The mythology of a culture acts as its repository of mores, ethical codes, expectation of roles, and ideas of redemption and success.
Despite our continuously globalizing culture, our tribes still tell stories specific to our identities. These stories are most often woven into various religions or faiths, but of course are part of our more popularly recognizable stories in the form of fairy tales, movies, novels, and TV shows.
Queer folks often feel excluded from the mythology of our world. Few Western/European folktales include variation of gender or sexuality and the gender binary is most often assumed to be a universal and fixed truth. Rarely do we get any variation on these themes. While queer people have undoubtedly inhabited the world since the beginning, looking at the majority of myths, it would appear as though we don’t exist at all.
The occasional story of gender-bending or queerness is nearly always a cautionary tale. In such stories, gender-bending is used as a weapon to trick another, as with Vertumnus and Pomona and same-sex desire is often punished with death. Zeus loved to shape-shift, often so he could get close enough to women to rape them.
Nevertheless, there are some stories out there, that by simply rejecting the traditional gender binary can be called “queer.” Most of these stories involve shape-shifting, a quality that the gods of many cultures possess. Often in these stories, the god will shape-shift to cross genders and “trick” their object of affection into loving them, or to hide from would-be attackers. Such a story is that of Iphis as told by Ovid. Iphis was born to a father who demanded a son. Her mother prayed for her sex to be “hidden” so her father wouldn’t murder her. The Egyptian goddess Isis granted this wish, and Iphis was raised as a boy, though she remained a girl. Eventually, she fell in love with another girl, and was once again visited by Isis who changed her sex so she could marry her beloved. Amazingly, they lived happily ever after.
In the absence of more such queer stories, often the LGBT communities have adopted stories as their own. Gay men have appropriated the Saint Sebastian and Dionysus, while lesbians have found affinity with the Amazons and Artemis. Many in the trans community also appreciate Dionysus because of his penchant for cross-dressing, shape-shifting and finding community among both men and women, depending on his form. Tiresias, too, is considered a patron of sorts for some trans or gender queer people.
Organizations like glaad work hard to ensure that LGBT people are represented fairly in popular culture, because it’s the new repository of our prevailing myths. It’s essential for queers to rewrite the old tropes of homosexuality equaling death and desolation, to represent the mores of our time. I’m doing it with Lunatic Fringe- trying to present women as capable of both deep love and deep violence, in touch with both their humanity and their bestial nature. Other new works attempt to rewrite the old stories so that they can speak directly to queer readers/viewers. Two that stick out for me right now are “Corpus Christi” and “The Mists of Avalon.” What’s your favorite “queering” of a classic story?