Five thousand years

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday April 20, 2011
Share this Post:
Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

In a suburb of what is now Prague, some five thousand years ago, a body was buried. Funeral rites were a very big deal at the time, with a great deal of symbolism attached to exactly how a body was positioned for burial, and what items would be interred with them.

If one was male, the body was buried lying on their right side, with the head facing west. You would also be buried with various tools and weapons, as well as a few portions of food to tide you over as you headed to whatever passed for the afterlife.

Females had their own specifics, being placed on their left side, and facing east. They would be buried with necklaces of bone and earrings of copper, with pots and jugs they may have used in domestic tasks. An egg-shaped pot would also be placed somewhere near the body's feet.

But this particular burial was different. The body â€" determined to be male by archeologist KateÅ™ina Semrádová â€" was buried facing east, and on its left side. No weapons were found with the body, but the various household pots â€" including the egg-shaped jug associated with the burial of females â€" were present.

The new media jumped on this story, labeling this the body of a "gay caveman." Some of the better news sources went a step further declaring this to be a transgender person. Some called it the oldest of its kind, though Semrádová hastened to add that there were earlier examples of male Siberian shamans buried in a similar fashion, and one Mesolithic period female warrior buried in fashion befitting males of the time.

Ultimately, we can only speculate why this male body was buried in a fashion befitting females of the time. I know what I would hope for, and it is what Semrádová theorized, "We believe this is one of the earliest cases of what could be described as a transvestite or third-gender grave in the Czech Republic."

So five millennia ago, a gender variant person lived along the trade routes around the future city of Prague. The society â€" whose peoples clearly did divide gender and gender roles in fashions that still resonate today â€" nevertheless was able to respect this person's identity and expression even after their death.

That was then.

Not long after this story had begun to fade in the ever-churning media cycle, a manufactured outrage brewed over an advertisement for the J. Crew apparel line. In the current catalog from the company, J. Crew president and creative director Jenna Lyons is pictured with her 5-year-old son, Beckett. In the image, Beckett sports freshly painted toenails, in a bright pink. A quote next to the picture reads, "Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon."

Certainly, J. Crew knew the image and quote would spark outrage, and many of the usual suspects took the bait, with Erin Brown of the conservative Media Research Center accusing J. Crew of exploiting young Beckett as part of "liberal, transgendered identity politics."

All over painted toenails.

Others join these stories, such as a legislative failure in Maryland. The proposed law, HB 235, was a transgender rights bill that had public accommodations rights stripped away, then attempted to strip away employment protections and limit other language before the bill was sent back to committee â€" killing it for this legislative session. Meanwhile in Maine, LD 1046 seeks to strip away already existing transgender protections.

At the same time as the news was reporting on cavemen and pink toenails, as politicians played games with the rights of people such as myself, a 20-year-old transgender woman was verbally harassed and beaten by two men in San Francisco, at the 16th Street BART station in the Mission. According to eyewitness Alexandra Byerly, one of the attackers said, "Oh, I hate men dressed up as women," or words to that effect. The victim, who goes by the name Mia Tu Mutch, is recovering from the attack.

This is now.

Five thousand years ago, in a time when humanity was still writing on clay tablets and Stonehenge was yet to be erected, early humans had the ability to accept a male-bodied person as a female on one level or another. Accepted enough to have been buried in a fashion similar to other females, and with the trappings of a woman in that society.

More modern history is rife with stories of people who crossed gender and were â€" on one level or another â€" accepted. In the history of the world we have kings, popes, and other leaders who were cross-gendered. We have third-gender subcultures among most world societies, stretching from the Gallae of ancient Phrygia to the modern day Hijira of India.

In spite of such a rich history â€" now seemingly stretching back over five thousand years â€" we now live in a time when the very image of a boy with pink toenails is somehow a nefarious plot to overthrow gender norms, and where politicians will seek to disallow transgender people from enjoying the same rights and protections of the rest of society.

In what would one day be Prague, in the distant past, we see more humanity for one person's gender expression than we see in what many view as the most liberal, most LGBT friendly city in the United States.

Is this what we've become? If this is now, what's to come â€" and how can we get back to a time of acceptance for one's own gender identity and expression? I hope it does not take another five thousand years to get there.

Gwen Smith opted to not write this column on clay tablets. You can find her on the web at