Pederasty is exonerated in historical Greek society in an act of Eurocentric idealism. It is forgiven as a way that young men, through becoming objects, were afforded the opportunity to learn and grow as citizens; an opportunity presumably not afforded to another, arbitrary, designation. The story of Zeus kidnapping Ganymede and enslaving him, paired with the cultural repercussions of lauding this story of pederasty, is an effect of the eurocentric idealism that displaces any non-normative bodies…i.e. white, cis, and heteronormative.
The appropriation and recategorization of bodies to property is enacted throughout history, and the redesignation of queer bodies—or bodies as queer—doubly embodies this tension demonstrated in the Ganymede myth and Western society’s interpretation of it. The abduction of Ganymede has strong parallels to the forced diaspora of African peoples in the Atlantic slave trade and, reinforces the whitewashing of colonial, imperialistic Western cultures through destroyed relationships and the relensing of naturalistic relationships—ones borne out of shared trauma, experience, or drastic life changes—through a white, cis-normative conception of inter-personal relationships. Using this assumption, Ganymede is more useful as a queer of color lens in the white, heteronormative narrative of colonialism in order to shift our understanding of both the Ganymede myth and Western culture’s role in subjugating people. Kyla Wazana Tompkins centers queer theory in the history of racialized violence against indigenous and non-white peoples (174), which reframes the Ganymede myth succinctly: a rural boy is exoticized and then owned by the very symbol of heteropatriarchy. Tompkins also discusses performance as an act of self-edification and world-building (185), which can be seen in Ganymede’s rebellion: pouring out the water or wine or nectar to give it to his community, to people in need, both frees and destroys Ganymede. He rewrites his narrative and is martyred for it, but in doing so reifies a queered identity grounded in community action and struggle; Ganymede is defined against the Eurocentric ideal and creates space and history regardless. Through the queer of color critique, we can upend both classical and queer theory interpretations of Ganymede to empower and refocus the whitewashed, normalized narrative.
This theoretical grounding provides a bridge from Ganymede and Zeus to Chiron and Juan in the 2016 film Moonlight. Tompkins finishes her chapter on the explicit, inherent, and empowering visibility of queer people of color that “finds political value in the courage that queers of color contribute to everyday aesthetic practices, ranging from literature, drama, poetry, essays, autobiography, and dance to the movement of bodies in the space and time of everyday life” (186).
Juan is positioned as a father figure for Chiron from the beginning of Moonlight. Unlike Zeus and Ganymede, Juan and Chiron’s relationship begins and ends with intimacy, respect, and trust: Juan does not need to kidnap Chiron and Chiron is never kept by Juan. Through the beginning of the film, Juan himself and Juan’s home are places of refuge for Chiron. Both are escapes from the isolation he is forced into from a mostly absent mother and countless markers that other him at school. Juan is an empowering, as opposed to the oppression Zeus kept Ganymede with: Chiron was never given a role, but was instead taught how to create his own. Juan tells Chiron, before he teaches him how to swim:
Juan: I’ve been here a long time. Out of Cuba. A lot of black folks are Cuban. You wouldn’t know from being here now. I was a wild little shortie, man. Just like you. Running around with no shoes on, the moon was out. This one time, I run by this old…this old lady. I was running, howling. Kinda of a fool, boy. This old lady, she stopped me. She said…[imitates old lady voice] "Running around, catching a lot of light. In moonlight, black boys look blue. You're blue. That's what I'm gonna call you: ‘Blue’.” [pause]
Little: Is your name 'Blue'?
Juan: [laughs] Nah. [pause] At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you.
Tompkins quotes Gayatri Gopinath in exploring diaspora as an integral identity marker to queer and person of color experiences, establishing that “a queer diasporic framework productively exploits the analogous relation between nation and diaspora on the one hand, and between heterosexuality and queerness on the other…Queerness is to heterosexuality as the diaspora is to the nation” (182). Synthesizing this with Tompkins’s exploration of performance and colonial violence, this story from Juan about the inherent, natural beauty of black skin (which is not why Juan told Chiron the story) folds multiple histories (Juan’s history, the Atlantic slave trade, Cuban tradition) into a simple teaching moment. This story also explores the role of storytelling in maintaining a community and also overcoming differences between similar communities in order to strengthen both. How does Juan explain to Chiron what it means to be black specifically in Florida but also in the United States and, regardless, to always exercise his own agency? Chiron’s childhood is marked by anxiety trying to fit in and not figuring it out. The film charts his coming of age first as a means to survive and then a gateway to freedom.
There is a subplot in the story of Ganymede that tasks Ganymede with learning how to survive and what complicity can look like in order to persevere; Juan gave Chiron the cup - the awareness that there are different people, but also what a blueprint of hegemonic, black masculinity (both assumed and prescribed) looks like - to bear, but it is always Ganymede and Chiron who must decide to overturn the cup and embrace who they are. Tompkins explains that the act of simply existing can be performative for queers of color and that critical framework allows us to see that performance as powerful: “faking it till you make it” can not only allow a queer person of color to survive, but to create a world in which they can thrive.
The story of Ganymede and Zeus centers an idealized (white) masculinity and glorifies a patriarchal hierarchy that can be substituted for imperialistic actions, easily conflating “father,” “god,” and “state.” Moonlight provides a template through which queers of color can engage and interpret a non-hierarchical relationship that instead provides a template for community engagement and empowerment by recentering on Ganymede’s optimistic struggle in an oppressive world that mirrors their own struggle in a phobic world.
- aba5109. “Ganymedes and Zeus.” Introduction to Lesbian and Gay Studies. Penn State U, 2 April 2015, https://sites.psu.edu/245spring2015/2015/04/02/ganymedes-and-zeus/
- Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins, A24, 2016. https://a24films.com/films/moonlight/
- Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. “Intersections of Race, Gender, and Sexuality.” The Cambridge Companion to American Gay and Lesbian Literature, edited by Scott Herring, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015, pp. 173–189.