Rethinking Byzantine Masculinities: A Conversation with Dr. Derek Krueger

Rethinking Byzantine Masculinities: A Conversation with Dr. Derek Krueger

Posted on 02/22/2021

In October 2020, Dr. Derek Krueger along with  Mark Masterson from the Victoria University of Wellington, Claudia Rapp from the University of Vienna, and Shaun Tougher from Claudiff University participated in a zoom event entitled “Rethinking Byzantine Masculinities: Gender, Sexuality, Emotion, Devotion,” hosted by the Program in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. Although the pandemic has been challenging for scholars engaged in international research, the ability to hold a zoom event across seas and continents was one benefit and a pleasure to witness. The Byzantine empire was a continuation of the Roman Empire that lasted from about 330 A.D. to 1453 A.D. The event focused on the homoeroticism and homosociality of monks in the Byzantine empire, as well as the place of eunuchs and the differing performance of masculinities that existed in the monastery. 

Dr. Krueger, the Joe Rosenthal Excellence Professor of Religious Studies and cross-appointed WGSS faculty, was one of the organizers of the event and sat down for an interview with our Graduate Assistant, Aries Powell, to speak about his research, the field of Byzantine studies, and the implications for future scholars and students thinking critically about sexuality and gender.

For the past few decades, Dr. Krueger’s research has focused on the place of male homoerotic desire within the practice of Christianity; the relationships among monks; and relationships between monks and God. His work has become more specific and focused as he has been teaching and thinking about Symeon the New Theologian. 

He was active around the year 1000 A.D. in Constantinople, and he was a monastic teacher and practitioner, and eventually an abbot, and… he’s sort of interesting in Byzantine studies for being one of the great Orthodox Christian mystics… and a lot of his understanding of the relationship between the monk and God is figured in explicitly homoerotic terms, and many scholars have been made nervous by this. 

In his current research, Derek Krueger focuses on Symeon and his disciples, reading their interpretation of that homoerotic relationship against the backdrop of the larger homophobic culture of the Byzantines. Dr. Krueger is also interested in gender boundary crossing, and all of the different masculinities that appear and constitute part of life in the Byzantine world. 

A lot of what’s going on is actually not only about love between men, or even sex between men, but some of it explicitly looks at gender boundary crossing of other sorts too. The Byzantine Empire had a long history of creating eunuchs, although  I don’t think huge percentages of the Byzantine population were eunuchs. There were lot of non-procreating men (monks and eununchs) who were kind of integral to Byzantine society and offer us opportunities to reflect on what might be central to masculinity as a concept. This is further challenged by lots of narratives that we have about monks who were assigned female gender at birth and that have generally been known among scholars as “women disguised as monks” But I think under our current sensibilities it is important to reread these narratives and see them as stories of transgender people.

These texts have important stakes for re-narrating possible transgender accounts from the past. Byzantine monks had queer desires, queer bodies, and monastic communities included eunuchs and transgender men. According to Dr. Krueger, LGBTQ+ histories tell us that genders and sexualities are always only experienced as cultural constructions, and if we look at a plethora of historical and geographical cultures, we begin to expand the ways that we can look at and understand gender and sexuality. 

The Byzantine Masculinities panel discussion included scholars from all over the world. Dr. Krueger reports that the field is necessarily international because of the specificity of the topic. He is grateful for the opportunity to be able to speak to colleagues from all parts of the world embedded in different national and academic contexts. The field is quickly becoming bigger, with more and more young scholars interested in queer genders and sexualities within Byzantine studies doing cutting edge work in queer theory. Dr. Krueger says that the field has generally been on a 20 year lag in dealing with social issues, due to how small it is, but that it is quickly becoming more flexible. For him it has been wonderful to see LGBTQ+ identified and other scholars doing this work as this specific aspect of the discipline becomes more mainstream. 

I got some resistance early on.  I was looking at texts where monks expressed fairly graphic homoerotic fantasies of a relationship with God … and I gave a paper on this 15-20 years ago, and someone objected that ‘It’s just a metaphor!’ But it’s this metaphor … Rather than regarding those sorts of fantasies as utterly sinful and useless to a monk, Symeon the New Theologian cultivated and channeled this desire. 

Although within the context of celibacy and monasticism, monks were restricted from acting physically upon these desires, their  relationship to other monks and to God speaks to queerness. It’s been a struggle for Derek Krueger to balance being honest about the material while defending it from attacks on both sides, from those denying the presence of queerness at all and those who decry the sex negativity of the monastary, claiming that this work has no place in queer studies because of its inherent homophobia. For Derek Krueger, queer studies in this context doesn’t only include evidence of sexual engagement, but also the close friendships between monks and gender-queer activities. The “Rethinking Byzantine Masculinities” panelists asserted that their research didn’t necessitate the search for queer sex specifically, and that the exclusion of non-sexual queer activity and sentiment is limiting. 

Dr. Krueger looks forward to the influx of new scholars and scholarship that will continue to engage critically with the Byzantine world and the academic community in ways that emphasize the connections to be made between the homoerotic lives of monks, loving other men and God, and today’s field of queer and transgender studies.

Watch the “Rethinking Byzantine Masculinities” panel discussion here: