Sunday, 9 December 2018

Advent 2 : A Topsy-Turvy Bean Feast

Last Sunday we looked at how a 2nd century Christian sect called the Gnostics encouraged same sex activity as a means of saving the world and were the first to choose a date to observe the birth of Christ on January 6th. The date spread, but it wasn’t a time to party. It was a religious observance and a time of prayer.

In the 3rd century a man called Sextus Julius Africanus wrote down what I think is the best theory of why December 25th was chosen as Christmas. The Roman Christians didn’t approve of the Gnostics or their beliefs and tried to discourage people from using their date to observe Christ’s birth, so they came up with their own preferred date. They placed the conception of Christ (a feast now called The Annunciation) on Roman New Year’s Day – March 25th. That put his birth 9 months later on December 25th. Even when they’d done that, there was still no partying.

However, people had got used to the Gnostic date and found it hard to change. The solution the Roman Church arrived at was to use January 6th as the last day of the religious observance of Christmas, specifically to commemorate the arrival of the “Three Kings” at the Nativity. The Gnostic name of Epiphany was retained, but it also gained the popular name of Twelfth Night. That’s how we got the 12 Days of Christmas.

Among most communities across the whole of the Christian world at this time there were folk traditions of celebrating winter, hang-overs from pre-Christian times which the Church didn’t officially approve of. During the 12 Days of Christmas the Church preferred people observed the religious aspect and leave the celebrations and partying until January 6th. Most of our Christmas celebrations originate from Twelfth Night parties, including the Christmas cake. By the Middle Ages partying was common throughout the whole Christmas season, even though the Church preferred otherwise.

In the Middle Ages scholars began linking Christian religious observances with those ancient festivals based purely on dates, not continuity. The most common belief was that Christmas was based on the Roman festival of Saturnalia held from December 6th to 21st. Because they were scholars, people believed them, even the Catholic Church. A lot of people still do. But as we have seen Christmas didn’t originate in December, so couldn’t be based on Saturnalia. However, some of the party aspects of Saturnalia were common to most winter festivals across Europe, and were introduced the celebrations in the Middle Ages (centuries after festivals such as Saturnalia had been forgotten). One aspect was the idea of gender and role swapping. That idea still survives in the traditional British pantomime (more of that in ten days time).

To illustrate and another topsy-turvy Christmas tradition I’ll bring in the gay King Edward II of England (1284-1327). He loved Christmas, and we know exactly what he was doing every Christmas of his 20-year reign because they’re all recorded in court documents. He and his court spent at least part of the Christmas season here in Nottinghamshire at least five times. His Christmas routine in Nottingham probably the same as any other year in any other place. He would gamble on Christmas Eve (probably dice), go to church on Christmas Day, and go hunting on December 26th (in Sherwood Forest).
A Medieval Feast
One topsy-turvy Christmas customs began in the Middle Ages in France in which bishops chose a boy chorister to become Boy Bishop for part, or all, of the Christmas period. This boy would perform services and preach sermons and be treated exactly like his adult counterpart. He would be paraded around the diocese and receive gifts from landowners. Even the king had to treat the boy as a proper bishop and give him a gift.

In 1315 and 1316 King Edward, his queen Isabella and the entire court spent Christmas at the royal palace at Clipstone, just over 19 miles due north of Nottingham. On the second occasion it is recorded that Edward gave a gift of money to the Boy Bishop of his chapel there, a boy called John, son of Alan de Scrooby. This was on December 6th, the traditional date on which Boy Bishops were chosen. By December 28th King Edward was at Nottingham Castle where he gave another gift to the Boy Bishop of St. Mary’s Church, the main parish church in Nottingham.

Also in 1316 Edward gave gifts to another topsy-turvy character called the King of the Bean. It’s customary in the UK to put a coin in the Christmas pudding (if you’re baking it yourself and not buying one from a supermarket). The person who finds the coin when eating the pudding is considered lucky. Originally the coin was a bean. At large Medieval communal festivities, and small family ones, the person who found the bean in his pudding was treated like a king for the day – the King of the Bean. This was a traditional event for Twelfth Night, January 6th. Some of us “up north” in the UK still call a big party a “bean feast”.

At King Edward’s celebrations on 6th January 1317, ten days after meeting the Boy Bishop of St Mary’s, one of his courtiers, William de la Beche, became King of the Bean. This meant he was allowed to take on King Edward’s role as leader of the festivities. Edward gave him a gift of a silver-gilt basin. The following year, at the Twelfth Night party in Beverley, Yorkshire, King Edward gave gifts to a young squire who became King of the Bean.

During the 19th century these age-old celebrations of Twelfth Night moved to Christmas Day itself, probably because in 1834 the British parliament created Christmas Day a public holiday, which meant that for the first time in history people didn’t have to go to work that day.

These topsy-turvy celebrations which originate in European-wide winter festivals, including Saturnalia, weren’t the only non-Christian festivals that have been suggested as the “true” origins of Christmas. As we shall see next Sunday there’s one alleged origin which didn’t even exist when the Gnostic Christians began observing Christmas Day. In fact, in a topsy-turvy kind of way, it was created because Christmas had already become too popular.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays: Part 34) Burning Desires

Previously on “Another 80 Gays” : 70) Count Francesco Algarotti (1712-1764) was involved in a love triangle with 71) Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu (1689-1762) and 72) John Hervey, Lord Hervey (1696-1743), who was satirised as a Roman emperor’s boy husband called 73) Sporus (c.49-69).

When Alexander Pope satirised 72) John, Lord Hervey, in “An Epistle from Mr Pope to Dr. Arbuthnot” in 1735 he chose to identify him as 73) Sporus very deliberately because of Hervey’s openly effeminate, flamboyant, bisexual “macaroni” behaviour which made him an obvious target. In his turn Lord Hervey wrote insulting comments about Alexander Pope, mocking his physical deformities and his non-aristocratic background.

One of the reasons for the antagonism between the two is that Pope was jealous of Lord Hervey’s friendship with 71) Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu. In one of his letters Pope referred to Hervey and Lady Mary as “Lord Fanny” and “Sappho”.

Lord Hervey’s political career brought him into direct contact with the king and the royal family. Several modern government ministers are still hold of offices in the Royal Household. Lord Hervey was appointed Vice Chamberlain to King George II, a government appointment made by the Prime Minister. Hervey’s job was to report directly to the King on proceedings in the House of Commons every day. The current Vice Chamberlain is Andrew Stevenson, and openly gay Conservative MP, and his responsibilities are much the same. In 1740 Lord Hervey was “upgraded” to Lord Privy Seal, one of the highest offices of state in England, again a political government appointment, as it still is.

So, who was 73) Sporus? We don’t know much. What we do know comes from the last two years of his short life. He is said to have been about 20 years old when he died. Even his name isn’t his real one, but a nickname given to him by the man who married him, 74) Emperor Nero (37-68). Sporus is a name derived from the Greek word for “sowing a seed”, the inference of sex being deliberate.

Sporus may have been a freed slave. Whether Nero was his master isn’t known but Sporus certainly came to the emperor’s attention after the death of his wife Poppea.

Imperial politics was very complicated in Roman times. There was no properly defined laws on succession and many emperors died at the hands of their successors. One tactic was to marry into, or be adopted by, the reigning imperial family. That’s how Nero himself became emperor.

Although descended from several previous emperors himself Nero gained the throne through the machinations of his mother Agrippina, niece of Emperor Claudius. To ensure her son’s succession she married her uncle and, in due course, Nero became his successor.

Nero had several wives – and husbands. First was his step-sister, Claudius’s daughter. After executing her over false adultery charges Nero married his mistress Poppea in 62. In 64, the year of the Great Fire of Rome, Nero married Pythagoras (not the famous Greek mathematician), so now he had a wife and husband (Nero is known to have taken the passive role with Pythagoras). The following year Poppea died. It is usually said that Nero kicked her to death when she was pregnant, but historians now think she died in childbirth. Whatever the reason, Nero was devastated by her death. But with Sporus she could be with him forever.

Nero married Sporus in 65 because of his resemblance to Poppea. To give Sporus an unusually high profile in public life Nero had the boy castrated and demanded all citizens treat him as his empress. He was dressed in the empress’s royal regalia at public events. As for Pythagoras, non-one knows what happened to him. But Nero married yet again. In 66 he married Statilia Messalina, who wisely kept a low profile and outlived both Nero and Sporus.

Sporus seems to have actually loved Nero, even though there was a 12-year age gap. He was one of the few people who remained loyal to the emperor right up to Nero’s death in 68.

The Senate and the army eventually rebelled against Nero and he committed suicide. Sporus, however, was spared and treated as an imperial “wife” by two other Romans vying for the throne. However, when Vitellus became emperor in 69 Sporus was planned as the victim in a gladiatorial show. Thankfully, Sporus chose suicide was a less painful death.
Let’s go back to Nero and the Great Fire of Rome. In an earlier article on Nero I mentioned that he was in Antium when the fire took place. This is one of several locations where ancient writers place Nero at the time. One writer puts him in the Gardens of Maecenas. These were part of a villa on the Esquiline Hill in eastern Rome which came into the possession of the emperors after the death of the villa’s builder, a Roman statesman called 75) Gaius Maecenas (68 BC-8 BC).

Over the centuries Maecenas’s name has become a byword for a generous patron of the arts. He came from a wealthy, influential family and a glittering political career could have been his for the asking. Instead, he refused all invitations to become a Senator and spent his life and wealth in promoting the arts. He also built his villa which included the first heated swimming pool in Rome. It also had places where plays and songs were performed in a sort of theatre. It was from a temporary platform or stage that Nero is said to have watched Rome burn, dressed in his theatrical costume and singing of the destruction of Troy.

Maecenas was primarily a patron of the performing arts rather than the visual arts. He loved all types of performance, and he loved a pantomime performer called 76) Bathyllus (c.60 BC-pre 2 BC).

Next time : From Rome to Britain – the pantomime tradition gets an Oscar nomination.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Advent 1 : Making the Yuletide Gay

My regular pre-Christmas mini-series covers aspects of dating and celebrating the birth of Christ. On each Sunday in Advent I’ll present one common theory on the origin of the dates chosen and the lgbt connections they have. This first article is perhaps the most controversial. Researching into the very first dates for Christmas I read that the first people to celebrate the birth of Christ was an Egyptian Christian sect who actively encouraged same-sex activity. You could say “gay” men created Christmas Day, and it wasn’t December 25th.

No matter what any religious or secular organisation will tell you nobody knows why 25th December was chosen as Christmas Day, not unless they have private access to some 1st century document that historians have spent the last 2000 years looking for. In recent centuries many people have favoured pagan origins for Christmas Day. This idea was first made at least 1000 years after the time of Christ and aren’t based on documentary proof but circumstantial evidence and proximity to a specific date. Even some of the commonly accepted pagan origins of Christmas traditions can’t be proven.

Personally, I like the theory that the early Christians placed the conception of Christ on Roman New Year’s Day – March 25th. Nine months later Christ was born – December 25th. It’s a very neat and tidy theory which I’ll return to next Sunday. You probably prefer one of the other theories that are around, or even none of them.

The first Christians, those mentioned in the Bible and their followers, didn’t celebrate the birth of Christ. They celebrated his death and resurrection instead, after all that’s the whole reason behind Christianity. In fact, no Christian wrote anything about Christ’s life until about the year 70 (the Gospel of Mark). After that many people started writing their own version, filling in any gaps themselves.

In the 2nd century the Christian Church was beginning to get more organised and they collected all the hundreds of books together to decide which ones were most authoritative and closest to their beliefs. These formed the New Testament. The other books, which often said the same things as the ones they selected or didn’t say anything important, were put aside. Despite modern conspiracy theorists these books weren’t rejected, forbidden or supressed, they were merely put aside and then lost (like something you put in a safe place until you need it and then forget – and when you find it you’ve forgotten you put it there and why). Many elements of medieval Nativity plays came from these alleged suppressed gospels.

The first Christian to write about a date for Christ’s birth was a scholar called St. Clement in around the year 200 when he visited Alexandria in Egypt. He wrote that Gnostic sects in the city had tried to choose a date and he gave a list of all the possible dates the Gnostics suggested.

The Gnostics were a varied bunch of Christian sects spread all over the eastern Roman Empire. What they had in common was that they didn’t believe Christ was resurrected so they didn’t celebrate Easter like other Christians. But they did believe in the divinity of Christ and wanted to celebrate his birth instead. To them the God of the Old Testament created an evil world. On the other hand, the God of the New Testament sent Christ to show the world how to combat the evil all around them (that’s an over-simplification of their beliefs).

The Gnostics also had interesting ideas about sex. Because the world is evil, including all the people in it, it made sense to the Gnostics to ensure that no more people are born. They believed that procreative sex was bad and that non-procreative sex with the same gender would save them from the evil world. Of course, the “catholic” Christians in Rome were all in favour of having babies, they still are, so they accused the Gnostics of being promiscuous and of having gay orgies. But there’s nothing in Gnostic writings to indicate they were having any more sex than the “catholics”. This period has been seen as the origin of the Christianity’s problems with homosexuality.

One other Gnostic belief was that all religions are really the same one. In Egypt there were two popular festivals that celebrated the births of two deities on the same day. One was Osiris, the Egyptian god who was chopped into bits and resurrected. The other was a virgin goddess. To the Gnostics Orisis and Christ were the same deity, and the virgin goddess was the Virgin Mary, so they decided to celebrate Christ’s birth on their joint festival day, which on our calendar is January 6th.

The Gnostics believed that the birth of Christ was a manifestation of their God’s message of goodness. The Greek word for “manifestation” is “epiphany”, the name by which January 6th is still known.

This date caught on with other Christians, even ones who thought the Gnostics were heretics (disproving the theory that Christmas is a continuation of the Roman Saturnalia which was the month before). Epiphany is still celebrated as Christmas in the oldest surviving churches – the Orthodox and Coptic churches. The Roman Catholic Church changed their Christmas to December much later.

But what happened to the Gnostics? The more organised Roman Christians persecuted them as heretics over the next few hundred years. Some Gnostic sects were pretty horribly perverted anyway, even by our modern standards. But some of their beliefs continued into later sects, including the Cathars, famous in the Holy Grail legends. Another sect in medieval eastern Europe was the Bogomils. The Catholic Church had by now got the military power and might of the Holy Roman Empire behind them and the Bogomils were suppressed. The same-sex activity promoted by the Gnostics was attributed to the Bogomils and their name became a new derogatory name for gay men. From “Bogomil” we get the word “bugger”.

By tracing “bugger” back through the Bogomils and the Gnostics we have discovered why early same-sex-loving Christians decided to celebrate Christmas Day. So, the Yuletide really is gay!

But where does that leave the popular theory of Saturnalia as the origin of Christmas? That’s what I’ll write about next Sunday, and a right royal topsy-turvy Christmas celebration it is.

Friday, 30 November 2018

HIV : Do Cows Give Us Sweet Hope?

Tomorrow is World AIDS Day. More than three decades after HIV was discovered we still can’t develop a vaccine for it, though there are several areas of research that offer hope. Last year one new line of hope came from a surprising source – from the origin of the word “vaccination” itself – cows.

Vaccination also links us back to my article on Monday in which Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu featured. Going back to one of my earlier articles about her we learn that Lady Mary was instrumental in bringing the practice of smallpox inoculation into the West and influencing Edward Jenner’s pioneering experiments in vaccination.

The research with cows which is giving hope of developing an HIV vaccine was undertaken by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and was published in the journal “Nature” in summer 2017. The report’s author was the Director of Antibody Discovery and Development, a young, openly gay, organic chemist called Dr. Devin Sok.

Like an industrious ant Devin Sok has followed a sugary trail that that led him to IAVI and research into HIV and cows.

In 2004 Devin began studying chemistry at Stanford University, earning a bachelor’s degree four years later. With his specific interest in organic chemistry and glycans he went to study for his PhD at Scripps Research Institute.

After a while he seemed to be drifting around the various laboratories with no real focus for the future and he was on the verge of moving to Harvard when someone suggested he have one more look at the labs at Scripps. Devin found one where he could study glycans and have challenging research to follow. The lab was run by Dr. Dennis Burton, co-Chair of the Scripps Department of Immunology and Microbiology. He was also the Scientific Director of IAVI’s Neutralising Antibody Centre. This provided Devin with a definite aim in his research, and he began working on how glycans can help create HIV antibodies.

While at Scripps Devin helped to co-found a group in 2011 of lgbt scientists in the San Diego area called QuEST – Queer Engineers, Scientists and Technical Professionals. It included members from several universities and laboratories around San Diego, including the Scripps Research Institute.

I’ve mentioned glycan several times. What are they? They are also sometimes called polysaccharides. I can’t claim to be any kind of expert in biology but from what I can gather glycans are sugar molecules that coat most animal and plant cells. They act as a sort of shell or envelope and are more complex than the sugar I put in my coffee a few minutes ago. The HIV cells are also coated with these glycans which protect them. Thankfully scientists have found out just about everything there is to know about HIV cells, their structures and DNA. Unfortunately, there are thousands of strains of HIV and each has a different DNA sequence.

Since the 1990s scientists have known that HIV has holes in its glycan envelope. However, HIV evolves quickly and it soon mutates to fill a hole. Scientists have yet to find any means of targeting them and getting antibodies to push their way through them. Denis Sok’s 2014 doctoral thesis was on the subject of finding weaknesses in the HIV glycan envelope.

Glycan holes are just one area of research into a possible HIV vaccine. One other main area is into research into antibodies produced in HIV-infected humans. These have tended to be produced about two years after the patient is infected. However, only about 10-20% of infected people produce them, and as I sad earlier, HIV can mutate to protect itself and the antibodies produced don’t protect the patients against the new mutations. It has also been difficult to replicate these antibodies to make them work for immunisation.

Which is where the cows come in. No, not to provide the milk to go with the sugar in my coffee but because of their immune system.

Devin Sok and his Scripps Institute colleagues have been experimenting with animals that HIV doesn’t effect. They are injected with HIV immunogens (molecules designed specifically to create the production of antibodies) to see if the animals produces the appropriate antibodies. There were some antibodies produced but none of them were anything resembling those produced by the 10-20% of HIV patients.

At Scripps there was a professor carrying out general research on the antibodies in cows and Devin worked with him to find out if cows cold produce the appropriate HIV antibody.

After the cows were given the HIV immunogens they began producing antibodies within two months, a surprising difference to the two years it takes in humans. Even though cows can’t contract HIV they were producing antibodies against it.

Devin’s research elicited a lot of media attention because of the unusual bovine emphasis. The new cow antibody doesn’t produce an answer to the problem of creating an HIV vaccine but it helps us to look into how cows can create the antibodies so much quicker than humans and see if their structure can be replicated in patients.

It’ll be a long time before scientists work out all the answers and solutions. Could the cow antibodies themselves work as a vaccine? Could they attack glycan holes in the HIV envelope? If cowpox vaccination helped to eradicate smallpox could the cow’s HIV antibody help eradicate the virus in humans?

Devin Sok’s continuing research into glycans and antibodies is just one of the many areas that many talented scientists are working on, and it is encouraging that new research provides hope that an HIV vaccine will be possible in our life-time.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays: Part 33) An Enlightenment Triangle

Previously on “Another 80 Gays”: 67) Baron Friedrich von Steuben (1730-1794) suggested the throne of the newly independent USA should go to 68) Prince Heinrich von Hohenzollern of Prussia (1726-1802), the brother of 69) King Friedrich II the Great of Prussia (1712-1786), who fell in love with 70) Count Francesco Algarotti (1712-1764).

70) Count Francesco Algarotti was the same age as 69) King Friedrich II of Prussia and they first met when Friedrich was still a prince. They became lovers and when Friedrich became king he showered Algarotti with appointments and honours, including creating him a Prussian Count. Their relationship lasted for two years though they remained close for the rest of their lives.

Before arriving in Prussia Francesco Algarotti travelled all over Europe visiting many Enlightenment figures. One of his acquaintances was Voltaire, the French philosopher who would also later spend a lot of time at the court of King Friedrich. Voltaire gave Algarotti the nickname “The Swan of Padua” because of the way he seemed to glide from one city to the next.

When Algarotti, who had not yet met King Friedrich, arrived in London in 1736 he was a well-known writer, philosopher and scientist. He was in the process of writing a book called (in translation) “Newtonism for Women” on the theories of Sir Isaac newton. It wasn’t long before Algarotti was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Algarotti’s arrival at King Friedrich’s San Souci residence got him out of a love triangle in England. The woman involved was one of the most free-thinking intellectual women of her time, 71) Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu (1689-1762). For more information on Lady Mary go to my two articles on her Extraordinary Life.

The third person in this Enlightenment love triangle was 72) John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey (1696-1743). It was Voltaire who introduced Francesco Algarotti to Lord Hervey in Paris. Hervey was the son of the 1st Earl of Bristol and was elected a Member of Parliament in 1725. As heir to his father’s earldom he was known as Lord Hervey, one of his father’s junior titles. He wasn’t an actual peer of the realm because he was, basically, only “borrowing” the title until his father died. This is still customary in British peerages.

Lord Hervey was such an important member of the government that the Prime Minister of the day didn’t wait until the Earl of Bristol died before Lord Hervey could enter the House of Lords. So Lord Hervey was “accelerated” to the Lords as Lord Hervey in his own right. His father, the Earl of Bristol, relinquished his title of Lord Hervey to his son, and they sat in the House of Lords together. Lord Hervey, sadly, predeceased his father so never became Earl of Bristol.

Although married with 8 children Lord Hervey was well-known for his camp and effeminate personality. His style of dress was flamboyant, in a style that became known as “macaroni” because it was as fashionable among the aristocracy as was the Italian food they encountered on their Grand Tour of Europe. If you remember the song “Yankee Doodle” and wondered why he put a feather in his cap and called it “macaroni”, that’s why – it was fashionably flamboyant.

Lord Hervey was infatuated with Francesco Algarotti from the moment they met, and it was when Hervey later introduced him to Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu that things started to get “interesting”. Lady Mary was well over 40 years old by then, 20 years older then the two men. Her failed marriage and unhappy family life needed some pleasantness and Algarotti provided it.

The three of them spent a lot of time together in England. Algarotti read his Newton book to them and Lady Mary helped him to improve his English. In September 1736 Algarotti went back to Italy leaving the two English aristocrats heartbroken. They both wrote love letters to him urging him to return. Algarotti, probably conscious of the complications that might arise, gave polite excuses and encouraged them to continue writing.

Lord Hervey was content to bide his time but Lady Mary was truly infatuated. Her letters became more agonising and she made known her intention of visiting Algarotti in Italy. By this time, however, Algarotti was dating a young man from Milan, so you can almost hear the alarm bells going off in his head when he read that letter.

Algarotti visited England briefly in 1737, staying with Lord Hervey for a while before continuing on his graceful travels around Europe. By this time Lady Mary was virtually stalking him and she travelled down to Turin to meet him. This was in 1741, by which time he had met King Friedrich of Prussia and had been created a count. It was obvious to Lady Mary that she couldn’t compete with a king for Algarotti’s affections and gave up trying.

So what became of our Enlightenment love triangle? Lady Mary spent the next 20 years in retirement in Europe before returning home to die in England in 1762. Count Algarotti died two years later in Italy. Lord Hervey predeceased them both in 1743. His final years were clouded by an unhappy marriage, despite having 8 children. He virtually disinherited his wife in his will.

Throughout his short life Lord Hervey attracted much attention for his effeminate appearance and personality. As well as becoming a famous “macaroni” Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu once remarked that there were three genders in England – male, female and hervey. Other slang terms and names were given to him in his lifetime and he was an obvious target for political satire and caricature. Alexander Pope in his satirical “An Epistle From Mr. Pope to Dr. Arbuthnot” made no attempt to hide his contempt for Lord Hervey by portraying him as the castrated youth who was married Emperor Nero, a youth called 73) Sporus (c.51-69).

Next time : We watch Rome burn then go to a pantomime.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

JFK : The Queer Conspiracies

History is full of events which become surrounded in myth and controversy and become centres of conspiracy theories. One event which has produced more than any other in the 20th century (apart, perhaps, from Roswell and the aliens) is remembered today – the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Even though a survey carried out in 2017 found that two thirds of the American population believe that the credited assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was not acting alone, many also believe he was set up and didn’t even fire the bullets that killed the president. Several people have been accused of being Oswald’s co-conspirator or alternative assassin. Only one of them was ever put on trial, and that was a gay man from New Orleans called Clay Shaw (1913-1974).

Clay Shaw has been wronged twice. First was his arrest and trial at the instigation of the homophobic District Attorney Jim Garrison. Garrison was one of the many people who considered the official investigation into the assassination that was published by the Warren Commission in September 1964 was a whitewash and that there was a conspiracy to hide the truth.

Highly ambitious and ruthless Garrison seized on the possibility of a conspiracy to frame someone for Kennedy’s death – someone he could put on trial, thereby claiming himself to be a hero for uncovering the “truth”. To justify his own version of events he invented a “homosexual thrill-kill” at the reason behind the assassination.

Cobbling together a theory based on little or no evidence Garrison claimed Lee Harvey Oswald was a bisexual acquaintance of a New Orleans pilot called David Ferrie. During his investigations Garrison also came across the name Clay Bertrand, whom he believed was a gay man in New Orleans. This led him to assume Clay Bertrand was an alias used by Clay Shaw, a well-known businessman in New Orleans. This was all Garrison needed to fabricate his gay thrill-kill theory and prosecute Clay for Kennedy’s assassination.

Clay’s trial began in 1969. Garrison paraded a series of witnesses whose evidence contradicted each other and it took less than an hour for the jury to acquit Clay Shaw of all charges. However, the damage was already done.

Clay Shaw came from a highly respected family and had received high honours for his war service, including the French Croix de Guerre, the US Legion of Merit, and knighthoods from both France and Belgium. He became an influential businessman in New Orleans.

Another two-year trial for perjury he was alleged to have committed at his first trial, again fabricated by Garrison, was eventually thrown out, though by now Clay had used his wealth to pay for his defence. He died in 1974 of cancer. A plaque to his memory was placed on one of the buildings in the French quarter of New Orleans that he had helped to restore with his own money.

Just as his reputation seemed to be restored Oliver Stone (an egotistical homophobe I’ve never l had a high opinion of, I don’t care what anyone else thinks) produced the equally homophobic film “JFK”. Clay Shaw was portrayed as a camp, effeminate gay man who held regular sex slave parties. The truth is the opposite, except that he was a gay man, but he was discreet and anything but camp. The devious legacy Jim Garrison is alive and well in the person of Oliver Stone.

A year ago the “National Enquirer” (the spiritual home of fake news) ran a front page headline declaring “Proof! J. Edgar Hoover Ordered JFK Murder!” J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), another discreet gay man, was the head of the FBI at the time of the assassination. The “National Enquirer” weren’t the first to think the FBI and Hoover had some part in it, and nothing new was actually presented. It just presented a conspiracy theory to attract attention on the 54th anniversary.

In the 1960s being gay, or even being accused of it, was often used to justify a witch-hunt in many political scandals. The Kennedy assassination was no different. At various stages in its history several suspects have been labelled as being gay, lesbian or bisexual in order to create justification for them to be included in a conspiracy. Even Lee Harvey Oswald and his wife were called bisexual perverts purely on the fabricated links to the New Orleans gay subculture and Oswald’s wife leaving him to live with a female friend.

There will be no end to the publication of new and old conspiracies. One book published back in 1975 was called “Presumed Guilty: Lee Harvey Oswald in the Assassination of President Kennedy”. It was written by a young gay man who had become fascinated by the assassination since he was 14.

Howard Roffman, the teenager in question, bought all 26 volumes of the Warren Commission report and immersed himself in the vast amount of official documents. “Presumed Guilty” was the result of years of his research. It, too, questioned the findings of the Warren Commission.

Howard’s significance to the canon of literature concerning the Kennedy assassination is that he was the first gay man to publish a book on the subject. What he has done since is so different that you’d never guess it was the same man.

At the time “Presumed Guilty” was published Howard was a recently graduated law student. He went on to work in the US Court of Appeals as a law clerk. From there he moved into the world of media and film. And here’s where we make a spectacular leap from President Kennedy that is worthy of inclusion in my “Around the World in 80 Gays” series. In 1980 Howard Roffman became the legal adviser to Lucasfilms. In 1986 he was appointed its Vice President of Licensing and later President of Lucas Licensing. If you have bought any “Star Wars” merchandise since the 1990s thank Howard Roffman. He relaunched the Star Wars merchandising franchise in 1991, effectively creating the modern mass merchandising techniques used by every blockbuster film franchise ever since. Since the Kennedy assassination Howard’s publishing efforts have gone into photographic books – predominantly featuring naked men!

However much of Howard’s “Presumed Guilty” book will be used to further develop the truth, myths and conspiracies into what happened 55 years ago today one thing is certain. There will always be someone who will write a new book, come up with a new conspiracy theory, or finally debunk an old one. We may never know the truth, but let’s hope that any new material, including any new motion picture, will avoid the unjustifiable homophobia that surrounded so much of the original investigations.