Myth and legend refer to narratives important to a community that describe the origins of things, the activities of spiritual beings, and adventures of extraordinary humans. Although myth and legend may not be based on scientific or historical fact, they need not be seen in opposition to science and history. In general, myths explain certain truths, particularly the circumstances in which something becomes the way it is. Legends describe important events, often the exploits of notable people, and tend to be presented within historical contexts. There are various genres of legend in folklore studies, such as historical legends, sacred legends, and contemporary/urban legends.
In many cases, however, there is not a clear line as to what distinguishes a myth from a legend. For LGBTQ folklife, myth and legend serve to legitimize the community and to showcase noteworthy Gay-related ancestors in human history.
Examples of same-sex love and homoeroticism in classical myths of several cultures have been claimed by Gay scholars to indicate the existence of different orientations and a broad spectrum of gender variation worldwide. In particular, the myths of ancient Greeks have been used for centuries by scholars in homophobic Christian societies as code for homoerotic identities and intentions. One outstanding example of a Gay-related myth is the story of Zeus and Ganymede. Zeus, Father of the Gods, was smitten with the beauty of a young Trojan prince named Ganymede. Zeus became an eagle and kidnapped Ganymede, who became Zeus’ cup-bearer and lover. The word catamite, referring to men who are erotically attracted to other men, comes from “Ganymede.”
There is also the Lesbian- and Trans-related Greco-Roman myth of Iphis and Ianthe, which can be found in Metamorphosis by the Roman poet Ovid. Iphis was a Minoan girl who was raised by her mother Telethusa as a boy so the father would not kill his unwanted daughter. Iphis fell in love with another girl, Ianthe. Telethusa and Iphis prayed to the Egyptian Goddess Isis, who turned Iphis into a man so that Iphis and Ianthe could marry.
Another myth of transformation is that of Hermaphroditus, son of Hermes and Aphrodite. Hermaphroditus was a handsome youth who bathed in a pool occupied by a water nymph who desired him. He resisted the nymph’s advances, and she physically bonded with him so that he emerged from the water with male and female sexual characteristics. The term hermaphrodite for a gender-variant/intersex person comes from this myth. There is also the story of the prophet Tiresias, who was both man and woman.
Such myths are not limited to Greece. In Hinduism, gods and goddesses change genders, sexes, and engage in cross-dressing. One particular story concerning a man who came upon the God Shiva and the Goddess Parvati making love in the forest (Shiva had transformed himself into a woman in order to pleasure Parvati) describes how the man was then forced to be a woman for half the year, and a man for the other half. There is another myth that Shiva and Parvati made love so aggressively that they fused into one being, Adhanari, one side female and one side male. The God Vishnu became Mohini, an irresistible enchantress who seduced Shiva, and who became the one-night wife for the tragic hero Aravan, who was sacrificed the next day in order for his fellow to win a great victory. Festivals commemorating the marriage of Aravan and Mohini (and his death the following day) are important events in the sacred calendar of India’s hijra (intersex people and males who dress as women, and if male, traditionally cut off their genitalia).
The wa kahiko (classical Hawaiian) story of Hi’iaka (Patroness of the Hula) and her sister Pele includes Hi’iaka’s same-sex relationship with her mortal lover, Hopoe, who is killed by Pele, the Goddess of Volcanoes, when Pele becomes angry with Hi’iaka.
Cosmic Historical LGBTQ Myth
The contemporary Gay community has only been in existence since the late nineteenth century, and has only been given a degree of legitimacy since the 1970s. Writers and folk historians in the LGBTQ community have been proposing myths of the community that explain same-sex love and gender variation in human history by what could be called cosmic queering, that is, identifying same-sex love and gender diversity as part and parcel of the history of life itself. Examples found in nature among other animals in a multitude of species are reinterpreted as demonstrating rich diversity in the biological spectrum rather than anomalies or aberrations, thus displacing an earlier myth that the cosmic history of biology is strictly male/female, and that sex is only properly understood in terms of procreation.
Goddess spirituality in the feminist-Lesbian community is myth-based, privileging the Divine Feminine as the eternal begetter and supporter of the cosmos. Some readings of human history propose matriarchies prior to the establishment of patriarchies. These matriarchies are imagined as having a woman-centered or gender-equal ethos, unfettered by oppressive misogynist institutions. In history, the unique qualities of Minoan civilization between 2800-1450 BCE have been interpreted as the bases for a woman-centered (or at least egalitarian) political, economic, and religious ethos. The myth of the Amazon women-warriors in classical Greek discourse is likewise treated in this fashion.
A mystical connection between women and land has taken on mythical qualities with the advent of eco-feminism, implying an ancient cosmic relationship with the Earth (personified as Mother Earth) that was disturbed, but not completely eliminated, by patriarchal arrogance and short-sightedness.
Gay male folk scholars have looked at anthropological data concerning feminine men in other cultures, and some have come to the conclusion that such men were a third gender that held great spiritual importance in prehistoric/preliterate societies. Some Trans folk scholars have reached a similar conclusion for transpeople.
The importance of dance and festival among Gay men has led to the myth of intoxicated men dancing together as a phenomenon with roots that go back to the origins of human identity and spirituality. This myth is especially popular with members of the Circuit community, represented in the iconic image of the shirtless, dancing “Circuit boy.”
Some myths are local rather than worldwide. The town of Juchitán in Oaxaca, Mexico has a myth concerning its patron saint, Vicente Ferrer, that explains why there are so many same-sex and gender-variant people in their area. San Vicente was traveling around the world, distributing three kinds of people: men, women, and those who do not fit into either category. When Vicente got to Juchitán, there was a hole in the sack with the third kind of people, and many of them got out. Vicente Ferrer, an historical figure as well as legendary saint in Roman Catholic folklife, thus becomes a mythical worldwide distributor of orientation- and gender/physiology-variant people in Oaxaca, a place that the historical Vicente Ferrer never visited in his lifetime. This particular narrative may have origins in Zapotec folklife that pre-dates the Spanish invasion of Mexico, and Saint Vicente may have taken on the role of an earlier, non-Christian figure.
Myths of the Goddess Bahuchara Mata in India (whose symbol is a cock) describe how hijras came into being. One describes Bahuchara as a woman whose caravan was attacked by rapacious murderers. Rather than surrender to them, she cut off one (or both) of her breasts and offered it (them) to her attackers, who in turn become hijras. A similar myth concerns Bahuchara and a prince with whom she was betrothed (she caught him with another man, he lost his genitalia and served her as a hijra). There is also a story of Muslim soldiers who raided Bahuchara’s temple, some who died because they ate her pet cocks, and others who dedicated themselves as hijras to her out of gratitude that they survived.
Historical LGBTQ Myth
Among the folk narratives of the LGBTQ community, there are some that occur in recent history that nevertheless have the qualities of myth in that they mark important moments in the formation of the community’s identity and ethos.
One of the most important myths with characteristics of legend in the Gay community is that of the Stonewall Uprising. The most common version of the Stonewall myth describes the days of unrest in June 1969 as the result of a united effort among people of diverse orientations and gender identities. As such, narratives of the Stonewall Uprising have become a creation myth for the Gay community, despite evidence that Gay liberation came about as a gradual process in which the accumulation of erotic encounters, romances, festivals, drag shows, brutal attacks, protests against oppression, all generated a collective experience of large-scale community awareness that cannot be narrowed to just one moment in history.
Other iconic moments in Gay history, such as comedian Ellen DeGeneris’ television show in which she came out, or the death of Matthew Shepard after being tortured and hung on a fencepost, have also been mythologized as being defining moments in the formation of Gay identity. Like Stonewall, these moments are legendary as well as mythical.
In the formation of a grand historical narrative, some figures from antiquity have acquired status as LGBTQ legendary figures, such as the sixth-century Greek poet Sappho and the philosopher Socrates. Some legends have been reinterpreted to contain homoerotic content, as the story of Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad. Accounts of the two in classical Greek versions of the Iliad refer to them as kinfolk, with no sexual connotations in their relationship. But later versions of their story in Hellenistic Greek times portray them as lovers.
Some of the most important legendary figures have only gained that status since the eighteenth century CE. The Ladies of Llangollen in Wales (late eighteenth-early nineteenth century) became legendary in their lifetimes and beyond as delightful virgin spinsters who lived together. But some of their contemporaries considered them to be two women in love with each other, and they are currently considered important Lesbian icons. The Biblical story of David and Jonathan has been claimed by the Gay community as well. The homoerotic poetry of Walt Whitman and Fernando Pessoa, often ignored in biographies about them before Stonewall, have made both men into legendary Gay icons.
One urban legend among Gay men describes bug chasers, men who are HIV-negative who actively seek out gift givers, men who are HIV-positive. Bug chasers and gift-givers purportedly throw bug parties, sex parties for the purpose of helping those who do not have AIDS contract it from those who do. The notion of bug parties was debated in the first decade of the twenty-first century, with some sources claiming that such parties were being held across the USA. Most other sources, however, said bug chasing and bug parties were unfounded rumors based on real issues in the Gay male community. These issues include the promotion of barebacking (having anal sex without a condom) as sexually liberating, the tendency for some HIV-negative men with HIV-positive partners to purposely seroconvert as a sign of solidarity, and the reckless behavior of a few disillusioned young people who practiced unsafe sex so they could seroconvert and receive the sympathy and support given to people with AIDS.
Legend and Icon in the Ballroom Scene
The Ballroom community holds contests for the performance of realness (projection of a chosen identity) in the fabulous presentation of self. The Ball scene is a folkway that privileges gender transformation, subversion, and categorical expression in runway competitions. Members of the Ballroom community use the title of legend with reference to competitors who have made their mark on the scene. Even more important than legend is icon.
Conner, Randy, David Hatfield Sparks and Mariya Sparks. Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Lore. London: Cassell, 1997.
Greene, Ellen. Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches. Berkeley: University of California, 1996.
Pattanaik, Devdutt. The Man Who Was a Woman and Other Queer Tales from Hindu Lore. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park, 2002.
Roscoe, Will. Queer Spirits: A Gay Men’s Myth Book. Boston: Beacon, 1995.