When I was a kid still struggling with his sexuality, the dictionary definition of masturbation was “self-abuse,” which was to say the least disheartening. We are how others see us and for centuries much of gay life has been defined, distorted and even hidden by the use of derogatory words, whose choice, in retrospect, seems actively malicious. There are at least two gay couples in Virgil’s great Latin epic, the Aeneid, for instance, but you wouldn’t know it to read some of the older translations.
In 1697, John Dryden described a gay hero battling the invading Trojans in Book X as some kind of sinful pedophile: the “wretched Cydon … Who courted Clytius in his beardless bloom,/ And sought with lust obscene polluted joys” and might have been permanently cured of his “love of boys” had not his brethren stopped the enemy.
Three centuries later, Sarah Ruden gets far closer to the truth with a translation that’s less grand but far fairer:
“And you, poor Cydon, following Clytius,
Your latest love, with blond down on his cheeks,
Would have been brought down by a Trojan hand
That turned all passion for young men to nothing,
Had Phorcus’ seven sons, your troop of brothers,
Not hedged you closely, throwing seven spears.”
Now that’s what I call history.