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Queer History

A Genealogy of Bisexuality; Androgyny, Behaviour, and Suspicion.

Bi_flag

People can be very quick to dismiss the idea of bisexuality as a phase, as greedy, or in some way invalid. This biphobia results from a lot of (sometimes purposeful) misunderstanding of bisexuality. But what do bisexuals mean when they say that they’re bisexual? Amongst bisexual activists and scholars, bisexuality commonly means the sexual or romantic attraction to people of more than one sex or gender. Bisexuals might experience changes in their sexuality over time, and that the way in which people experience sexual and romantic feelings might change wildly from person to person and gender to gender.

But bisexuality didn’t always mean this. In the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century psychoanalysts and biologists like Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, and others used the word bisexual to refer to a particular conflation of gender and sexuality. The belief at the time was that anyone who was attracted to someone of the same sex had the brain of a different gender in the wrong body.

570px-Female_bisexuality_symbol-colour

So, someone who we would consider a lesbian today was actually seen as a woman with a man’s brain, and would have been called an invert. Bisexuality was seen as an androgynous combination of sexuality and gender, and psychoanalysts like Freud believed that bisexuality was the base, immature, level of sexuality, which people would mature out of to become heterosexuals or homosexuals.

In the mid-twentieth century, sexuality studies saw a new school of thought where sexologists were more concerned with contextual sexual behavior of individuals, as opposed to dissecting the way in which their attractions developed. Alfred Kinsey is one of the most famous sexologists in this new tradition of scholarship. 1

Alfred_Charles_KinseyKinsey developed the Kinsey Scale, a system of measurement which suggested that the majority of people were not exclusively heterosexually-behaving, or exclusively homosexually-behaving, but rather somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Kinsey presented bisexuality more as a system of behavior, not necessarily linked to individual or social identities, but linked to acting on libido, circumstance, and attraction at particular points in time.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, lesbians and gay men began to visibly and subversively fight for their basic civil rights within the United States. Bisexuality became more of a social identity, with individuals choosing to claim their identities more and more. However, due to internal pressures within the LGBTQ+ groups, bisexuals were often thought of as traitors due to the perception that they benefited from heterosexual privileges that lesbians and gay men could not access.

Consequently, bisexual voices were silenced, either by pressure from the LGBTQ+ community, or due to bisexuals ‘passing’ as heterosexual, lesbian, or gay, depending on their social contexts. Within the LGBTQ+ community, bisexuality was seen as a neither-here-nor-there identity, possibly even traitorous given the association with heterosexuality and normative culture. As a result, bisexuality was met with suspicion, leading to bisexuals hiding their sexualities and thus finding little community and validation.

At present, bisexuality is slightly more socially accepted. No longer seen as linked to gender, bisexuality is considered to be a sexual orientation in the same way that being gay, lesbian, or heterosexual is seen as a social identity. Although bisexuals still experience biphobia, bi-invisibility, and monosexism, there is a growing bisexual community that supports and validates one another.

Bisexuality is also increasingly being brought into the conversation within LGBTQ+ organisations and equality campaigns. The representation, acceptance, and validation of bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation, all serves to benefit bisexual inclusion and bisexual mental health. However, the remnants of previous schools of thought are still seen, woven into responses to bisexuality. Common narratives around bisexuality include;

The need to accept bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation is critical to improving bisexual mental and physical wellbeing, which currently is significantly worse than lesbian and gay mental and physical wellbeing. Perhaps the next great understanding of bisexuality can incorporate a more lackadaisical approach; it doesn’t matter how you define yourself if it makes you happy and well. You are valid, and your feelings should not need to be quantified to someone else to be justified.

Rosie Nelson is an ESRC funded Sociology PhD student at the University of Bristol. Rosie adopts a critical queer theoretical lens to interrogate the construction and maintenance of a bisexual identity amongst British bisexuals. Rosie’s particular research interests revolve around the way bisexuals interact with gender, gender expression, social location, coming out, and institutional representation. You can find Rosie on Twitter @roropanolo.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

For more on the history of bisexuality, please see:

Angelides, S., 2001. A History of Bisexuality, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Eisner, S., 2013. Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, Berkeley: Seal Press.
Garber, M., 1997. Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life, London: Penguin Books.
Harrad, K., 2016. Purple Prose: Bisexuality in Britain, Portland: Thorntree Press.
Klein, F., 1993. The Bisexual Option, New York: The Harrington Park Press.

If you would like access to any support related to the content of this blog, please see:

www.stonewall.org.uk
www.bisexual.org
www.bisexualindex.org.uk
www.biresource.org

Header Image: Bisexual Pride Flag [via Wikicommons]
Image: Female Bisexuality Symbol [via Martin Strachoň / Wikimedia Commons]
Image: Alfred Charles Kinsey [Via Wikicommons]

Notes:

  1. Kinsey’s sexuality studies considered the sexual behavior of American men and women.
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Finding my place in queer cultural history through the ‘post-Cold-War’ period

Zagreb_Pride_2010_P1120587

II’ve been researching the 1990s since the beginning of my academic career, when I wrote my PhD on popular music and national identity in Croatia after the break-up of Yugoslavia. 1 As a queer writer and academic who was born in the early 1980s, I’m also someone whose consciousness and identity were shaped by the queer cultural politics of the 1990s – or by the lengths I went to in trying to distance myself from them.

Some queer historians become historians to investigate a personal past. My experience was the opposite, or so I thought: sometimes, while reading archived Croatian newspapers and magazines from 1990 to what was then the present during my PhD, I’d note abstractly that an issue’s cover date in 1996 or 1997 coincided with a personally significant day, or realise that, if I’d been the same age and Croatian, this or that pop video instead of this or that performance on Top of the Pops might have played a part in the protracted process of me trying to prove that, even though I kept noticing androgynous-looking women, I wasn’t queer.

At the same time, on a macro level, I’ve always believed that the histories of the Yugoslav region and the society where I live are much more connected than most British public discourse in the 1990s about the former Yugoslavia would suggest. During the Yugoslav wars, Cold War east–west geopolitics overhung older, semi-orientalised tropes about ‘the Balkans’ in the minds of many commentators who implied that Britain and the Balkans travelled at two separate historical speeds.

The more expansive and transnational view of the 1990s as cultural history that I take now has as much to do with Britain as the Balkans, and sometimes more. The period we can now name as ‘the post-Cold-War’ was defined by changing ideas about conflict and security, and how gender might determine who participates in conflict in what ways, who ought to protect whom, and who threatens whom. Also important were narratives of capitalism and progress that held out the hope of prosperity to many more young (and older) people than felt it in the 1980s or feel it today; rapid changes in the technologies through which people experienced popular culture and communicated with each other (it is already an imaginative leap for a student in their late teens to put themselves in the trainers of a young person the same age organising a night out in 1991); and also by the visibility and ambiguous position of queer identities in media and society. This, it turns out, is where I come in.

The project I conceived a year or two ago on how representations of the Yugoslav wars fed back into Western cultural imaginations of conflict, and how Western cultural imaginations of conflict also circulated through the Yugoslav region, needed me to start defining what did distinguish the 1990s or the ‘post-Cold-War’ as a period.

Meanwhile, the conceptual contribution I wanted it to make – what can cultural historians and scholars interested in the aesthetics of international politics learn from feminist and queer media studies? – sent me back to scholarship in feminist film theory and in cultural memory that was being written during the 1990s and was being produced within the very historical context I was trying to understand. Meanwhile, as a researcher embedded in 2016, I was becoming ever more conscious of how easily queer visibilities in the past and present can be erased, and starting to explore the 1990s’ and 2000s’ interlinked transformations of media technology, imaginations of conflict, and queer politics creatively in ways that even began pointing to new linkages in my academic work.)

Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing (on women’s identification with Forties and Fifties women film stars) or equally Graham Dawson’s Soldier Heroes (on boys’ identification with military and imperial heroes through adventure play) both came out in 1994. Both books have passages that read like darts of recognition; both books have passages that my own embodied knowledge leaves me annotating, ‘What about masculinities?’ or ‘Can’t this happen with women?’

Together, they help me pursue a hunch that the dynamics of identification that can make people so invested in the characters and narratives of popular culture and the dynamics of emotional attachment to the nation that states and militaries depend on, have a lot in common with each other

A thread of articles and book chapters in feminist and lesbian ‘gaze’ theory (which inform how I understand identification with the nation and with militarism) came out between 1994 and 1997: work by scholars like Caroline Evans and Reina Lewis on identification, desire and spectatorship (theorising things like what the pleasures of looking at fashion spreads in the British lesbian magazine Diva might have been for lesbians in the mid-90s).

In other words, in the mid 1990s, people were already writing about and answering questions that had been confusing me for years at exactly the same time – when I still had no idea they could even be spoken, let alone asked with academic authority. (I still wouldn’t even have dared touch a copy of Diva at the newsagent, in 1997, in case it meant I was a lesbian…)

And yet the first encounter with Croatian popular music that I remember, through the Eurovision Song Contest, is already entangled with my own history of queer spectatorship and not-coming-out. I would have seen Croatian entries in the 1994 and 1995 Eurovisions, but the first one I remember seeing is Maja Blagdan’s performance of ‘Sveta ljubav’ in 1996, for reasons that would have been quite obvious to me at the time. 2

Blagdan went on to be one of the first Croatian singers I wanted to find out more about, and so the trajectory towards me becoming able to write a book that a BASEES prize panel judged ‘exceptional in both its originality and its careful research’, a book which has helped to inspire younger researchers to develop their own projects on post-Yugoslav nationalism, music, media, or sport, doesn’t just involve me as a historical subject trying to understand how a new nation like Croatia could suddenly appear out of what had seemed to be an old one like Yugoslavia. It also involves me as a queer viewer and teenager at a very specific moment, when lesbian visibility coexisted with an intense cultural anxiety over women as agents of the gaze towards other women.

Historicising the theoretical work I wanted to use for one project, in other words, has already pointed me towards another: what was the relationship between queer women and popular culture in the 1990s? This feels all the more urgent, not just because it belongs to a Very Contemporary History that’s already different from the present, but also because it denotes a past I managed to simultaneously live through and push aside.

Catherine Baker is Senior Lecturer in 20th Century History at the University of Hull and specialises in post-Cold-War history, international relations and cultural studies. Her books include Sounds of the Borderland: Popular Music, War and Nationalism in Croatia since 1991(2010), The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s (2015) and an edited volume on Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR (2017). Her next book, Race and the Yugoslav Region, is forthcoming from Manchester University Press. She blogs at http://bakercatherine.wordpress.com and you can find Catherine on Twitter @richmondbridge.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

Image: Zagreb Pride, 2010 [via WikiCommons].

Notes:

  1. This was published in 2010 as my first book, Sounds of the Borderland.
  2. Not having had the foresight to press ‘record’ at the start of the song on the video tape where I used to collect highlights of Top of the Pops, I expected with disappointment never to see again, until a viewer who had written to the BBC about Terry Wogan speaking over the singing meant they played thirty seconds of it a few weeks later on Points of View.
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Queering Christ’s Wounds and Gender Fluidity in Medieval Manuscripts

side wound

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, it is an appropriate moment to reflect on parts of queer history that have otherwise been erased or censored. One manner of approaching queer history is to examine the icons of the past through a queer lens. My particular interest is in how Christ’s gender was depicted in late medieval art. I focus on manuscript illuminations in prayer books where Christ’s wound appears to resemble the vulva/labia.

Interpreting these images using queer theory may encourage a more gender-fluid viewing of Christ, who has historically been understood to be hyper-masculine in artistic representation.

Many representations of Christ’s side wound can be found in art, mystical writing and literature in this period, but it is not apparent how a medieval audience would have understood these representations. If medieval viewers had a fluid and complex understanding of gender 1, then it is possible they might have interpreted creative representations of Christ’s body as something that challenges the dominant masculine ideal.

In commonly used medieval prayer-books called Books of Hours there are images of Christ’s wound that float, disembodied, like giant vulvas in the centre of the page. The wound appears vertically in a mandorla shape, undoubtedly signifying as a large vaginal symbol that takes up most of the page. Sometimes these images appear close to, or next to, the prayer for Matins that begins, ‘Domine, labia mea aperies’ (Lord, open my lips).

side wound 2

Wound images would often appear with an encircling inscription stating that this was the ‘true measure’ of Christ’s wound, and that certain indulgences could be granted if it was touched, kissed or prayed to in the instructed way. Images of Christ’s side wound could be rolled up and tied to the body to prevent illness or sudden death. This has led scholars to believe that the veneration of wound images indicated a desire for the granting of indulgences or the promise of preventing pain.

Scholars such as Martha Easton have previously researched the possibility that there was an erotic significance to images of Christ’s wounds in late-medieval culture, acknowledging that the wound often resembles a vulva in these various depictions. There were not only linguistic associations in Latin between the ‘vulnus’ and the ‘vulva’, but symbolic antecedents in visual culture that the medieval viewer could draw upon to read the wound as a vulva.

These disembodied wound images were at times explicitly connected with the vagina. Not only did they resemble the vulva visually: they were used to prevent pains associated with the vagina. Birthing girdles often carried depictions of the side wound and were pressed against women in labour to help with the pain of childbirth. The images could also be pressed against women to help with period pain.

Other kinds of medieval objects indicate that the vulva was often depicted in public. Comparable images from around the 12th century can be seen in sheela-na-gig sculptures. These are figurative carvings of naked women displaying their vulva that are seen on the externals of churches and castles around Great Britain and Ireland.

Vulvae can also be seen on pilgrim badges, which have been found across the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. The production of pilgrim badges flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries, and they form the largest corpus of medieval art objects to survive today. A small amount feature disembodied penises and vulvae going on pilgrimages or playing games. Like the Sheela-na-gig sculptures, scholars have often been baffled by their possible usage and meaning.

SheelaWiki

Scholars have argued that these images were nothing but a bawdy joke, or a warning not to engage in acts of sexual deviancy. However, explanations such as this display a modern bias and disgust at the open depiction of a woman’s genitals. What if, instead, these representations show that medieval viewers had a comfortable relationship with the body and wished to depict it across a wide spectrum of mediums?

Comparing these images to the shape of Christ’s isolated side wound in Books of Hours, it is arguable that these images destabilise Christ’s gender by drawing the focus on Christ’s body to a prominent bleeding vulva.

There are a variety of medieval accounts of people becoming aroused by images of Christ. Thinking about prayer books in particular, there is evidence that some of these vagina-like images were rubbed or kissed. Some scholars have argued that this kissing and rubbing of a vagina-like wound would have been erotic.

Medieval manuscripts were made of vellum (parchment made of calf skin), and so touching this image painted on skin might have been a very intimate act. 2 As those rubbing or touching these vulva-like images in manuscripts would have been people of all genders, there is a certain queer history to be uncovered in this erotic and sensual encounter with the skin.

Perhaps medieval image-makers and viewers were aware that Christ’s body, as an embodiment of the divine made into flesh, was supposed to represent people of all genders. If so, then the inclusion of vulva-like images embedded in Christ’s body becomes an innovative way of embracing gender-fluidity, where people would be rubbing, kissing and touching a wound/vulva hybrid image in both veneration and possible arousal.

Sophie Sexon is an AHRC funded PhD candidate in her second year at the University of Glasgow.  This year she has presented papers on the queering of Christ’s wound at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Michigan and the International Medieval Congress in Leeds.  She will be contributing a paper on this subject to a forthcoming volume entitled Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography in 2018. You find Sophie on Twitter @ladymede.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

Image: Christ’s Side Wound, Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, circa 1349 [via WikiCommons]

Image: “The Measure of the Side Wound and the Body of Christ, an Indulgence,” hand-colored woodcut, circa 1484 – 1492 [via WikiCommons]

Image: Kilpeck Sheela Na Gig sculpture [via WikiCommons]

Notes:

  1. Thomas Laqueur argued in his 1990 volume Making Sex: Body and the Gender from the Greeks to Freud that our two-sex binary model only came into practice from the 18th century onwards. Before this a ‘one-sex model’ prevailed in which the woman was considered an incomplete or malformed man. For more on this theory in application to medieval mystical writing, see Elizabeth Robertson, “Medieval Medical Views of Women and Female Spirituality in the Ancrene Wisse and Julian of Norwich’s Showings,” in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, eds. Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993). There is also a belief that intersex individuals were recognised in the medieval period and could choose their gender so long as this did not result in sexual deviancy.
  2. Nancy Thebaut argues that this practice allowed the viewer to get closer to the body of Christ, noting that there were widespread analogies comparing Christ’s body to the vellum that made the manuscript.
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Tim Farron, the Bible and Queerness

Tim Farron

Queer biblical studies involves reading the Bible closely and asking questions about what preconceptions influence the ways we approach and engage with the text. I’d like to invite Farron to ask himself similar questions because, in his resignation statement, he cited his commitment to biblical teaching as incompatible with leadership of his liberal political party.

Farron’s Christianity has long been a focus in (not of) his leadership, and he has been subject to persistent questioning about his stance on LGBT+ issues in light of his religious beliefs. For much of his tenure he obfuscated when asked whether he considered gay or same-sex sex sinful, only providing a definitive answer – no – in the run up to the 2017 general election, shortly before his resignation. The delay in providing a clear answer, the earlier inconsistency, and the citation of biblical beliefs have led to scepticism of his asserted standpoint. As such it is worth reconsidering the relationships between politics and biblical Christianity, particularly in the intersection with LGBT+ issues, in contemporary public life.

There has been much discussion of the continuing presence of religion in political discourse. Yet Farron’s claims seem out of kilter with not only the political climate but with the complexity of Christian belief and practice. Farron grounds his sense of integrity in the Bible, and that must be core to the way his politics and theology are undertaken. So let’s look again at these biblical teachings, and ask whether it’s possible to approach them from an LGBTQ+-inclusive stance with integrity.

In doing so, we must go back to the question of what assumptions and preconceptions underpin our reading before asking what the texts may say to us today.

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that sexuality, as we understand it today, is a relatively new concept. Let me make the implications of this abundantly clear: there is no heterosexuality in the Bible, no homosexuality, no bisexuality. It does not and cannot exist in the text.

Instead, we have a collection of stories of relationships and moral teachings with afterlives. They have legacies and meaning placed upon them, which in turn are used to justify and reinforce androcentrism, patriarchy, rape culture, homophobia, cisnormativity, heteronormativity.

Specific texts, like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 (from which we get the term ‘Sodomy’), have become synonymous with God’s condemnation of homosexuality so that the texts themselves end up barely distinguishable from the meanings they’ve acquired.

It shows how the Bible is far from a benign text, entirely divorced from wider society, and it warrants considered analysis. It is therefore all the more important to articulate the distinction between what a text says, and what it means.

So when Tim Farron, and others, suggest or imply that the Bible justifies their stance, they have a point. Stories like Adam and Eve are used to justify the gender and sex binaries and to deify heterosexuality, especially through the model of complementarity,

Ken Stone describes this story as the heterosexual contract, because that it what it has come to mean and how it is used today. It is no surprise at all, therefore, that the assumptions of heteronormativity, cisnormativity and male supremacy predominate readings of the Bible. What I would like to emphasise, however, is that it can be read differently: the conclusions about gender and sexuality are not foregone.

Challenging these perceived norms is an ongoing and contested field of work, partly because it is so difficult to admit the impact of such preconceptions on the way we read. That doesn’t diminish the importance of doing so, and Farron’s resignation statement highlights exactly why such work is so important.

The biblical texts themselves provide indications of alternative readings if only we are willing to see them. We rarely stop to ask whether it is in any way anachronistic to identify heterosexual and model relationships amongst cisgender characters in the Bible. In which case, why shouldn’t we consider the possibilities of homosexual/homoerotic relationships and trans characters?

In the recently published Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Studies, Deryn Guest explores how the chaotic source of God’s creation (Tehom) is genderqueer/nonbinary and is described in both male and female terms. Guest argues that this has repercussions for those who identify outside the gender binary.

The assassin Jael (Judges), depicted in art as a femme fatale, similarly is described using both male and female terminology. These examples are far from isolated and offer insight into gender diversity and complexity rarely acknowledged in the majority of biblical scholarship or acts of worship.

The patriarchal families of Genesis headed by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph include myriad examples of gender and sexuality (Genesis 12-50). Joseph – of the amazing technicoloured dream coat – could consider that coat as a beautiful princess dress. Jacob performs drag to convince their father they are their hypermasculine twin brother, Esau, while Esau comes across as a ripped and muscular bear.

Beyond the patriarchal narratives, David and Jonathan – whose love is described as beyond that for a woman– and Ruth and Naomi have long been recognised as queer role models for LGBTQ+ religious practitioners. Ruth‘s words of love to Naomi are regularly used in (different-sex) marriage services.

All these stories are found within the biblical canon. Far from being anachronistic or irreverent, these readings apply on well-established research methods and draw out themes which are masked through the perception that heteronormativity and cisnormativity are beyond scrutiny.

If that is the case, then it is cisnormativity and heteronormativity that are praised and valued far beyond the biblical teaching which Farron references as so essential to his politics and theology: what a sad and disappointing state of affairs!

Perhaps that is exactly why he is suspicious of the scrutiny placed on what he believes and who his faith is in. So, as religion and politics finds itself once again in the public consciousness, and the Liberal Democrats try to find another leader, let us intentionally place politicians under scrutiny and question their – and our own – integrity.

Let’s ask: what and who do you believe in, and how are you going to enact that in your politics and, if appropriate, your theology?

Jo Henderson-Merrygold is a WRoCAH funded PhD student in SIIBS. Jo’ research uses and adapts queer theory and gender studies in order to propose a new genderqueer hermeneutic for reading biblical narratives. Taking queer biblical studies away from a focus solely on sex and sexuality, Jo asks readers to consider the ways we infer gender on to characters, and then reflect those back into contemporary life. Jo is also co-director of Hidden Perspectives. You can find Jo on Twitter @Jo_H_M.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

This post was slightly edited for clarification on the author’s decision to frame this piece in the context of Tim Farron’s resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Header image: Tim Farron speaking at a rally [via Flikr].

You can find the original version of this article at The Queerness.

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Earinus: A Roman Civil Rights Activist?

Bust_of_a_Roman_emperor,_probably_Emperor_Domitian_(r._81–96_A.D)_MET_7021

We tend to assume that the struggle for civil rights is a modern invention and that, before the Enlightenment, the world was ruled by despotic kings and emperors. And yet, democracy as we know it was invented by the ancient Greeks. The idea that a state could be run by (some of) the people was a founding principle of the Roman Republic, and was not forgotten when Rome decided that it needed emperors. Romans could, and did, advocate for their civil rights. Even, it appears, the most marginalised among them: figures like Flavius Earinus.

Born in Greece, Earinius was apparently so comely as a boy that he was castrated and sent to Rome to be the cupbearer of the Emperor Domitian. 1 The exact nature of their relationship is not clear, though a sexual element would have been by no means unusual. The Romans, like the Greeks, thought little of using boys for sex. Unlike the Greeks, they tended not to see pederasty as a mentoring relationship, an essential part of the growing boy’s education, but rather as a matter of sexual dominance. A Roman who had a favourite boy might not want him to grow into a man, and a simple way to stop him doing that was to have him castrated.

Despite this unequal power relationship, the Emperor Domitian became very fond of his young slave and granted the boy his freedom while he was still a teenager. What Earinus did next is extraordinary. He made a public show of cutting his hair. His friend the Emperor ordered the court poets, Martial and Statius, to write verse commemorating this act.

In Rome cutting your hair was a coming of age ritual for boys. By making this public statement Earinus was saying very clearly, “I am a man!”, despite having been made a eunuch.

This statement of identity was important as the Empire contained many eunuchs of different types whose gender and social status were seen in different ways. Some were foreigners captured in war and castrated before being sold as slaves in the hope of guaranteeing their docility. Some may have been entertainers, similar to castrati opera singers. We have evidence from Ptolemaic Egypt of ‘kinaidos’ (a Greek word meaning ‘one who wiggles his hips’) being employed as musicians. 2 And then there were the Galli, devotees of the goddess Cybele who underwent ritual castration and lived as women for the rest of their lives, much as hijra do in India today.

But, even more interestingly. It seems that Earinius may have been something of an early civil rights activist because, between his arrival in Rome and being granted his freedom, Domitian made the castration of children illegal.

The Emperor’s reasons for doing this are unclear. The usual theory is that the prudish Domitian was trying to establish himself as a more moral ruler than his unpopular elder brother, Titus, and his greedy father, Vespasian. 3 But given his willingness to grant boons to Earinus, it is by no means inconceivable that the Emperor was persuaded to his course of action by eloquent pleas from the young slave.

Having achieved his manhood, Earinus slips from the pages of history, but the legal fight against child castration continued. The Emperor Nerva expanded the legislation by making it illegal to knowingly sell a boy to a slave trader who practised castration. Later Hadrian banned all castration, even if the subject was willing.

Why this happened was a mystery to me until I happened to talk to the anti-FGM campaigner, Nimco Ali. She explained to me how families would get around laws against Female Genital Mutilation by hiring other people to perform the operation, or by claiming that their daughter had submitted willingly to being cut. As such, additional legislation was necessary to close the loopholes. It seems to me that something similar was happening in Rome. Child eunuchs were valuable goods, and traders would use every trick available to get around the laws.

You may be wondering what happened to the Galli. Had Hadrian banned young Romans who wished to live as women from having surgery? It seems not. A letter from Justin Martyr, an early Christian, to Hadrian’s successor, Antonius Pius, reveals that you could buy a castration licence. 4 The wily Hadrian had not, after all, completely banned castration, but rather was taxing it. Ordinary people might fight for rights, but governments throughout history have never been averse to making money from them.

Cheryl Morgan is a writer, publisher and broadcaster. She is co-chair of OutStories Bristol, an LGBT local history organisation. She has delivered papers on many aspects of trans history and trans characters in literature, and is a regular speaker at LGBT History Month events. You can find Cheryl on Twitter @CherylMorgan.

This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

Header image: Bust of a Roman emperor, thought to be Emperor Domitian [Via Wikicommons].

Notes:

  1. In mythology Zeus (or Jupiter as Romans called him) seduced many women, but also a pretty boy called Ganymede whom he whisked off to Olympus to be his cup bearer. Any ambitious Roman, seeking to be like the King of the Gods in all ways, would want a cupbearer too.
  2. The Latin form is Cinaedus. See T, Sapsford, ‘The Wages of Effeminacy? Kinaidoi in Greek Documentary Sources from Egypt’, EuGeStA, 5 (2015), pp. 103-23.
  3. Vespasian was a fascinating man. He had a successful military career, including the conquest of south-west Britain, and had brought order to Rome after the chaos of Nero’s reign and the subsequent Year of the Four Emperors. But he was always short of money, and was said to be very tight-fisted.

    One story told of Vespasian was that he became a mule trader. This sounds unlikely. It is hardly a fitting career, and in any case not the sort of trade that an emperor would have any advantage following. However, careful reading of Latin texts suggests that the “mules” he sold were not equine, but human. Eunuch slaves were a luxury good, and just the sort of thing an emperor might profitably sell.

  4. Walter Stevenson, ‘The Rise of Eunuchs in Greco-Roman Antiquity’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 5.4 (Apr., 1995), pp. 495-511.
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The Past is Not a Straight Line

Napoleon_Alexander_Tilsit 1807

This is the first in a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.

The first time I thought about LGBTIQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, Intersex, Queer/Questioning and other identities) representation was when I was teaching. It was a small group of around twenty first-year undergraduate students, and at the time we were focusing on Napoleonic France. Amidst the Code Napoléon, the Confederation of the Rhine, and the Battle of Nations, I happened to mention the theory that Napoleon may have fallen in love (or lust) with the strikingly handsome Russian emperor, Alexander I. This elicited a mixed response. Some students nodded, others jotted notes, a few stifled amused giggles. One in particular, however, visibly flushed and fidgeted. ‘Excuse me’, he butted in. ‘We shouldn’t be talking about this. I’m uncomfortable.’

Later, I wondered what should have caused such a reaction. In another course, someone had strenuously objected to studying George Chauncey’s Gay New York because there had been ‘hardly any gays’ in America then. Another queried why heterosexuals should learn about gay people. Both complained that the course ‘normalised’ homosexuality.

It was only later, that I realised that these students all had a point, albeit not the one they thought they were making. In a sense, we were normalising homosexuality, in the sense that we were introducing queerness into a space that these students had grown up believing was essentially queer-free.

Representation has long been an area of revision in fiction and, though entertainment still has its own problems to deal with, LGBTIQ+ characters and themes are increasingly visible. The same is not true of history, in which queer history remains a niche field, accessible only to those deliberately seeking it. Chauncey’s research into the open secret of New York’s turn-of-the-century gay, bisexual, and transgender subculture is unlikely to find its way into a ‘mainstream’ general history of New York, nor American culture. 1

Simply put: students will have difficulty knowing anything about this queer side of history if they don’t know to look for it. All too often, queer history is ignored, with the unspoken consensus seeming to be that queerness is a modern affectation. In the mind of the aforementioned student, it made little sense to be studying gay culture in New York City around 1900 because there was no gay culture in New York City around 1900. That it exists now was surely the result of modern liberalism, degeneracy, the decline of traditional values – or, in the current alt-right vocabulary, the ‘snowflake’ phenomenon. 2

Conversely, if LGBTIQ+ history is mentioned, it is used as a warning in a morality tale. Hitler began his murderous rampage largely as a result of his ‘repressed homosexuality’; the Nazis were ‘entirely controlled by militaristic male homosexuals’; Weimar Germany was debauched and depraved and its gay scene was a clear example; the Roman Empire fell due to a moral decrepitude on the inside, propagated by widespread homosexuality. 3

These narratives are, of course, hideous distortions. However, they borrow much from the camp devoted to denying historical queerness: if queer people did exist in the past, they were an aberration, and these examples demonstrate their disastrous strangeness. Both ideas undermine the ‘legitimacy’ of homosexuality and queer identity, either arguing that queerness has never existed before, or that, when it has, it was the purview of deviants, monsters, and the pitiably decadent.

It is this sort of intellectual baggage that students unknowingly bring into the classroom, and the lack of LGBTIQ+ representation in history classes accounts not only for those who respond to its sudden appearance with shock and discomfort, but also for those who try unsuccessfully to mask their giggles. In the first case, gay history is obscene. In the other, it is titillating, and learning about it is like being whispered a dirty little secret.

The fiftieth anniversary of the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, and the sixtieth anniversary of the Wolfenden Report, afford historians the perfect opportunity to reappraise our approach to presenting the past to our audiences. Embodied in the decriminalisation was an implicit (if incomplete) acknowledgement that queer people were not some hideous subset of humanity; homosexuality was neither a temporary trend nor a debauchery that would destroy the fabric of society. In historical circles, we remain to some degree all of the above: unmentionable to the mainstream, the objects of snorted laughter, flushed cheeks and discomfort.

There are, though, some hopeful signs, and these are being driven by public interest. The passing of the Turing Law in Britain occurred in the context of a new appreciation for the mathematician Alan Turing, and his shameful treatment at the hands of a government that owed him much. Marriage equality in the United States prompted the online magazine Salon, via the History News Network, to write about James Buchanan as ‘America’s first gay president’. And the recent publication of a number of love letters between gay soldiers in the Second World War has brought the reality of LGBTIQ+ relationships into military history, one of the strictest bastions of queer-less hyper-masculinity.

It is incumbent upon this and the next generation of historians to ensure that these lessons, and more, are integrated into the historical curricula, so that queer history is no longer considered a trivial diversion that only interests queer people. Instead, queer history must be recognised as a vital component of a universal, human history. One can only hope that future students are not made uncomfortable by the presence of historical queerness, but rather by its absence.

Bodie A. Ashton is a research historian in the Faculty of Law at the Universität Passau, Germany, and a visiting research fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Adelaide, Australia. He is the author of The Kingdom of Württemberg and the Making of Germany, 1815-1871 (London: Bloomsbury, 2017). You can find him on twitter @manwithoutatan.

Image: Napoleon and Alexander I, Adolphe Roehn,Entrevue de Napoléon Ier et d’Alexandre Ier sur le Niemen / Treaty of Tilsitz, 1807 [via Wikicommons]

Notes:

  1. The same can be said of Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin, which makes a magnificent case for the German capital also being the epicentre of a burgeoning and vibrant queer scene in the early twentieth century. This fascinating, colourful, vital Berlin is all but absent in the standard histories students and the reading public are most likely to come across – unless, that is, they are specifically searching for a gay history of Berlin.
  2. The modern development of the queer lexicon, it should be noted, has arisen from the ability of the queer population to exist within public spaces and define themselves with greater freedom. The non-existence of the LGBTIQ+ vocabulary in earlier times does not imply that the people defined by it did not previously exist. Cf. David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 490 n. 18.
  3. The latter, which was also argued by none other than Richard Nixon, has recently reared its head in the marriage equality debate.
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