The body is situated in multiple modes of perception and experience: physical existence as a living organism; social position as dictated by concepts such as age, race, and status; orientation when responding to the impulse of desire; and the ways in which an individual may inscribe meaning onto skin, hairstyle, clothing, and other bodily ornament.
In Gay folklife, the body is a performance frame of possibilities: homoerotic, diversely gendered, humorous, ill, tortured, spectacular, and spiritually transcendent.
The Gendered and Sexualized Body Portrayed in History
The human body was gendered in different ways in classical societies. In Egypt, for example, men were shown as red or dark-skinned (usually with chests uncovered), and women were depicted as light-skinned (covered from neck to ankles), symbolizing the role of men in outdoor activities and women indoors within the home.
Ancient Greeks typically depicted men and gods without clothes and muscular to show their arête (excellence, epitomized in Doryphoros or Spear Carrier) rather than erotic, and the Romans did so as well.
Women and goddesses were shown clothed and with less muscle, but rarely was anyone, male or female, noticeably over- or underweight. As Greek culture spread with Hellenization, new freedom of expression allowed for women to be shown without clothes (although one of the most beautiful feminine bodies in Hellenistic sculpture is The Dancer, an image of a body almost completely covered in cloth) and bodies that were not physically fit, including elderly and disabled people.
It was important in ancient societies for the body to be gendered in certain ways. The sports-loving ancient Greeks associated the muscular male body and physically fit female body with intellectual and spiritual excellence. Egyptians, however, associated the pharaohs with wealth as well as strength. Depictions showed their rulers as physically fit (as in Senusret) but sometimes with a bit of fat around the belly instead of clearly defined abdominal muscles (Menkaure).
Male Egyptian gods were usually not overly muscular, perhaps because too much muscle on a man was a sign of a laborer.
Pre-Contact Hawaiian sculpture of male and female akua (deities) usually depicts them with sturdy legs and upper bodies and large expressive faces. Gender differentiation is present, but it is not an overly emphasized feature of akua iconography.
Hawaiian culture placed high value on the genitalia (ma‘i) of the highest ali‘i (ruling class). songs and dances called mele ma‘i and hula ma‘i were done in praise of penises and vaginas, as well as the erotic skill of their ali‘i, in hopes that the rulers would successfully produce offspring. The verses praising genitals use kaona (hidden meanings) often concerning natural things such as flowers, cliffs, birds, rain, and mist.
One of the most cherished relics from the days of the Hawaiian monarchy is the yellow pa‘u (skirt) of Nahi‘ena‘ena, daughter of Kamehameha I and his sacred wife, Keopuolani. Made of over a million feathers from mostly o‘o and mamo birds now extinct, the pa‘u represented the value the Kanaka Maoli (Hawaiian people) placed on Nahi‘ena‘ena’s ma‘i as the source for the next generation of heavenly rulers. Nahi‘ena‘ena died three months after giving birth to her only child, who had died within hours. The infant was thought to be the sacred offspring of a sexual union with her brother Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III). Her bright yellow pa‘u (approximately twenty feet by two and a half feet) was cut in half, then sewn together to form a ten by five feet rectangle and used in funerals of monarchs. The pa‘u is housed in the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
CLassical societies around the world produced images of naked bodies and disembodied genitalia, with much of the work having religious significance. Greeks and Romans produced images with huge erect penises to signify Priapus, God of Erections, or to signify the beastly nature of humanity in human/half goat satyrs. Other than exposed breasts for women in Hellenistic sculpture, however, there was profound reluctance to show an uncovered vagina even on a nude statue, such as Venus de Milo.
Large, disembodied erections were made in Meso-America, and there are images of the goddess Tlazolteotl with legs open and a baby emerging from her vagina as she gives birth.
Peruvian Moche pottery includes men with massive erections, women exposing their vaginas, and couples having sex. Hawaiian images (ki’i) feature feminine akua with breasts somewhat different from their masculine counterparts. Surviving akua might not have genitalia (it was common for missionaries and Christianized Hawaiians to remove the genitalia from the few images they did not simply destroy outright), and masculine akua could also be dressed in a malo (loincloth).
Iconography of Buddhist and Shinto images in Japan did not include portrayal of the unclothed body. But there are centuries-old Shinto shrines in Japan dedicated to large disembodied erections, and at least one temple, Oogata Shrine in Inuyama City, dedicated to vagina and an annual celebration, Ososo Matsuri (“Vagina Festival”) on the second Sunday in March.
In India, Jaina saviors known as tirthankaras are shown as naked men (with the possible exception of one savior, Mallinath, seen by some Jains as a woman). Their nakedness symbolizes renunciation of the world rather than erotic intent.
In Tantric Buddhism of Northern India/Himalaya, Green Tara and White Tara are voluptuous women representing the beauty of enlightenment.
In Hinduism, bodies are sometimes color coded (blue for the Savior-Hero Krishna and the yogi-god Shiva, black or blue for the demon-goddess Kali, light skin for warrior-goddess Durga and Divine Wife Parvati). Devis (goddesses) are usually shown as beautiful and even erotically appealing,
while devas (gods) are almost feminine in their features and not extensively muscular.
One exception is Hanuman, the manly monkey-king, who has mixed features of monkey and human, and is often portrayed as muscular.
Sexualized spirituality is reflected in Tantric imagery of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Shiva in Hinduism is represented by a stylized phallus (lingam) sitting on top of a stylized vagina (yoni).
Tantric Buddhist depictions of the Buddha may show him meditating naked while being straddled by a naked woman.
The Trans/Intersex Body in History
Depictions of bodies as trans/intersex can be found throughout the ancient Eurasian-North African world. Hatshepsut, the woman-king of Egypt, had herself depicted with masculine traits and even with the body of a man to emphasize the point that she should be accorded the respect due to a pharaoh, but not because she was a man trapped in a woman’s body.
Hindus in India made images of Ardhanari, male on one side and female on the other, representing the fusion of the god Shiva with the goddess Parvati. The Buddha and other male Buddhist spiritual beings were often shown as androgynous, mixing features associated with male and female. One Buddhist bodhisattva (a being who renounces Nirvana in order to help those who suffer) called Avalokiteshvara went from being male in India to female in China, where she is known as Kuan Yin.
A notable example of an intersex person is the full-sized statue of Hermaphroditus, child of Hermes and Aphrodite, that was made during the Hellenistic age, with breasts of a woman and genitalia of a man.
Counselors to the Mesopotamian kings were sometimes eunuchs, men who in some societies dressed as women. These counselors are in depictions of Mesopotamian kings accompanied by men in women’s garb. Eunuchs were common in many classical societies, and even into the twentieth century in the Ottoman Empire and in the Chinese Imperial Court before the Communist Revolution. It was not unusual for eunuchs to be wealthy, powerful, and trusted companions to the sovereign, since they could not father a competing dynasty.
In India, the hijra community is traditionally made up of intersex people and men who cut off their genitals, dress as women, and become devotees to the goddess Bahuchara.
There is also the tradition of sworn virgins in the Balkans, where women will take the role of men in their families, dress as men, and enter the company of men as their peers.
Some women gendered their bodies as masculine by dressing as men in order not to be discovered as women when they did things that only men were allowed to do, such as fight in wars. Although it would be difficult to classify these women as fitting squarely into identities associated with the contemporary LGBTQ community, there are nevertheless examples of women that suggest the possibility, such as Woman Chief of the Native American Crow Nation who (gendered as a man while recognized as female) hunted, fought in battle, sat in council with the men, and married four women.
Bodies Engaging in Same-Sex Acts
Depictions of same-sex acts between men have been found from ancient Greece, pre-contact Mesoamerica, and medieval Persia, China, and Japan. There are temples in India, such as those in Khajuraho and Konark, which have carvings of people having sex, sometimes as couples, sometimes more than two, women with men, women with women, and men with men.
Peruvian Moche (100-800 CE) huacos eroticos (erotic pottery) also show couples engaged in sex acts, including male couples.
Gay Folklife: The Body as Spectacle
One of the characteristics of LGBTQ folk representations is the use of the body as a palette on which to blend or contrast gender and biological sex, and as a means to titillate sexually.
In one of the earliest recorded instances of Gay community, the molly houses of England would feature men in women’s clothing for festive occasions, and re-imagine the male body as capable of giving birth in humorous lying-in performances. In the public sphere, effeminate homosexual men called dandies and fops in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries presented themselves in public in meticulously prepared outfits, displaying themselves as ultra-sophisticated trend-setters.
There was also fascination with Gay males in certain iconographic figures taken from Greek mythology and sensual Roman Catholic saint portraiture during the Renaissance (and for centuries after) that was heavily influenced by Hellenistic sculpture. Images of Ganymede, Zeus’ cupbearer and perpetually handsome young man, were associated with male homosexuality,
as were images of Saint Sebastian portrayed as clean-shaven (like Ganymede), bound, nearly naked, and pierced with arrows. Images of a handsome, near-naked, and physically fit Jesus on the Cross or from the tomb appear not to be so commonly associated with male homosexuality, however.
The rise of physical culture (bodybuilding) in the nineteenth century promoted the display of the muscular male body as an aesthetic, hygienic, and morally pure art form. Basing its ethos on that of the ancient Greeks, but with complete erasure of Greek same-sex love (at least officially), physical culture led to the creation of magazines with near-naked men, which in turn became popular with homosexual men to the point where shipping and receiving the magazines was considered a potentially criminal offence.
By the early twentieth century, pansy shows, drag balls (for spectacular display of the body in drag), and cabaret entertainment featuring cross-dressers of both sexes singing and telling jokes became popular in the USA, only to be shut down by the 1930s. But drag performances would go underground and return in the 1950s in major American cities.
Stonewall and Festival Folklife
Enforcement of the properly gendered body was severe enough that early homosexual civil rights groups insisted their members dress according to societal norms as to avoid police raids and public censure.
The 1969 Stonewall Uprising changed the dynamic significantly, with protestors putting their bodies in harm’s way against the police, sometimes doing so in drag. The public nature of Stonewall would be commemorated each year in Pride celebrations held in major cities across the globe.
The awakening of consciousness that came with Stonewall also brought about the need for Gay people to relate to each other in their own spaces. Women began to gather in groups to meet prospective lovers and work together for their rights. Men did the same, but in addition began constructing for themselves nightclubs for dancing and the display of the shirtless male torso in venues with lights, sound systems, and special music tailored specifically for that purpose. From the nightclubs would come the Circuit, large-scale weekend-long dance parties for Gay men and their allies. Women would take their festive folklife outdoors for music festivals such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a venue where women feel free to display their bodies in any number of ways, including nude.
The Leather community celebrates sado-masochistic sex, and leather and chrome outfits, in their own festivals and contests called Leather runs, and captured in drawings and photographs by artists like Tom of Finland and Robert Mapplethorpe. Bears (men who celebrate being hefty and hairy) do the same with Bear runs since the 1980s.
One important embodied image reclaimed in the late twentieth century from the 1940s was Rosie the Riveter, an iconic female worker shown flexing her bicep, who represented women working in heavy industry as part of the war effort during World War II. Rosie was later reinterpreted as a feminist and Lesbian icon.
AIDS, Breast Cancer, and Trans/Intersex Healthways
The Gay community hit a major crisis when AIDS began to kill hundreds of thousands of Gay men and transwomen (as well as Lesbians, Bisexuals, transmen, Intersex, Straight people, all the other groups who were not given the same visibility), and the disease was blamed on Gay men by homophobic critics as a punishment from God. The slow and terrible disabling of the body as the immune system broke down was in stark contrast to the ideal sexualized male body seen in the homoerotic pictures of Tom of Finland.
The community rallied around the sick, changing the perception of the ill body from God-cursed to fellow-human-in-need. Straight leaders such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta helped change the attitude toward the sick from disdain to compassion. The AIDS Quilt, made up of 3’X6’ panels symbolizing a shroud the size of a grave, and sewn together into 12’X12’ blocks, became a visible and public representation of many who had died from the plague.
In the Gay male community, the use of marijuana to reduce suffering, increase appetite, and prevent AIDS wasting syndrome, as well as increasingly available steroids from the bodybuilding community, helped bring back at least the appearance of the healthy, even excellent body for some Gay men living with AIDS.
With an ethos that tends to be LGBTQ-supportive and women-first as well as Lesbian-first, the Lesbian community has not only supported those stricken with AIDS, but also helped promote campaigns against breast cancer (a disease that kills women and leaves survivors feeling disfigured if part or all of their mammary glands are removed) and cervical cancer. Breast cancer has been shown to be statistically greater for Lesbians than for Straight women.
The Trans community has been supportive of AIDS relief, and has been working to expand research and treatments for gender reassignment, as well as health issues that arise afterward. The Intersex community has been raising awareness concerning the practice of gender assignment before puberty. As with the Trans community, there is concern over health issues, both physical and mental, after genital surgery.
Since Stonewall, the Gay male community has dealt with overt and obnoxious body fascism, the often-brutal ranking of men and women according to their physical beauty. For men, the focus tends to be the torso. Although body fascism can be found throughout humanity in various forms, the blatancy of it in the Circuit has led critics to condemn Circuit parties as venues for insufferable arrogance, unsafe sex leading to AIDS seroconversion, and unregulated drug abuse.
Not much has been done to lessen body fascism, perhaps because it is tied so closely to aesthetic appreciation of excellence and is difficult to pinpoint exactly where effective changes can be made. In the material culture of the Circuit during the first couple of years of the twenty-first century, posters and flyers of some of the major parties (Chicago Fireball, Miami Winter Party, Montreal Black and Blue) used a variety of models with different body types to emphasize the parties were not just for well-built men. But the recession that began about 2003 drove down the numbers of participants, and for the most part, advertisements returned to the iconic muscular male torso once more.
In terms of body fascism among Lesbians, the popular show The L Word featured beautiful and physically-fit women in the leading roles of Lesbian and Bisexual women. Xena, Warrior Princess was a television show with beautiful women as the star (Xena) and co-star (Gabrielle) characters, both of whom became Lesbian icons. Lack of average or overweight bodies in major characters suggests a dynamic similar to (although perhaps less blatant than) body fascism in the Gay male community.
The burlesque movement and drag kings as Lesbian entertainment tend to minimize body fascism on stage. Burlesque dancers range from slender to Rubinesque, and drag kings (appearing fully dressed and in many shapes and sizes) glamorize the gendered body in ways that do not necessarily privilege physical perfection as expressed in muscle magazines or erotic depictions of women in publications such as Playboy.
The Trans Body, Intersex Body in Collective LGBTQ Identity
Recognizing that the Trans community is not identical to, but intersects with, the collective of Gay men, Lesbians, and Bisexuals, the Gay community has been increasingly accepting of transpeople in its ranks. The Trans community, however, must constantly remind the general public that transpeople may or may not identify with being Gay. Pre-operative and post-operative transfolks may feel that they are heterosexual, that is, they are not sexually attracted to the sex/gender with which they identify, regardless of how their bodies look.
Intersex people are included in the spectra of identities, and may be marked by the addition of the letter I in the multi-identity acronym (for example, LGBTIQ).
Intersex people may not identify with Gay or Trans, however. For many of them, their bodies were judged while still in infancy as being sexually ambiguous in a detrimental way. They may have been forced to undergo surgery to fit them into the expectations of one gender in the belief that perceived gender determines sexual identity. In other words, if a sexually-ambiguous male is surgically reconfigured to look like a female and no one else knows about it, that child will grow up as a female with no residual problems.
This principle, however, has been severely undermined by the lived experience of Intersex individuals, and has been strongly criticized by members of the Intersex community. In addition to taking away a person’s ability to determine self-identity with regards to sex and gender, such surgery also tends to drastically reduce sexual sensory input if a penis is deemed too short and removed, or if a clitoris is judged to big and is reduced.
The intersex body is situated in the middle of social anxieties concerning masculinity, femininity, sexuality, homophobia, shame, and individual rights of self-determination. As such, it is an important site for subverting legal prohibitions concerning gender and homosexuality. But every intersex body belongs to a human being with feelings and personal concerns for privacy and respect, so the Gay community is learning how to include Intersex people if they so choose, but on their own terms.
Disabled/Differently Abled Bodies
Those with disabilities and atypical abilities in the Gay community tend to take on distinct folkways when the differences between them and the typically abled affect their ability to establish friendships and find romance. There are LGBTQ groups dedicated to building community for differently abled people, such as the physically disabled, the Blind, and the Deaf.
Atkins, Dawn, ed. Looking Queer: Body Image and Identity in Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender Communities. Binghamton, NY: Haworth, 1998.
Creed, Barbara. “Lesbian Bodies: Tribades, Tomboys and Tarts” in Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick, eds. Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Cromwell, Jason. Transmen and FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1999.
Feinberg, Leslie. Trans Liberation Beyond Pink and Blue. Boston: Beacon, 2007.
Lewis, Lynette A. and Michael W. Ross. A Select Body: The Gay Dance Party Subculture and the HIV/AIDS Pandemic. London: Cassell, 1995.