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Hay studies ancient history, finds pride

Lavender & red, part 42

Published Jul 14, 2005 12:45 AM

Harry Hay’s broad study of same-sex love throughout the changing history of the organization of human society and the method of his approach are achievements in themselves. He also made some important contributions of thought.

Hay talked about his discovery that “Within this matriarchal village structure, we find a new type of household, a separate household consisting of either one or two men. This household is called, anthropologically, the Berdache, or Bardache, a word applied to this phenomenon by 16th-century French and Spanish explorers.”

The word Berdache, when applied to Native peoples on this continent by European colonialists, was used as a pejorative. It also lumped together diverse forms of social expression in disparate Native nations. In the decades since Hay made his study, Native peoples have made definitive and landmark reclamations of their own histories. Gay American Indians, for example, published “Living the Spirit” in 1988, which documented alternative sex/gender roles in more than 135 Native nations in the Americas, as well as the language used to describe them.

Today, the term Berdache has been rejected; Two-Spirit is the language that many Native people have chosen instead to describe those with diverse gender expression, sexualities and sexes. Out of deep respect for Native nations, therefore, the word Berdache is used here only when Hay refers to his observations about European traditions.

Developing a division of labor

Hay speculated that Two-Spirit people, in contrast to the family households, had “no old ones or young ones to care for” and “could provide for their own needs in one-quarter of the time spent by the rest of the village. …

“In many cultures of Asia, Africa and South America, [Two-Spirits] carried the responsibility as the medicine-men, or shamans, of their village cultures. In medieval Europe, Donald Webster Cory reports that homosexuals were known as ‘witch-men.’”

Hay drew the conclusion that, freed from the primary division of labor between females and males, a new work sphere developed. Two-Spirit people, he said, began to record social history and patterns of agricultural knowledge and taught new generations. began to make signs and designs to record the ritual festivals of dance, which were nothing more than the necessary natural imitations by which wind, rain, heat, and cold were summoned—which everyone must know and be able to perform if nature were to respond.”

Hay surmises “Thus, in the [Two-Spirit] we see arise the great social division of labor which becomes the groundwork of industry as we know it today—the artisan and the cultural craftsman.”

Hay theorized, “Thus, in America, Asia, Africa and Europe the [Two-Spirit] was not only the initiator of arts and crafts as specialties, but he begins to prepare the organization of teaching through design, story-telling, singing and organizing the practice of ritual—of these women’s prerogatives and inventions—but also cultural patterns for which the women never had quite enough time. But this development of community tools and weapons, as a craft specialty of the [Two-Spirit], gives the men, in their leisure time from hunting, an opportunity to develop a new food-producing technique—the capture and domestication of animals.”

Editor Will Roscoe, who has himself made contributions to research about Two-Spirit people on this continent, notes that “In the ethnographic literature, the role of Two-Spirits as specialists in arts and crafts is constantly stressed.” But no other historian or anthropologist had made this link with economic specialization.

‘Priests’ or priestesses?

Hay explored the role of the Berdache in early slave and later feudal societies in Europe. He saw the remnants of the division of labor from pre-class society in the prominence of cross-dressed individuals in festival traditions that endured throughout European feudalism.

“Games and festival, in this social relation of ritual agriculture—equally true in the European feudal villages—were not times of fun and recreation. Rather, they were very serious and vitally important sociopolitical necessities through which everybody practiced and rehearsed, by formulas recorded in work-dance songs, the calisthenics of labor-patterns that would be needed in the coming season.”

Hay tried to connect the “administrative role” of the Berdache in pre-class European soci eties with the fact that in villages in Cro atia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Thracia “the mayors were men who were married to other men.”

And he inferred that with the development of class society, when science and religion split into irreconcilable opposites, the role of Two-Spirit people as “priests” in pre-class societies led to what he called the “State Berdache” or “state priest craft”—the religious institutions and church clergy that worked with ruling powers and maintained a hold over agricultural knowledge.

“It must be conceded that under State Berdache, as under its original form of tribal priestcraft, there was a percentage of recruits that were not Homosexually inclined,” Hay noted.

What? Here’s cause for pause.

Hay used the term Berdache as synonymous with homosexual men. But historical evidence suggests that Hay, in reality, was looking at much more complex and varying sex/gender and sexuality roles throughout history.

It might be more accurate to refer, not to gay male “priests,” but to a tradition that more resembles what would today be described as transsexuality.

Roman historian Plutarch described the “Great Mother”—worshipped by pre-class societies throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa, western Asia and Europe—as an intersexual deity.

The Great Mother’s priestesses were born male-bodied and were inducted through ancient and sacred rituals that included castration. This is documented in Mesopotamian temple records from the middle of the third millennium B.C.E., and also in Assyrian, Akkadian and Babylonian records.

These ancient rituals demonstrated an understanding of surgical technique. Folk medicine, before the advent of Western medicine, also recorded ancient knowledge of herbal, root and floral properties. Did these ancestors also have the hormonal knowledge to aid in “sex reassignment”?

More than 2,100 years ago, the poet Ovid, exiled to a colony bordering the Scythian steppe, wrote about the priestesses there. Referring to them as witches, he wrote that they knew “how to extract that stuff from a mare in heat.”

The hormone estrogen is distilled from the urine of pregnant mares.

Ovid repeated in the poem “On Facial Treatment for Ladies”: “Put no faith in herbals and potions, abjure the deadly stuff distilled by a mare in heat.” (Timothy Taylor, “The Prehistory of Sex”)

Les Mattachine

Hay also delved into research about
the societies or guilds of “fools” in Renaissance France.

Enid Welsford in her 1935 classic “The Fool: His Social and Literary History,” explained, “Always masked in public, the members of this society, through their plays, or sotties, gave voices to the people’s complaints against both Church and king. … Not even the highest dignitaries in the country escape their satire.”

Their politically barbed performances were outlawed in 1547.

Will Roscoe noted that during the medieval Feast of Fools celebrated by the lower clergy throughout Europe and England, “All sanctity towards religion and authority was suspended. The mass was burlesqued, asses were led into the church, and priests and clerks wore masks, danced in the choir, and dressed as women.”

He continued, “Another Fool tradition, perhaps even older, was represented by the folk dance known in France as Les Bouffons or Les Mattachines. … Some form of this dance appears to have been known throughout Europe—as the Matachin in Spain, the Mattacino in Italy, and the Moresca elsewhere.”

Roscoe added, “The literature on European folk traditions provides many examples of the Fool dressed as a woman or in both male and female clothes, of cross-dressing by men and women during the Feast of Fools, and even cross-dressed Mattachine/Sword dancers. In this capacity, the Fool served as a deputy of pre-Christian goddess figures, a practice Hay traces back to the Berdache priesthoods of the ancient societies of the Near East.”

This is what Hay drew from his study of the medieval Feast of Fools tradition: “Thus the pyrrhic mime of Les Mattachine portrayed in vivid drama, for all to understand and take courage from, the ancient imitative ritual of initiation made military and political—that the lowly and oppressed would rise again from their despair and bondage by the strength of their own faith and their own self-created dignity.

‘Take a leaf from history’

The early Mattachine founders discussed holding a “Feast of Fools” dance as an educational component of organizing a homosexual movement. (“The Trouble with Harry Hay”)

They were trying to bring a historical understanding of homophile oppression that would lift individuals out of guilt, shame and fear and help instill them with pride. Hay urged those who attended Mattachine discussions to “take a leaf from their long and productive history. They can learn to realize in all previous economies where the Berdache was an accepted institution, it was so because the Berdache, like the Albanian Berdache mayors, having no household and children to care for, could devote most of their time—aside from filling their own two bellies—with the social, economic and educational needs of their communities generally.”

The Mattachine founders, all influenced by a Marxist economic view, saw the modern heterosexual nuclear family as the “established vehicle for the outlet of social impulses” that enforced a “socially predetermined pattern” for human relationships. Being raised in these patriarchal nuclear families, they emphasized, molded women and men to believe that this model of social roles was “natural”—a prescribed role “which equates male, masculine, man ONLY with husband and Father and which equates female, feminine, woman ONLY with wife and Mother.” (“Making Trouble”)

Homophiles, they argued, “did not fit the patterns of heterosexual love, marriage and children upon which the dominant culture rests.” Excluded from this economic and social unit under capitalism, homophiles found themselves “an enclave within society … an undesirable and despicable group worthy only of ridicule and rebuke.”

Hay invited further study, and that is just what is still needed today. Of course, many LGBT couples now are parents or are an integral part of extended families—related through patrilineal bloodlines or chosen through love. Others are in polygamous formations.

But the early Mattachine founders were trying to reveal a deeper institutionalized mechanism for oppression in a patriarchal class-divided society. Historian John D’Emilio explained further that the Mattachine leaders understood that “Exploitation and oppression came not from simple prejudice or misinformation, but from deeply embedded structural relationships. … This led them to reject a narrowly pragmatic approach to the problems of the homosexual, one that focused only on a set of reform goals, and instead pushed them to seek a theoretical explanation of the sources of the homosexual’s inferior status. (“Making Trouble”)

The first task of this emancipation movement, D’Emilio wrote, “was to challenge the internalization of that ideology by homosexuals, to develop among the gay population a consciousness of itself as an oppressed minority. Out of that conscious ness homosexuals could then evolve a ‘highly ethical homosexual culture and lead well-adjusted, wholesome and socially productive lives.’ And, from the cohesiveness that such a process could stimulate, the founders expected to forge, in time, a unified movement of homosexuals ready to fight against their oppression.”

These communist leaders “held the Marxist view that capitalism required the oppression of minorities. They believed that homosexuals had to organize so they could explore their sexuality, become aware of how it equipped them to contribute to a more humane society, and prepare to join with other organized minorities in the struggle to replace capitalism with socialism.” (“The Politics of Homosexuality”)

Jim Kepner, a Mattachine leader, summed up, “[T]here was really the feeling that for thousands of years we’d been secret and hiding and alone. Now we were on the march and were convinced of the idea, ‘We’ll solve this problem within a few years!’”

Next: Mattachine takes up fight against police brutality.