The Man Who Gave Christianity a Sex Talk

John Boswell did the impossible?

Jonathan Poletti
Jun 13, 2020 · 13 min read

As a boy, he loved Joan of Arc. I’m wondering if he shared her sense of mission. He took on a task that would need military precision and a bit of mystic madness. He would talk with Christianity about sex.

He expected Joan’s same end. “It was a little bit of a moral letdown in fact,” he recalls in a 1989 interview, “because I had prepared to make this great courageous sacrifice and to be the noble martyr with good grace.”

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There’s been no biography of John Eastburn Boswell.

I hunt around for information on the man who, I find, loved Jesus and singing and dancing, Star Wars and Disney and the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. He was born in Boston in 1947. His father was an Army colonel, and he grew up in Turkey and all over Europe.

He was known as ‘Jeb’, the acronym of his initials. At age 12, he converted from his family’s Episcopal faith to Catholicism. His mother was concerned he ought to wait until he was older. He asked her: “How long will you deprive me of the Sacrament?”

He remained devout the rest of his life. Ungodly bright, he learned seventeen languages and was interested in everything. In a 1986 filmed lecture, he speaks with a lisp, strikes me as a bit autistic, and gay.

He says this knowledge came over him slowly. “I don’t think I even knew the word ‘gay’ when I was an undergraduate,” he says in a 1984 news story on a new gay group at Yale. “But I knew something was different about me. I lived with the secret for the four years here.”

He’d attended William & Mary, and gotten a Ph.D. in history from Harvard in 1975, going to work at Yale the same year. If closeted at Yale for four years, he came out in 1979 — just as his book on homosexuality in Christianity was about to be published.

Reading his book, I keep wondering if it is a sort of autobiography — his effort to locate himself in Catholic tradition? It’s fun to think of him making his realizations, one after another. Like that moment he realizes, as he says in a 1989 speech: ‘’Prior to the 13th century, homosexuality was not viewed negatively by the church.”

If the story the church was telling was that it’d stood nobly against sexual confusion from its start, the actual plot might be a bit trickier. Long into its run, Christianity had chosen to attack as villains the very people keeping it running.

He adds in 1989: ‘’What gay people have given religious life is incalculable — 2,000 years of cheerful service.”

The idea of service, a theology of service, means a lot to Boswell, and his book might be read as the story of gay service for the world.

In August 1980, a reporter for the Boston Globe notices him at an Episcopalian meeting about gay subjects. Gay Christians must believe and teach what is good and true,” he tells the reporter. “Our theology must be based on characteristics that gay people know well, an ethic based on self-giving . . . and fidelity to Christ in spite of unbelievably overwhelming obstacles.”

He was warned he’d end up “a shoe salesman,” he says in 1989.

“But I had a really good feeling with that book that I was doing the right thing, and since then a great many people have communicated to me that it made a big difference in their lives.”

When Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century was published, in December 1980, when he was 33, it was a hit, and won the American Book Award for history.

“It forces us to re-examine even the most fixed notions about our moral and cultural heritage,” the New York Times review gushed.

The book had nearly magical effects, all but inventing “gay studies,” which is later re-branded “queer studies” — an investigation into, not just same-sexuality, but all that is unsaid, unclear and unusual.

But the book’s plot might be: a gay man with knowledge of sex, and the world, talking sensibly to straight people—working through the deranged thoughts in their minds. It’s abnormal. It’s against nature! They’re inferior, and dangerous! Repulsive! Everyone will become one if the gays aren’t stopped! They can’t be allowed to marry! Why are they so promiscuous?

Mostly, people’s views on sex are assembled from a range of kooky sources, never realizing it’s all just sort of crazy. “You can’t reasonably argue someone out of a position which they did not reasonably get into,” as Boswell comments in a panel discussion at Yale in 1986.

But calmly, he starts laying out facts.

In the ancient world, gayness was commonplace.

For men, it was not a marker for ‘effeminacy’. To wear perfume — that was another matter.

Gayness was the energy of democracy.

The celebrated mythic founders of Athens — Harmodius and Aristogeiton — were seen as lovers.

Though not usually discussed in this way, his book is trying to get the reader to think calmly about sex in general. To dismantle the core of craziness around gays is just one problem. The method might be taken over to thinking about women, or anything else.

Look at it carefully, he says. Do gays seem weird, eccentric, strange? Or is that just those who are self-identifying as gay? Maybe they’re just one kind. Maybe there’s lots of others—who don’t feel able to deal with the assaults on them that’ll happen if they’re more open.

Does it seem that gays are depressed, anxious, promiscuous?

Does it seem like they favor short-term relationships?

It might be useful to reflect, he suggests, on “the variable of social hostility.”

Maybe it’s you—if you’re a prejudiced straight person—who’s helping to create these problems you’re identifying? The thing you started out judging comes back on you as its source.

Stop the hysterics, he says, and look at the evidence—including the evidence that’s not there.

“Only when social attitudes are favorable do gay people tend to form visible subcultures. In hostile societies they become invisible, a luxury afforded them by the essentially private nature of their variation from the norm, but one which greatly increases their isolation and drastically reduces their lobbying effectiveness.”

People don’t actually know about the ancient world and sex.

Books routinely, Boswell notes, censor information. Pronouns are changed by editors. Scorn is layered on where none is found originally. And readers misunderstand basic concepts and phrases.

When Plato uses the phrase ‘against nature’, for example, this likely means, for him, not a violation of ‘nature’ in some theological sense. It means ‘non-procreative’. Big news—gay sex doesn’t create kids.

For ancient Greeks, two men liking each other was fine. Aristotle writes: “This disposition occurs in some people naturally.” A person of taste was, Plutarch writes, “equably disposed toward both sexes…”

It was even seen as a practice that lifts one out of the lower world of mere carnal sexuality. As not widely understood, “Platonic love” wasn’t a reference to an absence of intimacy. In context, it would mean Plato’s “conviction that only love between persons of the same gender could transcend sex.”

Then the Bible, the most misread book ever read?

Though not a Bible scholar, Boswell broke into the club, and over time, shifted Christianity more than any scholar of his generation. A remarkable story.

For his first, and perhaps most startling reading—that Sodom wasn’t about gays—he made use of a book by an Anglican priest named Derrick Sherwin Bailey, apparently straight, who in 1955 published Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. It was pivotal in the British decriminalization of ‘sodomy’—a rare example of a Bible scholar navigating politics to alleviate human suffering.

Christianity doesn’t try to remember its heroes. Bailey is obscure now, his book long out of print, but Boswell amplified it hugely. The famous Sodom scene, he affirms, was not about gay sex. Two angels are threatened with rape, and Christians think the problem is the gender of their attackers?

Women are raped by men in the Bible, he notes, and that doesn’t make heterosexuality bad.

The Sodom scene is discussed all throughout the Bible, with no implications of a sexual problem. The language of the text doesn’t suggest sex! The scene is explicitly discussed, in later Bible books, as a problem of ‘inhospitality’. Christianity had made up an interpretation just to be hateful.

For Boswell, all that Leviticus stuff was about ritual impurity, not anything bad in itself. Then he turns to Romans 1—the main text cited by anti-gay speakers—and here, gets creative. Too much so, probably.

The problem in view, he thinks, is straight men having gay sex.

It was historic, perhaps, in his being the first gay man to object to this possibility.

What is even more important, the persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons. The whole point of Romans I, in fact, is to stigmatize persons who have rejected their calling, gotten off the true path they were once on.

The arsenokowhaat??

Christian readers think the Bible has lots and lots and lots of condemnations of two guys touching. Isn’t that in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10?

Boswell sprang a surprise on Christendom. There is no evidence in the ancient world that a very rare Greek word, arsenokoitai, referred to gays or homosexuals—or anything sexual.

Translators had pretended to find ‘homosexuality’ on the sole evidence that the etymology was ‘man+bed’. To guess meaning in this way, Boswell reminded, is irresponsible. He offers “lady killer” as an example—a phrase that, if examined for its parts, might mean someone who murders women. Actually, it’s a man who seduces them.

The arsenokoitai isn’t found in ancient discussions of sex, he notes. It might’ve been Paul referencing male prostitutes? But, over time, the word was used to refer to everything from child molestation to anal sex with a wife.

Next, Boswell takes us on a tour through the early and medieval church, where it wasn’t at all clear that Christians thought poorly of gays. There was love letters, romances, even possible same-sex marriages.

There were fines and punishments at times. And there might have been, at times, the cultivation of “gay subculture, with a highly developed literature, its own argot and artistic conventions, its own low life, its elaborate responses to critics.”

At Yale, Boswell was a popular professor, and not just for not requiring attendance at lectures.

Students came if they wanted to? They did. He’d become a superstar and his classes were packed. “I dress up in a suit and tie to lecture, but I hate it,” he says in a 1989 profile in the Hartford Courant

Unusually for faculty members, he’d attend football games. He loved to gossip. A later eulogy quotes his first dissertation student recalling sitting with him, drinking Coke “and asking endless questions of a man who never tired of helping others.” A colleague recalls Boswell teaching him always to question “whether his historical theories come from modern interpretations or from the words and actions of the people he was studying.”

In the Hartford Courant says he has a ‘companion’ of 19 years, who “goes with me to department functions and is wonderfully accepted by Yale." I do some math. They got together around 1970 when Boswell was 23 and Jerone R. Hart (called ‘Jerry’) about a year older.

They lived together, and were known for hosting a Friday night salon.

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By 1986, AIDS is raging and the Evangelical world leaped to the attack.

Feeling the anti-gay prejudice had been weakening, they used the occasion to go in for the kill. “I believe that AIDS is God indicating his displeasure and his attitude toward that form of lifestyle, which we in this country are about to accept,” as Charles Stanley tells the San Francisco Chronicle.

He’s then president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

At the same time, Boswell is thinking about how the virus is bringing people together. He writes in a 1986 essay on The Normal Heart: “Plague adds another dimension to the revealing power of sickness and death by transforming an essentially individual experience into a communal one.”

When everyone is dying, it’s hard to be far apart. The great gay isolation—was no more.

While doing something or other that results in him catching the virus, he keeps up the pressure on Bible scholarship. Reluctantly, it realizes it has to deal with him. A conservative Bible scholar, in 1986, takes stock:

Boswell’s innovative treatment of the few texts relevant to his topic has certainly flung the gauntlet before the received wisdom of the commentators and lexicographers. At several points, his study has uncovered possible biases and weaknesses in our received translations of the biblical texts.

This scholar goes to work unravelling Boswell’s reading of Romans 1. This reading, however strained, was often cited by gay men of the time. Boswell opened a space to thinking better of oneself. Is that bad? It’s not like anyone knew what the passage was really about.

It wasn’t just Boswell vs. the right wing Christians. As a friend, Ralph Hexter, writes in 1995, “the fiercest criticism, even opposition, came not from the Christian right but from the gay academic left.” They might’ve preferred to see religion demonized. He wanted to see it change.

The traditional reading of Sodom as anti-gay text of terror was weakening, so emphasis shifted to the arsenokoitai. Christianity needed them on its team. The translations, to this day, remain unchanged.

The debate provoked many new participants in the sex wars. A respected Bible scholar named William L. Petersen, not typically writing about such matters, has two papers that crush the translation of arsenokoitai as ‘homosexual’. A 2006 obituary lists his male ‘life partner’.

Many later scholars, even denominations, found fuel in Boswell’s work for re-readings of a range of Bible passages—or at least wondering if there wasn’t enough doubt to go ahead and stop hating people.

As Jeffrey Cisneros writes in a 2013 assessment of Boswell’s influence, he “has profoundly influenced theological debates in numerous Christian denominations, particularly in the United States.”

But Christianity, on the whole, just couldn’t change. It’d gotten used to its villains and its wars, without which, the “religion” didn’t have much else to define itself?

It’s not like that “love” stuff meant much to the clerics. How much easier to say that what matters to God is . . . the gender of those you touch.

Boswell kept busy on his next book.

In 1989, he published one on the long practice of child abandonment (a major concern of the early Christian church). Then, for years he’d been tracking suggestions of ‘brotherly unions’’ officiated by the medieval church, and embarked on a study of that.

He worked on it—while ill from a range of odd maladies. His sister Patricia recalls, at Christmas Eve 1992, going to church together. She’s thinking about his illnesses and putting the pieces together.

We started home, still alight with the beauty of the ser­vice. As we neared my home, I screwed up my courage and said, “I have been want­ing to ask you but afraid to. Do you have AIDS?” Jeb stopped and with­out a word began to weep. I put my arms around him and cried on his shoul­der, as we stood in the middle of the road on that cold early Christ­mas morn­ing. Finally, I asked the most unan­swer­able of ques­tions, “Why? Why would God do that to some­one as loving as you?”

He quoted a line from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, about Aslan the God-like lion: “Remem­ber, sweetie, He is not a tame lion.”

She writes in her eulogy: “Jeb’s love of God was the dri­ving force in his life and the dri­ving pas­sion behind his work. He did not set out to shake up the straight world but rather to include the gay world in the love of Christ… to acquaint all with the fearsome power of that love, the wild­ness, the ‘not tame­ness’ of it.”

To finish his book on “brotherly unions,” Hexter notes, “he held a fearsome virus to a standstill for years by the sheer force of his will.” In July 1994, he published Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, suggesting they might have been de facto marriages.

Much might be suggested in the evidence he cites, and he resisted clear answers. A theme of the book is the problems around the vast silence around gayness in the Christian world.

He writes: “Murder, matricide, child molesting, incest, cannibalism, genocide, even deicide are mentionable: why are a few disapproved sexual acts that injure no one so much more horrible than these?”

Which leaves the need to guess what was going on. A need imposed by the silencing and censoring.

Boswell did some of it himself.

Buried in the book’s acknowledgements is this odd line: “Jerone Hart offered practical support of crucial kinds in the United States . . .” The only reference in his work, it seems, to his partner.

Without proof there was sex in these “brotherly unions,” and non-romantic cases noted, his book was panned by hostile scholars, and the idea spread that he’d been misleading in his presentation of evidence.

The popular Doonesbury comic strip featured Boswell’s new book positively. Some newspapers refused to run it.

He enjoyed that last bit of havoc, then, age 47, knew it was time to go. A longtime friend recalls him in the infirmary, reciting lines from My Cousin Vinny, singing “Cause I’m a Blond” from Earth Girls Are Easy.

While I was there, his father, Colonel Boswell, saluted Jeb’s courage, the newly-installed Pres­i­dent of Yale, Richard Levin, cried freely, a devoted grad­u­ate stu­dent vis­ited daily, peo­ple reg­u­larly drifted in to thank Jeb for help­ing them through a cri­sis, and a young bar­ber who came to the infir­mary room to give Jeb a hair­cut moved us to tears when he refused pay­ment.

Asked about who might speak of him at his funeral, he asked if his mother or sister would. “But Jeb,” his sister recalls saying, “you need some­one who can talk about your life’s achieve­ments.”

“No,” he replies, “I need some­one who can talk about my faith.”

His New York Times obituary identifies his cause of death as AIDS, and identifies Jerry Hart as a ‘friend’.

A historian of the future would have to try and figure it out.

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Jonathan Poletti

Written by

spirituality + sexuality + stories

Prism & Pen

Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling

Jonathan Poletti

Written by

spirituality + sexuality + stories

Prism & Pen

Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling

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