Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Escape From The Deadly Ring Of Fire

The recent volcanic eruption of Kilauea on Hawaii reminds us all of the power of nature and the danger from natural forces which exist all the time. It has also reminded me of another volcanic eruption in which a prominent lgbt volcanologist, Dr. Michael S. Ramsey, was caught and which caused the death of two of his fellow scientists.

The Ring of Fire is the name given to the almost unbroken line of volcanic and earthquake activity encircling the Pacific Ocean. Hawaii lies above a volcanic hotspot in the centre of the Pacific plate.

The Indonesian island of Java was created by the formation of the Ring of Fire as one continental plate pushed into another. Java is already famous in volcanic history for the massive eruption in 1883 of Krakatoa which killed 36,000 people and had adverse effects it had on the world’s climate that lasted for years.

At the other end of Java is Semeru, the highest volcano on the island and one of its most active. Because of the almost continuous activity on Semeru it has always been a place for volcanologists to study up close.

During 1998 and 1999 Semeru displayed an increase in activity. There were eruptions of volcanic plumes of ash and steam. Frequent earth tremors, rock falls and lava flows were observed from March 2000. Scientists from the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia (VSI) made regular monitoring trips up the volcano.

Dr. Michael S. Ramsey wasn’t part of the VSI. He was a specialist in remote sensing of volcanic activity using satellites. He became interested in volcanos during his studies in geology at Arizona State University in Phoenix. Also in Phoenix he became involved in the lgbt bear community, founding the Phoenix Bears and acting as a judge in two International Mr Bear contests. He is even a member of organisations who protect real bears in the wild.

In early 2000 Michael joined Pittsburgh University as an Assistant Professor. He also became a team member of the Earth-orbiting Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflective Radiometer project (thankfully shortened to ASTER). This project uses data from a satellite which carries instruments measuring Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land, snow and ice. Not only do the instruments record the human impact on the planet, such as global warming, but also records the activity and impact of natural disasters on human settlements.

In mid-July 2000 Michael travelled to Bali to present a paper on his work to the annual conference of the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior. Also at the conference were two scientists from the Smithsonian Institution who had been invited to join the VSI evaluation team on Semeru the following week. They invited Michael Ramsey to join them.

And so it was that Michael was present on that fateful day on the slopes Semeru on 27th July 2000 when two people lost their lives.

The day began early. The team set up camp 1,000 feet below the summit of Semeru and rose at 2 a.m. to make the trek up to the top in time for dawn. At dawn the group of about 20 scientists were at the summit. Semeru isn’t like those stereotypical volcanos you see in B-movies. Very few are. Semeru has several volcanic craters at the summit, each one being the top of a volcanic pipe which delves deep into the magma chamber many miles below sea level.

The day was a bit cloudy and there was a mist around the crater which had been showing the greatest amount of activity over the previous weeks. The scientists watched as several ash and steam fountains erupted. As the scientists moved closer to take measurements, as close as 100 feet from the crater’s edge, the mists suddenly evaporated. Michael Ramsey, at the back of the group, scrambled into his bag for a telephoto lens to put on his camera.

As he turned to take a photo he saw a massive cloud of ash containing burning rocks envelope his colleagues near the crater. Realising the danger he flung himself to the ground and protected his head with his camera bag. Rocks rained down upon the whole area. They weren’t rocks when they were spewed out of the volcano. They were lava drops, almost 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. When they hit the ground as rocks they were still hot enough to burn straight through you if you were too close to the crater. One rock hit Michael’s foot and melted the rivets on his climbing boot.

The eruption lasted less than a minute. After it subsided Michael rose to survey his surroundings. The two colleagues nearest to the eruption, the team leader from the SVI and an observer, had been killed instantly from head injuries. Other team members were in varying degrees of injury, some very serious. Michael himself sustained a foot injury because of the aforementioned hit on his boot.

The survivors staggered back down to base camp and waited for medical assistance. No helicopter ambulance could rescue them because of the ash clouds and bad weather. The group were sustained by local villager bringing food and assistance. Two days after the eruption the group were being treated in hospital.

It was a harrowing experience for everyone. Semeru continued to erupt through the following weeks. Monitoring by the VSI continued, and Michael returned to the USA to continue his research into the prediction of volcanic activity. The Semeru incident wasn’t entirely without result. As well as being recorded in distance laboratories one on-site incident added to their knowledge.

Remember that mist that suddenly evaporated just before the eruption? This was likely caused by the heat from the underground magma as it rose through the vents to the crater.

Michael Ramsey is still a prominent figure in volcanic research and runs courses at Pittsburgh University in natural disasters caused by volcanos and earthquakes. He is also involved in NASA’s research into volcanos on other planets in our solar system.

The work of Dr. Michael Ramsey and all of the scientists who risk their lives to collect vital data which can save the lives of millions in the future is something we should thank them all for.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

515 Years, and More

Today is the 140th anniversary of my grandfather’s birth. That might not sound like much of a special celebration to you, but when you consider that he died on 39 years ago you’ll appreciate my celebration. I won’t embarrass family members by reproducing the family photos that were taken during my grandfather’s 100th or 101st birthdays. Instead I’ll look at some centenarians from our lgbt community.

Ruth Ellis (1899-2000) – Ruth’s father was born a slave. Ruth grew up in Illinois and became one of the few African-Americans to graduate from high school. Even though she was never a campaigner on a national scale Ruth worked hard to ensure that her local lgbt community in Detroit, and the black lgbt community in particular, had somewhere to escape from the racism and homophobia of 1930s America. This she did by opening her home, which she shared with her partner Ceciline “Babe” Franklin, to gatherings and parties.

Ruth was also a successful businesswoman. She opened a printing business which produced posters, leaflets, stationery and fliers.

For Ruth’s 100th birthday a documentary of her life was produced by Yvonne Welbon. Following Ruth’s death in 2000 at the age of 101 a centre for lgbt homeless youth was named after her.

Peggy Gilbert (1905-2007) lived to the age of 102 years and 26 days. Entertainment was in her blood. Her father was a violinist and her mother was a singer. Peggy became a professional performer herself at the age of 7. Even as a child she saw there was a limited amount of opportunities for female performers in the 1920s and 1930s. There was even less for a female band leader, yet Peggy was determined to break gender stereotypes by forming an all-female jazz band. As well as leading the band she sang, played piano, vibraphone, clarinet and her signature instrument the saxophone. Although not the first and only all-female band Peggy’s jazz group became well-known in Hollywood and appeared in film and later on national radio.

Peggy met Kay Boley (1917-2007), a vaudeville/Music Hall entertainer, in 1944. After Peggy’s divorce from her husband Kay became her life-long partner. On Peggy’s 100th birthday she attended a celebration at Local 47, the home of the Los Angeles branch of the American Federation of Musicians. Peggy had worked there for many years up to her official retirement. She died just over two years after her 100th birthday, and Kay died three months later.

Eleanor Raymond (1887-1989) reached the age of 102 years and 102 days. She was an architect whose use of innovative styles makers her stand out among the other female architects of her time.

In 1928 Eleanor founded her own architecture office after being the business partner of architect Henry Atherton Frost for several years. Her work was influenced by the traditional domestic rural architecture of her native New England. In 1948 Eleanor designed one of the first solar-heated houses, the Sun House in Dover, Massachusetts, which was referred to as “the house of the day after tomorrow”. In 1949 Eleanor was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Eleanor’s life partner, Ethel B. Power (1881-1969), was also a trained architect though she became more known as the editor of “House Beautiful” magazine for many years. She died in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1989.

Eyre de Lanux (1894-1996) died at the age of 102 years and 172 days. Eyre de Lanux was the professional name of Elizabeth Eyre, an American Art Deco furniture designer, artist and illustrator who married French diplomat Pierre Combret de Lanux (1887-1955). In Paris they moved in artistic circles and counted Ernest Hemingway among their friends. Another friend was Natalie Barney, and she and Eyre were lovers for a while.

Following her husband’s death Eyre moved back to the US. By this time she had begun to write short stories and went on to write and illustrate children’s stories and write for “Harper’s Bazaar” magazine. By the 1980s her work as a furniture designer was virtually forgotten. When examples of her work began to appear in auctions she was “rediscovered”.


Before we move onto the oldest known member of the lgbt community I’d like to give a quick mention of several others who may, or may not, be considered lgbt centenarians.

Pacifico Massimi (d.1506). A letter dated 1548 claims Pacifico died at the age of 100. There’s no definitive record of his year of birth, but he was certainly married by 1426. He was an aristocrat who lost his family estates during the political conflicts of the 1400s. He abandoned his wife and became a lawyer and private tutor, and wrote very frank poems about his passion for gay sex.

Julian Phelps Allan (1892-1996) was a British sculptor whose real name was Eva Allan. According to an exhibition catalogue from the Tate she adopted the male name Julian to express her lesbianism. They gave no supporting evidence. However, it was common for women who were not lesbian to adopt male names to succeed in the male-dominated art world.

Anonymous Burmese transsexual (b.1906?) was a speaker at a public rally held in Rangoon to mark Burma’s first celebration of IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia) in 2012. The woman claimed to be 106 and decided to remain anonymous, making it impossible to verify her age.


So, who holds the distinction of being the oldest known verifiable member of the lgbt community?

Hugues Cuénod was a classical and concert singer who died on 6th December 2010 at the age of 108 years and 163 days. He may even be the oldest person to register a same-sex union, which he did with his partner Alfred Augustin in 2007 at the age of 105.

Hugues began his singing career in 1928 in Paris. That career spanned over 60 years (his last stage performance was at the age of 90) and he sang in all the grand concert and opera halls in the world, including La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He performed everything from Bach’s “St Matthew’s Passion” to Sir Noël Coward’s “Bitter Sweet”. In 1976 the French government invested him as a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Hugues Cuénod’s place in lgbt longevity may never be overtaken (at least not in my lifetime). Who knows? Not all lgbt centenarians achieve international notice or have public careers and remain unknown outside their own families and friends.

One person who will hopefully join the ranks of lgbt centenarians later this year is Paul Mart (b.1918). Paul was a founding member of the Gay Games and has competed in several games, winning medals in Physique. At times throughout his life Paul has been a World War II soldier, an actor, a stuntman and rodeo rider. Paul will celebrate his 100th birthday in September, a month after the 10th Gay Games in Paris.

As I celebrate the lives of lgbt centenarians I send my best wishes to Paul Mart and everyone else who is celebrating their 100th birthdays.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Flower Power : Floral Rainbows

The rainbow has been a symbol of lgbt pride since 1978 when the first Rainbow Pride flag was designed. To the ancient Greeks the rainbow was personified by their goddess Iris.

Legends of the origin of the flowers that now bear her name go back even further to the ancient Egyptians. The symbolism attached to the flowers also go back to ancient Egypt. To the Greeks the goddess Iris was a messenger of the gods and the rainbow was her path from Olympus to earth, and when she foot on the ground a flower grew, the flower that now bears her name. The symbolism of the iris flower survives today in the fleur-de-lys emblem. The fleur-de-lys provides a link between the goddess of the rainbow and the rainbow pride of the lgbt community. I’ll return to that idea later this year when I look at the used of the fleur-de-lys in queer heraldry, and propose a new flag for the lgbt community (ironically, one of the other common names for the iris is flag).

Today, because the Chelsea Flower Show is happening this week, we’ll look at one man and the establishing of a National Collection of 90 or more rare vintage varieties of iris he bred and introduced over a 40 year period.

Sir Cedric Morris (1889-1982), although a prolific plant breeder, was primarily an artist. His plants featured in many of his paintings. Art was in his blood. His mother was also an artist and a needlewoman, and an ancestral aunt co-founded the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Cedric was studying at the Académie Delécluse in Paris when World War I broke out. He joined the Artists Rifles, a reserve regiment made up of artists, actors, musicians and performers. The Rifles saw active service in the trenches of France. Because of a botched operation when Cedric was a child he was considered unfit for active duty and was discharged in 1917. After the war he met the man who was to spend the rest of his life with him, Arthur Lett-Haines (1894-1978).

Arthur was married to an American, and when she decided to return to the USA Arthur decided to stay behind in England and live with Cedric Morris. Their relationship was an open one. Cedric and Arthur both had affairs. They moved to Cornwall and then to Paris in 1920. They returned in 1926 and eventually founded the east Anglian School of Painting and Drawing.

In 1939 Cedric and Arthur moved this school to Benton End, a rambling Tudor farmhouse in Hadleigh, Suffolk. This was to become a floral and artistic paradise which attracted many important artists and horticulturalists. Maggi Hambling and Lucien Freud are among the artists who studied there.

Cedric Morris had often turned the gardens of his homes into colourful, luscious displays. At Benton End he began to take a more artistic approach to plants by propagating hundreds of irises every year, carefully selecting colours and attributes that would show off the flowers at their best.

He produced about 93 new iris varieties and maned most of them after Benton End. There was Benton Nigel (named after a former lover, Nigel Scott, who was introduced to Cedric by renowned horticulturalist Beth Chatto who sadly passed away last week), Benton Stella and others named after friends. There was also Benton Baggage and Benton Menace, both named after his cats. This made it easier to locate some of these plants because few of them became commercial successes and survive, if at all, as long forgotten flowers in a half-hidden corner of a private stately home, or as a specimen rhizome on a shelf in some plant collection.

A revival of Cedric Morris’s irises came at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2015. Sarah Cook, Head Gardener at Sissinghurst, rediscovered the Benton Nigel iris in the Sissinghurst gardens. This was the catalyst for an international hunt to find all of Cedric’s irises and establish an official National Collection, just like there are for works of art. This was recognised in 2006 when the hard work done by Sarah Cook and her team with the Cedric Morris iris collection being granted National Collection status by Plant Heritage.

By 2015 Sarah had collected 25 of the 93 irises and exhibited them at the Chelsea Flower Show, some of which hadn’t been seen there since the 1950s. They won a Gold Medal.

In 1947 Cedric inherited the family title and became Sir Cedric Morris, 9th Baronet. In his later years he became partially sighted, which must have caused some degree of despair. The East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing was closed when Arthur Lett-Haines died in 1978.

Sir Cedric Morris’s botanical legacy wasn’t completely lost, even if most of his iris varieties were. Varieties of poppy, rose, geranium, daffodil and California fuchsia have been named after him. The Garden Museum, next to Lambeth Palace opposite the Houses of Parliament, is currently running an exhibition and series of talks on Sir Cedric.

If you have green fingers and want to have an lgbt themed garden for your own there can be no better was to achieve it than to bring a rainbow of irises and, if you’re lucky enough to find any, one or two of Sir Cedric Morris’s varieties.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays : Part 16) Some More Spanish Firsts


Previously : 31) Julia Lemigova (b.1972) was the first national ex-beauty pageant winner to come out as lesbian, while the first reigning pageant winner to come out was 32) Patricia Rodriguez (b.1990) as Miss Spain 2014, to be followed 2 years later by Mr Spain 2016, 33) Daniel Rodriguez (b.1993), both from the Canary Islands, which also has a political lgbt first achieved by 34) Jerónimo Saavedra (b.1936).

34) Jerónimo Saavedra came out publicly in the wake of his partner’s tragic death in a road accident in 2000. He never considered himself “in the closet” as such because his sexuality had been known to many people he knew since he was in his 20s. His relationship with his partner was acknowledged in the public death notices of his partner in August 2000. At the time of the bereavement Jéronimo was approached by the author Fernando Bruquetas de Castro to write the prologue to his book “Outing in Spain: Spaniards Come Out of the Closet”. In his prologue Jéronimo acknowledged his late partner and felt that the time was right to make a declaration in print about his sexuality.

After living through the dictatorship of Gen. Franco, Jerónimo Saavedra was one of many thousands of gay men who had grown up being discriminated against and criminalised. A natural move for many who wanted political change was to join the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE). Jerónimo joined the PSOE in 1972 and became General Secretary of the Canary Socialist Party in 1977.

Jerónimo’s political career contains a number of significant firsts for a member of the lgbt community in Spain. Some of them are dual or triple firsts in that one appointment contains several different firsts. Only the final two listed appointments were achieved as an out politician. All the others are retrospective, and all are elected positions. First a word of explanation about the make-up of Spanish regions. Spain is divided into a number of Autonomous Communities, each of which are subdivided into a number of provinces. Here is the list of Jerónimo’s firsts:

1977 – First lgbt member of the Spanish parliament.
1982 – First lgbt interim President of an autonomous community.
1983 – First lgbt President of an Autonomous Community.
1983 – First lgbt President of the Canary Islands Autonomous Community.
1993 – First lgbt member of the Spanish Senate.
1993 – First lgbt member of the Spanish government.
1993 – First lgbt minister in the Spanish government.
2007 – First lgbt Mayor of the capital of a province.
2007 – First lgbt Mayor of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

Jerónimo Saavedra was first elected to the Cortes, the Spanish parliament, on 15th June 1977 in the first free elections to be held in Spain since 1937. This was made possible by the death of gen. Franco in 1975. With more democratic and liberal politics becoming the standard many regions around Spain sought some form of self-government. The Canary Islands was one of them and Jerónimo threw himself into negotiations to turn them into one of the newly formulated autonomous communities.

This campaign to establish autonomy for the Canaries began during Franco’s dictatorship. In 1978 Jerónimo became Vice-President of the board formed to negotiate this autonomy with the Spanish government. The Canary Islands was granted autonomous status in August 1982 and Saavedra was appointed as the interim President of the Canary’s government until elections were held the following year. In those election Jerónimo was voted in as their first president.

In 1993 Jerónimo was voted onto the Spanish Senate. However, he relinquished the position a few days later to join the government as Minister of Public Administration. Part of his work in this ministry was to oversee the process giving autonomy to the final two regions, the African enlaces of Ceuta and Melilla. In 1999 he was re-elected to the Spanish Senate, and it was a Senator that he made his written acknowledgment of his sexuality in the book “Out in Spain”.

Since leaving national politics in 2003 Jerónimo has continued to be active in the Canary Islands. In 2007 he was elected Mayor of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria becoming the first openly lgbt mayor of a provincial capital in Spain.

The Canary Islands provides another politician who was a significant first in Spain, and we travel back to the island of Tenerife.

Tenerife is the birthplace of actor and activist 35) Carla Antonelli (b.1959), the stage name of Carla Delgado Gómez. Like Jerónimo Saavadra she was a member of the PSOE. Carla was appointed as the Canary Islands co-ordinator of PSOE’s Federal Transsexual/GLBT Group.

In 2004 the Spanish government introduced same-sex marriage. Other lgbt rights were slow to follow. There was no law to allow transgender people to change official documents which registered their gender. Carla Antonelli was still a man in the eyes of the law. She threatened to go on hunger strike until the government had introduced a gender identity law. Within months the Gender Identity Law was passed and Carla became the first person in Spain to legally correct the gender on all official documents.

This is not the only first achieved by Carla Antonelli. She began to take a more active role in politics. In 2011 she was elected to the assembly of the Madrid Autonomous Community becoming the first transgender person in Spain to be elected to a governing legislature (note: the first transgender Spaniard to be elected to public office was Manuela Trasobares who was elected as a town councillor in 2007).

ransgender politicians have been increasing in numbers in recent years, whether in local, regional or national elections. Several transgender candidates have been unsuccessful in their campaigns to be elected. In the UK the first known transgender candidate seems to have been Alexandra MacRae who failed to be elected in 1992. But we have to cross to the other side of the world to find the first successful transgender candidate to be elected to a national parliament. Her name is 36) Georgina Beyer (b.1957).

Next time : We go Down Under to see how a politician changed a nation’s attitude to sex and get an indigenous perspective.