Same Sex Skara?

By Bernie Bell

Now that LGBT folk are finding it not quite so difficult to be as they are and live as they choose to live, I was thinking about what attitudes were like in the past.  Not the more recent past – unfortunately, we are all too familiar with the attitudes present in the last couple of centuries.  Quentin Crisp, repeatedly beaten up for – goodness me – dying his hair and wearing make-up!!!  What harm was he doing?

Oscar Wilde, a butterfly broken on the wheel of the prison treadmill.

Recently, Mike and I recorded and started to watch the television series ‘Gentleman Jack’, the story of Ann Lister, a landowning woman in Yorkshire in the 19th Century, who was expected to marry a man and hand over her property to him.  But, Ann was a woman who loved women – she also had a strong, independent character, and a sharp intellect.  She refused to play the games of the times, and was given a hard time for doing so.

I say we started to watch it, but we both thought it was done in a silly sort of way, and lost patience with it.  We are both familiar with the story, and, as is often the case on the telly, the programme makers were messing about with her tale.  I wonder what Ann would have made of it?

Many years ago, before I left Yorkshire, I visited Ann Lister’s home,  Shibden Hall near Halifax, which I liked a lot – it’s a very homely place.  I knew something of its history, and that it had been owned by Miss Ann Lister, but didn’t know much about it.  It wasn’t until many years later that I read of her Liberian tendencies.

Liberian?  When we moved into our house near Stroud, an old lady living just along from us, Myrtle, told us that the female couple who lived along the other way, were “Liberians”, and she said this in hushed tones, very portentous. I said that they didn’t look eastern, in fact, one of them was very much fair skinned and  blonde haired.  Myrtle got a bit annoyed with me and said  “No, no  – they’re not foreign, they’re  Liberians.” And I realised that she meant that they were lesbians.  Myrtle was an old–fashioned sort. The term ‘Liberian’ was then added to our private language!

Going further back in time, I remember someone I used to know,  saying that the ancient Greeks invented homosexuality!  I’m not sure about that, but I also remember the saying, attributed to that time and place –  “A woman for the home, a man for friendship, and a boy for love.”   The older men, taught their younger lovers, much about life.

And so, my wondering took me back further still, to the Neolithic, and attitudes to sex, in those times.  I was mulling over this with Andrew Appleby, who’s novels of the Neolithic , ‘Skara’  have some strong sex scenes, which some folk disapproved of.  To me, he’s just describing what people do – he described hunting, feasting and sex.  All three were much needed, back then, if the human race was to survive.  I had noticed  that the were no same-sex relationships in Skara – so far –  and mentioned this to Andrew, who said that he’d  “oft pondered on this”.

There’s no way we can know how this aspect of human behaviour was seen back then  – maybe they just accepted it as part of how people are – which it is – or, maybe they frowned on it as being un-productive?  Much of the actual sex in Skara, is concerned with reproduction, and bringing in new blood lines, so maybe that’s how it was seen then? As well as people being attracted to each other, and loving each other,  of course! 

I remember Ronnie Simison, who discovered and excavated the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay,  pointing out to me and Mike, that all the implements found at the sites on his land, were for right–handers, and he wondered if left-handers were frowned on then, as they were until relatively recently – the left hand being seen as the ’sinister’ hand.  Did different = wrong, back then?   Were they as disapproving as Myrtle?  Or did they just accept different human ways of being? 

I’ve written here, of what are now referred to as gay relationships. I have to admit, that I have trouble with the term ‘gay’, as I am old, and, to me, gay still means cheerful and light hearted, and, honestly, I have known some pretty gloomy ‘gay’ people! 

There are plenty of tales of same sex relationships from the near and distant past, and of people who were ‘Bi’.   What friend Philip refers to as ‘Ambi-sexual’.  I tend to think of that as folk who take their pleasures, where they find them!  And why not?

Transvestites will have also been around for a long time – people are people, and there are many tales of ‘men’ who are suddenly revealed to be women, or vice-versa – remember ‘Lola’ by The Kinks?

And Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in ‘Some Like It Hot’ –

“You don’t understand, Osgood – I’m a man!” – “ No-one’s perfect.”

“Don’t cry Sugar – no guy is worth it.” – “Josephine?!!!”

Actual trans-sexual folks, who find that they are not comfortable in the skin they’re in, and change gender, will be a more recent development, simply because the medical facilities didn’t exist, whereby a person could actually have their gender changed. Possibly some transvestites would have preferred to actually be the opposite sex, but, as it wasn’t possible, settled for looking and playing the part, instead.

It’s a very convoluted business, as are most things to do with human behaviour. We are all people, we make choices, or, more often, it’s not a choice, it’s a necessity, a way of being.

Across the ages, folk who didn’t fit in with how most people lived, have had a mixed reaction.  Some societies accepted, or even revered the non-specific gender people.

Personally, I don’t, and never have, understood why it’s anyone’s business what other people do with their bits, as long as all concerned, are agreeable to what’s happening!  And that extends to folk dressing differently, looking different………..why should it matter? 

It’s when being different is seen as being wrong – that’s when it can get dangerous.

Back in the every ancient times, let’s say the Neolithic, for sake of argument, if the emphasis was on reproduction, maybe anything but ‘productive’ relationships might have been frowned upon?  There’s no way of knowing, but I do wonder.  Maybe Andrew will write of this, in the next volume of ‘Skara’?  I’ll be interested to see how he deals with it.

Today there are too many people in the world, yet humanity doesn’t appear to have seen the wisdom of reducing reproduction, though we now have the means – and not by wiping each the out!

“Ain’t you heard of the starving millions
Ain’t you heard of contraception
Do you really a program of sterilization
Take control of the population boom
In your living room” – The Specials

We appear to still have the mind-set of the ancient people, but – things are very, very different now.

Maybe we are just a muddled lot, but one way in which the muddle is beginning to clear, at least in some nations, is that folk who want to/need to live differently to those around them, are not mis-treated so much, and if they are, they have recourse to the law.

Maybe we’re getting somewhere after all, in at least one aspect of our development.  Maybe.

Not every boy dreams of being a marine Bell

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  1. Bernie, another interesting and informative piece. You mentioned about the finding of only ‘right-handed’ tools. Early on in my youth, I found that I was ambidextrous like my mother, a teacher, who warned me that I would encounter teachers that Being me and even at that age a member of ‘the awkward squad’ I just loved doing my writing exercises and swapping from left hand to right hand on different lines, it drove them mad and earned me a belt or two. But I tell you it is very handy for screwing a screw nail into a corner where your right-hander has to contort themselves into all sorts of weird positions. I’ve also found it handy when playing some snooker shots.

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