Sex and Gender Identity Through History


Issues of sexuality and gender have been recently politicized. The last fifty years saw a rise in political activism surrounding the concept of sex and gender identity, with prominent leaders such as Harvey Milk and Audre Lorde, and as such many students view sex and gender identity hand-in-hand with LGBT+ activism; however, the study and evolution of human sexuality and gender identity began long before openly gay characters began appearing in films (Even the time at which gay characters began appearing in film would be a surprise to most students: the first appearance of an openly gay character is in the 1923 satire of The Spoilers, The Soilers).

However, modern notions of sexuality and gender identity would be completely foreign to the peoples of human history. The idea of heterosexuality itself was only invented in the late nineteenth century by the Hungarian writer Karl Maria Kertbeny. Kertbeny’s work was expanded upon by the German philosopher Magnus Hirschfeld, but the modern idea of sexuality was not solidified until the late twentieth century: and many would argue that the definition of sexuality is still evolving with the emergence of asexuality as a named sexuality in 1983. Asexuality had previously been discussed as an unknown, X variable in Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 and 1953 Kinsey Reports.

Instead when students look at the history of sexuality and gender identity, they must take the context of the historical setting into mind. Modern textbooks often write that the Greeks were homosexual; however, the truth is not as simple. An example of this comes through the form of Pericles’ Athens, wherein women were of such little status and perceived so low, that it would be often uncouth to have sexual relations with a woman unless it were for the benefit of child-bearing or political alliances.

Likewise, the ancient Romans had a complicated view of sexuality and gender identity. Unlike in many classical societies, daughters could take on some of the roles of a son if no male heir were present. And the Romans view on homosexual activity varied by place and context through the empire. Pompeiian graffiti glorified homosexuality while contemporary poet Martial derided same-sex marriages.

Modern curriculum avoids the topics of sexuality and gender identity for two reasons: firstly, it is often deemed controversial, or accused of sexualizing the students. And secondly, the concepts are often believed to be irrelevant to the learning and development of the students.

Teaching sexuality and gender identity does not have to be controversial. Students can be shown primary sources from throughout history and be left to interpret them for themselves. Learning about the sexuality and gender identity of Ancient Egyptians will not turn any of the students queer. And learning about sex and sexuality has been shown to lower the rates of teen sexual activity.

And while some dispute the scientific merit of studies targeting sexuality and gender identity, the simple fact is more and more students are identifying as sexual and/or gender minorities. Excluding the history and cultural evolution of human sexuality only serves to distance students from the topics we as educators want them to learn.

The following pages will explore different cultures and their definitions of sexuality and gender identity throughout the six periods of history (As described by the AP Curriculum: Technological and Environmental Transformations: 10,000 – 600 BCE, Organization and Reorganization of Human Societies: 600 BCE – 600 CE, Regional and Transregional Interactions: 600 – 1450 CE, Global Interactions: 1450 – 1750 CE, Industrialization and Global Integration: 1750 – 1900 CE, and Accelerating Global Change and Realignments: 1900 CE – Present). In using these documents, students will be able to grapple with shifting definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman, and how the terms of sexuality love, attraction, and sexuality came to be set.