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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A Secret Sex Life a Couple of Blocks Away

Samuel Steward aka Phil Andros

When I was younger and discovering gay sexuality through paperback books, I came up the work of Phil Andros. In the early 1990s, soon after I came out, I acquired (used) some of his leather/fetish-oriented fiction, which was published by an outfit called Perineum Press (what a name!). The book was called Different Strokes. It's been a while since I've read it (in fact, I just found it on my LGBTQ bookcase at home), but it contains descriptions of rough sex, verbal abuse, boots, leather … a world that, as I just found out, was occurring in real life very, very close to where I currently live in the Uptown area. A long time ago. Before Stonewall, gay liberation, rainbow flags, and prosperous/hipsterish couples pushing strollers.
 

Cover of Different Strokes by Phil Andros

Phil Andros, as I recently found out, was a pen name (and also the name of the prodigiously sexual hustler character in his books) for Samuel Steward. Born in the early part of the last century, he lived a double life as Dr. Steward, an English professor at two Catholic universities in Chicago, erotic artist/author, tattoo artist Phil Sparrow (including, at one point, for the Hell's Angels!), and, ultimately and consistently, sexual rebel. He was as openly gay as one could be in the days before Stonewall; he even decorated his first apartment in homoerotic murals that showed dick.
 

 

Samuel Steward tattooing as Phil Sparrow

 

Yet he expressed his sexuality not in trying to find a lover and live quietly and monogamously in the closet; no, his sexual world consisted of sailors on leave; married guys who, because they were on the receiving end of Sammy's amazing blowjobs, did not consider themselves gay; rough trade, especially with African-American guys from the South Side; and eventually, participation in the early days of openly gay leather BDSM begun by the equally maverick Chuck Renslow.
 

Sailors at 1940s great lakes naval base

Overall, he gloried in mansex, but given his background in literature and art, found ways to distill its essence in poems, fiction, and visual art. And his legacy was kept hidden until his elder years, post-Stonewall, when gay sexuality literally exploded.

There's so much more (and I will share more tidbits in future blogs, including his connection to 1970s gay porn), but what really floored me is where his sex life, which for many seems like a masturbatory fantasy or porn movie, occurred. A couple blocks from where I dwell. In a nondescript courtyard apartment building (I haven't found out the exact apartment number). I did check out the building on Zillow, and the apartments don't look that rehabbed. Maybe there's the original floor where Sam knelt before the boots of some greaser type in the 1950s.
 

Phil Andros' apartment building

As I said above, I will share some more tidbits, but in the meantime, you can check out a book on him, and you can also check out our early 1970s porn (including this J. Brian film based on one of his novels) to savor visually some of the amazing sexual energy that happened in that humble apartment in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.

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