Friday 29 March 2013

A Salute to the Leather Ladies

Thinking about last month’s posts on the International Mr Bear contest and leather community flags I realised that I could do a feature combining parts of both. So here is a post about a female leather contest for Women’s History Month – the International Ms Leather contest (IMsL). This is also in celebration of this contest, being only a few weeks before the next IMsL contest is held from April 18th, and a tribute to Joann Lee, one of the founders of the contest, who died on 26th October last year.

The first major contest for female leather-lovers was held on 5th September 1981 in San Francisco organised by Samois, the world’s first women’s sado-masochist (s/m) fetish group. Many in the feminist movement of that era, being vocal in their opposition to female beauty contests, were also vocal in their opposition to female involvement in s/m claiming that such activity was male-dominated and run purely for male pleasure. Fortunately, many women ignored such views of the female leather community and it continued to grow.

Many male leather clubs around America were the first to hold small, local female leather contests because there were very few women’s leather clubs around at the time. The male leather community embraced this new dimension to the scene. Another reason was because of the AIDS crisis which was building into a major threat to the community. Like other parts of the lgbt community it was lesbian groups who were among the first to support the gay victims of the disease and raised thousands of dollars for them. The gay community was, perhaps, in too much of a state of shock to handle the crisis on their own.

In the mid-1980s the whole community was experiencing a back-lash of public opinion on the basis of AIDS and it was a combination of a desire to create a united positive community spirit and a meaningful charitable fund-raising effort that led to a group of leather-lovers in San Francisco getting together in 1986 to organise a one-off contest, the first International Ms Leather (IMsL) the following year. The steering committee were :
Kathy Gage – perhaps the first to suggest such a contest;
Joann Lee – nurse, and s/m activist;
Alan Selby – owner of Mr S. Leather Store;
Gayle Rubin – co-founder of Samois and feminist academic;
JimEd Thompson – model and editor of “Action Male” magazine;
Chris Burns – gay porn actor and JimEd’s partner;
Patrick Toner – International Mr Leather 1985;
and Christian Haren – actor and model (recognisable to readers of my generation as “The Marlboro Man”).

In the first IMsL contest there were 16 contestants from across north America representing the full diversity of sexualities found within the leather community itself. The contest had full support from Chuck Renfrow, the owner-producer of International Mr Leather, and from Outcasts, the successor to the Samois group, who acted as volunteers. The first IMsL was Judy Tallwing McCarthy.

This one-off event was so successful that plans were begun to turn it into an annual event. The contests were held in San Francisco for the next 7 years. By that time the committee, which had changed little since day one, found it increasingly harder to organise the event and were in need of new blood before the contest died altogether. International Ms Leather 1993, Amy Marie Meek, stepped forward to take up the reigns as owner-producer.

The biggest change Amy brought was to host the contest in a different city each year, starting with Chicago in 1995. Over the years the contest grew into a full weekend event with extra attractions, parties, ceremonies, and fairs. In 2002 costs were getting rather high and the committee decided to base the contest in Omaha, Nebraska, for the foreseeable future to help keep costs down.

Amy Marie Meek handed over ownership of IMsL to Glenda Rider in 2006. Glenda brought the contest back to its original home of San Francisco in 2007.

The IMsL contest continues to attract thousands from around the world. Many thousands of dollars have been raised for diverse causes – from AIDS charities to the Girl Scouts, from theatre groups to animal rescue shelters.

To end my little tribute to International Ms Leather and celebrate the coming contest on 18th April here is a complete list of IMsL winners. Good luck to all contestants.

1987  Judy Tallwing McCarthy
1988  Shan Carr
1989  Suzie Shepherd
1990  Gabrielle Antolovich
1991  Kim Hallenger
1992  Blair Kituhwa
1993  Amy Marie Meek
1994  Anne Bergstedt (resigned Sept.)
1994  Cindy Bookout
1995  Pat Baillie
1996  Jill Carter
1997  Genelle Moore
1998  Megan Dejarlais Martin
1999  Pam Meyer
2000  Jo Blas
2001  Joni Perrie
2002  Russ Cosgrove
2003  Tammie
2004  Lori Ellison
2005  Jess Holmanahart
2006  Lady Faye
2007  Lauren Ide
2008  Hobbit
2009  Lamalani
2010  Mollena (Mo) Williams
2011  Sara Vibes
2012  Synn Evan

Tuesday 26 March 2013

On Track to the Outgames - Part 4

Very soon after the creation of the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association (GLISA), the sanctioning body of the Outgames, several sub-groups were formed to cover lgbt sport in separate continents – North America, Asia-Pacific, Europe and Africa. These were also to organise smaller Outgames in their continents in the same way that the long established EuroGames had been doing in Europe. With a large concentration of GLISA members being based in North America the obvious choice to try out the first of these continental Outgames was in North America in 2007.

Having come to that decision GLISA looked around for someone to organise the games. Luckily there were several small multi-sport events throughout north America that could become the central core without having to organise an event from scratch.

The ideal candidate was found north of the 49th parallel in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Calgary was the home of the longest running annual sport event in north America, the Western Cup, and 2007 was going to be its 25th anniversary. The tournament is traditionally held over the Easter weekend, which means that this year’s Western Cup starts in 2 days time. When GLISA approached the organisers of the Western Cup, Apollo Friends in Sport, they jumped at the chance.

Apollo: Friends in Sport began in 1987 when a group of gay men in Calgary wanted to start a sporting social group. It wasn’t long before Apollo members started talking about holding a tournament. To give an extra thrill of competition Apollo sent an invitation to a similar group in Edmonton, the provincial capital, to play against them. The invitation was accepted and the first Western Cup tournament took place. There were only 3 sports held at the first one badminton, bowling and volleyball. It was a resounding success.

Over the following years the Western Cup became a popular annual fixture at Easter. Early on it attracted the attention of Tourism Calgary, who were enthusiastic supporters of the tournament. Other non-lgbt-based groups and athletes were equally as enthusiastic at becoming involved, and were (and still are) welcomed. Many straight athletes from Canada and the USA have competed. Despite this popularity Apollo Friends in Sport resisted the temptation to over-push its resources too early and not produce a much bigger event. The core has always been the local community, a handful of sports, and forging new friendships.

When GLISA North America awarded the first continental Outgames to Apollo on 7th December 2006 they also envisages a conference and cultural festival to accompany it, as had happened at the first World Outgames. And so the OutRights conference and the OutFest cultural events were born. The specially created Calgary Outgames Legacy committee enlisted the help of local organisations to produce these events.

Calgary already had a highly successful annual film festival, the Fairytales International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and it’s organisers were asked to produce a larger events – Out Fest – to include theatre, music, art and poetry. Comedian Lily Tomlin was a headliner in a one-woman show.

The conference, OutRights, was given to the AIDS Calgary Awareness Association (on a semi-irrelevant side note, John Bonnycastle, Chair of the Board of Directors 2000-2, and nephew of a Canadian Olympic figure skater, is a fellow descendant of King Edward II). Using the Montréal Outgames conference as a template OutRights explored some of the issues raised more deeply with an emphasis on how they relate to North America. One of the keynote speakers was Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew who was murdered in a homophobic hate attack.

The Outgames themselves expanded on the Western Cup’s core sports. Over 500 athletes competed in badminton, bowling, curling, running, swimming, volleyball and ice hockey. Complete results for most of the sports are difficult to find (any information that will help complete my database will always be most welcome).

Centrepiece of most multi-sport events is athletics. In Calgary it was one of the smaller events. It did, however, attract runners from across North America. It also saw the highest-profile straight athlete take part. After the Mayor of Calgary declared a “Calgary Outgames Week” for the run of the event, it was Deputy Mayor Joe Ceci who won a silver medal in the 10 kilometre race – “There are not that many people running against me in the over-50 age category”, he said.

Following on from the success of the first North American Outgames the Western Cup tournament built on the legacy of the games. The increased publicity ensured that there was a large attendance and more social events were organised.

GLISA had little time to sit back on its laurels. The Asia-Pacific group was already gearing up to produce the first Asia-Pacific Outgames in Melbourne, Australia, in 2008. These will be featured in my next Outgames post next month.

As I said earlier the 31st Western Cup is being held this weekend. I extend my best wishes to all those who are competing or attending.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Rock Solid Couple

In the world of science there have been a handful of significant moments that have become iconic – Newton’s apple, Archimedes’ “eureka” bath, Armstrong on the Moon. What about the most earth-moving scientific discovery of the 20th century – continental drift? Why does it not have a defining moment? It’s probably because continental drift has been a series of discoveries made over many years building up the evidence to give the full picture. From the earliest theories to the present day many scientists have contributed to the story. Among the most significant was Allan Cox.

Cox was fortunate in having John Verhoogen as a mentor at the University of California in the 1950s because Verhoogen was one of the very few scientists who believed in continental drift. Rather than be derided for researching and studying a ridiculous theory both men worked on another shared interest – rock magnetism. This was to provide the best evidence to help prove that continental drift existed.

Lava contains molecules of magnetic elements. The earth’s magnetic field aligns these molecules like little magnets, and when the lava cools they become fixed in position. Over the millennia the earth’s magnetic field has switched – sometimes the magnetic north pole has been at the geographical south pole. The microscopic mini-magnets retain their original north-south polarity in solid rock whenever the switch occurs.

During the 1960s Cox published many scientific papers on the subject. But the problem was how often, and for how long, did the pole reversals last? Imagine you know nothing about the calendar – what you have are 50 random mixed-up pages from a 365-day diary, but you don’t know how many days there are in a week or in which order, and neither for the months also. That was Cox’s challenge – to put data he collected from rocks of all geological ages from around the world into the correct order using the rocks' magnetism to create a time-line. He and his colleagues, Richard Doell and Brent Dalrymple, came up with a theoretical time-line known as the Cox-Doell-Dalrymple Calendar. Then he found his "365-page diary" with most of the data in complete sequence – the mid-Atlantic ocean ridge. Now Allan could see which rock sample matched the magnetism in the complete Atlantic sequence.

As the mid-ocean ridge spreads it produces magnetic molecules in the magma which fix into position as the rock cools, so from South America to Africa there is a complete continuous record of rock magnetism covering many millions of years. The poles switch, and this is recorded forever in the rock molecules. Measurements of the sea floor revealed a series of strips of magnetic reversal in rocks running down either side of the mid-ocean ridge. On the simplified diagram here it looks like a lot of zebra stripes running down the Atlantic floor. The mid-ocean ridge is the peak in the middle from which the ocean floor spreads outwards. The black and white stripes indicate when the poles switch. If the diagram was animated, and the pole switched again, then a new white stripe would begin to appear at the central ridge. No scientist could doubt continental drift now.

In a way Allan Cox’s geological career began with the study of other slow-moving objects – glaciers. In 1950 he got a summer job with the US Geological Survey as a field assistant to the senior geologist Clyde Wahrhaftig. They were studying glacial activity in Alaska.

Clyde was seen as a hard task-master by some of his field assistants and students. But this was because of the enthusiasm he had for the subject. His indoor lectures were quite dull, yet his teaching came alive in the field and it inspired Cox and many others to take up geology professionally.

His enthusiasm for outdoor teaching spread into publishing a tour of San Francisco’s geological features using public transport called “Streetcar to Subduction” (Clyde hated fast cars and planes, he never learnt to drive, and wasn’t keen on the over-reliance on fossil fuels). He also wrote a walking geology tour of the city.

The environmental side of his work was used extensively, most prominently in the area of forest management which utilised his studies on the effects of soil erosion and deforestation. In 1971 he became Chair of the Environment and Public Police committee of the Geological Society of America (GSA). He also became the first Chair of the GSA’s Minority Participation in the Earth Sciences committee the same year.

At that time Clyde was a closeted gay man. His devotion to his career helped get him through the self-doubt and worries that most gay men were going through. For quite a while he and Allan Cox were in a relationship which was kept secret until after Cox’s death. Clyde didn’t come out until he was awarded the GSA’s Distinguished Career Award in 1989. He used his acceptance speech to come out and urge the geological world to accept gay students without bias.

Clyde Wahrhaftig died on the 6th April 1994 of heart failure aged 74. Allan Cox died 7 years before. In 1986 Cox was accused of having improper relations with a teenage boy and was under police investigation. It is possible that Cox decided to take his own life, for there has yet to be a good reason why, on 27th January 1987, he decided to ride his bicycle down a steep road, steer off, and hit a redwood tree. He was 61. The exact circumstances don’t support an accidental death theory.

The legacy of both Allan and Clyde live on because of their research. Both men provided evidence that effect the way we look at the world today – whether forest management or plate tectonics. Both men were recognised by the scientific world for their contribution to science, and both received many awards for their work during their life time.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Heritage Spotlight - Lesbian Herstory Archives

When I started trawling the internet for lgbt resources one of the first websites I came across was that of the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA). It is the best heritage site I can think of to celebrate International Women’s History Month. I have often visited the website for ideas, both for this blog and for exhibition material. If you visit the website for the first time, go to the “History and Mission” page here.

Rather than go over the history/herstory of the LHA as contained on its website I thought I’d look at the women who founded it. Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel are often mentioned as main co-founders. Three other women deserve a credit also, and indeed they do on some websites – Julia Stanley, Sahli Cavallaro and Pamela Oline. No doubt there were others who played their part in the creation of the archives, but space restricts me to these five.

Most of the founders were members of the Gay Academic Union, formed in 1972 by some staff and former students at the City University of New York. The home of the LHA for 15 years was the personal home of Joan Nestle and Barbara Edel in Manhattan. During this time their home was open to all visitors to the archives and it kept growing in size. By the 1980s larger premises were needed and the archives moved to its present home in Brooklyn.

Joan Nestle is an award-winning writer and novelist who has been active in human rights issues since the 1950s. An aspect of lesbian culture which Joan has always striven to highlight are the misconceptions surrounding butch/femme relationships, especially femme lesbians who are often stereotyped as submissive and secondary in any relationship. The butch/femme scenario plays a major role in her novels which she began writing after becoming too ill for her work. Joan was diagnosed with cancer twice and turned to writing as a way to “reclaim my body that was my enemy during the throes of illness”. The most recent diagnosis was in 2001. Joan decided to move to Australia where her partner is a law professor at the University of Melbourne.

Deborah Edel was Joan’s partner when the Lesbian Herstory Archives were created. During the first years of the LHA Deborah and Joan went around local groups giving talks about the archives, carrying around bags full of magazines, photos and letters as illustrations of the sort of thing they hoped people would donate to the archives. Deborah was born into the world of academia. Both of her parents, and her step-mother, were academics. She studied to be an educational psychologist and worked with children with learning difficulties and behavioural problems right up to her retirement last year. Deborah spent most of her career at the Quaker-run Mary McDowell Friends School in Brooklyn.

Julia Stanley, later Julia Penelope, was among the first to discuss with Joan Nestle the fragile nature of the heritage of the lesbian culture in the 1970s, with its male-centred gay rights movement being so dominant at the time. From this discussion grew the idea of a permanent lesbian archive. Julia was, perhaps, the most “radical” of the 5 co-founders and her forthright views on the place lesbian-feminists should have in society put her at odds with some other activists and theorists. Julia was a prolific writer in the 1990s, though by 1999 she had become frustrated with the direction lesbian-feminism had taken and stopped writing. Instead she became a freelance editor. By profession Julia was a linguist and often gave lectures on the use of language in sexual and racial identity. She was a member of the Modern Language Association. After settling in Texas Julia ran for Congress as a Green candidate. Julia died last month at the age of 71.

Sahli Cavallaro was a founding member of the Women’s Caucus of the Gay Academic Union. Some of the female members felt that the Union was becoming too male-dominated and sexist and that there was a need to have a separate lesbian group. At this Women’s Caucus several founders of the LHA first met to discuss creating the archives. Sahli earned her doctorate in psychology and spent some time working as a peer counsellor at Identity House, New York’s longest continuously running support centre. After working at The Chakra Garden, a centre for mind and body healthcare and counselling, Sahli headed across country to the Sonoma Mountain Zen Centre in California. She has a keen interest in Zen philosophy and practices several eastern martial arts, including karate and zen archery.

Pamela Oline was, like Sahli Cavallaro, a peer counsellor at New York’s Identity House. She was also a member of the Feminist Therapy Referral Collective, a counselling and support organisation formed to help women to become more independent in the male-dominated society of the 1970s. Pamela is the most elusive of the 5 co-founders of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and I have no definite information about her most recent activities, and more information about Pamela would be most appreciated.

Monday 18 March 2013

Queer Achievement - Rock Solid Arms

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

In 2007 the industrial world was rocked (pun intended) by the revelation that Sir John Browne, Lord Browne of Madingley, the head of BP, failed in his attempt to get a court injunction preventing his former boyfriend from publishing personal details of their relationship. It was one of the most public coming out stories of recent times.

Lord Browne had been at BP since 1966 and had already announced he would retire in 2008, but his failed court injunction and the subsequent charges of perjury against him led to his resignation in 2007.

Lord Browne’s coat of arms give several clues to his family background and career, but first I must admit to an omission. As a baron Lord Browne has heraldic supporters – animals or people on either side of the shield who look as though they’re holding it up, just like the lion and the unicorn in the British royal coat of arms. For my artwork I choose not to include the supporters, mainly because they look too big and intrusive for my particular style, but also because my collection of heraldic paintings look more uniform without them because not everyone is entitled to them (Elton John isn’t for example). They are the only part of the heraldic achievement which is missing from my painting of Lord Browne’s arms.

Lord Browne’s supporters are 2 seated bears with chained collars. The absent bears are an example of a heraldic pun. In some poetic and literary circles the bear is referred to as “bruin”, which has often been used in heraldry for families with the surname Brown.

Back to the actual painting shown here. The principal colours are red, white and green (the 2 bears are also of these colours – the left one red, the right one green). Lord Browne’s mother was Hungarian, an Auschwitz survivor. The colours are taken from Hungary’s national flag (pictured left).

The shield also reflects Lord Browne’s career with BP. You will have heard of oil being referred to as a fossil fuel. It may not have struck you before, but oil is a geological product. With any form of fossil fuel you need to know which layers of rock it comes from. The diagonal stripes represent layers of rock. The green and yellow fossil ammonites on the shield are also geological references. Quite often it is fossils in the rock which tell you it you’re near oil. Lord Browne is also an Honorary Fellow of the Geological Society.

On top of the shield are 2 items which indicate Lord Browne’s rank as a peer of the realm. First is the coronet (not a crown, which has arches over the top) with 4 pearl balls signifying the specific rank of baron or Life Peer. The helmet is different to those I’ve shown before. This helmet with a gold grill is reserved for peers of the realm. Lord Browne became a Life Peer in 2001.

The crest, again in the Hungarian colours, is a bittern, a bird common to the East Anglian fens, between 2 bulrushes. Lord Browne studied at Cambridge University, located in East Anglia. The bittern is shown “booming”, the distinctive manner in which its equally distinctive call is made.

Finally, there’ the medal suspended from the shield. Like Sir Elton John’s this is the badge of the Knights Bachelor, the lowest and most numerous of Britain’s 11 ranks of knighthood. Lord Browne became a Knight Bachelor in 1998.

Friday 15 March 2013

Earthquakes and Dinosaurs - A Tale of Two Kates

The world of geology and palaeontology is still very much a man’s world. Here are a couple of lesbian scientists who have come in from the field trip and out of the laboratory to become respected by many non-scientists as well.

Even though the British Geological Survey HQ is only a couple of miles from where I live we don’t get to see many geologists on tv, let alone seismologists (earthquake scientists). Of course, places like California have a lot more earthquakes than Nottingham. Since the 1980s one female seismologist has appeared regularly on American tv to explain earthquakes, and has become so well-recognised in Southern California that people just call her the “Earthquake Lady” – Dr. Kate Hutton.
Kate Hutton was turned on to science by the NASA space missions and went on to study astronomy at university, earning her PhD in 1976. So how does a scientist trained to look far out into space come to be looking beneath the earth’s surface? As a youngster Kate was interested in all the natural sciences and had been interested in earthquakes ever since she experienced her first one. When it came to choosing a subject to major in at school astronomy seemed to have the better prospect of a career than geology. The space race was at its height and people were talking seriously about having moon colonies by the end of the 20th century. Astronomy certainly had more visible scientific presence in America than geology at the time.

At university Kate was part of a large research team which included both astronomers and earth scientists. In a cross-application of data, measurements of radio emissions from quasars helped to provide some of the early direct measurements of continental plate movements in the 1970s. It was this research which led Kate to the geological side of the team.
After university Kate joined the California Institute of Technology, where she has remained. Most of her work involves data and statistical analysis of previous earthquakes, improving the chance of accurately estimating the risk of earthquake severity and damage. Kate was put before the cameras in the 1908s to discuss recent earthquakes and she quickly became a popular “expert” to call upon by the media. Perhaps she didn’t realise what a good communicator she was. Her frequent appearances on tv led her to being called the “Earthquake Lady”.  Her ability to communicate also extended to giving tours of the seismology lab. In 1984 she gave a tour for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Scientists group and ended up dating the tour group’s leader. It was then that she decided to come out at work.
Whereas Kate Hutton has a secondary career as a tv “expert”, another Kate (more properly Caitlín) has carved a highly successful second career as a fantasy novelist – Caitlín R. Kiernan.

Even though fiction writing is currently Caitlín’s main career it wasn’t her first. She has written several papers on palaeontology and dinosaurs. Irish-born Caitlín moved to the US when she was a child with her mother after her father died, and grew up in Alabama. It was while doing volunteer work at the Red Mountain Museum that she developed her interest in geology. After studying both geology and palaeontology at university she got jobs in museums and schools. It was in 1992 that she began writing fantasy fiction.

Caitlín’s fiction has been praised by fans and literary critics of iconic fantasy writers like H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe though she hates being pigeon-holed into the “horror” category (she prefers “dark fantasy” or “goth-noir”). Caitlín won the International Horror Guild Award with her first published novel, “Silk”, in 1998. She has subsequently won it another 4 times and nominated a further 5 times.
As well as fiction Caitlín has been involved in comic books, working with Neil Gaiman on a spin-off of his successful “The Sandman” series. Through Gaiman she wrote the novelisation for the 2007 film “Beowulf” (Kate Hutton also has movie credentials – she was consultant for the 1990 film “Tremors”).
Even though her work prevented Caitlín from pursuing another career in a local goth-folk band, it didn’t stop her from continuing her palaeontological work, still publishing scientific papers up to 2005. I suppose her knowledge of another world, albeit our own prehistoric world, gives Caitlín an extra element which she can tap in to when creating fantasy worlds in her fiction. Juggling the two careers was a bit tiring at times and it was usually her palaeontological work which got left undone when she was overstretching herself.

With four nominations in various international fantasy writing awards last year and another novel, “Blood Oranges”, coming out this year it seems Caitlín will be at the top of the fiction lists for a while longer. And the funny thing is she hates writing!

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Flower Power - saffron crocus

I don’t know why the Ancient Greeks made such a big fuss out of young men being turned into flowers all over the place, but here’s another one! The flower beds and grassy verges are covered at this time of year with colourful crocuses (or should that be croci? Or even, since the word is Greek, should it be krokopedes?)

Like several other flower myths there is more than one version recorded in the written sources. In the case of Krokus the sources are rare and brief and we have to guess how and when they originate. There are two stories of Krokus, both dating from near the birth of Christ rather than in more ancient Greek times.

The version of the myth which is most often repeated is that of a young handsome mortal boy from Sparta called Krokus. He fell in love with a beautiful nymph (aren’t they all?) called Smilax. The story varies even from this point. Some say Krokus ignored Smilax’s amorous advances, so engrossed was he in hunting. As a result Smilax wasted away with a broken heart, not unlike fellow nymph Echo when spurned by Narcissus. This version of the Krokus story may be a regional copy of the Echo myth. The goddess Aphrodite found the wasted Smilax and turned her into a bindweed, still seen to this day on Cyprus in the ruins of Aphrodite’s temple. The most common version of this story, though, has Smilax ignoring Korkus’s advances. The outcome for the spurned lover, however, was the same and Krokus was turned into a flower, the saffron crocus.

Yet another version of the myth says that Smilax was killed and Krokus died heart-broken. The gods turned his body into the crocus, and Smilax’s body was turned into the yew tree.

For the purposes of this blog it is appropriate to mention a later version, probably the most recent. This one tells how Krokus was a lover of the god Hermes. This myth has striking similarities to one I covered last July about Apollo and Hyakinthos. Hermes and Krokus were out in the meadows practicing, or playing, with a discus. In his exuberance Hermes threw the discus at the mortal youth and accidentally killed him. In echoes of the Hyakinthos myth the god went into pangs of remorse and grief and turned the blood of his slain lover into a flower.

It is probable that the Hermes-Krokus myth was a copy of the Apollo-Hyakinthos one, just as the other version may have been copied from Echo-Narcissus. W H D Rouse, in his translation of “Dionysaica” by the 5th century writer Nonnus, in which the legend of Krokus appears, remarked that its not very well known among the ancient texts and probably dates from the last Classical period (immediately before the birth of Christ). In fact, the myth is so recent that there is no record of Krokus being depicted in ancient Greek pottery or art.

The saffron crocus into which young Krokus was turned was a highly valued spice, dye and herb in ancient times, from much earlier than any legend is recorded. It was used in medieval times to flavour food and in medicine and was, and still is, VERY expensive. When I worked at Gainsborough Old Hall in the 1990s I took school groups around one of the oldest surviving complete medieval kitchens in the UK to explain medieval cooking methods. As a souvenir of their visit we would let the children grind up a mixture of spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper. We also showed them saffron. Because it was so expensive we didn’t let the children handle it. We held it up in a not-very-medieval plastic sachet!

Long before the myth of Krokus was recorded, the queer Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great used saffron a great deal. He drank saffron infusions and ate saffron rice. He even sprinkled it in his warm baths. Saffron was believed to have healing powers, and Alexander believed that every soldier should take saffron baths to help heal their wounds.

The saffron crocus in particular displays some interesting sexual traits. Over centuries of cultivation the saffron crocus has become genetically altered to a state where it cannot reproduce by pollination – it is male sterile. It can only be reproduced by dividing the corm, the bulb.

Being the time of year when you see crocus flowers sprouting up everywhere, spare a thought for the poor saffron crocus whose reproductive ability has been all but lost due to the ancient passion for it’s spice and dye.

Monday 11 March 2013

Extraordinary Lives - Transylvanian Dinosaurs and the King of Albania

Last year Albania celebrated the centenary of it’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. This year we could also have been celebrating the centenary of the first gay king of Albania, Franz Nopcsa. The life of palaeontologist Franz Nopcsa reads like a Stephen Spielberg film – “Jurassic Park” meets Indiana Jones, with Franz as a cross between Indiana and Lord Byron! Franz and Byron had a lot in common – both loved the Balkans, both fought for independence against the Ottoman Empire, both have been pictured in local costume, and both could have become Balkan kings (Byron was mooted as king of Greece at one time).

There is a surprisingly large amount of information on Franz on the internet. It makes me wonder why someone so well-known isn’t more well-known, if you know what I mean. His work was ahead of its time and he didn’t restrict himself to just collecting fossils. Franz wanted to discover how those long-dead creatures lived, moved and had sex. As such he is often referred to as the Father of Palaeobiology. Several theories he came up with were criticised or ignored by his contemporaries. For instance, Franz believed some dinosaurs were warm-blooded; he believed some cared for their young and not desert the eggs like turtles do; he believed that fossils of Archaeopteryx (an early relative of birds descended from dinosaurs) show it couldn’t fly very well and must have lived on the ground. His contemporaries didn’t believe any of these but they are all now universally accepted (except the bit about the Archaeopteryx which is only partly accurate).

Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felsö-Szilvás was born into a wealthy aristocratic family on 3rd May 1877 in the Nopcsa Castle near Sačel in the Austro-Hungarian province of Transylvania. Franz became interested in fossils after his sister was shown some by peasants on their family estate and the 18-year-old Franz showed them to Eduard Seuss, one of the foremost palaeontologists in Europe. Seuss encouraged Franz to excavate his estate and soon Franz was also studying palaeontology in Vienna.

In only his second year at Vienna he identified the fossils his sister gave him as a new species (still known by the name he gave it, Telmatosaurus transsylvanicus) and presented a paper to the Vienna Academy of Science. This was to be the start of a long and prolific career as a writer of scientific papers, some 158 in all, as well as many others on Albanian culture, a culture he was fascinated by.

Illustration of Franz Nopcsa. Copyright Scientific American.
Franz was also one of the first supporters of the continental drift theory. In my post last month on the extraordinary life of Sir Francis Bacon I mentioned how Bacon noticed that the coastlines of Africa and South America matched. Many people did, but nobody at that time thought about the two having ever been joined together. Franz had contact with the major proponent of continental drift, Alfred Wegener. The idea was laughed at for many decades, even into the 1960s.

Franz proposed a theory of how the continental plates creating mountains and ocean trenches. He didn’t get the mechanics completely right, but he was the first to suggest it. This and the above-mentioned theories gained Franz a reputation for eccentricity.

Franz Nopcsa first visited Albania in 1903. It wasn’t a promising start. Albania was fighting against Ottoman rule and many rebels hid out in the mountains. On his first trip into the mountains Franz was shot at, and the bullet went straight through his hat – a classic Indiana Jones moment if ever there was one! But it didn’t put him off. He even learnt several local dialects and threw himself into aiding the rebellion, including smuggling weapons to the rebels.

In 1912 Albania threw out the Ottomans and a race was on to find a king for the new nation. Between 26th February and 6th March 1913 the Congress of Trieste, made up of international delegates, was held to choose an Albanian king. It was only after the congress had ended and none of the candidates were chosen when Franz put himself forward. He even suggested marrying an American heiress to provide money for the economy. But after several more weeks – a century ago – Franz got tired of waiting for a decision and pulled out of the race. Eventually Prince Wilhelm von Weid, nephew of the queen of Romania, was chosen by the European powers. He didn’t last long – he was deposed within a year!

Franz Nopcsa remained devoted to Albania, but his personal circumstances were going to take a dive. After serving as a spy for the Austro-Hungarian empire during World War I his family estates in Transylvania were annexed to Romania. However, he remained a Hungarian citizen and headed the Hungarian Geological Survey in 1925. Without the income from his estates his wealth quickly disappeared. Finally, he and his lover/secretary Bayazid Elmas Doda settled in Vienna.

On 25th April 1933, when he realised all his wealth has finally gone, Franz shot Doda, then himself.

All of Franz’s palaeological and geological papers were left to the British Museum, while his Albanian papers ended up in the Austrian National Library.

Bearing in mind Albania’s troubled history after independence in the first half of the 20th century perhaps Franz Nopcsa wouldn’t have lasted any longer than Prince Wilhelm von Wied anyway. Maybe that’s a blessing in disguise, because Franz continued to study fossils and write and contribute to our knowledge of dinosaurs and the continents. Perhaps it is time for his name to emerge from the shadows and take his rightful place in people’s minds as the King of the Transylvanian Dinosaurs.

Friday 8 March 2013

International Women's Day

To celebrate International Women’s Day today I’m highlighting the role of some female lgbt scientists. I’ll present a separate post for those that tie in with the Ology of the Month in a couple of weeks.

The role women have in science still has the feel of it being secondary to that of men, but it seems things are changing. I have read many times during my research for this particular post of female scientists being overlooked in favour of less-qualified men for some top academic posts. For lesbian scientists there is double discrimination in some fields, and for ethnic lesbians triple discrimination.

There have only been a handful of female scientists who have become prominent. In the USA the National Organisation of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) has five on it’s list of 14 “Queer Scientists of Historical Note” – S. Josephine Baker, Sonja Kovalevskaya, Margaret Mead, Florence Nightingale and Louise Pearce (I’ll be expressing my doubts about Florence Nightingale at a future date). The list also poses the question why there are so few lesbian scientists.

The struggle for the recognition of female scientists began to gain impetus in the general feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In America the Association of Women in Science (AWS) was founded in 1971 with the specific aim of challenging the male-dominated world of science. Co-founder of the AWS was Neena Schwartz, an endocrinologist at Northwestern University. All through her career, wherever she went, Neena experienced sexism but kept hidden the fact that she was also lesbian. She didn’t come out until she retired, revealing her sexuality in her autobiography “A Lab of My Own”. In it Neena told of the pain she went through when her partner died of cancer and how she couldn’t approach her work colleagues for support. Neena’s work as an endocrinologist helped to reveal the vital connections between the brain and reproductive organs. I’ll go into more detail about Neena’s work later in the year when my Ology of the Month in July will be Evolutionary Biology and Genetics.

Another pioneering lesbian, one who was more well-known during her work and who also hid her sexuality from the public throughout her career, was Sally Ride. In January I highlighted her work in science education and her place in history as the first American woman in space. Sally and her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy did a lot of work in American schools. Since her death last year there has been an increase in interest in Sally’s life and work, if the internet is anything to go by.

It seems we are experiencing the beginning of a universal acceptance in academia of the role women and lesbians have in the sciences. This is illustrated by the number of scholarships being offered to the lgbt community. Gender studies has been around as an academic subject for several decades now, and is still a growing area of research, and surely this also helps to improve the awareness and acceptance of lgbt science students.

I had a quick look on the internet to see what scholarships are available to lesbian students. I found this page on the Scholarships For Women website. Even though all of the scholarships they mention are US based I’m sure there are similar ones in other countries. Most of the scholarships are open to all lgbt students but there are several specifically aimed at lesbians. The are also mostly non-science-based though PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gay) offer five scholarships in science and engineering.

Hopefully the access to scholarships such as these will encourage young women and lesbians to study science subjects. Until they graduate and enter the top levels of their chosen professions we have just a few out lesbian scientists as role models. Maybe it’s because there are few out at the top that their place as role models is all that more important.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

On Track to the Outgames - Part 3

One of the central elements in Montréal’s bid to host the 2006 Gay Games was an international conference on lgbt and human rights. After accepting the bid the Federation of Gay Games (FGG) revised their criteria of what they thought were essential to the games. The world was experiencing financial problems and cut-backs. In this environment the FGG decided that a conference wasn’t going to be part of their new vision. The split in the FGG was discussed last time. So what became of Montréal’s conference?

Thankfully, it survived the turmoil and went ahead on 26th July 2006 just prior to the first World Outgames. It had the title of “The Right to Be Different” and was the largest conference of it’s kind ever held up to that time and around 1,500 delegates and speakers gathered to discuss lgbt rights.

The conference lasted for four days and at the end the first international declaration of lgbt rights – the Declaration of Montréal – was issued. It was remarkable document. The Declaration had been drafted by Joke Swiebel and Robert Wintemute, the co-presidents of the Scientific Committee, the body responsible for heading the conference. But who were they? Who are these unsung architects of the Declaration of Montréal?

Joke Swiebel is a Dutch politician and social campaigner. When she was appointed co-president of the Scientific Committee in 2004 Joke was a Member of the European Parliament and President of the Parliamentary Intergroup on Gay and Lesbian Rights. She had also served on several committees on women’s rights and gender equality, including the UN Committee on the Status of Women (1988-1995).

Robert Wintermute was Professor of Law at the King’s College, London, and was a leading advocate for human rights and anti-discrimination.

Joke and Robert both had extensive experience with human rights legislation and were ideally placed to draft a series of wide-ranging statements of the rights that the lgbt community was demanding from governments and communities around the world. The Declaration of Montréal was the result of a lot of hard work and discussion and was put before the rest of the conference’s Scientific Committee for adoption. The full text of the Declaration can be found here.

The success of the conference seemed assured before it began. So much so that in drafting the Declaration of Montréal Joke Swiebel and Robert Wintermute set out within it a timetable of a global information campaign on lgbt rights to be launched at the second conference at the second World Outgames in Copenhagen in 2009.
The other members of the Scientific Committee also shared vast experience of lgbt issues and included lawyers and judges, members of ethnic and community groups, and media representatives from all around the world.

The conference itself consisted on five main sessions centred around the continents or world regions. Within these sessions were various workshops dealing with specific countries or with more general themes. There was nearly 800 speakers from over 100 countries among the delegates.

Among the themes discussed were human rights, diversity within the community, and lgbt rights in employment. The subject matters of individual lectures were also wide-ranging and included same-sex marriage, the lesbian culture of Japan and the far east, the role of the Holocaust in lgbt history, transsexual rights, and discrimination in sport. Experts in every field spoke at the conference, including Outgames co-president Mark Tewksbury, Louise Arbour (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), Gene Robinson (Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire), Waheed, Lord Alli (media entrepreneur), and speaking at the closing lunch was Martina Navratilova.

No sooner had the speeches at the closing lunch finished than the crowds and athletes were beginning to gather for the opening ceremony of the first World Outgames that evening.

Monday 4 March 2013

My Silver Anniversary

As I said last week in my introduction to the Ology of the Month I’m a keen geologist and rock collector. Its exactly 35 years ago this week when I went on my last geology field trip to the Peak District in Derbyshire.

Ten years later, having lost direction in my life, I drifted into tour guiding. And on 5th March 1988 I conducted my first guided tour at Epworth Old Rectory, the childhood home of the Wesley brothers who founded Methodism. So tomorrow I celebrate my silver anniversary as a tour guide! Yaaaay!

Epworth was a deliberate choice to begin my guiding career as I was Methodist lay preacher at the time, and 1988 was the bicentenary of the founding of Methodism. In May 1988 I was one of 3 guides who met 200 delegates of the World Methodist Council at Doncaster train station and took them around the rectory (filmed by the BBC’s “Songs of Praise” programme).

After Epworth I got a job at Gainsborough Old Hall, a medieval manor house. It’s appropriate that there’s been all that fuss over the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton recently because the Old Hall was built by one of his supporters and he visited it (and I’m descended from his aunt Philippa). At the Old Hall I conducted many tours for visitors, but I was also involved with the school education programme (which won the Sandford Education Award during my time there) and living history weekends (oh, how I miss those weekends!).

For the school and living history I had to dress in authentic period costume. This (very bad) photo shows me in one of my costumes. Dressed like this I also publicised the Old Hall at county shows.

Then, in 1998, I moved to Nottingham. There I got a job at Nottingham Castle. Underneath the castle are man-made passages which are grouped together under the name of Mortimer’s Hole, named after the tyrant who deposed and probably murdered King Edward II. Some time back I wrote about an amazing fact I discovered after I left the castle. One of my colleagues and fellow guides was young Mark. After we both had left the castle (and had a bit of an on-and-off fling over 2 years) I discovered he was descended from Edward II’s partner Piers Gaveston. The implications of this are given in an earlier post.

I had, perhaps, something of an advantage over my colleagues in that I could use my knowledge of geology to describe the rock formations within the walls. I was able to point out the shape of the sand dunes from which the rock was made all those millions of years ago. And even pin-pointed out one very short event from those millions of years ago by following a line of pebbles in the rock wall which signified a flash flood. Those pebbles, of course, came from mountains that were formed many millions of years before that.

I didn’t have a special costume for the cave tours, except at one special event when I dressed as the Constable of Nottingham Castle – my tribute to 3 “gay” constables of the past. I really enjoyed my tours and got a lot of good feedback. Several times my manager put me forward when a television crew came along. I even took a female wrestler into the caves for an American wrestling programme (can’t remember which one, but there used to be a YouTube video of it). On another occasion I was being interviewed by a professor. While we were waiting for the crew to set up the cameras the professor and I amused ourselves by making hand shadows of dinosaurs and bats against the cave wall!

On my tours I tried to get people involved, especially the children. When I got to the part where I describe how Roger Mortimer was captured at Nottingham and later executed I “demonstrated” on a volunteer child how a traitor was hanged, drawn and quartered. The kids loved it! And so did most of the adults! And this was years before “Horrible Histories” became popular. In 1994 I even helped to get the cave tours awarded the Best UK Guided Tour of the Year. One of the undercover judges told me years later that she still remembered it with a smile (I hope it was for the right reasons!).

After I left Nottingham Castle I wanted to carry on being a tour guide but there weren’t many openings. For several years before I left I was researching lgbt history. From this research I decided I could do gay tours of Nottingham. My first was during Nottingham Pride on 29th July 2006.

I’m pleased to say my Nottingham tours are very successful. I’m planning 2 fund-raising tours for this year’s Nottinghamshire Pride committee, and have several others planned in the coming months. There are even some “regular” customers – the University of Nottingham LGBT Students group have been on 7 tours so far, and they’re hoping for their 8th in October.

My tours are always developing. No two tours are the same, and I often alter the route for each group. I also try to create at least one new tour every year with a different theme. So people can decide whether to have the Romantic Valentine tour, the Seven Deadly Gay Sins tour, or the standard tour, for instance.

I don’t know how I’m going to celebrate my Silver Anniversary tomorrow, but I’m sure I can do some sort of celebrating throughout the year. Perhaps you may even join me on a tour yourself one day.