Bawdy Gay Latvia!

posted by Madame Bubby

Surprises abound when sifting through the wealth of LGBTQ archival material at Bijou Video. I picked up an issue of a 1970s vintage gay porn monograph or serial (not sure) called Hard? A Pictorial and Literary Study, which is comprised mostly of explicit gay sex photos, with a running text by one Dr. Jack Muller. In other words, to pass the censors, even at that time when restrictions on such material were easing up, the publication is billed as “Educational Material for Adults Only.”

Muller gives in this issue an ambitious history and analysis of pornography. I found his discussion of censorship and homosexuality and its expression interesting, and it correlates to some extent with my previous blog on this subject.

It's painfully obvious the Church/Empire nexus that began under Constantine drove any type of sex other than heteronormative procreative sex into the shadows, while at the same time creating single-sex environments, such as monastic communities. that contained homoerotic “meta-structures.” In fact, bawdy, ribald literature, though mostly heterosexual, was preserved, but also originated in medieval European monasteries, whose inhabitants were copying manuscripts of sexually explicit materials by Roman poet Ovid and others. (And in many cases not just copying, but “enacting” the actions depicted in the texts with each other.)
 

Ovid Manuscript
Ovid Manuscript
Source: http://dcc.dickinson.edu/ovid-amores/manuscript-tradition-ovids-amores

Meanwhile, on what was then the edge of European civilization, Constantinople (the Eastern Orthodox Church) and Rome (the Roman Catholic Church) each fought for the conversion of the Slavs to Christianity, but as was the case in Europe, it was often difficult to discern a boundary between “pagan” or “heathen” cultures and the institutional dynamics of the Church. (In fact, the binary of pagan versus Christian is actually a later interpretation, a narrative built on the idea that the Church was one monolithic entity opposing an inaccurate lumping together of the pluralistic, syncretistic religious universe of the ancient world as paganism.)
 

Map of Latvia in the Middle Ages
Map of Latvia in the Middle Ages

The Slavic Lithuanians actually did not officially convert to Roman Catholicism until 1387, as a condition of union with Roman Catholic Poland. The motive was political, a top-down move by the rulers (as was the case previously with European countries).

Latvia, Lithuania's neighbor to the north, was also a late convert to Christianity, the process occurring in the 12th - 13th centuries; in fact, the local populace in the countryside maintained their pagan belief systems for several centuries, with pockets of paganism surviving in Latvia up until the 17th century.
 

Krisjanis Barons
Krisjanis Barons
Source: https://www.europeana.eu/portal/en/record/92085/lnb_zl_17879.html

One form of erotic expression that survived in Latvia was the daina, and thanks to the writer and editor Krisjanis Barons (1835-1923), part of the “folk-nationalist” movement the Young Latvians (at that time Latvia had been absorbed into the Russian Empire), these were written down and systematized in several volumes.

The dainas were short, rhymed verses in sing-song meters easy to remember orally, reflecting on the cycle of life and death; humans live as integral, organic participants in a natural landscape, and this landscape of course includes sexual activity. Love, the selection of a partner, and marriage with that partner are common themes, and mostly heterosexual, but Dr. Muller, using a book by by Bud Berzing, Sex Songs of the Ancient Letts, quotes several which are blatantly describe homosexual acts.
 

Cover of Sex Songs of the Ancient Letts

One wonders, though, if these elements might have been, given the overall patrilineal emphasis in Latvian culture (even before the dominance of the Church), sung to mock and even abuse, especially foreign oppressors like the Teutonic Knight and Order of Livonia Germans who colonized Latvia in the Middle Ages:

It's a German with an aching head,
While my dunghole's hurting bad;
Come on German, place your head
Close to my dunghole.”

And:

“This boy, a pal of mine,
Has a two-headed pecker;
When he works in the drying barn,
He don't need any fork.”

“Come, laddie, rake some hay,
I got a place for stacking it,
I need one handy guy
To drive a stick in it.”
 

Latvian gay poetry in Hard?: A Pictorial and Literary Study
Latvian gay poetry featured in Hard?: A Pictorial and Literary Study

These types of verses (which were sung out loud at weddings and other events that celebrated life cycle moments) shocked a seventeenth-century German bishop named Paul Einhorn. He wrote, in his Historie lettice in 1649, “Afterwards such improper, brazen, and flippant songs were sung without interruption, day and night, that even the devil himself could not have devised and put forth anything more improper and lewd." The early modern European emphasis on enclosure and boundaries in a time when nation-states were trying to figure how religious institutions fit into their political and social goals spelt doom for many ancient customs that found profound value in the physical cycles of nature.

This was the time when the English Puritans banned the “heathenish” Christmas (albeit temporarily), Counter-Reformation popes covered up nudes, authorities everywhere burned witches and heretics and homosexuals at the stake, and Louis XIV proclaimed that he was the state, which meant vicious persecution and exile for the French Protestants (Huguenots). And a German bishop couldn't deal with euphemisms for genitalia!

It's interesting that it took a nationalist movement of resistance to rediscover and disseminate these songs, which have survived to this day even as new theocratic, nationalistic empires like Putin's Russia (and remember, Latvia had been part of the former Soviet Union) try to censor, subvert, control, and for LGBTQ persons, eliminate sexual expression.

SOURCES:

Wikipedia, entries on Krisjanis Barons, religion in Latvia, Christianization of Lithuania

Encyclopedia.com, entry on Dainas.

Muller, Jack, “How to Be Circumspect,” in Hard?: A Pictorial and Literary Study

Berzing, Bud, Songs of the Ancient Letts

Dryer, Richard. “Ovid in the Middle Ages,” at http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~aranar/genealogy/ovid.htm

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Two Muscle Guys Kiss at the Last Judgement

posted by Madame Bubby

I got blocked on Twitter a while ago by a Roman Catholic bishop because I responded to a tweet about Michelangelo with a pretty general article on the sexuality of the famous artist Michelangelo. Michelangelo was gay. He liked guys. Especially guys with big muscles.
 

Michelangelo Buonarroti
Michelangelo Buonarroti (source: biografieonline.it)

Now, during the Renaissance, the concept of sexual orientation had yet to be articulated or analyzed. Thus, Michelangelo, according to the social and religious norms of the time (usually the same), either performed sex acts with men (called sodomy due to an interpretation of the Sodom and Gomorrah story since deemed incorrect by current Biblical scholarship), and/or, perhaps more loosely, he loved men, young men (which does not necessarily imply sexual activity).

In this case, art imitates life, and Michelangelo, aiming to produce what he deemed to be an ideal mimesis of the body as revealing a primal strength and power coursing through creation, painted male bodies that rival the famous bodybuilders of the past, without the artificial steroid-induced bulk. (And even the women in the Sistine Chapel are muscular.)
 

Adam and Eve, Sistene Chapel Ceiling
Adam and Eve, Sistene Chapel Ceiling (source: artarchive.com)

This unabashed glorying in muscular nudes under the aegis of a commission to paint the Sistine Chapel ended up becoming a problem. Why? The Counter-Reformation not only reacted to the Reformation, but to some of what it deemed licentious excesses of the Renaissance, and much Catholic religious art ended up degenerating into fixed forms drawn in attitudes of pious sentiment. Hello, anemic Jesuses with bleeding hearts and heavily draped Madonnas gazing up at the clouds.

And, in the case of Michelangelo’s paintings, the Church authorities covered up the genitalia.

But, as one article I read recently reveals, Michelangelo’s Last Judgement shows that just covering up genitals does not literally erase any imagery that might induce those impure thoughts that might send one to hell.

In the midst of the Last Judgment, where a muscular beardless Christ resembling Apollo looks like he is a bad ass coming to whale on a rival gang, two men kiss. Mutually and fearlessly. (Even his mother is frightened.) And these are not the ones condemned to hell. These are two guys on the redeemed side, as opposed to, as the article claims, a reputed pedophile biting his genitals to hell.
 

The Last Judgement kiss close up
The Last Judgement close up (source: Michelangelo.org)

Now, the men kissing need not imply sexual attraction, of course, depending on the cultural context. They could even be family members displaying affection. But it’s there, it’s there for the homosocial gaze, and I just wonder if Michelangelo was himself encoding, as it were, his own Last Judgement against a Counter-Reformation Church that viewed humanity as more fallen and sinful rather than filled with a holy energy that includes struggle and conflict but also surmounts it with a hope for a final vindication.
 

The Last Judgement
The Last Judgement (source: Vatican Museum, Michelangelo)
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LGBTQ History Is Everyone's History!

posted by Madame Bubby

The new Democratic governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, signed into law on Friday, August 9, 2019, a bill to ensure that the contributions of LGBTQ persons to human culture are taught in Illinois public schools.

According to a news release by CNN, House Rule 246 was introduced by Rep. Anna Moeller to amend the school code to add a more inclusive history curriculum.

"In public schools only, the teaching of history shall include a study of the roles and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the history of this country and this State," the bill states.

The bill will go into effect in July 2020.
 

Pritzker signing LGBTQ history bill
Pritkzer signs LGBTQ history bill (Source: Freeport News Network)

This development is indeed good news, especially in the current social climate where certain adherents to branches of Evangelical Christianity (hello, Mike Pence) attempt to impose their views of gender and sexuality on the United States as a whole in theocratic fashion. In other words, they wish to regulate sexual and reproductive behavior based on their religious beliefs, often doing so by purveying false, unscientific information and conspiracy theories.

The “holy haters” might think this development is a similar type of imposition, but as usual, the analogy is false. A textbook ideally attempts to present information in an unbiased way and bases its content on authorized research by experts. A textbook ideally allows room, based on the content, to generate critical questions about the subject matter, these questions allowing for multiple perspectives based on evidence.

Thus, my concern is that this development will become, for many, ostensibly a religious issue and they will use the sadly predictable scapegoat mechanism accusation that children will be harmed by learning about LGBTQ persons and their contributions.

I think the issue is how we interpret history. It's not just that the contributions of already famous LGBTQ figures like Michelangelo, Walt Whitman, and Gertrude Stein are worthy of being remembered authentically, respecting the synergy of the art and the creator, but that the interpretation of history should open up the opportunity to hear voices that have been silenced and censored.
 

Colorized photo of Walt Whitman
Colorized photo of Walt Whitman (Source: Walt Whitman Initiative Organization)

Thus, who is telling the story is just as important as the story itself, but even more significantly, who is determining what is worthy of being told and how it is told.

It's sad that one has to make a law in the present to ensure the voices of the past are heard, and it's even more sad that there are those in the present who still feel so threatened by the very existence of LGBTQ history that they will resort to what they did in the past to LGBTQ people: denigrate them, silence them, erase them.

I applaud the new Democratic administration in Illinois for this move, but dead or alive, one's voice in history should not be a gift given to you by someone else: it is yours, and it rightly belongs to you.

Check out our blog, our contribution to hearing the voices of LGBTQ history, https://bijouworld.com/Gay-History/Categories/Listings/gay-history.html.

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