November, 2016 Archive

The Myths of Chastity Belts

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When I think of chastity belts, I think of the movie Robin Hood: Men in Tights. (Go ahead and judge. I liked this much-maligned Mel Brooks movie) In it, the hero not only will have the key to the fair princess’ heart but to her Everlast chastity belt. We’ve seen and read much about the chastity belt being around since the Crusades. It shows up in books and film, most recently in Mad Max Fury Road. These barriers against infidelity and rape were mostly a tale of fiction until the 19th century. There is no evidence they existed or were used during the crusades. The earliest images were in the 16th century. When you look at the evidence, you find stories about chastity belts are more of a smear campaign against an earlier “dark age” blown out of proportion in the moral mire that was the 19th century. There were, in fact, no medieval chastity belts being worn to protect a ladies virtue.

You might be saying to yourself, “But I’ve seen them! They’re in museums!”

Well, yes, they were in museums. Until they found out they were not from an earlier era but the Victorian era. Most of them have been removed from display. A medieval chastity belt on display at the British Museum turned out to be from the 18th or 19th century. Another that was shown in the Musee de Cluny in Paris, and credited as being worn by Catherine De Medici, was tested and proved to be made in the early 1800s. In typical fashion, we became so enamored with the idea of the chastity belt we never actually looked at how improbable their use really was. We fell for the story about knights locking their wives in metal girdles hook, line, and sinker. As several historians who busted the myth of chastity belts have said, we wanted to believe that the dark ages were a barbaric time compared to our enlightened age.

Oddly enough, the enlightened age that comes up with the preposterous idea was the Renaissance era. The Crusades took place between the 11th and 13th centuries, and there is no evidence of chastity belt use during that time. There isn’t mention of its use until the 15th century. According to Albrecht Claussen, the author of The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process, the first textual evidence is in Konrad Kyser’s Bellifortis in 1405. The book is about war machinery. Florentine women used them, as Kyser tell us in his book, and includes a hand drawn illustration. It’s in a chapter with instruments of torture, so its authenticity is in serious doubt. That and Kyser’s book also includes fart jokes.

When historians look at illustrations and writings from the 15th and 16th century, it’s apparent the girdle of Venus was more of a joke, a piece of prurient propaganda, or a way to decry the dark ages as brutal and cruel thus lesser than the current era. Most of the illustrations show the lover hiding somewhere in the shadows with a copy of the key. Meanwhile, the poor sap of a husband leaves town thinking he has protected his wife from straying while he’s gone. One can imagine these images of cuckolded husbands were quite the knee slapper.

It only get’s worse as we approach the Victorian era, they loved the idea of girdles of cruelty. How else do we keep our hands, and other’s hands and… stuff… from our sinful nether regions.

This is when the fakes enter the scene.

The Victorians were so against sex for pleasure they took an era they thought of as being pretty with it in the “no sex unless for procreation” department and went with it. They didn’t care if it was true, this was an age where patents were being issued every day for inventions to stop people from engaging in sexual activity. What they didn’t take into account was how dangerous these things would be to wear if they actually existed.

A “metal bikini” with a small opening for bodily functions worn for an extended time would be lead to debilitating injuries and even death. Even lined or padded iron would still chafe and cause painful abrasions on the skin. It would be extremely uncomfortable to move or sit, and they did not leave enough space for bodily functions. There would risk of infections and sepsis. Even if a Knight wanted his wife to be locked up in a girdle of Venus while was off on the crusades, he would return to a wife that has been severely injured or even dead. Not really what they had planned.

This means that metal padlocked belts adorned with spike-edged openings may have inspired the ones worn by Immortan Joe’s wives but are just as much a product of fiction as the film. The irony is these barriers to pleasure are now used in BDSM. Chastity belts exist today although worn for a limited time in Dominant/submissive play. They are built to deny access to the genitals or to prevent an erection so that the Dominant has complete control of those options. So take that, Victorian prudes! Today chastity belts are not used to prevent sex but to enhance it.

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Sylvia Rivera: Transgender Activist

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You can’t talk about Marsha P Johnson without talking about Sylvia Rivera. The two friends were passionate activists for transgender/non-gender conforming rights and were advocates for LGBT youth, especially the homeless. Sylvia was inspired during the Stonewall riots by the thought of revolution. She thought the revolution was happening and she wanted to be there for it. While there is still inconclusive evidence that Sylvia was at Stonewall during the riots, what is important to remember is what she did after the riots and during her lifetime that matters.

Sylvia was born Ray Rivera in New York City on July 2nd, 1951. Sylvia had a tumultuous youth growing up in the Bronx as her mother dealt with two difficult and often dangerous marriages. Her stepfather threatened to kill them when she was three. Unfortunately, she would lose her mother soon afterward to suicide. She tried to kill Sylvia too by offered the rat poisoned laced milk she was consuming to her too. Sylvia survived the poisoning but her mother did not. She was sent to live with her maternal grandmother. This new living arrangement was not quite an improvement on her life.

Being half Puerto Rican and half Venezuelan made life with her Venezuelan grandma, Viejita, challenging. Her grandmother didn’t like the dark skin she inherited from her equally dark-skinned father. Viejita also didn’t like her effeminate mannerisms. It also didn’t help when her father took Sylvia’s half-sister Sonia away, leaving her grandmother with the grandchild she didn’t want. She still took care of Sylvia but in a very strict environment, often resorting to beating Sylvia in a desperate attempt to normalize her. She went to all white Catholic schools, to a Catholic boarding school when her grandmother fell ill, and shuffled around to other homes of friend and relatives. She started wearing makeup to school in the 4th grade and dealt with some teasing at school, but the most abuse came from people in the neighborhood. She finally ran away from home at age 10.

Sylvia wound up on 42nd street and relied on sex work support herself. She was already no stranger to sex work as she had previously hustled with her uncle. She was taken in by the local drag community and changed her name to Sylvia. Her years in Times Square started in 1961, a tough time to be gay much less trans. She was also homeless and struggled with addiction. She often went to jail where beatings and sexual assault were common. Later in the 60s, Sylvia started to feel the draw to activism and more openly identified as a drag queen. Sylvia was just 17 during the Stonewall riots. She knew it was time to stop taking the harassment, beatings, and abuse. It was time to fight. She joined the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance; both organizations formed after Stonewall. Unfortunately, she found a reluctance to support cross-dressers and transgender people.

After the Weinstein Hall sit-in, Sylvia and Marsha P Johnson started the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries in 1970. STAR helped young drag queens and trans youth with food and shelter. Sylvia spent her time helping the poor, the homeless, the people of color, and the gender non-conformists. She and Marsha looked after street kids struggling to survive around the Christopher Street docks. They put them up in their hotel rooms and even tried using an abandoned tracker trailer until the owner recovered it with the street kids still inside. Eventually, they rented a house owned by the mafia that became known as STAR House. STAR House had lasted two years before they were forced to leave. In that time they fed and housed as many people as they could. She and Marsha hustled on the streets to make money to provide for them so they could stay off the streets. They ran STAR as a collective with everyone helping to provide food and supplies. By 1973, with no place to house anyone, STAR was disbanded.

Being a trans into poor sex worker, Sylvia increasingly felt left out of the mainstream-leaning early gay rights movement but continued to find ways to fight. She was the only person arrested while gathering signatures for a proposed gay rights bill, a bill that eventually took out all mention of transgender rights in an attempt to please lawmakers and increase the possibility of it passing. It took 15 more years to pass, and trans rights were still left out. Sylvia even had to force her way to the microphone to speak during Pride. A group led by Jean O’Leary found men dressed as women offensive and tried to deny her access to the stage. Well, she did get there and had some enlightening words to share about the divisiveness of the gay rights movement.

All this was too much for Sylvia after a while, and she tried to commit suicide in 1974. She moved to Tarrytown where she worked a regular job, went to Pride events, and stayed under the radar for a while. She moved back to New York in early 90’s but tried to kill herself again in 1995 by walking into the Hudson River. Marsha’s body had been found in the Hudson River 3 years before, and despite writing a beautiful obituary for her, Sylvia felt Marsha was never appreciated for her work. Surviving this suicide attempt, she reignited her passion for activism. In 1999, Sylvia was invited to speak the World Pride Celebration in Italy and restarted STAR in 2001, changing transvestite to transgender. She also was an advocate for Amanda Milan, pressing for an investigation into her murder and helping with the funeral.

Sylvia passed away in 2002 from liver cancer. She lived the last years of her life at Transy House Collective, a house in Brooklyn run in the spirit of STAR house, and run by a former STAR resident. Her legacy lives on with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, an organization that assists transgender, intersex, and gender variant people. Also, the corner of Christopher Street and Hudson Street is named Sylvia Rivera Way in her honor. She’s often called The Rosa Parks of the Modern Transgender Movement. She and Marsha were almost forgotten but thankfully their work for the community is now remembered and celebrated.

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Marsha P Johnson: Transgender Activist

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For Pride Month, I looked into the history of the Stonewall Riots. An important part of that history is relevant this month. The Stonewall Inn was significant because it catered to the outcast amongst the outliers. They not only provided a safe space for underage homeless gay kids but a place for the transgendered, cross-dressers, and the gender fluid. Gay, lesbian and trans patrons socialized together. It was a place where they could find others like themselves, a place where they could feel safe even if it was only between police raids.

Long before the riots, activist groups were already forming and worked under the radar for equal rights. Constant raids, harassment, and abuse leading up to Stonewall made it an exploding pressure cooker. There are many conflicting accounts of who “started” the riots. What’s more significant are the amazing people who stood up for their rights that night. One of the notable people present that night was Marsha P Johnson, a trans person of color.

Marsha P Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth New Jersey. Malcolm moved to NYC in 1966, and legally changed her name to Marsha P Johnson. The “P” she said, stands for “Pay It No Mind,” a preemptive answer to a question she knew was on people’s minds. Marsha identified as a drag queen, though sometimes she would slip into a male persona and become Malcolm on occasion. When that happened, she could be mean and vicious. A majority of the time, she was kind and gentle.

She spent much of her first years in Greenwich Village on the street, a fate for most trans folk and drag queens. Wearing women’s clothes or looking effeminate in a way was unacceptable so kids were often thrown out of the house or they ran away. Marsha decided to escape her family that would not allow her to leave the house dressed as women by moving to the Village. To make ends meet, Marsha found sex work a reliable, if dangerous, way to make a living. She lived for many years couch surfing, staying overnight with Johns or even sleeping in a movie theater during the matinees. She would later find a permanent home with friends.

Marsha’s exuberant nature coupled with her love for extravagant accessories on a non-existent budget was well known and loved. She could often be found with massive amounts of flowers in her hair or with an elaborate hat. She would piece outfits together between dumpster diving, second-hand clothes, and castaways from the flower market. Marsha’s penchant for dramatic clothing served her well while she was a member of the Hot Peaches, a renowned gay theater troupe that ran from 1972 to 1998. In the same spirit as San Francisco’s Cockettes, Hot Peaches was well known for its entertaining and thought-provoking performances. Marsha would read poetry or sing, to much acclaim.

While Marsha was already a member of the Gay Liberation Front, she formed the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, STAR, with her friend Sylvia Rivera in 1970. STAR helped young drag queens and trans women with food and shelter. Their goal was to help cast out young street queens, but they were open to anyone who needed their help. They looked after any street kids trying to survive around the Christopher Street docks. Housing was a challenge. At first, Marsha and Sylvia put up as many as they could in their hotel rooms. They then tried using an abandoned tracker trailer until the owner recovered it with the street kids still inside. Eventually, they renovated a burned out house owned by the mafia that became known as STAR House. Marsha was “mother” to the kids at STAR House during the two years it lasted before they were forced to leave. She and Sylvia hustled on the streets to make money to provide for them so they could stay off the streets. They ran STAR as a collective with everyone helping to provide food and supplies as best they could.

Marsha and Sylvia continued to advocate and help street queens and queer youth even after their attempts to provide a permanent place for them was foiled. They were often seen at marches and protests together. Marsha was also involved with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), an AIDS advocacy group that formed in 1987.

In 1974, Marsha was photographed and painted by Andy Warhol. Warhol decided to do a series based on drag queens. He went to the Gilded Grape, a nightclub popular with cross-dressers, and took photos of several drag queens hanging out at the nightclub. These large format polaroids were transferred to paintings as a silk screen. Marsha’s photo, a brightly smiling portrait with a playful pigtailed wig, became part of his “Ladies and Gentlemen” series first shown in Italy.

As she became a beacon of light for street queens, an inspiring performer and a work of art, Marsha also struggled with mental illness. She even claimed to have visions. Despite not being accepted by the Catholic Church, she was very spiritual and was known to pray prostrate at the foot of a statue of Mary at the local churches. Living as gender non-conforming drag queen and a person of color was already a challenge. Coupled with the dangers of sex work this added immense pressure and stress in her life. During her lifetime, she experienced several attempts on her life by Johns, so many arrests she lost count, and many nervous breakdowns. Despite all this, Marsha was always known to give what little food and money she had to others. There’s a story that she used the last of her money to buy a back of cookies then wound up giving away most of it to the street queens she passed. Marsha’s would rather give away the last of what she had rather than see others go in need.

Marsha’s live was cut short in July of 1992. A few hours after the Pride March on July 6th, her body was found floating in the Hudson River near the Christopher Street piers. The police dismissed it as a suicide, but everyone who knew her argued that was impossible. There had been no indication she was suicidal. What they did know was that she was harassed shortly before she was found dead. Friends rallied to have her death investigated, but the case was closed. In 2012, Mariah Lopez lobbied to reopen the case and won. The New York police department reopened the case as a possible homicide2012. Unfortunately, I can find lots of info about the reopening of the case but nothing about any results. As far as I can tell, the case is still open and unsolved.

Marsha was a champion of trans rights and a guardian angel for the cast off runaways she found in the West Village. There are amazing stories of her vibrant personality and her endless generosity. While not without her demons, she made a big different in the lives of many and continues to be an inspiration long after her death.

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