“Watch out for Lesbians. And let me warn you about how they operate. They are very underhanded and don’t reveal themselves to you. They don’t just walk up and say, ‘Hello there, I’m a Lesbian.’ You’ll hardly know what is happening. Instead they’ll do things like introduce you to classical music and good books. Then they’ll engage you in interesting conversations that may be witty, entertaining, and filled with intellectual ideas. They may invite you to plays or to dinner and serve you some nice wine, have some flowers on the table. Then when your guard is down and you trust them and like them, they will seduce you to try to get you to bed with them.” - Judy Grahn’s Air Force captain in 1960, warning her against the predatory evils of ”Lesbianism.” (I love how these “underhanded,” manipulative Lesbians will ply unsuspecting women with such subversive things as classical music, good books, interesting, intellectual conversation, plays, and nice wine: Oh the horrors, the horrors!! Not interesting conversation and nice wine! Stop, stop, you hyper-civilized monsters!!)
The Lesbian poet Judy Grahn’s 1984 book Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds is part Gay memoir covering the 1950s-early 1980s, and part exploration of universal Queer Culture. As Gay memoir, it is invaluable in chronicling what life was like back in the days of “the Love that dare not speak its Name” (which, to judge from Alfred, Lord Douglas’ immortal line- Alfred, Lord Douglas, boyfriend to Oscar Wilde- dated from at least the 1890s through the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s of Judy Grahn’s recollection). Ms. Grahn opens her book recalling being a young “Tomboy” (a phrase that will have significance, as Ms. Grahn discovers that “Tom” is an English slang-term for “Lesbian”). She credits her first Lesbian Lover (a woman whom she identifies as “Yvonne,” “Vonnie,” or “Von”) in the late 1950s, with initiating her into the “codes and signals” of Gay Life- codes and signals which Ms. Grahn will attempt to track down and understand, in the course of this book.
Medieval Witch, burning atop a pyre of flaming “faggots”
In the process, Ms. Grahn joins the military in the early 1960s (when she receives the stern warning from her captain above, demonstrating the exceptionally “subversive” category into which Gayness was seen at the time). Ms. Grahn describes getting caught up in a “Lesbian-Purge” Military Witch-Hunt. (Pause to consider that word used to denote the periodic expulsions of Homoerotic Service-Members, which used to be a norm, as well as to consider the fact that “Homosexual” in the early 20th century was often used in the same light as “Satan” was, in the days of the medieval Witch-Hunts: as some sort of deeply insidious, perverse agent of corruption; kind of serious about my analogy). Ms. Grahn describes her involvement in one of these Military “Anti-Lesbian” Witch-Hunts, which she reports (p. 175) as beginning during World War II, when “American commanding general, General Douglas MacArthur, watching the women soldiers disembarking in Japan, said to his officers, ‘I don’t care how you do it, but get those dikes out of here’.”
Ms. Grahn will go on to describe life as an early Gay Rights Activist; a Lesbian Poet; and a member of the emerging Gay Liberation Scene in California in the early 1980s. However, it is her explorations into the origins of those initial “Gay Culture” codes and signals that make this book invaluable from the perspective of a Queer Culture Theorist, as an early (non-formal) examination into Queer Culture Anthropology and Sociology. As Ms. Grahn’s research often ventures into the realms of the Ancient World Pagan, and the European Witch, her work is of interest to the modern Pagan. (For instance, her descriptions of a “protection ceremony” performed by various other women, after a break-in of Ms. Grahn’s home, shared with her Lesbian lover [on p. 197], in the start of the 1980s, “reads” so much like a Feminist Witchcraft rite such as the sort that I understand was becoming popular then, on the West Coast, that I can’t help wishing that I could ask Ms. Grahn the follow-up: Were any of these Lesbian California Women in the early ’80s, Witches?) Ms. Grahn’s findings in her research led her to determine that, “Gay culture is ancient” (p xiii), transcending Culture, Time, and Place.
Apollo and Hyacinthus
For instance, Ms. Grahn’s first lover, who “initiated” her into the “Codes of Gayness” during the massively-closeted late 1950s, described to her how “Purple was the Gay color.” Judy Grahn dutifully digested this, resolving henceforth to keep her eyes especially open for the color purple, as a potential signifier of “the Love that dare not speak its Name.” (“A purple robe he wore,” in Alfred, Lord Douglas’ description of “Gay Spirit,” in his visionary poem “Two Loves,” that yields the line, “Have thy Will; I am the Love that dare not speak its Name,” quoted by Ms. Grahn at her book’s beginning.) Curious as to how purple came to be the “Gay Color,” Ms. Grahn starts researching “purple” all over the place, determining in Chapter One, “Sashay Down the Lavender Trail,” that “Purple represents, brings about, and is present during radical transformation from one state of being to another,” noting as an instance that purple appears in the sky at twilight and just prior to sunrise. (p. 6) Ms. Grahn discovered that a Greek word for “purple dye” was “Paideros,” which is also a term used to denote the “boy-lover” in Homoerotic Ancient Greek Culture. She goes on to note that like the narcissus (a flower credited with being in a Homoerotic Greek myth), the pansy and the hyacinth (associated with the famous Homoerotic myth of the Greek Sun God Apollo, transforming the blood of his slain youth-lover into a flower) are both purple.
Cover to Jim Elledge’s collection of Native American “Two Spirit” Tales, showing a Native American Warrior with his male Wife
Among the most comprehensive of Ms. Grahn’s entries, is Chapter Three : “Gay is Very American.” Acknowledging that despite growing up in the American West of New Mexico, she and her lover Von never understood that “Indian people have and always have had Gay customs,” until she met her later lover, “Laguna Indian writer and teacher , Paula Gunn Allen,” Ms. Grahn goes on to “throw down” with arguably the most detailed and comprehensive account of Native American “Two Spirit” customs to be located within the first of the 1980s. Despite understanding from her Western upbringing that “Indian tribal harmony is known above all for its emphasis on balance and harmony,” with no “one element, force, or impulse” dominating the others (p. 51), Ms. Grahn avers that, until her relationship with Ms. Gunn Allen, she never understood that white settlers “were actually helpless in the wilderness of a strange continent, and completely dependent for two centuries on the goodwill and educational assistance of the various Indian peoples, who ensured their survival,” nor that “Indian women had genuine political and economic power in their tribes or that Indian culture teaches gentleness towards nature and often calls its male chiefs by names whose origins mean ‘mother’ or ‘motherly’.” (p. 53) She goes on to cite studies of written records over the last few centuries that refer to “Gay people in American Indian tribes,” noting that eighty-eight out of ninety-nine tribes with recorded materials refer to “Gay culture,” with twenty including “specific references to Lesbianism.” Eleven tribes denied any Gay presence; all eleven (Ms. Grahn reflects) located on the East Coast, which had the longest contact with white Christian settlers, “who severely punish people who admit to Gayness.” These studies list the offices held by Gay persons, including “cross-dressing people who take on the work, dress, and social position of the opposite sex while establishing sexual and even marital bonds with their own sex,” as well as the “names Indians have used to designate their Gay tribal members.” (p. 55) Grahn writes of the Kutenai woman of Montana, who “passed” as a man, accompanied by a woman identified as her “wife,” who “held the occupations of courier, guide, prophet, warrior, and peace mediator”; of the Zuni man who “passed” as a woman, and who was the “chief personage” on many tribal ritual occasions; of the Native “Manly-Hearted Women” who acted as peace-chiefs or war-counselors; of the “Womanly-hearted Men” who served as prophets and priests. She talks of Native American “Myths with Gay Plots,” and most poignantly, of how the “White Culture Suppressed Indian Gay Traditions,” turning their own cultural prejudices against the Natives of the American Continent, and turning the Native Tribal Peoples against their own once-beloved Sacred members.
Judy Grahn’s methodology is, as she describes, “eclectic,” (p. xii) comprising “dictionaries and history, anthropology and sociology, poetry and the occult,” as well as what she calls “common sense.” This leads to a certain “free-associative” style, seen for instance in her section “Rainbows, Storms, and Changes.” (p. 272) Attempting to come to terms with the “Gay Rainbow Thing,” Ms. Grahn starts out by alluding to the “Over the Rainbow” metaphor in The Wizard of Oz, arguably the single most important Gay cultural “event” of the twentieth century, as anyone knows who grew up in the hyper-closeted ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when the movie’s annual showing on network television provided a desperately rare vision into some sort of “Gay-Fabulous World” that lay just “beyond the rainbow.” Tracking down this Gay metaphor that gave birth to the emblematic Rainbow Flag, Ms. Grahn references some Native American stories that associate transformation and gender-change by walking under a rainbow; as well as the rainbow-skirt of the African/ Brazilian Goddess of Storm, Death, and Transformation Oya, and the Rainbow-Goddess Iris (said to be the “handmaiden” to Hera, in what, as with Judith and her “handmaiden” in the Old Testament, may be a “code-signal” to a Homoerotic relationship). Interesting as all these things are in relation, they do tend to add up to something less than a trans-global sociological identification with rainbows as a metaphor for Gayness.
If there is one fault, in the hindsight of it all, in Ms. Grahn’s research (and I think I understand how this happened), it is this: she regrettably takes Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe at its face-value. Since Arthur Evans publishes Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture in 1978 (and as we know, Mr. Evans was not only an important figure in the early Gay Rights Movement, but in the early Witchcraft Movement as well), Ms. Grahn (in 1984) draws upon him as a source. Through Mr. Evans (attempting the first serious study of Historic Gay Culture, especially as it relates to the “Witch-Cult in Europe”), Ms. Grahn comes across Jeffrey Burton Russell’s excellent study on the medieval Witch-Hunts, as they relate to the early Inquisition-Hunts, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Dutifully investigating Mr. Russell, Ms. Grahn cites many significant things of note concerning the Middle Ages Witch-Phenomenon and/ or surviving Pagan Traditions (sometimes mixed up with Medieval Witchcraft). However- as Mr. Evans accepts Margaret Murray’s theories of the “Witch-Cult” as established, it seems to Ms. Grahn that she is on solid ground in equally doing so. Nowadays, we tend to recognize Margaret Murray as discredited; so regretfully, the continuance of both Mr. Evans and Ms. Grahn (based upon Mr. Evans’ prior published assertions) upon the path of a non-existant “Witch-Cult” comes to naught.
For instance (in another example of Ms. Grahn’s style-of-working): In Chapter Four: “Fairies and Fairy Queens,” Ms. Grahn recalls a strange prohibition of her younger years, against “wearing green on Thursdays.” According to Ms. Grahn, there used to be this hard-core social “thing” that one never wore green on a Thursday- because that signified that one was “Queer.” This starts Judy Grahn to thinking, What would be the deal with wearing green on Thursdays? She tracks down green as a color identified with the Faerey-Folk in Celtic folklore; and then (through Mr. Evans and Mr. Russell) tracks down Thursday (“Thor’s Day”) as a date often given for the Assembly of Witches: from Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (quoted by Judy Grahn in Note #9, on p. 293) “The festivals most important for the development of the witch idea were the fertility rites associated with Diana or Hecate, the festivals on Thursday, which later became a favorite day for witch meetings, and the hunting celebrations on the first of January…The synods and Caesarius also bear witness to the custom of transvestism at the same New Year’s festival, where men dressed as women, a masquerade probably originating in a fertility rite of some kind.” Mr. Russell further points out (quoted by Ms. Grahn on p. 80) that the Witches of Dauphine (for instance) “constituted a sect, and they assembled at sabbats, usually on Thursdays.” Mr. Russell, following the medieval model, notes that the Witches were said to fornicate with demons at these Sabbats.
Ms. Grahn locates “green” legitimately as a color associated with the Celtic Fay-Folk; and discovers the interesting medieval fact that Witches were alleged often to meet in their Sabbats on Thursdays, putting these two facts together as a hypothesis for, Why the prohibition against wearing green on Thursdays? (Because Witches must have been identified with Faeries, as would be suggested by the fact that “Fairy” is a derogatory name for a Gay man). In the midst of this, however, Ms. Grahn cites Margaret Murray’s now-descredited theories concerning a Neolithic “Faerey Race,” that sadly undercuts her arguments a bit, as does her invocations of Joan of Arc and King William Rufus as Ceremonial Gay Sacrificial Victims.
1500s illustration of Puck dancing in a Circle
However- one line of Ms. Grahn’s contemplations intriguing to Queer Culture Pagan theorists, is this: In her section “Butches and Femmes” (p. 145), Ms. Grahn discusses the probable origins of the well-known figure of Puck. Seeking understanding as to the origin of the word “Butch,” which is Gay slang for either a very masculine woman or man, Ms. Grahn determines that it derives from the French boucher (“butcher”), as well as the French word for “goat” (bouc). This in turn relates to bucca (“buck”), a male stag, which in turn leads to the European Goat-God, Puck (from “puca,” Irish for “Elf”). One notes a series of words here, relating to either (1) a sacrificial animal of some kind (a goat, a buck deer) (2) as well as words like “boucher,” “butcher,” and “butch,” that appear to suggest an identification with the person who does the sacrificing.
Prehistoric Trois Freres “Sorcerer”
One of Judy Grahn’s assertions is that often the mythic individual at the center of a transformation or transference can be read as “Two Spirited” or “Gay” somehow. If we consider that folkloric Puck is the avenue through which this next train of thought runs: that mythic figure is one of ambiguous gender. “Puck” is more gender-variable than gender-specific, possibly played by either a woman or a man, for instance. Puck is also an introduction to the custom of wearing leather.
As Mr. Russell discusses (noted above): many medieval customs (surely derived from Pagan traditions) describe men dressing themselves in the “skins of beasts,” “transforming themselves into animals,” and touring the local countryside during periods of significance (notably the midwinter season of the Solstice). As Russell (and others) observe, the numerous church prohibitions issued against these customs not only testifies as to their existence- they also indicate how popular these customs were, and how difficult to stop. However, they basically describe Middle Ages customs of men dressing in the skins of animals- or in leather.
Leather Men, by Gay Artist Tom of Finland
Puck himself is associated with wearing leather; in various of the “Puck Plays” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the play which we identify with Puck most readily today, but it is actually just one of a series of plays featuring Puck, demonstrating the character’s popularity). In certain of these plays, Puck is described as wearing a “calf-skin suit”: a calf-skin suit, or- a suit of leather.
Equally, in As You Like It (Act IV, scene ii), a group of hunters are returning from a successful hunt, singing an interesting Elizabethan hunting song, the refrain of which goes like this: “What to him who killed the deer? His leathern skin and horns to wear!”
In other words: apparently as late as the latter 1500s, the Elizabethans retained a custom, a tradition, that the hunter who felled the deer- dress himself in the deer’s skin and horns, a powerful symbolic act of “transferring” the deer’s power to the hunter, as well as apparently a really ancient custom, so “primitive” as to seem primordial. Presumably, something about the wearing of leather (the “skin of a beast”) not only “recreates” the animal, but represents as well a potent Magickal (ultimately Shamanic, I expect) transference of power, from a sacrificial animal to the human doing the sacrificing. Interesting, then, as Ms. Grahn notes, that the modern Gay “Leather” scene represents a (consensual and guided by ethical codes of conduct) transference of power from the Leather Submissive to the Leather-Clad Butch “Top.”
Ms. Grahn began by wondering about the origins of associations and words that denote Gayness somehow; one of the words that she puzzles over is the the term “Butch.” Another is the word sometimes used in derogatory fashion against very masculine (“butch”) women: “Bulldyke,” or as Ms. Grahn asserts, a closely-related term “Bulldagger.” Why these two seemingly strange combinations of items, Ms. Grahn ponders- “bulls and dykes,” or “bulls and daggers.” Meeting some British “Dykes” once, Ms. Grahn noticed that they seemed to “blur” their “Ls” when they spoke: for instance, pronouncing “Bulldyke” as if it were “Boodyke.” This causes the British Celtic Queen Boudicca to register (Boudicca being famous for leading a Celtic rebellion against the Romans). Researching the “Queen of the Horse People” in Chapter Six, “Butches, Bulldags, and the Queen of Bulldikery,” Grahn discovers that Celtic women enjoyed very high esteem in Celtic society, and that a certain freedom of sexuality was ascribed to them by Roman writers. Conceiving now that Boudicca may be considered some form of “Bulldyke,” Grahn wonders if the Queen’s name might have been a title rather than a proper name: “bulldike and bulldagger may mean bull-slayer-priestess,” performing the ritual killing of the animal (also through the Magick of transference, a God to the Pagan tribe) “on the sacred altar-embankment. or dyke.” (p. 139)
Today’s Reigning Supreme “Drag Queen” RuPaul
Ms. Grahn points out that Gay people have a tendency to present themselves “ceremoniously,” a habit notably seen during the “Great Gay Holiday” of Halloween, when (even more so than Straight people) Gay folks will go to great lengths to “transform” themselves into expressions of “Gay Archetype”: the Ceremonial Butch “Dyke” or Lesbian; the Leather-Clad Butch Male Top; or the Cross-Dressing “Drag Queen.” Curious then as to how the word “drag” came to denote someone cross-dressing (usually in a flamboyant, “ceremonial” fashion), Grahn discovers (in “Impersonating A God-On-Earth Is Just Another Form Of Drag,” p. 95) that “drag” is antique slang for a cart or wagon.
Visiting Jeffrey Burton Russell again, Grahn reminds us of his assertion in Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, that “the chief pagan festival that continued to exercise the attention of the authorities was the beast masquerade at New Year’s, with its accompanying belief in shapeshifting…The most common accusation is that people went about on New Year’s Day dressed as stags or calves, though an interesting variant is ‘in a cart.’ Other kinds of disguises are suggested [by condemnations describing] wearing skins or disguising oneself as a woman.”
Humorous Puck Fair photo
In other words: Pagan customs, held over into the Middle Ages despite the strenuous objections of churchmen, detailing ritual processions to mark the New Year, characterized by men dressed in suits of leather or the hides of animals (thereby impersonating an animal), sometimes carrying about a “mock God” (a goat perhaps, or perhaps a “Drag Queen”) in a cart or a “drag”: often accompanied by cross-dressed males. (Other folklorists and historians attest to the prevalence of transvestite-men in these ritual processions; Carlo Ginzburg is finally of the opinion that the whole purpose of these ceremonies is to imitate the unruly and non-gendered Spirits of the Otherworld, in a metaphoric acting out of what he calls “the ecstatic journey of the living into the realm of the dead.”)
All of which comes together in full-circle fashion, when one considers the “Puck Fairs” of Ireland. In surely a tamed-down continuation of an original Pagan ritual, a goat (who is also the Goat-God Puck) is crowned “King,” and feasted and feted (in the manner of the “mock kings” of the New Year’s Day celebrations), even being carried about in a ceremonial cart (“drag”). I think it is pretty obvious that back-in-the-Pagan-day, the Puck-Goat (after being saluted, honored, and displayed) would have been killed, cooked, and consumed as dinner by the revelers who were so recently treating the poor beast as a God and King. It seems more the case, in 21st century “Puck Fairs,” to treat the goat as a sort of community pet; but you just kind of suspect, that the original Celts, however fond they may have been of the goat, saw him more as a stew-ingredient than a bit of delightful kitsch.
Irish Puck Fair
To return to Judy Grahn’s hypotheses regarding a ceremonial function for Gay people in the tribal, Shamanic, Pagan European past: Let us imagine a tribe of Pagans, assembling for a ritual feast. Here is the “Puck”; specifically, a goat, but deified through mythology into a Supernatural Being called Puck. The poor Puck-Goat is destined to serve as supper to these fasting Pagans. But first, the people transport the Puck-Goat in a cart, praising and extolling their sacrifice as a God-King. Men dressed in the hides of beasts (symbolizing the transference of Magickal Power from the sacrificial animal to the human race) run alongside the cart, as do men-dressed-as-women (symbolizing the Spirit-World, or World-Beyond-Gender). Perhaps these “Men-Women” even jump into the cart with the Puck-Goat, riding now “in the drag.” Here the people approach the Sacred Site, the earthen Sacrificial Altar-Dyke. Here stand the two “Two Spirits” who will be responsible for dispatching the God-Goat to the World of Spirits: the Ceremonial Lesbian, or “Bulldyke,” and the Leather-Clad “Butch.”
Discovering and reading Judy Grahn was a huge event for me in the mid-80s, as I had never encountered a case for universal “Gay Culture” before. It has been a pleasure reviewing her work again; my thanks to the Pat Parker/ Vito Russo Library at the LGBT Community Center of NYC, for maintaining this book among its collection.