Making No Bones About Identity

Hey, did you hear the one about the skeleton buried with the jars? You know, this guy:

Well, it’s been identified as a male skeleton buried in a fashion reserved for women in its society. So, clearly, he’s gay. And a “gender bender”. Or, wait, maybe a transgender woman?

About a billion people have written eloquently on the difference between gender identity and sexual orienation, about the difference between behavior and identity, and about the ongoing question of whether or not we can impose modern understandings of gender and sexual orientation on other modern eras, let alone a 5,000 year old skeleton (it would behoove us all to remember that even modern gay icon Oscar Wilde was married to a woman and had two sons). But the reporting on this discovery underscores the conflation of gender and sexual orientation. Or maybe the conflation of gay identity with gender-non-normativity.

As far as I can tell, we don’t know a darn thing about who this skeleton, when alive, was attracted to. We don’t know who, if anyone, they partnered with. But we do have a clue that this person was considered to be female, or to fulfill a female social role, because of the way they were buried in an apparently rigidly gendered system. To me, this would point more to a non-normative gender than a sexual orientation. Even to say this, though, overlays a modern eye. There are several cultures that only allow “same-sex” partnering to occur in the open if one of the partners adopts a cross-gender presentation and role, essentially morphing a same-gender couple to a different gender couple. There are cultures that embrace the two-spirit, or a third gender, or bi-gendered, and those that reject individuals who don’t fit the binary. We don’t know a darn thing about how this particular person was integrated into their culture.

Bottom line: this archeological find asks a lot of questions about an ancient culture, but the reporting on it tells us an awful lot about ours.

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