Sunday, 15 September 2019

Xtremely Queer : Stepping Across the Steppes (Part 1)

In ancient times the steppes of Eurasia were a cross-continental trade route long before the Silk Road from China was developed. When the Silk Road became dominant the steppes route faded away. Apart from a few nomads and settlers not many people ventured that way. It was over 600 years before a Russian explorer, Nikolay Przhevalsky (1839-1888), ventured into these forgotten lands.

Today Nikolay Przhevalsky is best known for having a species of small horse named after him. But, although not a naturalist, Nikolay is also commemorated with many other animals and plants being named after him. His exploration into the East Asian deserts and mountains provided much new scientific information and revealed the Europe the sheer natural diversity of this remote region. Nikolay made five full expeditions, and today I’ll tell you about the first few.

Nikolay followed family tradition by going into the army. However, he found military life tedious and he read books on travel and exploration which fired his imagination. He became particularly interested in exploring the wilderness beyond the Eurasian steppes. His military training taught him all aspects of reconnaissance and surveying that all army officers learnt to help them to plan military campaigns. This would help Nikolay to plan his expeditions.

At the military academy Nikolay wrote a dissertation on all that was then known about Amur, the remote East Asian territory annexed by Russia in 1858. The dissertation was so comprehensive that the St. Petersburg Geographical Society made him a member.

In 1867 the authorities funded his first expedition to the Amur region. Nikolay persuaded them to pay for a “personal assistant”. He would have one of these on all his expeditions, always a young man or teenager who would act as his protégé. These young men were the focus of Nikolay’s sexual urges, as evidenced in his letters, and were all probably platonic.

In summer 1867 he set off on his first expedition. It took him across tundra and lakes and down rivers through remote villages and Cossack settlements. The summer frosts thawed and melting mountain snow swelled the rivers. The whole ground was wet and boggy and was a breeding ground for gnats and mosquitos. Camping out in this environment was certainly not very pleasant. The almost constant July rain also made it virtually impossible to dry the plants and animal skins that were collected. Despite these difficulties the expedition was a huge success and Nikolay wrote up his journals into a book. This was to make him famous, allowing more expeditions to be planned.

In 1870 Nikolay’s second expedition went across the Gobi Desert to Beijing through some of the least explored parts of the Mongolian region. More plant and animal specimens were collected and the route was thoroughly mapped. This expedition also instilled in Nikolay a hatred of all things Chinese. He hated the food, he hated the culture. He was blatantly racist and hated anything that wasn’t European. He wrote that “…only the rifles and cannons of the Europeans can do any good here”. In truth, China was in a state of decline and Nikolay never saw the splendour of its heyday.

Nikolay’s third expedition began in 1876. He had ambitious plans including a visit to Lhasa, the remote capital of Tibet, a city no European had ever seen. The route across Siberia took the expedition through scorching heat to the Altai mountains. Several pack animals died and local guides proved unreliable. The most ambitious section was to cross the Takla Makan, a desert so inhospitable that its name means “you go in, but you don’t come out”. But come out of the desert they did, following a chain of oases.

Eventually Nikolay arrived at the near-mythical lake of Lop Nor, whose existence was only previously recorded by Marco Polo and which had recently been rediscovered. Then the expedition moved west to explore the mountains that separated Takla Makan from Tibet. Nikolay caught an infection and his young protégé developed a fever. Despite this Nikolay carried on. The heat was unbearable. A lot of wells had virtually dried up and scorpions scuttled into their tents at night. Nikolay’s infection worsened and soon riding a horse was too painful because of the itching sores and an abscess on his back-side. The colder autumn eased the itching but Nikolay was so weak by now that a makeshift cart was made to transport him. Even though physically incapacitated he was still very much in charge.

Several other members of the expedition caught the same infection, and then Nikolay learnt of the death of his other during the summer. He and the expedition became depressed and despondent and Nikolay decided to abandon the venture and return home, if for no other reason than to recover fully from his infection.

It wasn’t long before Nikolay organised his next expedition that would take him into Tibet. He set off at the beginning of 1879 and with 23 camels carrying food, provisions, equipment, guns and home-made strawberry jam (a gift for the Dalai Lama), the expedition made its way to the frontier post of Zaysan in the Altai Mountains.

It was there that Nikolay was presented with an animal skin by a local chief. It was the skin of a small horse. Nikolay sent it back to St. Petersburg where it was examined and confirmed as a new species. It was later named after Nikolay – Przhevalsky’s horse. Nikolay finally got to see a living specimen for himself in May 1879.

After resting at Zaysan for a while Nikolay and his expedition began to move towards Tibet and the fabled city of Lhasa. Did he make it? Sorry to keep you in suspense, but I’ll tell you next month.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Out Of This World: Asteroid Update

It’s been a while since I gave a list of asteroids (minor planets) named after members and allies of the lgbt community. So here’s a new selection. The number before each name is the official number designated to that asteroid. The explanation following each name is based on the citations given when the names were published, to which I’ve added information illustrating relevance to the lgbt community. The numerical order of asteroids is not necessarily the same order in which they were either discovered or named.

You may wonder why some asteroids are not named until many years after they were discovered. There’s several reasons for this. Once discovered an asteroid is given a reference number. No asteroid is named until it’s compete orbit has been calculated, and this may take some time because there may be very few observations on which to make an accurate calculation. The final number of the asteroids, the ones you see listed below, were assigned at the same time as their name. Many asteroids are only known by their number for several years until someone decides to give it a name. Some asteroids are named for a specific reasons, as in the case of the one named after Freddie Mercury below.

(65) Cybele
Discovered 8 March 1861.
Named after the Phrygian goddess Cybele shortly after its discovery. Early legends of Cybele relate how she was born intersex and had the name Agdistis. The gods feared this double-gendered deity and castrated her and thus she became Cybele. The asteroid was originally named Maximiliana after King Maximilian II of Bavaria (father of the gay King Ludwig II). At the time asteroids were given ancient classical names, and Maximiliana was regarded as non-classical and was changed to Cybele after protests from the most esteemed astronomers of the day.
(4544) Xanthus
Discovered 31 March 1989. Name published 27 June 1997.
Xanthus is one of the most obscure of the many Greek names of Apollo, the pansexual god of the Sun, archery, healing, prophecy and song. Xanthus means “the Fair”. This asteroid was given one of the names of Apollo because is a member of the Apollo group, asteroids whose orbits bring them close to Earth and may hit us. (4544) Xanthus last crossed our orbit on 12th August at the point where we will be on 30th November.
(6039) Parmenides
Discovered 3 September 1989. Name published 15 April 1995.
Named after Parmenides of Elea (late 5th century BC), a philosopher. In his lengthy poem “On Nature”, of which only a small part has been preserved, he considered the plurality of things as the appearance of only one eternal reality, whatever that means. He also suggested that the Earth was a sphere, an idea that found few supporters, except from his young protégé and lover Zeno. Parmenides and Zeno were spotted by Socrates as visitors to the Great Panathenaic Games.
(9014) Svyatorichter
Discovered 22 October 1985. Name published 26 July 2000.
Svyatoslav Teofilovich Richter (1915-1997) was a Russian pianist and People’s Artist of the USSR. Then, as now, Russia was homophobic, and though Richter was never openly gay his sexuality was an open secret in the Russian music world who recognised the string of male companions as his lovers.
(11964) Catullus
Discovered 12 August 1994. Name published 9 April 2009.
The Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (84 BC–54 BC) still influences poetry and art to this day. His poem Carmina 16 is notorious for its explicitness. It is one of several poems he wrote which mentions a youth, or Juventius, who is widely regarded as being Catullus’s lover. Catullus also had a girlfriend called Lesbia.
(12607) Alcaeus
Discovered 24 September 1960. Name published 24 November 2007.
Alcaeus (c.620 BC-c.580 BC) was a Greek poet from the island of Lesbos. His songs are as famous as those of Sappho (who also has an asteroid named after her). Alcaeus was said to have been Sappho’s lover. He also wrote poems to several of his young male lovers, including Lycos and Menon.
(14505) Barentine
Discovered 12 January 1996, Name published 6 January 2007.
Named after Dr. John Caleb Barentine (b.1976) who served as an observing specialist at the Apache Point Observatory telescope from 2001 to 2006, and then as an observer for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Trained in stellar astronomy, he was introduced to planetary work by his colleagues Gil Esquerdo and Carol Neese, who suggested his name for this asteroid. Dr. Barentine is currently the Director of Conservation for the International Dark-Sky Association. He is also an author on the history of astronomy, and a member of the 500 Queer Scientists organisation.
(17473) Freddiemercury
Discovered 21 March 1991. Name published on 3 September 2016, the 70th anniversary of his birth.
Freddie Mercury (1946–1991) was a British songwriter and the lead singer for the legendary rock group Queen. His distinctive sound and large vocal range were hallmarks of his performance style, and he is regarded as one of the greatest rock singers of all time. The name was suggested by the provisional designation given to this asteroid before its full orbit was calculated – 1991 FM3. The letters FM inspired the choice of Freddie Mercury’s name; 1991, the year it was discovered, was the year Freddie died. Fellow Queen band member and astronomer Brian May and Dr. Joel Parker of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, were instrumental in getting this asteroid named in time for Freddie’s 70th anniversary.
(36445) Smalley
Discovered 23 August 2000. Name published 21 September 2002.
Named after Kyle Smalley (1961-2018), a software developer, amateur astronomer and team member of the Powell Observatory Near-Earth-Object programme. She then went to work as a software developer at the Minor Planet Centre, the official body responsible for the cataloguing and naming of asteroids. It was while working there that she transitioned and lived as Sonia Keys.
(58196) Ashleyess
Discovered 10 March 1992. Name published 20 May 2008.
Ashley Caroline Steel (b.1959) is the sister of Daniel Steel who discovered this asteroid and has been very supportive of his career. Ashley was the vice-chair and global head of transport for KPMG, from which she retired in 2014. Currently she holds non-executive roles on the boards of National Express, GoCo and the BBC. She has been named one of the UK's most influential gay people and appeared on the annual “Pink List” published by The Independent newspaper for several consecutive years from 2006.
(4049) Noragal’
Discover 31 August 1973. Name published 17 March 1995.
Named after Eleonora Yakovlevna Gal'perina (1912-1992), literary critic and translator, well-known under the pseudonym Nora Gal' for her Russian translations of foreign works. She was the grandmother of gay poet Nikolai Kuzmin (b.1968).
(6692) Antonínholý
Discovered 18 April 1985. Name published 2 June 2015.
Dr. Antonín Holý (1936–2012) was a renowned Czech chemist who significantly contributed to the development of antiretroviral drugs used in the treatment of HIV and hepatitis B. He was the author of more than 400 scientific papers and was awarded with honorary degrees from several universities at home and abroad.
(19175) Peterpiot
Discovered 2 August 1991. Name published 8 October 2014.
Dr. Peter Piot (b.1949), a Belgian physician, co-discovered the ebola virus in Zaire in 1976. In addition to providing the foundations of our understanding of HIV infection, he is the author of 16 books and 500 scientific articles. He has been the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine since 2010. He was created a baron by the King of Belgium and an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George by Queen Elizabeth II.
(52665) Brianmay
Discovered 30 January 1998, Name published 18 Jun 2008.
Brian May (b.1947) is lead guitarist and songwriter for the rock group Queen which featured Freddie Mercury (for whom Brian campaigned to have an asteroid named). In 2007 Brian received his Ph.D. in astrophysics from Imperial College London for a thesis on zodiacal dust. Eight months later he became Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University. Brian is also the co-founder of Asteroid Day, the annual observance on June 30th to raise awareness of the possibility of an asteroid (such as Xanthus, one of the Apollo Group mentioned above) hitting Earth. In 2016 Brian May was named Celebrity Straight Ally at the British LGBT Awards. The name for this asteroid was suggested by legendary British astronomer and broadcaster Sir Patrick Moore.
Through all my “Asteroid Updates” I’ve not shown you where any of them are. You may have a vague idea of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Most asteroids orbit there. Only very large telescopes can see them.
This illustration above shows the orbits of three of the asteroids I’ve listed today in relation to the orbits of the major planets of the inner solar system. The illustration isn’t exactly to scale (the Sun would be less than a pixel and not a yellow dot) but the general orbits are in their correct relative position, even down to the fact the Sun is off-centre.
Orbits of the planets are in grey except for the Earth, which is in red. The orbits of (65) Cybele, (4544) Xanthus and (17473) Freddiemercury are shown in different colours.
Cybele is one of the outermost asteroids in the main belt. There are many other asteroids that go beyond which we don’t need to concern ourselves about today. You can probably see that the orbit of Xanthus, as a member of the near-Earth-orbit asteroid of the Apollo group, crosses our orbit twice a year. Just like the asteroid Apollo itself Xanthus could hit us in the far and distant future.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Homohoax: UFOs Have Us Going Around In Circles

[Homohoax – a hoax, prank or fake news that was created by a member of the lgbt community, about the lgbt community, or which effected members of it.]

The harvest season in underway, and there’s one thing that has become conspicuous by its absence in recent years - crop circles, those geometric patterns of flattened cereal that seemed to appear overnight in fields across the world. Scientists could not come up with an explanation. They didn’t know how they were formed, or by whom, or by what. Other people, however, were certain what they were. They were patterns created by aliens of their spaceships. Belief in these crop circles became quite popular for a while, and some people still go looking for them.

Before I go further I should point out that the crop circles I refer to in this article are the ones which began to appear in the UK in the 1970s and were revealed in the 1990s to be a hoax and were created by Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, and by other hoaxers.

I also have to admit that I had an open mind about crop circles at the time. I was an impressionable young teenager, though I could never believe they were created by aliens. I grew up in a rural village surrounded by wheat and barley fields but we never had any appear in my area.

One of the “champions” of crop circles was an openly gay ex-Ministry of Defence civil servant called Ralph Noyes (1923-1998).

Ralph Noyes was probably born in South Africa. Ten months after his birth he and his British parents are recorded on the passenger list of a ship sailing from Durban to Southampton. He was definitely a “child of the empire” and spent some time growing up in the West Indies. By 1933 his parents had, apparently, separated because his mother was remarried to a man called Reginald Hanney. Ralph changed his surname by deed poll in 1947 to Noyes-Hanney, though there’s no indication that he ever used it.

During World War II Ralph served in the RAF which led to him becoming a civil servant in what is now called the Ministry of Defence after 1945. In the latter half of his career he was employed at the Secretariat (Air Staff) 2a, what was popularly known as the “UFO desk”. Part of Ralph’s job was to answer letters from the public about UFO sightings. His contribution to the investigations into UFOs is worthy of a separate article, which I may get round to writing some time next year.

At around the same time that crop circles began to appear in the 1970s Ralph Noyes had become an Assistant Under-Secretary of State and had come out as gay. He appeared in one of the earliest British television series aimed at the lgbt community called “Gay Life” in 1981. Ralph retired from the Ministry of Defence a year later.

Ralph was also involved in investigation paranormal and mysterious phenomena. He was the Hon. Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research. While it is certain that Ralph was interested in the paranormal it is also clear that he was equally interested in the proper scientific research into these events and eager to find proof and reason behind them. However, he was often open to less scientific answers to some phenomena, never dismissing them until he could prove they were wrong.

In 1976, the year after Ralph left the Ministry of Defence, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley created their first crop circle. They caused a sensation and soon more appeared around the UK and the world. Ralph Noyes became interested in them very quickly, mainly because of the widely held belief that they were created by aliens and spaceships, and while the scientific world generally denounced such theories Ralph threw himself into research into these strange creations.

After several years Ralph Noyes had become one of the leading figures in cereology (yes, they even gave crop circle research a pseudo-scientific name) and in 1990 he edited and published a collection of writings on crop circles which is still highly regarded in the world of cereology. It was called “The Crop Circle Enigma”. In the same year Ralph and fellow cereologist Michael Green founded the Centre for Crop Circle Studies (CCCS). This too was aimed at proper scientific investigation.
Ralph Noyes’ appearance in a 1984 Japanese documentary on UFOs; inset, the front cover of the first edition of his book “The Crop Circle Enigma”, published in 1990.
 Very early on the CCCS looked into the possibility that crop circles were not a new phenomenon and that evidence could be found in the thousands of aerial photographs of the country of pre-1976 crop circles. They found none that were like those appearing after 1976. Similar research by the Wessex Skeptics, a group set up to debunk crop circles, UFOs, spoon-benders, and the like, came to the same conclusion. Ralph was quite happy to support their findings.

By this time, the beginning of the 1990s, the hoax crop circles of Doug Bower and Dave Chorley were themselves being hoaxed. To Ralph Noyes these fakes were obvious. He wrote to the Times newspaper on 25th July 1991 expressing his dismay that many of these copycat circles were “not only troublesome to farmers but muddies the scientific record”.

In September 1991 Doug Bower and Dave Chorley revealed that they had created the crop circles which sparked off the whole crop circle craze.

In 1992 the CCCS held its first international conference in Winchester. In the same month Ralph joined fellow cereologists in several night vigils at crop circle sites in the area. It seems that, by now, Ralph had become disillusioned by the whole idea of crop circle studies. Dismayed by the confessions of Bower and Chorley, and by the many copycat circles that he thought “muddled” his scientific research into genuine circles, he resigned from the CCCS later that year. It did not, however, dampen his interest in paranormal and mysterious events and he continued to be a member of the Society for Psychical Research and write articles.

Ralph remained a highly respected figure in cereology after his departure from the CCCS. His main contribution to the world of the mysterious and unexplained, however, was in the study of UFOs. It is this subject to which I’ll return some time next year.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Out of Her Tree: Gladiators, Pilgrims and Pirates

There have been few family histories that I have looked in to that have contained such a variety of events as those I uncovered during research for today’s featured lgbt individual – Shelley Beattie (1967-2008). Selecting which to present in this snapshot of Shelley’s ancestry has been difficult.

Shelley Beattie’s own life was a varied as those of her ancestors. There’s action, struggles, and adventure on the high seas.

Perhaps what Shelley is best remembered for is her role as Siren in “American Gladiators” on television between 1992 and 1997. Before that she was a leading competitive bodybuilder, appearing on the covers of fitness and physique magazines.

Shelley’s success belies the fact that she was also deaf. Fortunately, she developed excellent lip-reading and speaking skills that led many to be surprised to learn she had a hearing impairment. She was a fighter all her life, not necessarily in the physical sense but in overcoming other challenges and finding her way in life. Sadly, this created mental health problems which led to her taking her own life. Her ancestry also shows the challenges and struggles thrown at previous generations of her family.

Shelley had a lot of German blood through her mother, though most of her ancestry was Celtic. The Beattie family originally came from Roxburghshire in Scotland, near the border with England. Shelley’s great-grandfather Thomas Beattie migrated with his wife and infant son, first to Alberta, Canada, in 1904, and then to the US in 1923. Both of Shelley’s parents are descended from Scottish and Irish immigrants. Her various ancestral immigrant families arrived in the US from the first days of colonial settlement up to her great-grandfather’s arrival.

The sea and sea travel appear a lot in Shelley’s ancestry. Coming from a family on the Californian coast she was never far from the sea, and her grandmother Helen was buried at sea. Shelley herself spent time on the high seas as a member of the first all-female team to compete in the Americas Cup sailing challenge in 1994 and 1995. I wonder if Shelley adopted the name Siren when she became an American Gladiator in 1992 as a conscious decision to link herself to the sea (sirens are the fabled sea-enchantresses who lure sailors to their death). But then perhaps the name was chosen by the series producers.

And this leads us on to an unexpected part of Shelley’s ancestry. Adventure on the high seas is in her blood. Through her paternal grandmother Shelley was descended from Benjamin Haxton. He was the son of Scottish immigrants and was born in Connecticut colony in 1705. By 1737 he had become a ship’s carpenter. The only ship we know for sure Benjamin served on was the “Charming Betty”. This is a well-recorded vessel and its name belies the nature of its fame. For some “Charming Betty” was far from charming.

This period in the history of the American east coast was still intimately linked with events in Europe, largely because the powers in Europe had neighbouring colonies in America, and the conflicts between them played out on both continents.

The War of the Austrian Succession (referred to by the English colonists as King George’s War) broke out in 1744. It was one of those international wars which revolved around dynastic power struggles. In the American colonies it primarily involved conflict between the English and French.

“Charming Betty” was one of several ships to which the British government gave letters of marque. This meant that these ships had the legal permission to attack any French ship, capture its cargo and ransom a prisoner. In effect, “Charming Betty” was a privateer (the polite name for a pirate ship).

In 1746 when Benjamin Haxton was the “Charming Betty” ship’s carpenter the vessel had already captured one French ship called “St. Charles” in 1744. Whether Benjamin was a crew member in 1744 isn’t certain, but he may have been on board “Charming Betty” when it fought against a French frigate in 1747. Many prisoners were taken in that skirmish and many were killed.

Benjamin survived his pirating years and went to live with his family in Greene County, New York province. Ironically, he was killed in his own home by native Americans in 1754.

Staying on the sea we encounter Mayflower Pilgrims in Shelley’s ancestry. Through her maternal great-grandmother Delna Little (1906-1995) Shelley was descended from the Mayflower passenger Francis Cooke (from the same village as my own ancestors at the time, so I wonder if they knew each other). There’s also an unproven line of descent from the Mayflower’s Samuel Fuller.

Also through Delna Little Shelley Beattie had other ancestry which links to another group of religious refugees. Delna’s own great-grandmother was Susanna Young (1795-1852), the sister of Brigham Young, the second President of the Mormon church. Delna’s grandfather (Susanna’s son) was a Mormon Patriarch, James Amasa Little. Just like the earlier Mayflower Pilgrims the Mormons were persecuted for their beliefs and sought a safe haven to worship. The Pilgrims sailed across the Atlantic to New England. The Mormons, led by Brigham Young and his family, travelled across the USA to found Salt Lake City.

Taking Shelley Beattie’s ancestry as a whole, her ancestry is dominated by the Celtic heritage of Scotland and Ireland. As with a lot of immigrant descendants there’s many stories of struggle against life’s challenges, whether it leads to the need to migrate and just survive in a new country, or the need to face personal challenges.

Finally, yes, Shelley had royal blood. Through Susannah Young Shelley was descended from King Edward I of England (1239-1307).

Monday, 15 July 2019

Dog Days of the Shogun

This time of year is often referred to as the Dog Days of summer. This is a traditional name for the hottest and sultry days of the year, so named because the brightest night-time star the Dog Star, Sirius. The Romans believed that when Sirius rose in the sky before dawn in the summer months its heat was added to that of the Sun.

I have to admit that I’m not good with dogs. I was attacked by an alsatian when I was about 7 (when you’re that young an alsatian is as high as your shoulder) and I still have nightmares about dogs. As a complete contrast, there’s one historical lgbt individual who is said to have loved dogs so much that he acquired the nickname of “the Dog Shogun”. His actual name was Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709) and he was the 5th shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty.
Tokugawa Tsunayoshi
In recent decades the reputation of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi has undergone a bit of revision. For centuries he had the reputation of being a bad ruler, a tyrant who eccentricities included favouring the welfare of dogs over humans and of elevating his many male lovers into positions of power.

As I have found out time and time again in the 40 years that I have been a dedicated historian what is written and accepted as historical fact often concentrates on one culturally biased opinion. In the case of Tsunayoshi that bias was contained in a very influential document called “Sanno Gaiki”. This had been accepted as the authoritative account of Tsunayoshi’s reign. It was written after he had died and was more of a critical parody than a history of his reign, and even though people recognised this as the time, people and historians gradually began to believe every word of it.

Despite the fact that Japanese historians just a century after his death had tried to rehabilitate Tsunayoshi’s reputation “Sanno Gaiki” had become too fixed in the popular mind for it not to take root. By the end of the 20th century many historians were attempting to “correct” this fake history.

Perhaps the biggest effect on Tsunayoshi’s reputation is his fondness for dogs and his famous nickname “the Dog Shogun”. From being an insult to being turned into a by-name for animal compassion this nickname has various legends surrounding it.

The origin of this nickname centre round the “laws of compassion” introduced by Tsunayoshi from 1687 onwards. These were a series of laws which gave protection to animals and punishments for animal cruelty, including death. Even though later historians concentrated on the protection of dogs the laws also included protection of cruelty against other animals - birds, horses and even grasshoppers. Protection for abandoned children was also a large part of these laws.

The dog connection is compounded by the fact that Tsunayoshi was born in the Japanese Year of the Dog. The “Sanno Gaiki” added to this by fabricating the legend that a Buddhist priest had told Tsunayoshi’s mother that the shogun had mistreated dogs in a former life and the death of his son and heir was a punishment. The priest said that only laws against cruelty to dogs would lift the curse of a childless shogun.

Dogs seemed to have a dual identity during the rule of the shoguns. On the one hand dogs were closely associated with the samurai and were a symbol of their ferocity. The samurai would breed and train hundreds of dogs for hunting. Over time there were too many for the samurai to keep and many dogs were either killed or left to stray the countryside.

Cities were often overrun with stray dogs. They attacked other animals and even children in search of food. Cruelty to dogs was already punishable and Shogun Tsunayoshi’s laws of compassion added an additional condition which stated that not feeding stray dogs was also cruelty and punishable. Most people, however, were under the impression that feeding any dog would make them legally responsible for the animal and avoided them. This led to an increase in stray dogs. The solution was to build massive dog shelters and kennels. When I say massive I mean that the kennels housed over 100,000 stray dogs.

Unfortunately for these dogs, when Tsunayoshi died his son and successor closed down all the kennels. It’s not certain what happened to all the dogs. The location of these kennels is commemorated today in a set of statue dogs outside Nakano City Hall in Tokyo (pictured below). The kennels may be the main reason why the Japanese went on to associate Tsunayoshi with them more than any other animal.
So that’s why Tokugawa Tsunayoshi became known as the Dog Shogun as a name of shame – a man who preferred dogs to people. But his reputation was smeared further by accusation of him promoting his male lovers to high office. What’s the truth about that?

As a samurai Tsunayoshi was no stranger to same-sex activity. In something very much like the ancient Greek practice whereby soldiers take younger male lovers the samurai had a similar system called shodu. As with the Greek practice shodu was more a rite of passage for the younger partner and, also as with the Greeks, it developed into a life-long platonic friendship. Neither practices can be said to be truly homosexual in our modern sense of the word but was strongly homo-social. The fact that both practices saw the man-youth sexual relationship as normal is what makes it a big part in lgbt heritage of our understanding of human sexuality.

Tsunayoshi is known to have had several young male lovers as well as a wife and several concubines. That, too, was normal. The claim made by a ruler’s critics of lovers and favourites being promoted to high office is common in most societies, even if there’s no evidence of same-sex activity. However, there seems to be hints in Tsunayoshi’s behaviour that may indicate that he did prefer male partners.

One of these hints is his friendship with Yanagisawa Yoshigasu, one of the many attendants at the shogun’s court. Yoshigasu was from a samurai family of imperial descent. He and the future shogun Tsunayoshi met in 1665 when he was 7 years old and Tsunayoshi was 19. Later historians also painted Yoshigasu as a bad court official though his reputation has been undergoing the same revision as the shogun.

Yoshigasu was a general attendant at the court. In 1675 he became a page at Tsunayoshi’s residence. Five years later when Tsunayoshi became shogun Yoshigasu joined him in Edo palace and soon began to rise in the hierarchy of attendants. He had no formal training in government or politics yet in 1688 shogun Tsunayoshi appointed him as his Great Chamberlain. This angered many officials and samurai families.

While there’s no actual evidence of a gay relationship between the two men in our modern sense, one may have been carried out in the form of the traditional samurai shudo before Tsunayoshi became shogun. There was a strong personal connections between the two through a shared interest in Confucian classics, though this alone is hardly enough to propel a humble attendant to the high office of Great Chamberlain. So, perhaps there was more going on between them.

As in a lot of historical instances evidence to prove a relationship one way or another is lacking, and the change in social attitudes to everything from sexuality to politics changes with each generation.

Given that the samurai code of shudo with its same-sex relationships was common in 17th century Japan it is unlikely that the Dog Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, didn’t have male lovers.