Historiography Saturday: Báthory Erzsébet

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Known in English as Elizabeth Bathory, Báthory Erzsébet was a 16th century Hungarian countess who has accrued enough of a legend to merit a separate Wikipedia page for her appearances in popular culture. The allegations agains the “Blood Countess” are difficult to fact-check due to the time lapse and written accounts appearing only a century following her death, but what is certain is that over three hundred witnesses testified at the trial of her alleged accomplices that she had tortured and killed dozens of young women. While the evidence suggests that she did not bathe in virgin blood in an attempt to retain her youth, her practices were clearly sadistic.

One of the many rumors surrounding Báthory was that she engaged in same-sex relationships. (She had male lovers and a husband as well with whom she may have shared letters comparing torture tips.) Along with questions regarding the reliability of fragmented historical evidence, cases such as Báthory’s require thought in how they should be presented. Serial killers capture the popular imagination, and while it is duplicitous to pretend that none have ever been queer (or to suppress mention of queer serial killers), the supposed association between queer people and violence has been a long-employed stereotype with its own awful consequences.

Historiography Saturday: Loki

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Loki, the Norse trickster god, is credited with fathering a panoply of peculiar creatures (including the Midgard Serpent and the wolf Fenrir), but he is also on record as having given birth to one: Sleipnir, Odin’s horse. As the story goes, the gods commissioned a wall to surround their realm of Asgard, and promised an impossible fee to the builder if he completed the project within three months. Thanks to the aid of a powerful stallion the builder’s progress was rapid, and the gods demanded that Loki – who had suggested the stallion in the first place – sabotage the construction. He transformed into a mare and lured the stallion away, delaying the builder – actually a giant in disguise – from completing the project. When Loki returned he brought Sleipnir the colt as a gift to Odin, claiming to have given birth to it.

Although the story of Loki and Sleipnir is included in Wikipedia’s “LGBT themes in mythology” page, it is difficult to discern how it relates to contemporary terminology.Viking same-sex relations were stigmatized for the male receiving partner, adding a possible element of humiliation. While Loki does willingly engage in sex with a stallion, it is in the context of making amends for one of his mistakes, and there are no other direct references in Norse mythology to him sleeping with other male creatures; he does, however, change physical sex on several occasions. At least one prominent modern interpretation views him as bisexual, but – as ever – deities defy easy human categorization.

Hänschen Rilow and Ernst Röbel

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Hänschen Rilow and Ernst Röbel, two characters in Frühlings Erwachen, an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind translated in English as Spring Awakening (or variations, such as The Awakening of Spring), are a same-sex teenage couple who – in a reversal of later conventions – have the most optimistic storyline in the production. Röbel is a mediocre student on the verge of failing his classes; Rilow, the more apt and sexually forward pupil who seduces him. (Rilow may also be read as bisexual given a scene in which he masturbates to an image of a woman.) The final scene in which they appear takes place in a vineyard and concludes with a declaration of love; remarkable, given that two of the other children end up dead and one on the run after breaking out of a reformatory.

For its frank discussion of sexuality Frühlings Erwachen has been repeatedly censored, including an incident in New York where an injunction had to be sought in order to put on a single matinee performance. (Ironically, Frühlings Erwachen was adapted as a Broadway musical in 2006.)

Anthony Perkins

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Anthony Perkins’ role of “Norman Bates” in Psycho (and its sequels) was among the most iconic to come out of thriller director Alfred Hitchcock’s canon and an overwhelming presence in the actor’s life. Perkins had already been a theater actor and won awards for both stage and screen, like the part of a young Quaker man in Friendly Persuasion, a movie President Reagan later offered to Mikhail Gorbachev as a model of conflict resolution. Perkins also had a respectable singing voice, acting in several musicals and releasing three pop albums, though he never managed a career from it.

Perkins’ sexual orientation is subject to some interpretation. Although he allegedly had affairs with a number of male celebrities, he did marry and had at least one encounter with a different woman earlier in his life. He is popularly referred to as both homosexual and bisexual though he never openly called himself either; in fact, he suggested in one interview that psychotherapy had enabled him to have relationships with women.

 

Historiography Saturday: Gladys Bentley

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The tux-wearing, blues-singing, self-described bulldagger known as Gladys Bentley played a somber tune in her recordings but switched out the lyrics to popular melodies at her New York City live performances to make the audience blush (and enrich her flirting with the available ladies). When the Depression hit and prohibition ended, taking with them the popularity of her music and the tolerance for outspoken lesbianism, she found a brief resurgence in the gay bars of San Francisco, but retired to become a minister.

Bentley’s dramatic retirement, marked by an article in Ebony magazine entitled “I Am Woman Again”, was a public departure from both show business and homosexuality. In the context of high-profile McCarthyism witch hunts her decision made sense; looking back it makes for a striking example of how an individual’s insistence on a certain identity is not above questioning. (One possible explanation for her subsequent marriage is that she was attracted to men as well as women, but given her claims to have married a woman in a civil ceremony and her bookings in lesbian bars, heterosexuality seems unlikely, and in a subsequent interview she implied that she was having a relationship with both a man and a woman.)

Bessie Smith

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“The Empress of the Blues,” as Bessie Smith was known among her fans, was among the most popular American performers of the 1920s and 30s. She began her career as a dancer touring with Ma Rainey in minstrel shows, then moved on to creating her own extravagant productions. Smith’s blend of blues and jazz, both slow and swing-tempo, was recorded on nearly 200 recordings, later remastered to correct for the technological limitations of the time. Since her death Smith has received several impressive commendations, including a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and her own postage stamp.

Smith had two husbands over the course of her life, one of which she remained with until her death, but her affairs with women are documented in some detail, indicating that she was likely bisexual.

 

Gertrude Rainey

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Dubbed “The Mother of the Blues,” Rainey (who went by her stage name Ma Rainey) was an early 20th century American vocalist known for her powerful style and showmanship. She began with live shows, touring with her husband “Pa” Rainey, and eventually signed a record deal with Paramount, a company that relied on albums by African-American artists for much of its profit; unfortunately, the company’s records were of poor quality, and did not produce top-quality recordings of Rainey’s voice. Her lyrics, while often featuring brokenhearted women wailing over men, also included seminal lesbian works like “Prove It On Me Blues,” which featured a cover image of a butch woman (identified in the text with Rainey) flirting with two femmes. Between her sapphic stories and arrest after a lesbian orgy, Rainey was one of several blues musicians now considered gay or bisexual.