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The “Gay Caveman”: Maybe He Just Really Liked Pottery

2011 April 11

Last week, archaeologists near Prague discovered the remains of a “caveman” who was buried facing east with household pots and jugs at his feet.  Because men were always buried facing west, and surrounded with weapons, the archaeologists were understandably perplexed.  When the news broke, headlines declared that a “gay,” “transgender,” “transsexual,” and/or “third gender” caveman had been found.  These words and identities are NOT interchangeable, and our society’s insistence on throwing them around is offensive and ignorant.

No one who is alive today knows the story of this person.  Perhaps he was a homosexual, or transgender, or third gender.  Perhaps he was intersex.  Or maybe he was just domestically inclined.  Regardless, it is somewhat silly for us to sit here, almost five millennia later, assigning identities and labels to these remains.  Certainly the curiosity is natural, but the speculation and sensationalizing are not only moot but also difficult to stomach.

First of all, sexual orientation and gender identity are NOT the same thing; the words are not synonymous. The former has to do with sexual attraction to others, while the latter refers to an individual’s personal affiliation with one, both, or neither genders.  Transgender people can be gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, and a gay person may see gender very fluidly, or dabble in androgyny.  Our culture loves to group them together, but it is important to note the difference.  This man may have been a homosexual who was buried like a woman because he was more feminine than his peers, but he also may have been transgendered and lived his life as a woman.  We will probably never know either way, but it has been extremely frustrating to see the media throw these labels around without deference to their vast differences.

Secondly, all of the coverage of this discovery notes the seriousness of funeral traditions during the period between 2900 and 2500 B.C., when this particular person is thought to have lived.  This note is made by way of explaining that this couldn’t have simply been a fluke; there must have been a reason that this man was buried in the style reserved for women.  Notably, however, not a single article references sexual diversity during this period.  There is no mention of the presence of homosexuals or homosexuality, no references to the presence of a “third gender” in the society to which this man belonged.  There also does not seem to be any evidence that “transgender” and “transsexual” existed at all, as ideas or as communities.

The discovery of a millennia-old caveman would only be interesting to a select few in a society like ours, where twitter and facebook command more attention than a possible government shutdown.  (Full disclosure: it was my facebook newsfeed that first informed me of the caveman discovery.)  In order for a story like this to reach – let alone titillate – the masses, it needed a sexy element, and sexuality/gender almost always do the trick.  Suddenly the discovery of a caveman becomes “First Homosexual Caveman Found” or “Archaeologists Find First Known Gay Caveman.”  Known?  Really?  That seems like a stretch.  While it’s possible that this is the first case of a man buried like a woman, can they really claim to “know” he was gay?  There are documented instances of women who were buried with weapons, but in these cases, scientists assumed they were warriors, not lesbians.  Perhaps this man made beautiful clay pots and jewelry, but no, we assume he was gay or trans.

Sexual minorities deal every day with the competing desires to be acknowledged, visible, and accepted, but not stereotyped, essentialized, and mocked.  Too often the LGBT community is the butt of the joke.  We want to see gay characters on TV, but we don’t want all of them to be flamboyant sidekicks who are just there to tell the female lead how to dress.  On the one hand, the discovery of a gay caveman (if we could prove his sexual orientation) would be exciting insofar as it demonstrates the presence of homosexuality in societies millennia ago.  On the other hand, since we cannot prove any of the theories floating around the internet right now, we’re left to wonder why the assumption was made at all.

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