When the LGBTQ+ magazine The Advocate in 2004 published its “100 Best Gay/Lesbian Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century,” “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality” by John Boswell was ranked No. 1, edging out Alfred Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior Among Males.”
Since his death in 1994, the gay Yale historian’s significance continues to rise, both in academic and wider cultural circles. Jay Watkins, an assistant professor of history at the College of William and Mary is even writing a long overdue Boswell biography.
So it is not surprising that a documentary entitled “Not A Tame Lion” has been produced about his life and impact by filmmakers Craig Bettendorf and Kai Morgan.
The film opens with the simple statement: “A person’s life is often defined by the times in which they live,” followed by, “This was certainly true of John Boswell.”
“Boswell’s work showed historians that what we thought we knew about the past was incomplete; it was not full, and he taught us that history is an ongoing effort,” said Katherine Rowe, president of William and Mary (where Boswell attended as an undergraduate), said in the film.
The film’s title comes from Boswell’s favorite book, C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” part of his “Chronicles of Narnia” series, and describes our relationship with God. It also serves as the inscription on his tombstone.
“Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality,” published in 1980, was revolutionary because Boswell asserted not only that intolerance of homosexuality wasn’t an original tenet of Christianity but that throughout its early history, there had been pockets of support, even appreciation, for homosexuality, complete with gay priests and bishops as well as a gay subculture with its own literature, language and artistic conventions that flourished from about 1050 to 1150. It wasn’t till the 12th or 13th century that any real hostility toward gay people emerged.
As the film notes: “Boswell became a beacon of authority, hope and understanding for the LGBTQ community caught in a world fueled by escalating intolerance, violence and hate.”
Many saw his book as an opportunity for the church to hit reset on LGBTQ+ policies and pronouncements. It made him a superstar in academia as well as the queer community.
With his knowledge of 14 languages, Boswell, a gifted linguist, was the type of scholar who emerges in a field maybe twice a century. A devout Catholic, Boswell wouldn’t give up something every Lent but instead learned a new language (like, for example, Old Church Slavonic) and at season’s end would read the New Testament in that language. He found manuscripts in support of gay people in the Vatican, old monasteries (such as Mt. Athos), archives, libraries and churches, Since these texts couldn’t be easily translated, officials didn’t know what they contained.
The film describes Boswell as “the greatest unintentional LGBTQ Trojan horse in history because he had access to these highly restricted and classified archives, able to read them in their original language.”
In fact, once Boswell’s book appeared, the Vatican had sessions on how to argue against him. Libraries cut off access to him, but he would send friends or graduate students in his place to take pictures of whatever manuscripts he needed. The film compares him to Robert Langdon from “The Da Vinci Code” as possibly the inspiration for novelist Dan Brown’s lead character.
Growing up in a military family and raised Episcopalian, Boswell by his teen years became convinced the Catholic Church represented the true apostolic succession. Boswell converted. He even studied Hebrew with a local rabbi, according to his sister Patricia, a chaplain.
He was constantly voted by students as the best teacher, but the accolade that meant most to him (besides winning 1981’s National Book Award for History) was the Yale Daily News anointing him the professor with the greatest sex appeal.
While Boswell didn’t invent the field, LGBTQ studies was still in its infancy at the time. He helped to legitimize and popularize the idea there was such an entity as gay history with a need for a revision of long-accepted assessments. With his witty approach to the material, bolstered by his famous sexy photo on the book jacket, suddenly gay history didn’t seem so staid or forbidding. Because the book became an academic bestseller, it opened the door to explore other gay and lesbian topics in other disciplines, eventually morphing into what is today queer studies.
After his book’s success, Boswell was sent copies of manuscripts describing spiritual brotherhood bonds that were actually gay unions between men. He claimed that the oldest record of a Christian union between two people in a church was the marriage of two men. Only later did the rest of the tradition adopt the idea that marriage was for love, not for money or property.
Boswell found evidence of gay unions performed with the liturgical blessings of priests. This fact was immortalized in a 1994 Doonesbury comic, in which the character, after being told that for 1,000 years that the church had sanctioned ceremonies for homosexual marriages, replied, “Well, sure. Catholics, they have a ritual for everything.”
Boswell elicited attacks from both the right, who disputed his findings as contradicting church teaching that homosexuality is a sin, and the left, who dismissed him as an apologist for the church and resented that he was a practicing Catholic. He was out to his family and close friends, but not to the public. He had a lifelong partner, Jerry Hart, for almost two decades but only referred to him as a “friend,” even in his New York Times obituary. It seemed odd that in his work he wanted to promote the idea of same-sex marriage, but he couldn’t reconcile it in his own life.
Boswell wasn’t able to accept his HIV-positive status. The only ones he admitted it to were his best friend Ralph Hexter, Hart and Patricia. The scene where she asks Boswell if he has AIDS is heartbreaking. The film suggests that Boswell was in a race with time to complete his “Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe” book. He wanted it published before he died — even pulling himself from the brink of death to finish it.
While the book appeared a few months before his death, it was rushed and probably needed at least another year to refine his arguments and polish his prose. His methodology was criticized, as was his idea that brother was a euphemism for lover — that the examples he cited were ritualized friendships, not “same-sex unions,” a more favorable, less objectionable term than homosexual marriages. In short, there was too much ambiguity and too many controversial translations of Greek terms. Consequently, this work hasn’t been as accepted in the field as his first book. However, it has been embraced by the LGBTQ+ community, with folks using liturgies he outlined in his book for their own same-sex wedding ceremonies, a tribute to his scholarship.
In his email interview, Bettendorf talks about the background crisis that was occurring for Boswell: “In my conversations with John’s friend and priest/confessor, Father Aaron Laushway, he confided that Jerry (who died in 2010) was not out to his family so John would not allow his diagnosis of AIDS to be the catalyst for Jerry’s being outed. Father Aaron was able to reason with Jerry to state that John had died as a result of complications of AIDS in The New York Times press release to ensure that the historical record was complete.”
Bettendorf commented on why he was determined to make a film on Boswell.
“I was raised in the Midwest in a traditional Protestant household in which church was a vital part of everyday life and community,” said Boswell. “My relationship with the church changed with the realization of my sexual orientation, leading me on a path of justifying my own existence as both gay and Christian. I visited A Different Light bookstore in Washington, D.C., during the March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights, finding and purchasing ‘Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality.’ To say that the book changed my life would be an understatement. I was able to use Boswell’s findings throughout my work in LGBTQ advocacy, experiencing firsthand the remarkable power that it held in helping countless others reclaim and reintegrate their spiritual identities. Many people outside of academia are unaware of Boswell’s life, works and contributions, including those within the LGBTQ communities, and I wanted that to change.”
Gathering useful material on Boswell was extremely difficult. There are very few photos of him. Bettendorf explained his conundrum this way: “Even today, most of the files in his archive at Yale have yet to be digitized. The audio clips used throughout the film were taken from his 1983 lecture at the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church, where an audience member retained their cassette tapes, later giving them to his pastor who made the decision to digitize the cassettes. The only known lecture video that has been digitally converted was filmed during a University of Wisconsin lecture in the 1980s. Having such a sparse selection of media to choose from was challenging, and we had to decide exactly where and when in the film to disperse it for maximum impact.”
Largely a low budget effort and with so little video footage of Boswell, the film uses traditional talking heads approach of interviews with his close friends, colleagues, former graduate students (now professors) and family members like his brother Wray — all of whom call him by his nickname, “Jeb” — as well as vintage archival footage to document the period’s homophobia and resistance to queer acceptance, plus unnecessary reenactments, fortunately few in number.
The film reveals a captivating personality, a humorous, self-assured man determined to advance and publicize his research. The interviews are particularly invaluable because almost 30 years after Boswell’s death, many are older, so it is vital to record their remembrances/testimony while they’re still alive. Aaron died soon after filming his interview.
Bettendorf hopes the film will remind audiences that the acceptance of LGBTQ+ people throughout history has always been cyclical, with peaks of acceptance followed by “falling-off-the-cliff intolerance.”
“LGBTQ people and their allies must remain vigilant and demand their place at societies’ greater table, even when it seems that their place is assured,” he added. “The intolerance of the 1980s and ‘90s depicted in the film was followed by an era of acceptance in the 2000s and marriage equality, followed again by a concerted effort to repeal our civil rights occurring right now, at this very moment.”
From a personal perspective, Bettendorf sees Boswell as a voice of authority within LGBTQ+ communities.
“He gives us the knowledge and validation, so we don’t have to ask for a place in the church because we’ve always been an integral role and part of the history and practice of Christianity. All that is needed is our own acceptance of this truth and no one else’s permission or approval,” he said.
What does Bettendorf see as Boswell’s greatest legacy?
“First would be the profound effect that ‘Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality’ had upon the world,” he said. “It reshaped the understanding of a subject that had been deemed too risky for most academics to consider researching. Boswell’s unparalleled knowledge of the original source material languages allowed for this breakthrough in understanding to occur. Hundreds of people wrote him letters thanking him for literally saving their lives with the publication of this book and although I never wrote him, I count myself among them.
“Second, the publication of ‘Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe’ which received four printings by July of 1994, changed the trajectory of the marriage equality debate in the US. It opened the door for churches and institutions to reconsider supporting same sex marriage as a societal norm. It is my opinion that these two books combined changed society’s perception of LGBTQ people in wonderful and profound ways.
“Finally, I believe that Boswell’s legacy once again proves that one person can have a profound effect on all society and the world. His story should inspire all people to follow their passion, taking them wherever it leads as they may in fact discover something that will benefit all of us.”
Produced in association with Religion Unplugged
Edited by Judy J. Rotich and Newsdesk Manager