Working on my next book (on faery beasts)with my publishers, the question of ‘hetero-normativity’ was raised by my editor with respect to fairy sexuality. All the examples of relationships I gave were male and female: were there no gay fays?
This is a valid question- and perhaps a surprising one in that we are all aware that ‘fairy’ has come to be used as another word for gay. The latter share a common history, too, in that they originated as insults (gay used to be used of prostitutes and suggested promiscuity; fairy implied an effeminate male) but have since been adopted with pride.
If we rely on the folklore record, all we’ll find is heterosexual fairies and merfolk. Does this reflect actual folk belief or the beliefs of those recording folktales? I strongly suspect that the latter is the case. Many of the early recorders of fairy-lore were clergymen, who undertook it as a suitable hobby. It is hardly surprising, especially where those church ministers were Scottish Presbyterian, that anything in the least morally suspect would be suppressed. In a sense, it is surprising that any information about the lhiannan-shee, the fairy lover, was preserved, but perhaps her loose morals and malign effect upon her victims was worth recording as an example of demonic corruption. Beyond that was asking too much, even so.
Other early folklorists came from academia, and I suspect that a keen sense of academic and social propriety may once again have encouraged them to draw a veil over any stories they considered ‘unfit’ to print (if they were told such stories by their informants at all). All in all, a variety of factors probably conspired to conceal the less ‘acceptable’ elements in folklore.
I was fascinated, then, to read Maurice Hewlett’s Lore of Proserpine. Although published in 1913, in his final ‘Summary Chapter’ he described fairy relationships:
“Love with them is a wild and wonderful rapture in all its manifestations, and without regard necessarily to sex. I never, in all my life, saw a more beautiful expression of it than in the two females whom I saw greet and embrace on Parliament Hill. Their motions to each other, their looks and their clinging were beyond expression tender and swift.”
Hewlett refers to an incident in his earlier chapter ‘The Soul at the Window.’ Out one night on Hampstead Heath, he saw a group of fairies meet, and:
“I saw one greeting between two females. They ran together and stopped short within touching distance. They looked brightly and intently at each other, and leaning forward approached their cheeks til they touched. They touched by the right, they touched by the left. Then they took hands and drew together. By a charming movement of confidence, one nestled to the side of the other and, resting her head, looked up and laughed. The taller embraced her with her arm and held her for a moment. The swiftness of the act and its gracefulness were beautiful to see. Then they ran hand in hand to the others…”
Hewlett’s book is fiction, but he could acknowledge same sex devotion between fairies a century ago.
In an earlier post, A fay of colour- diversity in Faery, I questioned the very powerful presumption that faes are predominantly white and fair haired. Plentiful evidence suggests that earlier generations made no such assumptions and that, indeed, Tudor and Stuart beliefs could encompass some radically different concepts of faery. Just as in race, so in sexuality: what we have is a silence in our sources, not a denial.