Saturday, 13 October 2018

Homohoax : False Tales From China

A hundred years ago very little was known in the west about China. Apart from tales of explorers and diplomats, and romanticised hearsay, much of Chinese culture was a mystery. There wasn’t really anything you could describe as China studies, or sinology. Few scholars had actually travelled there. As a consequence scholars who did travel there became the authoritative sources.

Sadly, a lot of the early academic writings about China in the 20th century which were taken as fact turned out to be a catalogue of lies. The man responsible, particularly for his alleged accounts of the last years of the Qing dynasty, was Sir Edmund Backhouse, 2nd Bt, (1873-1944).

Whether Sir Edmund set out to deliberately mislead the academic world is still a matter of debate, but his most influential books, acclaimed as valuable sources for information, have turned out to be based on forged or non-existent documents.

When did Sir Edmund’s fascination with China begin? It wasn’t in his family background. He came from a wealthy Quaker family to which he never really had any genuine emotional connection. At Oxford University Edmund accumulated debts and spent more time on socialising with various homosexual aesthetes than his studies. However, he did find that he had a talent for languages and began studying various European languages privately.

On leaving Oxford with no degree Edmund was declared bankrupt and he travelled around the world for a while. By 1898 he was learning Chinese, probably with the intention of going to China, which he did at the end of that year.

By this time his family had broken off all contact with him. His homosexual exploits at Oxford and his bankruptcy had become an embarrassment to this Quaker family and it is said that they gave him an ultimatum – leave England for good. Edmund did, however, receive an allowance from his father, and after his father’s death in 1918 he inherited his title and was allowed to keep his family estates, even though he never set foot in England after 1898.

Edmund arrived in China hoping to get work in the customs service. Instead he found unpaid work as a translator for the prominent Times correspondent, George Morrison. Morrison spoke or wrote no Chinese so he relied on Edmund Backhouse to translate documents for him. This seems to have been the start of Edmund’s life of lies. He gave background information of life at the imperial court for news reports Morrison was sending to The Times. Most of this information wasn’t based on any personal experience of the court itself.

Through Morrison Edmund got to know another journalist, John Bland, with whom he published his first volume of forgeries, “China Under the Empress Dowager”, in 1910. What the book claimed to be was an accurate account of the life and death of Empress Tz’u Hsi, or Cixi, and the Chinese court following the anti-British Boxer Rebellion. The “insights” provided by Edmund Backhouse were supplemented by the personal diary of a court official which Edmund has discovered and translated.

“China Under the Empress Dowager” was an instant success with the academic world. However, suspicions over the authenticity of the official’s diary were raised by George Morrison, but Edmund’s reputation earned by this book was enough to have these suspicions overlooked. But many years later, long after Edmund Backhouse had died, Australian academics looked at the diaries more closely.

In 1991 Dr. Lo Hui-min of the Australian National University published proof that the diaries, and consequently most of “China Under the Empress Dowager”, were faked and that Edmund had created it himself.

From the positive reception his book received on its original publication Edmund Backhouse was encouraged to write another with John Bland, “Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking” (1914). Edmund hoped that his new-found reputation as a leading sinologist would be enough to secure a professorship at Oxford. To this end he began donating thousands of books and manuscripts to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Even though the library greatly acknowledged these gifts the professorship in Chinese Studies was given to someone else.

By this time Edmund Backhouse had become a serial fraudster. He was employed as an agent for the British legation in Peking to sell battleships. He sold 6 non-existent battleships, and invented a whole flotilla of imaginary ships carrying imaginary military weapons, reporting on their transportation down the Chinese coast to the British Foreign Office. He invented contracts, and sold 650 million non-existent banknotes to the American Bank Note Company. When the ship magnates, banknote company and the Foreign Office came looking for their goods Edmund Backhouse had escaped to Canada.

Perhaps his most fantastical hoax came at the end of his life. In the late 1930s he sought refuge from the Sino-Japanese War with the Austrian legation in Peking. Now almost reclusive, Edmund was befriended by the Honorary Swiss Consul, Dr. Reinhard Hoeppli.

Sir Edmund regaled Hoeppli with tales of his supposed exploits, mostly about his supposed gay sexual exploits and the homosexual underworld in old imperial Peking. He even claimed to have had sex with the Dowager Empress herself. Hoeppli was captivated by these stories and persuaded the aging Sir Edmund to write his memoirs. What resulted was two volumes that were unpublished until this decade.

In the 1970s the British historian Hugh Trever-Roper, Lord Dacre, used the unpublished memoirs to help write a biography of Sir Edmund. Bear in mind that this is the same historian who verified the Hitler Diaries. Also, to Lord Dacre the memoirs were excessively homosexually pornographic for his own taste. Lord Dacre’s brother, by the way, was Patrick Trevor-Roper, the gay rights pioneer.

Lord Dacre’s biography was damning of Sir Edmund’s reputation as a scholar. Many of the stories recounted in the memoirs may well have been based on a little truth but it seems certain that the details had been elaborated and the famous individuals named by Sir Edmund as his sexual partners were not true.

With the final publication of the last part of Sir Edmund’s memoirs last year it seems certain that the public is fascinated by this man and his many falsehoods. Rather than dismiss him completely from academic studies of China academics can look again at this hoaxer and his influence on early 20th century scholarship and examine the nature of the use, accuracy and interpretation of source material.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays : Part 29) A Games of Russian Thrones

Previously on “Another 80 Gays” : Record-breaking swimmer 57) Michael Mealiffe (b.1940) is married to Oscar-winning lyricist 58) Dean Pitchford (b.1951) whose Olympic song “Welcome” was augmented by the airship featured in the same James Bond film as the Château de Chantilly, home of 59) Prince Louis II, Duke of Condé (1621-1686), who unsuccessfully campaigned for a royal throne, unlike the successful 60) Dmitri I, Tsar of Russia (d.1606).

In “Game of Gay Thrones” I included 60) Dmitri I as a claimant to a throne. What distinguished him from the others was that he succeeded. Most thrones have had succession battles in their history, and Russia was no exception.

After Tsar Fyodor I died in 1598 the crown was given to his brother-in-law Boris Godunov. Boris’s reign started out okay but in a couple of years a massive famine and uncharacteristic, year-round, night-time temperatures of below zero led to the deaths of two millions Russians. As economic and public strife increased people started to blame Boris and some started rumours that Tsar Fyodor’s brother was ready to emerge from hiding to take over.

The problem with that was that Fyodor’s brother, Dmitri, had been murdered in 1591. In his lifetime Dmitri was declared heir to the throne, but the theory is that Boris Godunov wanted to be tsar and had Dmitri assassinated. As we’ll see later, it’s not the first time this has happened.

Another theory which gained popularity was that Dmitri escaped assassination and went into hiding. Those rumours bothered Tsar Boris, not because they might be true, but because it gave something for the Russian nobles who opposed him to rally behind. That’s when the first of imposter Dmitri arrived on the scene.

No-one is really sure who 60) Dmitri I really was. He may have been a minor noble or a peasant. He came to the attention of Tsar Boris after suspicions arose that he might be the long-lost, long-dead Dmitri after he seemed to be better educated than he should be. Before Boris could capture and interrogate him Dmitri escaped to the powerful neighbouring Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth (the one whose throne would later attract the attention of 59) Prince Louis, Duke of Condé). There Dmitri received support for his challenge to the throne of Tsar Boris.

In 1605 Dmitri, with support from the Poles, succeeded in overthrowing the unpopular Tsar Boris. Yet despite being accepted as the long-lost heir Dmitri had his opponents. He was seen as a westerniser, with policies which favoured closer ties to Poland-Lithuania and the Pope. The traditional ruling nobles, the boyars, objected and also accused him of sodomy because of his very close relationships with two young men.

There may be some basis of truth in Dmitri’s homosexuality. There was a different social attitude towards it in those days, or indeed than there was in Catholic Europe. The circumstances of Dmitri’s death strongly indicate his close relationship with Petr Basmanov. As mentioned in “Game of Gay Thrones” Dmitri and Petr were together in their bedchamber when they were attacked and later murdered. Dmitri was quickly declared an imposter, the first of three False Dmitris, as they are now called.

Succession to the Russian throne has resulted in violence before. The laws of succession were not as simple as they are today in the UK. The Russian heir was chosen from any number of candidates by a gathering of the boyars. Very often the only way for a prospective heir to ensure his succession was to kill of all the others, even if they were his brothers. This is what happened to 61) St. Boris (c.990-1015).

St. Boris was a son of St. Vladimir I, Grand Prince of Kiev (the title of the Russian ruler in medieval times). Boris was one of the twelve sons of Vladimir, and one other son in particular thought his right to succeed was greater than his brothers – Sviatopolk.

Even before St. Vladimir had died Sviatopolk was plotting to eliminate his father and his brothers one by one. His main rival was Boris, Vladimir’s favourite son and commander the army. He was also extremely popular with the populace, which Sviatopolk wasn’t.

On Vladimir’s death Sviatopolk proclaimed himself the new Grand Prince. Even though Boris expressed no desire to oppose him, Sviatopolk decided to make sure he didn’t by having him and his partner assassinated. Just to make sure he was safe on his throne Sviatolpolk then assassinated two other brothers.

St. Boris’s partner was 62) George the Hungarian (d.1015). He was a servant and the bond between him and his master was so close that Boris gave him a fabulously valuable gold necklace as a gift. When Sviatopolk sent his assassins they were camped with the army returning from battle. The assassins burst into their tent and killed them in the manner I described in “To Russia With Love”.

Not satisfied with completing their task the assassins turned their attention back to George the Hungarian and the gold necklace. They couldn’t unfasten it from his neck, so they sliced his head off and flung it as far as they could.

The assassination of St. Boris and George the Hungarian as depicted
in a series of 14th century icons in the Church of St. Boris and St. Gleb, Kolomna, Russia.
St. Boris, along with his assassinated brother St. Gleb, were canonised as the first saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, even before their father St. Vladimir who founded it. As with most medieval saints and legendary heroes many myths and legends grew up around them after their death. A common legend attached to many (St. George, St. Michael, St. Margaret, King Arthur, etc.) was a battle against evil in the form of a dragon.

An old Ukrainian legend tells of a dragon who terrorised the land demanding human sacrifices. The Grand Prince asked St. Boris and St. Gleb to rid him of this menace. In the legend the brothers are blacksmiths, and together they caught the dragon’s tongue with some red hot pincers and tamed it.

Dragon-slayers and tamers like Boris and Gleb appear a lot in eastern and northern European myths, more so than in Mediterranean Europe which tends to go for more serpent-like monsters like the hydra. That’s why Tolkien and programmes like “Game of Thrones” are set in northern lands.

These mythical dragon-slayers have been the source of many works of art, literature and music through the centuries, and perhaps most strikingly in the operas of Richard Wagner. His “Siegfried” relates the dragon-slaying adventure of the eponymous hero. Wagner loved the legends of old Germany so much that he named his son after this particular dragon-slayer – 63) Siegfried Wagner (1869-1930).

Next time : A medieval Eurovision Song Contest leads to death by fire.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Rainbows Over the Antarctic

In June this year a significant Pride first was added to the list I gave in that month. In June the first official Pride took place on one of the continents, the Antarctic.

There’s no permanent population in Antarctica and they are spread in small group across the whole continent on various scientific bases. Apart from the scientists and support teams the only other people who go there are adventurers, polar explorers and tourists. The transient nature of the population may be the main reason there hasn’t been an official Pride there before.

In reporting the first Antarctic Pride the lgbt media (particularly the notoriously inaccurate Gay Star News) has claimed that the Rainbow Pride flag hadn’t been flown on the continent before. Of course, we all know that isn’t true. If you’ve been following my blog for a number of years you’ll remember Cason Crane, the young gay mountaineer who flew the flag from Vinson Massif, the highest point on Antarctica, in 2012.

There have been many other lgbt workers and visitors to Antarctica over the years, and I set out to see if I could determine the identity of the first person to display the Rainbow Pride flag, or any other lgbt and gender flag, on Antarctica, including its associated island groups that not part of other continents.

As the first Pride flag dates from 1978 I had a starting date for my search. It is safe to say that it wasn’t likely to have been used as a flag of the community, rather than a flag of protest and activism in the USA, until early 1980.

Let’s go backwards in time to see how far back we can go. Below is a map of Antarctica showing the places where the Rainbow Pride flag is known to have been flown prior to this year’s Antarctic Pride.
Locations mentioned, with the three known locations where the Rainbow Pride flag has been flown.

2018 June 9th – Antarctic Pride, the first official Pride on the continent with an organising committee and planned programme of events open to the wider community. The celebrations were centred on McMurdo Station, a US research base.

2016 March – Antarctic declared the world’s first lgbt+-friendly continent by the US charity Planting Peace. This was during a trip to Antarctica by their founding president, Aaron Jackson. Aaron (who is straight) travelled around several areas, waving the rainbow and transgender flags at various locations (at the moment not identified). This is probably the first occasion the transgender Flag was flown on the continent. You can see photos of Aaron’s visit here.

2012 December 12th – Cason Crane’s Seven Summit climb. The rainbow flag was flown from the highest point on Antarctica on this date.

Before 2012 we are on less certain ground, with one exception. While it is known that many scientists, polar adventurers and tourists have visited the continent there is no record of them displaying a Rainbow Pride flag. Here are just a few of those lgbt visitors.

2005 – Dr. Stephen Roberts, a member of the British Antarctic Survey, has been involved in mapping and obtaining geological samples since 2005. He has returned to the continent several times – to the George VI ice shelf and Berkner Island. His most recent research, carried out last year, looked at historical volcanic eruptions and their effects on penguin colonies.

1999 – Novelist, science writer and Gay Games cycling bronze medallist, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, has visited Antarctica several times since 1999 and has written about her experiences. In 2003 she published her children’s book “The Antarctic Scoop”.

1995 – In a ground-breaking thesis on gender and art, specifically relating to his own experiences as an intersex artist, Chris Somers explained how he went to Antarctica during 1995 and 1996 as a member of the 1990 International Trans-Antarctic Expedition (“trans”, as in “across”, not transgender). During his visit he flew both the Rainbow Pride flag and a specially designed flag symbolizing his personal karyotype (the chromosomal arrangement within his body cells). This is the first verifiable occasion that the Rainbow Pride flag and another gender flag were flown on Antarctica. His thesis contains photos of both flags flying at Patriot Hills.

1992 – Mariah Crossland made her first trip to McMurdo Station as a computer support worker. She made several other trips there over the next ten years. In 2002 she represented Antarctica as the Gay Games in Sydney, Australia, with a straight colleague.

1985 – In one of the tragic incidents on the continent in recent decades eight men were killed in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1985. They were all members of a tourist group run by Hanns Ebersten Travel, one of the earliest gay tourist organisations. The plane in which they were travelling crashed on Nelson Island in fog. There were plans for to have a barbecue on the island to celebrate the New Year. While the sexuality of the eight men is not known, three of them were from California, the birthplace of the Rainbow Pride flag. Were they gay? And did they have a Rainbow Pride flag which they hoped to unfurl at their barbecue?

It would be sad if the first Rainbow Pride flag arrived on Antarctica under such tragic circumstances. Hanns Ebersten Travel had operated tours there before, so perhaps, hidden in the recesses of someone’s personal history, there may be a more pleasant story behind the first lgbt Rainbow Over the Antarctic. I will be most grateful to anyone who has been on Antarctica with any lgbt flag to let me know when and where.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Flag Day

If ever there was a day to put the flags out, its today, because this is World Vexillology Day. Vexillology is the study of flags, and the word comes from “vexillum”, which is the name of the square flag the Romans used to carry at the front of their legions.

There are hundreds of flags used by the lgbt community. A lot of them have been featured on this blog, and if you want to know more about them please go to the labels list and select “flags”.

There are some lgbt vexillologists (people, like myself, who study flags) involved in the world of general flag studies as well as lgbt flags. I featured one, Mark Ritzenhein, on the blog a few months ago. There have also been some lgbt vexillologists who have designed flags for the wider community or for specific organisations. One of the earliest of these flags is that of the Society of the Cincinnati (below).
This Society was formed in 1783 in the newly independent USA and membership was open to descendants of soldiers who fought against the British. Two of its founders were George Washington and Baron Friedrich von Steuben (1730-1794). The baron, who went to America after years of being sacked from several German armies because of his gay affairs, was instrumental in turning the Continental Army of the revolutionary colonists into a formidable opponent to the British Redcoats. I’ll be returning to Baron von Steuben later in the year. Incidentally, the city of Cincinnati takes its name from this society.

The baron designed the Society of the Cincinnati flag. The design varied over the years but the stripes have remained constant. The stripes are a tribute to the 12 original colonies, as also represented on the Stars and Stripes. The light blue colour of the stripes is said to represent America. It is likely that this is in tribute to blue and buff uniforms worn by the revolutionaries, the colours I wrote about earlier in the year.

In the 20th century another lgbt flag designer of note was Paul Mills (1924-2004). He was Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California, from 1970 to 1982. He had a lively enthusiasm for modern art, and under his leadership the museum became a vibrant gallery. There’s too many of his projects to mention here, so let’s just look at three which were specifically about flags.

In 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, Paul devised the New Glory project. In what was arguably the first national flag designing contest in the USA, Paul asked flag and graphic designers to submit new designs for flags of a state, city or organisation of their choice. The 24 winning designs were turned into half of a touring exhibition called “New Glory”. The exhibition catalogue of these flags can be seen here. The other half of the exhibition consisted of replicas of historical US flags.

When the exhibition closed the flags were given to Paul Mills for his next project, the Santa Barbara Flag Project. This is one of several legacies he left that is still very much alive today.

Paul chose the breakwater at Santa Barbara’s harbour to relocate the flags permanently. The idea was to introduce specially designed flags of local charitable non-profit organisations and community groups. The idea took off spectacularly, and Paul Mills supervised the regular rotation of flags personally until his death in 2004.

Across the harbour at Stearns Wharf is another line of flags that are part of the Santa Barbara Flag Project. They were raised in memory of one of its members, Cedric Boeseke (1907-1994), and are the replica historical flags used in the New Glory Project.

Following Paul Mills’ death in 2004 the breakwater flags were not replaced and the poles remained bare until 2007 when the project was revived by the Santa Barbara Yacht Club. At the rededication ceremony Paul’s three children were guests of honour, and a special flag commemorating Paul was raised. One of Paul’s children is film-maker Mike Mills.

Following the death of his wife Jan in 1999 Paul came out as gay to Mike during Thanksgiving. After Paul’s death Mike began to write a film based heavily on their relationship as a son and gay father called “Beginners”. Described as a romantic comedy drama it was released in 2010 and starred Ewan McGregor as the character based on Mike himself, and Christopher Plummer as the character based on Paul. Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for his role.

Even though Paul Mills left us in 2004 his biggest flag project out of the three which still survives was an attempt to introduce flags to the city streets of Santa Barbara called the State Street Flag Project. State Street is the main thoroughfare heading from the harbour.

As with the breakwater flags the State Street project displays local charity flags in rotation. It has become a welcome symbol of pride for all those who take part.

There’ll never be enough room to go into Paul’s many other flag projects, including one which involved the present King of Spain, so I’ll finish with flags which Paul designed (below).

Because the flags in the State Street project are flown vertically rather than horizontally the little castle on the city flag (left) is on its side when flown vertically. Paul adapted the design to make it more vexillologically correct (centre). This flag is still flown every year during fiesta week. The two flags on the right were designed by Paul for the city of Monterey. They are based on two historical coats of arms associated with the city. The top version is the official municipal flag and the plainer version underneath is the citizens’ flag (a bit like national flags, where many countries have a state flag used by the government and a simpler civil flag used by the public).

However you feel about flags you have to admire Paul Mills’ dedication to vexillology. Other than Gilbert Baker with his Rainbow Pride flag I cannot think of another lgbt person who has made such a huge legacy and impact on a community.