Although nowadays it is fairly commonplace to widely discuss ones sexuality and gender identity, these subjects have been taboo for centuries. People either dodged the subject entirely or did not consider the extent of these terms. Plato’s Symposium can be considered an ancient entry point for a dialogue about this subject, while the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch demonstrates the evolving understanding of gender and sexuality in the 20th century. While Hedwig and Symposium were certainly groundbreaking presentations of sexuality in the times they were set in, there are arguably some limits to the way they consider the identities of their subjects. Specifically, no one in Hedwig or Symposium ascribes to a particular label that sums up their gender identity or sexuality, and it is interesting to wonder how they could be interpreted differently if such a label was in place.
The word “homosexuality” is never expressed outright in “Symposium”, but it seems fairly apparent that the love these philosophical men are discussing is directed towards other men. It is generally understood to be a very specific relationship, where a younger man adopted a more submissive role to an older male lover. However, the lack of a contemporary term for this affection seems to indicate that modern categorizations of gender and sexuality are not applied here. It seems as though the impact of this text rests primarily in the implicit descriptions of Love as a masculine entity and the casual references to male love as being the purest form of connection. So how might these discussions have been changed or even enhanced if a more modern framework were applied to them? Would the impact of these conversations be lost if we merely assumed that they are referring to male-male relationships that are synonymous with modern homosexual relationships?
Additionally, as a tangential consideration, if gender was considered to be more of a spectrum rather than male, female, or androgynous, as Aristophanes outlines in his speech on the origin of love, would that have made a difference in the way these men considered their relationships? This mythological narrative seems to allude more deeply to the possibilities of multiple, non-binary genders and to possibly validate the existence of lesbians in Greek antiquity. Since it is, after all, mythical, largely metaphorical, and distorted through several different viewpoints, it may not an accurate summary of how the Greeks viewed sexuality. It is interesting, however, to consider the role of the androgynous gender and how Aristophanes seems to bemoan the fact that it’s been reduced to a simple insult.
Similarly, while “Hedwig” deals with the complexities of gender and sex in the context of trans-sexuality, it never really outlines what the characters actually want their gender to be. For example, after her surgery, Hedwig is typically identified as a woman but it is never explicitly revealed whether she actually wanted to give up being a man or if she eventually felt somewhat comfortable as a woman. She is haunted by her botched reassignment and is very angry about her state in the world, which mars any possible happiness she may feel in her femininity. Could Hedwig’s profound dissatisfaction be better understood if we concluded that her sexual preferences and gender identity could be summed up in a single term? For example, if we concurred that Hedwig is not a woman but an effeminate gay man, would that somehow clarify her existence, emotions, and actions that define the plot of the film? Additionally, since Hedwig and the Angry Inch is inspired by Symposium, is it more fitting to assume that Hedwig fits the mold of male Greek lovers or that she somehow transcends this by existing in the 20th century?
Considering once again Aristophanes’ origin of love, which also makes an appearance in the film, it seems as though Hedwig’s experiences do transcend the limitations of the homosexual love detailed in Symposium. It seems as though the Greeks did not entirely buy into the concept of lesbians, androgyny, or really any other possibilities in this myth besides male lovers and heterosexual lovers, these things seem to fit in well with Hedwig’s time period. Hedwig could also be able to find an identity within these groups of prehistoric un-severed humans, while it seems as though Aristophanes referenced this story purely with the intention of explaining soul mates. In her song on the origin of love, Hedwig seems to adopt this stance too, but arguably these humans seem to be more of an allusion to her gender than anything. Throughout the course of the film, Hedwig seems to be searching for a person that could be her missing half. It could be though that her missing half is not actually a lover, but something within herself that would allow her to be the androgynous human with both a male and a female half.