The Classical origins of gender

  • April 1, 2015
The Classical origins of gender

Scholar Elect Nikolas Oktaba talks about his research into how he uses the Classics to rethink the paradigms and limits of gender and sexuality.

On starting his undergraduate degree in Classics, Nikolas Oktaba became increasingly interested in the formative impact of classics on gender.

His professors suggested various texts to read, such as Craig Williams’ Roman Homosexuality which explored Roman ideas of masculinity. In the footnotes was the word transgender. It led Nikolas to further explore the subject. 

By way of introducing himself to the LGBT community, he posted an 1,800-word essay on Facebook on the Greek version of the New Testament and homosexuality. “It was my way of saying ‘hello’,” he says. He describes the reception he received as “wildly enthusiastic” and adds that he soon got a reputation for being “the scholar for LGBT on campus”.

“People would ask me for my view on which pronouns we use for transgender people. I began to see the connections between the Classics and how we talk about gender and sexuality today,” says Nikolas, who starts an MPhil in Classics at Cambridge this autumn.

Growing up

He was born in the very Catholic community of Greenpoint, Brooklyn and had not heard about LGBT issues until he started university. Nikolas was brought up by his mother who used to own an art gallery in the old part of Warsaw before she came to the US. She had been an active member of the Solidarity movement under the Communist regime and had to flee. In the US, she has been working as a housekeeper. “She imbued me with a healthy respect for knowledge and showed me it was important that if you found something you liked you should not let go of it. My respect for hard work and grit was shaped by my mother’s experience,” he says. It was after going with her to cleaning jobs after school that Nikolas was taken to the library and developed a voracious appetite for classical texts from an early age.

Nikolas says he was “a nerd” as a child. “I spent all my time in the public library,” he says. “My mum took me there from before I started school and set me loose to read twice a week. I would plough through the books. I started at the age of around five with Curious George, moved on to Tolkien and Arthurian romances to medieval history.”

He came upon Classics by accident after reading about late antiquity and Julius Caesar and getting hold of a bad edition of Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars. It was full of graphic black and white images of emperors such as Nero and Tiberius. “It was quite shocking to me at the time. I was used to sanitised versions of damsels in distress and Tolkein,” he says. He was seven at the time. For some reason, he became fascinated. He thought the emperors could not possibly be as bad as the depictions. “I felt there was more to be said than what I was seeing,” he says. He told his mother what he had picked up by mistake and she recommended he watch the BBC production of I Claudius, although without the Caligula episodes. “I liked the nuance,” he says. “It felt so real, not completely sensualist, but not as sanitary as the medieval knights. I felt I was there. I could relate to the passion.”

Nikolas had a reputation as a book worm at school and was called The Niktionary at both elementary and middle school. “As an eight year old I wore round glasses and carried enormous books around that were bigger than my chest,” he says. His teachers encouraged his reading, but left him to it. Some recommended books. In the fourth grade a teacher suggested he read a large tome on the US civil war. Nikolas became interested in the period, but kept drawing parallels with the Classics, for instance, he would compare the plantation owners to the Spartans. “I read everything I could get my hands on,” he says.

He attended Bronx High School of Science which was a two-hour commute away. He had to leave at 6am. The long commute made it difficult for him to join in extra-curricular activities. He did learn Latin, was involved in quizzes and wrote for the student newspaper on the Classics, without much success given that his subject matter included the etymology of antediluvian.

Nikolas grew up speaking Polish with English being his second language. “I sounded a bit like a James Bond villain when I spoke English,” he says. He saw how having a Polish accent affected his mother and he wanted to make her proud of him so he trained himself to speak without an accent.

University

Nikolas said he always knew he wanted a PhD and to be a professor, writing books. In kindergarten, he read books on dinosaurs and would sign some of his homework Sir Nikolas Owen, styling himself as a descendant of the renowned palaentologist Sir Richard Owen.

His first Latin teacher had got her degree from Fordham University and interested him in applying and recommended books for him to read. He found a book in the school library about Quintus Aurelius Symmachus by a Fordham lecturer who later became his supervisor. It helped spur him to apply. He now works as her research assistant.

He began his degree in Classics in 2011, starting Greek around the same time.  In addition to his growing academic interest in transgender issues, Nikolas started to apply what he was reading about to politics on campus. For instance, he would use the Greek version of the New Testament to refute those who used the Bible to make homophobic comments. “I would tell them that was not what the Greek version said. It was the Classics with a modern application,” he says. He became a voice on campus for the trans community as well as a Diversity Peer Leader for LGBT for the Office of Multicultural Affairs. He also gave guest lectures at the graduate centre on transgender.

In his sophomore year he gave a two-hour lecture on various sexual practices and imagery, citing Sappho’s poetry and ending with the Church fathers.  He had initially approached sexuality studies in English from a Freudian and Lacanian perspective, but he questioned “putting emperors on the couch”. So he tried a more interdisciplinary approach and in his lecture combined disciplines such as philosophy, philology, art history, social history and sociology.

Scholarships

Last year he won the Beinecke Scholarship for graduates in the Arts.This means he will get $34k. The email telling him he had got the scholarship went to his spam and he didn’t hear until 1st April, when he thought it might be an April Fool’s joke. He will be able to access it for his graduate studies and aims to use some of it to do a German course before he starts his PhD so he can read journal articles in German.

He chose to apply for his MPhil at Cambridge because it took a similar approach and because of scholars such as Mary Beard and Rebecca Fleming. He knew about the Gates Cambridge Scholarship from a previous Scholar from Fordham. He was attracted by the idea of using the scholarship for good. “I want to join a growing movement of Classicists in opening investigative inquiries into sometimes painful issues of identity,” he says.

Nikolas Oktaba

Nikolas Oktaba

  • Alumni
  • United States
  • 2015 MPhil Classics
  • Sidney Sussex College

Growing up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I spent much of my youth in the public library finding books to read so I could entertain myself when accompanying my mother while she cleaned apartments. It was at the library that I first encountered the Classics, reading Suetonius far earlier perhaps than I should have. Since that time, I have had a great fascination with Greek and Roman antiquity and with the representation and history of sexuality in particular. More recently, I developed increasing interest in transgender studies and have found that Classical texts provide important reflection on current debates on gender. Not only is this material close to me as a scholar, but I believe that its careful study will also act as an invitation for the transgender community to push beyond the boundaries of established scholarship. As such, my scholarly interests and social action join a larger movement to rethink the paradigms and limits of gender and sexuality. I hope to show the utility of not only the Classics, but the Humanities as a whole, to act as a valuable analytical and intellectual toolkit that students can use to grapple with the sometimes painful questions of identity that resonate with them.

Previous Education

Fordham University

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