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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Sex and Bathrooms Redux

posted by Madame Bubby

Once again, after being forced to urinate and defecate in the dull and stinky men’s room in the building at the university where I teach, I think once again about the relationship between not just mansex and the men’s room, but the whole sociology of the bathroom.

First of all, the fact I am saying bathroom is significant, because in this dull and stinky men’s room with the constant problem of the unflushed toilet (it is supposed to flush automatically, it does not always do so), there is no bath. La salle de bains? No. Showers are available in the gym, of course, but no bathtub. Why not just call the room the sink/toilet/urinal room?

Second, why are public bathrooms in general such blah physical spaces (unless the ones in expensive spaces)? Yes, they are a public space, and utilitarian in the most basic way, but it seems, not that I would know this, the ladies’ rooms aren’t that different. The luxurious rooms with cushions, chairs, and couches I used to notice in movies made in the 1960s aren’t, or perhaps never were, the norm.
 

Basic public restroom

The unisex/disabled (not parallel terms) restroom the university recently constructed is clean and efficient, and also, and this is a plus to many, private. Single occupancy. Now, that might be interesting, to lock the door and enjoy some action, but that might create more potential for getting caught than doing a quickie in a stall. Knock, knock. Who’s in there? I have to go … I’m calling security.

Thirdly, the issue of privacy is something that seems to be more exclusive to contemporary American/Western culture. Contemporary, I emphasize, because in early modern Europe, urination and defecation weren’t exclusively private acts. People “went” when and where they needed to. Separate bathrooms with plumbing were a luxury, and even those in the upper classes used the chamber pot whenever and wherever, even when dining. Some dining areas and other public rooms contained elaborate close stools for convenient evacuation. The aesthetic features of these receptacles, one could say, were designed to conceal the act as well as blend the object into the overall luxury of the space, but it was clear what people were doing in them. At least, in much humbler settings an outhouse was a private, separate building, but not exactly the jolly T-room.
 

17th century toilet
17th century toilet

I’ve often thought, and perhaps my view reflects how Americans have insisted on enclosing the space and judging a person or institution or business by the cleanliness of their bathroom, that the actual bath and shower should be more separate from the toilet. The juxtaposition of the toilet and the bathing area creates a tension between purity and danger, as Mary Douglas in her book by that title explains. The danger is the expulsion of waste, the crossing of a physical boundary, in this case, the body, however natural this process. It’s not just that the waste itself is toxic or gross, physically. More than instinctual repulsion is going on here, more than concerns about health. We feel the need to control this process, enclose it in a pristine setting. The place to dump the waste must be the cleanest, purest, most private room, treated like a sacred shrine. The toilet is the porcelain god.

Thus, when one puts sex into the bathroom space, the act itself a crossing of physical boundaries which also involves a change of fluids, this purity and danger tension exacerbates. It is interesting that in one’s own private home, one doesn’t usually see the bathroom as a place of sexual activity. It’s the bedroom. One sleeps with another person, and the sleeping verb is a common euphemism for sexual intimacy. Yet, sex acts, anonymous sex, occur in public bathrooms.

Perhaps the connection here is between the words anonymous and public. Any time one even goes into a public space, one is taking a risk, because one is in the position of being seen by others at various levels of intimacy, and in the case of bathroom or toilet sex, what is deemed private becomes public in a space which is enclosed, private, for a private act. One now can see what one has fantasized about seeing. It’s the one moment of connection, the ultimate boundary crossing, the danger, the thrill, the orgasm mixed together in a space designed to enclose a natural, albeit for most, non-erotic process.

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