The British Museum LGBTQ Trail & Exhibition

This post has been a long time coming because I have been busy doing lots of other things. What has finally shoved it to the top of my to-do list is that on Friday evening the British Museum has an event on. It is titled, “What makes an object LGBTQ?” and it features, among others, E-J Scott of the Museum of Transology and Sue Sanders of Schools Out. I’d love to be there, but I can’t, so I’m writing this instead.

The current version of the LGBTQ Trail is heavily based on the book, A Little Gay History by Richard Parkinson. There’s a lot of good stuff in it but, as I have mentioned before, quite a bit more that could be in it.

The main addition is a small exhibition in a side room off one of the main classical halls on the first floor. It is, rather appropriately, right next to the section on Amazons. It contains some interesting things I hadn’t seen before, such a different portrait of Beaumont and a bunch of Roman winged phalluses, together with a number of more modern items.

One of my favorite features of the trail was the presence of Xena and Gabrielle in one of the cases of vases with pictures of Amazons on them.

Sadly the nearby vase showing Achilles being dipped in the Styx had been taken off display. That might not seem like a queer artifact, but it is because the story of Achilles is proof that cis people have a gender identity. His mother, Thetis, had him raised as a girl in the hope that he’d never go to war, but Achilles knew he was a boy and refused to go along with this. Changing people’s gender identity is much harder than most people think.

One item that I think should be in the trail is this lovely little oil lamp decorated with pictures of Cybele and Attis. You can’t get a much clearer story of gender transformation than Attis, and of course it is an excuse to talk about the galli. The Museum doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that side of Roman culture. I can kind of see them not wanting to highlight the castration clamp, but then it is on display so squeamish people are going to see it anyway. Why not tell the whole story on the LGBTQ trail?

The castration clamp, by the way, is in the Roman Britain room, on the far side of the museum to all of the other Roman and Greek material. Also in that room is a collection of jet jewellery. As I understand it, jet was particularly significant for the galli, and so some of this jewellery may have belonged to Roman trans women. Certainly the galli burials found at Catterick included jet jewellery.

The Museum has tried to include Egypt in the Trail, but the only item they had to highlight is a stela featuring two characters called Hor and Suty. According to the accompanying text, some scholars have suggested that they were a gay couple as they are clearly fond of each other, but the text goes on to say, “This interpretation, though technically possible, is highly unlikely.” A much more obvious interpretation is that they were twins, because the inscription talks about them coming forth from the womb on the same day. If you are going to have an example of a controversial interpretation, it might be better to have one with more substance to it.

The Sumerian section is still identifying the Queen of the Night as Ishtar. There is more of an argument to be made for that than of Hor & Suty being gay, but by identifying her as Ereshkigal, which is more likely, IMHO, it gives you an excuse to talk about the Descent. The story of Ishtar’s descent into the Underworld is a very famous mythological tale with queer people right at the heart of it. Why not tell that story?

Of course they also have Silimabzuta somewhere in their archives. I know it is only a fragment of a statue, but it is hugely significant for trans history and I think it ought to be on display, at least for this exhibition.

A new addition to the trail is this fabulous stela of a Mayan king, Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil. He is dressed as the young maize god who is a character of ambiguous gender, and thus the king is wearing women’s clothing. For a long time this resulted in the stela being mis-identified as depicting a woman. I want to know a lot more about this god.

I am sure that there is still a lot more that can be found in the Museum that relates to LGBT issues. You just have to know what you are looking for. In view of that, I have a question for my friends who are experts on Greek vases. Look at this:

It depicts a scene as a symposium, and the Museum identifies the women present as hetairai — high class sex workers. However, when I see someone from the classical world with that double flute I immediately think “gallus”. I don’t know things worked in Greece. Did women musicians play that instrument regularly? Was it associated with the followers of Meter? Could we be looking at a picture of a trans sex worker? I suspect probably not, but it is worth asking just in case.