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 pets 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— determined to be male by archeologist Katerina Semrádová— were buried facing east, and on its left side. No weapons were found with the body, but the various household pots—including the egg-shaped jug associated with the burial of females—were present.
The news 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 suppose 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 speculates, “we believe this is one of the earliest cases of what could be described as a transvestite or thirdgender 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—which clearly did divide gender and gender roles in fashions that still resonate today— 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 five year old son, Beckett. In the image, Beckett spots 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 failure of HB 235 in Maryland. 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—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 and Mission BART station. 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, whose name has been withheld, is recovering from the attack.
This is now.
Five thousand years ago, in a time when humanity 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 —on one level or another— accepted. In the history of the world we have kings, popes, and other leaders who were cross-gendered. We have thirdgender subcultures amongst most world societies, stretching from the Gallae of ancient Phrygia to the modern day Hijira of India.
In spite of such a rich history—now apparently stretching back over five thousand years—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—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 GwenSmith.com.