Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Extraordinary Life: The Japanese Da Vinci - Part 1


Today the Japanese are celebrating something other then the Olympics. Today is the Midsummer Day of the Ox. On this day the Japanese celebrate the season by eating eels. I bet you thought that as it was the Day of the Ox that they’d be eating beef, but you’d be wrong. But there’s a simple explanation as to why eels are eaten, and legend says that that it’s all due to a gay inventor, engineer, writer, artist, ceramicist, pharmacist event organiser, marketing executive called Hiraga Gennai (1728-1780). It’s no surprise that some historians have labelled him the Japanese Leonardo da Vinci.

Hiraga Gennai’s life was so extraordinary, in some ways ahead of his time, that it needs two separate articles. Perhaps the most extraordinary fact about him is that he wrote books on farting! Today, however, I’ll concentrate on his early life, his rise to fame and his connection to the Midsummer Day of the Ox.

Let’s start, though, with the Day of the Ox. The day gets it name from its location in the Chinese calendar, which the Japanese used from the 6th century until 1873. Just like the Chinese New Year, the Midsummer Day of the Ox is not a fixed date and varies from year to year. The day was known to the Japanese for centuries, but how did eels become specifically associated with it?

There’s a traditional Japanese saying that says that if you eat eels on Midsummer Day of the Ox you won’t suffer from the heat, and it gets scorching hot in Japan at this time of year, as I’m sure we can tell by watching the Olympics.

The eels became important during the Edo Period (1603-1868). This is also called the Tokugawa Period because it was founded by the shoguns of the Tokugawa dynasty. This is a family that my most regular readers may remember from older articles. The fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), was the subject of this article I wrote in 2019. I also mentioned his father here.

During the hot summers of Tokugawa Period Japan eels were not eaten very often. It wasn’t regarded as a summer food. Eel vendors were finding it difficult and unpredictable to sell all their eels, and the price varied according to demand. A couple of generations after the above-mentioned shogun there was one eel vendor who complained about not knowing from one day to the next if he’ll have to throw away most of his unsold produce.

It is fortunate that this vendor turned to Hiraga Gennai for advice. Hiraga came up with an effective marketing strategy. He told the vendor to put up a sign outside his shop saying “Midsummer Day of the Ox”. Of course, everyone knew what day it was, but Hiraga suggested to the vendor that he promote the eating of eels to keep cool during the summer heat. The idea worked, and the vendor sold all his eels. After that, all the other eel vendors followed suit, and it soon turned into an annual tradition.

That’s the legend. There’s no real evidence that it happened like that but it illustrates the influence of Hiraga Gennai in Japanese culture, particularly his reputation as a product marketer. To this day historians aren’t sure why this marketing plan worked. So, how great was Hiraga? Is his reputation as a Japanese Leonardo da Vinci justified? I’ll take a closer look at these questions next week, but for today let’s look at his early life.

Hiraga was born into a samurai family of the Yamashita clan. His father was a manager in the rice warehouse of the Takamatsu daimyo (or feudal lord) and young Hiraga showed an early interest in plants and herbs. He studied medicinal herbs at Osaka and was then employed as a sort of pharmacologist in the herb garden of his daimyo.

In 1749, at the age of 21, Hiraga succeeded his father as warehouse manager. He spent two years studying in Nagasaki, where he came into contact with European merchants, specifically the Dutch. On his return to the rice warehouse he resigned and relinquished his position of head of his household to his brother-in-law.

After travelling and studying around Japan he gained a reputation as an intelligent scholar and was called upon by his daimyo to perform several official duties. Once again, Hiraga resigned. He was no what you could call an independent spirit, a ronin, a samurai not attached to any feudal lordship. He was not able to serve any official duty. This gave him the freedom to continue studying and travelling. He gained more experience of Dutch culture and this influenced his future career which, in turn, influenced Japanese culture.

It is from this time that Hiraga Gennai turned into one of the most extraordinary men in 18th century Japan. This will be the focus of part 2 of this look at this Japanese da Vinci, which will appear next week.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Tokyo: The Wait is Over

There’s going to be a lot of statistics in this article, so I apologise in advance if you get confused. The data is as correct as possible on Thursday 21st July 2021 at 7 a.m. GMT (UCT) +1.

With Cyd Ziegler of Outsports I have again compiled a list of openly lgbt athletes at the Olympics. Let’s call them Team Out. It’s a record number, and this is sure to increase as more athletes are identified. Check out the list here.

First, a comparison to the previous record-holding Olympics, the Rio 2016 games. Outsports published its first Rio list of 27 names on 11th July 2016. By the start of the games on 5th August it had 49, and at the end of the games it had 55. Since then, a lot of Rio athletes have come out and have been identified, so that today my complete list of lgbt Olympians who were at Rio is at 151.

Outsports’ first Tokyo 2020 list, published on 12th July, had 121 names, so records were being broken before the games started. Today, there are over 160 names.

There are over 90 Olympic newcomers, another record. Most newcomers are under 30 years old, all born during an era in which lgbt sport has been slowly gaining acceptance, though there is still a long way to go. Many young athletes are coming out during their college years rather than waiting until they’ve retired, as has often been the case in previous decades.

Let’s look to the returning Olympians and their previous performances. There are several ways of counting medals and places – by event or by individual athlete. For example, the official medal table counts team events as one medal, and doesn’t count each individual player in the team.

On the last day Rio 2016 a total of 25 individual members of Team Out (excluding those identified as lgbt after Rio) had won medals in 14 events (5 gold, 6 silver and 3 bronze). This placed them 17th in the final medal table. As of today, adding the athletes identified since Rio, Team Out is 8th, with 10 gold, 16 silver and 5 bronze medals in individual and team events (won by 59 athletes if you split team medals into individuals).

I’m going to make some predictions. There are 64 medal events in which members of Team Out are competing. I believe there will be at least 80 individual members of Team Out who will win a medal in 40 of those events. Predicting Team Out’s place on the final medal table (counting events, not individuals) I think it is probable that they will be ever higher than Rio’s 8th position.

Below are medal and placings tables for the returning Olympians. It shows how many medals they have won as individuals. It should not be compared to national medal tables which only count events, not individuals.

I’ve split the table into two. The first portion shows the medal winners and the second the non-medal winners. Both tables include each athlete’s position up to the 8th place. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) awards diplomas to athletes who finish in the top 8 in most sports. These diplomas are highly sought after by collectors and, depending on their condition and the athlete who received it, a diploma can fetch up to $1,000 US, more than some gold medals.

Even those athletes who don’t finish in the top 8 receive a participation medal, so no-one goes home empty handed. Last year I included the participation medal of gay Olympian Mark Chatfield when I painted his coat of arms.

So, the tables. The columns show the athlete’s name, nationality and sport, followed by the 8-place finishes.

The last two columns show the athlete’s place in the all-time summer lgbt Olympian medal table, then their place on the all-time lgbt Olympian medal table if you include the Winter Olympians. Let’s take Brittney Griner to explain those figures. Her last two columns show 49= (28) and 64= (33). The first means that she is in equal 49th position in the all-time summer list, and that she is one of 28 athletes with the same medals and placings. The second figure means Brittney is in equal 64th position among 33 athletes if you include the Winter Olympians. I hope that makes sense.






 


Several other facts before I go. The Brazilian footballer Miraildes Mota, commonly called “Formiga”, is making her 7th Olympic appearance, the record number of competitive appearances by an lgbt Olympian. She is probably the only Olympian to have competed in every tournament since her sport was introduced last century (women’s football, introduced 1996).

Formiga is also one of the two members of Tokyo’s Team Out who competed in an Olympic Games before 2000. The other is British dressage rider Carl Hester who first competed in 1992 (Tokyo is his 6th Olympics). Carl is also the current record holder as the oldest lgbt competitor (at 54) and the oldest lgbt medallist (a silver in Rio, aged 49).

If you see the opening ceremony try to stay awake long enough to see the flag-bearers. An innovation this year is for nations to have two flag-bearers if possible, one male and one female. There are five lgbt flag-bearers in the parade (Rio 2016 had 3) – Cecilia Carranza (Argentina), Andri Eleftheriou (Cyprus), Kellie Harrington (Ireland), Sue Bird (USA) and Yulima Rojas (Venezuela). Not only are they waving the flag for their nation but they are waving them as proud members of Team Out. Many gay men will be eagerly looking forward to Tonga’s flag bearer, the oiled-up muscle-boy from Rio 2016 and PyeongChang 2018. His predecessor at London 2012 was gay swimmer Amini Fonua (fully clothed). Amini probably won’t be in the parade tomorrow because his first race is the day after.

I’ll return to the medal table after the games and review some of the most significant events.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Dancing With the Spartans

Not long to go now before the Tokyo Olympics, so I thought I’d take a look at another of the many ancient Greek competitive festivals that I write about now and again.

Our modern period of late June and early July was the first month of the Spartan year. As such it was regarded as something special and the Spartans celebrated with a festival called Gymnopaedia. It was one of their most important festivals and, like the others, was marked with contests of physical prowess.

The Gymnopaedia is thought to have originated in about the year 668 BC. It was held in honour of the god Apollo (whose love affair with the Spartan Prince Hyakinthos gave rise to the Hyakinthia festival), as well as Artemis (goddess of the hunt and Apollo’s sister) and Leto (their mother).

Just a few years before the Gymnopaedia began, perhaps only a generation of two, Sparta had introduced pederasty – boy-love – as a social norm in their society. There’s a danger of confusing Spartan and Greek pederasty with the modern concept of homosexuality. For the Spartans, and the other Greek cultures that adopted it later, pederasty was part of a boy’s rite of passage into adulthood. Once a man (usually a soldier or athlete) had chosen one boy to mentor and assist in his progression through puberty and into adulthood with regular sex, the emotional bond of friendship that was formed would (or should) remain for the rest of their lives.

The very name Gymnopaedia probably illustrates its sexual nature. The name comes from the two Greek words “gymnos”, meaning naked, and “paedia”, meaning youth. Literally, “naked youth”. As was common in the festivals across Greece, contestants competed naked. Some historians have speculated that the Gymnopaedia became the most popular means by which Spartan men chose who was to be their boy-lovers. Another theory about the name is that contestants competed without arms or weapons.

To regard the Gymnopaedia as a sports festival like the modern Olympics will be only half correct. Originally there were no athletic contests – running, wrestling, chariot racing, that sort of thing. The focus was on choreographed war dances and songs. If a comparison has to be made, think of these performances as the ancient equivalent of rhythmic gymnastics, ironically, a sport (with synchronised swimming) in which there is no equivalent competition in the modern Olympics for men. Men are banned from these sports, yet women are banned from none – proof that the IOC’s claim of gender equality is hypocrisy.

The main dances of the Gymnopaedia were performed by boys up to the age of about 15. These boys would have already undergone some military training for several years. Their movements would mimic military stances, like the action of throwing a spear or wielding a sword. The movements were designed specifically to show off the boy’s physical appearance and grace. The military songs that accompanied them would tell of the heroic deeds of their ancestors and the gods. At other venues around Sparta other dances were performed by older age groups and men. These were more of a celebratory nature and not as competitive as the boys’ dances.

A bas relief showing soldiers performing what is known as a pyrrhic dance, a dance similar to that performed at the Gymnopaedia. This relief dates from the 1st century BC but is based on one from the 4th century BC. It is currently on display in the Vatican Museum.

Over the centuries more music, dances and athletic contests were added and the whole festival began to stretch over a week long. It became increasingly popular, not only with the Spartans but with other Greeks who came to watch as well – men only, of course, because women weren’t allowed to watch or compete. There was another group who weren’t allowed to watch. These were the agamoi, unmarried men over the age of 30. You can find out why in this article I wrote last year about the Spartan harvest festival, the Karneia.

The competitors were divided into groups with each area of Sparta represented by a team. Even though all participants in the Gymnopaedia were naked the team leaders were allowed to wear something – a crown of palm leaves. This is said to have been in honour of the Spartan victory at the Battle of Thyrea in 546 BC, an event which was often praised during the war songs. Although it has no real lgbt connection, other than the Spartan combatants had boy-lovers, the story of the battle is quite interesting.

The battle is also known as the Battle of the 300 Champions. This may remind you of the famous film about Spartans called “300”. The connection is tenuous – the battle got its name because each side, the Spartans and the Argives, decided that only 300 of their best soldiers should fight to the death. The last man standing was the victor.

The battle began at around mid-day. By dusk two Argive soldiers stood on the battlefield, looking around them at the carnage of 598 bodies around them. They limped back to their camp and claimed victory. However, back on the battlefield, one severely wounded Spartan soldier was still alive. He managed to rise to his feet and stagger back to his camp. The Spartans then claimed victory. The Argives were very angry and refused to accept that their victory had been disputed. They attacked the Spartans, who thrashed the Argives and sent them back home. The Spartans celebrated with their usual victory games.

The film “300” was about the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The Spartan leader was played by Gerard Butler. Let’s link “300” to the modern Olympics. On 13th March 2020, during the 2,500th anniversary year of the battle, Gerard Butler took part in the Olympic torch relay before it was stopped due to the covid pandemic. He ran with the torch into the centre of Sparta itself, lit the ceremonial cauldron and shouted his famous line “This is Sparta!” Sadly, he didn’t run naked like the ancient Greeks would have done in their various torch relays.

And with that I’ll leave ancient Greece and look forward to Tokyo 2020. Next Thursday I’ll preview the games with an overview of the known lgbt athletes who will be competing and a few comparisons to previous games. I’ll also look at the returning Olympians and how they stand in the all-time lgbt medal table. Two weeks after that I’ll look at the Tokyo results and see which of them rise and which of them fell in the table, and which Olympic newcomers made their mark.

Thursday, 8 July 2021

William and John: Part 3) William at Court

After looking at Sir John Clanvowe’s military career we turn today to the court career of his partner, Sir William Neville.

First of all, let’s look at Sir William’s marriage. It wasn’t what you could call a “marriage of convenience” as it might have been described in the 20th century, in which a marriage was arranged to hide the sexuality of one of the partners. Men we would regard as gay today would often marry and have children in pre-modern times. They didn’t think there was anything was wrong with that.

Sir William’s marriage was more of a political and financial marriage. As I mentioned in Part 1 when I described the childhoods of Sir William Neville and his male partner, William had little chance of inheriting substantial property or an income from his father, being the youngest of five sons. After plans for William to inherit the estates of his step-brother, Lord Greystoke, fell through, Lord Neville arranged for him to marry the heiress of manors spread across Yorkshire.

In 1366 William married Elizabeth le Waleys, the younger of the two daughters and coheirs of Stephen le Waleys, 2nd Baron Waleys. The elder daughter, Anora, died childless within two years and Elizabeth became sole heir to the family estates and "de facto" Baroness Waleys. This meant that William Neville now had an independent income and property through his wife (all property of a married woman usually belonged to the husband in those days). Elizabeth le Waleys was as well connected as her husband. Her father’s step-brother was the famous Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots.

As mentioned in part 2, Sir William Neville spent some time in France serving with the army during the Hundred Years War. When he returned to England he began a distinguished career at court. By this time his eldest brother Lord Neville, who had inherited their father’s title, had obtained the position of Lord Steward of the King's Household in late 1371. Probably through his brother's influence, Sir William succeeded his brother as Admiral of the North in 1372. This was one of the top naval commands in England. As Admiral of the North Sir William was responsible for all the fleet and ports north of the River Thames and naval activities in the North Sea.

In 1373 Sir William temporarily commanded the southern fleet that was appointed to patrol the Norman and Breton coasts and protect the English possessions there. Sir William anchored his fleet at St. Malo for several months and then he was called upon to go to the aid of his brother, Lord Neville. Lord Neville had been appointed ambassador to Brittany in June 1372 in order to negotiate an Anglo-Breton alliance. Brittany was subject to the French crown even though it was English support that had put the Duke of Brittany in power, as explained last time. The resulting alliance, not welcomed by the Breton lords, led to renewed rivalry between England and France. Lord Neville was appointed Captain of Brest and was given command of an English force. The French, under Bertrand du Guesclin, invaded Brittany and laid siege to Brest Castle. Lord Neville was accused of not providing sufficient military defence which led to the siege. This would taint Lord Neville’s reputation and be used against him three years later.

Lord Neville hoped that the army being assembled by Prince John of Gaunt, destined to form the "Grand Chevauchée" (see Part 2), would come to his aid. The army helped to keep the French at bay only temporarily. Sir William Neville's fleet carried an army which reinforced and restocked the Brest garrison. The Grand Chevauchée distracted some French forces away from Brest, but several other garrisons were still taken from the English.

By 1376 the war with France was not going well and people were putting some blame onto Lord Neville. As Lord Steward of the King’s Household he was also accused of helping the Lord Chamberlain to embezzle public funds. Later that year both the Lord Chamberlain and Lord Neville were impeached by parliament, even though the actual evidence of embezzlement against Neville was flimsy to say the least. This “Good” Parliament, as is it known, was called to address the many growing suspicions of corruption among the chief ministers of the old and frail King Edward III. The "Good" Parliament only deepened divisions, both at court and in the country. Sir William Neville seems to have escaped any suggestion that he profited from his brother's alleged actions. However, he was removed from his appointment of Admiral of the North in the same month as the impeachment. It wasn't long, however, before Lord Neville was reappointed Lord Steward by Prince John of Gaunt, who had by now become the chief minister of the country.

King Edward III died on 21st June 1377. His grandson Richard, Prince of Wales, succeeded as King Richard II at the age of 10. Sir William Neville had been appointed to the household of Richard just six months earlier. The succession of a 10-year-old boy as king led to politicians and royal relatives vying to ensure that the king's voice was theirs. Richard's own voice on matters was hardly ever heard, but he was personally responsible for the decision to keep Sir William Neville in his service after his accession, perhaps even making him a Gentleman of the Chamber at that time also.

By 1378 both Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe were favoured members of King Richard's court. Both were King's Knights and in regular attendance on Richard. They had become members of an inner circle of friends which the young king gathered around himself. Their positions of trust was recognised by their additional appointments as Knights of the Chamber by 1381. This brought them even closer to the king than the Privy Council and indicates how much King Richard must have trusted in their confidence.

A few historians believe that by this time Sir William and Sir John had formed a close personal bond. On John's return from the French wars they would have had ample opportunity to meet at court. As the years passed their names appear together in court records more and more often, and chroniclers of their time even begin to acknowledge an unusually close bond between them. They continued to have their separate lives and appointments; Sir William and his wife Elizabeth with their estates in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, and Sir John with his appointments in Herefordshire and the Welsh borders. But they always managed to be together at court sessions and as the King’s Knights of the Chamber, which would be for six weeks at a time on a regular basis.

During their time at King Richard’s court they would have mingled with the other courtiers, and that included the famous poet Geoffrey Chaucer. He became a close friend of both Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe. It was through this friendship that Chaucer and Sir John came up with the idea of St. Valentine’s Day as a day of romance, something that had not happened in history before. The story of how they created it is told here.

It was also at about this time that Sir William Neville acquired his connection to Nottingham Castle and Sherwood Forest. In Part 4 I’ll delve further into their time in Nottingham and how I believe Sir John Clanvowe came up with the oldest surviving ballad featuring a hero well-known across England at the time – Robin Hood.

Friday, 2 July 2021

Britain's Roswell

Today is World UFO Day. Whether you believe in the existence of flying saucers and interplanetary aliens or not you can be sure that someone you have met will claim to have seen one.

US Intelligence stated earlier this month that the much anticipated report on UFOs, due to be released soon, will say that there’s no evidence of Earth having been visited by aliens, but it doesn’t rule it out. A few weeks ago it was revealed that a telescope in Canada had been picking up a series of intense bursts of radio waves since 2007 that some scientists (not working on that telescope) have claimed come from an intelligent extraterrestrial source.

Almost two years ago I wrote about Ralph Noyes (1923-1998), a gay Ministry of Defence (MoD) official who became an authority on crop circles. I mentioned he was also head of Defence Secretariat 8, the MoD department that dealt with UFO sightings.

You can guarantee that the name Roswell will crop up in most discussions of UFOs and aliens. It you’re not aware of the name, Roswell is the place in New Mexico, USA, where a US Army Air Force weather balloon crashed in 1947. That’s the official version. It is also claimed to have been an alien spacecraft, and that its alien occupants were taken to the airbase. This has led to various conspiracy theories, not to mention dozens of very profitable books and movies.

In 1980 the UK had its own “Roswell” incident. With Ralph Noyes’ experience dealing with reports of UFOs at the MoD and his subsequent involvement in ufology he was called upon to provide comments on any UFO encounter. His opinion was highly valued.

The British Roswell, as it has been called, has been given several names – the Bentwaters Case, the Woodbridge Case – but the most often used is the Rendlesham case. As the map below illustrates all names are equally valid.

As far as the “facts” are concerned the most important piece of evidence is the memorandum submitted to the MoD on 13th January 1981 by Charles Halt. At the time Halt was a Lt.-Col. in the US Air Force and Deputy Base Commander of the USAF detachments at RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge. He was an eye witness to some of the events.

At about 3 a.m. on 26th December 1980 patrolmen at the east gate of RAF Woodbridge saw lights in the adjoining Rendlesham Forest and they thought an aircraft may have crashed. Patrolmen who were sent to investigate saw a glowing object that illuminated a large part of the forest. It was metallic and triangular, about 3 meters across as its base and 2 meters in height. There was a pulsing red light on top and blue lights underneath. It seemed to be hovering, but as the patrolmen approached the object retreated into the trees and disappeared.

In the light of day some depressions in the ground were found over the place where the object seemed to hover. But more was to come. In the late night of 29th December several USAF personnel, including Lt.-Col. Halt, saw a pulsing red light in the forest. It seemed to split into five pieces and disappeared. Then three “star-like” objects appeared in the sky, darting around, flashing red, green and blue lights. They were observed for several hours.

Much more detail has been added over the years by other witnesses, journalists and investigators, some true, some false, but I needn’t go into them today. The Rendlesham Case is well documented on the internet if you’d like to learn more. I am also aware of a previous incident involving RAF Woodbridge in 1956, but that is also not pertinent today.

So what was Ralph Noyes’ opinion of the Rendlesham Case? It should be noted that he had left the MoD by 1980 so wouldn’t have had access to any documents filed at the time and wasn’t involved in an official investigation. While at the MoD he couldn’t question or criticise decisions made by his superiors, but once he had left he was able to pose those questions freely.

The Rendlesham Case became public three years after the incident. A US Freedom of Information request revealed Lt.-Col. Halt’s memorandum, and the British media exploded with their own investigations. Ralph Noyes examined the available documents and came to the conclusion that the Rendlesham Case was a genuine UFO encounter. He was concerned that the MoD officially declared the case as “of no defence interest”, meaning they didn’t think it was important and nothing more than mistaken identity of some natural phenomenon.

In 1985 Ralph wrote to David Alton, a prominent Liberal Party MP, who raised the Rendlesham verdict with the Secretary of State for Defence, Conservative Party MP Michael Heseltine. Alton said that Ralph’s concerns over the official investigation “merit a reply”. Neither Ralph nor David Alton got a satisfactory response.

Also in 1985 Ralph published a novel called “A Secret Property” which he acknowledged was based on the Rendlesham Case. This led to speculation that the novel told the “truth” of a government cover-up and conspiracy – fuel to the fire for any ufology conspiracy theorist.

A couple of years later Ralph wrote an essay in “The UFO Report”, a collection of UFO essays edited by Timothy Good. Ralph’s essay, “UFO Lands in Suffolk – And That’s Official”, was a direct quote from the headline in the News of the World (a discredited and discontinued Sunday tabloid newspaper) that was splashed all over its front page when Rendlesham was made public.

In his essay Ralph emphasised the importance of the Rendlesham Case in British ufology. He went on to analyse Halt’s memorandum to the MoD and aspects of supporting and sceptic theories behind the incident. His conclusion was that Rendlesham Forest was visited by an unidentified object that was seen by reliable witnesses. He ruled out the most often quoted source for the pulsing lights – a lighthouse that was about 5 miles away – and believed that the MoD did not treat the incident with the seriousness it deserved.

Theories about the Rendlesham Case still abound. Lt.-Col. Charles Case, now retired, continues to talk about the incidents he witnessed. Whatever you think about the case it will remain one of the most mysterious and important UFO encounters in British history, made more significant by the opinion and analysis of Ralph Noyes, the most high profile gay ufologist in the UK at the time.

Sunday, 27 June 2021

A Queer Nation

When I’ve been researching my “Games of Gay Thrones” articles I’ve come across self-identified sovereigns of micronations, those regions, homes, or occasionally a room, in which a resident has declared independence but is not recognised any national government. I wondered if I should include them in the “Gay Thrones” articles, but decided that are best left for a separate article (in the future).

What these lgbt micronations led to was research into queen nationalism and the various attempts over the years to set up a “gay nation”. The idea of queer nationalism arose in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York, which is being commemorated tomorrow.

The term “queer nation” probably derives from a couple of articles written by Allan Bérubé, Jeffrey Escoffier and Alexander Chee that were published in the winter 1971 issue of “Out/Look: the National Lesbian and Gay Quarterly”. While the word “nation” implies some form of independent sovereign state or collective community identity it has also been applied to campaigns and communes that were set up which remained within the established national body in which they were located (organised as self-governing communities within the USA, for example).

The first proper lgbt micronation (if an area of 3,095 square kilometers can be said to be “micro”) that declared full independence in 2005 from its mother nation was the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands, and Australian territory on which a small group of activists campaigning for same-sex marriage laid claim to sovereignty. I’ve written a bit more about this micronation here.

Just as few months after the Stonewall Riots an attempt was made to create a self-governing lgbt community, which would probably have been called the Stonewall Nation (there’s no record of that name being used at the time) in the USA. The location chosen was an area of 1,920 square kilometres (bigger than Singapore and Bahrain combined) though it had a resident population of less than 500.

This proposed gay nation was to be set up in Alpine County, California, the least populated county in the state. That’s one reason why this particular location was chosen, which I’ll come to later. But its location was perhaps the biggest obstacle to it becoming viable also. Alpine County is, as its name suggests, a snowy, remote area 3,000 kilometers up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, just at the “elbow” of the California/Nevada state border.

So, who decided this should become the world’s first lgbt-governed nation and why? To do that we have to go to a dream that Don Jackson (1932-1998), a journalist and activist, had in the summer of 1969. In this dream someone he knew who had recently died stood with him on a mountain top and showed him an idyllic valley and settlement below. For Don this was a vision of a gay nation and he formulated an idea. Looking around for somewhere to establish this nation he spotted Alpine County.

At that time a new California Supreme Court ruling stated that anyone could register as a voter in any county if they had been resident there for more than 90 days. That would make it easy for a relatively small group of lgbt people to move there, become the majority community and vote themselves into public office and control the legislature, thereby becoming a “gay nation”.

Don presented his idea at the West Coast Gay Liberation Conference in Berkeley, California, on 28th December 1969. There was some positive reaction and Don began working on plans to recruit “pilgrims” to his Alpine County Project, as he called it, and the pilgrims were soon to be called Alpioneers.

To make his project viable Don needed the support of gay rights organisations. The Los Angeles chapter of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF-LA) gave their backing, with Morris Kight and Don Kelhefner as the leaders. They persuaded Jackson to make the project public by informing the mainstream California press with an open appeal for volunteers to join the project.

At a hastily-organised press conference Kilhelfner announced that over 400 people had already volunteered to settle in Alpine County, including doctors, teachers and lawyers. It was revealed a few months later that this was a deliberate “mistruth”.

There was the obvious response from the residents of Alpine County to the project. They had not been consulted. They saw the project as a hostile takeover. The national press hyped up the opposition, and a right-wing Presbyterian minister from New Jersey ranted about the project on his weekly radio programme.

The majority of Alpine County’s 500 residents met in Markleeville, the county’s main town, to discuss the situation. Some suggested merging with the neighbouring county to increase the population and make it harder for the Alpioneers to become the majority. Some said the settlers would soon realise how bad the weather was for most of the year and soon return to the warm, sunny coast from where they had come.

GLF-LA sent three of its members to Markleeville to assess the area (why no-one had bothered to do this at the start is one example of how badly organised the project was). It wasn’t long after this that one of the trio found out that Kight and Kilhefner had no intention of supporting the project through to the end and were treating the whole thing as a big joke. To them it was just a publicity stunt to promote GLF-LA and raise awareness of other issues.

When Don Jackson got to hear of this he felt devastated, betrayed, angry and humiliated. Kilhefner admitted that everything at the press conference was a lie – there were no volunteers, doctors, lawyers or teachers. Gradually, many members of GLF-LA who had believed and supported the Alpine County Project left, also feeling somewhat betrayed. With this revelation the project screeched to a halt. Within a couple of years GLF-LA had been disbanded (though this was a nationwide trend among other GLF groups during this period).

The residents of Alpine County breathed a sign of relief, though a couple of business owners lamented the loss of some expected increase in custom - and profits.

Don Jackson, although somewhat disheartened by the experience, didn’t abandon his dream of a gay nation just yet. He made another attempt to set up a gay commune in the ghost town of Bankhead Springs near San Diego, but that too, along with several other attempts by other groups to create a gay nation, came to nothing. But those are different stories for another day.

Monday, 21 June 2021

The Controversy of the Lustful Nuns

Wouldn’t it be nice of historians agreed on everything? Sadly, politics, prejudice and (quite often) personalities get in the way. This has been the case since the down of historiography. Queer interpretations are often open to criticism, as illustrated when I’ve written about historical people being outed.

A historical figure to be given a queer identity recently is a little-known saint from a little-known (though not insignificant, with almost 36 million worshippers) Christian church. The saint lived in 17th century Ethiopia but her hagiography (saint biography) wasn’t widely available until it was first translated and published in 1912.

The saint is called Walatta Petros (1592-1642). This is an English transliteration of her name in her native Ge’ez language and means “Daughter of Peter” (St. Peter). She was born into an aristocratic, land-owning family. Her family were courtiers of the Negusa Nagast (or King of Kings, I’ll use the title emperor) of Ethiopia. Walatta Petros was briefly married as a young girl to a man who was killed by the emperor. Shortly after 1607 she was married again to one of the imperial counsellors and they had three children. Sadly, all three children died in infancy, and afterwards Walatta Petros decided to become a nun.

Portrait of Walatta Petros from a manuscript located in one of her monasteries, 1716-21.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations in Africa, adhering to the Coptic faith founded in the 3rd century. Over the centuries, as with other beliefs, factions and sects broke away from the main church. The church to which Walatta Petros worshipped is now called the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which was granted separate status from the Coptic Church in the 4th century at about the same time that the Roman Empire became Christian.

Portuguese Jesuit missionaries of the Roman Catholic Church went to Ethiopia in the 15th century to convert the country to Catholicism. The emperor was converted but there was unrest in the country as he attempted to ban and persecute the Coptic and Orthodox churches and Walatta Petros’s husband was sent to fight the “rebels”. Tewahedo priests helped Walatta Petros to leave her husband and join them in their monastery.

Shortly afterwards her husband led an attack on “rebels” in the town surrounding the monastery. Walatta Petros refused to return to her husband to stop the attack. She did, however, return to her home, only to find that her husband supported the murder of the Tewahedo patriarch (archbishop). That was the final straw, and she devoted the rest of her life to her faith from 1617.

Walatta Petros and the Tewahedo clergy protested against their persecution. She was summoned before the emperor twice charged with preaching orthodoxy and treason. Her family persuaded the emperor not to execute her and she was banished for three years.

From 1621 Walatta Petros founded several communities for Tewahedo worshippers who wanted to get away from the Catholic persecution. She became their spiritual leader and abbess. The emperor eventually accepted religious diversity and restored Orthodoxy as the national faith. He then abdicated.

Walatta Patros died at the age of 50 in 1642. She became one of the few female worshippers to be regarded as a saint in the Tewahedo Orthodox Church.

So, where does the controversy over her life come in? It’s all due to what a Tewahedo monk wrote in her hagiography in 1672. Most obviously, there’s a section which recounts a scene from Walatta Petros’s life in which she accidentally encounters a group of nuns having sex. She is very angry at seeing this. This has been a focus for debate ever since the hagiography was first published. Some historians and religious figures have taken the words literally while others have taken them metaphorically.

Medieval hagiographies often had allegorical and metaphorical stories of saints fighting against various temptations, whether in the form of monsters or people. In the case of Walatta Petros and the “lustful nuns” it is accepted that it was a real event in her life. But a more recent debate/controversy puts the lustful nuns into the shadows.

In 2005, an authority on Ethiopian Christian Orthodoxy, Sevir Černecov, in the last article published in his lifetime, became the first to suggest a non-gender-conforming nature to Walatta Petros’s life. This was picked up by several American historians, in particular Dr. Wendy Belcher of Princeton University who gave a series of lectures in 2014 which went further to suggest that Walatts Petros had a romantic, non-sexual relationship with her companion, a fellow nun called Ehata Kristos.

You can imagine the criticism from the Tewahedo and other Orthodox churches. Historians, too, expressed disagreement, as they often do with queer history, as much as any priest. One historian took a particularly critical view of Wendy Belcher’s lectures and her subsequent publication about the Walatta Petros hagiography. Dr. Belcher makes it clear in the lengthy introduction to her book that interpretations of past events and the words used when translating foreign languages, such as the Ge’ez language that the original hagiography is written in, is challenging.

Last year Dr. Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes of Curtin University, Australia, and an authority on Ethiopian history, published an article (at 90 pages long it’s more of a mini thesis) in which he criticised Wendy Belcher and her collaborator Michael Kleiner for not attempting to understand the Ge’ez language, or at least not knowing the language well enough to translate and interpret the original hagiography properly. He also accused them of deliberate racist and sexualisation of Walatta Petros’s life.

Belcher and Kleiner both wrote responses to Woldeyes’ attack on them, for that’s how his criticism reads. Their responses are both published on Dr. Belcher’s website here and here and go into more detail about the relationship between Walatta Petros and Ehata Kristos.

The relationship between the two women has never identified as a sexual one by Dr. Belcher, despite claims by Dr. Woldeyes. History is full of non-sexual romantic same-sex partnerships. The most well-known version is the Boston Marriage, a term used to describe female companions who lived together, so-called because there were several such romantic female couples living in and around Boston, USA, in the 19th century. Within historical monastic communities, whether male or female, non-sexual partnerships are known (St. Francis of Assisi, for example). Encounters like Walatta Petros and the “lustful nuns” are relatively rare.

The fact that Walatta Petros fell in love with another woman and remained celibate seems difficult for some in the sex-obsessed world of modern lgbt culture to understand. The lgbt community, people of faith, and critics of religion should stop equating love with sex – the medieval Christian Church did, why can’t they?