Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A Queer Climatic Legacy

It’s been a good year for lgbt adventurers. In June Cason Crane became the first openly gay man to climb all seven of the world’s highest continental mountains; in September Diana Nyad completed the 110 miles swim from Cuba to Florida; and Sarah Outen in on the last legs of her solo round-the-world challenge.

One thing all of these modern-day adventurers have in common is the weather. None of them could have taken place without accurate weather forecasts to help them plan ahead. But several hundred years ago there were no weather forecasts to help those adventurers and explorers who were venturing into the wildernesses, deserts, oceans and mountains of the world in search of knowledge.

One of these early adventurers laid down the foundations of the modern science of meteorology from evidence he collected during a 5-year-long expedition in the Americas. That man was Alexander, Baron von Humboldt (1769-1859). His influence on exploration and the natural sciences cannot be over-estimated, yet it is often over-looked. While he deserves a full “Extraordinary Lives” article today I look at his weather connections and queer legacy.

One area where Humboldt does receive due recognition is in his pioneering climate research. It was Humboldt who measured temperatures at all altitudes to produce the first accurate isothermal maps – maps with lines connecting areas of the same mean temperature that look much like the isobars we see on television weather maps today.

What made Humboldt’s work so significant is that it helped to explain how the geography of mountains, coasts and continents affected these temperatures, and how they flowed around the globe as it rotated. He compared the air to the oceans. Each had currents which flowed in specific directions, and were the mechanisms by which monsoons, hurricanes and heat-waves are created.

Humboldt’s work also covered just about every other scientific area available to him – anthropology, astronomy, botany, cartography, ecology, history, geography, geology and physiology. They were all connected as far as Humboldt was concerned. He spent many years travelling around the world collecting and recording data from high mountains, dense jungles and deep oceans. In his old age he wrote the multi-volume “Kosmos” which put all his knowledge of the whole of the natural world into one work.

Because of his many travels and discoveries Humboldt became a man after whom dozens of places and species were named, even in the 21st century with an asteroid being named after him. Many schools, colleges and universities bear his name, and perhaps none are more appropriate for discussion on his sexuality than Humboldt State University (HSU) in California.

In 2003 HSU held a party to announce the creation of a course in Multicultural Queer Studies. There was a deliberate and knowing significance to this. HSU was by no means the first to offer courses in queer studies, but it was the first to combine it with other subjects in a manner that echoes Alexander von Humboldt’s own opinion of the inter-connectedness of the sciences. The course combines ethnic, women’s and queer studies in a course which aims to study and analyse the inequalities that connect them all.

One of the course’s early lecturers was a leading lgbt activist and HIV educator called Eric Rofes (1954-2006). He was Associate Professor of Education at HSU and an affiliated faculty member of the Department of Critical Race, Gender and Sexuality. He had written several books on gender studies and after his death the HSU student organisation created the Eric Rofes Multicultural Queer Resource Centre.

The poster which announced the inaugural party for HSU’s course sported the words I gave at the start of my article of Isaac Newton a couple of days ago – “queer” refers not only to homosexual or bisexual men and women but also includes straight people whose sexuality falls outside social norms of behaviour.

So what about Humboldt himself? As with Newton and others the establishing of sexuality or sexual preference may never be resolved under our modern perceptions of them. Some of Humboldt’s contemporaries and acquaintances have told of his frequenting Berlin’s “gay” subculture. Like Newton, Humboldt was a life-long bachelor with a couple of female relationships in youth and middle age. And, like Newton, the years in between were characterised by close relationships with men.

Humboldt’s probable first male partner was Wilhelm Wegener who was at university with him. Even though Humboldt destroyed his private letters others survived, including one to a later companion, Reinhard von Haeften, for whom he even cancelled a trip across Germany – “It would have meant seeing you 6 days later, and such a loss cannot be made up by anything in the whole world. Other people may have no understanding of this. I know that I live only through you, my good precious Reinhard, and that I can only be happy in your presence.”

Even though we may never know the true sexuality of either Newton or Humboldt we can be sure, at least, that Humboldt’s legacy extends from the world of climatology and science and into queer studies.

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