further than this. The wall between romance and sexuality was breaking down in a manner that made church officials more suspicious of romantic feelings. Increasingly, the ideal of male/female friendship would come under attack, until such friendships went into decline as a societal institution until the late twentieth century.

In the midst of all this, the Renaissance arrived, and Europeans received new access to classical writings on friendship. Male romantic friendship, which had looked for a while as though it would not survive as a strong societal institution, unexpectedly rebounded. Even more surprisingly, female romantic friendships became popular also.

Romantic friendships did not yet have a special name, for Renaissance people, like medieval people, assumed that romantic activities could legitimately occur within friendships. This made it easy for writers such as Shakespeare to insert romantic friendships into their tales. Regardless as to what their own views on such matters might be, Renaissance authors could assume that their audiences believed that romantic feelings can exist where erotic love is not present.

Thus far in European history, romantic friendship had a relatively untroubled history. So what happened?

This is a question historians continue to delve into, and no doubt the causes of the decline of romantic friendship were complex. But one important factor seems to have helped to kill the idea that romantic feelings can exist alongside platonic feelings: the rise of the belief in sexual orientation.

Until this time, Europeans had continued to hold to the belief popular in classical times, that any ordinary person might have homosexual feelings. Most medieval and Renaissance Christians would have regarded such feelings as sinful, but they would be no more inclined to regard these people as entirely different than they would regard a person who was tempted to hit a friend as being entirely different from the rest of humankind.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, though, a notion was popularized that people with homoerotic feelings were a "third sex," very different from the ordinary person. This idea varied in the impact that it had on Europeans; in some parts of Europe, such as the Mediterranean, traditionally romantic activities continued to be practiced by same-sex friends up until the present day.

English-speaking countries were inclined to embrace the new view, but even there it was slow to arise. At the end of the nineteenth century in the United States, the third-sex view still had not yet supplanted the older idea that homoerotic feelings are potential in everyone. As a result, few people in Victorian America worried as to whether romantic activities such as holding hands or professing love were signs that two men were sexually attracted to one another. To have done so would have seemed as ridiculous to them as worrying whether a mother was incestuously attracted to her son if she kissed him. Though concern about homosexual leanings was beginning to creep into society, most Victorian Americans held to the classical belief that friends are just as likely as lovers to engage in romantic activities.

At that juncture, though, the sexologists arrived.

The impact that turn-of-the-century sexologists had on people's views of friendship cannot be underestimated. While a number of homoerotically attracted men and women over the centuries had regarded themselves as immutable members of a separate sexual group, this idea had never fully captured the popular imagination. Nor had these men and women tried to argue that same-sex romantic love was a sure-fire signal of the presence of same-sex erotic feelings. The sexologists, on the other hand, laid forth a vision of the world in which passionate love for another person was necessarily a sign of a heterosexual or homosexual orientation that was difficult or impossible to change. Their vision was embraced by society.

Within a few years, the societal belief that romantic activities are a legitimate form of friendship was crushed under the sexologists' assertion that same-sex romantic activities are always a sign of homoeroticism, which most sexologists regarded as a mental disease. Male romantic friendships did not survive the blow; female romantic friendships, which had flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries under strong societal support, went largely underground. In English-speaking countries, societally supported romantic friendships died a hard death.

"You boys stopped fighting? Pals now? That's good. I love a little macho male bonding – I think it's sweet, I do, even if it probably is latent homosexuality being re-channeled, but I'm all for re-channeling so who cares, right?"
—Annie Savoy in the movie Bull Durham (1988)

In the meantime, what were homoerotically attracted men doing during all these centuries? Well, they were tailgating on the bandwagon of support for romantic friendships.

It must have been apparent to such men, from the moment that homosexuality became taboo in Europe, that romantic friendship could provide a cover for their love. In some cases, it appears that the love affairs started on a romantic platonic level and then became erotic as time went on; in other cases, the participants' feelings were erotic from the start. In either case, men who were sexually attracted to one another gratefully accepted the fruits of societal support of romantic friendship. The earliest arguments in favor of gay love, such as Edward Carpenter's Ioläus: An Anthology of Friendship (1908), used code language to indicate that same-sex erotic love was a form of romantic friendship.

Turn-of-the-century gay writers seem to have been struggling to revive classical ideas of a continuum between friendship and sexuality. But they did so in an era when it was dangerous to make such arguments. Since late medieval times, people had become increasingly suspicious of the idea that male/female romantic activities could live alongside platonic feelings. As a result of this and the sexologists' belief that this was also impossible in the case of same-sex romantic activities, a new wall was built between friendship and sexuality. This time, romantic activities were declared to be on the sexual side of the wall.

Friendship, especially male friendship, became the preserve of a few harmless, restrained activities, such as clapping one another on the back. Strong demonstrations of love were only permitted between friends if an emergency arose, such as one of the friends being injured. Not surprisingly, friendship began to go into decline, eclipsed by romantic love, which was now identified with erotic love. If any two non-related people were strongly drawn to one another, they were assured by society that they must be "in love" – that is, they must be sexually attracted to one another.

Gay writers, seeking to find their ancestors in the barren terrain of post-classical history, often strongly encouraged this trend, as did pro-gay heterosexual writers. For example, Byrne R. S. Fone, in his Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature, says about the love poems between medieval monks: "It can certainly be argued that such intense seemingly eroticized language need imply neither actual sexual experience nor even any sublimation of desire. The conventions of literary expression in the High Middle Ages were well attuned to an exaggerated profession of feeling between friends as well as between lovers." These are the only two possibilities that Fone puts forward in interpreting the poems: that they arose from sexual desire or that they were a literary convention of "exaggerated" expression.

The writers of the poems would have argued that there was nothing exaggerated about their expression – rather, we live in an era that is abnormally cool in its professions of friendship. Likewise, the writers would have objected to the idea that, if their feelings toward one another were non-erotic, their only reason to use romantic language must be literary convention. Why, they would ask, do you people of the future assume that friends cannot have romantic feelings toward one another?

Other writers on homoeroticism, primarily scholars of lesbian history, have put forward a more subtle argument. They do not deny that some romantic friendships in the past involved people who held platonic feelings for one another. Instead, they say that such relationships, if they occurred today, would be labelled gay or lesbian. Therefore, they assert, it is legitimate for us to call these relationships homoerotic.

This may seem to be a suitable compromise, recognizing that some societal institutions, such as marriage, change dramatically over time. But unless practiced carefully, such pronouncements can become a form of cultural imperialism.

The assumption often underlying such arguments is that our modern belief that romance is nothing more than a subcategory of sexuality should be imposed upon people in eras that did not hold this belief. Romantic friendship is renamed gay love or lesbianism because our modern notions of friendship do not allow for the possibility of friends embracing romantic activities.

But such renaming obscures the fact that many people in the past would have vehemently disagreed with our notions of legitimate activities of friendship. They would have strongly opposed the idea that same-sex romantic friendship must be regarded only as a subcategory of homosexuality, in the same way that some bisexuals object to bisexuality being regarded only as a subcategory of homosexuality. Like bisexuals, romantic friends throughout history have engaged in activities that have been practiced at both ends of a spectrum. To say that romance must be identified only with sexual love is to deny romance its historical power as a form of friendship.

Many writers of gay history have rightly asserted that we can learn much about the history of homoeroticism by studying same-sex-attracted people who practiced romantic friendship. But to leave the statement there – to imply that romantic friendship is nothing other than the stepchild of homoeroticism – is to practice what C. S. Lewis referred to in A Preface to Paradise Lost as the doctrine of the Unchanging Human Heart.

According to this method the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurian philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate. . . .

Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I would feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them.

The loss of romantic friendship as a concept in English-speaking countries was a loss to humanity, because it left us with rigid notions about the division between friendship and erotic love. The wall between friendship and erotic love will only be strengthened if we strip romantic friendship of its distinctive features and treat it simply as a subcategory of homoeroticism. Instead of adopting this method, writers of gay history would bring greater benefit to society if they recognized gay people's kinship with platonic romantic friends, granting those friends their own, legitimate space in which to challenge modern society's views on friendship.

Further Reading

For an opposing view to the one I have argued here (or at least a view of the other side of the coin), see Paul Halsall's section entitled Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual History and Same-Sex Friendship in his introduction to his site People with a History. Similarly, amidst cogent arguments that some gay men have practiced romantic friendships, Rictor Norton states in his essay The False Charge of "Anachronism" that, "When reading passionate expressions of endearment between men, I submit that it is relatively easy for queer readers to recognize the difference between sycophancy and love, between rhetoric and passion . . ." Such love and passion he regards as gay. He makes a similar claim in his essay Political Definitions of "The Lesbian", though he qualifies his remarks there by saying that strong female friendships "cannot occupy the foreground of lesbian history except in those instances where a case can be made for sexual expression (including sexual suppression and sublimation)."

The standard histories of same-sex romantic friendships are Lillian Faderman's Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, Elizabeth Mavor's The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study of Romantic Friendship, and Eve Kosofsky's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Many more scholars of gay and lesbian history have studied the topic within books devoted specifically to homoerotic attraction.

Lillian Faderman has edited an anthology containing much literature on female romantic friendships, Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present. My site Male Romantic Friendships in Historical Photography and Literature, due to debut later in spring 2004, will provide a short bibliography of books with historical photographs and literature on male romantic friendships, as well as related online links. My site Links to the History of Friendship, Romantic Friendship, Romance, and Sexuality indicates which Websites provide information on romantic friendships.

Another of my essays at this site, The Misguided Search for "Homoeroticism", also discusses scholarly difficulties surrounding the use of historical writings on friendship.

© 2004 Heather Elizabeth Peterson

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Heather Elizabeth Peterson, World History of Male Love, "Eternal Debate", Romantic Friendship: Not Just a Code Word for Gay, 2004 <>

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