Holiday Issue: ‘Mythologies’

Published in: November-December 2020 issue.


BY “MYTHOLOGIES” I mean something like what Roland Barthes had in mind in his book by that name: not myths in the sense of tall tales but something closer to metaphors or theories used to explain natural or social phenomena. Modern mythologies tend to be wrapped in a patina of science, or perhaps pseudo-science, as various accounts arise to explain, say, homosexuality or gender variance. It goes without saying that past ages and cultures have understood these phenomena in diverse ways, as the articles in this issue, which are arranged chronologically, will attest.

            The quest to explain sex and gender variation arose in the mid- to late 19th century, which is when the term “homosexuality” itself was coined and sexuality came to be seen as a proper subject of study. We begin in this era with a piece by Vernon Rosario that explores three case studies of prominent women who rejected their assigned sex roles and succeeded, more or less, in carving out their own gender space at a time when our concept of trans identity didn’t exist.

            Moving into the early 20th century, Rebecca Batley profiles two scientists, Martha Eliot and Ethel Dunham, who were partners in life as well as in their research and clinical practice, which helped to revolutionize public health in the U.S. They were viewed as “accidents of nature” who, as per the fashionable “Inversion Theory” of the day, were seen essentially as people with a male brain trapped inside a female body.

            From there we land on the year 1941, when a book titled Sexual Variants was published. Its author was George W. Henry, but Brian Fehler shows that its findings were based on research conducted by Jan Gay, née Helen Reitman, a student of Magnus Hirschfeld who conducted 300 interviews with lesbians and gay men and concluded—as Henry’s book announced to the world—that such people are “not uncommon” and flourish in all walks of life.

            Fast forward to French writer-photographer Hervé Gui-bert—a photo by him appears on this issue’s cover—a post-Stonewall figure who was a close friend of Michel Foucault. Guibert embraced the latter’s claim that homosexuality is a social construction and thus itself a “mythology” of sorts—it gets a little meta here—and created characters who explicitly reject society’s categories and invent whole new sexualities involving hitherto unheard-of fantasies and possibilities.

            A contrasting approach is taken up by Brian Gleason, who sees not arbitrary social constructs but instead an essential continuity—a gay “archetype”—running through human societies past and present. It’s a theory that Harry Hay advanced early on in the LGBT movement and is no doubt controversial today, though not without some support, as Gleason notes, from research that finds a pattern of same-sex orientation not only in human cultures but in many other species as well.