Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Out Of Their Trees : Michael Dillon

Caribbean pirates, Imperial barons, Canadian senators, Irish bishops, Australian settlers, and Sir Christopher Wren. There can’t be many ancestries as varied as this! We come across all of these in the ancestry of today’s subject, the first transgender person to have female to male reassignment surgery. He is Michael Dillon (1915-1962).

There’s no better place to start than with Michael’s paternal family, the Dillons. The Dillons are an archetypical Anglo-Irish family who settled in Ireland as a result of the “Irish troubles”. That’s the “Irish troubles” of the 12th century, when bad Prince John was sent across to conquer Ireland for the English.

Even though several branches of the family acquired British hereditary titles they weren’t originally British. Or were they? Michael’s earliest male-line ancestors came from Brittany and today we’d call them Breton. Brittany and Cornwall share a lot of heritage and language and regard each other as parts of the same Celtic nation.

Henri de Leon, a British/Breton knight, accompanied Prince John to Ireland in 1185 and was given vast estates there, founding the dynasty that has lived in Ireland ever since. The name de Leon eventually became, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, Dillon.

As well as British titles the Dillons acquired titles from other European countries. A distant cousin was created a French count, and Michael’s own great-great-grandfather was created a baron of the Holy Roman Empire in 1783. This first Baron Dillon, Joseph, was grandson of Ralph Lambert (d.1732), Bishop of Meath. Lambert was a rival of Jonathan Swift (author of “Gulliver’s Travels”) for various Irish ecclesiastical appointments. Several times Swift was recommended for deaneries and bishoprics, and lost out to Lambert every time.

I’ll jump to Michael’s mother’s family before I continue with the Dillons. Michael’s mother Laura was Australian. She died of sepsis ten days after Michael was born, and in remembrance of her Michael’s original baptismal name was Laura. The family, the Reeses, arrived in Australia in the mid-1800s, with Laura Reese’s grandfather emigrating there from Germany. Her father married the daughter of an Irish immigrant, so Michael Dillon has Irish blood on both sides of his ancestry.

Returning to the Dillons we encounter British colonial settlers from another part of the world – Canada. Michael’s grandfather, Baron Robert Dillon, married Minerva, the daughter of Hon. Samuel Silvester Mills (d.1874), Senator of the Canadian Upper House.

Senator Mills’ parents were born in the USA and settled in Hamilton, Ontario in 1800, though Samuel’s maternal grandfather, Michael Hess (1740-1804) was actually from there originally. Michael Hess married an American girl of Dutch ancestry called Gertruidt. No-one has proved it, but lots of websites claim she was a daughter of Johan van Cortlandt. If so, then Michael Dillon is descended from Stephan van Cortlandt, the first American-born Mayor of New York City.

We’ll return to Joseph Dillon, the first Baron Dillon. His mother-in-law was Mrs. Jane Drake (née Long). She came from another British colonial family – one which brings the dark shadow of slavery into Michael’s ancestry.

The Long family’s association with Jamaica began in 1655 when Samuel Long accompanied the expedition to secure the island for the British (as Michaels’ Dillon ancestors did in Ireland several hundred years beforehand). Like the Dillons the Longs were given large estates. The main residence was called Seven Plantations, and that means there were many African slaves working for the Longs.

Through his influence with the Governor (or Lieutenant-Governor) of Jamaica, Samuel Long acquired the position of Chief Justice. They soon found themselves at odds with each other. The Governor wanted the Jamaican constitution to follow a form that would allow the Governor’s Council to decide the laws and not the elected Assembly. Naturally, the Assembly refused to accept this, as did Chief Justice Long and he was briefly imprisoned for his opposition. The Governor dissolved the Assembly and sent Long and the Speaker of the Assembly, William Beeston, to England to answer for their actions. The king, however, supported Long and Beeston and sacked the Governor.

Chief Justice Long’s only surviving son Charles married (as his second wife) Jane, Speaker Beeston’s daughter, who had by this time been recently deprived of the Governorship of Jamaica himself over financial matters. Charles Long’s first wife was also the daughter of another Governor. There’s quite a web of family connections at this time which links the Longs with yet two more Governors of Jamaica. Like today, marrying into your own social class and political circle was common.

Before I move on to William Beeston again I must tell you of a personal link to Chief Justice Long. His mother Jane was the sister of Rev. Henry Brunsell, Vicar of Clayworth. Clayworth is a village just 3 miles from where I was raised and my father has ancestry there – they were baptised by Rev. Brunsell! Another religious link comes in the person of Rev. Brunsell’s wife Anne. Her brother was Sir Christopher Wren, designer of St. Paul’s cathedral.

Back to William Beeston. Before he was Speaker he was a judge. Several times he was appointed to lead negotiations with Spanish privateers and pirates who were threatening the security of various settlements around the Caribbean. He seemed to have been successful each time, and he secured the release of a few prisoners the pirates had captured. In 1675 Beeston was appointed a Commissioner of the Admiralty with the former English pirate Sir Henry Morgan.

Michael Dillon’s ancestors travelled the world and became leaders in their communities. Michael could easily have become part of the Establishment by being married off to a politician or diplomat. Instead he chose to disregard the expectations of his class, first by escaping the high life to work in a garage, and then by successfully transitioning to male. His route in life was to escape, leading him in his last years to a remote Buddhist temple and finally to India where he died in 1962.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Philip Brett Awards : Part 2

Happy St. Cecilia’s Day all you music-lovers. Today is the feast day of the patron saint of music, and I’m celebrating by concluding my look at the recipients of the Philip Brett Award. Philip Brett was a musicologist and pioneered the study of queer music – the way in which gender and sexuality influences music.

In June I listed the recipients of the award from its origin to 2006. With the announcement last week of the 2014 award the following list completes the recipients. It reveals a wide variety of research into queer music, and covers everything from opera to “Oh! Calcutta!”, and from jazz to Tchaikovsky.

2006    (joint award) Sherry Lee, for “A Florentine Tragedy, or Woman as Mirror” published in “Cambridge Operatic Journal”. Sherry is Associate Professor at the History and Culture Department, University of Toronto. She specialises in music of the 19th and 20th centuries. “A Florentine Tragedy” (or “Eine florentinische Trajödie”) is an opera by Alexander von Zemlinsky written in 1916, based on an unfinished play of the same English title by Oscar Wilde.

2007    Suzanne G. Cusick, for her paper “Music as Torture, Music as a Weapon”, presented to the American Musicological Society, and for her paper “Queer Performativity and the Gender Order in the Global War on Terror”, presented at the Queer Vibrations Conference. Dr. Cusick is Professor of Music at the Faculty of Arts and Science, New York University. The award recognises her work and research into the use of music, noise, acoustemology and “gender coercion” in the detention and interrogation of prisoners held during the global war on terror.

2008    (joint award) George Haggerty, Jenny Doctor, and Susan McClary, for “Music and Sexuality in Britten: Selected Essays”. George Haggerty is now Distinguished Professor at the University of California Riverside where Philip Brett himself was professor. Dr. Haggerty edited this series of essays by Brett which were the catalyst for the study of queer music. Susan McClary (Professor of Musicology, Case Western Reserve University) wrote the introduction, and Jenny Doctor (Research Fellow, University of York) wrote the Afterword.

2008    (joint award) Martin Pénet, for his article ““L’expression homosexuelle dans les chansons françaises de l’entre-deux-guerre: entre derision et ambiguïté” in Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine”. Martin’s in the only non-English work to win this ward so far. Martin is a journalist, broadcaster and historian who specialises in popular French songs of the 19th and 20th centuries. He broadcasts regularly on French songs, performers and their histories on radio, and has written many books and articles.

2009    (joint award) Philip Ross Bullock, for his article “Ambiguous Speech and Eloquent Silence: The Queerness of Tchaikovsky’s Songs”, in “19th Century Music”. He his Professor of Russian Literature and Music at Oxford University and has published many articles in both western and Russian periodicals and has contributed to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Contemporary Russian Culture (2006).

2009    (joint award) Annie Janeiro Randall, for “Dusty! Queen of the Postmods”, a biography of Dusty Springfield. This biography focuses particularly on the early years of Dusty’s fame (1964-8) and Annie looks at how the singer’s performance style, distinctive look and recognisable voice helped to make this UK star a big name in the USA, earning her the name “White Queen of Soul”.

2010    Roger Freitas, for “Portrait of a Castrato: Politics, Patronage, and Music in the Life of Atto Melani”. Roger is Associate Professor of Musicology and Chair of the Music Department at the Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester, New York). Atto Melani (1626-1714) as one of the most famous Italian castrati - singers who chose castration to improve their singing voice. He is also a diplomat and a spy.

2011    (joint award) Emily Wilbourne, for her article “Amor nello specchio (1622): Mirroring, Masturbation, and Same-Sex Love”, in “Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture”. Emily is Assistant Professor at Queen’s College, City University of New York. Her specialist area of research is in the music and sound of opera and commedia dell arte in 17th century Italy.

2011    (joint award) William Cheng, for his article “Acoustemolgies of the Closet” in “The Oxford Handbook of Virtuality”. William is Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He is one of the pioneers of research into the musicology and technology of computer games. His first book on the subject, “Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination”, is published by Oxford University Press.

2012    (joint award) Mitchell Morris, for his syllabus at the University of California Los Angeles “LBGTQ Perspectives in Popular Music” (course M137). This is the first of these awards to go to an academic course. Mitchell is Associate Professor in the musicology department of the university and has taught on a wide range of musical subject and themes. Mitchell has also published several books on popular music.

2012    (joint award) Christopher Moore, for his article “Camp in Francis Poulenc’s Early Ballets” in “The Musical Quarterly”. Christopher is Associate Professor at the School of Music at the University of Ottawa. French music of the 19th and 20th century is his specialist area, and he won a gold medal in performance (piano) from the Conservatiore National de Versailles.

2013    Elizabeth L. Wollmann, for her book “Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City”, a study of the brief rise of musicals with adult sexual themes following the success of “Hair”, the most famous of which was “Oh! Calcutta!”

2014    Lisa Barg, for her article “Queer Encounters in the Music of Billy Strayhorn”, published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society.  Lisa is Assistant Professor in the Department of Music Research at McGill University.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Transgender Day of Remembrance

On New Year’s Eve last year I included a list of members of the transgender community who had been murdered because of their life choice in 2013. Unfortunately, the number of transgender murder victims remains high in 2014.

On this Transgender Day of Remembrance I present this candle in memory of them all. At the same time I celebrate their choice to live as they felt they should, and their courage in facing violence.

As of yesterday there have been over 220 murders of transgender people worldwide. The list below is condensed from the Transgender Day of Remembrance website which lists some of the victims, their manner of death, their age, and the location. This list gives the names in chronological order since 19th November 2013.

Jacqueline Cowdrey (50) Worthing, West Sussex, UK

Rosa Ribut (Jon Syah Ribut) (35) Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Betty Skinner (52) Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Brittany Stergis (22) Cleveland, Ohio, USA

Joice (José Antônio Vieira Freitas) (32) Teresina, Piauí, Brazil

Elizalber Oliveira de Mesquita (39) Teresina, Piauí, Brazil

Paloma (age not reported) Belém, Pará, Brazil

Rayka Tomaz (20) Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil

Prince Joe (Joseph Sanchez) (18) Belize City, Belize

Toni Gretchen (50) Teresina, Piauí, Brazil

Luana (20) Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil

Cristal (Alexandre Nascimento de Araújo) (22) Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil.

Thifani (18) Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Joice (José Antônio Vieira Freitas) (32) Teresina, Piauí, Brazil

Sarita (Marcos de Almeida Oliveira) Itabela, Bahia, Brazil

Juju (Julian de Souza Cruz) (32) Salgueiro, Pernambuco, Brazil

Raíssa (Lourivaldo Xavier) (age not reported) Cuiabá, Mato Gross, Brazil

Tatty (age not reported) Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Rafaela (Alexsandro Alderotti José dos Santos) (32) Recife, Brazil

Alex Medeiros (8) Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Paulete (age not reported) Taguatinga, Brazil

Camila Veronezi (24) Bragança Paulista, São Paulo, Brazil

Lu (Célio Martins da Silva) (age not reported) Nova Serrana, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Kitana (age not reported) Aracaju, Sergipe, Brazil

Sarita do Sopão (39) Teresina, Piauí, Brazil

Andressa Pinheiro (age not reported) João Pessoa, Paraíba, Brazil

Rose Maria (32) Brás, São Paulo, Brazil

Vitória (16) Boa Vista, Roraima, Brazil

Paulete (Paulo Roberto Lima dos Santos) (19) Teresina, Piauí, Brazil

Marciana (age not reported) Iguatu, Ceará, Brazil

Nicole (Marcos Vinicius Machado) (20) Vitória, Espírito Santo, Brazil

Giovana Souza Silva (33) São Paulo, Brazil

Mileide (age not reported) Santo Antônio, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil

Valquíria (Josivaldo Ribeiro Oliveira Brito) Rondonópolis, Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Çağla Joker (age not reported) Tarlabaşı, Beyoğlu, Istanbul, Turkey

Marcia Moraes (34) Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil

Kandy Hall (40) Montebello, Maryland, USA

Paola (Anderson Arruda Camote) (29) Arandu, São Paulo, Brazil

Mia Henderson (26) Baltimore, Maryland, USA

André Luiz Borges Rocha (age not reported) Cuiabá, Mato Grosso, Brazil

Kellen Santorine (age not reported) Uberaba, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Mackelly Castro (24) Teresina, Piauí, Brazil

Lele (24) Roatán, Honduras

Dennysi Brandão (24) Contagem, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Alisson Henrique da Silva (25) Macaíba, Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil

Alejandra Leos (age not reported) Memphis, Tennessee, USA

Karen Alanis (23) Caçapava, São Paulo, Brazil

Marcela Duque (46) Medellín, Colombia

Cris (age not reported) Portal da Foz, Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil

Mahadevi (age not reported) Malleshwara, Karnataka, India

Bruna Lakiss (26) Várzea Grande, Mato Grosso, Brazil

Aniya Parker (age not reported) East Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA

Gaivota dos Santos (age not reported) Rio Largo, Alagoas, Brazil

Géia Borghi (age not reported) Monte Mor, São Paulo, Brazil

Jennifer Laude (age not reported) Subic Bay, Zambales, Philippines

Sara (27) Camaçari, Bahia, Brazil

Aguinaldo Cláudio Colombelli (45) Passo Fundo, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil

Flávia (age not reported) Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil

Mary Joy Añonuevo (55) Lucena, Quezon, Philippines

Maicon (age not reported) Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil
 
There are also the following locations where un-named transgender victims have been murdered. It saddens me to see that so many of the victims were murdered in Brazil:

Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil x2

São Paulo, Brazil  x2

Jardim dos Ipês Itaquaquecetuba, São Paulo, Brazil

Coruripe, Alagoas, Brazil

Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil

Sobral, Ceará, Brazil

João Pessoa, Paraíba, Brazil

Jardim Ingá, Goiás, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Heritag Spotlight : Hospitable History Launch

Tonight in London the 2015 LGBT History Month UK is having its official launch. The venue for the event is the Museum of the Order of St. John in Clerkenwell. My brother and I visited this museum last year on our annual gallery-crawl around London. It’s a marvellous little gem and well worth a visit. It is housed in a magnificent medieval building (the photo below is of the archway next to the museum’s entrance).

The Order of St. John is known worldwide for its humanitarian and healthcare work since the 11th century, but the museum is a relatively new addition to London’s heritage, first opening in the 1970s and being refurbished in 2010.

The Order has often been confused with those other great medieval orders of religious knights, the Templars, though their history has as much intrigue and mystery surrounding it, without having the modern baggage of paranoid conspiracy theories attached to it.

The Order has many branches and organisation in countries around the world with its spiritual base in Rome. The UK Order is affiliated to, but not governed from, Rome. Today the Order of St. John is most well-known for it’s medical division, the St. John Ambulance.

Over the centuries the order has appointed many knights (and dames, in more recent centuries), and the UK’s Order of St. John established by Queen Victoria in 1888 carries on this tradition. The St. John knighthoods and dames are a chivalric order of the Crown, not the State, so recipients of these honours do not use the title Sir or Dame.

I imagine that there have been many lgbt recipients of these honours (a possible subject for a future article). The only Knight of St. John of the UK Order that immediately springs to mind is William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp, Governor of New South Wales 1899-1901.

Perhaps the biggest attraction to the Museum of St. John from an lgbt aspect is a painting by Caravaggio called “The Cardsharps”. This painting is from the private collection of Sir Dennis Mahon and is on loan. This is one of two versions (most painters made copies of their work). Sir Denis bought the painting in 2006 at Sotheby’s for £50,400. It was attributed to a “follower of Caravaggio”. Sir Denis, a renowned art scholar, initiated exhaustive scientific analysis and a year later announced it was an original Caravaggio worth £50 million!

“The Cardsharps” (both paintings) were commissioned in 1595 by Cardinal Francesco del Monte, one of the greatest art collector and patrons of his age. “The Cardsharps” were amongst the first of Caravaggio’s works done for the Cardinal over a number of years. During this time the painter was given lodgings and a pension by his patron.

Cardinal del Monte has, like Caravaggio himself, been admitted into lgbt history through records of his interest in young men and boys. It may even be possible that Caravaggio got his patronage from del Monte because the cardinal fancied him! (Caravaggio was 24 in 1595 and the Cardinal was 46.) Whatever the reason, Caravaggio arrived at the Cardinal’s palace with a young friend in tow, another painter called Mario Minniti, with whom he shared his lodgings in the Palace. Minniti left to get married in 1600. Caravaggio began to earn a reputation as a “boy-chaser”.

Through Cardinal del Monte’s patronage Caravaggio received commissions from other important religious and political figures. Soon he became the most famous and sought-after painter of his generation. He became a star of the Baroque period – a Baroque Star! And he had the temperament to match, though instead of throwing televisions out of windows or smashing guitars on stage Caravaggio picked fights with people who upset him. He appeared in court several times for assault, and some historians believed his temper was caused by inhalation of noxious fumes given off by some of the highly poisonous paints painters used in his time.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to Caravaggio and the Order of St. John.

In 1606 Caravaggio’s temper flared up over a racquet game and he killed a man in a drawl over the match. Murder? Manslaughter? Accidental? Who knows? The outcome was that Caravaggio ran in fear of arrest and travelled around Italy. News travelled slowly in those, days, so he was able to stay of the authorities and paint in several places before deciding to head for Malta, home base at that time of the Order of St. John (hence the knights are also called the Order of Malta).

Caravaggio arrived on the island in 1608 and was treated like a celebrity, the Order seemingly unaware he had caused a man’s death. He painted several important works here, including “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist”. The knights of the Order queued up to have their portraits painted by him. He was held in such high regard that they invested him as a full Knight of Magistral Obedience of the Order of St. John.

Despite finding this refuge from his violent past Caravaggio could not suppress his temper. There appears to have been some argument with another knight, probably violent in nature, and Caravaggio was flung into jail. He managed to escape and went on the run again, eventually ending up living with his old friend Minniti.

Caravaggio died at the age of 39, probably of malaria or pneumonia. One historian recently (2012) suggested he was in fact murdered on the orders of the Order of Malta, or at least by one of their knights. He even suggested that Caravaggio’s body was thrown into the sea and was lost forever, despite the fact that two years before he came up with this theory Caravaggio’s remains were identified (using family DNA, as in the case of King Richard III earlier this year) at Port Ecole near Naples.

Caravaggio’s “The Cardsharps” presents visitors to the Museum of St. John with a very rare opportunity to get close to a lost masterpiece of 16th century art.

With next year’s LGBT History Month having no central theme, apart from the overall title of “Coded Lives”, I won’t be having one either. Instead I’ll be putting together a continuous series of articles called “Around the World in 80 Gays”.

Friday, 14 November 2014

A Revolutionary Colonel

For my third article of transgender veterans we travel to Mexico.

Amelio Robles (1889-1984) was a participant in the Mexican Revolution of 1911. He was born biologically female and was given the name Amelia. His father was a wealthy rancher and farmer, and sometime registrar of births, deaths and marriages for Xochipala in southern Mexico, the village where Amelio was born and raised.

Amelio had a strict Catholic upbringing and was educated by the Society of the Daughters of Mary of the Miraculous Medal and at the College for Young Ladies in Chilpancingo. At first Amelio learnt the activities that girls were expected to learn – washing, sewing, ironing. He soon began to show a fondness for other activities that were considered more appropriate for a boy. Perhaps being raised on a farm gave him the passion for horses – learning to ride and tame them. He also learnt how to handle firearms.

Despite this, life on the family ranch was not good during his childhood. His father died when Amelio was only 3 years old and his widow remarried a ranch worker. Amelio hated his new stepfather. He hated him so much that he planned to kill him on more than one occasion. This may have been the biggest factor in Amelio’s decision to leave home as soon as possible. Political events in the country provided the channel for his future life.

In 1910 the Mexican president, the dictator Porfirio Díaz, ran for his 8th consecutive term of office in the country’s general election. As usual, through corrupt practices, he won, and this was the final straw for his opponents and armed rebellions began against him.

Almost immediately Amelio joined the revolutionary cause. He became the treasurer of a local group who supported Francisco Madero’s campaign to oust the president and raised funds for him. In late 1911 he was member of a contingent from the group who went to the Gulf of Mexico region to obtain funds from oil companies based there.

President Díaz’s government crumbled under the armed opposition. Legendary figures emerged from this early stage of the revolution – Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

One of the main causes for the revolution was Díaz’s’ policy of promoting foreign investment at the expense of the rights of the working classes, particularly land rights. The new president, Madero, who had been supported by the revolutionaries, refused to change the land reforms and soon lost their support.

In 1912 the revolutionary Gen. Juan Almazan (a supporter of Zapata), passed through Amelio’s home village recruiting soldiers. Amelio joined the revolution. However, from interviews he gave later in his life, it seems that Amelio’s reason for joining was not so much from any political ideology but from the appeal of the excitement and thrill of being a soldier. He joined the Liberation Army of the South, the forces of Emiliano Zapata. These are often referred to as the Zapatistas.

Once enlisted Amelio began to wear men’s clothing and insisted on being treated as a man. Women were not excluded from joining the Zapatistas, and Amelio is just one of many women who lived as men during the revolution. He was given command as a lieutenant soon after he enlisted. By the end of the revolution he had reached the rank of colonel. Being a revolutionary these ranks had no official status once the revolution ended but Amelio used the title of Colonel throughout the latter part of his life as a civilian.

Amelio’s first experience in an armed conflict came in February 1913. A small group of Zapatistas, including Amelio, was encamped at Carrizalillo on the Pacific coast of southern Mexico, not far from his home village Xochipala. Most of these soldiers were from Xochipala. State troops attacked the encampment, and despite being heavily outnumbered the revolutionaries won that encounter.

In 1915 Amelio was wounded in the leg at the battle at Apango. By this time he had around 600 soldiers under his command and was highly regarded as a brave leader who led from the front.

He served with Zapatistas until 1918 when the majority of the revolutionaries agreed to support the new government of Veunustiano Carranza and the new Mexican constitution. Some of the Zapatistas remained loyal to Zapatista, who had decided to fight for more reforms and rights.

Amelio remained active in the military and political history of Mexico right up to 1950. He took part in the fight against the Huerta revolt in 1923, and actively supported his former commanding officer, Juan Almazan, in his unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 1939. Having returned to live in Xochipala in 1926 Amelio, now calling himself Col. Amelio Robles, was elected to the village council. He also met his partner Angela Torres shortly after returning home and adopted a girl called Regula.

Col. Robles was recognised as a veteran of the Mexican Revolution in 1970 with a government medal. In order to qualify for this medal he had to change the gender his parents registered on his birth certificate. Otherwise he would have been recognised among the 300 or so female veterans who were also honoured. He was also honoured with the Legion of Honour of the Mexican Army. Unfortunately, this caused hardship in his later life when he applied for a military pension. During his service with the Mexican army after 1918 he was still officially registered as female, and there was no record of Amelio Robles, only an Amelia Robles Avila, his baptismal name. His pension was refused.

Throughout his final years Amelio gave interviews on his life as a soldier, a revolutionary, and a trans man. Over time people forgot his earlier female lifestyle. So much so, in fact, that even his nephews and nieces were unaware of it for some years.

Col. Amelio Robles, Veteran of the Mexican Revolution, died at the grand old age of 95 in 1984. Despite having lived as a man for over 60 years he was remembered in memorials under his female name. One exception, it seems, is the Amelio Robles Award, created in 2007 and awarded at the Festival of Gender Diversity in Monterrey, north Mexico.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Jack the Lad

This is the second of my three articles on transgender veterans from three different conflicts.

Today we learn about a veteran of the Philippine-American War and a Red Cross volunteer called Jack Bee Garland (1869-1936), though he used several other names during his lifetime. I’ll refer to him as Jack throughout. Even though he lived his entire life as biologically female Jack spent most of it living as a man. He lived for the last few decades of his life without anyone thinking he was anything other than a man, and his physical gender was only discovered after his death.

Louis Sullivan (1951-1991), himself transgender, wrote a biography of Jack in 1990 in which he concluded that Jack should be regarded as a transman rather than a cross-dresser.

Jack came from a privileged family. His father was the first Mexican Consul in San Francisco and his mother was the daughter of a US Congressman and Supreme Court judge. They gave their child, born a girl, the name Elvira Virginia Mugarrieta. Despite their privileged background the family suffered because the Mexican government refused to pay Jack’s father. When the father died in 1886 he left his widow and five children almost destitute.

Jack had always been regarded as something of a tomboy by his mother, and it was his father’s death which seemed to signal the decision that Jack wanted to live as a man. He began dressing in men’s clothes shortly afterwards.

In 1897 Jack was “uncovered” as a woman masquerading as a man in Stockton, California. He became a cause célèbre for a while and joined the Stockton Evening Mail as a reporter. This part of his life is more suitable for another article at another time, so let’s move on to his military service.

War between the USA and Spain broke out in 1899. The conflict lasted less than a year with the Spanish relinquishing their Philippine colony to the sovereignty of the USA. Unfortunately there were many in the Philippines who resisted American rule and demanded complete independence.

Jack decided to go with the American troops to the Philippines as a medic. He knew that women were not allowed to serve in war hospitals, society at that time still not accepting that women could stand the emotional stress. “All my ambition and interest and inclination naturally gave me the fever to go to Manila when things were at their liveliest there”, Jack would later write in “My Life as a Soldier”, his account of the conflict seen through the eyes of a biological female veteran.

In October 1899 Jack enlisted as a cabin boy on board the troop ship “City of Para”. On reaching Hawaii his identity was discovered and he was thrown off the ship. Now the only way he could get to the Philippines was as a stowaway on the same ship. Some of the sailors and officers helped to smuggle Jack on board dressed in naval uniform and kept him hidden. A planned “discovery” of him by the sailors back-fired when Jack was arrested and held prisoner until the ship reached Manila. He escaped through a window and went into hiding again until it was safe for him to go ashore.

Although never officially enlisted into the army Jack experienced the conflict in the Philippines from as near to the front line as it was possible to get, even for a male civilian. He lived alongside the soldiers in the encampments and accompanied them on hikes and got to know everything about the combat from first-hand accounts.

Jack took on several jobs. His Hispanic family background proved particularly useful and he worked as an interpreter. He also helped to treat the wounded and sick and became a Red Cross volunteer with the US Hospital Corps. As with many other conflicts before modern warfare the largest number of casualties were from disease rather than combat. Men injured in battle with injuries which today would not be life-threatening died from tropical diseases.

Jack’s war experience ended in August 1900 when he returned to the USA. He left a grateful and appreciative band of military comrades, most of whom had known he was biologically female and had always treated him with respect. They gave him the nickname “Lieutenant Jack”. Before his departure Jack was presented with an inscribed gold medal. The soldiers had clubbed together and raised $200 to pay for the presentation themselves. Jack received no official medal from the US government, and it tells us something of the high esteem in which Jack was held by the US troops. Jack arrived back in San Francisco wearing the uniform of a Second Lieutenant.

Jack wrote up his experiences in the Philippines for the San Francisco Examiner as mentioned above under the title of “My Life as a Soldier”. On his death in 1936 Jack’s biological gender was discovered (he had successfully kept it hidden for three decades. Details of his life emerged, including his service in the Philippines and many people, his sister included, campaigned for Jack to be given a military funeral. It was denied.

Even though Jack was not an enlisted soldier his experience on the front line earns him the title of veteran. Quite often it is only the armed fighting men who are remembered, but I find a particular affinity with Jack Bee Garland’s story because my grandmother’s first husband and my grandfather were both non-combatant medics on the front line. One was a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps who died in 1916 on HMHS Britannic, and the other was invalided while serving as a stretcher-bearer during the Battle of the Somme.

And so, with this article, I pay tribute to Jack Bee Garland, my family members, and all those others who have served on the front line as medics and nurses.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Roberta's War


Today, when we remember all those people who served their county in times of war to ensure future peace, I’m writing the first of three articles on transgender war veterans from three different conflicts. Almost a year ago I wrote about a transgender pioneer called Roberta Cowell. To mark today’s Remembrance Sunday I’ll going into more detail about her war service.

Robert Cowell was born in 1918, seven months before the Armistice we commemorate next week. She was baptised Robert and spent the first part of her life up to the 1950s as a man. In 1935 she entered the RAF.

During several summer holidays during and after her schooldays Roberta travelled around Germany. This was shortly after the rise of the Nazi regime, and in 1934 Roberta was arrested for filming Nazi soldiers. She was released a few hours later after persuading the police that she had destroyed the film (she hadn’t). So when war broke out in 1939 Roberta had already experienced Nazi imprisonment.

As I mentioned in my previous article on Roberta her war service got off to a shaky start. Eager to become a fighter pilot Roberta soon discovered that she got airsick. Undeterred she pursued her flying career and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps. Her expertise with engines and mechanics led to his first posting being as officer commanding the Heavy Repair Shops – in Iceland.

After a few months she managed to be transferred to the RAF. She was assigned to an aerial reconnaissance squadron. There were several occasions where Roberta could easily have been killed before encountering any Nazi planes.

Just a couple of days before the D-Day landings in June 1944 Roberta was making a high level sortie over the French-Belgian coast. Before she could attempt an attack she noticed her oxygen supply was getting dangerously low. Descending from 31,000 feet to a safer height she experienced anoxia – the bends – and lost consciousness.

Quite remarkably Roberta’s plane flew for about an hour unpiloted, being shot at by anti-aircraft posts near Zeebrugge. The RAF radar station at Kingsley tracked the plane’s movement over the English Channel, puzzled that no radio contact could be established. Eventually Roberta recovered enough to recognise the radio calls and responded. She was totally disorientated and unaware of what had happened in the past hour and was guided back safely to the ground. It was a lucky escape.

After Paris was liberated following the successful D-Day landings Roberta and several fellow pilots went to the city to join the celebrations. They were feted as heroes, a stark contrast to the reception Roberta got a few months later from the Germans. The end of the war seemed to be in sight but for Roberta the hardest part was yet to come. But before that there was an encounter with a Messerschmitt that shook her up badly.

On 6th November (70 years ago this week) Roberta was in her Spitfire at 36,000 feet over Hengold. She was surprised by an unexpected attack from above. Usually the Nazis would attack Spitfires from below, but this time Roberta encountered a twin-enginned jet Messerschmitt diving towards her, guns blazing. Roberta swerved and tried to climb away.

The Messerschmitt was faster and more agile than Roberta’s Spitfire and there seemed to be no escape as the German plane swooped again and again firing all its guns as Roberta desperately tried to find cover. Fortunately she found a bank of cloud through which she dived. When she emerged from the other side there was no sign of the Messerschmitt. It had broken off the attack. It was another lucky escape.

On 18th November Roberta was back in the air making a low-level sortie with another plane piloted by Flight Lt. Draper. They attacked several targets, coming under heavy fire from the Nazis. Roberta’s engine took a direct hit and cut out. Another shell punched its way through her port wing.

Unable to pilot her plane and too low to use a parachute Roberta believed that her time was up, that she was going down in a “blaze of glory” like so many other young fighter pilots before her (she was 26 years old). As the plane dived Roberta “felt an absolutely certain conviction that this would be the very last thing I should ever know” (from “An Autobiography: Roberta Cowell’s Story”, published by Heinemann 1954).

The plane was almost out of control – almost. Roberta pulled the plane out f its dive just before hitting the ground to make a crash-landing into a German field. Nazi soldiers arrived within moments, but not before Roberta managed to radio to Flight Lt. Draper that she was alive. She now found herself a prisoner of war.

She realised that the best chance she had to escape was to do it sooner rather than later. Before she arrived at the interrogation centre in Frankfurt Roberta had made two attempts to escape. After being held for three weeks in solitary confinement (as punishment for her escape attempts, she assumed) Roberta found herself on a train with 150 other POWs heading for Stalag Luft I.

The period of her incarceration is gone into in some detail in her autobiography. Roberta describes in particular the lack of adequate food, and mentions that at one point the prisoners resorted to eating cats – raw! She did, however, find her expertise with engines a useful means of keeping sane by being a mechanics tutor to other prisoners.

In April 1945 the Red Army advanced towards Stalag Luft I. The Nazis intended to evacuate the camp, transferring the prisoners to another one. The POWs refused to leave. Several days later the Germans agreed to abandon the camp and the POWs welcomed the liberating Red Army on May 5th. The first thing the ex-POWs wanted was food, but their stomachs had shrunk so much during their lack of nourishment under the Nazi command that most of them could only manage soup. Roberta recounted in her autobiography that some men even forced themselves to eat more, which ruptured their stomachs and, sadly, caused their deaths.

After demobilisation Roberta started several businesses, which are mentioned in my previous article about her.

On Armistice Day, the day after tomorrow, I’ll write about the life of a transgender veteran from a completely different conflict.