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LHMP #398 Arvas 2014 From the Pervert, Back to the Beloved: Homosexuality and Ottoman Literary History, 11453-1923

Full citation: 

Arvas, Abdulhamit. 2014. “From the Pervert, Back to the Beloved: Homosexuality and Ottoman Literary History, 11453-1923” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.

Part II - Renaissance and Early Modern; Chapter 8 - From the Pervert, Back to the Beloved: Homosexuality and Ottoman Literary History, 11453-1923

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This chapter concerns Early Modern Ottoman, poetry, primarily about love, and primarily about love between men. This is not solely love of adolescent boys, but a wide array of male beloveds. Changes in cultural influences, especially westernization in the 19th century, reframed this dynamic as perverse. The focus of the article is Istanbul and relations between men, but one section of the article looks at female poets, and female same-sex topics.

The article surveys of the themes and genres of same-sex love poetry, including catalogs of beauty, lyric poetry, treatises on the intersection of medicine and eroticism, and humorous disputes on the superiority of one type of love object over another. One dynamic in the 19th century reframing of Ottoman love poetry was the western stereotype of Ottoman men as sodomites. (There was also a fascination in Western culture with the idea of lesbianism in the harem.) These perceptions affected western studies of Ottoman literature, including the imposition of heteronormative readings onto overtly homosexual poems, i.e., seeing them as abstract and metaphorical. Another approach was to attribute homoerotic culture to the consequences of a gender-segregated society. All these approaches get in the way of studying Ottoman literature on its own terms.

[Note: although the generic beloved in these discussions is often described as a “boy”, the texts often focus on a beloved who is just beginning to grow a beard or mustache, and some clearly indicate a mature man. This doesn’t discount pottential age and power imbalances, and the fact that love objects were often enslaved people, and so had questionable rights over their own bodies.]

Ottoman literary scholarship has rarely touched on female same-sex relations, but early travelogues regularly referred to the topic, often attributing the practice to gender segregation. Some hints on the topic can’t be found in medical or debate literature, though from the point of view of men writing for men.

The article includes several quotes from a 16th century text describing women who use masculine presentation and dildos in their sexual relations with women, but generally ignore the possibility of non-penetrative sex between women.

From the 16th century writings of Deli Birader Gazali: “In big cities, there are famous dildo women. They put on manly clothes, they ride cavalry horses, and they also ride kochis [covered wagons] for fun. Rich and noble women invite them to their houses and offer them nice shirts and clothing. These women tie dildos on their waist and grease them with almond oil, and then start the job, dildoing the cunt.”

There is a brief review of female poets, some of whose work hints at addressing a female beloved, though the language is typically ambiguous.

The article concludes with a discussion of how, in the 19th century, with increasing Western influence, as well as anti-Sufi movements, homoerotic literature became less prevalent. The article ends with something of a call to revive older concepts and vocabulary as part of modern sexuality discourse to avoid the ways in which stigmatizing concepts have shaped modern Turkish sexuality vocabulary.

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