Sunday, 19 November 2017

Queer Achievement : A Transgender Pioneer

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]

Tomorrow is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. My commemoration this year takes the form of the coat of arms of a transgender pioneer, Dr. Michael Dillon (1915-1963). There are two historic facts about Dr. Dillon and his coat of arms. First is Dillon being the first female to male transgender to undergo surgical gender reassignment in history. Second, this also means that his coat of arms is the first ever borne by any member of the transgender community.

Michael Dillon was the second child of Lt. Robert Arthur Dillon of the Royal Navy. Michael was assigned female at birth and was baptised with the name Laura. His only sibling was his older brother Robert Dillon (1914-1982).

Here is my rendition of Michael Dillon’s armorial achievement.
The Dillon family were Irish and trace their line back to Robert de Dillon (sometimes called de Leon), an Anglo-Norman knight who arrived in Ireland with Prince (later King) John in 1185 and was granted lands in what are now the counties of Longford and Westmeath. Robert de Dillon’s coat of arms, the original Dillon arms (below) are slightly different to Michael’s.
What is common to both are the lion and crescents. The lion may be a cant (a direct reference to the owner’s name) on the name de Leon. Michael Dillon’s branch of the family descends from the Dillons of Poundstown, who were created Earls of Roscommon in 1622. The 1st Earl of Roscommon used the same shield and crest as Michael Dillon several centuries later. It’s not certain when this particular design was chosen over the original Dillon arms but they seem to have been first used by Sir Richard Dillon of Poundstown in the 15th century. There is a family legend which describes how the change occurred.

The story goes that Richard Dillon fought at the Battle of Verneuil in Normandy in 1424. He brought 600 Irish soldiers with him and with the English won the battle against the French. Richard was rewarded with a knighthood from the Duke of Bedford, the English Regent of France. In addition the duke granted Sir Richard a new crest, the falcon, and a new configuration of the arms on the shield into the form inherited by Michael Dillon and the Earls of Roscommon. The falcon has been depicted with its wings in various positions over the centuries. One of the leading heraldists of the 20th century, A. C. Fox-Davies, wrote that there is a lot of confusion and no consistency over the falcon’s wing positions in English heraldry, and the Dillon falcon is no exception. The form I have chosen is described as “wings addorsed and elevated”.

Analysing the arms we can determine how the charges (the objects on the shield) looks this way. First of all, the lion. The original Dillon lion was passant (looking as if it is walking past us). Sir Richard’s 1424 lion is rampant (standing up). This is obviously because a lion passant would be virtually hidden behind the blue band (called a fess). The lion in the original Dillon crest is also standing upright.

Second, the crescents. The three crescents from the original arms now have 6-pointed stars between their points. These are representations of the black star held by the lion in the original Dillon crest.

Another alteration to the arms made by the Poundstown Dillons at some unknown stage was to include a chapeau (the medieval-looking red cap) on which the falcon stands.

The blue band, the fess, is said to have been a special augmentation granted by the Duke of Bedford. Upon it is another crescent which in this case indicates that Michael Dillon is the second son of his father, which he became after his reassignment surgery after 1949. Whether the heraldic authorities at the College of Arms at the time considered this appropriate is not certain.

In 1801 Michael Dillon’s direct ancestor, John Dillon (1739-1805), was created a baronet, a hereditary knighthood. In 1783 John Dillon had been created a baron of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Josef II. Sir John was given permission to use this title in England, which was not usually possible for people with foreign titles. Michael Dillon’s older bother Robert was the 8th baronet and 8th Baron Dillon. After his transition Debrett’s Peerage, one of the leading works on the British nobility, acknowledged Michael’s gender by declaring him to be the male heir to his brother’s titles. Sadly, Michael predeceased Robert and there were no more heirs. The titles disappeared into history.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Queen of the Party

Is it too early to think about a New Year party? I suppose it doesn’t matter what the occasion is.

Have you ever wanted to be at one of those star-studded Hollywood parties of the 1930s, 40s or 50s with celebrities left, right and centre? There doesn’t seem to be that many around these years, star-studded parties that is, not celebrities. Celebrities are everywhere. Just reading about all those interminably dull “celebrity/real life” television programmes proves that you call claim to be a celebrity just by being the brother of a film star’s dog-walker. Even the Kardashians are nobodies with their own tv series, nothing more.

But who am I to complain? Perhaps I’m just jealous. I’ve been on my fair share on television and radio programmes over the decades. No-one has ever referred to me as a celebrity. I’ve never had an invitation to a celebrity party and, as the lesbian who invented the celebrity party single-handed might have said, if you don’t get invited to a celebrity party you’re a nobody.

That lesbian’s name is Elsa Maxwell (1883-1963). For someone who spent her adult social life in the company of kings and princes Elsa’s origins are very humble. She was born in Keokuk, Iowa. The family moved to San Francisco when she was little.
Elsa Maxwell
The origin of Elsa’s enthusiasm for parties is said to come from an incident in her childhood when her parents were left off the quest list of an event hosted by one of the famously rich Vanderbilt family. Details of the story vary but, ironically, later in life when her parties were the talk of high society Elsa could claim that her parties had more Vanderbilts than anyone else. There’s nothing to indicate otherwise.

Elsa tried her hand at many things, with only modest success. She was songwriter and singer and would sometimes play the piano and sing at her parties. She acted in several films and was a theatre impresario. But it was her parties that made her as famous as the celebrities she invited to them.

It wasn’t just the food and entertainment that Elsa spent so much time over. The guests themselves were specifically chosen to bring sparks to the party. For instance, it was Elsa who introduced the film star Rita Hayworth to Prince Aly Khan, father of the present Aga Khan, at one of her parties. They married soon afterwards. In the 1920s Elsa encouraged the talents of songwriter Cole Porter, with whom she became great friends after initially finding him irritating.

Perhaps the biggest contribution Elsa made to partying was the development of the scavenger hunt and treasure hunt. Her imagination knew no bounds when planning them. In 1927 her star-studded Paris party caused an uproar around the city as guests dashed around the streets hunting for such items as a shoe belonging to the music hall star Mistinguett (she has to perform barefoot that night), a live black swan (which bit several people who had to be sent to hospital) and a pom-pom from a French sailor’s hat (the lgbt designer Elsie de Wolfe was arrested by the French Navy for theft). How could anyone top a party like that?

Well, Elsa Maxwell continued to do so for another 32 years. If later scavenger hunts never lived up to the Paris 1927 standard there were also the party themes which equalled them. Every invitation gave the party’s theme and dress code. One theme was “Come as you were dressed when you received this invitation”. Guests arrived in a wide variety of formal and informal wear and in various stages of undress. At other parties guests were asked to dress as their opposite gender.

The success of Elsa’s parties meant that she became the go-to person for the media on matters of entertaining and celebrity gossip. She wrote a syndicated gossip column and hosted her own radio show. She made regular appearances on NBC’s “The Jack Paar’s Tonight Show”.

Elsa Maxwell partied right up until the last few weeks of her death at the age of 82 in 1963. By this time she was in a wheelchair, but she was determined to attend the annual “April in Paris” ball. She died the following week.

Elsa’s heir was her partner since 1912, a Scottish singer called Dorothy Fellowes Gordon. They kept their relationship discreet but they were acknowledged as “companions”.

Modern parties don’t seem to have the same level of excitement as Elsa’s, judging by the dull parties we see in the gossip media or “celebrity” reality shows. It’s all alcohol and individual high jinks. Even the fabled parties of Sir Elton John are dull compared to Elsa Maxwell’s.

So, if you want to host a really good party take inspiration from Elsa Maxwell. Choose your guests carefully. Invite new people who will add to the atmosphere. Create your own scavenger hunt or treasure hunt. Scavenger hunts in particular offer the best opportunity for limitless imagination. Not everyone can have real celebrities at their party but at least you can have fun trying to find one in the scavenger hunt.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Weddings - Poles (and Polls) Apart

Once in a while two events on opposite sides of the world connect. We see that happening at the moment in two, apparently unrelated events – the vote of same-sex marriage in Australia, and the declaration of independence by Catalonia. Boiling it down to the basic issues of same-sex marriage and separatism in Spain we can combine them into one with a same-sex wedding in the medieval kingdom of Galicia.

We’ll begin with a wedding. A couple of years ago I wrote about the relationship between SirWilliam Neville and Sir John Clanvowe and how they were shown as a married couple. They probably went through a church ceremony identical to the marriage ceremony, but no record of it exists. It is known that the Roman Catholic Church encouraged men to form unions which may have their origin in the older practice of adelphopoiesis, a liturgy in the medieval Greek Orthodox Church, in which two men are united in something very much like a same-sex marriage.

Before I go any further I think it might be helpful to explain what a wedding actually is. I’m not talking about marriage, that’s a different concept with a different origin. It is the ceremony, the wedding that I’ll write about here.

The word “wedding” comes from the same origin as the word “wager”. They both derive from the ancient word for a pledge. A wedding was a pledge from a husband to take a woman as his wife. The pledge was sealed with a wedding ring (that’s why it isn’t called a marriage ring).
Despite modern assumptions that Christians have always had church weddings the truth is very different. For an understanding of the origin of church weddings we have to thank the gay Christian historian and Anglican deacon Prof. Diarmuid MacCulloch. In his 2015 television series “Sex and the Church” he explained how church weddings came into being.

Early Christians didn’t have ceremonies to celebrate marriages. All they did was exchange vows in front of witnesses. This type of marriage was referred to as “common law”. It was towards the end of the Dark Ages that men began to think about their inheritance, whether it was a big manorial estate or a small cottage and a couple of pigs. When a man died his eldest son inherited his property. Squabbles between siblings could go on for decades if there was no certain heir. Male relatives would fight over who was legitimate of illegitimate, based on their word about whose parents were married. The only way to prove whether an heir was from a legal marriage was to have that marriage approved by the highest authority in the world – God. People began asking priests to marry them in church in the eyes of God.

The Greek Orthodox service of adelphopoiesis, brother-making, dates from the end of the Dark Ages as well. The theory that it allowed homosexual couples (as we would call them in today’s terms) to marry was first proposed by two openly gay historians, John Boswell (1947-1994) and Alan Bray (1948-2001). Their theories were challenged by the Greek Orthodox Church, but then they would. The modern Orthodox Church is more anti-gay than Roman Catholicism. Even other historians challenged the theory, a leading critic being Robin Darling Young, but then again she would. She’s a devout Catholic and history professor at the only official Roman Catholic university in the USA.

Unfortunately, very, very few records of the first church weddings survive, but one which may be evidence of a brother-making ceremony can be found in a document discovered in the monastery of San Salvador de Celanora in Galicia, Spain. It records the union of two men called Pedro Diaz and Muño Vandilaz taking place on 16th April 1061.

Diaz and Vandilaz were “wedded” in a chapel in Rairiz de Veija, just a few miles from the current border with Portugal. They made their vows in writing in front of a priest, committing themselves to live and work together, and share clothes, food and bed. They wouldn’t have called themselves homosexuals in the way we use the term today, because that term didn’t exist in 1061. Nor would they call themselves a gay couple. They had no words for a gay couple in those days either.
The discovery of their wedding ceremony was made by another openly gay history professor, Carlos Callón. His research also supports the modern view, (deliberately) ignored by anti-church propagandists, that the Catholic Church did not victimise gay men as harshly as those propagandists claim. Homosexuality was never declared a sin in the Church, not until modern separatist evangelical churches did so. On the other hand civil authorities, elected officials, politicians and non-clergy have all put the death penalty on homosexual acts.

Carlos Callón’s research on medieval sexuality, “Friends and Sodomites”, won a prestigious prize for social sciences in 2011. The prize board praised his work and, in particular, his analysis of the origin of homophobia in the 11th and 12th centuries.

And that leaves one question? What has all that got to do with Catalonian independence? As well as being a historian Carlos Callón is also an activist in the Bloque Nacionalista Galega, the nationalist coalition of Galician political groups who, like Catalonia, would prefer independence from Spain. Carlos is an expert on Galicia history and language and was an elected local councillor for several years for the Bloque. Galicia is an area of unique culture and heritage that has more in common with Portugal than it does with Spain, while being different to both.

Only time will tell if the Catalonia situation stabilises and reaches a mutual solution. Maybe, way in the future, Galicia will move in the same direction and have a calmer path to independence. No doubt Carlos Callón (if it happens in our lifetime) will be in the forefront of that cause, just as he is in discovering recorded evidence that same-sex marriage isn’t new.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Planning Another Trip Around the World

Tomorrow night at the University of Liverpool the official launch of LGBT History Month UK 2018 takes place. The theme for next year is “Geography: Mapping Our World”.

If you trawl through my posts of 2015 you’ll notice that one of the running themes I had went by the title of “Around the World in 80 Gays”. I’ve been trying to complete another one ever since and the 2018 theme for LGBT History Month gives me the perfect reason to complete it. So I have come up with the not-very-original series title of “Around the World in Another 80 Gays”.

Rather than have “80 Gays” as a running theme interspersed with articles from other continuing series, such as “Star Gayzing”, “Queer Achievements” and “Xtremely Queer” I intend “Another 80 Gays” to be the dominant series throughout 2018. In this way I can expand on some information and devote one article to one individual rather than 3 or 4 as I did in 2015. This will also enable me to incorporate one of those other themes as well. For example, one of the first “Another 80 Gays” articles to appear (probable at the end of January or early February, I haven’t finalised the schedule yet) will also be part of my “Queer Achievements” series and will feature Alexander the Great. But that doesn’t mean that other articles from other series will not appear separately.

As with my original “80 Gays” most of the links in “Another 80 Gays” have been made well in advance and have been allocated provisional dates for publication. Most of my time next month will be devoted to writing drafts for the first 20 articles and finalising the schedule.

As before, the list of people included in the new series will be as varied as I can manage, both in time and, bearing in mind the LGBT History Month’s theme is geography, location. Each of the 80 people I will feature are connected personally or directly to the next one. To give you a taste of what is to come I can reveal that the starting point will be Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973). Taking one aspect of his life I link together another 79 lgbt individuals, the final one having a direct link to another aspect of his life (no spoilers, you’ll have to wait till the end of December 2018 to find out who person 79 is).

What I can reveal today is that as well as the above mentioned Alexander the Great “Around the World in Another 80 Gays” will also include the Emperor Nero, the first ever International Ms Leather, and Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister. Subjects covered will include diamonds, the American War of Independence, and comic books.

It is also my intention to bring this blog to end at the end in December 2018. Seven years is a long time to be doing anything and I’d like to expand other avenues in lgbt heritage.

But that is still over a year in the future. In the meantime I have a lot more research and writing to do in order to bring you some of the least expected, more unusual, not well known and (hopefully) inspiring stories from lgbt and world history.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Out Of His Tree: Wilde About Oscar's Ancestry

Perhaps the most famous person imprisoned for a gay crime is Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). In 1895 he was given a prison sentence after bring found guilty of gross indecency. I don’t think there’s been a proper look in his many biographies at his ancestry, apart from his immediate family tree, so that’s what we’ll do today.
A lot is known about Oscar’s immediate ancestry. Both of his parents were well-known in their lifetimes. His father was Sir William Wilde (1815-1876), a prominent surgeon, having the position of Surgeon Occulist to the Queen in Ireland created specially for him by Queen Victoria. He was also a noted antiquarian and writer.

The Wilde family originate in County Durham, England. Ralph Wilde moved over to Ireland after he became the agent for Lord Mount Sandford at Castlerea in County Roscommon. He was Sir William’s grandfather.

Sir William’s wife, Oscar’s mother, was Jane Francisca Elgee (1826-1896) and her ancestry can be traced back in Ireland a bit further. Jane was also a writer. She wrote poetry and prose and established a reputation that rivalled her English female counterparts. She adopted the name Speranza, an Italianate-sounding name which she thought emphasised the Italian origin of the Elgee family. She was wrong about that.

The Elgee family actually came, like the Wilde’s, from County Durham. Several Elgee brothers went to Ireland as jobbing stonemasons and bricklayers in the construction boom in the 1730s. They flourished and became quite wealthy farmers. Rev. John Elgee (1753-1823), one of the children of these brothers entered the Protestant Church of Ireland and became Rector of Wexford and Archdeacon of Leighlin. He was Jane “Speranza” Wilde’s grandfather.

Jane’s other grandfather was also a clergyman, Rev. Thomas Kingsbury, Vicar of Kildare. The Kingsburys were also an immigrant English family, originally from Dorset. Rev. Thomas’s father was an influential Dublin physician, also called Thomas, who was President of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland. He was also a close friend of the famous writer Jonathan Swift.

Rev. John Elgee, mentioned above, married Jane Waddy (1751-1804), from yet another family who migrated from England. The Waddys originate in Yorkshire and went to Ireland in the 1600s during Oliver Cromwell’s vicious Irish campaigns and were granted Clougheast Castle, County Wexford, in recognition of their services.

Jane Waddy’s parents were Cadwallader Waddy, an Irish MP, and Ellinor Tench. The Tench family were one of County Wexford’s most important landed families. In genealogical terms Ellinor is referred to as a gateway ancestor because her ancestry takes us into more noble and royal families. The Tench’s of Bryanstown to which Ellinor belonged claim Norman ancestry. Again, they migrated to Ireland from England, though much earlier than the previously-named families. They were among the first wave of Anglo-Norman invaders in the 12th century. The Bryanstown estates were inherited by them in the 1500s through marriage to the heiress of the Bryan family after whom the estates were named.

One set of Oscar Wilde’s 4-times greatgrandparents were John Tench and his wife Elizabeth Cliffe. The Cliffe’s arrived in Ireland, yet again from England, at about the same time as the Waddys. Elizabeth’s father John was Secretary of War to Oliver Cromwell and came to Ireland in that tyrant’s merciless attack on Ireland. John settled in Ireland and married a well-connected girl called Eleanor Loftus (1641-1700), another gateway ancestor.

The Loftus family were more well-connected than the Tench’s. They were deeply involved in Irish politics with many members of the family serving in the Irish parliament. Eleanor Loftus’s father was an MP, her grandfather was Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and her great-grandfather was Most Rev. Adam Loftus (c.1533-1605), also Lord Chancellor of Ireland, who was Archbishop of Armagh. Before establishing themselves in the Irish Establishment the Loftus family were, yes, you guessed, English. Adam Loftus’s first connection with Ireland came in 1560 when he became chaplain in Ireland to the Earl of Sussex. He then became chaplain to the Bishop of Kildare and, before he was 29, was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh, less than 3 years after arriving in Ireland. What a meteoric rise! Among the Archbishop’s descendants are not only Oscar Wilde but Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Wellington, “Lord Voldemort” Ralph Fiennes (and his real-life nephew Hero Triffin, who played Tom Riddle in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”), Sir Arthur Vicars and Eleanor Acheson.

It is the Archbishop’s son Sir Dudley Loftus, Oscar Wilde’s direct ancestor, who provides the link to royalty. He married Anne, the daughter of the Marshal of the Army in Ireland to Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Nicholas Bagenal (1509-1591). He was a very colourful character. After fleeing to Ireland to escape a murder charge he befriended an Irish prince, the Earl of Tyrone, who obtained a royal pardon for him. Later in life Sir Nicholas was involved in a drunken punch-up with a rival for the post of Marshal. He was about 80 years old at the time. It is his wife, Eleanor Griffith, who provides Oscar Wilde with his royal blood. She is descended from King Edward III of England and his gay father King Edward II.

I’ll end with a ghost story (it’s not that long since Hallowe’en). Young Anne Tottenham, one of Oscar’s ancestral cousins, related through the Loftus, Cliffe and Tench families several times over, was living at Loftus Hall, County Wexford, in the 1770s. One stormy night a young man sought refuge at the hall and stayed a few days, becoming friendly with Anne. One evening while they were playing cards Anne reached down to pick up a card she had dropped. It was then that she saw the man had cloven hooves instead of feet. She screamed in horror and the young man shot straight up through the ceiling. Anne was in deep shock and refused to eat or drink and died a few days later. Legend had it that the hole in the ceiling could never be repaired and it reappeared again every time it was sealed.

I wonder if Oscar Wilde heard about this family legend and used parts of it to inspire his own ghost story “The Canterville Ghost”. After all, that story also has a supernatural stain that keeps returning.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Dracula, St. George and Lesbian Vampires

In anticipation of tomorrow’s Hallowe’en this article deals with some of the inspirations behind modern horror clichés, in particular the lesbian vampire. As well as the legendary serial killer Countess Erzsebet Bathori there is another real historical woman who helped to inspire the fictional lesbian vampire and she has a link to the patron saint of England, St. George.

Lesbian vampires have been an integral stereotype found in many horror films, epitomised by the Hammer Horror films of the 1960s. The female vampire who sucks the blood of young maidens can be traced to a novel called “Carmilla” written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (a friend of both Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker). The novel was published in 1872, several years before Stoker’s “Dracula”. The novel’s title character Carmilla makes deeply affectionate advances to a young woman whose family she lived with. As a child the young woman, Laura, had nightmares of a woman resembling Carmilla laying in bed with her and leaving needle-like pains in her breast. A visiting general recognises Carmilla as a vampire. Tracking her to her grave she has the now customary stake driven through her heart.

The origin of Carmilla may have been inspired by the real-life Countess Barbara von Celje (d.1451), the wife of Holy Roman Empire, Szigmund von Luxembourg. Barbara was an extremely powerful and intelligent woman. She was married to Szigmund, then just the King of Hungary, after her father had freed him from imprisonment by rebel Hungarian barons. Barbara effectively acted as ruler of Hungary while her husband was on his many battles and campaigns against both his own barons and neighbouring kingdoms. They only had time to have one child, a daughter called Elizabeth. Szigmund was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1414.In December 1408, not long after King Szigmund and Queen Barbara married, they co-founded an order of knighthood usually known as the Order of the Dragon. Women don’t found orders of knighthood, so it is a testament to Barbara’s power that her husband allowed her to share founder status. The badge of the order was a curled dragon with a red cross on its back (pictured). It represented the dragon tamed by St. George.
Embroidered badge of the Order of the Dragon from around 1430 now in the Bayerisches National Museum.
One of the founding members of the Order of the Dragon was the Voivode (Prince-Governor) of Wallachia, Vlad II. In his own country he acquired the nickname of Dracul, meaning dragon, based on his membership of the order. Vlad’s son, Vlad III, called himself the Son of the Dragon – Dracula.

Back to Queen Barbara. Like all powerful people she was the victim of smear campaigns. In the fight against her enemies, mainly Catholic princes, Barbara supported the Hussite sect who were declared heretic. After her death Barbara was accused of more heresy and of drinking blood and keeping a female harem for her sexual and bloody pleasure. For the Countess Erzsebet Bathori two centuries later there was no need for rumours, she was actually like that. But for Queen Barbara it was merely a smear campaign by her enemies.

A mystic book on sorcery and magic published in 1458 adds to Queen Barbara’s vampiric reputation. The author stated that he restored the dying soul of the “lady who was much beloved by the emperor Sigmund” back into her dead body and gave her new life. It is assumed that he was referring to Queen Barbara because there’s no record of Sigmund having and other “beloved”. Added to this are other legends that circulated after her death that she was an enchantress herself. She was given the name “The Black Witch” and the “Messalina of Germany” (Messalina was the adulterous and conniving wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius).

Whatever the origin of all the rumours of Queen Barbara’s alleged supernatural, vampiric or magical abilities they may all have contributed to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s title character in his novel “Carmilla”. After all, he is known to have visited the region before writing his book.

So a smear campaign by her enemies after her death and the founding of an order of knighthood led to the lesbian vampires and Count Dracula. Being labelled a lesbian vampire doesn’t indicate that Queen Barbara was either, of course. Yet, even today, there are still esoteric and pseudo-historical groups who believe it all to be true.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Intersex Awareness at a Crossroads

Despite the increased awareness of lgbt issues in society, and to some extent the understanding of the issues we face, there are still sections of our community who feel neglected and misunderstood. The intersex community is one such section.

On this Intersex Awareness Day I want to take a look at the early records of intersex people and the different attitudes they faced, and just how their physicality was explained in ancient Greece and Rome.

Like other attitudes towards sexuality intersex people were treated differently in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. The Greek god Hermaphroditus was the son of the gods Hermes and Aphrodite and his name entered the English language as the name for intersex people – hermaphrodite.

The actual name Hermaphroditus doesn’t appear until the 4th century BC, and even then it is only a brief reference. The poem “The Characters”, which was probably written by Theophrastus, lists thirty character types, including “The Flatterer”, “The Gossip” and “The Oligarch”. One character, “The Superstitious Man”, is described as someone who does his best to avoid “unlucky” omens. He is the sort of person who would not walk under a ladder or do anything on Friday 13th. One action Theophrastus gives to this man is to crown a statute of Hermaphroditus with a myrtle wreath on specific days of the month.

The name and deity of Hermaphroditus was clearly well-known by Theophrastus’s time but it wasn’t until the 1st century BC when the poet Diodorus wrote down the origin of his name and parentage. Later still, the Roman poet Ovid wrote a legend telling how Hermaphroditus became intersex. There’s no real evidence that the legend was known before Ovid wrote it down so perhaps he made it up. This would make sense in view of the different attitude towards intersex people the Romans displayed.

Ovid’s legend begins with the Fountain of Salmacis. This fountain had a widely-known reputation as bestowing intersexuality and effeminacy on men who bathed there. The fountain was named after a nymph called Salmacis who, one day, fell in love with a gorgeous youth who had come to the waters. This youth, Hermaphroditus was not yet intersex but physically male. He refused Salmacis’s amorous advances and eventually the nymph gave up. Or so Hermaphroditus thought. Once he had disrobed and entered the fountain to bathe Salmacis rushed out of hiding and flung herself at him. As Hermaphroditus struggled to free himself Salmacis called to the gods to ensure that they are never parted. Their bodies merge, and Hermaphroditus steps from the waters to discover that he is now intersex with both male and female sexual organs. He calls upon his divine parents to bestow intersexuality upon all men who bathe at the fountain.

We need to distinguish here between Ovid’s attitude towards sexuality and the earlier Greek one. Ovid was Roman and by his time the Romans saw intersexuality as a bad omen. They saw any human born with physical differences as a corruption of nature. They were seen as punishment from the gods and their sacrifice was needed to appease them.

The earlier Greeks had a different attitude, even Hermaphroditus has a different name. The deity was originally known simply as Aphroditus. This deity was first worshipped on Cyprus before the 7th century BC. The cult may have been based on a much earlier Mother Goddess cult from the ancient Middle East. What distinguishes the early depiction of the Aphroditus from the later Hermaphroditus is that she was original regarded as a female goddess with male sexual organs. The more ancient the cult the more androgynous and non-binary the deity. Early creation myths in the area emphasise the fertility attributes of non-binary gods.

It was probably the Ancient Greeks who, after arriving on Cyprus, began to equate the Cyprian mother goddess with their own Aphrodite and gave her a male gender identity as Aphroditus, the male Aphrodite. So why and when did Aphroditus become Hermaphroditus? The clue is in the name.

“Herm” is a word deriving from the Greek word meaning “boundary”. The word then became attributed to stones placed at crossroads and road junctions which became sacred. In time these piles of stones became called herms and developed into quadrangular pillars with male head and sex organs carved onto them. These statues became the personification of a new deity that was named after the herm statues and presided over the safe passage of travellers – Hermes. After the cult of Aphroditus arrived in Greece from Cyprus his statues evolved into herm statues with male sex organs. The top half was usually depicted as an adult woman lifting her robe to reveal male sex organs. These herms of Aphroditus were possibly the origin of the name and deity Hermaphroditus, after which the legends of his parentage and origin developed.

From being the subject of Greek veneration to being the subject of Roman sacrifice intersex people have been seen as “other” beings. Well into modern times society has dealt with intersexuality as a physical condition to be “rectified” (i.e. surgically altered to comply with a binary gender identity).

With more people coming out as intersexual it is to be hoped that the ancient attitudes that being intersex as “other” disappears and that they can be accepted as no different, as human being, to anyone else. To use the analogy of the crossroads of the herm statues, are we approaching a crossroads on intersex acceptance? Will intersex awareness take the right road?