Thursday 31 March 2016

Transgender Day of Visibility

Among the many tales from myth and legend concerning transgender issues one of the most well-known is the story from Greek mythology about Tiresias.

Although Tiresias’s transgender life is the most significant to us today, the International Transgender Day of Visibility, the ancient Greeks and Romans saw his whole life before, during and after transgender as one of opposites. In various parts of his very long life Tiresias was blind, a priestess of the gods, a soothsayer, and an adviser from beyond the grave. As such he could claim to be male and female, mother and father, blind and seeing, having knowledge of both past and future, speak to humanity and the gods, and communicate during life and death. In fact, virtually all of human existence and beyond was seen in the life of Tiresias.

I’ll concentrate on Tiresias’s life as a blind prophet in November (UK Disability Awareness Month). Today let’s look at his transgender life.

Although he was mortal Tiresias was half-divine, his mother being a nymph called Chariclo. Tales of his childhood and upbringing are rare, so we have to assume that he was raised as a humble shepherd just as his mortal father was. It is during his young adult years that the transgender episode occurs.

As with most myths and legends there are several variations of the story of how Tiresias became a woman. Here’s one of them.

While he was walking along a woodland path on the slopes of Mount Cyllene Tiresias’s way was blocked by a couple of large snakes mating. Rather than find a different path or edge around them Tiresias began hitting them with his walking staff. One of the weirdest ideas the ancient Greeks had was that if a man approached mating snakes he’d turn effeminate. Maybe that’s why Tiresias wanted to separate them. He didn’t want to become effeminate.

Well, what would you do if you were in the middle of an intimate moment with your partner and were attacked by a stranger? Even if you’re into sado-masochism being attacked by someone who just happened to walk up and start hitting you was a stick isn’t very pleasant. The snakes defended themselves by attacking Tiresias. This just made Tiresias fight back and he beat the snakes even harder, killing the female. This was witnessed by the goddess Hera and she was very angry at Tiresias’s attack and turned him into a woman in an instant.

Tiresias then became one of Hera’s priestesses. Her mother Chariclo may have had some influence in this. Chariclo is regarded as being one of Hera’s favourite nymphs, suggesting that she was herself one of Hera’s priestesses. More significant is the fact that in becoming a priestess Tiresias acquired a greater social status than she would have had otherwise.
A priestess of Ancient Greece
Ancient Greeks didn’t rank women very highly. The reason for their existence was to produce babies and look after the home. If a woman wanted to make any noticeable contribution to society, and hardly any of them ever did because they accepted their status without question, then it was as a priestess in one of the many temples of the gods.

In some parts of Ancient Greece the name Tiresias became a slang term for a prostitute. How this fits in with our Tiresias isn’t clear. Unlike the Vestal Virgins of Rome, or Catholic priests of today, the Greek priestesses were not required to be celibate. A lot of them were married and had children, as Tiresias herself did. The name of her husband isn’t known but two of her daughters and a grandson would “inherit” her gift of prophecy which was apparently bestowed on them at the same time it was bestowed on Tiresias later in her life.

Tiresias retained her honoured status as a priestess for seven years, a mystical number in many cultures, during which time she would have become a familiar local figure at the many festivals held throughout the year. Then, one day, as she was walking along the same path she walked seven years previously, she again encountered two snaked mating. Again she attacked them with her staff. This time she killed the male snake and in another instant she was transformed back into a man.

From then on Tiresias gained an extra quality to his character. He was regarded as being special because he had lived as a woman and a man. Even the gods sought his advice on matters of gender.

Zeus and Hera argued for ages, literally, on who provided the most pleasure during sex – a man or a woman. Needless to say each thought their own gender produced the most pleasure to their partner. Asking the other gods provided no solution so they turned to Tiresias and asked him the same question, after all he’d experienced sex as both a man and a woman, so he’d know for sure which was most pleasurable. No matter what he was going to say Tiresias would be bound to offend one of the gods. What he said in effect was “Out of ten, a woman experiences 9 points of pleasure from a man, but a man only experiences one out of ten from a woman”.

For a second time Hera was angered by Tiresias. This time she removed his sight and made him totally blind. Zeus, even as the king of the gods, can’t undo the work of another god, so he showed his gratitude for Tiresias taking his side by bestowing upon him the gift of prophecy and the life-span of seven men.

Here we come to another interesting point about Tiresias. In most ancient religions, and a handful today, the role of a prophet or soothsayer – often called a shaman – was occupied by a cross-gendered individual. Men who displayed feminine characteristics were often regarded as having some special connection to the world of the supernatural. So Tiresias’s life as a soothsayer may have been destined by the gods from the moment he became a woman.

One other quality often seen in soothsayers, prophets and shamans is some form of physical disability, usually blindness. Someone who cannot see the physical world was thought to have a privileged view of other worlds, just like the other worlds we see when we dream. It is the aspect of Tiresias’s life as a visually-impaired prophet to which I’ll return in November.

Sunday 27 March 2016

Queer Lutheran Achievement

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

Being Easter Day, the most important day in the Christian calendar, I thought the following coat of arms would be highly appropriate, and because it’s Women’s History Month it is the arms of the first lesbian diocesan bishop in the world.

Below is the heraldic achievement of Rt. Rev. Eva Brunne, Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm since 2009. Those of you familiar with other coats of arms that I’ve done will notice straight away that the shield is oval. In traditional European heraldry women were not allowed to use a shield. Instead they placed them on a diamond-shaped lozenge. An oval shape has become more frequent in recent decades, and helps to display quartered arms more clearly without them being distorted into four triangle shapes. A lot of heraldic authorities now use a shield to display women’s coats of arms.
Bishop Brunne could have had chosen from three different methods of showing her coat of arms. First, she could have just used the arms of her diocese on a shield. Second, she could have placed the diocesan arms on one half of the shield and her personal arms on the other half. Thirdly, she could have quartered the shield, and this is the way she has chosen, and the way I’ve depicted it below.

A lot of the design shows obvious Christian symbolism. In fact, there’s only one part of the whole achievement that does not have any specific religious meaning.

Let’s start with the quarterings on the oval. Those in the first and last quarter, the yellow cross, are the arms of the Lutheran diocese of Stockholm. In the second and third quarters, with the rose and heart, are the personal arms of Eva Brunne. The design of her personal arms is very simple and distinctive. The part which I mentioned as having no specific religious meaning is the background of blue and white waves. These may have been inspired by one of the quarterings of the Swedish royal coat of arms, where one of the quarters also has a background of blue and white waves, albeit diagonal not horizontal as here. The rose and heart design, however, has a very clear meaning.

The rose and heart is a variation of one of the most common emblems used by the worldwide Lutheran Church. This particular rose is called the Luther Rose and it was an emblem used by Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant church. It is a simple device designed for him in 1530. The original version is shown left. In a letter to a friend in 1530 Luther explained the symbolism of his rose. The black cross is, of course, a very old Christian emblem and Luther chose a black cross to remind him of the pain of suffering. The heart reminded him that it keeps things alive, like his faith. The white rose symbolises peace and joy. Surrounding the rose is a gold ring symbolising that “blessedness in Heaven lasts forever”. The rose is on a sky blue background symbolising heavenly joy.

Eva Brunne had adapted the Luther Rose. Rather than use the whole design she chose just the rose itself. The cross has been changed from black to white which is a better heraldic method to show a colour against the red heart. The rose is changed to gold.

For her personal motto Eva has chosen a line from the New Testament, “Gör inte skillnad på människor”, which in English is “Don’t show favouritism”. I decided to show the motto in both languages in my picture.

The arms of the Lutheran diocese of Stockholm also has Christian symbolism. The first impression given is of the Swedish national flag on which it is based. Again, the cross is a common symbol of Christianity in heraldry, as is seen in the crosses of St George and St Andrew, for instance. And like those crosses the origin of the Swedish cross is surrounded in legend. According to tradition a medieval king of Sweden called Erik IX was going into battle against the pagan Finns. He saw a vision in the blue sky of a shining, golden cross and he took this as a good omen from God. He had the cross painted on the shields of his army and went into battle and they were victorious. From then on the gold cross on blue became a national emblem. King Erik is a great national hero and was canonised as St Erik of Sweden. His head is placed in the arms of the diocese of Stockholm.

As for the rest of Eva Brunne’s achievement little needs to be explained. It has the bishop’s mitre and crozier, though unlike English heraldry where the mire is gold the Swedish Lutheran church prefers a simpler white mitre with gold trim.

All that remains for me to say is Happy Easter, and don’t eat too much chocolate at once.

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Spy Wednesday

What have the following people got in common? Casanova, Oscar Wilde, Dr Crippen, the Kray twins and Emmeline Pankhurst. Answer – they all stood behind the dock at Bow Street magistrate’s court accused for their crimes (not at the same time, of course). But what is their link to Nottingham? Answer – that dock from Bow Street is part of an exhibition at the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham which begins at the weekend.

But what about Spy Wednesday? What has that got to do with any of this? Well, today is Spy Wednesday, the day in the liturgical calendar of the Christian Church which marks the day Judas decided to betray Christ. And the link to everything else I’ve mentioned is that the Nottingham exhibition centres around a lesser-known individual who stood behind the Bow Street dock a century ago charged with espionage and treason. His name is Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916).

Roger Casement was born in Dublin into an Anglo-Irish family. In 1884 he worked with Henry Morton Stanley (later the "discoverer" of Dr. Livingstone) on a Belgian operation to take over power in the Congo Free State. At this time Roger believed that European colonialism was beneficial. His opinion changed when he retired from the British Colonial Office in 1912 (with a knighthood in reward for uncovering colonial slavery in the Amazon).

In 1913 he helped to form the Irish Volunteers, a leading pro-home rule organisation involved in the 1916 Easter Rising. This year is the centenary of the Easter Rising in which Irish patriots like Sir Roger Casement rebelled against British rule. It was a pivotal event in the fight for Irish independence and, depending on which side you were on at the time, they were either patriots or traitors.

At the time of the Easter Rising World War I had been raging for a couple of years. The “Irish Question”, as Irish home rule was described, had been pushed into the background in British politics, but not for the Irish Volunteers and other home rule and independence groups.

Sir Roger casement went to New York at the outbreak of World War I to meet a leading German diplomat to discuss a plan for Germany to supply arms secretly to the Irish Volunteers. The armed Easter Rising would, Sir Roger suggested, divert some British attention away from the continental war and help German strategy on the Western Front. The plan was approved in part and a secret shipment of arms left Germany for Dublin disguised as a Norwegian supply vessel.

British intelligence had intercepted various messages which hinted at the arms shipment and Sir Roger’s involvement. Royal Navy patrols intercepted the secret shipment on Good Friday, 21st April 1916. Under escort the ship was taken to Cork but it was deliberately scuttled and sank off the coast. The crew became prisoners of war.

Sir Roger Casement was travelling in secret by submarine from Germany to Tralee Bay. On landing a recurrence of the malaria he contracted in the Congo prevented him from meeting the shipment. He had been on the British spy-watch radar since his first involvement with the Irish Volunteers but had escaped capture. Shortly after his meeting with the German diplomat in New York he had travelled in disguise to Germany. On a stop-over in Norway one of his travelling companion was offered a reward/bribe to disclose Sir Roger’s whereabouts.

Sir Roger was arrested shortly after arriving back in Ireland. He was charged with treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. He faced his charge at the dock at Bow Street magistrate’s court, soon to be on display in Nottingham, and sent to the Tower of London to await trial.

The Easter Rising took place on Easter Monday, 24th April 1916. Around 1,200 Irish Volunteers and other rebel groups stormed various strategic buildings in Dublin. The British government immediately put the whole of Ireland under martial law. Troops were sent to crush the rebellion. One local connection I hadn’t realised until quite recently was that the troops sent to Dublin were from the Sherwood Foresters, a regiment based right here in Nottingham. For seven years I worked at Nottingham Castle where the regimental museum is housed and I don’t recall seeing any reference to the Easter Rising on display.

Much blood was spilt in the six days of the Easter Rising. Like Sir Roger Casement the leaders were charged with treason and over the next weeks most of them were executed by firing squad. Sir Roger was hanged on 3rd August 1916.

To further blacken his reputation the British government circulated copies of pages from his “black diaries” which revealed details of his closeted gay life. Some doubt has been placed on the authenticity of the diaries themselves, but forensic examination hasn’t proved anything one way or the other.

The remains of Sir Roger casement were repatriated to Dublin in 1965 and he was given a state funeral. The British government at the time recognised his status of a knight even though his knighthood was cancelled in 1916.

Sir Roger remains a major hero of Irish nationalism to this day, as is evident from his being at the centre of an exhibition beginning at the weekend here in Nottingham.

Sunday 20 March 2016

Philosophy in Harlem

For centuries societies used the equinoxes and solstices to define seasons of the year. Even though most countries have adopted man-defined numerical calendars to record dates many cultures still use the astronomical equinoxes and solstices to mark the official beginning of their year. Among several faiths celebrating New Year’s Day today, the vernal equinox, is the Bahá’í faith.

The Bahá’í faith originates from 1844. An Iranian Shi’ite Muslim called The Báb proclaimed that Muhammed wasn’t the last Prophet from God, for which belief he was executed. His followers were persecuted and one of them, calling himself Bahá u’lláh, declared he was the next Prophet. His teachings became the basis of Bahá’í.

One of the central beliefs of Bahá’í is the universality of the belief in one God in many religions, making all of them essentially one belief. The idea of universality and an acceptance of differences within that universality – unity in diversity – led to Bahá’í being a very popular belief, and it is one of the most widespread.

The Bahá’í teaching on homosexuality is heavily influenced on that of Islam and Christianity. Basically, there’s nothing wrong with being lgbt, as long as you try to change. Their teaching on marriage restricts it to between man and woman. Understandably, this means there are few openly lgbt Bahá’í worshippers, but there are enough to form support groups online.

It has been possible for prominent lgbt people to use their Bahá’í faith to influence cultural movements. In particular the American writer and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke (1885-1954), often referred to as The Father of the Harlem Renaissance.

Bahá’í historians Christopher Buck and Gayle Morrison have called Alain Locke the outstanding Bahá’í philosopher and intellectual to date. Alain was an American Episcopalian by upbringing though both parents had links to the Quakers. He had a very privileged upbringing for a black American in the late 19th century. He entered Harvard in 1904, one of the few black undergraduates at the time. In 1907 he became the first American (and, until 1960, the only black) Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

It was at Oxford that Alain began to develop his thoughts on cultural pluralism, a term which has been superseded by the multiculturalism. Although he experienced a lot of racism at Oxford Alain joined the progressive Cosmopolitan Club which led to his decision to become a “race leader” and advocate of racial inclusion in society, and of the need to retain a difference. This philosophy has more than a hint of Bahá’í’s “unity in diversity” about it. But it wasn’t until 1915 that Alain had any known contact with Bahá’í.

By 1915 he was an assistant professor of English and instructor in philosophy at Howard University, Washington DC. Washington had become a centre of Bahá’í belief, particularly within the black community. In the national Bahá’í Archives Alain Locke’s registered his “acceptance of the Bahá’í faith”, effectively his conversion, as 1918.

In the year he “converted” Alain received his doctorate in philosophy from Harvard. His faith and philosophy mingles to produce a new slant of Bahá’í’s view on unity in diversity and his own thought on cultural pluralism. Together they produced an idea that appealed to subculture which didn’t feel fully integrated into its nation – black Americans. What Alain Locke believed was that black Americans can use their ethnic and cultural heritage to help redefine what it meant to be an American. What he didn’t support was violent protest by black rights activists (a legacy of his parents’ Quaker links?) or self-segregation. He believed that the acceptance of cultural pluralism by all parts of a community was an essential part of democracy.

In 1921 Alain took part in the Convention for Amity Between Coloured and White Races, an event organised by a leading Bahá’í citizen in Washington with the full backing of the world Bahá’í spiritual leader. Alain was a member of the national Amity committee that was created by the conference for 5 years.

But how much of his Bahá’í faith actually influenced the development of the Harlem Renaissance? It would be a great disservice on those other pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance to claim that Alain Locke was its only “Father”. Many in the black American world of entertainment in the 1920s were also bringing their culture and heritage to the attention of white America. They didn’t hide themselves but proudly exhibited their community to others. By not doing so would have rid the world of so many influential musicians, dancers, writers and entertainers.

In Alain Locke’s writing he “created” a fresh self-examination for black Americans, particularly on the east coast, and he coined the term “New Negro” which was to become synonymous in later years as the Harlem Renaissance. He encouraged other writers to use the concept of the “New Negro” to produce works that didn’t mimic white American literature, thus giving rise to the careers of many successful black writers such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, amongst others. The “New Negro” was a concept that grew out of Alain Locke’s Bahá’í belief in “unity in diversity”. It became the backbone of the Harlem Renaissance’s quest to explore, expand and display their post-slavery heritage to their own community and to the rest of America.

Alain Locke’s philosophy and faith can be of value to the lgbt community today. Unity in diversity is all about acceptance of differences. We don’t have to be a Bahá’í worshipper to believe in his ideas. As he himself wrote, “Think of reality as a central fact and the white light broken up by the prism of human nature into a spectrum of values.” What better metaphor could there be for any subculture in a modern multicultural world?

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Olympic Alphabet : K is for ...

Kłobukowska and Krieger.

These names may not be familiar to most people but each is significant in the world of Olympic sport in their own way, and they are both key figures in two of the biggest issues affecting sport today – gender verification and drugs.

The issue of gender verification at the Olympics was covered briefly in my “Olympic Countdown”article in 2012. An update of the situation will be given in a few months under the letter “X” of my “Olympic Alphabet”.

The two athletes are Ewa Kłobukowska and Andreas Krieger. They never competed in the same years, in fact twenty years separate their careers, but both are inextricably linked.

Ewa Klobukowska may be a name familiar to some people of a certain age. She was a sprint world record holder, European women’s 100m champion and Olympic gold medallist in the women’s 4x100m relay. When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced a new gender test for athletes Ewa was the first to be forced to return all her Olympics medals.

Gender testing by scientific and medical means was in its infancy in the 1960s and many of the tests were unreliable as accurate indicators of gender. Ewa Kłobukowska’s case is an example of this. The first tests undertaken were at the 1966 European Athletics Championships in Budapest. These were the games in which Ewa became European 100m champion and 200, silver medallist. She also won the 4x100m relay gold medal with the same team who won the Tokyo 1964 Olympic title.

In one of those quirks of history those European Championships in 1966 were held one month after the birth of a future athlete who was an unwitting victim of the very reason why athletes like Ewa were subjected to gender testing in the first place.

[NOTE: I will refer to Andreas Krieger as “Heidi” and refer to him as female in relation to events prior to 1997 because that was the name by which he was known when a competitive athlete. I do not intend to cause any offense and apologise to anyone who might object to this.]

Heidi Krieger was born in July 1966 in East Berlin. East German athletics at that time was heavily based on a programme called State Plan 14.25. During the Cold War era of the 1960s East and West were constantly trying to out-do each other on the international stage, the Space Race being a prime example. In sport this rivalry was also strongly felt. East Germany had no significantly successful athletes compared to West Germany. That’s when State Plan 14.25 came into action in the mid-1960s.

With the use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs the state-run sports organisation Deutscher Sportausschuss sanctioned the deliberate administration of these drugs to athletes, many of whom were unaware of what they were actually being given.

The use of steroids in sport was widely used in the Communist states and the USSR in particular, and Eastern European states followed suit. The result of the steroids being pumped into athletes led to some commentators to wonder about the gender of many successful female athletes. Many were beginning to look like men and international sporting bodies began to develop the first scientific gender tests. The object of those tests was to determine the chromosomes in an athlete’s cell. An XX result meant two X chromosomes were present and the athlete was female, while and XY result meant the athlete was male.

Ewa Kłobukowska was one of the first victims of those early tests. She had passed all previous gender verification requirements, which was to stand naked in front of a group of women physicians who then decided whether an athlete was female or not. The new test looked at the athlete’s chromosomes and the presence of male hormones (which includes steroids). Two of the most famous and successful female athletes, however, refused to take part in the new scientific tests and never competed again. These were the Soviet sisters Irina and Tamara Press. Rumours had gone around for years that they were actually men, but the true story may never be learnt. Were they intersexed? Had they been pumped full of steroids so that they developed male physical characteristics?

The new test showed that Ewa had “one chromosome too many”, as it has been described. Her chromosomes were XXY. All human cells contain X chromosomes. Women have two, but one folds in on itself and becomes inactive. This chromosome is called a Barr Body. In these early tests the presence of a Y chromosome was enough to have the athlete declared male. However, in Ewa’s situation the Y chromosome was also inactive. In scientific terms Ewa had Klinefelter Syndrome. Even though in normal circumstances that would indicate she was male, in biological fact she was female because she has two X chromosomes, one of which was a Barr Body. Ewa Kłobukowska was the first Olympic champion to be banned and stripped of her medals. Ironically, had she taken the test a year later she would have taken the new Barr Body test which would have declared her female.

It was in the run-up to the Grenoble 1968 Winter Olympics that the IOC introduced the Barr Body test. The first athlete to fail this new test was a skiing champion Erika Schinegger who was training for her first Olympic appearance. She too was banned from competition.

Meanwhile, back in East Germany athletes were still being pumped with drugs, either by injection or pill, and the debate over the gender of very masculine-looking female athletes continued. East Germany’s improved Olympic success was very noticeable and after 1968 they rarely appeared below third in the gold medal table.

East German officials scouted the nation’s schools for potential champions, and one of these was Heidi Krieger. In 1982 she was selected to attend a youth sports academy and the regime of drug administration began. This was the norm for East German athletes.

By 1984 Heidi was developing male characteristics due to the male hormones and steroids. She was scheduled to be part of the East German team for the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics but in the end she became victim to more political machinations by being forced to join the East German boycott of those games. Even though she never became a true Olympian her place on the selected team for 1984 still qualifies her for inclusion in Olympic history.

Heidi was not selected for the following Seoul 1988 Olympics, though she had become European women’s shot put champion in 1986. A hip injury forced her retirement in 1990. The previous year the Berlin Wall came down and the Communist states of eastern Europe collapsed. The administration of drugs and steroids stopped, but it was another three years before records of the doping programme became known.

The resulting scandal revealed the full extent of the corruption in East German sport. Heidi Krieger was just one of an estimated 10,000 athletes who received performance-enhancing drugs, some of them as young as 10. Nearly 300 former athletes, coaches and doctors gave evidence at the subsequent investigation and trials, including Heidi.

Apart from the many medical and psychological effects of the drugs Heidi was also effected by her own questions concerning her gender. It would be appropriate now to use Krieger’s present name, Andreas. Even today, 37 years after transitioning, Andreas is bitter about not being allowed to discover his gender naturally and believes that the steroids and male hormones that were pumped into him had a negative effect on him psychologically.

But some good has come from the experience. At the investigations and trials he met his present wife Uwe, also a victim of state doping. Today Andreas Krieger is a leading advocate in Germany against drugs in sports.

The stories of both Ewa Kłobukowska and Andreas Krieger have been the subject of many documentaries over the years. And for Andreas at least the legacy remains an important part of the fight against doping. In 2000 the Heidi Krieger Prize was instituted by Berlin’s Doping-Opfer-Hilfe en Verein which was set up in 1999 to support the victims of State Plan 14.25. The prize is awarded almost annually to a person who has championed anti-doping in sport. The award is pictured below. At its centre is the very gold medal Andreas Krieger won in 1986 at the European Championships.
And here we are in 2016, in the 50th and 30th anniversary years respectively of Ewa Kłobukowska and Andreas Krieger becoming European champions and world athletics is still facing challenges that changed the lives of them both.

Friday 11 March 2016

Out Of Her Tree : Simone de Beauvoir

Of the influential philosophers of the 20th century one name stands out because it is that of a woman, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). During her lifetime her relationship with fellow French philosopher Jean Paul Satre and others was well-known, and she also had several with women. Simone never labelled herself sexually, either as a bisexual or heterosexual. As a philosopher she would have used semantics to dodge such labels.

As a philosopher Simone’s contributions to modern thought helped to change philosophy from the stuffy gobbledigook of academia into something more glamorous and, dare I say it, sexy. It was the circles in which she moved which made it so, and like many philosophers they encompassed those of differing political, social and religious backgrounds. Existentialism was that new glamorous philosophy. For a more detailed explanation of it you can find massive amounts of information on the internet.

Simone’s immediate ancestry was centred round law, politics and banking. Her mother’s family, the Brasseurs, were important members of the political and industrial scene in Luxembourg and Belgium. Her great-grandfather Hubert Brasseur (1823-1890) became a professor of political economics at Ghent University. In 1855 he created a religious stir when he and a fellow professor denied the divinity of Christ. Even though he had the support of the Belgian Prime Minister, a practicing Catholic, the Catholic Church reacted in typical manner and declared that parents should not send their children to Ghent. Whether this legacy passed down to Simone de Beauvoir and influenced her own atheist belief is difficult to say, but her ancestry contains other differences of religious opinion.

On her father’s side Simone has a large amount of aristocratic blood. Her great-great-grandfather Claude Bertrand de Beauvoir married the sister of Edme Georges Champeaux de Vauxdimes who before becoming a Catholic priest was a lieutenant in the French infantry. In 1791 the Revolutionary government of France introduced a law forcing all clergy to sign an oath of loyalty which restricted, and in some cases abolished, certain rights of the church over the state.

Edme was one of many who refused to sign the oath was forced to escape the authorities by joining the refugee army, called the Army of Condé, in the German Rhineland. As an ex-soldier he was no stranger to armed conflict and seems to have stayed with the army until it was disbanded in 1801. In 1803 Edme got a job as a headmaster in Bordeaux and then as Professor of Philosophy at the new university of France in Orléans from 1809 to 1815.

Through the Champeaux family Simone de Beauvoir has a lot of important family connections to the old duchy of Burgundy. Her direct ancestor, Georges de Champeaux, Seigneur de Préfontaine (1701-1788) was grandson of a member of the Milletot family. Other members of that family filled many legal and official positions at the Burgundian court for several generations.

A couple of generations further back and the Champeaux’s married into another well-connected Burgundian family, the Clugnys. Perhaps the most significant of Simone’s Clugny ancestors was the wife of her ancestor Jacques de Clugny, Seigneur de Meneserre (c.1450-1512). Her name was Countess Adrienne de Bourgogne-Nevers. To genealogists she is called a “gateway ancestor” because she belonged to a family whose ancestry is well established and links to royal and imperial families that can be traced back hundreds of years. As her name suggests the Countess was a member of the royal Burgundian dynasty herself. Although born illegitimate Adrienne was legitimated in 1463, less than a year before her father’s death.

The royal dynasty of Burgundy from which Simone de Beauvoir descends through Countess Adrienne is referred to as the House of Valois-Burgundy because the male line stems from the royal French dynasty of Valois. King Jean II de Valois of France (1319-1364) granted the duchy of Burgundy to one of his sons, Prince Philippe, who married the widow of the previous Duke of Burgundy in 1369. He became Prince Philippe II “the Bold”, first Valois Duke of Burgundy. Countess Adrienne (technically a princess after her legitimisation) is one of his great-grandchildren.

Simone de Beauvoir’s unbroken line of French ancestry reaches even further back through the Valois kings of France, all the way back to the dynastic founder King Hughes de Capet (d.996), and even further back than that to the Emperor Charlemagne, King of the Franks (742-814). It is even probable that Simone’s unbroken French DNA can go way, way back to the Merovingian kings of France and their dynastic founder Marcomir de Toxandrie, Chief of the Salian Franks, who died in 281. Even I can’t prove my own unbroken British ancestry that far back!

Where did Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophical heritage come from? I’d like to think that it was a mixture of her bourgeois ancestry which gave her the social ability to express her thoughts freely, and her character which attracted male thinkers to her without criticism of her gender. Female philosophers were rare in those days, and females who expressed their thoughts ever rarer.

Tuesday 8 March 2016

Star Gayzing : Wave Goodbye to Theory

You may have heard or read the recent news reports about the detection of gravitational waves first theorised by Einstein in 1916. The discovery was made by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) last September but was only made public four weeks ago. The discovery could not have been made without the ground-breaking work in the early days of LIGO by a lesbian physicist called Dr. Nergis Mavalvala. On this International Women’s Day we look at her work.

Back in 2013 one of me “Ology of the Month” articles was about those very gravitational waves and Nergis Mavalvala. What I find quite interesting is that the discovery was announced just three days before the 2nd anniversary of the date I published my article.

Let’s get to the point and see what gravity waves are and what LIGO does. Here’s a short video. In it Nergis and her colleagues explain briefly their discovery.

Here’s how Nergis became involved in LIGO. Nergis arrived at Wellesley College in Massachusetts from her native Pakistan in 1986. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy in 1990 and went to study at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). It was there that she met Dr. Rainer Weiss, the first scientist to suggest the idea of LIGO back in the 1970s. Nergis’s expertise was in designing and building interferometers, any instrument that uses the interference patterns in wavelengths to determine data and measurements.

Dr. Weiss took Nergis on as part of his team that had begun to work on the problem of detecting gravitational waves. Nergis’s research and thesis dealt specifically with the problem of creating authentically-obtained data from precisely-aligned sensors. Her research was essential in the construction of LIGO.

The figures and distances involved in detecting gravitational waves is staggering. The data has to detect distortions in space caused by a cataclysmic event so far away, as the above video mentions. Here’s the problem. Let’s make a hypothetical analogy. Imagine we had a LIGO built on Pluto. Its task would be to pick up the ripple in space created by a baby panda sneezing on the Earth when the planet is on its furthest point on the other of the Sun. That’s probably not the best analogy to make but it gives you an idea of the problem when you also consider that our hypothetical LIGO on Pluto would have to separate the ripples caused by the sneeze from those created by a tropical storm on Venus, a meteor crashing into Saturn, a volcano exploding on the one of the moons of Jupiter, and me dropping a spoon in my kitchen. All create waves in space but you’re only interested in the panda, and LIGO has to be sensitive enough to only pick up the panda sneezing.

That’s why it took nearly six months before the detection of the gravity waves was made public. Scientists had to be sure the data was right. There’s even a group of the team dedicated to creating fake waves.

When the discovery was made public Nergis Mavalvala was roped in as a panel member at the official presentation at MIT. As a consequence she soon found herself a national celebrity in her home country. Even Pakistan’s Prime Minister sent his congratulations to her and the LIGO team.

Whether the LIGO team will be nominated for a Nobel Prize or not, Dr. Nergis Mavalvala leads the way for female and openly lesbian physicists in a profession which is still predominantly male, straight and white.

Friday 4 March 2016

The Ballad of the Murderous Toy-Boy : Part 2

Of damned deeds, and deadly dole,
I make my mournful song
By witches done in Lincolnshire
Where they have lived long
And practiced many a wicked deed
Within that country there
Which fills my breast and bosom full
Of sobs and trembling fear.

Do you believe in witchcraft? I don’t mean the modern Wicca belief but the old-fashioned notion of women with pointed hats riding on broomsticks. This traditional view of witchcraft has always been based on the Medieval Christian belief that witches were servants of Satan.

Belief in witchcraft has led to many terrible abuses and persecution throughout the centuries. Just like the Holocaust, slavery and the Crusades, there’s not a lot we can do to change it, but we can ensure that nothing like them can happen again. With witchcraft it has been women who have borne the brunt of persecution, hence the traditional Hallowe’en image of a witch on broomstick.

I want to write about three specific witches today and their connection to last week’s first article on “The Ballad of the Murdering Toy-Boy”. Both are linked to King James I and his “favourites”. Last week’s was about Robert Carr who was convicted of implication in a murder and the ballad that was written about it. Today we look at another ballad, the one whose opening lines are given above. But the link to James I’s toy-boy isn’t evident because it was only discovered nearly 400 years after it was written. Here’s the background to that ballad.

In 1613 the Earl and Countess of Rutland employed a local woman called Joan Flower and her daughters Margaret and Philippa as servants in their home Belvoir (pronounced “beever”) Castle. However, the other servants didn’t like them very much and accused them of stealing from the castle, whereupon the Earl fired them.

Not long afterwards the Rutland family became very ill and the eldest son and heir, Henry, Lord Ros, who was less than 10 years old, died. This was followed by the younger son, Francis. At that period in time there were many accusations of witchcraft all around the country and many people were hanged (we didn’t burn witches in England, despite what you see in the movies). The Flower women were well-known as herbalists and, more significantly, non-church-goers. Both amounted to witchcraft in those days, so the Earl of Rutland had the women arrested on suspicion of causing the deaths of his sons by witchcraft.

Joan Flower died on the way to imprisonment in Lincoln Castle proclaiming her innocence, but her daughters confessed. They were tried, found guilty and hanged on 11th March 1619. In less than year a ballad was published about these Witches of Belvoir, as they were called.

In 2013 historian Tracey Borman published a book in which she suggested that the Witches of Belvoir were innocent, and that the Earl’s sons were actually murdered on the orders of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628), who succeeded Robert Carr as the favourite/toy-boy of King James I.

New, let’s have a closer look at the story. When the Earl’s two sons died his heir was his only other surviving child, Lady Katherine. As a woman she wouldn’t have inherited the English title of Countess of Rutland, but would have inherited the Scottish title of Baroness de Ros and all the estates and income from both titles. She was a very wealthy heiress. One of the appointments her father held was Constable of Nottingham Castle, an important honorary position that had become virtually hereditary in the family for several generations.

King James had visited the Earl at Belvoir Castle many times, and the earl would have attended the king on the royal visits to Nottingham. Perhaps between them they thought Lady Katherine would be a suitable wife for George Villiers. George, however, may have been impatient to obtain the estates of his wife and contrived to remove the two Rutland boys who stood in the way of the inheritance, leaving Lady Katherine as sole heir. He had them poisoned and then framed the Flower women as scapegoats to cover his tracks.

That’s Tracey Borman’s theory. It’s probably more believable than witchcraft. Whatever the truth it is a fact that George Villiers and Lady Katherine married a year after the deaths of the first boy.

George’s plan backfired. Although the Earl passed on the appointment of Constable of Nottingham Castle to George not long after the wedding George predeceased the Earl and didn’t inherited his estates. George met his untimely death at the hands of a disgruntled ex-soldier who had served in one of George’s continental campaigns. The Earl’s estates were inherited by Lady Katherine and passed to her second husband.

But let’s return to the Witches of Belvoir and another connection to the previous article on Robert Carr. I mentioned in that other article that the king and court stayed at Thurland Hall in Nottingham, named after the grandson of John Tansley, Mayor of Nottingham. One of Tansley’s other grandchildren married into the same Flower family to which the Witches of Belvoir belonged. They may even have been descended from Tansley. The evidence is hard to find. As also mentioned previously Tansley is my 14-times great-grandfather, making the Witches my ancestral cousins.

The verse that began this article comes from the ballad of the Witches of Belvoir. It’s a very long ballad, so I’ll finish with the last few verses. They tell of the demise of my witch cousins – Joan choking on a piece of bread and her daughters hanged at Lincoln.

And unto Lincoln City borne
Therein to lie in jail,
Until the judging sizes came
That death might be their bail.

But there this hateful mother witch
These speeches did recall,
And said that in Lord Ros’s death
She had no hand at all.

Whereon she bread and butter took,
“God let this same” quoth she,
“If I be guilty of his death,
Pass never through me.”

So mumbling it within her mouth
She never spoke more words,
But fell down dead, a judgement just,
And wonder of the Lord’s.

Her daughters two, their trials had,
Of which being guilty found
They died in shame, by strangling twist,
And laid by shame in the ground.