Friday, 13 April 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays : Part 12) Roman Dykes and Daggers

Previously : 20) Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956) defied male expectations of femininity in sport by winning an Olympic gold medal in 1932, as did 21) Stella Walsh (1911-1980) who hid her intersexuality for her entire life, unlike 22) Favorinus of Avelate (c.85 AD-c.160 AD), a Roman intersexual who escaped the customary fate of being killed at birth, as did the anonymous 23) the Harper Road Woman (living c.50 AD-70 AD).

Whether the 23) Harper Road Woman hid her intersexuality during her lifetime is one of the mysteries that surround her. Her remains were discovered in 1979 by an archaeological team excavating a plot of land in Southwark, south London, just a stone’s throw from the Elephant and Castle tube station.

The woman’s skeleton was found in a wooden coffin with various burial items which indicated that she was of high status. There was a necklace at her feet and a bronze mirror, an object not possessed by lower ranks of Roman society. From the bones of the pelvis archaeologists determined that the skeleton was that of a woman, as would be consistent with the burial objects. It was also suggested that she died between the ages of about 26 and 35. Nearly forty years later DNA analysis revealed another fact about her that was a surprise.

The Harper Road Woman was one of four Roman Britons whose DNA was analysed in 2015 by scientists led by the Museum of London. Samples were taken from the teeth of all four skeletons, which were discovered from various parts of London over the years. We are probably all familiar with the idea that a lot of physical traits are contained with the DNA sequences, so more personal information was obtained for all four.

What surprised the scientists was that the DNA of the Harper Road Woman contained male Y chromosomes. Females typically have XX chromosomes and men have XY chromosomes. The new evidence seemed to indicate that Harper Road Woman may have been either intersex or had a condition similar to androgen insensitivity syndrome, a condition that still causes much controversy in modern sports gender verification processes.

It is known that Roman London was a melting pot of cultures but the revelation that it could also have included gender and sexual diversity adds a new angle to historical research of the period.
The remains of the Harper Road Woman in display at the
Museum of London 2015.
Other information revealed in the Harper Road Woman’s DNA was that she had northern European ancestry. She had dark brown hair and brown eyes, indicating an ancestry that excludes Scandinavia. It is believed that it was her parents who came to London and that Harper Road Woman was a first-generation Londoner, being born in the city and living around 50 AD to 70 AD. This means that she could easily have been a witness to one of the most important events in Roman Britain, the revolt of the Celtic leader Boudicca in 60 AD.

Boudicca is seen as a pioneering example of the power of woman in the ancient world. She was the wife of the chief of the Iceni tribe in modern East Anglia who had accepted Roman supremacy in exchange for peace. However, on his death the Romans took over in full force and had Boudicca flogged and raped her daughters. This spurred her into armed revolt. While the majority of the Roman army was over in Wales Boudicca led successful attacks on the major Roman settlements on Colchester, London and St. Albans. London was burnt to the ground.

The Harper Road Woman was buried south of the Thames outside Roman London so it if difficult for archaeologists to determine if she was laid to rest above or below the recognised destruction layer that marks Boudicca’s burning of the city north of the Thames. Dating evidence only suggests she was buried sometime in the ten years either side of 60 AD.

Boudicca’s reputation as a strong female leader reached its height in the Victorian period. She became a role model for strong female leadership, echoing that of Queen Victoria herself. Ironically, Boudicca would have been a more appropriate role model for the opposition to colonial occupation than for a colonial power.

In the 20th century Boudicca re-emerged as a role model in feminist movements, and her name became associated, wrongly, with the origin of a slang name for a lesbian – dyke.

In 1984 the writer 24) Judy Grahn (b.1940) published “Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds” in which she suggested that the word “dyke”, through it’s earlier form “bull-dyke”, comes directly from colloquial American accent renditions of Boudicca (e.g pronounced as Boa-dyka). Grahn had heard the word “bull-dyke” pronounced as “boa-dyke” and claimed an origin in Boudicca’s name. Linguists don’t support this theory, though it is more than possible that Boudicca could have been used to refer to a strong masculine lesbian.

Grahn also makes the assumption that a strong Celtic woman like Boudicca must have been a lesbian. There’s no evidence of this and Grahn came up with a theory about the worship of bulls and Celtic queen-priestesses for which there is no archaeological, documentary or social evidence.

So, if “bull-dyke” didn’t originate with “Boudicca” where did it come from? It is generally accepted that “bull-dyke” comes from the same origin as “bull-dagger”. They both seemed to have emerged as slang terms for a lesbian in 1920’s America. They were particularly prevalent in the black American culture around Harlem and the Harlem Rennaissance. Their ultimate origins are uncertain. Another writer, 25) SDiane Bogus (b.1946) suggested an origin in the American cattle farms where bulldagger was used to describe a bull who attempts to mate with another bull. It is probable that the contraction “dyke” became more popular than “bull-dyke” very early on. Another derivation that emerged was the term “Queen B”, short for “Queen Bulldagger”. This term was used more specifically to designate a black lesbian.

SDiane Bogus wrote an essay in “lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions” in which she traced the presence of Queen Bs in black literature in the 20th century. Through this essay and other writings SDiane became a leading figure in the study of black lesbianism in American culture. She earned her PhD from Miami University by writing a dissertation on Ann Allen Shockley, the novelist SDiane credits with being the first black lesbian writer to include a modern black lesbian character in American fiction.

As an educator SDiane has written books, essays and papers covering black lesbian history and culture, and was the founder of a New Age feminist publishing company called Woman in the Moon. She published various genres under the Woman in the Moon title, including some of her own poetry.

In 1990 SDiane Bogus published “The Chant of the Women of Magdalena and the Magdalena Chants” which was nominated in the Lesbian Poetry category of the 3rd Lambda Literary Awards. She didn’t win (the winner was Marilyn Hacker’s “Going Back to the River”), but neither did another poet whose ethnicity is major influence of her poetry, 26) Irena Klefisz (b.1941).

Next time : From the Ghetto to Hollywood.

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