close

LGBTQ+

Approaching Queerness in the Viking World

Manuscript_Odinn

What do you see when you picture a Viking? Probably a warrior, fairly hairy, a number of tattoos, very strong, something you’d consider to be the epitome of masculinity, right? What if I told you that this idea is probably wrong? What if I told you that queer Vikings existed?

The Viking world was huge and varied. We’re talking about a few hundred years and people in Scandinavia (Norway, Denmark, and Sweden) as well as the diaspora: places such as Iceland, the north of England, Ireland, Normandy, the Volga river, and plenty other places. It’s impossible for this world to have existed without queer people.

But what’s more exciting is that we can spot queer Vikings in the historical record.

The first approach I use to search for queer Vikings is by using terms from within Viking culture. This requires us to understand what Viking gender and society looked like: gender was important in determining roles, and honour was very important. There were clear social expectations on how you should behave, and what retaliation could happen if someone broke laws: think outlawry and revenge killings.

The Viking world had a word in Old Norse that makes it very easy to look for queerness: ergi. This word has a pretty debated meaning, but seems to have the overarching meaning of ‘doing gender wrong’, and more specific meanings including ‘unmanliness,’ ‘female lust’, and ‘cowardice.’ I tend to translate the word to be ‘queer’, because that ultimately seems to be the meaning.

Being called ergi was a big deal. If someone was accused of being ergi, they could challenge the accuser to a dual called a holmgang. In the case of Iceland, the thirteenth century ‘Grey Goose’ laws said that a man had the right to kill in retaliation for being called ergi. This was the same response that was allowed if someone murdered your relative: it was a serious allegation!

Surprisingly, the god of war, poetry, and death, Odin himself, is accused of being ergi a number of times in Norse mythology. In one mythological poem called Loki’s Quarrel from the Poetic Edda, we see the being Aegir hosting a feast for the gods, when Loki storms in, very upset that he hasn’t been invited. He starts insulting the gods one by one, drawing on stories we see from other parts of mythology. When Loki turns to Odin, he says:

‘And you practiced magic

In Samsey,

And you struck on a drum like a sorceress;

In a wizard’s form you travelled over mankind,

And I thought that was ergi (queer) in nature’.

This isn’t the only time this accusation comes up. In the poem Harbard’s Song, also from the Poetic Edda, Odin is disguised as a ferryman called Harbard and is refusing to help Thor cross the river. Eventually, Thor shouts ‘Harbard you queer’ as an insult. This seems to be in reference to Odin earlier bragging about practicing magic and having sex with a number of women.

By practicing magic, Odin is failing to be a man: only women can practice the form of magic known in Old Norse as seiðr. But having sex with lots of women doesn’t seem to be a failing as a man, but it is a failing as a woman. It seems that Odin’s gender is very queer through just these two examples alone!

My second approach uses modern understandings of queerness to explore how these identities could have looked in the past. While queer people have always existed, the way that queerness looked is not static, and we have to be very careful with our language. I would never say that someone from the past is [insert identity here], but I would say that ‘x reflects what we could now understand to be [insert identity here].’

One clear example of this is by looking at the burial known to archaeologists as ‘Bj. 518.’ This burial was found in the Viking Age site of Birka, on the island of Björkö in Sweden. When this burial was first excavated in the 1870s it was immediately assumed to be that of a great warrior: they had been buried with a full set of weapons, two horses, and a full set of gaming pieces, suggesting they were high ranking.

In 2017, our understanding of this individual became a lot more complicated when it was found that the genomic sex, based on DNA, was female. The researchers who made this discovery announced that therefore this was the first confirmed high ranking Viking warrior woman, to huge media uproar.

The thing is, we don’t know that women were ever actually warriors in the Viking Age. It’s possible that this individual is what we would understand now to be a transgender man.

Analysis of grave goods alone lead to circular arguments: it’s why we didn’t know this individual could be a woman for over 100 years. But at the same time, grave goods are also an important construction of perceived identity by the surviving community. There are no items in this grave to suggest that this individual took on a role understood to make them a woman within their community. Instead, it may be that by becoming a warrior, they also became a man, and were understood to be a man by their community.

We can never know this individual’s identity for sure, but it is the job of scholars to question every possibility.

The Viking world is so much more expansive than we have given it credit for. By thinking about how queerness can show up in the mythological and physical worlds, we can honour our queer past and gain a better understanding of the Viking Age.

Maybe it’s time to hang up that tired image of the hairy, hypermasculine Viking and embrace the queer magic of the Viking world.

Amy Jefford Franks holds an MA in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies from the University of Iceland, and is a specialist in Viking religion and queerness. They host the podcast Vikings Are Gay, and spoke about their work to Sheffield History students in March 2021. They can be found on Twitter @queertyyr

Cover image: The one-eyed Odin with his ravens Hugin and Munin and his weapons. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66 in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

read more

‘Always protest’? Drag Race, Pathé Newsreels, and Subversion in Mainstream Media

Manchester,,Uk,-,August,24,,2019:,Manchester,Pride,Parade,2019.

RuPaul’s Drag Race sells itself, and has been praised, as a subversive television series. RuPaul, eponymous creator of the drag contest gameshow, has stated ‘true drag will never be mainstream. Because true drag has to do with seeing that this world is an illusion’. British judge Graham Norton recently claimed ‘there’s something dangerous about drag still’. Echoing this, a contestant queen from the syndicated British Drag Race enthused that ‘Drag was always a protest, a political statement’. Drag Race, participants and producers alike insist, is inherently subversive because drag necessarily challenges the gender norms of ‘straight’ society.

Drag Race has also become a mass media phenomenon. A niche show in 2009, its 13th series premiered this year to 1.3 million viewers. Interviewed, like any self-respecting A-list celebrity, by the Muppets and toting both a Simpsons cameo and a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, RuPaul is arguably the most famous drag queen in the world. This begs the question, can drag retain a subversive edge in mainstream media?

To consider this, it is instructive to look at one of drag’s first brushes with mass media in Britain. It was during the interwar period that drag first appeared onscreen, chiefly through cinema newsreels. Newsreels – short non-fiction topical films summarising the week’s current events – were included in almost every cinema programme until the 1960s. To leaven the news, they frequently featured variety entertainment; offshoot newsreels such as Pathetone were evencomprised entirely of filmed music hall acts.

A well-established form of music hall repertory from the nineteenth century, drag soon found its way into the newsreel. Bert Errol amazed cinemagoers by changing into high drag before their eyes in 1922. West-End comedian Douglas Byng appeared in rudimentary drag singing innuendo-laden falsetto across the 1930s. A 1937 item covered a police pantomime, with multiple shots of officers putting on makeup and dresses. In 1939, six sailors dressed as fairies sang and pranced before King-Emperor George VI during a naval inspection.

This seems remarkable at a time when populist paper John Bull ran editorials attacking London’s queer men for transvestism, castigating them as the ‘painted boy menace’.[1] From the mid-1920s, men wearing women’s clothes and makeup became tantamount to being queer.[2] In the 1930s, it is estimated 40 percent of Britons went to the cinema once and 25 percent twice or more a week.[3] To make drag palatable for the mainstream, newsreels had to ensure conventional manliness remained unchallenged and any association with queerness was muted.

As such, newsreels usually placed drag in establishment settings. Byng was a fixture of London’s fashionable set, always filmed in high-end venues like the Paradise Club, laughing with elites more so than at them. Likewise, Errol’s wife helped him change into drag, making sure audiences knew he was a red-blooded heterosexual, wig and high heels notwithstanding. The police officers and sailors returned to their uniforms, drag but a brief interlude (the naval fairies lasted but twenty seconds onscreen) from their ‘manly’ public service. Ensconced in marriage, elite society, and ‘masculine’ professions, queens could not truly send up the establishment when they were often performing from the heart of it.

Moreover, newsreels always framed drag as comedy. Ian Green has argued comedy allows latitude for contentious topics. Yet, because comedy resolves in laughter, it curtails earnest critique.[4] David Sutton likewise concludes comedy as a genre is ‘the appropriate site for the inappropriate, the proper place for indecorum’.[5] Comedy is establishment-condoned critique, safely dissipated in laughter. All the above acts, awash with puns and gags, aimed to make cinemagoers laugh, not challenge their gendered assumptions. Far from a challenge to the status quo, then, interwar drag acts could only enter mainstream media as safe entertainment bereft of queer connotations.

This is not to say drag culture could not be subversive. For queer men to wear women’s clothes and attend drag balls was certainly a brave and subversive act in the interwar period, one that provoked the British establishment.[6] The interwar life of Quentin Crisp is representative of the defiant subversion that came from wearing cosmetics.

Yet, as Jacob Bloomfield has shown, drag onstage was not inherently controversial and remained a staple of popular theatre.[7] Similarly, filmed drag acts obviated controversy in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience. In fact, looking at newsreel drag items reveals a legacy of conservatism for drag acts in the mainstream.

The producers of Drag Race would like to make their show the heir to the counterculture of drag balls and gay bars. Yet, in many respects, itis the mainstream heir to newsreel variety acts. Like newsreels, Drag Race is foremost comic entertainment, more inclined to jokes than politics. What little gender discussion there is occurs in the fleeting moments between farcical gameshow skits. The only challenges presented are to the competing queens’ dignities.

Like Pathe’s producers, RuPaul has espoused a profoundly conservative view of ‘true’ drag. Through transphobic comments, he has stressed drag as the exclusive province of gay men. Thus, much as newsreels removed any ‘controversial’ association with queerness, so Drag Race has placed strict limits on what drag represents and who can perform it.  

A look at the history of drag in newsreels reveals that to project drag through mass media is not inherently subversive. Whether in Pathé or on BBC3, being produced as mainstream entertainment severely curtails any potential for real subversion of societal norms such as gender. Former drag performer Paul O’Grady, carping in 2017 about Drag Race, contended that his drag persona Lilly Savage ‘belonged in a pub, especially a gay bar, where you could rant and rave’.  Considering drag’s relationship with popular media, perhaps it is only in niche subcultures that subversion can truly flourish.

Conner Scott is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research seeks to explore the role of British newsreels in everyday life, and how they (re)presented the cinemagoing public to itself on a weekly basis between c.1919-c.1939.


Cover image: Manchester Pride Parade 2019. A group of five drag queens representing BBC’s ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ on pink stage, Manchester, 24 August 2019. Used courtesy of Goncalo Telo for non-commercial, educational purposes. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/manchester-uk-august-24-2019-pride-1489347011

[1] Matt Houlbrook, ‘“The man with the powder puff” in Interwar London’, The Historical Journal 50.1 (2007), pp. 147-49.

[2] I use the term queer as it was the most common self-identity of interwar men who had sexual and emotional relationships with other men and avoids the anachronism of gay. See Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London, 2005), p. xiii.

[3] Annette Kuhn, An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory (London, 2002), p. 2.

[4] Ian Green, ‘Ealing: In the Comedy Frame’ in James Curran and Vincent Porter (eds), British Cinema History (London, 1983), p. 296.

[5] David Sutton, A Chorus of Raspberries: British Film Comedy 1929-1939 (Exeter, 2000), p. 60.

[6] See Matt Houlbrook, ‘Lady Austin’s Camp Boys: Constituting the Queer Subject in 1930s London’, Gender and History 14.1 (2002), pp. 31-61; Houlbrook, Queer London.

[7] See Jacob Bloomfield, ‘Splinters: Cross-Dressing Ex-Servicemen on the Interwar Stage’, Twentieth Century British History 30.1 (2019), pp. 1-28.

read more

‘Fear or Fetish? The Fetishisation of Lesbians in Cold War America

Cover_of_Lesbian_Love_by_Marlene_Longman_-_Illustrator_McCauley_-_Nightstand_NB_1523_1960

In the 1950s, American society saw a huge rise in anxieties regarding gender norms and sexuality. Homosexuals were demonized through the Lavender Scare – a moral panic focused on gay and lesbian US government employees – and ideas of the nuclear family were promoted in the fight against Communism. Yet, throughout this period, there was also an influx of highly erotic lesbian fiction and magazines aimed at heterosexual men with overtly sexualised lesbian themes. This sexualisation remains prevalent today and continues to have detrimental impacts upon the lives of lesbian woman,[1] and yet its origins have received little attention in historical debate.

When constructions of homosexuality have been looked at during this period, historians have tended to focus on the political sphere. David Johnson, for example, focuses much of his attention on how anxieties regarding sexuality permeated political culture and the lives of elites.[2] Therefore, little attention is given to popular culture and perceptions of the ‘ordinary’ American citizen. Focusing primarily on political culture also means that Johnson’s narrative mainly looks at how the Lavender Scare impacted wider cultural perceptions of homosexual men.

Consequently, the sexualisation of lesbians by heterosexual men and how this came to the fore with such force during this period has not received necessary attention.

At the end of the war and throughout the 1950s, American society took a conservative turn, with ideas of gender and ‘family’ becoming all the more important as a way to distinguish America from the Communist East. Women were particularly impacted by this growing interest in conformity. As Elaine Tyler May points out, the full-time housewife became synonymous with ideas of American freedom.[3] Anything that deviated from this ideal was therefore seen as a threat.

At the same time, ideas of homosexuality were changing and ‘the lesbian’ was fashioned as an immediate danger. Lesbianism began to be framed as a sickness, but crucially it was a sickness that could be cured – if only a man could show them a “good time”.

Simultaneously, we see the crisis of masculinity. At numerous occasions during this period, historian and social critic Arthur Schlesinger wrote on the issue, arguing that World War II had ushered in an uneasy sense of vulnerability and a loss of a clear sense of self for many men that continued throughout the 1950s. This sense of a decline in manhood’s mastery over others, combined with ideas that lesbians could be ‘regained’ by patriarchal concepts of heterosexuality, meant that ‘the lesbian’ was constructed as an opportunity for men to prove themselves. The post-war into the Cold War period therefore set up the perfect conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could flourish.

This resulted in an influx of pulp fiction and men’s magazines, through which these themes were reflected. Stories of lesbian orgies, threesomes and lesbian nymphomaniacs were extremely popular amongst heterosexual men during this period. Within these novels, lesbians are presented as deviants, yet deviants who are often regained by heterosexual, familial norms after experiencing life changing heterosexual sex.

Cover of The Third Sex by Artemis Smith (1963 Edition).

The message is therefore clear. If men show lesbians a good time by reasserting their masculinity, these women will once against fit within the Cold War ideals of conformity – everyone’s a winner.

Men’s magazines took a similar approach. Stories and images of two women looking for a man were extremely popular. What we can learn from 1950s and 1960s America is that sex sells, but lesbian sex sells better.

This had very real life consequences for lesbians, as men encroached on their space in the search of sexual encounters. Analysis of interviews and testimonies show that this repressive context led to a thriving underground lesbian movement and a vast number of lesbian bars being established. Heterosexual men often took advantage of these lesbian spaces, going there in search of lesbian women to have sex with –further demonstrating how they were constructed as an opportunity in the eyes of men.

Ultimately, the period between 1947 up until the stonewall riots of 1969 provided the ideal conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could and indeed did flourish. Sexualisation of lesbians is still widespread within our society today and lesbians continue to face challenges of not only being seen as a sexual fantasy but also having their sexuality presented as merely performative and something that can be “regained” by heterosexual masculinity

In numerous recent insight reports, PornHub revealed that ‘Lesbian’ was the most searched for and most viewed category across numerous American states, with 75 percent of the American audience being male. These statistics demonstrate that lesbianism continues to be framed within the male gaze. Sexualisation is not the same as acceptance and therefore it is important that we continue to address its roots in order to hold both society and ourselves accountable today.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People  project. Her research investigates how the media constructed popular expectations of democracy in Great Britain between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie


Cover image: Cover of Lesbian Love by Marlene Longman (1960).

[1] See Ofcom’s ‘Representation and Portrayal on BBC TV 2018’ report regarding the representation of lesbian women on television. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and-on-demand/information-for-industry/bbc-operating-framework/representation-portrayal-bbc-tv/research-hub/lesbian-women

[2] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in Federal Government (Chicago, 2004).

[3] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York, 1988).

read more

Why I use modern LGBTQ+ terminology for the pre-modern past

The Warren Cup 1999,0426.1, AN594242001

The Warren Cup, 15BC – AD15, Made in Levant, at diplay in the British Museum, ref. 1999,0426.1, AN594242001

If Michel Foucault is to be believed, ‘homosexuality’ was invented in the nineteenth century as a discourse of power structures. This is not to say that same-sex sexual activity has not been around as long as any other practices – that would be an impossible assertion! – but rather that people would not have categorised themselves and others on account of gender-based attraction. Words like ‘homosexual’ as well as ‘bisexual’, ‘asexual’ and others in the ever expanding alphabet soup of LGBTQ+, are not applicable to the ancient Mediterranean, so the argument goes, because they are anachronistic.

There is a meaningful point here: in many ways it is reductive to question whether the first century BCE poet Catullus, who wrote erotic verses about both men and women, was bisexual, because Roman society would not have categorised and considered him in that way. Similarly, because of the social setting, he would not have experienced biphobia – or bi pride – and his understanding of himself and his place in the world would not have been impacted by his explorations of sexual desires.

Yet, by disallowing ourselves our own contemporary terminology, there is a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, to an extent this position highlights the differences in societies past and present, but in doing so we reassert the ‘Otherness’, and the ‘non-normativity’ of these identities. We must restrict our language surrounding the (potential) same sex desire evoked in Sappho’s poetry, unable to call her a Lesbian in any sense except her citizenship of the island of Lesbos. On the other hand, we feel no need to dance around, or call into question the normativity of Julius Caesar’s many marriages and extramarital (hetero)sexual pastimes. This reasserts heterosexual activity – if not the identity – as the ‘norm’, the universal, the unquestioned, whilst even the naming of any other ‘deviances’ is criticised as ahistorical.

The point becomes much more explicit when we turn the focus on gender. It is generally agreed that gender – and gender roles – are a social construct that fluctuate across different societies, and that the conditions for ancient masculinity, for example, differed strongly from the modern. Yet, the gap between the apparently ‘normative’ and ‘non-normative’ genders, and how we treat them, remains vast.

Queer gender identities and roles in contemporary society are frequently dismissed and derided as ‘modern inventions’; similarly, academic focus on pre-modern queer genders has followed the path set by queer sexualities, with ‘trans history’ tied to Western modernity. Thus, we may marvel, scrutinise and unpack the second century CE satirist Lucian’s authorial intentions, but must ultimately again couch our terminology, in his Dialogue of the Courtesans, where (the fictional) Leaina recounts meeting Megillos, who repeatedly asks for male pronouns and references, claiming that ‘I was born a woman like the rest of you, but I have the mind and the desires and everything else of a man’ (5.4).

We can question here what Megillos means by being a man, where he locates his masculinity and ultimately, we are given the opportunity to deny him that identity, as Leaina ultimately does. I doubt, however, that anyone would ever ask if Lucian was a ‘man’. No one questions the author’s masculinity, where he locates himself and whether we as his readers are allowed to deny him that. Once again, the contemporarily understood norms are the universal, whilst the rest must submit to the same debates over existence and invention of identity.

At a recent conference, I gave a paper on an ancient identity that is neither man nor woman, and thus is quite simply non-binary. During the question and answer, a delegate asked me if I considered what I am doing as ‘political mythmaking’. My answer, then as well as now, is yes: all history is by default political, and our discipline constructs as much as reveals (versions of) the past. Furthermore, the stories we choose to tell – and how we choose to tell them – be they of ‘normative’ identities or otherwise, will always be a form of mythmaking. Translation, linguistic but also cultural, is and can only be interpretation. So, I choose to interpret a history in which I see myself, and other ‘non-normative’ identities and feelings, represented too.

Chris Mowat is a Teaching Associate in Ancient History at the University of Sheffield. Their research interests focus on religion and gender, particularly queer gender identities, and the intersection between these two areas in the Roman Republic. They are also an editor for the blog NOTCHES – (re)marks on the history of sexuality. They tweet at @chrismologos.

Image Description by curators: The cup is said to have been found in Palestine with coins of the Emperor Claudius (41 – 54 AD). The age and status of the figures in both scenes is carefully shown. The bearded man and youths are shown in a style typical of the classicizing art of the reign of the emperor Augustus (30BC – AD14), and can probably be dated more closely to approximately 15BC-AD15. The musical instruments, wreaths and mantles suggest a cultured, Hellenized setting. Both partners in the reverse scene have long locks of hair, the youth’s bound up, the boy’s loose. Such locks were worn by Greek boys, and were offered to the gods in a rite celebrated at puberty.

See https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=594242001&objectid=410332

read more