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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Vladimir Putin in a Negligee? You Think That's Scary? Read On!

 

If you've been following the LGBT media in particular, you've undoubtedly heard for some time about the Fascist-style scapegoating of LGBT persons in Russia by forbidding “gay propaganda” that supports “non-traditional sexual relations,” pretty much an excuse for police state tactics ranging from censorship to house searching to arbitrary arrests of protestors beaten up by homophobic thugs. 

Anti-Gay Thugs, Russia


In the early stages of their power, the Nazis burned books and shut down museums that showed “decadent art” (like Picasso and the Bauhaus school). They left one modern art museum open on the third floor of ramshackle building, according to James Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, to show how offensive it was in comparison to the official state art; the lines were so long to get in that the Minister of Culture had to, much to his embarrassment, shut it down! 
 

Nazi Book Burning


The decadent art of Putin's Nazi-style Russia is exemplified by the now infamous “Putin in Women's Underwear” painting by artist Konstantin Altunin.


Altunin's painting was seized by the Russian police from the “Museum of Power” gallery in St Petersburg for breaking unspecified laws. 
 

Putin in Underwear

 

 

The police also removed from the gallery, housed in two rooms of a flat in the city, a picture depicting the head of the Russian Orthodox Church with his torso covered in tattoos, and two artworks mocking anti-gay lawmakers Vitaly Milonov and Yelena Mizulina. 

St. Petersburg deputy mayor Vitaly Mironov, who features in a further painting where his face is merged with the rainbow flag of the gay rights movement, said that the pictures were inappropriate and “of a distinctly pornographic character." How is a rainbow pornographic? 

Gallery owner Alexander Donskoy said as well as seizing paintings, the police also shut down his gallery and offered no explanation for their acts. 

The parallels here to the Nazi regime are obvious, but what's even more disturbing is Altunin's fate. Like most exiled artists of the past, he found refuge in Paris.

 

But he's not lounging around in cafes sipping cafe au lait or hobnobbing with gallery owners by the Seine; according to his wife Elena (who still lives in Russia with their young daughter), he is living rough on the streets. 

There are so many issues of serious concern here, but I do wonder if boycotting vodka and the Winter Olympics or a presidential reprimand of the dictator's policies is going to ease up on the oppression. There's a strong contingent of Westerners (mostly those holy haters) who support Putin's policies.

 

And despite outcries from popular celebrities like Lady Gaga and others, the average fan may pay lip service to the endorsements, but he or she is more concerned with the latest song. Social media both aids and harms the cause (the antigay thugs in Russian are using the Internet to lure unsuspecting gay victims to beat and kill). 

Many people these days don't know about the St. Louis, a ship that carried 900 Jewish people ostensibly to asylum in Cuba in the 1930s as part of a Nazi propaganda campaign to show that the government was willing to take care of the “Jewish problem” in a humane way. The Nazis knew full well, however, that neither Cuba nor, if Cuba refused them, the United States would accept them. The ship had to turn back, but luckily France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Britain took the exiles in. This incident has been called by many “The Voyage of the Damned.” 
 

The St. Louis


Would the United States (or any Western country) be willing to do the same if Putin wanted to dispose of his current scapegoat en masse in the same way? That's the question all citizens of the West need to wrestle with.

 

The answer might not be a resounding yes, even in a time where all forms of pluralism, including sexual, are becoming the norm.

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