Friday, 20 November 2020

400 and Counting

This is a very personal entry, a reflection on my research over the years into lgbt Olympians. If this was an ordinary year I’d be finalising my lgbt Olympian statistics, detailing which athletes had made their debut at the Tokyo games, which ones were the most successful, which had made the biggest impact, and which ones went up or down in the all-time medals table. This will all have to wait until next year. That doesn’t mean that my research has to stop.

Back in July when the Tokyo Olympics should have started I gave a list of statistics as they stood on the planned date of the opening ceremony. The list of lgbt Olympians stood at 391. This had been a big jump since the announcement of the postponement of the games on 24th March. On that day I had 385 names on the list. This gave me optimism in reaching 400 names by the time up the opening ceremony in July 2021.

So, I was very surprised and delighted when I identified and verified the 400th athlete to add to my list on 3rd November.

On several occasions in the past when I have identified one athlete the research has led on to reveal several others. This is how I managed to reach 400, and there are many more names that have cropped up which I am slowly going through and may be added to the list after more research. This has put me in a position where I can say that, if I can verify the gender identity and sexual orientation of each name, and that is by no means certain, then I will have a full list of 450 lgbt Olympians before Tokyo 2020 begins.

After placing the 400th name to my list I contacted Cyd Zeigler of We have been in contact for several years and he has helped enormously in reaching this milestone. I thanked him for his work, contribution and assistance over the years. He invited me to join him on one of his podcasts to talk about my work, and this will be broadcast on Monday, 23rd November. Check the Outsports website for details.

I’ve never really been sporty, but the Olympics have been around since the day I was born, two months before the Rome 1960 Summer games and a month before the start of the torch relay.

Whenever the Olympic Games, or the Paralympics or the Commonwealth Games, were taking place the family were always watching it. Back in 2016 when I was halfway thought my “Olympic Alphabet” series I wrote about my early recollections of the Olympics and the scrapbooks I made for the 1976 summer and winter games. One fact I gave in that article is worth repeating – there has never been a summer or winter Olympic Games in my lifetime – 60 years - where there has not been an lgbt competitor, even if they were not openly so.

So, what started me on compiling lists of lgbt Olympians? Probably the 2004 Athens Olympics. Both the “Gay Times” and “Pink Paper”, the leading UK lgbt magazine and newspaper respectively at that time, mentioned there were 11 of them. I kept that fact at the back of my mind. The 2008 Beijing Olympics weren’t on my mind for personal reasons, but I was back in Olympic mood for my all-time favourite Winter Olympics, Vancouver 2010. As we approached London 2012 I thought it would be a good idea to write an lgbt history of the Olympic Games for this blog, which I had just started. To begin the research I needed to gather together every name of lgbt Olympians I could find.

All through 2011 I researched and compiled my history and began serialising it on this blog from 14th January 2012. Of course, a lot has happened since then and that original history is very much out of date. Given enough time I’d like to update it.

One of the most significant finds during my early research was the Outsports website. They had a list of 137 openly lgbt athletes and sportspeople. Not all of them were Olympians but it formed the basis of my first list. As I said earlier, the founders of Outsports, Cyd Zeigler and Jim Buzinski, have been extremely helpful and supportive.

The published lists have become very popular. Several media websites have referenced my blog and, to my dismay, I am even used as a reference source on Wikipedia. My lists have never been intended to be authoritative and I would prefer people would go to original sources. Wikipedia may give names of lgbt Olympians but very little in the way of evidence. Similarly, sport fan forums often give names by no source, most of the time they give unsubstantiated rumour, so I don’t add any name to my list unless I can find definitive evidence of an athlete’s sexuality or gender identity.

Every Olympic year I have requests for interviews, and I have been contacted by several lgbt Olympians who had asked to be put their names on the list. There have also been a couple of lgbt athletes who have requested not to be named. My research led to me becoming a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians, the only historical society approved by the International Olympic Committee. In August 2018 my research was used at the Pride House in Glasgow during the European Athletic Championships. It was turned into a pathway leading through the entrance (pictured below).

So that’s the history of my lgbt Olympian list. Originally I also included lgbt Paralympians, but the lists are getting so long that I find it difficult keeping up with both. This is why I am stopping my list of lgbt Paralympians so I can concentrate on the Olympians. I hope there is someone out there who will carry on the Paralympic side of sport.

As I’ve said to one of my friends on several occasions, history is always changing. By that I mean that every new name or detail that comes to light changes our perception or understanding of what has happened. Each new historic name I place on my list changes the history of lgbt Olympians. What is certain is that the list will never be complete. There will always be athletes who come out as new members of the lgbt community, but there will also be others whose sexuality will have gone with them to their graves.

I’ll leave you with this thought – recent research has uncovered about 50 new names for me to look into, and I am on track to have a list 500 lgbt Olympians by the time of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, and that’s only 27 months away.

Monday, 16 November 2020

80 More Gays Around the World: Part 25) Friends and Betrayal

Last time on “80 More Gays”: 68) Bruce Voeller (1934-1994) was the person credited with coming up with the name “AIDS”, and names form the basis of the AIDS Memorial Quilt created by 69) Cleve Jones (b.1954), for which many companies have raised funds, including South African wine companies, one of which is owned by 70) Gerard Holden (b.1964), while another is located on the site of a leper hospital were 71) Dr. James Barry (c.1795-1865) worked.

After over 40 years service in the British army as a pioneering surgeon 71) Dr. James Barry retired to London where he died. His body was laid out in preparation for burial by a woman called Sophia Bishop. It was she discovered that James Barry was physically female and had successfully hidden this secret from the army for decades. When Sophia was refused payment for her services she took the secret to the press.

The revelation that one of the most revered army surgeons was born a woman caused quite a stir. The army were so embarrassed that they tried to suppress James Barry’s military records for a hundred years. Their attempt failed and the world got to know James Barry’s secret.

James Barry was baptised Margaret Ann Bulkey in Ireland. From adulthood he lived as a man. This suited James’ father who managed to enrol him into Edinburgh University as a medical student in 1809. Women were not allowed to study medicine in those days.

James qualified as a doctor in 1812 and enlisted into the army a year later. He rose very quickly to become Assistant Surgeon to the Forces in 1815. This position gave James the chance to travel the world. His first posting was to Cape Province in South Africa where he became Colonial Medical Inspector. In this role he went to the leper hospital at Hermanus (the location of the present Hamilton Russell wine estate) and immediately set about improving health care and hygiene practices.

James had a reputation for voicing his opposition to many established medical practices wherever he went. He even had a big row with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War over hygiene (she then stole his ideas and passed them off as her own).

By the time of his death James Barry was well-known and respected, and all because his father enrolled him into Edinburgh University all those decades earlier. Others also kept his gender a secret. One of the family friends was a Venezuelan revolutionary called Francisco de Miranda. The original plan may have been for James to act as governess to Miranda’s children, perhaps in Venezuela, before he made his decision to become a doctor. James wouldn’t have become such a famous figure in the medical world if he had gone to Venezuela because South America was in a state of turmoil as colonies began revolting against their Spanish and Napoleonic rulers. Francisco de Miranda laid the foundations for the liberation of much of South America, assisted by compatriot revolutionaries such as a Simón Bolivar and 72) Carlos de Montúfar (1780-1816).

Carlos’s relationship with the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt is mentioned here. After he and Humboldt went their separate ways Carlos entered the Spanish army and fought in several battles against the Napoleonic French. In 1810 he sailed back to his native Ecuador, a Spanish colonial province then called the Quito Audiencia. There he joined the independence movement with his father, the Marques de Selva Alegre.

In 1812 independence was declared under the name of the Autonomous Government of Quito with Carlos’s father as President. However, a few months later Spanish loyalist troops took Quito city and the revolutionary government, including Carlos de Montúfar, fled. Eventually Carlos joined Simón Bolivar in his independence campaigns in Colombia but was captured at the Battle of the Cuchilla de Tambo in June 1816. The following month he was executed.

Simón Bolivar went on to become the big hero of South American independence, even having the country Bolivia named after him, of course. Strangely, Bolivia attracted many German settlers. Their descendants are recognised as a separate ethnic community to this day.

In the 1920s Bolivia decided to call upon Germany to help them reorganise their army. One of the military instructors that was sent was 73) Ernst Röhm (1887-1934), one of Adolf Hitler’s close friends.

Ernst arrived in Bolivia in January 1929. He was disappointed that a recent conflict with Paraguay has been resolved before he arrived and he was often at odds with his commanding officer, Gen. Hans Kundt. Shortly after his arrival a coup supported by Kundt deposed the Bolivian president. Ernst was rumoured that the new president had chosen him to replace Kundt, but before that could happen Ernst received a letter from Hitler ordering him to return to Germany. If only he had stayed in Bolivia.

What attracted Ernst back was the promise of becoming Chief of Staff of the SA (Sturmabteilung, the Storm Battalion, known as the Brown Shirts), the Nazi’s paramilitary wing which Ernst had helped to found in 1921. By 1934 the general reputation of the SA had deteriorated to the status of armed thugs and Hitler decided to scale back its powers.

Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, the Chief of the SS Security Service, fabricated documents against Ernst Röhm, suggesting that the SA were planning to overthrow Hitler. Most of this evidence centred on the alleged activities of the many known gay members of the SA. Hitler knew Ernst was gay and was at first reluctant to believe the evidence. What resulted was the “Night of the Long Knives”, a pivotal event in the history of the rise of Hitler.

On 30th June 1934 Hitler and SS troops arrested Ernst Röhm and the SA leaders in a surprise attack. After some procrastination Hitler ordered the execution of Ernst two days later. Following the Night of the Long Knives Hitler strengthened Paragraph 175, the law criminalising homosexuality, and Hitler assumed more power.

Reinhard Heydrich, the co-author of the fake documents, became Protector of Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia (modern-day Czech Republic). Czech rebels murdered Heydrich in 1942 and Hitler retaliated by ordering the execution of every man in the village of Lidice, where he claimed the assassins had been harboured. The “Lidice Massacre” horrified the world. Some places still commemorate it to this day. One commemoration was a verse-play called “The Murder of Lidice” and it was written by 74) Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950).

Next time of “80 More Gays”: How a village was destroyed, how reputations were built, and how civilisations were revealed.

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Homohoax: How To Fool The Nazis

Armies have always used hoaxes and deception to confuse and mislead the enemy. Camouflage is the most obvious method of concealment and the famous camouflage pattern was produced by the French army in World War I. By World War II a different technique to hoax the enemy began to be used extensively, and that was the manufacture of fake army vehicles and military bases, and some of the top lgbt artists of the era helped to hoax the Nazis. This technique wasn’t new. It has its roots way back to ancient Greece and the Trojan Horse, the ultimate disguised army personnel carrier. In the UK the technique was used most prominently by the British Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate. Members of this unit were mainly artists, designers and prop makers.

Two lgbt members of the British war effort to hoax the Nazis at home and abroad were Robert Medley (1905-1994) and Oliver Messel (1904-1978).

The main area of operations for the Camouflage Directorate was in North Africa. The most significant deception operations were called Operation Crusader (November-December 1941) and Operation Bertram (September-October 1942). Their purpose was to get British and Allied troops around the German defences on the Egyptian-Libyan border.

Robert Medley, an established artist and theatre designer, was assigned to Operation Crusader. With his life partner, the dancer Rupert Doone, he founded the Group Theatre. In 1937 Robert founded the Artist’s International Association, an organisation which specifically promoted the works of socialist and avant-garde artists.

It was the socialist aspect of Robert’s life which caused concern to MI5 who thought he was too Communist-leaning. They blocked his appointment as an official war artist in France and instead Robert was chosen to record air raid precautions in northern England.

When this contract ended he was selected by the British Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate to go to North Africa as part of Operation Crusader. There Robert designed camouflage and disguises for military vehicles and created a fake railhead and goods depot.

More extensive hoaxes were created for Operation Bertram, the deception leading up to the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 which Allied forces won. The captured Nazi general admitted that he had been fooled into thinking the Allies had more troops in the area than they actually did, thanks to Robert Medley and all the other talented members of the Camouflage Directorate.

Meanwhile, back in “blighty” (the UK), deception work was being carried out by Oliver Messel. As well as being a theatre designer Oliver designed masks and costumes. He also designed for films (he was nominated for an Oscar in 1960).

With the constant threat of a Nazi invasion the UK government devised a series of homeland defence strategies. One of these was the Taunton Stop Line, a line of defences which ran across the south-west peninsula of England (Cornwall and Devon). As with other Stop Lines around the country the defence line included small concrete machine gun posts called pillboxes. It was Oliver Messel’s job to disguise these pillboxes, which he did by making them look like caravans, haystacks, or heaps of coal. Many pillboxes survive around the country and are Grade II listed structures. Several of Olive Messel’s pillboxes also still survive.

Photo of pillboxes disguised by Oliver Messel, taken from the book “Indigo Day” by fellow artist and Camouflage officer Julian Trevelyan, published 1957.

Towards the end of the war the USA created its own camouflage division inspired by Operations Crusader and Bertram called the 603rd Engineers Camouflage Battalion, part of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, more popularly known as the Ghost Army. Two lgbt artists recruited were Ellsworth Kelly (1923-12015) and Bill Blass (1922-2002).

Ellsworth Kelly is best known for his abstract paintings with bold blocks of colours. For the Ghost Army he painted camouflage patterns on military vehicles and designed propaganda posters. Like most artists in the Ghost Army and the British Camouflage Directorate Ellsworth filled many sketch books with ideas and designs for hoax methods.

Both the British and American camouflage units sent their members to the front line. There was no other way the artist could design effective hoaxes without knowing the lay of the land, as it was often the terrain that dictated which deception techniques were best for the area.

Bill Blass was starting his career as a fashion designer when he enlisted into the US army in 1943. His artistic skills soon saw him assigned to the Ghost Army. After some training in the States, Bill Blass, Ellsworth Kelly and the rest of the Ghost Army travelled to the UK where they helped the British in creating fake D-Day landings called Operation Fortitude in 1944. All over Europe hoax military operations hid the true D-Day target of the Normandy beaches of France.

The Ghost Army then went into France after the D-Day landings and gradually moved south-east, constructing fakes and hoaxes along the way. Bill Blass provided deception techniques during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944-5, and Ellsworth worked along the Maginot Line, a line of defensive structures like those that Oliver Messel worked on for the Taunton Stop Line.

There is no doubt that the wartime deceptions of Robert Medley, Oliver Messel, Ellsworth Kelly and Bill Blass contributed to the success in hoaxing the Nazis into believing something that wasn’t real. On this Remembrance Day, while we may not be able to gather around memorials, let’s give a thought this year to the work of artists, designers and craftsmen who were as much a part of front-line war as the soldiers.

Thursday, 5 November 2020

80 More Gays Around the World: Part 24) Naming Names

Last time on “80 More Gays”: 64) Hubert Lyautey (1854-1934) was probably part-inspiration for a character created by 65) Marcel Proust (1871-1922) who was an orchid lover, one of the botanical crazes which began in the 19th century, like fern-fever which formed the basis of a nursery founded by 66) Steven Fletcher (b.1959) and 67) Kerry Robinson (b.1965) and which was a specialist area of study by 68) Bruce Voeller (1934-1994).

The name of 68) Bruce Voeller is best known within the lgbt community for coming up with the name AIDS, but in scientific circles he is also remembered for something else. Bruce studied the structure of ferns and related plants. He wrote many academic articles and papers on the subject and a few general text books on botany. In 1962 he was appointed an Assistant Professor of botany at the Rockefeller Institute (now the Rockefeller University) and became an Associate Professor four years later.

Bruce married and had three children. He decided to come out as gay in 1963 and the subsequent child custody battle after the divorce attracted a lot of coverage in the press.

Bruce then became a gay rights activist joining several protests and co-founding the Gay Activists Alliance in 1969. However, he disliked the Alliance’s reliance on “zapping” – high-publicity protests that we see today in organisations such as Extinction Rebellion. In 1973 Bruce left the Alliance to form what is now called the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

In 1978 Bruce moved to California where he founded another organisation, the Mariposa Education and Research Foundation, whose aim was to conduct research into human sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases. Thus Bruce and the Mariposa Foundation were ideally placed when a deadly disease suddenly appeared in the 1980s. At first scientists varied in their choice of name for the disease, the most popular being Gay Related Immune Defence Disorder (GRID). Some doctors refused to use this name because some patients with the disease weren’t gay men.

It is believed that it was Bruce who came up with the alternative name for GRID. His suggestion was Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome – AIDS. Bruce attended the meeting of the Centre for Disease Control in July 1982 at which the name AIDS became the official name for the disease. Bruce continued to campaign for AIDS education and carried out research into the disease right up to his own AIDS-related death in 1994.

Names figure prominently in awareness campaigns for HIV and AIDS. Perhaps no other disease has so many named sufferers who are personally memorialised in something akin to the names on war memorials. The biggest collection of these names is the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt founded by 69) Cleve Jones (b.1954).

The idea for the quilt came to Cleve during a march in 1985 in remembrance of Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco politician murdered in 1978. Cleve asked people to write the names of loved ones who had died from AIDS-related causes on cardboard signs. These were then taped to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. To Cleve, the taped signs reminded him of a quilt. And so an icon of the modern lgbt community was born. This year the quilt came into the care of the National AIDS Memorial organisation. Sections of the quilt were unfolded at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in a ceremony on 10th July 2020.

Over the years many lgbt and non-lgbt organisations, both charitable and commercial, have contributed to the fundraising efforts of the NAMES Project Foundation to help support people who are suffering physically or financially because they have been diagnosed with HIV or lost a loved one.

In 1997 a California wine producer called Clos du Bois began a long-running fund-raising  campaign. They produced “neckers”, little cards that hang around bottle necks, each depicting the AIDS Quilt. Every purchaser would be encouraged to return the necker to Clos du Bois who would donate a dollar to the NAMES Project Foundation.

Clos du Bois advertisement from “Advocate” magazine, November 1998.
Clos du Bois was not the first commercial company to target the lgbt community (e.g. Disney, Skittles and Kellogg’s are “serial targeters”). Let’s stay with wine. Over the years several other wine companies have produced fundraisers for lgbt charities. There are also a few wine companies run by openly lgbt producers. One of the biggest in South Africa is the Holden Manz Wine Estate established by 70) Gerard Holden (b.1964) and his partner Migo Manz.

Gerard came from a coal-mining family in northern England. This inspired him to become a mining engineer and he joined Barclays Bank. He eventually became its Global Head of Mining and Metals. This took him all around the world, and he fell in love with South Africa. In 2005 he bought a winery estate in the Francshhoek Valley in Western Cape Province.

The Holden Manz estate has grown in its reputation, and several of its wines have won awards. It has also hosted tours of the winery, including some organised by Out in the Vineyard, an lgbt wine-lovers tour company in California. The luxury guest house on the estate has also hosted same-sex weddings.

Wine-growing in South Africa went through a renaissance after the dismantling of apartheid in the 1990s. The Holden Manz estate is one example, and today South African wines are very popular. It is one among many vineyards in idyllic settings, surrounded by picturesque mountains. But the scenery can often mask the original purpose of the vineyard, and probably no more so than another leading Western Cape vineyard, Hamilton Russell at Hermanus. The land on which that vineyard sits was once part of a leper hospital. One of the doctors who worked there was 71) James Barry (1795-1865).

Next time on “80 More Gays”: From South Africa to Venezuela, and from Ecuador to Germany, we find that having a friend in high places is both a blessing and a danger.

Saturday, 31 October 2020

A Ghostly Warning of Doom

On previous Hallowe’ens I’ve written about vampires, Frankenstien’s monster and mummies, but not about ghosts. So, how about an lgbt ghost story from ancient Greece today. The story is a sort of companion article to one I wrote a few days ago – you’ll see why when you read on.

In the city-state of Aetolia on the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth there lived a man called Polykritos. He was a man of good standing, of noble blood, and well-like by all the citizens. One year the people (i.e. the men) of Aetolia voted him their leader. During his term of office he married a girl from the neighbouring Locrian community, but after just three nights Polykritos died leaving his young bride pregnant.

Nine months later the young widow gave birth to a healthy baby. However, the birth caused a good deal of fear in the Aetolians for the baby was born with both female and male genitalia, the baby was intersex. In ancient Greek societies an intersex baby, or hermaphrodite, as they would say, was a sign of bad luck.

Polykritos’s family took the baby to the agora, the city square, where they had called for a meeting of all the citizens and priests. The assembly debated and argued about what to do about the baby. Some people were worried that taking the baby away from its Locrian mother might cause a deterioration of the friendly relations between the Locrians and Aetolians. The priests said that both the mother and baby should be taken far away and burnt to death like an animal sacrifice.

As they were still debating a dark phantom appeared. It was the ghost of Polykritos.

The crown recoiled in terror and began to run away, but the ghost called out to them, “Don’t be afraid.” It took a little while for the crown to settle down but they were still a bit frightened. The apparition spoke again:

“Citizens. Although I am dead, because of the goodwill I feel towards you I have appealed to the masters of the underworld to let me come and help you. I beg you, hand over my child to me so that no violence will come to it. I won’t let you harm my child as the priests demand. I can understand that my appearance has frightened you and caused some confusion, but if you do as I ask all fears will be removed and you’ll be saved from any disaster as a result. If you come to another decision your distrust of me will only result in disaster. I’m telling you this for your own good. So, don’t wait, make the right decision and give me my child now, because the masters of the underworld won’t let me stay here much longer.”

After a stunned silence the crowd began discussing Polykritos’s plea. Some suggested that they hand over the baby straight away. Others thought that they needed more time to think about it, but Polykritos’s ghost could wait not longer. “Okay, don’t blame me for what happens next”, it said, and with that the ghost picked up the baby and without waring began tearing the child’s arms and legs out of their sockets and ripping at its body. The ghost then ate the bleeding flesh.

The crowd stared in horror and tried to stop the ghost by throwing stones at it, but they went straight through it. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the ghost vanished. All that was left of the baby was its head, lying in a pool of blood on the ground.

The crowd didn’t know what to do next. Perhaps they should go to consult the oracle at Delphi. Before they could discuss it further the baby’s head began to speak.

“You cannot go to the oracle because your hands are steeped in blood” the head said. “I will tell you what the oracle will foretell. One year from today death will come to everyone in this place. The offspring of Aetolians and Locrians will live together, but there will be no escape from the evil to come. A rain of blood will fall upon you and the gods will render your descendants inglorious.” The head told the crowd to leave the city if they wanted to live. The women, children and elderly were sent away leaving the men behind to await their fate.

One year later the remaining Aetolians fought a battle against their rivals to the west, the Akarnanians. Very few Aetolians survived.

I’m not much of a storyteller, I know, but I hope you found this tale nice and spooky enough for Hallowe’en. But what are we to make of it? Was it real?

The story comes from a 2nd century work by Phlegon of Tralles called “The Book of Marvels” (“Rebus Mirabilus”). Books about marvels, trivia and lists were all the rage in Phlegon’s lifetime. Phlegon himself wrote three – his Book of Marvels, a history of ancient Olympians, and a book on the longest lived humans in history. Modern scholars have given this sort of ancient trivia mania a name – paradoxography.

Modern popular culture still has a fascination for unusual and trivial facts and there are many books, and especially YouTube channels, on the subject. They are all copying what the ancient writers did a couple of thousand years ago.

So, who was Phlegon of Thralles anyway? He wasn’t a historian. He was a freedman, a former slave of the gay Roman Emperor Hadrian. He must have been fairly intelligent and literate to be able to read and write several books. But that doesn’t tell us if the story of Polykritos and the talking baby’s head was true. Phlegon said he got the story from an earlier writer called Hieron of Ephesus. A later account of the story adds that Hieron wrote about the ghostly encounter in a letter to King Antigonus of Macedonia, a contemporary of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC.

Scholars aren’t even sure where Hieron of Ephesus got the story from in the first place, and in the later account which mentioned the letter it is claimed that Hieron was even an eye-witness to the grisly affair. In the end it may all have been ancient urban legend or folk tale which Phlegon believed to have been true, something else which is also a feature of modern popular culture. What ever it’s ultimate origin the two surviving accounts serve as a gruesome and ghostly tale for any Hallowe’en party.

Monday, 26 October 2020

The Two-Formed One

Can anyone ever be sure of the identity of the first real-life intersex individual in recorded history? Someone who wasn’t a legend, myth or deity? It may be possible by referring to a manuscript that was written over 2,000 years ago called “Bibliotheca Historia” by Diodorus Siculus (c.80 BC-c.20 BC). Diodorus is a reasonably reliable historian.

Diodorus writes an account of the reign of King Alexander I Balas of the Seleucid Empire, the region corresponding roughly to modern Iran, Iraq and Syria. After chronicling Balas’s life, reign and death Diodorus gives an anecdotal tale which may or may nor be true.

Alexander Balas gained his throne by overthrowing King Demetrius I Soter. Balas wasn’t a particularly competent ruler and he lost his throne to Demetrius’s son five years later. Diodorus writes that Balas consulted the oracle at Apollo’s sanctuary in Cicilia in southern Turkey. The oracle issued a grave warning – to beware of the place that bore the “two-formed one”. Balas was puzzled and didn’t understand what it meant (oracles were always a bit vague).

Balas had done little of significance during his reign, apart from making a marriage alliance with Egypt. It wasn’t long before his predecessor’s son, Demetrius II, fought to regain the throne. The big show-down came after Egypt switched sides to Demetrius. The decisive battle came in August 145 BC. Balas met Demetrius and the Egyptians near what is now called the Afrin River in northeast Syria. Balas’s forces were overwhelmed and he fled south to Abae, a city on the northern edge of the Syrian desert. There he was killed, possibly by some of his own generals who decided it was better to support Demetrius.

So, who was this “two-formed one” that the oracle had warned Balas about? The tale recounted by Diodorus Siculus names him as a soldier in Balas’s army called Diophantes. According to a study of ancient literature by Dr. Lutz Alexander Graumann, Diophantes is the first historical intersex person whose name is recorded, or at least Dr. Graumann believed he was.

Diophantes was raised as girl, the only child of another Diophantes and an Arabian mother. He was originally named Heraïs. Diophantes senior was Macedonian and lived in Abae, which appears to have had a large Greek military presence.

Diophantes senior also had a son, Diophantes junior, who died young, so Diophantes senior was able to provide a large dowry for his daughter Heraïs on her marriage to a man called Samiades. One year into the marriage Samiades had to go away on a journey.

Not long after he departed Heraïs became ill. A swelling developed on the bottom of the abdomen and she developed high fevers. The physicians diagnosed it as an ulcer on her uterus and treated as such.

A week later, when Heraïs was visiting her mother, the swelling burst and out of it emerged a full set of male genitalia. The mother and her servants tended Heraïs as best they could but all of them were too shocked and didn’t understand what was going on. They all agreed that no-one, including her physician, must know of it. Heraïs gradually recovered.

Eventually, Samiades returned home. Heraïs was too afraid to meet him and this made Samiades angry. Time and time again he demanded that his wife should meet him. By now Heraïs’s father had learnt the truth and he too was afraid to reveal the truth to Samiades. In the end Samiades took Diophantes senior to court, claiming he was deliberately preventing Heraïs from performing her lawful duties as a wife.

The jury agreed and Heraïs was summoned to the court. Feeling there was no other choice but to reveal the truth Heraïs undid her dress and revealed her new gender status to the whole court. At the same time she insisted that no man should cohabit with another man.

There was nothing Samiades or the court could do to force her into going back to her husband when she appeared to be a man. From then on Heraïs lived and dressed as a man and adopted the name of his father and dead brother, Diophantes. Physicians examined him and decided to surgically stabilize his genitals to prevent any internal pain.

Diophantes enrolled into the Greek army and fought at Abae where King Alexander I Balas was killed. Thus the oracle’s prophecy was fulfilled.

But is it a true story? Did Diophantes really? We’ll never know for sure. But is it possible for male genitalia to suddenly appear like that? There are known cases of intersex females not showing any visible signs of male genitalia. There are also cases of females whose male genitalia don’t become apparent until puberty. Some intersexuals enter puberty later than the usual age, and putting these all together we can understand how the female Heraïs became the intersex Diodorus.

The age at which a female could marry in ancient Greece was 12. In his written account Diodorus Siculus states that Diophantes senior provided a dowry as soon as Heraïs came of age. A year after the marriage her husband goes off on a journey and Heraïs undergoes her changes. This could have been during a late puberty, so Heraïs-Diophantes may have been 15 or 16. This is also a reasonable age for a Greek youth like Diophantes to join the army. So, on the medical evidence alone, it is very possible that the story could have been based on fact.

So, there we have it. Probably the earliest recorded name of an intersex person, the “two-formed one” mentioned by an oracle in a warning to King Alexander I Balas between 150 and 145 BC – Diophantes of Abae.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

80 More Gays Around the World: Part 23) From France to Fern-atics

Last time on “80 More Gays”: 61) Hélène van Zuylen (1863-1947) was a pioneering female motor racer in a male dominated sport, and 62) Roberta Cowell (1918-2011) was a pioneering transgender motor racer, and she was also an lgbt pilot, as was 63) David Charlebois (1962-2001), a victim of the 9/11 terror attacks, who was born in a city that was once named after 64) Hubert Lyautey (1854-1934).

64) Hubert Lyautey was appointed Resident General of Morocco in 1907. The French were already well-established in Morocco, though they switched from being a foreign trading nation with a number of bases in the country to a colonial power at the beginning of the 20th century.

Local rebels and declining economy led Lyautey, in command of French troops in North Africa at the time, to move into Morocco to “protect” French interests in 1904. Morocco came under direct French military control in 1907 after rebels killed a prominent French doctor in Marrakesh, which led to Lyautey being appointed Resident General. In 1911 a power struggle between the Sultan and his brother led to further rebellions. France then declared Morocco to be a French Protectorate.

Unlike other French colonies Morocco was allowed to keep its distinctive character and laws. The Sultan of Morocco was allowed to remain as Head of State instead of the French President and the country remained a sovereign state.

Lyautey strengthened the infrastructure of Morocco, building railways, roads, bridges and ports. Kenitra was one such port. It was a small settlement before Lyautey turned it into a French military base in 1912. In 1933, after Lyautey had returned to France after being replaced in 1925, Kenitra was renamed Port Lyautey. It returned to its former name when France abolished the protectorate in 1956.

Although married to Inés de Bourgoing, a remarkable person in her own right, Lyautey was widely regarded as being gay. Gay men being married was not unusual for that period. There’s no actual proof Lyautey was gay. He never admitted being so, through it seems it was not a secret, and even the French Prime Minister was aware of it.

Lyautey’s may have provided inspiration for a literary character who brings us back to someone I mentioned several “80 More Gays” ago. Today he joins the chain in his own right – 65) Marcel Proust (1871-1922).

Although we’ll never know for sure, Proust based the character of the Baron de Charlus in his 7-volume novel series “À la Recherche du temps perdu” (Remembrance of Things Past) on Lyautey. It’s also likely that the Baron was based on another gay Frenchman, Count Robert Montesquiou (1855-1921). Marcel Proust had met them both – Lyautey in 1887 and Montesquiou in 1893. Both could easily been the inspiration, Proust selecting specific characteristics from each.

Baron de Charlus makes his first appearance in Proust’s novel series in volume one, “Swann’s Way”, which was turned into the film “Swann in Love” by 60) Nicole Stéphane. The main character, Charles Swann, falls in love with Odette. The first physical realisation of their attraction occurs in a scene inside a carriage. After a sudden jolt a flower, a cattleya, a type of orchid, becomes loosened from Odette’s dress. Swann leans over and pins it back in place and as they lean towards each other they kiss. From then on they adopt a private saying, “Do a cattleya” to mean any sexual contact between them.

It’s very apt that the cattleya (pronounced cattley-a rather than cattle-ya) plays such a large part in their relationship. It was Odette’s favourite flower. It was also Marcel Proust’s favourite flower. Every day he would buy a fresh cattleya for his buttonhole.

Detail of “Portrait of Marcel Proust” by Jacques Emile Blanche, 1892,
showing Proust wearing a cattleya orchid.

Orchids were very fashionable during Proust’s lifetime, even a craze. It even had a name, orchidelerium. This was one of several floral manias. There was also a craze for ferns, which was also given a name, pteridophilia. Although the height of the orchid and fern manias was over a century ago there’s still an appeal for them, as can be seen in the success of a fern nurseries, including one in southern England called Fernatix (pronounced like “fanatics”) created by 66) Steven Fletcher (b.1959) and 67) Kerry Robinson (b.1965).

Steven Fletcher’s horticultural career began with growing orchids in the 1980s. For a while he was Chair of the Cambridge Orchid Society. At the regular orchid shows Steven would use ferns to place around the pots to disguise them. He noticed people began to take as much interest in the ferns as they did in the orchids. This got him thinking about growing ferns and led to his decision to open Fernatix with his partner Kerry.

Steven and Kerry met on a blind date arranged by a friend and they connected instantly. When they first began displaying their ferns they attracted attention – they looked like bikers in leathers and piercings, not like gardeners at all. Nonetheless, they were accepted into the horticultural world and Fernatix soon became a successful business.

The first Fernatix display at the premier flower show in the UK, the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, earned them a gold medal, and many more have followed over the years, right up to this year.

Ferns may seem underwhelming to most people but their popularity and the success of Fernatix and other fern nurseries prove they are still popular. The fern fever of the 19th century originally centred on their aesthetic value, but it led to them being studied to improve cultivation. Eventually, the study of ferns became a science in its own right called pteridology.

There may be many lgbt pteridophilists besides Steven Fletcher and Kerry Robinson, but there’s one who became a significant figure outside botany. His main area of study was in phytocytology - plant structure. If these scientific terms are a bit too technical we can be grateful to this particular pteridological phytocytologist for coming up with a short name for a new disease. This man’s name was 68) Bruce Voeller (1834-1994).

Next time on “80 More Gays”: A new disease acquires a new name, and names come together to raise awareness with a glass of wine.