THE RELEVANT QUEER: One of Gay & Lesbian Studies’ Most Important Scholars Dr. John Boswell, Born March 20, 1947

John Boswell. Robert Giard Foundation.

“It is quite clear that nothing in the Bible would have categorically precluded homosexual relations among early Christians.”

TRQ: JohnBoswell, Born March 20, 1947

Dr. John Boswell, one of gay and lesbian studies’ most important scholars, was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He received his master’s degree and doctorate from Harvard University. 

Boswell’s career at Yale University lasted nearly twenty years. Boswell joined the faculty of Yale University in 1975, became a full professor in 1982, and formed the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center in 1987. He was named the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History in 1990 when he took office as chairman of the history department. 

A genius in linguistics, Boswell read and spoke more than seventeen languages. These included Old Icelandic, classical Armenian, Syriac and Persian. He was also an established authority in queer history and the history of religion in Medieval Spain. 

His book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, published in 1980, was ground-breaking in its argument against the commonly accepted notion that religious beliefs have been the cause of intolerance to gay people. Boswell’s book won the American Book Award for history in 1981. 

Boswell defined gay persons as “as those whose erotic interest is predominantly directed toward their own gender (i.e., regardless of how conscious they are of this as a distinguishing characteristic).” He also argued that highly-developed gay subcultures had thrived in medieval and Western Europe, classical Athens, and imperial Rome. 

In 1994, Boswell’s second book, Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, he argues that same-sex union ceremonies were church rituals in the twelfth century that celebrated the emotional bonds between male couples. The book draws on over sixty manuscripts detailing rites of same-sex unions, and was acknowledged for its scholastic impact on contemporary Christianity. Boswell’s book was also embraced by Christian readers looking to support same-sex marriage within the church. Doonesbury, the comic strip, featured the book and its arguments. 

On Christmas Eve in 1994, Bowell died of an AIDS-related illness. He shares a book-shaped headstone in Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven with his partner of twenty years, Jerone Hart, who died in 2010. Boswell’s epitaph reads, “He was not a tame lion,” in reference to Aslan, the good lion in C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia

In addition to being a respected scholar and teacher, Boswell was a popular lecturer who spoke often his life as an openly gay Christian. Today, the Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale is known as The Research Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies. 

John Boswell. Ph: Unknown



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