Saturday, May 13, 2006

Eponyms [II, 21]

As used in this section the term eponym refers to named individuals who are held to typify some particular class of persons. In some cases these individuals correspond to what anthropologists call “culture heroes.” Citing the names helps to reinforce the identity and sense of self-worth of the members of the group that cherishes them. In other instances they may be notorious.

Since at least the seventeenth century authors have been compiling lists of famous gays and lesbians. There are now a number of biographical dictionaries that take this approach. Many of the names are individuals active in the arts, helping to reinforce the notion that there is a link between same-sex orientation and creativity.

Within this large realm, there are a few individuals of special status. Oftentimes the mere mention of such persons suffices to call up their homosexuality. They may even rank as eponyms, individuals who have a kind of pars pro toto status for their whole tribe, so to speak.

Since classical antiquity enjoys such a privileged status in Western civilization, it is appropriate that two names should stand out. The poet Sappho has given her name to Sapphic love, while the philosopher Socrates stands for Socratic love. There is a rare verb, to Socratize, meaning to anally penetrate another. During the Renaissance three classical exemplars were revived to represent the minion, the youthful lover of the older male homosexual. These names are Ganymede, Giton, and Bathyllos

In modern times Oscar Wilde stands out. For a time the jocular expression Wildman enjoyed currency. Others spoke disapprovingly of the “Oscar Wilde type." Earnest (from Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest) seems never to have had more than a modest circulation.

The old term Eonism (for transvestite) stems from a famous exemplar, the Chevalier d’Eon de Beaumont (1728-1810), a French adventurer. For a time in the mid-twentieth century Christine Jorgenson became a byword for a man changing his sex to that of a woman, after a highly publicized operation in Denmark.

The first part of diesel dyke stems from the German engineer Rudolph Diesel.

In today’s America Liberace and Michael Jackson evoke special recognition, but it is uncertain whether their eponymous status will last.

Because of the need that many gays have for concealment, they have shown, in a few cases, a special talent for spying. This was true of the Chevalier d’Eon, just noted. The Austrian Colonel Alfred Redl is still famous in Central Europe. For England Guy Burgess, one of the “Cambridge spies for the Soviet Union, is a name to conjure with. Regarded alternatively as a national hero or a traitor is Roger Casement, the Irish patriot and German agent, whose diaries reveal extensive homosexual activity. While a few still question the authenticity of these documents, with their revealing sexual details, it now seems proved beyond reasonable doubt.


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