Much of the early history of homosexuality in Portugal is, of course, intertwined with it being part of the Roman Empire covering parts of the Roman Provinces of Lusitania, Gallaecia and Hispania. Thus, much of the early history of “gay” sexuality is likely to have been similar to that in other Roman provinces. Thus, a distinction was made between Roman citizens – and others. While Roman (male) citizens had the right to practice penetrative sex with other people as the active part, such as with both make and female slaves or prostitutes, Roman morality frowned upon Roman citizens being penetrated. Of course, how this might have been interpreted is subject to many history books, but simply put, homosexuality wasn’t really a sin – as long as the Roman citizen did the penetration.
Although I couldn’t find any persons linked with the territory of modern-day Portugal, there are two Iberian-born men who made their mark on Gay History: Firstly, Marcial, a famous poet born in Calatayud (now in the province of Zaragoza). He wrote extensively about gay relationships in Roman society, although often in very negative terms (see here for some examples and a discussion of homosexuality in his works [in Spanish]).
Secondly, Hadrian, the Emperor that famously build the Hadrian Wall to keep the Scotts out of England…. was also (probably) born close to modern day Portugal, just across the border close to Seville. Apart from building walls, Hadrian is also famous for his love affair with the Bithynian Greek youth Antinous. As far as fame and fortune go, these were probably ancient Rome’s most famous gay couple…
Things changed, however, with the arrival of Christianity in the Roman Empire, especially after around the year 300. Between 342 and 390 laws condemning homosexuality and “gay marriage” were passed in the Roman Empire – and expanded in later years – starting the widespread (and what could be described as the still ongoing) obsession of some parts of the [catholic] Church with the sex-life of others, which included pretty much all sex out of marriage.
The Caliphate of Cordoba (Al Andalus)
After the fall of the Roman Empire, and the establishment of the Caliphate of Cordoba (Al Andalus) in much of Iberia, including modern-day Portugal, things became a lot more relaxed in terms of sexuality. Unlike the Christian Kingdoms and their negative obsession with everything sexual, sexuality wasn’t seen as something negative in most of the time of the Caliphate of Cordoba, and in fact, it was often seen as rather fashionable to have boy lovers. This lead to a string of caliphs and the upper crust of society having open love affairs with other men [PDF].
Most famously, Caliph Al Hakam II, a man of science, builder of large-scale irrigation systems and … keeper of a male harem (see here for more about him). As far as liberal attitudes go, courtiers were even forced to dress up his concubine as a boy, for him to produce an heir. This liberal attitude also gave rise to a string of love poems and other works of literature, written in both Arabic and Hebrew (which also showed the tolerance of Jews in the Al Andalus caliphate). Many of these works give intriguing insight into the daily lives of gay lovers in the Caliphate (see this book for details).
The Reconquest, Establishment of Portugal & the Inquisition
From the 9th century onward, Christian kings attempted to conquer the Caliphate of Cordoba, leading to the eventual establishment of what is today (more or less) Portugal in 1128. The final big stretch of modern-day Portugal, the Algarve, was in fact not conquered until over 100 years later, in 1249 – around 250 years before the Caliphate was finally defeated in neighboring Spain.
Portugal’s history of seafaring and discoveries started around the same time, and there are numerous accounts of gay relationships onboard ships. However, because of Christian moral norms, these types of relationships were often punished severely, including capital punishment. In fact, sodomy was one of the four crimes for which sailors could be executed: the other three were treason, heresy and “alliances with savages”.
Of course, the reconquest brought with it Christian morals and views about sexuality, which were strongly opposed to any form of sexual freedoms. Oppression of any gay activities at sea or on land followed – and was certainly made worse by the activities of the Portuguese Inquisition (1536 to 1821). In line with Catholic doctrine . Sodomy was regarded as one of the worst crimes – and large numbers of cases were investigated by the Inquisition. Many men accused of sodomy were publicly executed, tortured – or had to flee.
Please bear in mind that I’m not a historian (nor Portuguese for that matter…), but just compiled this based on my reading. It would be great if you could add any omissions or corrections below! Thanks!… Of course, I also realise that I have mostly focused on gay items. I hope I can find out more about lesbian and trans history in the future and share it here!
>> next time: Gay Life during the Inquisition, The First Republic and the Estado Novo (Salazar Regime)