Tumblr is an interesting place. In the corner that I occupy, it’s an open and accepting environment, focused on fighting the injustices in the world – with a healthy dose of cute animal pictures. One of the consistent topics to cross my dash is the representation of LGBTQIA in modern entertainment media. Questions regularly appear like “How are LGBTQIA+ portrayed?” and “Is the current portrayal sufficient, positive, and empowering, while challenging stereotypes?” When the answer to the second question is almost invariably no, then the question becomes “How do we make improve it?”Changing the current entertainment industry, and with it public perception, is a difficult and slow process. It is not about wanting to see more token gay male characters or an increase in the number of trans women being used for comedic relief. It’s about improving the diversity of the characters and the depth of their development.
Fortunately, there’s been some progress. Orange is the New Black (a Netflix original) and In the Flesh (a BBC show that was not renewed) are hailed as forerunners in representation.
In addition to pushing for change in modern media, some people, including many Pagans, are looking to mythology for positive representations of LGBTQIA+ personalities. This is a great idea, because mythology is rich, containing a huge variety of Gods, Goddesses, heroes, demigods, and other characters and creatures.
However, there are some pitfalls in doing this, and some misconceptions based on stereotypes about a specific God or Goddess. For example, if I have to hear one more person say that Artemis is asexual/aromantic, I may scream – no matter how ‘clever’ of a pun it is to say she’s an “ace aro [arrow].”
Applying modern concepts of sexuality and gender to myths is an inexact science. Values, perceptions and societies have changed over the years. The Greeks in particular portrayed independent Goddesses as maidens – virgins even – which, in the modern sense would have them abstaining from all sex. However, looking at it in the context of Greek culture, it simply meant not allowing a man to control them or their life. Aphrodite was a maiden Goddess.
In addition, often times there are only a few myths that deal with how a God or Goddess specifically presents gender or sexuality. Thor, for example, doesn’t suddenly become gender-fluid because of one story about him cross-dressing in order to get Mjölnir back. By contract, Loki’s appearance in the same myth, when combined with stories of him magically changing genders, giving birth to a horse at one point, and generally presenting himself as the gender (and species) that’s most convenient, might suggest that he was more gender-fluid.
Despite these pitfalls and contrasting elements, mythology, with its diversity of representation, can offer comfort to young people struggling with their own gender identification.
For many, this is a very touchy subject. I am bi, but cisgendered. I don’t know some of the struggles that others go through – and can’t ever really know. But I do listen, and apply what I’ve learned to what I know about mythology.
As Pagans, many of us take this concept further by working directly with the Gods and Goddesses to see how they feel about this subject. Within our living religions, the Gods can be vocal about their opinions, which evolve our understanding just as much as the rest of our culture. It should follow, then, that how we view the Gods in a modern context should come from a mix of personal experience and the old texts.
Going back to my earlier gripe, mythology tells us that Artemis fell in love with Orion. The story of Zeus and Callisto also implies that she had sex with Her hunting companions – or at least Callisto. After working closely with Her for the 2013 Spring Mysteries Festival, I got the distinct impression Artemis isn’t as asexual as She appears – perhaps demi- or grey- sexual/romantic. On the other hand, my personal work with Athena revealed that She is definitely as asexual as She appears. Similarly, my research into the Egyptian Goddess Bast indicates that She had relations with both Gods and Goddesses.
Apollo, Pan and Dionysus all had both male and female lovers. Dionysus, a male deity, is the patron of trans* people.
Pagan Author P. Sufenas Virius Lupus had some insight on why there is often a disconnect between the gender of the deities and those people that worshiped them. E said:
Something really important to remember about all of the deities and heroes mentioned here (and others who aren’t) is that they were rarely if ever valued or worshiped in the past simply because their sexual partners or gender identities matched those of their worshipers.
Despite any suggested diversity, Classical mythology still has some definitive gaps in representation. While there are several deities that either change gender or have a combination of external genetalia, such as Hermaphroditos, Agdistis and Tiresias, they are not trans*.
P. Sufenas Virius Lupus speaks often of eirs experiences with the Tetrad++ Group. These six divine beings – Panpsyche, Panhyle, Paneros, Pancrates, Paneris and Panprodexia – are relatively new, and specifically address the lack of gender-queer deities in classical mythology. E said:
One of the reasons these deities came about… is because there was a need to have deities that fit more closely to our own understandings and situations of gender diversity in the modern world, and were not the results of potential cultural appropriation or misunderstanding of the gender roles and configurations of earlier cultures
These deities – and the many others not mentioned here – can play an important role in people’s lives for a variety of reasons. Their stories are not simply ones that follow the cookie-cutter format most modern entertainment often takes. They are strong, powerful main characters of their own stories. They are deities, heroes and powerful beings and, at the same time, their struggles can be very human. This makes them very relatable. But Lupus added:
It is important to remember that one’s own personal characteristics, identities, interests, or skills don’t have to match up 100%, or even 50%, with a deity one chooses to worship; and furthermore, deities might decide to get involved in one’s life no matter who one is or what one does that correlates to that deity’s attested areas of influence.
Mythology – be it modern or classic – cannot fully stand in place of all representation everywhere. We can and should demand improved representation of LGBTQIA+ within modern entertainment. While the quest for more positive and accurate representation continues, mythology remains a great resource to help those struggling with their own identities and to encourage the celebration of diversity in humanity.