Tuesday 29 August 2017

Radical Brambles

At the beginning of the month I took a stroll down by Nottingham Canal to the annual Riverside Festival on the Trent and met my sister and her family. Along the way I passed lots of wild bramble bushes heaving with blackberries almost ready for picking. I was reminded of my childhood when I lived in the countryside. My Dad cultivated several blackberry bushes and summer was always enhanced by the summer fruit salads Dad put together every Sunday.

As I was walking back home along the canal the brambles triggered a memory about something I read a while back about a member of the lgbt community who did a lot of research into brambles/blackberry bushes. So I trawled through my notes when I got home to find out more about him.

His name was Bengt Lidforss (1868-1913) and he was born in Lund, Sweden, into a wealthy academic family. Primarily known for his radical socialism Lidforss was also a leading figure in botanical studies. Both of these aspects of his life were fostered at Lund University which, with Uppsala University, was described by Swedish historian Jens Rydström to have “…a special place in the history of same-sex sexuality in Sweden.”

Lidforss entered Lund University in 1885 and studied botany. There he became a leading member of a group of students with radical socialist views. They published a pamphlet expressing their views. Lidforss was also critical of some of his professors, or at least critical of what he regarded as their elitist and out-dated methods and attitudes. He preferred a more populist approach to science which he adopted later when he became a botany professor, similar to that seen more increasingly in our own time in the media.
Bengt Lifross
Because of its proximity to cities which had well-established and large gay subcultures, such as Copenhagen and Berlin, Bengt Lidforss regularly visited them. His sexuality was common knowledge at Lund, even when he was a student there, and in later years when he was Professor of Botany. He revelled in being someone who didn’t conform to society’s expectation and his sexuality and political ideas made him a role model for a younger generation of radical-thinking students. But he was not without his dark side. He was undoubtedly racist and anti-semitic, as many of the early socialists were.

Lidforss’s first botany professorship was at Uppsala University in 1909, and then at Lund from the following year. He had gained a lot of field experience during his trips to Germany and at several German universities. He specialised in plant physiology and Lund University published several of his research papers which were among the most important academic papers on botany at the time.

Lidforss specialised even further by studying the various species of brambles which were native to Scandinavia. Through his research he became a pioneer of batology. No, that’s not the study of bats, but of brambles. The name comes from the Greek word for blackberry, “baton”. Botanically speaking brambles are referred to by the scientific name for their species, Rubus, and Lidforss identified several that were unique to Scandinavia. He also experimented with methods of cultivation and cross-breeding of various Rubus species. From his research he produced four academic papers on brambles between 1899 and 1907.

The collected works on botany produced by Lidforss provide evidence that this side to his career cannot be overshadowed by his political views and activities. But allied to his politics is the influence he exerted upon his students at Lund University. The students who gathered around him were from different academic disciplines not just botany, and some of these students were influenced by his sexual and political openness. One of these young acolytes was languages student Karl Schlyter who, as the Swedish Minister of Justice in the 1930s, who was an early advocate for the reform of the country’s laws on homosexuality.

Its strange how something as mundane as a walk passed bramble bushes growing on the canal bank can have such a link to political radicalism, homosexual openness, and homosexual law reform.

Bengt Lidforss died in September 1913, just when the blackberry season is coming to a close. Considering his very vocal opposition to religion and the Church of Sweden in particular it is ironic that he was buried in the graveyard of St. Peter’s Monastery Church. What is even more ironic, by choice rather than accident, is that from his grave grows, what else, but a bramble bush.

Friday 25 August 2017

Chain Males : Part 3 - USA

Of all the lgbt holders of the mayoral chain of office, either openly of not, the nation which has had the most is the USA. Of the 69 known lgbt American mayors 60 have been male. The map below shows the geographical locations by state.
As you can see not all states have had an openly lgbt male mayor. As with previous “Chain-Male” articles the office of mayor varies from place to place in the method of appointment. Some are directly elected by the citizens, some by their fellow elected representatives, and some according to seniority (usually based on length of service). The length of the terms of office they hold varies as well. What unites them all is that they were directly elected to their respective municipalities.

To complicate matters some of the towns and boroughs in New England states don’t have mayors but offices called First Selectman or Borough Warden who carry out much the same function of a mayor. They originate in the form of community government established during the colonial era. I haven’t begun in depth research into the offices of First Selectmen or Borough Warden and gave only identified one lgbt holder of either office. His name is Clay Cope and he is the current (2017) First Selectman of Sherman, Connecticut.

The earliest gay male mayor, also the first openly gay mayor, in the USA was Richard Heyman (1935-1994). He was elected Mayor of Key West, Florida, in 1979 and held office for ten years.

West Hollywood, California, provides several mayoral records. First of all the current mayor, John Heilman, holds the record as the longest serving openly gay elected in the USA. He was elected to the West Hollywood city council when it was created in 1984. A year later he became its second mayor. After 30 years he failed to be re-elected in 2015 but regained a place on the council a few months later in a special election. Today he is West Hollywood’s mayor again, the 8th time he has held the post, and is another lgbt world record for an elected official.

West Hollywood can lay claim to have the gayest municipal council ever (if we disregard the short-lived Stoke-on-Trent council in England which only ever had 2 mayors, both of them openly gay men – more about them in December). The West Hollywood council created in 1984 consists of 5 publicly elected members whose terms of office last for 4 years. They select one of their number to serve as mayor for one year on a rota basis. The first election for the 5-person council in 1984 had 40 candidates, of which 19 were openly gay or lesbian. Such openness has continued to be present on the council. West Hollywood cries out for more in-depth research and analysis, something I don’t have the time to do.

Other than West Hollywood only one other US municipality has had two consecutive openly gay male mayors. In 2007 Craig Davis became the first openly gay mayor in Michigan when he became Mayor of Ferndale. He was succeeded by David Coulter, also openly gay.

In my next Chain male article in October we’ll cross the Atlantic and look at the gay male mayors in Europe.

Monday 21 August 2017

Star-Gayzing : Totally Troy

It’s a very special day in North America today. A total eclipse will hit the continent in Oregon and travel diagonally across the USA to the Carolinas. Most of the continent will marvel in this spectacle.

In an article I wrote several years ago I mentioned solar eclipses and their links to the Greek god Apollo. Today I’m going to give a couple more lgbt connection – one ancient, one modern – and how one specific total eclipse helps to date the Trojan War.

Using mathematics astronomers have been able to determine where and when previous eclipses have taken place over thousands of years. Very often there is written evidence in ancient writings to prove it. The further back you go the less likely it is for written evidence to survive, and very often it is written in mystical and symbolic language.

So, which particular ancient eclipse are we going to examine today? Using the modern common calendar to date the eclipse NASA has identified one that took place on 24th June 1312 BC. Below is a map showing its path across Turkey and the ancient Hittite Empire. Is this an eclipse that is mentioned in Homer’s re-telling of the Trojan War?
Let’s begin with some ancient writing. Mursili II was king of the Hittite Empire over 3000 years ago. We are fortunate in having a ten-year chronicle of the first part of his reign, probably written by himself as it is written in the first person. In his chronicle Mursili recounts an omen he saw in the morning sky in the tenth year of his reign when he and his army were preparing to leave their winter camp for battle. Ancient armies tended not to fight during winter. Mursili then remembers another omen in the sky from four years previously in year 6 of his reign. Historians believe that both omens were eclipses, the most common kind of omen seen in the sky during daytime.

Astronomers have identified two eclipses which passed over Hittite territory within four years of each other. The first was in 1312 BC and the second in 1308 BC. Do these fit Mursili’s report? Historians have generally accepted that they do but disagree on which one Mursili saw when leaving winter camp. A few historians don’t even think that Mursili was writing about two eclipses but the same one.

The significance of this eclipse in particular is that it helps in the dating of ancient chronology in Asia and Egypt. So significant in fact that “Mursili’s Eclipse” even has its own Wikipedia page.

One solution has been proposed by teacher, astronomer, genealogist and multi-Gay Games athletics champion Russell Jacquet-Acea. He suggested that Mursili wrote about both eclipses.

The first of the eclipses in 1312 BC passed over the Hittite capital city during the month of June. It was a total eclipse. The 1308 BC eclipse passed further south, still within Hittite territory, but it was only visible in the morning and was an annular eclipse (when the Moon is slightly further away and the Sun can still be visible behind the Moon as a ring). This second eclipse occurred in April and was only visible in the morning. If Mursili was just leaving winter camp then the morning omen he saw must have been this second 1308 BC eclipse. This provides the obvious conclusion that the one Mursili remembers from four years earlier was in 1312.

Now that we have linked the 1308 BC eclipse to Year 10 of Mursili’s reign, and the 1312 BC eclipse to Year 6, we can date other events of that era and the vicinity such as the Trojan War.

Here we tread on less firm ground. What we know about the Trojan War comes mainly from Homer’s “The Iliad”. It was written several centuries after the event took place and is based on traditional oral accounts, mythology and many possible elaborations. It is, after all, a work of fiction not journalism. Many historians have tried to date the war based on what appears to be an account of an eclipse in “The Iliad”. This is significant, because it is linked to the death of one of the main characters in the war and one of the most famous same-sex couples in Ancient Greece, Patroklus.
The most famous depiction of Achilles (right)
tending to the wounds of his lover Patroklus
(left) as shown on Ancient Greek pottery dating
from c.500 BC.
Several eclipses have been determined as being visible over the area around Troy and proposed as the one in “The Iliad”, including those of 1218 BC and 1186 BC. Other evidence suggests it was Mursili’s eclipse of 1312 BC. There is a direct link between Troy and the Hittite Empire.

King Mursili’s father, King Suppiluliama I, had conquered an area on the coast of what is now Turkey. This included the city of Wilusa. Historians, archaeologists and linguists have proved that Wilusa was called Ilios by the Greeks, the name Homer often used in addition to Troy. Digging through the ancient remains of Troy archaeologists have narrowed down the period of the Trojan War to around 1300 BC. The last stages of the war included the dramatic events described by Homer about the death of Patroklus. Even though he was writing over 400 years later Homer links his death to an eclipse, and he gives a good description of it in “The Iliad”.

On the morning of the battle Patroklus persuaded his lover Achilles to let him wear Achilles’ armour. As the battle progressed towards the afternoon the sky began to darken. Homer specifically mentions the sky being cloudless so it wasn’t storm clouds brewing. The battle continued and the Trojan Prince Hektor spotted whom he thought was Achilles and kills him. Only afterwards does he realise he has killed Patroklus. The area around Patroklus’s body got as dark as night, and the stars of the night could be seen in the sky.

The battlefield is located by Homer, so is there an eclipse which passes over it in around 1300 BC? Yes, there is. Mursili’s eclipse of 1312 BC would have been almost total over it and occurred in the early afternoon (the 1308 eclipse was too far south for it to be over the battlefield).

One other piece of evidence comes from “The Iliad” when Achilles learns of the murder of his partner. Homer describes that the gods made a new shield for him to replace the one Patroklus was carrying when he was killed, which was taken by Hektor as a trophy. The new shield showed a depiction of the night sky. From his description of the lay-out and position of the stars on the shield Homer describes the exact constellations that would have been visible during the 1312 BC total eclipse at the battlefield, even down to the centre of the shield being where the Sun was eclipsed between Leo and Cancer. It is very unlikely that Homer would have chosen this particular configuration arbitrarily and could well have been repeating a centuries-old tradition.

Now, thanks to the contribution of Russell Jacquet-Acea, NASA’s calculation of ancient eclipses and the writings of a Hittite king we have one possible date of the death of Patroklus which led to the fall of Troy shortly afterwards. The evidence is persuasive for me to accept, but there are many other theories and possible dates put forward. If only we had a time machine and go back to find out which one is true.

Thursday 17 August 2017

The Emperor Says "Rule, Britannia"

Another anniversary for you today. On this day in the year 117 Trajan, the Emperor of Rome, died. He was succeeded by the man he adopted as his son only two days earlier (who was also the son of his cousin), a 41-year-old soldier called Publius Aelius Hadrianus, known to us all as Emperor Hadrian.

In celebration of this 1900th anniversary of Hadrian’s accession let’s have a look at his links to the UK, and specifically his influence on the creation of the very personification of the nation itself, Britannia.

Britannia was a name given to the British Isles by the Romans long before the female figure of the same name was created. Throughout the empire the Romans adopted allegorical personifications for their conquered provinces. None have survived as major figures into the modern era except Britannia.

It all started not long after Hadrian became emperor. He was an inveterate traveller. He was probably Spanish-born, of mixed Roman colonial and native Hispanic heritage. He trained as a soldier in Spain and served as a military commander in Germany, France and Dacia (modern Romania, which took its name from the empire itself). Hadrian was in Syria when he succeeded as emperor and it took him almost a year to return to Rome. He was there only three years before he set off again on a kind of royal tour of his empire that lasted another four years. In his 21 years as emperor Hadrian spent only 8 of them in Italy.

This “royal tour” was the period during which Hadrian visited Britain. There had ben several native rebellions around the whole empire and he was keen to examine the defences. The success of the suppression of a revolt in Britain was celebrated with the issue of new coins, not unlike commemorative coins today. On the heads side was a portrait of Hadrian himself, complete with his famous beard (he was the first Roman emperor to have one). On the tails side was the figure of a seated women with the name “Britannia” beneath her feet. This is regarded as the first personification of the nation as a woman and has influenced every representation of her to the present day. The coin pictured below is from a few years later in around the year 134.
Roman coinage was only issued on the orders of the emperor, so we can be sure that Hadrian himself would have had a say in the design. We’ll probably never know for sure. But we can be sure that Hadrian perpetuated and encouraged this representation on his visit to Britain in 122.

Hadrian arrived in Britain to inspect the defences after a rebellion in the north of the country. Considering how to improve them he ordered the building of the famous wall across the country which bears his name. He never saw the wall completed because he went off on his travels again and spent the remaining years of his reign in the southern half of his empire, and falling in love with the gorgeous young Antinous.

Before he left Britain Hadrian went to York, or Eboracum, as he would have called it, and he had built the only known temple to the goddess Britannia, thereby sealing her place as the patron goddess of the nation.

Britannia continued to appear on Roman coins into the 3rd century. She reappeared during the late Tudor period, and when the crowns of England and Scotland were united as Great Britain by the predominantly gay King James I Britannia’s place as the personification of the united crowns became secure. Since then she has appeared everywhere – coins, medals and banknotes, paintings, sculptures and corporate logos, satirical cartoon and propaganda posters, village pageants and the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Nowhere can Hadrian’s choice of Britannia as the national allegorical figure be more fervently heralded than at the annual Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. The patriotic song “Rule, Britannia” is a constant feature and is always sung with enthusiasm. Many, many times the singing has been led by a leading soprano dressed as Britannia herself.

So, what more can I say on this 1900th anniversary of Hadrian becoming Emperor of Rome but “Rule, Britannia”.

Sunday 13 August 2017

Proud To Be Sinister

Yes, I admit it. I belong to a community which has been victimised and discriminated against for centuries. We’ve been called sinful and disciples of Satan, but it’s how we were born. Our “difference” has been used as a by-word for evil and the bad things in this world. But I don’t care because I’m proud to be left-handed.

What better way to celebrate today’s International Left-Hander’s Day by celebrating the sinister, or left-handed, community within the lgbt world.

There are many similarities in the treatment of left-handed people and gay men over the centuries. In fact research seems to suggest that handedness and sexuality may originate in the same way at the same time, possibly while the brain is developing in the womb.

The main evidence to support this is the fact, repeatedly shown through many studies, that there is a higher percentage of gay left-handers than heterosexual men. Also, as with sexuality, there seems to be a whole spectrum from complete left-handedness to complete right-handedness. Some people are ambidextrous (a word which prefers the right-hand or dextrous side), just as some people are bisexual or pansexual. I’m exclusively left-handed.

It would be easy to claim that the demonization of left-handers was just a Christian phenomenon. Various cultures before Christianity existed saw the left as subservient to and less divine than the right hand. But there are some exceptions. In the Old Testament Book of Judges (chapter 3) the Israelites had a hero called Ehud who was specifically and uniquely identified as left-handed.

Among the many people who appear on lists of left-handers are Alexander the Great, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. But are they? Is there any evidence?
Let’s start with Alexander the Great. Being left-handed in ancient Greece in his lifetime was a very rare thing. Of all the contemporary biographical details of Alexander’s life there is nothing about him being left-handed, which would hardly have gone unnoticed. The famous mosaic of him on horseback aiming a spear at King Darius of Persia (above) shows him holding the spear in his right hand. Even though the mosaic was constructed in about 100 BC, some 200 years after Alexander died, it is probably a copy of the painting mentioned by Pliny in “Natural History” which he finished writing a few years later. He saw the Alexander mosaic in Pompeii just before the famous eruption with his own eyes. He may even have seen the original painting he mentioned which scholars have attributed to Alexander’s own time 200 years earlier. His right hands holds the spear in both cases.

The first time Alexander the Great was labelled as left-handed wasn’t until 1970 in “Left-Handed Man in a Right-Handed World” by Michael Barsley (1913-1993), a would-be poet with no academic qualification who wrote light-hearted books on popular subjects. He gave no evidence or source for his claim. However, he did recount a legend that has its origin in a 10th century Jewish chronicle called “The Book of Josippon”. This is considered to be a work of traditional belief rather than true history in the accepted sense. The legend says that Alexander encountered a tribe in Asia whose population was entirely left-handed. There’s nothing in the legend that says Alexander was left-handed as well. This legend is the only time that Alexander and left-handedness are found together before 1970. The legend may not even be true. There are many legends about Alexander, including one in which he tied his throne between two griffins and flew through the skies.

Once Barsley’s book was published its list of left-handers with Alexander at the top became regarded as authoritative. The list has been copied time and time again in other books and online without any attempt to verify the names and has now become just an urban myth of the ancient world.

So, no, Alexander the Great was not left-handed.

What about Michelangelo?  Here we have firmer evidence from one of his own apprentices, no less. This apprentice, Raffaello da Montelupo was left-handed, as he states very clearly in his surviving writings. He states that Michelangelo was naturally left-handed but painted with his right hand. This seems to be proven in his drawings and his hatchings. This is the word given to those strokes which usually indicate shadow or depth. In my case, as a left-hander, hatching I make in my drawings all go downwards from left to right, just like \\\\\\. In Michelangelo’s drawings the hatching goes downwards from right to left, just like //////. Try it for yourself and you’ll see how awkward it is to use the wrong hand. On an interesting note, one of Michelangelo’s most famous painting “The Creation of Adam” in the Cistine Chapel (below), show God using his right hand to give life to Adam though his left hand.
We have no reason to doubt Raffaello’s description of his master. So, yes, Michelangelo was left-handed, though not a left-handed painter!

Finally, we come to the most celebrated left-hander, Leonardo da Vinci. Again, we can see in the hatching in his drawings which hand he used. It is the \\\\\ hatching of a left-hander. But scholars have not left it at that. Some have suggested that he originally favoured his right hand as a child and later, as a result of an accident, began to use his left hand. It’s not unknown for children to be ambidextrous and drift towards one hand or the other. My older brother did that. He was left-handed as a child but is now predominantly right-handed. There’s no evidence that Leonardo injured his right hand, and no-one suggested he did until 1952 in an article in the medical journal “The Lancet”. To me, it sounds like a classic example of denial, a bias towards right-handers, just like some straight historians claim well-known gay people from history weren’t gay at all.

Leonardo’s mirror-writing, writing from right to left, is well-known. It does not constitute the majority of his writing and seems to have be reserved for draft sketches rather than complete works.

At the end of the day what can we can say about Leonardo da Vinci? Definitely, yes, he was left-handed.

Two out of three lgbt icons being left-handed isn’t bad. So, if you too are left-handed I hope you have a wonderful and totally sinister International Left-Handers Day.

Wednesday 9 August 2017

Going Out To Alcatraz

There are some “firsts” which members of the lgbt community are given with pride: the first American woman in space (Sally Ride), or the first woman to reach both North and South Poles (Ann Bancroft).

There are some “firsts” which are not so well received. One of these is the first inmate on Alcatraz – Prisoner Number 1. That “honour” goes to Franklin Lucas Bolt (1908-1966), an American soldier who was convicted as sodomy. While Alcatraz has a legendary reputation as the most brutal and fearful of American prisons housing the nation’s most dangerous criminals Bolt was one of the victims of the pre “Don’t tell, don’t ask” attitude in the US armed forces that saw Bolt and hundreds, if not thousands, of US military personnel being victimised.

Through the total history of Alcatraz as a federal prison from 1933 there were 29 out of 1,576 prisoners who were registered as being convicted for sodomy. Franklin Bolt was the first to be listed and Prisoner 1561 Benson Elgin Paul (1930-2001) who arrived just eleven months before Alcatraz was closed down, was the last.

As with all historical records of sodomy we must be careful not to label all incidents as homosexual. Sodomy was a crime men could commit against women. One example of this is Prisoner 1269 Joseph Dayton Bright (b.1927). He is listed on several lgbt websites as a gay man purely on his being found guilty of sodomy. The facts of his case tell a different story.

Joseph Dayton Bright was a recruit of the 15th Constabulary Squadron of the US army and was stationed in Feussen, Germany. On the night of 14th November 1948 he and fellow Recruit George Carinelli got drunk and raped a German woman. The woman died and the two men were charged with murder and sodomy against her. They were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. However, the Judge Advocate General of the US Department of the Army held a review of the case against Joseph Bright. He decided on 21st October 1949 that the sentence be reduced to life imprisonment with hard labour. Consequently Bright was sent to the military prison in Atlanta, Georgia. Bright attempted to escape but was caught. It was then decided he should be sent to Alcatraz, and he arrived there on 14th May 1957.

Bearing that in mind we should not assume that all of the prisoners found guilty of sodomy were gay.
Most of the Alcatraz prisoners convicted of sodomy were from the US armed forces. Alcatraz was originally a military prison from the 1860s to the 1930s. The present familiar silhouette of the concrete structure perched on an island cliff top dates from 1912. It was officially known as the United States Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) Pacific Branch. The army stopped using it in 1933 when it was taken over by the Department of Justice and turned into a maximum security federal prison. A period of conversion and modernisation took place and the new Alcatraz prison was ready to receive new inmates in this month, August, in 1934.

There were some prisoners who had been in the earlier military prison and were left on the island to work in the laundry. Only 32 of the 221 military prisoners remained when Alcatraz became a federal prison. As such they became the first registered prisoners. Of those 32 prisoners 9 were convicted of sodomy while serving in the army. They were not re-registered according to the date of their conviction but in alphabetical order. Franklin Bolt was the first alphabetically, and that’s the reason why he became Alcatraz Prisoner 1. He had been convicted while serving in the US-controlled Panama Canal Zone in January 1933.

Other prisoners had been convicted and imprisoned on Alcatraz before Franklin Bolt. We may never have a full list of inmates imprisoned for sodomy during its time as a military prison. But we do know of the 9 who remained when it became a federal prison on 19th June 1934. Here they are :

Prisoner Number and Name                           Date of Conviction
1. Franklin Lucas Bolt (1908-1966)                    24 Jan 1933
4. Joseph Constantine Harrison (1907-1976)    27 Feb 1932
6. Clyde Findell Hicks (1910-1993)                    7 Aug 1931
9. Alan Whitney Hood (1907-1945)                    1 Dec 1932
10. Frederick Lasalle Hulme (1899-1970)          24 Nov 1930
12. Charles Evans Johnson (1910-1972)           28 Nov 1931
20. Angelo George Paris (b.1900)                      8 Jan 1931
21. William G. Payne (b.c.1905)                        16 Nov 1931
23. Leo Prokopf (1907-1976)                             12 Jan 1934

As can be seen, 7 of the 8 other prisoners appear to have been on Alcatraz before Franklin Bolt. What we can now say is that the first inmate in the federal prison on Alcatraz convicted of sodomy was actually not Bolt but Frederick Lasalle Hulme.

The issue of homosexual activity in the military has always been an issue because of the long absences from female company. The majority of the homosexual encounters were due to circumstance and opportunity. The same can be said with prisoners. Life in prison was no help to those with sexual urges. This can be surmised by reading a report written by the Judge Advocate General in 1905 after he visited the Alcatraz military prison. He writes that “obscene practices are of rare occurrence and are severely punished”. Some 15 years earlier in 1890 the army surgeon on Alcatraz recommended that one prisoner should be discharged for his own health because he was being used “as a mujerado by sundry fellow convicts” (mujerado is a derogatory slang term from that period given to a man who takes on the sexual role of a woman). The surgeon described the abused inmate as a “sodomist” but no other information is given.

In the third group of prisoners shipped over to the island on 22nd August 1934 were 3 out of 53 who were convicted of sodomy. This was also the shipment which included the most famous prisoner on Alcatraz, the gangster Al Capone. Another 3 arrived in the 24th September shipment. This made a total of 15 inmates who were convicted of sodomy. Four of these were released on completion of their sentences within a year.

From 1934 there were only 14 other sodomy inmates who arrived, the last one being the above-named Benson Elgin Paul. Alcatraz was closed for good on 21st March 1963.

We may never know how many gay men were incarcerated on Alcatraz throughout its history. The convictions for sodomy merely act as a label for sexual abuse against both men and women and many of them may not have been gay men as we would recognise today. A lot of those on Alcatraz married on their release and had families. That is no indication that they were gay men who attempted to disguise their true sexuality.

Sunday 6 August 2017

The Blackmailer's Charter

In this recent article I wrote for the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 I mentioned the Labouchere Amendment. This was an extra clause added to the Criminal Law Amendment Act which was being debated in the Houses of Parliament for the last time on this day in 1885.

Labouchere was the name of an MP, Henry DuPre Labouchere (1831-1912) (pictured below). Historians have often been mystified as to why this Liberal MP should have introduced his amendment at such a late stage. He was known as a radical reformist and spoke and wrote often on what he saw as injustices within the traditional class system, even advocating the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected chamber. He criticised the racism that was commonplace in all classes. He called for reform of the judicial system. So why did he suddenly appear to turn against one of the most victimised and criminalised people in Victorian society by pushing for more victimisation? Labouchere never showed any interest in taking part in the many other previous debates relating to sex. It has been suggested that he was thinking of the victims of homosexual crime.
The full title of the Act being debated was “An Act to make further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels and other purposes” As the title implies there were previous laws which dealt with similar issues. Let’s have a quick look at them.

First, what was the legal position of homosexuals in Victorian England? The Buggery Act 1553 introduced by King Henry VIII and his anti-Catholic political cronies placed the death penalty on anyone found guilty of homosexual activity. It was the sexual act that was unlawful, not homosexuality itself. It was the first time that same-sex activity became illegal and punishable by death. The law was amended by the Offences Against the Person Act 1828 which laid down that there must be proof of sexual penetration. Evidence of other activities during sex were decriminalised. A later Offences Against the Person Act introduced in 1861 removed the death penalty and substituted a minimum sentence of 2 years imprisonment with or without hard labour. Imprisonment could be for life.

During the 1880s there was some concerns over the increasing awareness of the sexual slavery of young British girls being sold abroad. The Criminal Law Amendment Act was brought in, as the full name of the Act states clearly, as a means of protecting those young children. Which begs the next question. Why did Labouchere introduce homosexual offences into an Act that was all about protecting girls?

The answer to that may come with another aspect of Henry Labouchere as a politician. He was known to be a bit of a stirer. Several times he proposed amendments to other bills going through parliament which had nothing to do with the subject being debated. Most of his amendments were so impractical to enforce, or just plain ridiculous, that they were quickly dropped. Labouchere did this with any bill he thought was against liberty. It was a delaying tactic still used today as an attempt to run out of parliamentary debating time and therefore delay the bill, or even force it to be dropped altogether. He thought the Criminal Law Amendment Act was idealistic, impractical and unnecessary. He noted that it was discriminatory against working class families because they often married their daughters young, and one of the issues being considered in the bill was underage marriage.

Always a political tactician Labouchere waited until the right moment to introduce his amendment on homosexual activity. He waited until late into the debate, late in the night of 6th August, before standing up and presenting it. The House of Commons was almost empty. Most MPs had gone home to bed. Those MPs still in the Commons probably wanted to go home was well.

The Attorney-General, Sir Henry James, simply accepted Labouchere’s Amendment on the spot. There was no debate and there was no review in committee. It was labelled Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill and put on the list of business for the House of Commons the next day for its Third Reading. The Bill was accepted and approved by the MPs present and it became law. All that remained was the Royal Assent.

Political commentators, historians and biographers have all debated the motives of Henry Labouchere for decades. He did not have any proper explanation himself, so perhaps we’ll never really know if he was an actual homophobe or if it was just a case that one of his frequent amendments backfiring on him and becoming law. The majority of people just label him a homophobe regardless. Whatever the true motive may have been he played into the hands of the millions of homophobes who were to follow and make life hell for gay men in the UK. For that alone he deserves the animosity he receives.

To end on an ironic note. The Labouchere Amendment has been called the Blackmailer’s Charter because it enabled anyone to extort money out of gay men, threatening to report them to the police, often simply on the basis that they talked to another man. During the debates on the Criminal Law Amendment Act Labouchere voiced his opposition to it by saying it could be “described as a measure for facilitating every sort of extortion and blackmail”. If only he had left it at that and not try to derail the law by introducing his amendment. After opposing the Criminal Law Amendment Act by implying it was a “blackmailer’s charter” he was ultimately responsible for making sure it did so.

Wednesday 2 August 2017

Happy Chaeronean New Year

Yes, it’s New Year’s Day again. There’s so many every year, but today is the first day of the year 2355 according to the Order of Chaeronea, a secret Victorian society founded in 1897 devoted to the ethical, spiritual and moral emancipation of gay men.

It seem strange that a society which aimed to create one of the first world-wide lgbt communities did so in secret. But then all such communities were underground and “secret” in many cities around the world at one time.

The Order of Chaeronea was the brainchild of George Cecil Ives (1867-1950), a writer and advocate for prison reform. He was a friend of many leading figures in Victorian homophile circles, including Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds, whom he referred to as the Four Leaders of Hellas. This was is allusion to the Ancient Greeks and their tradition of same-sex love. They called themselves Uranian, and this was a name first coined by the German lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895) who was a pioneer in the campaign for the equality and acceptance of homosexuality.

George Cecil Ives chose the name of the Order of Chaeronea himself. It is named after the location in Greece where a famous battle was fought in 338 BC. This was a battle fought between the bisexual King Philip II of Macedonia with his son and successor Alexander the Great against an alliance of Greek cities. One of these cities was Thebes whose army included an elite force now known as the Sacred Band ofThebes. What was notable about the Sacred Band was that it was composed of male couples. All armies across ancient Greece were made up of men who had sex with men, it was part of their training, but the Sacred Band of Thebes was recruited entirely from self-declared couples not individuals.

At the Battle of Chaeronea the Sacred Band was annihilated. Their exploits entered legend and became regarded by later civilisations as the ultimate expression of love between men.

When George Ives founded the Order of Chaeronea many centuries later he did not envisage that it should be made up of couples and that it was to be centred on love not sex. He did acknowledge, however, that some physical attractions would lead to other things in such an organisation as this but that it was not its prime aim.

For George Ives sex was more philosophical than physical. He got very annoyed when the only thing the men he had sex with could only think about what they were doing and not discuss why. In fact he thought that sex between men was a danger to the class system. The Victorian era was one where class was rigidly adhered to, more than perhaps any other time since medieval feudalism. They were paranoid about anyone or anything being out of their “proper” place in the world.

But back to the Order of Chaeronea. Being a secret society it is virtually impossible to say how many members it had, or who they were. The only evidence we have to go on is the word of the members themselves, particularly Ives’ own note books and diaries. Even then used his own code words to disguise that he was written. Oscar Wilde may have been a member. He was certainly a friend of Ives and several others who are thought to have been “Chaeroneans”. It is thought that there could have been between 200 and 300 members worldwide. Among those suspected of being members, as well as the “Four Leaders of Hellas” are Samuel Elsworth Cottam, Lord Alfred Douglas, Charles Kains Jackson, John Gambril Nicholson and Rev. Montague Summers.

As with most Victorian societies there was a series of rules, ceremonies and rituals complete with passwords that makes the Order of Chaeronea sound  very much like the Freemasons. Indeed, the Freemasons may have been the inspiration for them. Members of the Order were called Brothers of the Faith (or Sisters, as there were lesbian members also, by some accounts).

Why does all this mean that today is New Year’s Day? When George Ives founded the Order in 1897 he chose to date all correspondence and references in his diaries from the date of the Battle of Chaeronea which took place on 2nd August 338 BC. The little surviving evidence, though, suggests that he actually reckoned 1st January as the start of the Chaeronean year.

Whichever date was actually used, I would like to nominate today as the Chaeronean New Year’s Day.