Gay Weather

Weather prediction appears to be a difficult and complex task that, in order to arrive at reliable results, should not be left to a single amateur. Or so I thought… (After all, there had to be a good reason as to why, for example, my own University alone employs a significant number of staff who are highly respected, in fact world-leading, professionals in that area!)

Then, however, I read that a Henley-on-Thames town councillor, David Silvester (UKIP, formerly a member of the Conservative party), had come up with a remarkably simple explanation for the storms and floods in the UK recently, rendering scientific method (almost) obsolete.

According to Silvester, the recent havoc caused by the floods (not least in Henley, which was badly affected) was in fact ultimately due to the British Prime Minister’s acting ‘arrogantly against the Gospel’ when supporting same-sex marriage.

In a letter to the Henley Standard, Silvester wrote: ‘The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war.’

Silvester’s comments have resulted in a spectacular – dare I say? – wave of creative outbursts all over the web, ridiculing the embarrassing backwardness of his remarks. There is little need to add to those at this point – e. g. by pointing out the hilariousness that lies in the use of the term ‘abundantly’ (~ ‘overflowing’, from Latin unda, ‘wave’) in the aforementioned statement. It condemns itself.

So why talk about this issue further then, rather than letting it fall into well-deserved oblivion?

There might be two reasons to do so.

First, from the perspective of a Classical Scholar, I could not help but think of a passage in Livy‘s work Ab urbe condita, when I first encountered this sexualised approach to weather and disaster.

The passage in question comes from a (fictive) speech attributed by Livy to Appius Claudius, a speech exhorting the Roman people to ‘man up’ during the campaign against Veii of 403 B. C. (transl. B. O. Foster):

Adeone effeminata corpora militum nostrorum esse putamus, adeo molles animos, ut hiemem unam durare in castris, abesse ab domo non possint? ut, tamquam navale bellum tempestatibus captandis et observando tempore anni gerant, non aestus, non frigora pati possint? erubescant profecto, si quis eis haec obiciat, contendantque et animis et corporibus suis virilem patientiam inesse, et se iuxta hieme atque aestate bella gerere posse, nec se patrocinium mollitiae inertiaeque mandasse tribunis, et meminisse hanc ipsam potestatem non in umbra nec in tectis maiores suos creasse.

Do we think the bodies of our soldiers so effeminate, their hearts so faint, that they cannot endure to be one winter in camp, away from home; that like sailors they must wage war with an eye on the weather, observing the seasons, incapable of withstanding heat or cold? They would certainly blush if anyone should charge them with this, and would maintain that manly endurance was in their souls and bodies, and that they could campaign as well in winter as in summer; that they had given the tribunes no commission to protect softness and idleness; and that they were mindful that their grandsires had not founded the tribunician power in the shade or under roofs.

The rhetoric of this passage builds on the ideology of manliness as the capability to withstand any inclemency of weather. It is for the soft and the effeminate, in turn, to be dependent on ‘gay weather’ – and to fall apart when the going gets tough, weather-wise: nothing that a true, manly Roman would ever want to let happen to himself (or so Livy’s Appius Claudius does wish to make us believe).

Secondly, from the perspective of a linguist, it is a rather ironic fact that in the wake of the Silvester incident, the phrase ‘gay weather’ appears to have changed its meaning (at least for the time being):  the adjective ‘gay’ originally does not only refer to events joyful, carefree, and merry; it also implies ‘beautiful’ and ‘bright’.

In that respect, ‘gay weather’ originally denotes the exact opposite of what it would seem to imply now – compare the (surprisingly fitting) final four lines of Muriel Rukeyser‘s poem The Face of the Dam: Vivien Jones:

And the snow clears and the dam stands in the gay weather,
O proud O white O water rolling down,
he turns and stamps this off his mind again
and on the hour walks again through town.

Remarkably enough, the German term for gay (as in ‘male homosexual’), schwul, too, can be related back to meteorology, as e. g. Heiko Motschenbacher in a recent work on Language, Gender, and Sexual Identity has discussed. The term schwul is related, etymologically, to schwül, meaning ‘muggy’. The implication of steaminess and warmth is also present in the derogatory term ‘warmer Bruder’ (lit. ‘warm brother’, roughly an equivalent of English ‘faggot’).

It may well be worth re-examining the weather-related discourse and imagery surrounding common notions of homosexuality, as part of a refined queer linguistics, in order to gain a better understanding of underlying attitudes and prejudice.

This, however, is nothing that can be achieved in a mere blog-post.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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