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.)

Aleister Crowley

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Aleister Crowley, the man who called himself “The Great Beast 666” and became known in the British press as “the wickedest man in the world,” was an infamous cult leader who founded his own religion dedicated to the mantra, “Do what thou wilt.” After finding the Hermetic Organization of the Golden Dawn lacking in its dedication to the occult (and himself unpopular due to his bisexuality and sexual libertinism), he set out to outdo it, and wrote the first of many texts while in Egypt. His practice turned to a focus on sexual magic (part of his overall philosophy of Magick) and he opened up a house for his disciples that was later seized upon by tabloid journalists. He was also a poet and a skilled (though callous) mountaineer. His popularity spiked in the 1960s after his death, and he even appears on the Beatles’ album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hears Club Band.

A full-length documentary on Crowley, complete with spooky music and handheld camera footage, is available here.

Historiography Saturday: Ardhanarishvara

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Ardhanarishvara, the “totality that lies beyond duality”, is a fusion of the Hindu deities Shiva and his wife Parvati. The full mythology surrounding Ardhanarishvara is vast, stretching through multiple religious texts and several cultures, but there are commonalities among the varying accounts: Shiva and Parvati share one body, with Shiva on the right and Parvati on the left; and their union is meant to symbolize a divine (and healthy) balance of masculinity and femininity. One of the more striking origin stories for Ardhanarishvara comes from Tamil: There was a priest who worshipped Shiva but refused to venerate Parvati, which outraged her. She tried to humiliate him by turning him into a skeleton, but Shiva gave him an extra leg so he could stand and so escaped his humiliation. Shiva and Parvati then fused together, and the priest escaped the dilemma of having two gods in one to worship by turning into a beetle and burrowing into Shiva’s half of the body.

Deities who are in some way androgynous or intersex are common in mythologies worldwide due to the associated symbolism of creation and fertility. Depictions vary broadly, but there are several described in Wikipedia’s page on LGBT themes in mythology as transgender or intersex. However, a god composed of two different people who can join together and split apart at will has very little in common with a contemporary transgender or intersex individual, who is (in addition to being only one person) not always interested in being both male and female. It may be more correct to connect the various myths to specific terms such as “gender fluid” or – in the case of Ardhanarishvara – perhaps “bigender”, or to not attempt to translate them into anything contemporary or even human at all.

Hit

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Hit is a character who makes a brief appearance in the Sunan Abu Dawoodan, an early Islamic religious text. As the hadith goes, the Prophet Muhammad encountered him when he was calling upon his wives. Hit, a mukhannath who was acting as an attendant, made a saucy remark describing the attractive rolls of belly fat one of the wives had on her. Muhammad was outraged that someone whose job required him to have no interest in women could tell what caused men to lust over them, and Hit was subsequently banished from the household.

Considerable debate exists as to whether Hit and other mukhannathun should be viewed as homosexuals, transsexuals, transvestites, or eunuchs. The word itself translates to ‘men who resemble women’, but the definition is too expansive for easy classification. Male pronouns are used for Hit in accordance with the consensus of the linked sources, though the mukhannathun bear a close resemblance to the contemporary category of trans women, and so should arguably be referred to with female pronouns.

No images of Hit were easily available online; the above tapestry depicting an Arab music scene is the closest depiction that could be found, though it has no characters in common (unsurprising, given the prohibition on depictions of Muhammad).

 

Hastiin Tłʼa

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Hastiin Tłʼa (sometimes written as Hosteen Klah) was a master Navajo weaver and medicine man who was instrumental in preserving records of traditional rituals through his contact with anthropologists and pioneering work in translating the sacred art of sandpainting into other media. Although sources seem to disagree on whether he was gay or intersex, Tłʼa fit into the broader category of nádleeh (“one who changes”) and was permitted to learn both weaving (normally for women) and singing (normally for men). He became a master of both, and was invited to host an exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Because of the difficulty he experienced in locating suitable apprentices, Tłʼa took to preserving his chants and sandpainting by integrating the symbols into his weaving and permitting outside observers to draw and paint them, a practice that was – and still is in places – considered heretical. Much of his work is stored with the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, which he helped co-found.

Ānanda

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Ānanda, whose name means ‘bliss’ in Sanskrit, was the cousin and permanent attendant of the Buddha in Buddhist mythology. He was tireless in his efforts and compassionate in his spiritual services; as the story goes, it was at his urging that the Buddha permitted women to become bhikkhunis (monastics). For his exceptional memory and wisdom to process the Buddha’s words, he was known as the Guardian of the Dharma, and his enlightenment came just in time for a conference of monks after the Buddha’s passing.

Accounts of Ānanda’s past lives indicate that he had at one point been a paṇḍaka, a term that encompasses everything from intersex individuals to men who perform fellatio. One story tells of his romance with a cobra king (Nāga): Although their relationship was a happy one, Ānanda was forced to end it because their sexual entanglements were interfering with his spiritual development.

Lee Harrington

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Lee Harrington is one of a rare breed of individuals who manage to make their living entirely from writing and lecturing about kink. He started rolling down the career track as a peer sex educator, later becoming an adult film star and an internationally-known D/s speaker. Authenticity is a prominent theme in his work; here, he discusses the deliberation that predated his surgical transition, including the limitations of the various options and the social pressures both for and against transition, along with a few moments of camera time dedicated to the treatment of femme and gay trans men. He was selected to deliver the keynote address at the 2010 Transcending Boundaries conference, available for viewing here.

Harrington also runs a spiritual practice as a shaman that he links to his BDSM. One of his books, Sacred Kink, compares traditional tools in kink (such as floggers) with their historical religious uses, and offers advice on integrating spirituality and sex.