There are certain hot button subjects when it comes to ancient Greece, ones in which I have no choice but to form a definite opinion. One of these is gay sex. If I want to write detailed stories set in their world, I can hardly dance around the subject!
So how gay were these guys? It's hard to read any modern book or paper on the subject without the sound of ideological axes grinding noisily in the background. So I thought I'd throw in my own dose of what I perceive to be reality, based on what evidence I think relevant.
First up, it's clear that the classical Greeks (the ones I care about, 5th century BC) didn't give a damn what personal plumbing got applied where. As long as people were getting sex with someone, life was good. The archaic Greeks might have felt differently (6th century BC and before). For example, the classical Greeks took it for granted that Achilles and Patroclus in Homer's Iliad were lovers. But in Homer you'll not find a single word to say it.
So classical Greeks had no problems with homosexuality. But how prevalent was it?
The single biggest social driver of the time was overpopulation. It was so hard to feed the growing population that many cities regularly selected citizens to leave and found new cities elsewhere, which is one of the reasons the Greeks moved into Ionia (Western Turkey), and Southern Italy. Well, overpopulation doesn't say a lot of gay sex to me.
In Athens, a man who wasn't married by 30 was a social outcast. Everyone was expected to continue their line. This must have been tough on the guys who were inherently gay. I guess they just had to lie back and think of Athens. But then they were certainly free to play with their friends in their spare time.
This demand is a paradox when put alongside the population problem, but it's no more illogical than today, where overpopulation has strained our resources to the limit, yet individual countries still encourage their people to have more kids.
In Sparta, it was illegal not to be married by 30. But Sparta, in this as in all things, was the exception. The Spartans struggled to keep their population up due to the high mortality rate in battle.
Pericles and Callias were known to have been not only straight, but outrageously monogamous. Pericles was besotted with Aspasia, Callias with his wife Elpinice. By modern standards they were probably perfect husbands.
There are no examples I can think of off-hand of gay men living together without women. There are lots of examples of men who were almost certainly bi-sexual.
A surprising number of pottery pieces that survive, particularly those used at parties, such as kraters for mixing wine, were painted with scenes that show men and women frolicking together. Some of these are extremely pornographic! So much so that some modern museum displays probably should have an adult rating. It's clear that many symposia (dinner parties) were heterosexual orgies.
A smaller amount of pottery porn shows men together. In fact, though I haven't counted, I suspect the incidence of gay pottery porn is about the same as pottery showing men throwing up from drinking too much. (I'm not kidding...vomiting was considered a fit subject for decoration; the Getty Villa has some particularly good examples. I guess the Greeks thought it was funny.)
Gay pottery porn almost always shows an older man with a younger man, or even a boy. These relationships were so standard that there were specific terms for how it worked. The older man was called the erastes and the younger the eromenos. It wasn't merely sexual, a lot of it seems to have been mentoring, and some fathers even encouraged their sons to form such a bond. In a world where men could die suddenly in battle or from disease, it made a lot of sense for a father to know there was someone else who'd look out for his son. An erastes was sort of like a godfather with benefits. The relationships were rarely permanent; when the young man grew older he'd go on and marry as per normal.
There's a book from Plato in which Socrates says he never has sex with any of the cute looking young men who follow him around. What strikes me is not Socrates' attitude, but that the men he's talking with take it for granted that a male teacher would have sex with his male students. I expect this was the social norm. I speculate it would have been thought similar to the erastes/eromenos system and therefore perfectly respectable.
Considering all the current debate about gays in the military, I find it rather amusing that the most successful military leader the world has ever seen was as camp as a row of pink army tents. Alexander the Great was unquestionably gay. He married two women: Stateira the daughter of the Great King to legitimize his hold on Persia, and then Roxane in a surprise move. Most paintings show Roxane as quite voluptuous, but I'd be willing to bet she was somewhat more androgynous. The great loves of his life appear to have been his boyhood friend Hephaistion, and the Persian boy, Bagoas.
There is virtually no information on lesbians. The best source is the brilliant archaic poet Sappho, who on the fragments of her work that survive probably did have romantic interests with her students, though even that's not certain. Just as there's no telling what the men got up to at symposia, there's no knowing what the ladies got up to when they visited each others' homes. The term lesbian comes from the isle of Lesbos, because that's where Sappho lived, but it's an entirely modern term.
The play Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, is not only hilarious (well worth seeing if you get a chance), but it's also to my mind telling evidence. The time is the peak of the war between the Athens and Sparta, and a lady of Athens by the name of Lysistrata has had enough of it. She calls on her fellow women to barricade themselves on the Acropolis and refuse to have sex with the men until they make peace. This is the play that invented the sex strike!
Lysistrata assumes that Athens will collapse in chaos within 3 days if the men can't get at the women. Aristophanes expected the audience to find this credible. Clearly there'd be no issue if lots of men were mostly playing together.
So although there was zero prejudice against gays, and relationships that today we would describe as pederasty might even have been encouraged, the ratio of straight to gay sex was probably the same as it is today.