Thursday, April 14, 2016

L is for LGBT+ representation

Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! My theme this year is Representation and Diversity in Traditional Stories. I am looking for rare and interesting motifs in folktales, fairy tales, and legends that add variety to the well-known canon.

This post is an updated version of one that I did a year or so ago, so it might be familiar to some readers.

This is probably one of the most timely (and most discussed) topics in the realm of fairy tales and representation - because it is also one of the most underrepresented, especially in Western culture. For ages, LGBT+ identities were not something one could freely talk about, even in the form of story - and a lot of stories that do hint at them do it in outdated, stereotypical, or outright homo- and transphobic ways.

Before I get to the stories I collected for today, I'd like to give a shout out to storyteller Danielle Bellone, who guest blogged here not long ago about the importance of creating new traditions, and new stories, with the use of fairy tale elements.

Let's see some stories that do present a different perspective. In order to find most of them, we have to step outside the realm of fairy tales.

Same-sex love

Aristophanes' tale of love
Probably one of the most famous examples (courtesy of Gabrielle from Xena, who, fittingly so, is returning to us soon in her full lesbian glory, and also this song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch), this Greek story can be found in Plato's Symposium. It talks about how people originally had two faces, four arms, four legs, and two sets of genitalia, until they got split down the middle by the gods - ever since then, everyone has been looking for their other half. The story includes three kinds of "round people" - male/female, female/female and male/male, accounting for same-sex relationships.

Achilles & Patroclos
Never outright stated in the Iliad, but generally accepted by later Greek and Roman authors as a romantic relationship. Definitely a close and special connection, given how their story goes...
(Read more about it here)

Apollo, Zephyros & Hyacinth
Probably the most famous same-sex love triangle of classical mythology, but not one that really ends well for anyone involved.
(Read more about it here)

Nisus & Euryalus
Two Troyan heroes in Virgil's Aeneid who travel together, fight together, and even die together.
(Read about them here)

By the way, there is an entire Wikipedia page devoted to LGBT themes in Classical mythology.

Sex/Gender change

The Warrior Girl
This Spanish Gypsy folktale elegantly points out what happens when someone wants to decide someone else's gender based on what they wear, or what their interests are. It is quite entertaining.
(I blogged about it in detail here)

The girl who became a man
This is not one folktale, but an entire folktale type (numbered as ATU 514 - The Shift of Sex). It can be found in various cultures, including Hungarian, Norwegian, Albanian, Ossetian, and Portuguese. The basic story tells about a princess that sets out to war disguised as a man, rises to a high rank, lives as a man, marries another princess, and in the end, by a blessing or by a curse (depending on the variant), physically transforms into a man as well. Some variants are more sensitive to the topic than others. My favorite is the Ossetian one.
(Read the full Hungarian version in English here, and my blog about the Ossetian version here)

A story from Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book 9.666-797) in which a girl is raised as a boy to deceive her strict father. She falls in love with and gets engaged by her father to a girl who loves her back, thinking that she is a boy. The day before the wedding Iphis prays to the goddess Isis to grant her a wish for change, and the goddess turns her into a man, after which he happily marries the girl he loves.

The princess and the demon
This one is another favorite of mine, from India. Starts out similarly then Iphis, except in this version the prince(ss) meets a tree spirit/demon on the way to the wedding, and agrees to exchange sexes with him for a year. At the end of the year he returns to the site of the deal, and finds the tree spirit happily married and pregnant. They both agree they like their new sex better, and stay that way.
(Read the story in this book)

Another Greek classic. Remember the old blind prophet from the Odyssey? Well, according to legend, he spent seven years as a woman, in some versions of the story as a sacred prostitute in Corinth, while according to others as a wife and a mother. After seven years the spell got reversed, and Tiresias was a man again. This ties into him being blind: Apparently Hera blinded him after he was called on to decide a debate between Zeus and her about who enjoys sex more, men or women. Tiresias said women enjoy sex NINE times more (suspiciously accurate number), and was blinded by the goddess and given the gift of prophecy by Zeus as a consolation prize.
(Read about Tiresias here)

Another story from Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is a Greek myth about a girl that is "ravaged" by Poseidon, who then offers to reward her with a wish (how generous) (Poseidon's an asshole). Caenis asks to be turned into a man so she can never feel helpless again. This story speaks more to gender difference and sexism, but it is interesting to note that Caeneus then goes on to be a hero among the Greeks and the father of an Argonaut.
(Read the text here)

You can also read about LGBT themes in various mythologies here.

Are there any other stories that I should definitely add to this list?


  1. Zeus and Ganymede. Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

    1. I was thinking about Zeus and Ganymede, but I was not very big on including paederasty...

    2. Apparently, it was considered quite acceptable in Ancient Greece. And Greek gods could do what they wanted - and did! -)

      Besides, he had a job on Olympus, as cupbearer.

    3. It was acceptable, but for modern day representation, a lot less so. Even later Greek authors presented it as rape and kidnapping...

  2. Oh, and Narcissus and himself. :-) He falls in love with what he thinks is a beautiful boy in the lake.

  3. I wish I knew more to mention, but I don't. Great list, wish it was longer. I wonder how many stories have been lost over time because of new prejudices.
    Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

  4. I don't think I know any of those stories, except Achilles and Patroclos.

  5. Very interesting. never really thought about it before, but not surprised that there are some out there.

    Finding Eliza

  6. Isn't it interesting how this isn't a new concept?

  7. I think the concept of non-traditional love has been mythologized in most cultures as a way of explanation and integration. These are beautiful stories and I hope they will survive.

    Meet My Imaginary Friends

  8. I love the Plato story about how there were once three races of people, according to their sexual orientation. There are also a lot of Hindu deities who switch sex at various times, or manifest as both sexes at once.

    Tiresias will be the male T name on my names blog this year!

  9. With the taboos of years gone by, I'm surprised you found so many examples of this type of tale.

  10. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of the tale and I don'thave book with me right now(I'll update this when I get it back), but I actually know a story that features an asexual female protagonist.

    One of Schoenwerth's fairy tales is about a girl whose godmother is the Virgin Mary. Mary blesses her with healing powers. The girl gets treated cruelly by her stepmother, runs awayand lives with an old woman who she keeps house for. She has many suitors, but doesn't feel attracted to any man, so she turns them down one after another. She is quite distraught about this, because she feels guilty about breaking so many hearts. When she prays to Mary about her sorrows her godmother descends from heaven and tells her that it is absolutely ok that she can't fall in love, because she has another purpose in live. Virgin Mary then creates a hospital out of thin air where the girl begins to work and over the course of her life she helps many people.

    On the one hand this can be seen as problematic, because it implis that a woman can only have job/purpose in life other than having children if she doesn't marry, but I still find it nice to see asexuality presented as not a curse, but a blessing, in a Christian context nontheless.

  11. It's an interesting debate about Achilles in the Illiad.

    Joy @ The Joyous Living

  12. Well, not fairy tales off the top of my head, but if someone was telling Shakespeare stories, there is a lot of Gender switching (women dressed as men) throughout.


  13. J here, of the #atozchallenge Arlee Bird's A to Z Ambassador Team.
    How has the challenge been going for you so far? Are you meeting your goals of posting and hopping to other blogs? M= 1/2 way point!
    My blog's giveaway is still going! I'm encouraging everyone to visit more stops.
    Excellent job with this! Nice work tracking those down.

  14. Maybe it's just me, but I feel like this kind of stories, where gender become blurred or swaps, is quite common in ancient stories. Sometimes I hav ethe feeling this is more of a problematic matter for us then it used to be for them.

    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

  15. The other transgender character i can think of is 'Shikhandi' the man woman from the Mahabhrata epic.
    According to legend Bheesma the great warrior possessed a boon that he could be killed neither by a woman nor by a man. Shikhandi who was spurned by Bheeshma in her previous birth changes gender and stands in the chariot of Arjuna. Standing behind Shikhandi, Arjuna kills his own ancestor Bheeshma with his bow and arrow.
    Just another respresentation of LGBT in the EPIC.