"He was the refuge of my spirit, the sweet solace of my griefs, whose heart of love received me when fatigued by labors, whose counsel refreshed me when plunged in sadness and grief... What more is there, then, that I can say? Was it not a foretaste of blessedness thus to love and thus to be loved?"
-- Saint Aelred, from his eulogy on the death of his homosexual lover, Simon
What Catholicism and most other modern Christian churches vigorously deny is just how much homosexuality was not only tolerated, but practiced by many of its founding fathers, and the degree of toleration, if not veneration, it received. Afrocentrics often deny that homosexuality was a feature of African cultures in ancient times. And more than a few anglicized Native Americans would be shocked to learn that homosexuals were not only common among their tribal ancestors, but were even venerated as being spiritually gifted.
Homosexualty and bisexuality, we now know from modern research, is ubiquitous throughout the world. It exists in all cultures, and has at all times in history. A relic of our evolutionary history, homosexuality and bisexuality is very commonly practiced in nearly every culture, whether tolerated or not. The only difference is the openness with which it is practiced.
Another thing we know from modern research is that some degree of bisexuality, in the absence of cultural taboos, is not only extremely common in men, but is probably the rule! "Homosexuality of convenience" which occurs in the absence of available female partners (such as is commonly seen in prisons, for example) is widespread even in cultures that frown on homosexuality. Most men, at some time in their lives, experience homoerotic feelings towards other men - whether they choose to admit it or not. The percentage of men who have had a homoerotic experience to orgasm in amazingly high even in America. By the age of 49, fully 60% of American men have had such an experience, according to research by Masters and Johnson. We not only know that homosexual experience was ubiquitous, but that it tended to follow certain general patterns, nuanced by local traditions, taboos and prejudices.
Among these patterns are a tendency of partnerships to form between adolescents of differing ages, with the older male performing the more active (usually insertive) role, and the younger performing the more passive (usually receptive) role. The more tolerant the society, the older the senior partner became, to the point of being intergenerational in some cases, such as ancient Greece. In nearly all cases, however, taboos existed against homosexual rape, and most such societies had taboos or laws intended to protect an unwilling junior partner from an aggressive senior partner.
We also know that there is there is a small minority of men — estimates range from 3 to 7 percent depending on the precise criteria used — who seem to be biologically disposed to homosexual orientation, and for whom there is no element of bisexuality at all. They show no interest in forming relationships with women and may consider even the idea to be repugnant. But that leaves the vast majority of men in the middle, who on at least rare occasions, find other men to be erotically interesting.
The fact of the ubiquity of bisexuality is probably the source of the rumor that homosexuality is a chosen orientation. The fact that many men have erotic attraction to both sexes to at least some degree and are therefore offered the opportunity (or required by society) to choose is why many religious groups seem to think that sexual orientation can be changed. There is not a shred of evidence to indicate that a significant shift really can occur - "reparative therapies" succeed only in repressing one sexual response in favor of the other, often with pyschologically devastating results.
Such a notion runs counter to what we know of homosexuality, and what we know of its history and its biological origins. We now know, for example, that most men in ancient Greece and Rome engaged in at least occasional homosexual contact, and a not insignificant number of the marriages consummated in both civilizations were homosexual. We know that homosexuality, though not known by that name, was not only tolerated, but even celebrated in the arts, theater and in cultural activities. The ancients did not view gender as a determining factor of who should love or be married to who; the qualifications related solely to matters of age and biological relationship (incest).
We know that the ancient view of homosexual sex was that it was innocuous, harmless (so long as both parties were fully consenting), and could be as much a symbol of love between the participants as heterosexual sex. Indeed, in most African cultures, mutual masturbation and anal sex engaged in by pre-marriage adolescents was considered to be nothing more than childplay.
Indeed a vast corpus of literature has been left us by the ancients, which celebrates same-sex relationships, and which in many cases is homoerotic. Much of the literature of "straight society" also makes clear, in a variety of ways, that homosexual relationships were widely acknowledged, not considered immoral or "sinful," but rather were considered a normal part of life. In many "primitive" societies, such as those studied in Africa and the Pacific Islands, the patterns seen are often the same as those seen in ancient Greece and Rome. Adolescent males would often pair-bond, engage in frequent homosexual relations, and exhibit great love for each other, until the time came to become fathers and husbands. They would then make a choice - going on to find (or be assigned) a wife, and abandoning their same-sex partner. The choice was often difficult - and not a few chose to remain with their same-sex partner for the rest of their lives.
We can see from such references, that homosexuality was present in Africa from at least the earliest of European contact, and without much doubt, from long before. It wasn't just central Africa, either. While European proprieties made such graphic description of African homosexualities uncommon in their descriptions of Africa, there are enough references to it to know that it was indeed present, and even used as a justification for considering African cultures primitive enough to justify slavery.
Among the last African cultures to be subjugated by Europeans, the Hausa peoples of northern Nigeria and the surrounding countries offer interesting examples of homosexuality among Islmaicized peoples of Africa. Conquered by the British only in 1904, they were studied extensively by British ethnographers within a decade and a half of the arrival of the British - having experienced very limited contact with Europeans in the meantime. These ethnographers included sexual practices, including homosexuality, in their survey. Thus, they give us a unique glimpse into a nearly pristine African Islamic culture.
The Hausa people have terms in their language that are used to describe homosexuals. Two terms are common, 'yan dauda, which is usually translated as "homosexual" or "transvestite" and 'dan dauda, which translates as a homosexual "wife." The 'yan dauda in Hausaland engange in stereotypical professions, much as marginalized gay men in the west often do. In Hausaland, they are often engaged in the sex trade - both as male prostitutes and as 'procurers' for female prostitutes. In the latter role, they do not behave as 'pimps' do in the west, maintaining 'stables' of female prostitutes under their subjugation, but rather simply as go-betweens, arranging, for a fee, liasons for men seeking the commercial charms of female prostitutes. In this role, they often engage as male prostitutes themselves when the opportunity arises.
Among other African tribes, homosexual behaviors among premarriage adolescents is common and is not even considered to be sex, since it does not involve procreative potential. In Camaroon, for example, homosexual acts as late as age 17 are considered innocent, not being "true" sexual relations. Such youth consider themselves virgins at marriage, even though they may have considerable homosexual experience in both roles. There are many stories among the Pangwe of Camaroon of men who hate women and prefer the company of men even when offered a large brideprice, of men who court other men, etc. That these behaviors existed within this tribe prior to European contact is evidenced by the richness and number of these stories.
In Zimbabwe, a nation racked by recent homophobic pogroms instituted by its viciously homophobic dictator, Robert Mugabe, there has historically been little known about homosexual behavior among peoples present prior to European contact. Some ethnographers have dishonestly attempted to show that homosexual behavior is a recent innovation encouraged by Europeans to serve their capital interests, in housing large numbers of male Africans together in barracks to serve as labor in the mines.
The reality is that homosexuality existed in Zimbabwe long prior to European contact, just like it did anywhere else in Africa. We know this because the San people had the indiscretion to record their group anal sexual intercourse on rock paintings that date back thousands of years.
The Bantu-speaking peoples of the plateau country were more circumspect, but have admitted to ethnographers that homosexual contact did occur, and was expected of pre-marriage adolescent males.
Court documents from the colonial era from Zimbabwe and South Africa (1920 and 1917 respectively) indicate that among both the Mazoe and Ndebele peoples of Zimbabwe and South Africa respectively, a fine of one beast was levied against persons attempting to engage in sodomy by traditional rulers in pre-colonial times from both tribes. This fine equates to a misdemeanor - evidence that it was not heavily frowned upon, nor particularly uncommon.
Colonial court records also show that prosecution for male homosexuality at the onset of colonial rule amounted to 1.5 percent of criminal cases in Zimbabwe, eventually declining to near zero, while prosecutions for heterosexual crimes, such as indecent assault, rape, etc., rose from almost nothing to significant portions of the criminal dockets. It must be noted that because the 1.5 percent represented unwilling participants in the criminal process, the actual extent of homosexual behavior was certainly much greater, since only those caught in flagrante delicto, those prosecuted with amicus, or those accused by jilted lovers or others with an axe to grind, represent the criminal numbers we see in the records. The actual numbers were certainly much higher. In more than 90 percent of cases, the defendant was an African male accused of assualting another African male or boy. Cases involving Europeans were much more rare.
The notion that this is "a white-man's disease of recent origin" is made laughable by an even cursory examination of the criminal records of colonial Zimbabwe and South Africa. A close qualitative analysis of the early colonial trial transcripts shows that there was often shared property resulting from long-standing cohabitation by the defendant and his accusor. That the courts had to sort out the property details shows that these men had often considered themselves in a de facto marriage prior to their dispute.
Contrary to Mugabe's and other Afrocentrists' assertions, analysis of the colonial court cases show that the rates of prosecution for homosexual behaviors was highest among the more indigenous peoples (Shona, 17% and Ndebele, 16%), and least among the "industrialized migrants" from elsewhere (about 3% each for Xhosa, Basotho and Zulu). Presumably the latter had simply learned better how to avoid the white man's justice.
Personally, as a person of Native American descent, I thoroughly dislike that term, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it is ultimately perjorative in its roots. Native Americans find the term offensive as it comes ultimately from the Arabic where it means roughly, 'male prostitute,' a thoroughly unacceptable term to be used for their highly respected spiritual advisors and elders.
The term "Two Spirit" has been proposed as a replacement, but I find that it too is lacking, in that there is no universal agreement on its meanings, some of which are also perjorative. Yet what it does convey is a sense that these people have a special gift - being in two worlds at once, the normal material world, but also an sensitivity to a special gift of the spirit that only people like themselves can experience.
Other terms also fail to convey the breadth of the phenomenon, and the esteem in which these men were held. While men living as men with other men were a phenomenon that varied widely among tribes, the phenomenon of the man dressed as a woman who engaged in the pursuit of spiritual matters was almost universal among North American tribes. The term, "Two-Spirit" is a term I will use, then, to describe this phenomenon in this section of this essay, in spite of its shortcomings.
There were exceptions, of course, to the celebration of Two-Spirits, such as the Pimas of Arizona, but in most cases, Native American tribes, particularly the tribes of the Great Plains and the Southwest were greatly admiring of their Two-Spirits. Among the Hopi and the Zuni of Arizona and New Mexico, these Two-Spirits held a special status. They were keepers of the ancient traditional stories of creation, healing and growth. But more than that, they were the keepers of the spiritual traditions, recognized for their special gift of being "between genders."
Indeed, some tribes considered their Two-Spirits as being in the middle of a continuum of gender, not an abberation between two opposite genders as the western European model would have it. In this way, they were prescient of the view of many modern psychologists, who themselves are uncomfortable with the black/white, either/or gender identification of the European model.
By rejecting the dichotomous approach of the Europeans, the Native Americans who celebrated this diversity among themselves largely avoided the stigmatization of the members of their tribes that results when someone does not neatly fit within a dichotomous framework, but becomes seen as a 'deviant' instead.
The veneration of the Two-Spirits was in no small part because of the realization that these people not only were different, but both the tribes and the Two-Spirits themselves understood their difference in spiritual terms - they were seen as prophets, men with mystical powers, and the gift to see into two realms of the spirit at the same time - the realm of both men and women.
The veneration of the Two-Spirits began its decline with the arrival of the Spanish with their Inquisition. Of course, Native Americans who ran afoul of the Spanish Inquisition often found themselves being tortured or enslaved, and so they had an incentive to hide their Two-Spirit traditions. Matters weren't much better for the Native Americans who found themselves in lands captured by the English or French, either. In both cases, Two-Spirits and the Two-Spirit tradition was actively persecuted and suppressed as being deviant. Under the government of the United States, such activities were profoundly punished, and ruthlessly.
The result has been that many Native Americans fail to appreciate that their Two-Spirit tradition is based on homosexuality and that the word "gay" has a meaning that is associated with homosexual acts, rather than the spiritual traditions of the Two-Spirits who themselves were gay. When tribal elders are asked if there were any gays among them in pre-European times, they will inevitably answer with a resounding, "NO!" Yet when asked about the nadle or the winkte or some other native language term, the answer would be a fond, nostalgic "Yes!" even though the terms are really much the same. It is clear that homophobia is a cultural value that has been well absorbed from the white man.
The reality is quite different. Neither Greek nor Roman cultures began their decline with an increased tolerance of homosexuality; rather it was quite the opposite.
Homosexuality among the Greeks has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly study over the years, with the result that it is widely accepted among the American public that it was common. What is not as widely known, however, is that it was as common among the Roman population, and took much the same form.
Much has been written of pederastry among the Greeks, but the reality is that while common among the military occupations, the familiar forms that homosexuality takes among Americans was the rule among the Greeks and Romans as well.
The fact is that the concept of gender was very, very different among the Greeks and Romans. The notion that a person was "male" or "female" in gender as well as sex is one that had not currency among these ancients. They recongnized, as we often do not, that a person may well not see themselves as "macho" or "feminine," but rather a combination of the traits.
As a result, it did not seem at all unusual among the ancients for two men or two women to get together and form a family unit. Marriage between members of the same sex was common, accepted, and not considered different or unusual at all, because gender was not identified strictly with sex as it is among modern Europeans and Americans.
Therefore, the idea of seeing two men hugging, kissing and showing great affection, even passion for each other in public is a notion that would not have stirred any more interest among the ancients that such behavior between members of the opposite sex would for us.
It is not surprising, then, that the ancient Greeks and Romans have left us a rich heritage of literature celebrating such relationships. Stories are legion of the deep passion and love such couples had for each other.
While some authors have attempted to show that homosexuality was prosecuted in ancient Rome, the fact is that no surviving account of prosecution for a homosexual relationship, prior to the Christian era, survives. Those examples that purport to show such prosecutions, on close examination show that the victim was a minor - and the prosecution is for pedophilia, not for homosexuality. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of prosecution for adultery, and many for pedophilia, but not a single case for homosexuality.
Cicero, one of the greatest of Roman jurists, speaks endlessly of Roman law, including in detail those statutes dealing with sexual relations, but nowhere does he mention homosexuality. Cicero ridicules many prominent citizens for having been male prostitutes during their youth, but nowhere does he indicate that it was illegal, and in one case, in defending one Cnaeus Plancius from the charge that he had taken a male lover into the country to have sex with him, he states categorically that "this is not a crime."
In Augustinian Rome, not only was male prostitution allowed, but it was even taxed. A Roman historian of the era, Martial, not only mentions many prominent citizens and their male lovers by name, but admits to having engaged in such activities himself, and comments on it without the least evidence of shame.
While the general theory that tolerance of homosexuality increased as Rome began its decline, the fact is that the opposite is true. During the period of the Roman republic, when Rome was genuinely governed by the Senate, there was far greater tolerance of homosexuality, with the result that it was generally ignored in official documents. Because persecution began under the empire, more and more official references to it began to appear in legal documents, hence the belief by some historians, that it became more common. When one examines civil, secular documents, however, one sees that the opposite trend is the case.
The reality is that there is no evidence whatever that during the republican era, up through the beginning of the empire, for any recognition in Roman law for any difference between homosexual or heterosexual sex, or for that matter, even marriage.
That all began to change, however, with the "conversion" of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity.
For example, it was believed during this time that hyenas were fond of digging up graves and eating the corpses. It was also believed that hares grew a new anal opening every year, and that weasels mated through the mouth and bore their young through the ear.
Because hyenas were considered a rather disgusting animal, and the fact that they were believed to engage in homosexual sex predominantly, homosexuality itself began to be considered to be disgusting by them through their association with the animals the ancients considered disgusting.
These unfounded stereotypes were perpetuated in books called "Bestiaries" that purported to describe the natural history of the animals that were familiar to the ancients. Two of the most famous of these were the "Bestiary of Barnabus" and the "Historia Animalium." Both perpetuated many stereotypes about animals, including those listed above.
Because homosexuality became associated with hyenas, an animal believed to rob graves and eat the corpses, it's not surprising that early church fathers and monastics held homosexuality itself to be repugnant since it was associated with such repugnant animals.
Thus began a campaign against homosexuality by certain church fathers, among them Augustine (a rather nasty piece of work himself, the first known zealous advocate of forced conversions), and Clement, a man who mistakenly associated homosexuality with a form of child slavery in which male children were often sold into slavery as prostitutes. These two men and others like them began to associate homosexuality not just with unsavory animal practices, but with other practices they didn't happen to like, such as paganism, or pederastry, etc.
The man who took this ball and ran with it was "Saint" John Chrysostom, who was the first church father who can clearly be shown to object to homosexuality based on the gender of its participants, not based just on procreative intent, or based on the ages of those involved, or whether the participants were pagans. Yet his theology was so thoroughly inconsistent that he did not have much direct influence on subsequent theology.
While the theology of homosexuality of these men was insistent, it wasn't to become influential for a long time. The reason is simple - homosexuality was so common in this period, and practiced so openly, that the public at large regarded these doctrines as a bit extreme, just like the call to celibacy outside of strictly procreative sex as was advocated by many of these same church fathers.
Horace composed an ode about a certain boy
Whose face was so lovely he could easily have been a girl,
Whose hair fell in waves against his ivory neck,
Whose forehead was white as snow and his eyes black as pitch,
Whose soft cheeks were full of delicious sweetness
When they bloomed in the brightness of a blush of beauty,
His nose was perfect, his lips flame red, lovely his teeth--
An exterior formed in measure to match his mind.
Among these monastics were St. Aelred, St. Anselm, St. Bernard and many others. Among these, the literature left us by St. Aelred offers the clearest and most detailed literature celebrating gay love in this period.
That homosexual sex was condemned by Leviticus did not seem to matter to the clerics of this period. They considered the Levitical proscription to fall in the same category as the rest of the vast corpus of Levitical proscriptions: they were abolished, along with the requirement for animal sacrifice, by the atonement of Jesus.
As for Paul's references in Romans, it was felt that Paul had simply been a bit overboard in this regard the same as he was in telling women to not speak in church and in his proffering advice to not marry.
As in most times, most of the records we have of this period are from either the clerics, the most commonly literate or from the upper classes, for whom they labored. We therefore have a good picture of homosexuality from this period among the clerics and upper classes, but less so from the poor and working classes. We know, however, that it was as tolerated among them as among the upper classes, because of references like that of Hilderbert of Lavardin, who said of homosexuality, that "no walk of life escapes it."
With this level of acceptance and practice, how was it then that homosexuality became so reviled, so persecuted?
To see that the lawlessness of the countryside and the order of the old Roman Empire was restored, both church and state began cooperation with each other to strengthen each other's institutions. Increasingly, the line between church and state was blurred. This increasing emphasis on order and uniformity brought with it an explosion in the amount of legislation of all sorts. It was inevitable, then, that with the involvement of the church, sexual mores would find increased regulation as the result of the tide of regulation.
Of course, this led to all kinds of repression. The first to feel the repression were the Jews and Muslims of Europe, who found themselves living in a land that was increasingly hostile to their presence. While regulations were often intended to protect the minorities from popular uprisings against them, they often had the opposite effect, in laying down regulations on behavior that were intended to address the popular grievances against them. These regulations came to include "sodomites" and other sexual minorities, but because the laws regulated behavior, they often became the source of repression, more than protection.
As crusade after crusade failed to permanently dislodge the Muslims from the holy land, Muslims became a favorite target of propaganda, including anti-gay propaganda. William of Ada wrote:
The reaction of Islam to this kind of propaganda, was, of course, repression of its own. To prove the Christians wrong, Islam came to a repressive stance of its own, eventually outdoing even Christianity in its repression of homosexuality.
By the latter half of the 12th century, an increasingly conformist Europe found minorities of all kinds, including homosexuals, to be irritating. Tracts against them began to appear, and propaganda intended to incite anger became common. One of the favorites was the accusation that minorities were guilty of killing Christian children.
The rise of intolerance did not subside, but as the years ticked by, it actually increased, resulting in the witchhunts in France, which depopulated whole regions of that country, and the Spanish Inquisition, which continued it's harsh repression into the 17th century. While the Spanish Inquisition was without a doubt the harshest, the Inquisition itself was a church-wide phenomenon whose harshly repressive hand was felt throughout the Catholic world.
The Muslims and Jews were, of course, not the only ones to feel the heavy hand of the Inquisition. Sexual minorities were particular targets, as the pressure to conform increased. Social critics began to single out gay people for special persecution. Peter Cantor (d. 1197) was the first to argue that Romans 1:26-27 referred specifically to gay people. The term "sodomy" came, for the first time and against all theological precedent, to refer exclusively to homosexual sex.
At Cantor's urging, the Lateran III Council of 1179 became the first to rule specifically on homosexual acts, along with moneylending, heresy, as well as the arch-heresies of Judaism and Islam. Even though the wording of the regulations on sex meant to punish all non-procreative sex, it was eventually construed, particularly in later centuries, as referring to homosexual sex specifically. It passed into the permanent collections of canon law in the following century, and became the basis of the Catholic ban on homosexuality.
By the end of the 13th century, the rise of intolerance had reached a fever pitch. In Spain, Jews were required to wear a "Jewish badge" similar to the Star of David required by the Nazis six centuries later. In Britain, the Jews were expelled. Nonconformity of any kind was associated with the worst sin of all - heresy. And it was heresy, hence nonconformity in general, that was the object of persecution by the Inquisition and other institutions of the enforcement of conformity.
The revolt was the Enlightenment. It was the realization that the emphasis on conformity and the repression of alternative ideas represented a great loss - a loss of the civility that made classical Greece and the Roman republic what they had been. The result was that the intellectual community began a quiet rebellion, begun first by Martin Luther with his rebellion against Catholic corruption, and followed by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, who pointed out the fallacies of the confluence of church and state. The first great result was the American Revolution, followed in short order by revolutions in France and the rest of Europe, throwing off the old order and establishing democracy for the first time since the end of the Roman republic. The thinkers took for a description of themselves, the latin word, "Libre, meaning "Free." This implied freedom from the intellectual repression of the church and the state which which the church cooperated. The word of course eventually became the English word, "liberal."
Yet the church clung on - maintaining that it alone was the keeper of ethics and morals, and claiming that it was the moral authority even if it had been forced to yield political sovereignty. By teaching in church the moral standards it alone expected, it built a lobby for legislation of morality through the government of the day. And among the moral standards it insisted upon was a maintenance of the ban on homosexual sex.
Because the repression of homosexuality had been so complete, and because it was so emotional, with the propaganda so hoary, the church managed to maintain its repression of sexual minorities. And in the centuries since the Enlightenment, not much has changed in this regard.
And so we find ourselves today in a world where the nature of homosexual sex has encouraged homophobia that had its origins in in a complete misunderstanding of nature itself (the "bestiaries" of the early Middle Ages). Encouraged by political trends, intractable illiteracy and widespread ignorance, it has become so established that only the forced education imposed by the AIDS epidemic has begun to break it down.
The history of homophobia in western culture is instructive. It tells us how, when we make untested assumptions, we can easily be led into error that can be very destructive, as homophobia has been. It shows us that the path to liberation isn't through religious indoctrination but through reason and logic.
In a nation that claims to value freedom, let us learn from this lesson from the past. Let us throw off our chains of superstition and ignorance, and embrace the truth that our forebearers knew two millenia ago: homosexuals are a normal part of life and should be tolerated, accepted and integrated into every facet of culture without prejudice or ignorance.
Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture by Walter L. Williams is by far the best survey I have yet found on Native American homosexuality in the pre-columbian and 'American frontier' era. This excellent book is widely praised by Native Americans for its sensitive portrayal of their cultures, as well as it's honest depiction of the homosexuality among Native American cultures.
Boy Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities edited by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe is an excellent survey of homosexuality in pre-colonial Africa. It's that rare combination of a scholarly study, well documented, that at the same time is a good read. It thoroughly demolishes the belief of Afrocentrists that homosexuality is a "western disease."
Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century by John Boswell says in his introduction that he seeks to demonstrate that homophobia in the west is not the fault of the church, but in reality makes a pretty good case that the doctrinal corruption resulting from a confluence of church and state is ultimately responsible for the homophobia that we see in the world today. Boswell documents very well the fact that neither classical Greece nor the Roman republic were homophobic either politically or socially; he shows clearly that it began with the onset of officially sanctioned Christianity. This book is deeply scholarly (many pages are more than half consumed by footnotes), yet it is a remarkably easy and satisfying read. If you get no other book on the history of homophobia, this book should be it.
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