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17.6.16

A Trip Through Time

UPDATE: Don't even get this article published yer (Tuesday) and already news is coming out that the Orlando shooter was, at the least, bisexual, which makes this column all the more evocative.

As regular Far Siders know, I don't often comment on specific events in the news, preferring to focus on larger themes and topics.  However, the recent shootings in Orlando, Florida, USA, have brought up some rather deep cultural issues that I thought worth commenting upon.

As you might already suspect, I have a rather different take on the matter.

What brought this to mind were the various headlines claiming that the massacre, taking place in a gay bar, highlighted the Islamic hatred of homosexuals.  I have to laugh - not at the death or pain inflicted on the families - but at the extremely short memories that Americans apparently have.  We need look no further than the Stonewall Riots in the 70s, to see how predominantly Christian society has treated homosexuals, not to mention burning at the stake (faggot means a bundle of twigs for burning), and such notable folks as Oscar Wilde, a brilliant writer and humorist imprisoned for homosexuality.

Even more profound were the articles pointing out the hypocracy of Islam, where a phenomenon called batcha (in Indonesian banci, in English queen, all from the same Indo-European root) is practiced in many parts of central Asia.  If you've never heard of batchas, then your education is sadly lacking, for it was Marco Polo who brought the practice to wide attention in Europe in the 1200s.

As I go into this topic, I warn Western readers not to get too high and mighty in their condemnation.  In Western culture, women were banned from public performance on stage for centuries, which led to a practice of castrating young boys with perfect soprano voices in order to have performers for opera and other similar entertainment, such as ballet.  These hapless young boys were called castrati, and the practice ended recently enough that there are recordings of one of the last known castrati.  So let's not get to sanctimonious about today's history lesson.

The batcha are an ancient form of entertainment, pre-dating much of modern culture, including Islam and Christianity.  As most readers will be unaware of batcha, allow me to fill you in.

The batcha are also known as "the dancing boys."  These are boys who have been raised for a very specific purpose from birth.  They are often castrated to preserve their slightly girlish looks, are trained in various forms of entertainment, including sexual as well as performance, and at least used to be found throughout central Asia, including Afghanistan, Persia, Arabia, Pakistan, and India.

In addition to castration, special inserts were used in the anus from birth, causing it to take on a somewhat feminine characteristic, so making the boys better suited for sexual activities.

The batcha were most often noted in and around trading caravans from ancient times.  Because of the many years of special preparation, these boys were very expensive and sold or traded as a commodity.  They eventually became a status symbol, like a Mercedes 500 series car, because the price tag was formidable.  In his tales, Marco Polo notes that the batcha were exceptional entertainers, and though he doesn't admit to first-hand knowledge, says they were well-known for being experts in many forms of sexual practices.

After the rise of Islam, and the deep division of the sexes in most aspects of daily - especially public - life, the batchas took on even more prominent roles among traders, who were often separated from their wives for months or even years.  Since a man was forbidden to enjoy the company of any woman but his wives, and since unsullied slave girls were far more valuable than used goods, the batcha filled a niche market, as it were.  They were often used as a means to seal a deal between traders, due to the prized nature of these services.

To truly understand the cultural mentality behind the batcha, it is important to remember that in many societies, especially in central Asia, children under a certain age were considered asexual.  They weren't really boys or girls, they were neutrals, and thus stood apart from various social restrictions on consorting with the opposite sex.  This view is found in many Semitic cultures, and may date back as far as Babylon, and possibly further, as some researchers have noted ancient beliefs that humans began as "male" androgines, before differentiating into male and female.

In any case, the use of batcha was - at least at one time - widespread and had the various advantages of being a kind of birth control, as well as a means of sexual release without violating the many rules and taboos related to dalliances between sexes in and out of wedlock.

Lest the reader begin to think this was some barbaric practice and that the batcha lived squalid lives, it should be noted that they were treated with the same fawning adoration that Westerners reserve for the latest pop sensation.  People would bow to these boys, buy them oppulatent houses, open (for all intents and purposes) Las Vegas nightclubs for the exclusive use of the selected boys.  Some were as famous in the Old World as Prince, Mick Jagger or David Bowie are today, and treated with the same kind of awe and deference to superstardom, as well.

And lest one think that this practice is dead and buried today, I need only mention the legendary "lady boys" of Thailand.  Yes, those are batchas, or at least a version of them.  In a sense, even the Western drag queens and the elaborate South Beach shows in Miami are an extension of this very long tradition of gender-bending boys.

Before one goes around condemning Islamic hypocrisy or praising Western tolerance, or faining shock at certain practices, one would do well to crack the occasional history book.  This goes for religionist book-pounders and liberal bleeding-hearts alike.

Fashions come and go.  Cultures evolve and change.  Things are condemned today that were once as normal and vital as air (see fur coats).

Before things can be effectively changed, one must first look deeply at the roots, the history, the traditions.  One must also attempt to view the world through different eyes.  One cannot condemn practices for which one has no understanding of where those practices came from.

Humans has a curious way of adopting certain behaviors out of necessity or pragmatism, then over time converting those practices into tradition and ritual, and finally abhorring and castigating them.  It is easy to rant and rave out of ignorance, but it is an entirely different thing to attempt to understand and sympathize as a first impulse.

Nothing exists in a vacuum, whether it is batcha, castrati or lone gunmen shooting up gay bars.  To cure, we must first find cause.

We condemn what we do not understand, and we do not understand what we fear.  First address the fear on ALL sides.


Oh, and one more thing (a la Columbo).  Perhaps now, the reader may begin to appreciate that, from a certain point of view, the Orlando incident was not an act of Islamic homophobia, but rather a strike again wealth and privilege.  After all, in certain cultures (such as the one the shooter came from), a room full of drag queens is a very rich man's hareem of batcha entertainers..

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