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Queer History

How Not to Erase Trans History

Claude C

In recent months history has been at the forefront of social media politics. One such blow-up was the debate about whether people of colour could be found the Roman Empire. There is plenty of evidence that people of colour did exist in the past, and did many amazing things. But what about trans people? Did they exist in the past, and if so how would we know?

At a first glance things don’t look hopeful. The media image of trans people is of someone magically transforming from a man into a woman with the aid of sophisticated modern medicine. Terms like Transgender, Non-Binary, and Gender Identity didn’t exist in the past, so how could anyone have “identified” as such?

The idea that trans people are characterised by full transition from one binary gender to the other has, for many decades, been pushed by the medical establishment. However, in recent years treatment protocols have become much more relaxed and patient-centred, allowing for a greater variety of identities.

It may seem that non-binary trans identities are something very new. However, a cursory glance at history will find the artist Claude Cahun openly rejecting both binary gender categories in the early 20th century. Looking beyond the history of Western cultures, the world is full of people who place themselves outside of the gender binary. Throughout South Asia, Polynesia, and various Native American cultures we find social structures allowing people to cross gender boundaries. These traditions appear to date back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

A recent BBC radio programme, “Inside Transgender Pakistan”, highlighted the debate in Pakistan between those who embrace the Western model of full binary gender transition, and those who adhere to the traditional hijra culture, whose members see themselves more as a third gender. What we can learn from this is how trans people come to understand themselves, and their place in society, is highly culturally contextual.

The “Caitlyn Jenner model” dictates one particular way of being trans. The existence of non-binary people shows that not all Western trans people fit this mould. (See, for example, Trans Like Me by C.N. Lester). In other cultures, a third gender model may be more acceptable, but that doesn’t preclude some individuals having a more binary-gendered understanding of themselves.

Foucault had a point when he claimed, in his History of Sexuality, that the idea of the homosexual, and its cognate, the heterosexual, are late 19th-century inventions (terms coined by Karl-Maria Kertbeny). People from the past did not talk about their “sexual orientation”. This did not preclude them from indulging in same-sex relationships.

Did people from the past who transgressed gender boundaries see themselves as having a gender other than what they were assigned at birth, even though the word “transgender” hadn’t been coined? Without testimony we can’t be certain, but we can see what others say about them. The 1st century Jewish scholar, Philo of Alexandria, talked about:

“Those of them who […] have desired to be completely changed into women and gone on to mutilate their genital organs” (On the Special Laws 3:42).

Philo is talking about the Galli: the devotees of the goddess Cybele, who underwent ritual castration and lived the rest of their lives as women. Apuleius portrays a group of Galli as what sounds to us like highly camp, sex-mad drag queens (The Golden Ass 8:26-30). Then again, Apuleius was a satirist, and any trans woman will instantly recognise his characterisation from modern TV comedy shows.

The Galli don’t get to speak for themselves. Almost all we know about them was written by well-to-do Roman men. That Patricians should look down upon the Galli is not surprising. Exactly the same happens to trans women today.

Women historians can be more open to understanding. Lynn Roller, an expert on the Cybele cult, has likened the behaviour of the Galli to modern-day hijra, and Gwendolyn Leick has speculated that similar cults may have existed in ancient Mesopotamia.

The argument that modern medicine is a defining characteristic of trans identities is often used to claim that modern trans people are an entirely separate category from anyone in the past who may have transgressed gender boundaries. Past cultures had no knowledge of plastic surgery, and could not synthesise hormones. This does not mean that medical intervention did not take place.

Roman medicine understood several different methods of castration. It seems likely that only a minority of the Galli had their penis removed. However, the removal of the testicles would have acted as surgery and a primitive form of hormone therapy as it deprives the body of testosterone. The creation of human eunuchs dates back at least to the Assyrian empire and possibly much earlier.

How, then, are we to identify and understand trans identities from the past? It is important that we should not fixate on modern Western concepts of what being trans is about (especially if those concepts are fast becoming outmoded). What we can do is focus on behaviour.

Historians who are not trans may not fully appreciate the level of risk and commitment involved in gender transition, particularly when there is no legal protection, and no religious cult you can join for support. It is not easy to live full-time in a gender different from that you were assigned at birth.

During the American Civil War, many people assigned female at birth fought in the armies of both sides, presenting as men. Their reasons were many and various; including wanting to be with loved ones, and being desperate for a paid job. They undertook massive risk beyond that of simply being a soldier. Only a small number, such as Albert Cashier, continued to live as men after the war. That difference in behaviour, while not proof of identity, is highly significant.

It is important to be open about motive. If we assume that all gender transgression is a “deception”, or that cross-gender behaviour can only be evidence of sexual preference rather than gender identity, we are erasing the possibility of trans people in the past. Where the cross-gender behaviour is consistent, we have to have an explanation as to why the subject is taking so much extra risk.

We can also look at the social structures in ancient (and modern non-Western) cultures that make space for people to transgress the gender binary. That we find these identities in so many different cultures is surely evidence that being trans is a fundamental part of human nature, and what we have is a long history of society’s attempts to come to terms with that.

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.

Image: Claude Cahun, self portrait [via Flikr].

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The State of Marriage – Progress or Decay?

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On the surface, 2017 represented a peak in a progressive movement to reform marriage around the world. Marriage and family law – and the social practices from which they stem and to which they contribute – have seemed to become more and more similar across the world over time. And marriage appears more equitable, for people of all genders and sexual orientations, than ever before.

In Germany and Australia, same-sex marriage was finally legalised after years of resistance. Meanwhile, across the Middle East and North Africa, in Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon, new laws were introduced which meant that rapists could no longer be exonerated upon marrying their victims. And in India, the Supreme Court voted to outlaw the Islamic practice of talaq – unilateral divorces issued by husbands who declare talaq three times, which brought India’s policy on Islamic divorce in line with that in most other countries.

Not least, 2017 saw the crescendo in a long-standing global debate about marital age, which has often focused on the rights of girls. Germany banned marriages involving minors – and also decided not to recognise most underage marriages conducted abroad. The United States, where marriage as young as 10 years old is allowed in some states, has seen a legislative movement and broader social pressure against the practice.

For reformers, these changes to marriage law signified progress, as older norms about heterosexuality and patriarchy gave way to new values. For critics, by contrast, the changes to marriage across the world in 2017 denoted moral decline. Despite the apparent gulf between these critiques, they nonetheless pointed to a common theme: marriage was seen as a marker of civility.

How one married – or dissolved their marriage – denoted one’s status as both civilised and modern. Indeed, recent developments in marriage have been tied to the modern history of imperialism and statehood and the specific understandings of civility associated with each.

That history unfolded over three main points: around 1800, with the Napoleonic wars and the spread of civil law codes across Europe; over the course of the nineteenth century, and culminating around 1900, with the age of empires and the spread of laws and norms through imperial connections; and, over the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty first, with the rise of new international organisations and social movements and the new language of human rights associated with both.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the collision of war, state building and Enlightenment thought drove a boom in the writing of new law codes that placed marriage and the family at their centre. Perhaps most significantly, in 1804, France introduced comprehensive rules on marriage and divorce as part of its civil code, largely as a reaction against the radical changes introduced as a consequence of the revolution a decade earlier.

The French code civil assumed that the family was both monogamous and based on the rule of men; any other family structure was potentially uncivilised. The code and the thinking behind it would have a tremendous impact across Europe and around the world. It was transported throughout the continent and across France’s expanding empire by Napoleon’s troops, and it shaped legal systems elsewhere, such as in Ottoman Egypt.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, similar ideas about marriage continued to spread around the world in large part due to Europe’s expanding empires. And, these ideas were shaped by encounters between imperialists and their subjects which helped to confirm notions about a chasm between civilised and barbaric marital practices.

Earlier observers like Montesquieu had looked around the world in the eighteenth century to decry polygamy and child marriage. By the late nineteenth century, a concerted movement against these practices took shape, as in the British outcry over the 1884 case of the Indian child bride Rukmabai as well as through the efforts of missionaries.

And yet, imperial authorities also argued that colonies would need to allow for local differences in marital practices, through a system known as personal status law, because the various cultures – and especially the various religions – around the world seemed so different that they could not be reconciled.

By the end of the Second World War, many had come to question whether cultural differences should be honoured when it came to marriage and the family even if this meant that human rights might be endangered. The rights of women and children, in particular, took centre stage in these discussions, shaping the wording of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and subsequent international conventions.

Over the course of the 1970s, as new social movements latched onto the language of human rights to defend their causes, it became increasingly clear that rights to and within marriage and the family would be redefined on a global scale. Accordingly, courts began declaring certain marriage practices void when they seemed to undermine human rights.

This was the case, for example, in December when the European Court of Justice ruled that European countries could choose not to recognise talaq divorces carried out abroad – alongside other ‘private divorces’ that were seen as undermining their own moral codes – even if they had been conducted legally at the time.

By the end of 2017, it seemed that marriage had been made more progressive and equal for many around the world. And yet, the reforms to marriage continue to be shaped by specific notions of civility and modernity that have circulated over the last two hundred years and have been shaped by efforts to build nation states and empires.

These ideas could be found, for example, in both the heteronormative assumptions behind the movement to legalise same-sex marriage and in arguments against the legal recognition within Europe of foreign marital practices like talaq or the marriage of minors. Not least, while marriage seems to have become more progressive than ever before, in some ways, it has become less accessible. As couples increasingly choose not to marry due to difficult financial and social circumstances, to a certain extent, marriage has become the preserve of the privileged.

Julia Moses is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield and currently based at the University of Göttingen’s Institute of Sociology as a Marie Curie Fellow, where she leads the EU/Horizon 2020 research project ‘Marriage and Cultural Diversity in the German Empire’ (MARDIV / Grant #707072). She recently published Marriage, Law and Modernity: Global Histories (Bloomsbury, 2017) and is currently completing a book titled Civilizing Marriage: Family, Nation and State in the German Empire.

Image: Child in white wedding dress, November 2015 [Via WikiCommons].

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Finding Jesus in Video Games

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Christmas is a time when Jesus becomes prominent in our media consumption. However, you may not be aware that Jesus appears not only in films that explore his birth and death, but is also widely present in the trope of the Christ-figure in film, television and perhaps surprisingly, video games.

Video games have matured since their early days when they were perceived as entertainment made for children, and specifically male children. Nowadays the UK video game market boasts a population of 3.2 million people, and was estimated to be worth £4.33bn in 2016. There are 2,175 active games companies in the UK, and here in Sheffield we have over 40 active games companies. [1] The use of historical people or events—and the more or less accurate ideas people have about them—is widespread in video games.[2]

Christ-figures in older games

Christ-figures have been a part of gaming history since the early 80s with games such as 1981’s Ultima, and later in the 90s-00s with iconic video game character Gordon Freeman of Half Life (1998) and JC Denton in Deus Ex (2000). However Christ-figures are most prominent in role-playing games (RPGs) and games in which the player can ‘embody’ the player-character. Unlike in film, Christ-figures in games are often women, and some are also portrayed as LGBT characters.

Final Fantasy X (2001)

Final Fantasy is a long-running series of RPG/Science fiction games made by Japanese studio Square Enix. They are well known for their immersive and dynamic worlds, their long play time, and their very specific set of in-game tropes. In 2001 their tenth instalment was released, Final Fantasy X, which featured Yuna, a female Christ-figure. Yuna is a Summoner who, by sacrificing herself, has the power to defeat a gigantic monster named Sin. Yuna can be identified as a Christ-figure not only through this intended sacrifice, but also by the “priestly” actions she performs, as well as through motifs such as a battle against corrupt governments, dedicated disciples, and her ability to walk on water.

Mass Effect (2007-2017)

The first game in the science fiction Mass Effect series featured an interactive narrative in which the player could control the character of Commander Shepard. Shepard was one of the first Christ-figures within games where players could chose to play them as LGBT. This was a massive step forward in video game design, let alone depictions of Christ-figures in media.

Bioshock Infinite (2013)

Irrational Games’ Bioshock: Infinite told the tale of ex-soldier, now Private Detective, Booker DeWitt. Set in 1912, the player controls DeWitt as he journeys to the fictional city of Columbia, a place steeped in religious zealotry, racism and danger.

DeWitt himself, along with the lead female characters of Elizabeth and Daisy Fitzroy can all be read as Christ-figures. Elizabeth is a literal damsel in a (metal) tower and Daisy is a radical revolutionary. All three characters are determined to take down the theocratic leader of Columbia, Zachary Hale Comstock.

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Sadly, whilst Infinite attempts to present an anti-American Exceptionalism allegory, in the end it fails when (similarly to Final Fantasy X), it restricts female characters by not allowing them to carry out their heroic sacrifices. Both Elizabeth and Fitzroy (who is killed by Elizabeth) take second chair to the player-character of DeWitt, who sacrifices himself in a scene that resembles a Christian baptism ceremony.

Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014)

Inquisition is made by the same studio behind the Mass Effect series, BioWare, and like Mass Effect, Inquisition features a lead character that can be read as a Christ-figure. As much as Mass Effect flirted with the Christ-figure trope by referencing the “good Shepard”, Inquistion is less subtle with its references. For example, the promotional art for Inquisition featured the cast of game characters in an image that reinterprets Leonardo di Vinci’s L’Ultima Cena (the Last Supper).

Inquisition_members

As well as this clear reference to the life of Jesus, Inquisition makes repeated references to Jesus through the game’s narrative (a heroic saviour figure who must use their ‘God-given’ abilities to save humanity), and its promotional materials which suggest themes of leadership and courage.

Inquisition, like Mass Effect, provides the opportunity for players to play as lesbian, gay or bisexual. These romantic story lines, however, are often prone to problematic stereotypes (such as gay narratives that portray homosexuality as inherently negative in the eyes of family members). Despite this, Inquistion is one of the most diverse Christ-figure games within the ‘blockbuster’ genre of AAA games.[3]

The presence of Jesus in video game media (as himself or in the Christ-figure trope) suggests that the view of the historical Jesus as an example of sacrifice and heroism through altruism still has importance in our collective cultural narratives. While many of the games that feature a Christ-figure still rehash negative stereotypes, they are continually pushing the Jesus trope into new and interesting pathways.

Emily R Marlow is a 2nd year WRoCAH (AHRC) funded PhD candidate at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at the University of Sheffield. Her thesis looks at Jesus & Christ-figures within video games. Her research has covered games such as Bioshock: Infinite, Mass Effect, DragonAge: Inquisition and The Witcher 3.

Header image and image 1: DeWitt and Elizabeth in Bioshock: Infinite [via Flickr].

Image 2: Promotional art for Dragon Age: Inquisition, reinterpreting Leonardo di Vinci’s L’Ultima Cena (the Last Supper) [via FANDOM].

[1] “The Games Industry in Numbers” Ukie.org, [https://ukie.org.uk/research] accessed 13/12/2017.

[2] See, for instance, this recent discussion about the role of World War II history in the popular game Call of Duty: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/41848521/why-call-of-duty-ww2-bosses-wont-shy-away-from-history

[3] A “triple A” game is a game released by a mid to large sized games company, it is used to designate a games’ quality of production and promotional release.

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

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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.

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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

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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

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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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