Sunday, 16 October 2016

Time Out

After some thought I have decided to give myself a little rest. I’ve been spending several hours a day researching and writing since the day I first began this blog back in August 2011 and can’t believe how much I have written in five years – over 700 articles.

Recently I’ve had affairs in my “proper job” which need dealing with and I must concentrate on them for a while. I don’t want to be away for too long, but I intend to take off the rest of October and all of November. That means several articles I have promised to write will appear at a later date.

During December I’ll get right back to it again, finishing some of the articles that I’ve begun and researching and writing new ones, and I hope to return by Christmas 2016.

That doesn’t mean that I'm going to stop working on my blog completely. I’ve thought of tidying up some of the articles and going through them to revise, amend or correct them. When I’ve finished revising an article I’ll add a note to say so and, hopefully, keep you updated on the revisions.

If there happens to be anything in the news or media which could relate to one of my articles I'll write a little piece and link you to them.

There are also several other ideas I’ve been toying with, including collecting related articles together in book format. These will give me the opportunity to expand the original articles and introduce new illustrations.

I hope you don’t mind if I take some time off, and I want to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you, particularly my most dedicated followers, for your interest and support. Perhaps you all need a rest from me as well!

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Coming Out Socially

Today and tomorrow are designated as National Coming Out Day in the USA (today) and the UK (tomorrow). If there’s one thing that proved my belief that people in the public eye don’t have to come out to the media to be described as “out publicly” it was the Rio 2016 Olympics and Paralympics.

As I described in thisOlympic Alphabet article as soon as the list of known lgbt Rio Olympians was published many others asked to added. The new names were all openly lgbt but hadn’t made a big media event out of it. Most of them were out only on social media.
When I was researching for the initial list I “discovered” 10 former Olympians who were also out on social media in July alone. That’s how many I often identify in one year!

I’ve said several times that coming out is a personal thing. Do it however you want, as long as you feel comfortable about it. Social media has increased the ease with which some people can express their sexuality and gender. Just a few words on Twitter of Facebook is all they need.

My friends at Outsports, Jim and Cyd, wrote about the issue of determining if someone is out publicly or not in this article.

Perhaps it is time to stop saying “out publicly” and just say “out”.

Since Coming Out Day last year there has been the expected celebrity outings who have declared their sexuality and gender in the media. Here are just a few.

Gus Kenworthy, US Olympic and world champion skier,
Tofik Dibi, Dutch Green Party MP,
Eliot Sumner, Sting’s daughter,
Jill Soloway, creator of award-winning series “Transparent”,
Amandla Stenberg, “The Hunger Games” actor,
David Mundell, Secretary of State for Scotland,
Lilly Wachowksi, director of “The Matrix”,
Harris Wofford, US senator,
Javier Raya, Spanish Olympic figure skater,
David Rodriguez, Mr Spain (not Mr Gay Spain),
Nicholas Chamberlain, Anglican Bishop of Grantham, and
Lord Ivar Mountbatten, cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Star-Gayzing : A Extraterrestrial Home from Home

Earlier this week I looked at some dystopian and apocalyptic fiction by lgbt authors. I ended by asking the question of whether humanity can escape by going to another planet. Is there another planet that can support human life? Not in our own solar system. But just a few months ago a planet which might be suitable was discovered in orbit around Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our own, in the constellation of Centaurus.

In the past decades thousands of exoplanets, planets outside our solar system, have been discovered. Not all of them are suitable for life as we know it to survive (i.e. carbon-based, liquid water-dependent life). There are a couple of hundred exoplanets which fall into the “Goldilocks Zone”, those distances from their sun which support liquid water, but fewer that are believed to be Earth-like. In fact, there are less than ten which astronomers list as being the most Earth-like exoplanets.

The nearest of these is around Proxima Centauri and has been given the name of Proxima Centauri b. The other most Earth-like, potentially habitable, exoplanets are called Gliese 667Cc, Kepler-62f, Kepler-186f, Kepler-442b, Kepler-452b, Kepler-1229b and Wolf 1061c. And that’s the problem I want to write about today. The names of planets. Most of those listed here were discovered by the Kepler Mission, hence their names. The other hundreds of exoplanets have the same “Kepler-” prefix. It’s all very confusing. But that’s not the only confusing naming system. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) who are responsible for naming extraterrestrial objects have even designated an exoplanet with the name MOA-2007-BLG-400-Lb. That takes almost as long to say as that famous Welsh town with dozens of letters in it’s name.

Recently the IAU began to give proper names to some exoplanets, not all of them Earth-like. But one gay astronomer had already attempted to name the 400 exoplanets that had been discovered before the prolific Kepler Mission was launched in 2009. The astronomer is Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at California State University and his name if Wladimir Lyra (how ironic that an astronomer would have the same name as a constellation). He is also a member of the American Astronomical Society and is currently a member of its Committee for Sexual-Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy.

When Wladimir Lyra came up with his list in 2009 the IAU didn’t consider giving names to exoplanets as being practical. However, last year they launched a competition to name a select group of them and the stars around which they orbit which also have no proper name. Unfortunately, none of the winning names on the 2015 IAU list matched Wladimir Lyra’s 2009 suggestions. The table below shows those exoplanets which both lists named and how the names differ. Wladimir didn’t give new names for the stars, thought the IAU did and I’ve put them in the table as well. Only the star Fomalhaut had already been given a name. The old star names are those in the “Exoplanet old name” column – just take the final letter, the planetary designation (b, c, or d), off each name.

Exoplanet’s old name
New star name
Lyra’s new planet name
IAU’s new planet name
Upsilon Andromeda b
Upsilon Andromeda c
Upsilon Andromeda d
HD 149026b
Fomalhaut b
PRS 1257+12b
PRS 1257+12c
PRS 1257+12d

The reason Wladimir Lyra chose his names are given here, and the reasons the IAU chose their names is given here.

It’s a pity that Proxima Centauri b hadn’t been discovered when these names were being decided. Wladimir Lyra chose the names of mythological Greek centaurs for his exoplanets in Centaurus. This is a shame because they are already being used as names for a specific group of minor planets in our solar system called Centaurs.

Wladimir’s list wasn’t without criticism when he produced it in 2009. A lot of his names had already been used for minor planets, satellites and asteroids. Another exoplanet he named, orbiting a star in the constellation Columba, was Peristera. A Greek-speaking colleague pointed out that Peristera is the Greek for “female pigeon”. Fortunately, this particular exoplanet is too far away and not habitable for humans so we can avoid the embarrassment to our descendants of having to escape a future dying Earth and move to the planet of the “female pigeon”!

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Utopia Lost

Back in July I celebrated the 500th anniversary of Utopia by looking at a handful of Utopian novels by lgbt authors. Today we look at the opposite, at what are called dystopian novels.

As soon as people began thinking about an earthly paradise they have also thought about the end of civilisation. Perhaps the greatest of all dystopian literature is the New Testament Book of Revelations. Not all dystopian fiction is as apocalyptic but features worlds where humanity is dominated by ruthless forces, or nature itself has made life a challenge.

The novel “Erewhon” by Samuel Butler which I mentioned in my Utopia article was also dystopian in some respect. The novel describes how sick and ill people are treated as criminals and how criminals are treated as if they were ill.

The current debate on the global environment has provided many writers with a wealth of possible futures to explore in their novels. The nuclear winter is one such concept that has been widely used as a means to create a dystopian world. As I wrote in “Nuclear Winters From Mars” it was a gay astrophysicist called James B. Pollack who helped to alert the world to the effects a nuclear war might have on the climate.

Quite often is it war and politics that are the basis for dystopian fiction, and we’re going to have a look at three of them written by lgbt authors.

Angus Wilson’s 1961 novel “The Old Men at the Zoo” originated in his own fascination with zoos and the events during World War II when most of the animals at London Zoo were transferred to others. Wilson’s novel contains the descent into totalitarianism resulting from a non-nuclear European war. The zoos of Wilson’s future become prisons for criminals who are treated as Roman Christians in the animal arena.

A lot of the characters were based on Wilson’s contemporaries and throughout the writing process he toned down the similarities to distance his characters from the real people. The novel received mixed reviews, many of them saying how unlikeable the main character is.

A totalitarian state also features in “Kallocain” by Karin Boye. This 1940 novel may have been influenced by either the growing power of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, perhaps even both. Rather than use armed force and imprisonment to subjugate its population Boye’s novel uses fear around the state’s use of drugs. The regime she devised used a fictional drug, one which gives it name to the novel, which is invented to detect subconscious dissident thoughts – a sort of truth drug.

Both Angus Wilson and Karin Boye created future worlds in which the dominant force for oppression was human power. E. M. Forster wrote a short story in 1909 which foresaw a world where humanity is ruled by technology and machines. “The Machine Stops” echoes the more famous “The Time Machine” in that it depicts a future where the descendants of humanity are split between those who live above and below ground. The lives of those underground are controlled by the omnipotent Machine. Everyone lives in their own cell and travel is discouraged. Very few humans have dared to escape and live on the surface because humans have lost the ability to live by their own wits and abilities. The Machine rules everything. This is a complete opposite of what appears in Samuel Butler’s “Erwhon” in which all machines have been consigned to museums.

The main protagonists in “The Machine Stops” begin to realise that the Machine is breaking down. When the Machine finally stops society collapses and only the surface dwellers survive to carry on the species.

All three of these dystopian novels have been turned into television dramas. What many novels set in the future seem to achieve is a prediction of something which actually seems to come true. “The Machine Stops” features a method of communication which is very much like the internet and text messaging. Can we claim that E. M. Forster predicted the internet in his 1909 short story?

Whatever future horrors dystopian fiction can create there are some which offer hope in the form of escape to another planet. If that should ever become a reality where would we go? That’s a question I’ll try to answer next time when we go Star-Gayzing.

Friday, 30 September 2016

The Seven Heavenly Gay Virtues : Giving Chastity a Good Belting

Chastity is one of those words which wreaks of the Middle Ages. Perhaps no other Heavenly Virtue is so unpopular in the modern world. Considering its opposing Deadly Sin of Lust seems much more enjoyable for most people this comes as no surprise! But the medieval Catholic Church thought there was no higher personal virtue than Chastity. And with Lust being associated with the colour blue it was also associated with Chastity in medieval folklore. So let’s put Chastity onto the blue strip of our Heavenly Gay Virtues flag.
But just as Lust means more than an overwhelming desire for sex, so the same can be said of Chastity – it isn’t necessarily all about sex. The original qualities given to this virtue included purity, honesty and wisdom, in thought, word and deed. It was about looking after yourself and not giving in to what was considered at the time to be unhealthy pursuits. Yet it will always be equated with sex in the minds of people today.

In my article a few days ago I mentioned how the Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola proclaimed his chastity with regards to his relationship with Girolamo Benivieni. This same-sex relationship was acceptable to the church, as it was for a number of priests, cardinals and popes who are known or suspected of loving men. It became unacceptable if sex was involved. A lot of religions require their clergy to be celibate, but that’s not the same as chastity. Celibacy is the act of refraining from all sexual activity, even with if they are married. Chastity is the act of refraining from sexual activity with anyone other than your married partner.

Whatever you thought of Chastity in the past, this reveals that even a sex maniac can be virtuous – as long as it’s only with a married partner!

The medieval Catholic Church, and many Christian churches today, preached that sex outside marriage was immoral. It didn’t matter who or what you had sex with – another man, another woman, or even an animal, the Church didn’t discriminate on gender or sexuality. There are many married atheists who disapprove of sex outside marriage as well. The medieval world wasn’t ready to accept gay sex as being normal (some governments still don’t). It was usually the punishment you received for sex outside marriage that was discriminatory towards gay men, and it was the governments not the church who decided what that punishment was. The Tudor government in England put the death penalty onto it. In far too many countries today it still is politicians and governments who decide whether homosexuality is legal or not, and what punishment to give.

But I don’t want to drift into theology too far. There are other blogs that do that. So let’s lighten the tone and talk about chastity in a totally different context.

The medieval chastity belt has been a staple of British humour for centuries. One of my favourite comedy films is “Up the Chastity Belt”. This film is set in the Middle Ages, and it may not be one of the best films ever made but it’s a good piece of fun. It was made in 1971 and starred Frankie Howerd and has a very gay feel to it in more ways than one.

The film was part of a series of spin-offs from Frankie Howerd’s “Up Pompeii”, a highly successful BBC comedy series. “Up the Chastity Belt” was the first non-Pompeii spin-off. Its producer was Ned Sherrin, a gay broadcaster and writer who made his name in the 1960s on satirical programmes. He had produced the film version of “Up Pompeii” the previous year and saw the potential for a series of similar films. However, there was tension on the set between himself and Howerd over elements of the script and on Howerd’s off-set behaviour. Nevertheless, “Up the Chastity Belt” did well in British cinemas, outselling the “Up Pompeii” film.

One particular part of the plot dealt with a famous character and his entourage, Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Here the film produced some of the best comedy in the film, which was already packed with many seasoned comedy character actors. As an added bonus the film also starred Eartha Kitt.
The characters of Robin Hood and his Merry Men was written deliberately as gay. That was very much in the “Up Pompeii” style. The idea that the Merry Men were gay was not new. In 1977 when the International Robin Hood Conference was held in Nottingham one noted scholar said that the stories of Robin Hood were very homosocial. The media of the day took that to mean homosexual and caused a bit of a stir in those very anti-gay days of the press.

Robin Hood in the film was played by Hugh Paddick. He was well known to radio listeners as one half of the camp duo Julian and Sandy on the classic comedy series “Round the Horne”. Hugh played Robin Hood in very much the same manner. At one point in the film Robin is introducing Howerd’s character to his Merry Men. Hugh is clearly seen trying to stop himself from laughing at the absurdity of it all.

Playing Little John was the popular blues singer Long John Baldry. He had been part of the blues band Bluesology with a young Elton John, and was widely known as gay among music circles. Unfortunately, he never got the chance to sing in “Up the Chastity Belt”. Also denied the chance to sing was musical theatre expert and regular pantomime dame Alan Rebbeck who played Friar Tuck. Will Scarlett was played (shirtless) by the young Bernard Sharpe in a most tight-fitting pair of leggings. Despite all being very camp and covered in make-up these Merry Men managed to outwit and defeat the villain’s guards in combat and save the day.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Murder Most Philosophical

If there were ever two gay men who can be said to have created the world we live in today it could be the Italian philosophers Marsillo Ficino (1433-1499) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). If it wasn’t for them we’d probably be still be living medieval lives with medieval standards. Between them they produced the works and thoughts that turned a local interest in ancient Greek texts into a Europe-wide Renaissance on the 15th century. Feudalism gave way to capitalism, superstition gave way to science, and a new realism in art flourished.

Underpinning this Renaissance was a “manifesto” and Mirandola was the man who put it all into a book called “Oration of the Dignity of Man” which is acknowledged as the essence of the Renaissance. The Renaissance began before Mirandola was born, but he consolidated its ideas in his “Oration”. What made this possible was two things – Mirandola’s virtually photographic memory and analytical mind, and his patrons the Medici family of Florence.

Florence was a hot-bed of Renaissance thought and the Medici family gathered an amazing group of scholars and thinkers to their court. Mirandola arrived there in 1486 and charmed everyone. In particular he charmed Girolamo Benivieni and Angelo “Poliziano” Ambrosini who are believed to have been his lovers. Mirandola declared his love for Benivieni was chaste and non-sexual (a topic we’ll return to in my next article). In the new Renaissance thinking on love, influenced by the Ancient Greek ideas, male same-sex love was seen as more “perfect” than love for a woman. It wasn’t long before the Catholic Church was preaching the celibate love between men was acceptable.

Mirandola enjoyed the favour of Florence’s ruler, Lorenzo de Medici, but after Lorenzo’s death things changed. The new ruler, Lorenzo’s son Piero, had no time for Mirandola because of the latter’s support for the fanatical Savonarola, a Dominican friar who preached against Medici rule.

Mirandola and his lover Poliziano died two years after Lorenzo in 1494. For many years it was assumed that they both died from syphilis. There was certainly an outbreak of the disease at the time and it is known that Poliziano had caught the infection from a male prostitute. With Mirandola’s death a few months later it was assumed that he died of syphilis also. This immediately suggests that even though his relationship with Girolamo Benivieni was non-sexual the one he had with Poliziano wasn’t. Even Savonarola hinted at sexual activity when he preached a sermon after Mirandola’s death that his soul hadn’t gone straight to heaven but was in Purgatory being cleansed of certain sins. What those sins were Savonarola didn’t say.

However, there were rumours that Mirandola’s death may not have been caused by syphilis. After Savonarola deposed the Medici he began investigations into possible Medici spy rings. Among his interrogations he claimed to have got a confession from Mirandola’s secretary that he, the secretary, had poisoned the philosopher.

There’s no evidence to substantiate this claim, but in the past decade it has been shown that Mirandola’s remains, and those of Poliziano, contained lethal levels of arsenic. However, other documents from that time also reveal that Mirandola’s secretary had, in fact, only given him medicine during his final illness. Savonarola has exaggerated the confession.
The earliest known medical illustration of syphilis sufferers, dating from 1498.
Arsenic was actually used as a medicine as well as a poison. What is particularly significant is that is was used as a treatment for syphilis. Even if the medicine administered by his secretary contained arsenic, was it enough to kill Mirandola? If not, who administered the lethal dose? Was it an accident? It’s a real medieval murder mystery. Was it a Medici plot? Was it because of Mirandola’s support for the anti-Medici Savonarola, or because of his philosophical views? Were Mirandola and his partner Poliziano murdered? Perhaps we’ll never know.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Out Of Their Trees : Shared Genes For Jeans Day

There are two commemorative days today and I didn’t know which to celebrate with an article. Should it be Bi Visibility Day? Or Jeans for Genes Day? In the end I decided to celebrate both by writing about the ancestry of bisexual model Cara Delevingne and her shared genes with Michelle Dumaresq.

Jeans for Genes Day was created to raise awareness and funds for research into genetic conditions in children. Cara Delevingne has spoken of her own struggles with psoriasis, a skin condition which has some genetic component and effects many youngsters.

Cara has a varied ancestry, quite a lot of it from privileged backgrounds. This ranges from the British aristocracy to working class entrepreneurs who made a fortune manufacturing soap. But today I want to concentrate on one specific line of descent because it links to my “Queer Achievement” article on Michelle Dumaresq.

Cara Delevingne and Michelle Dumaresq are 7th-cousins. Both descend from John Dumaresq (1732-1814) of Jersey in the Channel Islands. In the heraldic article on Michelle I gave an illustration of her family coat of arms which were created by the marriage of John Dumaresq to Rachel Bandinel. Below is a family tree showing how Cara and Michelle are both descended from John.

Today I though I’d look at the two people in red on the family tree. Lt.-Col. Henry Dumaresq and his cousin Lt. Perry Dumaresq laid the foundations of the family which still live in Australia and Canada respectively.

Henry Dumaresq (1792-1838) was a highly respected soldier. He fought in many battles, including the Battle of Waterloo where he was shot by a musket ball which became permanently lodged in his lung. Undaunted he carried on with his order to pass a message personally to the Duke of Wellington, whereupon he collapsed. Two years later, at the age of 25, he reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

On leaving active service Henry went to New South Wales, Australia, as private secretary to his brother-in-law Lt.-Gen. Ralph Darling who had been appointed governor. Darling was an efficient governor but unpopular. He was accused of nepotism and Henry Dumaresq suffered attacks in the press because of his family connection. One article led to Henry fighting a pistol duel with the newspaper’s editor. In 1829 Henry sold his military commission and settled permanently in Australia. He owned a large estate and bred race horses. His health, however, was never great due to the musket ball in his lung. This was to be the cause of his death at the age of 45.

Henry Dumaresq’s cousin, Michelle’s ancestor, was a naval officer, Lt. Perry Dumaresq (1788-1839). While his cousin was fighting in the Battle of Waterloo Perry was stationed in what is now Canada patrolling the east coast of North America on the look-out for ships carrying supplies and money destined for the US government, who were at war with the UK at that time. After the war his naval background helped him to get a job in the customs office of Nova Scotia, a post previously held by his father which also helped.

Perry was ambitious and sought civic office. He continued to service in the customs office, but twice he persuaded the colonial government to divide an existing county into two and he took up a senior judicial posts in the new counties each time. By the second time, though, he was becoming ill and he died two years later at the age of 51.

Both Henry and Perry Dumaresq served their communities in senior positions. Both helped to establish their family’s connections in the countries in which they settled, and their descendants continued to serve their communities with distinction. Michelle Dumaresq’s ancestors continued Perry’s service right down to her own father who was a member of the Cariboo Regional District council. Cara Delevingne’s ancestors continued Henry Dumaresq’s military service in Australia and married into influential British political dynasties right down to today – through the Sheffield family she shares a set of great-grandparents with Samantha Cameron, wife of the ex-UK Prime Minister.

Cara Delevingne and Michelle Dumaresq carry on the service to the community begun by their ancestral cousins and both continue to speak on various causes. As well as her support of psoriasis sufferers Cara has developed a range of sweaters for Girl Up, a charity which supports the health and education of girls in developing countries. Michelle campaigns for inclusion of transgendered people in sport.