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Ria Brodell’s Butch Heroes Recovers Forgotten Queer History

Katherina Hetzeldorfer was tried and then drowned in the Rhine, for a crime that didn’t have a name in 1477.

Artwork from Butch Heroes by Ria Brodell.
Artwork from Butch Heroes by Ria Brodell.

Published by MIT Press, Butch Heroes tells the stories of individuals who didn’t conform to gender norms, from the 15th through the 20th centuries. In this book, Ria Brodell offers intriguing hints of lost lives through 28 portraits and texts presenting detailed and witty paintings modeled on Catholic holy cards, slyly subverting a religious template.

One of these stories is about Hetzeldorfer who had moved to the city of Speier, Germany, from Nuremberg with a woman who, during the trial, Hetzeldorfer claimed was a sister. They had lived in Speier for two years before Hetzeldorfer was arrested. The two had apparently confided in members of the community, describing the nature of their relationship as being like that of a husband and wife. After intense cross-examination, Hetzeldorfer revealed that the woman was not a sibling, but that they had had a long-standing sexual relationship. (Hetzeldorfer’s wife may have escaped, because her words are not recorded in the trial transcripts.)

Female witnesses who claimed to have been seduced by Hetzeldorfer described him/her as “being like a man in both physique and behavior, a sexually aggressive character and a potent lover.” Hetzeldorfer and these witnesses were made to describe in detail how it was that Hetzeldorfer acted like a man; their answers included the description of the use of an “instrument” and how it was made: “with a red piece of leather, at the front filled with cotton, and a wooden stick stuck into it, and made a hole through the wooden stick, put a string through, and tied it round.” It was the use of this “instrument,” combined with Hetzeldorfer’s gender transgressions, that led to death by drowning, a particularly demeaning sentence reserved for women.

Butch Heroes is published by MIT Press. Available now at mitpress.edu/butch-heroes.