Friday 6 November 2015

Queer Achievement : Michelle Dumaresq

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]
Later this month we observe the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. As before I am taking November as my month to concentrate on transgender members of the lgbt community. I begin with this article on the transgender Canadian mountain biker Michelle Dumaresq (b.1970). Her coat of arms (above) illustrates the way family history and the place of an individual member has within that family is preserved in visual form.

Canadian heraldry closely follows that of its European colonial rulers England, Scotland and France. Several modern differences have evolved. One is the shape of the shield. In England and Scotland unmarried women display their arms on a diamond shaped shield. As you can probably see this would produce an awkward, squashed design, so it is fortunate that in Canadian heraldry all women can use a shield, irrespective of marital status.

Let’s start with the shield. It is divided into four quarters with each quarter depicting a separate coat of arms. In heraldry it doesn’t matter how many separate coats or arms are placed on a shield, they’re all called quarters even if there’s 13 of them.

The reason any shield acquires quarters is through inheritance from a heraldic heir. Once inherited the accumulated quarters are inherited by all legitimate male-line descendants and their daughters.

So what are the families through which Michelle Dumaresq inherits her coat of arms illustrated above? Here’s a diagram to help explain. All of them belong to families that lived in the Channel Island of Jersey.
There are 3 heraldic heiresses who all carry the right to bear their family coat of arms to their descendants. Being heraldic heiresses means the women have no brothers. All four of the families to which the heiresses belong carry fascinating stories of medieval baronies and battles. The actual designs used in their coats or arms are fairly basic and were all in use before 1400. In fact there’s enough of Michelle’s ancestry that is so significant in the history of the Channel Islands and the early settlement of Canada to fill a future “Out of Their Trees” article. However, there is one family story which is perfectly suited for today.

The story, more of a family legend really, concerns the fourth coat of arms. The yellow and blue arms belong to the ancient noble Italian Bandinel family, the family of Pope Alexander III (Michelle descends from his brother). Originally the family had an all-yellow shield. During the reign of St. Louis IX of France (d.1270) one of the Bandinel family led 900 mounted lancers to the Crusades. In thanks for his valiant service in Egypt St. Louis granted him an augmentation to his arms, a blue disc bearing a white knight on horseback. Michelle Dumaresq descends from this Crusader’s heraldic heiress.

Also on the shield, and on the bull in the crest, is a crescent. This is the symbol used by a second son. It is called a cadency mark and was used by Philip Dumaresq (1760-1820) to indicate he had an older brother who was senior heir to the family. It also meant that all those descendants who bore his surname could inherit this cadency mark as well.

Another cadency mark which Michelle can use is unique to Canadian heraldry. It is one of those assigned to daughters. The cadency marks already mentioned have been in use in English heraldry for hundreds of years to denote the order of sons. Just a few years ago Canada introduced a set of cadency marks for use by daughters. I’m not sure which daughter Michelle is in her family – first, second, or whatever – so have chosen not to include it for now.

The motto is a translation of the original Medieval Latin motto of the Dumaresqs. Its sentiment could apply to all members of the lgbt community who struggle with their gender or sexuality in the face of abuse or discrimination. After Michelle Dumaresq’s transition she received opposition from people in her chosen sport of mountain biking who did not want her to compete. If she knows her family motto I hope it gave her encouragement to push on and fight for her place as a competitive athlete.

Finally, something which only struck me when I did my original colour sketch for Michelle’s achievement. I looked at the shield and thought the combination of main colours – red, black, white and yellow - looked familiar. Then it clicked. These are the four colours of the Native American medicine wheel, a device adopted by the modern Two Spirit community in both the USA and Michelle’s native Canada since before 2004, as can be seen in this often used flag below. Even though the colours are in a different order, the combination of these colours in Michelle’s heraldic ancestry long predates the North American adoption of the medicine wheel.

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