Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Xtremely Queer: Stepping Across the Steppes (Part 2)

Last month I wrote about the first expeditions of the Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky (1838-1888). We left Nikolay and his 1879 expedition about to set off from the Russian frontier post in the Altai Mountains and head for the mysterious city of Lhasa in Tibet.

The expedition encountered blizzards and barren landscapes as they travelled southwards over the mountains to the infamous Takla Makan desert. At one point they came across the horrifying sight of the rotting remains of hundreds of nomads who had starved to death because they couldn’t make it through. Mirages, burning ground and salt-sand storms made life both disorientating and uncomfortable. At last the expedition reached the Humboldt Mountains south of the Takla Makan. These were named after the great gay explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).

At the next outpost Nikolay could see the snow-capped Himalayas ahead but the going was slow. Golf ball-sized hailstones and snow blindness became a problem for both the men and animals, not to mention the daytime sun that burned their faces while their backs froze in the shade.

Advance parties found a mountain pass which led to a Buddhist pilgrim route. Further along the expedition entered the territory of a tribe called the Yograi. These were a fiercely independent people who were suspicious of every stranger. As the expedition rested the Yograi mounted an ambush. The expedition fought back and their guns were superior to the tribesmen’s weapons and the ambush was beaten off, leaving several of the Yograi dead and many injured.

Once through Yograi territory the expedition at last entered Tibet. By pure chance Nikolay encountered a Mongol pilgrim he had met some years earlier who warned him that Lhasa had got news of his approach and were preparing to prevent him from entering the city. Sure enough, the expedition met a contingent of Tibetan soldiers.

The expedition was only 160 miles (260 km) away from Lhasa. So near, and yet so far. Nikolay steadfastly refused to turn back unless he received a written order from the local governor. The governor himself came to deliver the order. Soldiers followed the disappointed expedition back as far as the Yograi territory. This time they made it through with no trouble.

By New Year 1880 the expedition was well on its way back to Russia with Nikolay’s dream of reaching Lhasa shattered. But the expedition was not all completely in vain. Nikolay had charted the route and collected thousands of specimens, including many plants and animals previously unknown to science.

Nikolay was feted by the tsar, the scientific community and the public, all clamouring to hear of his exploits. The authorities approved of another expedition, except that reaching Lhasa was to be a secondary aim. Expanding his previous surveys and finding the source of the Huang Ho River were his primary tasks.

The new expedition set off from northern Mongolia in late 1883 and arrived in Ulaan Baatar (now the capital city). The temperate was so cold that mercury froze in the thermometers but by New Year 1884 the temperature rose above zero. Tracking the Huang Ho River the route took the expedition around the eastern edge of the Humboldt Mountains. By May it had followed the river to its source and Nikolay completed his first task.

About 700 miles to the south west lay Lhasa and Nikolay’s long-held quest of reaching the city. Despite the intense cold and illness among the expedition members Nikolay made good progress for 100 miles to the Yangtse River. On the other side was last leg to Lhasa. Alas, the Yangtse was deep and fast-moving and its banks were steep and treacherous. Despite the offer of boats from local tribesmen Nikolay decided the risk to the pack animals was too great. There was no other way across and Nikolay chose to abandon his quest yet again.

The expedition headed back towards the source of the Huang Ho. By February 1885 he had reached Lob Nor, the lake on edge of the Takla Makan that he had visited in 1873. Travelling south-west towards Tibet Nikolay noticed that the Chinese authorities were going ahead of him all the way and doing their best to persuade the local tribes to restrict the amount of supplies he needed. They even blocked some of the ravines Nikolay needed to get through and was he exasperated at the attempts to stop him getting any further.

Finally, Nikolay had to concede defeat and decided to abandon all hope of reaching Lhasa. The expedition headed westwards for a couple of months until it reached the River Hotan. Following the river north Nikolay was able to survey the whole area and collect more animal and plant specimens. There was great jubilation when the expedition reached its official end at Karakol (in modern-day Kyrgyzstan) in November 1885.

Back in St. Petersburg Nikolay was again feted as a hero. Not only had he vastly improved the knowledge of plant and animal species (quite a few of them named after him) his survey provided vital information for the Russian military to help plan imperial expansion into central Asia and campaign against the Chinese. For eighteen months Nikolay’s life was a round of public appearances, lectures and official meetings. Yet he was still eager to get back through the wilderness and finally reach Lhasa, by force of arms if necessary.

In summer 1888 Nikolay’s next expedition set off for Karakol, the finishing point of his previous expedition. Following the Hotan River south would take him straight to Tibet. It would be easier this time because he had surveyed the route himself, of course.

When Nikolay arrived in Karakol he was behaving restlessly and complained of feeling unwell. He was hospitalised and the doctors diagnosed typhoid. Nikolay realised he was dying and his dream of reaching Lhasa would never become a reality. On 1st November 1888 Nikolay Przhevalsky died. He was buried, as he instructed, on the shore of Lake Issyk Kul nearby. In 1957 a museum dedicated to his life and work was opened in Karakol, though little, if anything, is mentioned of his relationships with the young protégés he took with him on each expedition.

Nikolay’s reputation as an explorer, geographer and zoologist cannot be overestimated, but he had personal characteristics common for his era and background which may trouble people today. He was racist, imperialist and mysogynostic, and would not achieve the same celebrity status if he lived today that he enjoyed in his lifetime. Yet, modern political correctness should not be imposed upon historical characters, not until a certain nation stops hero-worshipping the numerous slave owners among their past presidents.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Queer Achievement: A Polish Celebration

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]

Earlier this year scientists solved a decades-old mystery surrounding the remains of a Polish general who fought in the American War of Independence. They declared that the general, Casimir Pulaski (1745-1779), was intersex. The story behind this mystery is itself worthy of a separate article for the future, but for today let’s celebrate by looking at his coat of arms (below).
Casimir (or Kazimierz in his native Polish) was born during the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He was a leading commander in a failed rebellion against Russian domination and was stripped of all his military honours. He escaped to France and then to America. Today is the anniversary of Pulaski’s death.

Polish heraldry differs from that of nations like the UK in that there was never any official state authority to regulate its use. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that Polish historians began to collect the many Polish coats of arms illustrated in various sources into one authoritative collection. Until then Polish heraldry was illustrated in family and local documents and non-Polish publications. Consequently, the coat of arms of one family could change with each generation.

The Polish feudal system in the Middle Ages also influenced how heraldry developed. There was more of a clan element to Polish feudalism. The Pulaski family belongs to a very large clan which includes families currently having over 900 different family names. Most of these names are based on the name of the town or village where that branch of the family lived. Going further back the Pulaski and the other 900 families descend from the Ślepowron family.

The Ślepowron family took its name from the village of Ślepowrony and their earliest known ancestor was called Wawrzęta Korwin z Ślepowron. This reveals the ultimate origin of the clan in the Korwin family. It was Wawrzęta who was granted the coat of arms (below left) in 1224 by the ruling prince of Poland. For several centuries there were variations on the design, with the crow facing the other way and/or standing on a crown instead of a log.
Heraldry has always used puns and visual clues to the identity of the family or original grantee of the coat of arms. The crow has been used across Europe as an emblem of unrelated families with similar names. Its Latin name is “corvus” (still used as the scientific name for the crow family of birds). Families such as Corvo, Corbett and, yes, even Corbyn, adopted crows in their coats of arms. Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Opposition in the UK, is descended from a family who had three crows in their coat of arms.

Another member of the lgbt community was descended from Wawrzęta Korwin z Ślepowron and used his coat of arms. She was the Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891). Her full family name was Korvin-Krukovskaya and also derives from “corvus”.

There’s a medieval family legend telling how the crow the family their name. They allegedly descent from a Roman general called Marcus Valerus. The legend says that Valerus confronted a huge barbarian warrior in battle. As he attacked the warrior a huge crow flew down and pecked the barbarian’s eyes out. Valerus killed the warrior and from then on he was called Corvus.

Another medieval legend explains why the crow has a gold ring in its beak. It relates to a king of Hungary called Matthias Corvinus Hunyadi (1443-1490), a supposed descendant of General Corvus. One day King Matthias took off his gold ring and put it aside whereupon a crow swooped down and flew off with it. The king followed the bird, killed it and retrieved his ring. From then on he put the ring in the beak of the crow on his coat of arms. In truth King Matthias has no Corvinus/Korwin ancestry, and the Korwins are not related to him. However, 17th century historians fabricated the connection and the gold ring was adopted by most of the 900 Ślepowron/Korwin families, including the Pulaskis.

The crow also appears as the crest on top of the helmet in most of these Ślepowron/Korwin families. The helmet itself, and the coronet on top of it, is traditional in the heraldic achievements of Polish non-titled aristocracy like the Pulaskis.

The Pulaski branch of the Ślepowron/Korwin family later added a horseshoe to the coat of arms. They also changed the colour of the shield from red to blue. These changes occurred through the marriage of an ancestor to an heiress in the Pobog family. The Pobog family coat of arms (above right, next to the red coat of arms of Wawrzęta Korwin z Ślepowron and Sofia Kovalevskaya) contains a horseshoe and cross.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Homohoax: Daughters of a Poetic Hoax

Today’s article is about another hoax connected to the lgbt community. Earlier the year I described how one of the earliest gay rights organisations in the USA, the Mattachine Society, got its name from a group of masked performers of satirical plays in medieval France. Contemporary to the US Mattachine Society was a lesbian rights organisation called the Daughters of Bilitis. They got their name from a literary hoax.

Let’s start by looking at the name Bilitis and at who she was, or wasn’t.

In 1894 a book was published in Paris called “Les Chansons de Bilitis” (The Songs of Bilitis). It was a collection of erotic lesbian poems that had been translated from their original Greek into French by an author called Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925).

In his introduction to the poems Louÿs described them as autobiographical works by Bilitis, a courtesan from the southern coastal region of Turkey called Pamphylia who, through a series of failed or abusive relationships, settled first in Mytilene on Lesbos and then on Cyprus. On Lesbos Bilitis got to know the island’s most famous inhabitant, the female poet Sappho. Pierre Louÿs assumes that Sappho taught Bilitis the art of poetry.

“Les Chansons de Bilitis” were set out to illustrate her life. The first part recounts Bilitis’ childhood in Pamphylia. She falls in love with a man who later rapes her. However, she marries him and bears him a child. Her husband continues to be abusive and Bilitis feels she has no choice but to abandon the marriage and her child and escapes to Lesbos.

The second part of the “Chansons” sees Bilitis in Mytilene on Lesbos. Through Sappho she meets a young girl called Mnasidikia. The friendship between them lasts ten years, but the love Bilitis had for Mnasidikia was unrequited. Eventually Bilitis becomes jealous of the attentions Mnasidikia is getting from men. Once again she thinks it is best to move on.

Bilitis arrives on Cyprus still yearning for Mnasidikia. The final “Chansons” tell us that she became a courtesan in the cult of Aphrodite. Louÿs suggests that Bilitis wrote her poems late in life while on Cyprus.

Bilitis died and was buried on Cyprus is a magnificent terra cotta coffin within the underground chamber. This was rediscovered in 1864 by a German archaeologist called G. Heim. The coffin lid bore the sculpted face of its occupant. Inside was her body. Around the walls of the chamber were black stone tablets on which were inscribed the poems Bilitis had written.

Thirty years after the discovery of her tomb the poems of Bilitis were translated and published by Pierre Louÿs as “Les Chansons de Bilitis”. It was a huge success and was hailed by scholars as an important addition to literature and history. It received praise in particular for its lesbian eroticism.

But there were some scholars who were mystified by this sudden appearance of a previously unknown poet with such a significant amount of work. There were also a few literary critics who suspected that the poems were not from ancient Greece at all.

Eventually, Pierre Louÿs came clean and admitted that “Les Chansons de Bilitis” were fake and that he had written them himself. A clue to the hoax comes in the name of the archaeologist who was alleged to have found the tomb and poems, G. Heim. This is a pun on the German word “geheimnis”, which means “secret”. You might have thought that the confession of a hoax might have upset both the literary and academic worlds, but it didn’t.

What Louÿs did from the start was study actual ancient Greek poetry and literature and produce a modern work imitating the ancient style. It’s a technique that wasn’t new (the fake poems of an ancient Scottish poet called Ossian had captured the public’s imagination a century earlier), and is still sometimes used today (a novel written entirely in Middle English was published recently).

“Les Chansons de Bilitis” came to be seen as an example of sincere imitation through academic research, and remains so.

So, how did a literary hoax inspire the name of a lesbian organisation in the USA? Despite being a popular book on continental Europe “Les Chansons de Bilitis” was relatively obscure in America. During the 1950s several lgbt groups formed, including the Daughters of Bilitis which was founded by several lesbian couples in San Francisco in October 1955. At their second meeting they chose their organisation’s name.

The name Bilitis was chosen deliberately because it was obscure. The general public had never heard it before but it was quite well-known among the many lesbians who had obtained privately printed copies of “Les Chansons de Bilitis”. Because of its erotic content the book was subject to censorship and not available publicly. It was obscure enough for the Daughters of Bilitis to use it with the comfort of knowing that the general public wouldn’t be aware of the sexual focus of the organisation while many lesbians would.

The organisation’s name also echoes that of several women’s charitable and social organisations across the USA, in particular the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organisation of women descended from soldiers who fought in the War of Independence. The choice of “Daughters of” for the lesbian organisation gave it an air of respectability.

The Daughters of Bilitis enjoyed a successful existence for a few years, but the emergence of more radical feminism in the 1960s created a schism in the organisation. Despite this, the Daughters of Bilitis were an important part of the pre-Stonewall lgbt rights movement and went on to inspire other female groups.
Album cover of a very rare vinyl recording of “Les Chansons de Bilitis” produced in 1961 in France.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Another 20 Queer Facts

Happy LGBT History Month to my US friends. Here are 20 more queer facts to make the month more interesting and to show that lgbt history is more than politics, activism and Stonewall, and that ALL lgbt history should be acknowledged.

1) The classic 1952 film version of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest” was directed by Anthony Asquith (1902-1968), a closeted gay man whose father, Herbert Asquith, was the Home Secretary who had signed Oscar Wilde’s arrest warrant.

2) The oldest urban settlement in Europe, Lepenski Vir in Serbia, was proved to be 8,000 years old by the Serbian archaeologist Dragoslav Srejovic (1931-1996). He was one of the few academics in Communist Yugoslavia who was not persecuted or imprisoned for being openly gay.

3) Russia, like most western cultures, has slang names for gay men and lesbians. They are “goluboi” (meaning sky blue) for gay men and “rozovyi” (meaning pink) for lesbians. The origin of these slang names is unclear but may have been influenced by the traditional blue and pink gender colours.

4) The only reason Nicolas Copernicus published his theory of a Sun-centred solar system in 1543 (which wasn’t even a new idea) was because his protégé Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514-1574) had been pestering him to do so for several years. Copernicus himself wasn’t that interested in publishing it. Rheticus went on to become a professor and publish books on trigonometry. He was found guilty of sexual assault on the son of an influential merchant he was tutoring.

5) Openly gay actor Rupert Everett (b.1959) is one of the few lgbt actors who have played two of their own ancestors. In “To Kill A King” (2003) he played his ancestor King Charles I of Great Britain (1600-1649). The following year he played King Charles’ son King Charles II (1630-1685), in “Stage Beauty”.

6) A forerunner of the modern annual Pride march began in the 13th century – and is still held to this day. At the Shrine of the Madonna of Montevergine in Italy a parade takes place on 2nd February every year. Many members of the local lgbt community take part because in 1256 a gay couple were miraculously rescued from death by the Madonna of Montevergine. I’ll write more about this in December and next February.

7) The city of El Alto in Bolivia holds the record of being the city at the highest altitude to hold an annual Pride celebration. El Alto is 4,150 metres above sea level. The next 3 highest Prides are also in Bolivia – in Potosi, Oruro and La Paz.

8) Retrospectively, the Sydney 2000 Olympics have been the most gender diverse so far. There were 67 lgbt athletes at the games identified by October 2019. They include many gay, lesbian and bisexual athletes, 3 female-to-male transgender athletes, 1 intersex athlete, and 1 athlete with androgen insensitivity syndrome.

9) There are features on the planet Mars that are named after the lgbt scientists Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton and James Pollack.

10) The first use of the swastika as a symbol of Aryan supremacy was by openly gay occultist and writer Alfred Schuler (1865-1923). He adopted this ancient symbol to represent racist ideology by 1904. Adolf Hitler attended one of Schuler’s lecture in the 1920s and was later adopted it for use by the Nazis.

11) Britannia, the female personification of Britain, was introduced by the gay Roman emperor Hadrian who wanted to create symbolic human personifications for each of his provinces across the empire.

12) Queer software engineer Emma Harulea Iwas broke the world record for the longest calculation of pi (if you remember your school maths) to 31 trillion digits. Of course she didn’t do it on her own. She used Google cloud (she works for Google) to perform the calculation which took 21 days to complete. The record was announced on 14th March 2019 (Pi Day).

13) It is generally believed that the first appearance in print of the word “gay” to mean homosexuality was in a poem by Gertrude Stein called “Miss Farr and Miss Sheene”. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, doubts this. The poem was written in 1910 but wasn’t published until 1922. The two Misses of the title were parodies of a real lesbian couple, artists Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire.

14) In November 2017 Palm Springs in California (population of about 49,000) was the first municipality in the USA (probably also the world) to elect a 100% openly lgbt council. Despite this campaign groups criticised the council for being all white. The town of Wilton Manors, Florida, elected an all-lgbt council a year later.

15) Openly gay Richard Quest, the British-born reporter for CNN, was a passenger on Singapore Airlines Airbus A359-900ULR when it broke the record as the world’s longest non-stop flight on 11th October 2018. The plane took 19 hours to fly from New York to Singapore.

16) The first religious commemoration of the birth of Christ (what became Christmas Day in the 11th century) was held by north African Christian sects called Gnostics in the 2nd century. The Roman Christian regarded them as heretics and didn’t celebrate Christmas at all. One of those Gnostic sects, the Carpocratians, believed that mankind perpetuated the sin of Adam and Eve with each generation. To eliminate that sin they practiced non-procreative sex - homosexuality. So Christmas really is a gay!

17) The Greek philosopher Parmenides was the first person to suggest the Earth was a sphere. Scientists didn’t believe him (they said the Earth was curved, not round). After Parmenides died his theory was championed by his protégé and lover Zeno. Scientists still didn’t believe it.

18) The first lgbt Oscar was won at the very first Oscar ceremony in 1928. Hollywood legend Janet Gaynor (1906-1984) won the award of Best Female Actor in a Leading Role for three films – “Seventh Heaven”, “Street Angel” and “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”. It wasn’t unusual to be nominated for more than one film in those early days. Janet Gaynor is believed to have been bisexual, and two of her three marriages are regarded as “lavender marriages” in which one or both spouses was married to disguise their sexuality from the press and the public.

19) Canadian doctor Robert Obara (b.1986) won the Mr. Gay Ireland title while studying at Trinity College, Dublin, in November 2012. In August 2013 he was voted Mr. Gay Europe. On 14th February 2014, St. Valentine’s Day, the Norwegian post office produced a special commemorative stamp featuring Robert that was sent out from the headquarters of the Mr. Gay Europe organisation in Oslo on that date. It is, therefore, one of the rarest postage stamps in history.

20) The lesbian motoring pioneer Baroness Hélène van Zuylen (1863-1947) was the first woman to compete in, and complete, an international motor race. In 1898 she entered the 1,431 km Paris-Amsterdam-Paris Trail.