Saturday 30 September 2017

French Enlightenment?

Between 25th September and 6th October 1791 a seemingly momentous event happened – a new Penal Code was introduced into France which included the first apparent decriminalisation of homosexuality and sodomy.

Don’t get too excited about that. The Penal Code also apparently decriminalised bestiality and incest. In practice what actually happened was that these and homosexuality were removed from criminal “offense against nature” laws and were transferred to civil law under the non-specific “violations of public decency”.

Sodomy wasn’t even debated when the Penal Code was being formulated and it seems an oversight on behalf of the French Revolutionary government who introduced it. As a result sodomy, homosexuality and male same-sex activity wasn’t even mentioned in the Code. The only sexual offences mentioned were rape, sexual assault, child molestation, prostitution and adultery. That meant that it implied all other sexual activity was not illegal.

Even though homosexuality was not an offence possessing, displaying or distributing homosexual literature and art was. Unlike heterosexual art and literature the homosexual equivalent was classed as pornography and included in the “violations of public decency”. Also, even though the age of consent for sex was 11 years in France at the time any homosexual activity involving a child under 21, even in private, was classed as child molestation and, likewise, a “violation of public decency”.

As a result the number of prosecutions against homosexual men did not decrease as you would expect under decriminalisation, but, as happened in England and Wales when homosexuality was partially decriminalised 50 years ago this year, more gay men were charged with offences than previously.

How did the Penal Code of 1791 come into being in the first place?
Throughout the 18th century there was a lot of philosophical debate on just about everything that the world took for granted - religion, science, morality, politics. It was the time of the Enlightenment. The old way of things was on its way out and new ideas were on their way in.

In France the distrust of the church and monarchy was a breeding ground for new Enlightenment thinking. Eventually both church and state were replaced after the French Revolution. The National Constituent Assembly, which was formed to produce new laws for the republic, led to many French philosophers to push for reform. Even though these same philosophers found the idea of homosexuality utterly repugnant they advocated that it was a natural act and should not be punishable by death.

The general feeling of the French Republic founders was that everything under the old monarchy should be replaced with something which reflected the new age. Just how much direct influence the philosophers had on their decisions is a question of debate.

With the criminal laws everything that reeked of “phoney offences, created by superstition, feudalism, the tax system and despotism” was to be replaced. By superstition and despotism they meant the Church and monarchy. Most of the sexual offences that were previously regarded as criminal were re-classed as civil offences.

The absence of any reference to sodomy, incest or bestiality in the Penal Code inferred that they were thus decriminalised. This is why France has often been regarded as the first European country to legalise homosexuality. But the Penal Code 1791 was about reforming criminal offences, not civil ones, which were handled by local authorities. It didn’t mean that homosexuality was tolerated or could not be discriminated against.

As I mentioned earlier homosexuals were still being charged with offences which heterosexuals could enjoy unhindered. During the next few years and into the Napoleonic era the laws were more strictly enforced and the names of many men suspected of being homosexual were listed by the police until the 1980s.

Whether France can indeed claim its place as the first country to legalise homosexuality or not is a matter of personal opinion. What we can say for sure is that France turned sodomy from a criminal offence with the death penalty into a civil offence that was enforced under the wide-ranging “violation of public decency”. In effect turning it back to what sodomy was before the death penalty was introduced.

The Enlightenment contributed a major part in the change of attitude towards homosexuality across the whole of Europe. The Enlightenment began the moral debate on homosexuality. The influence of its philosophers effected the way the new emerging nations formulated their laws, including that of the USA. Unfortunately, the debate on the criminality of otherwise of homosexuality is still very much a contentious subject in many of those nations. Will it take a New Enlightenment for homosexuality to be given universal equal status as heterosexuality?

Tuesday 26 September 2017

The Crystal Count

One of my oldest hobbies is geology. My parents often told me that I would be found digging holes in the garden almost as soon as I could walk. Since then I’ve collected rocks and minerals as often as I can, either by collection on site or by purchase.

One of my purchased specimens is a small piece of uvarovite (pictured above). It’s a mineral composed of small green crystals which were formed millions of years ago under great heat and pressure. Uvarovite belongs to the garnet group. You may be familiar with garnets and their deep red colour. Uvarovite is green because it contains chromium.

The first specimen of uvarovite was discovered in 1832 in the Ural Mountains by a Swiss scientist called Germain Henri Hess. At the time he was living in St. Petersburg and was a member of the prestigious Academy of Sciences there. Rather than name the new mineral after himself he chose to name it after the then President of the Academy, Sergei Semionovich Uvarov (1786-1885).

portrait of Sergei Uvarov by Orest Kiprensky, 1815.
Sergei Uvarov, who was created a Count in 1846 by Tzar Alexander III, was also a prominent statesman and scholar who had first made his name known internationally as an archaeologist. He became friends with many other scientists of the period, including Alexander von Humboldt.
But Uvarov also had his critics, the most notable and most public of whom was the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. I get the impression that Pushkin didn’t like Uvarov. He called him a “great villain” in his diaries. What didn’t help was when Uvarov appointed his widely-regarded lover Prince Mikhael Dondukov-Korsakov as Vice-President of the Academy of Sciences in 1835. With it went the appointment of Rector of St. Petersburg University.

Prince Mikhael (1794-1869) was not a scientist and Pushkin had an even lower opinion of him, but he wasn’t alone. The prince was generally described as unintelligent and ignorant. Everyone in their social circles knew he and Uvarov had been lovers and they were sure that this was the only reason the prince got his appointments.

Pushkin was also very angry at the couple because Prince Mikhael, whom he called Prince Dunduk, was a government censor and was instructed by Sergei Uvarov to censor Pushkin’s work. Not merely content with insulting the prince in his diary Pushkin wrote a little verse which expressed in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t the prince’s brain that got him the post at the Academy of Sciences but another part of his anatomy. In translation the verse goes like this :

“In the Academy of Sciences, look,
There sits Prince Dunduk.
It’s said he doesn’t deserve
To plan such an honoured role,
How does he have the nerve?
Because of his big ass-hole.”

Prince Mikhael’s reputation has never really improved in over 180 years, but his lover Sergei Uvarov has fared better. He remained as President of the Academy for 37 years until his death. However, his influence is felt more strongly in the field of state education.

Even though there was some semblance of the acceptance of homosexuality in all levels of society the same could not be said of education. In 1832, the same year that Hess discovered the mineral uvarovite, Sergei Uvarov was a Minister of Education as well as Academy President. He came up with a policy that was to influence Russian society for decades. Uvarov said that education should be centred on three things – the value of the Russian Orthodox Church, the rule of the tzarist government, and the national character of Russia. This became known as the “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality” policy.

Unfortunately, Uvarov believed that education should not be available to the non-noble classes. Universities came under direct government control and all literature influenced by western ideas were censored, hence Pushkin’s anger at him and “Prince Donduk”.

Perhaps because of Uvarov’s restrictive educational policy Russia wasn’t able to identify and nurture the scientific talents that may have been present in its lower social ranks. Perhaps that helped Germany to fill the void, because Germany’s more inclusive education system produced many of the great scientists, particularly in the field of chemistry, of the 19th century. But Count Sergei Uvarov did leave a legacy in the founding of the Russian Archaeological Society and the Russian State Historical Museum by his son Count Aleksey Uvarov who became one of the greatest historians of his age and was surely inspired by his father.

Friday 22 September 2017

Queer Achievement : Arming the Police

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

No, I’m not talking about firearms but a coat of arms. One lgbt police officers to receive one of the highest honours in the UK is Jennifer Hilton (b.1936). She was an officer in the Metropolitan Police, reaching the rank of Commander. After retiring from the police force in 1990 she became a Life Peer and took the title Baroness Hilton of Eggardon. Her arms are illustrated below.
Regular readers will notice several things different about the illustration I’ve drawn for today. First of all it’s in a plain, flat, style with no shading or highlights. I’m experimenting with new styles and haven’t found one that works yet so have left it in its basic coloured format. Secondly, unmarried women like Baroness Hilton don’t use helmets in English heraldry so there is no mantling (the flowing cloth that is usually shown billowing around the shield). Rather than use the garland of leaves that is usually included in the achievements of unmarried women, as in my illustration of the arms of Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake, I thought I’d surround Baroness Hilton’s arms with a representation of the coronation robes of a baron.

As is customary I’ve also indicated the baroness’s rank by putting a baron’s coronet at the top. As with my illustrations of the arms of another peer of the realm, Sir Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Albans, I’ve chosen not to include the supporters Baroness Hilton was granted with her arms (it doesn't suit my style). However, below is the illustration of the baroness’s full coat of arms as given in Debrett’s Peerage of 2003.
I’ll just mention the supporter on the right of the picture, the griffin. This is a creature widely used in heraldry and has symbolic meaning. One meaning is that the griffin is a guardian of treasure and you often find a griffin in the coat of arms of banks or financial institutions. Another symbolic meaning which is appropriate for Baroness Hilton in that the griffin is associated with justice, being the creature who pulls the chariot of Nemesis, the goddess of justice. It’s a fitting symbol for a police officer.

Moving on to the lozenge there is another element symbolic of the police which also incorporates Baroness Hilton’s name. Heraldry often uses puns and visual clues. One particular pun which is encountered quite a lot of English heraldry is the green mound, or hill, an obvious pun on Hilton. The oak tree, symbolic of England, is surrounded by a protecting fence. This alludes to the baroness’s career as a protector of the English public.

The two bees represent Baroness Hilton’s education. She went to Bedale’s School and Manchester University. Both of these establishments currently use bees, in Bedale’s school emblem and Manchester’s coat of arms, as shown below.
Suspended below the shield is the Queen’s Police Medal. This was awarded to Baroness Hilton in recognition of her services to the police force.

Finally there is the motto, “Poursuivre Raison Avec Resolution”, which translates as “To follow right with resolution”.

Tuesday 19 September 2017

The Death of Butterflies

There are quite a few insults that have become accepted by the communities to whom they were directed. They range from the name “Christian” given to the early worshippers of Christ, to the donkey logo of the US Democratic Party which was originally used by their critics portraying them as asses.

The lgbt community has had many derogatory names over the centuries – e.g. sodomite, puff, bugger, and fairy. Some have become accepted by the majority of the community and one, “queer”, has become a term incorporated into academic disciplines. Non-English lgbt insults have also become accepted, including the word which we examine today as the USA celebrates its Hispanic Heritage Month.

The word is “mariposa”, the Spanish name for butterfly, and its use as a name applied to homosexuals begins in the prisons of 16th century Seville. Although it developed into an insult later on it seems to have originated as some kind of metaphorical allusion to the action of a butterfly around a flame.

The man who appears to have first used the word mariposa, at least in writing, was Pedro de Léon (1545-1632), a Jesuit priest who was a confessor to the prisoners of the Royal Jail of Seville from 1578 to 1616. He wrote an account of his time there and recorded many of the crimes for which the inmates was accused and convicted.
When describing those convicted of sodomy de Léon refers to them as butterflies attracted to a flame, getting closer and closer until one wing is burnt. Then as the attraction of the flame continues to tempt the butterfly the insect flies into the flame and is destroyed by fire. The flame, de Léon writes, is the temptation of sodomy which attracts man into same-sex activity. This is by no means a meaningless allusion because in Spain at the time men convicted of sodomy were burnt alive at the stake.

Of the 309 prisoners who were executed during de Léon’s time at the jail at least 48 were for sodomy, and there were about 66 more cases which did not result in execution.

The Royal Jail of Seville was one of the largest in medieval Spain containing up to 1,800 men and women. It was where the most notorious and dangerous prisoners in Spain were incarcerated with some of the poorest and prisoners form the Spanish colonies. It was to the poor prisoners that the Jesuits sent “missionaries” to assist in their defence during their trials, either financially, practically or spiritually, and often after conviction. Conditions in the prison were horrible. Overcrowded, dirty and full of lice and rats. This in particular was of concern to Pedro de Léon.

At this period in Spanish history the Inquisition brought to light the plight of many prisoners from the lowest economic strata of society who were convicted purely because of the absence of money to pay for any defence. Like all Catholics in the 16th century the Jesuits condemned the practice of sodomy, but they saw a need to minister to the poor and sent priests into many jails to assist them, whatever their crime, and take their confession. For the condemned this meant spending every day with them until execution, hearing their confession, and preaching on the evils of their crime prior to the sentenced being carried out.

The religious denunciation of the sodomites at the place of execution was often accompanied by the public humiliation of the condemned by the civil authorities. This can be seen in the first of the “mariposas” which de Léon accompanied to his death. In 1578 a man called Machuco, an ex-slave who earned a living as a kind of pimp, procuring boys and men for the homosexual pleasures of many in Seville. He is even said to have performed “marriages”.

Machuco was led to his death in the company of two boys who were dressed as he was in silk ruffs with hair curled and faces painted in the fashionable manner regarded as effeminate. Machuco, visibly distraught at his impending death, was forced to conduct a sham marriage between the boys in front of a huge crowd, probably 15,000 people, in the centre of Seville. Pedro de Léon preached his sermon, specifically denouncing men who wore ruffs, silks and laces. Machuco was then burnt at the stake.

The two boys who accompanied Machuco were not executed. Usually boys found guilty of sodomy were flogged. But de Léon recounted one execution of a young mariposa called Francisco Legazoteca. Whereas the execution of Machuco and other men were greeted with great cheers and rejoicing from the crowds that case of young Francisco received a different reception.

Francisco was convicted jointly with a priest called Pascual Jaime. The boy’s cries created a great deal of compassion and pity from the crowd. He desperately cried out that he was bribed with fine clothes and seduced by the priest and was a fool to submit to him.

The execution of men condemned of sodomy in Spain never reached a higher level than in the 16th and 17 centuries in which Pedro de Léon lived. His description of them as mariposas remained with us and became an insult. In recent times, like the pink triangle of the Nazis, mariposa has become a label of defiance and pride. In the late 20th century many organisations began to adopt the word within their names. More recently a new interpretation has entered the lgbt lexicon with the emergence of transgender groups.

Friday 15 September 2017

Glimpses of Queer Heritage : South

Following on from the three lgbt heritage sites north of the Equator a few days ago here are three more from the south. As before, I can’t guarantee you will have free entry or access to all of them.
Note of illustrations
Palacio Selva Alegre – as depicted on a map of 1826.
Robben Island – modern aerial photo.
Mrs. Swainson’s School – photo of the school in 1926.

Palacio Selva Alegre, Quito, Ecuador
In the heart of old colonial Quito, one block south of Independence Square, is Plaza Chica. On the wall behind a statue are three plaques which depict the scientists and explorers Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858), and Humboldt’s handsome young lover Don Carlos de Montúfar (1780-1816). They are there because this square is the site of the Montúfar’s palatial residence, the Palacio Selva Alegre, and it was where all three met in 1802. It was also known previously as the Casa de las Cuatro Esquinas, the House of the Four Corners, referring to the junction of four streets at which it was situated.

Carlos de Montúfar was a younger son of the Marquess of Selva Alegre who was a leader in the independence movement in colonial South America against the Spanish Empire. He briefly became the effective head of state of this particular province as President of the Autonomous Government of Quito in 1802. This autonomy didn’t last long, however, and his son Carlos was a major revolutionary leader in the independence movement that followed, becoming a close friend and ally of the great Simon Bolivar. The Spanish fought back and Carlos was arrested for treason and executed at the age of 35.

Before taking up arms against Spanish rule Carlos de Montúfar accompanied Humboldt in his American expeditions and to France.

The Palacio Selve Alegre was remodelled in the 1920s as a bank and was eventually demolished in 1962.

Robben Island, South Africa
Robben Island is most well-known today as being the prison of Nelson Mandela. It is the only one of the six lgbt heritage sites I’ve featured this week which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has been the site of a prison since the Dutch settled in South Africa in the 17th century.

One record of homosexuality among the prisoners formed the basis of a 2003 film called “Proteus”. In 1735 Rijkhaart Jacobsz, a native of Rotterdam, was reported to the prison authorities for exposing himself to a male slave and making sexual remarks. After Jacobsz was brutally beaten as punishment another prisoner came forward and claimed Jacobsz had been seen in the past exhibiting homosexual behaviour. It was revealed that he had been seen having sex with an African prisoner called Claas Blank on several occasions over a period of 8 years. Both Jacobsz and Blank were sentenced to death by drowning.

These days there are regular visits to Robben Island from Cape Town.

Mrs. Swainson’s School, Wellington, New Zealand
In Victorian Wellington on Fitzherbert Street was Mrs. Swainson’s girl’s school. Mrs. Mary Ann Swainson was a widow who had established a small school in her home. When more parents began sending their girls to Mrs. Swainson she moved to the site on Fitzherbert Street in 1878.

One of the most famous girls who attended Mrs. Swainson’s school was the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923). It was there that she met another pupil, Maata Mahupuku (1890-1952). They formed a friendship that lasted for the rest of Katherine’s life.

In 1916 Katherine based her story “Kezia and Tai” on their friendship, and at the time of her death Katherine was in the process of writing a novel called “Maata”.

Mrs. Swainson’s school was sold to the Diocese of Wellington in 1920 and was renamed the Samuel Marsden Collegiate School. In 1926 the school moved to the suburb of Karoi. Although both the original site and the present Collegiate School are not accessible to the general public the Old St. Paul’s church, where pupils like Katherine and Maata would have walked and attended services is still open to worshippers.

Monday 11 September 2017

Glimpses of Queer Heritage : North

This past weekend the UK celebrated its annual Heritage Open Days. This is the weekend when hundreds of museums, galleries, stately homes and parks, who usually charge admission for the rest of the year, join hundreds of free-entry sites to have free entry days. I wonder if you have a similar free entry weekend in the country where you live.

There’s a bit of a controversy raging in the English heritage industry this summer. The National Trust, the UK’s leading heritage charity who own hundreds of stately homes and heritage sites, has become embroiled in an argument about the ethics of outing people posthumously.

The National Trust published a book called “Prejudice and Pride” this year which lists some of their properties and some of the more well-known lgbt owners. One of their sites is Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk. The National Trust outed the man who left the hall to the Trust in his will, Robert Ketton-Cremer (1906-1969). Ketton-Cremer’s godchildren objected to this posthumous outing and insist he wasn’t gay. To add to the publicity the National Trust has been criticised for demanding volunteer staff at Felbrigg Hall must wear gay pride badges or be moved to non-public areas of the property.

On the whole the British heritage industry is more than willing to display the vast heritage of the lgbt community without attracting unnecessary controversy.

There may be millions of places around the world that could be listed as lgbt heritage sites. TheStonewall Inn in New York, as I mentioned in June, is one of the most famous. My “City Pride” series often includes historic sites of interest. What I’ve been looking at for today are places which are lesser known, or even no longer in existence, which could also be considered as lgbt heritage sites.

I’ve selected six sites on six continents. All are accessible to the public, either as museum or public area. There is no guarantee that all of them have free entry. Today we’ll look at three lgbt heritage sites north of the Equator and later in the week at three south of the Equator. The locations are shown on the accompanying maps.

Notes on the illustrations:
Fort Ville-Marie – scale model reconstruction of the fort.
Cachtice Castle – modern photo of the castle ruins.
Flower Palace – 14th century depiction of the palace.
Fort Ville-Marie, Montréal, Canada
The Pointe-à-Callière Museum in Montréal occupies part of the site of the first fortified European settlement in the city. At that time Montréal was called Fort Ville-Marie, and construction began in 1642. The fort is also the location of the first recorded instance of a prosecution for homosexual activity in colonial Canada.

In 1648 an un-named drummer of the fort’s militia was sentenced to death for “crimes of the worst kind”, as it was termed at the time. The Jesuit missionaries in Fort Ville-Marie objected to the death penalty and sent the drummer to Quebec for imprisonment. There the civil authorities gave him an ultimatum, to remain in prison or become the province’s first public executioner. The drummer chose the latter.

The fort was abandoned in 1670 and the settlement expanded and was rebuilt over and over again to create modern Montréal. In 2000 the Pointe-à-Callière Museum bought an old empty warehouse a few doors away and excavations began underneath its floor. The museum director had a good idea that there was some colonial archaeology down there, so she was pleasantly surprised when the remains that were found were of the original Fort Ville-Marie. In May this year the old warehouse has been demolished and replaced by a sparkling new visitor pavilion. The history of the fort is on display as well as some of the preserved excavations.

Cachtice Castle, Slovakia
One of the most famous castles in Slovakia due to it being the home of the world’s most prolific female serial killer, Countess Erzsebet Bathory (1560-1614). This Slovakian (or Transylvanian, as she was in her lifetime) countess exercised her bloodlust by luring hundreds of local girls up to her castle and killing them so that she could drink or bathe in their blood. This, she hoped, would give her eternal youth.

The Bathory family came into possession of Cachtice Castle in 1569. It was built in the 13th century when the area was subject to border conflicts between the old medieval kingdom of Hungary and the Grand Duchy of Kiev.

The ruins that can be seen today are the result of a fire which completely destroyed the castle in 1772. On a good day the view of the surrounding countryside is spectacular. There is also a small museum which is open on certain days a weeks.

Hana-no Goshe (The Flower Palace), Kyoto, Japan
On Muromachi Street in Kyoto you can find a battered stone square pillar on one junction which makes the site of the palace of the Muromachi, or Ashikaga, dynasty who reigned from 1338 to 1573. The Flower Palace was built in 1378 by the 3rd Shogun. Two of his sons, the 4th and 6th Shoguns, openly displayed behaviour similar to that found in their European contemporaries of bestowing property and great power on their male favourites/lovers.

The samurai tradition included the taking of same-sex partners in much the same way as the Ancient Greeks soldiers. The 4th Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimochi (1386-1472) and his brother the 6th Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori (1394-1441) both had samurai lovers to whom they gave control of provinces and powerful offices of state. This didn’t go down well with the families from whom they were taken. The enmity between the Ashikaga and the dispossessed families resulted in the assassination of Yoshinori.

The Flower Palace was the political and social hub of Kyoto while the Ashikaga held power. It was abandoned after the civil war of the late 1500s and the exile of the Ashikaga. Archaeological excavations in the area uncovered relics and artefacts which are now housed at Doshisha University just over 100 meters to the east.

Wednesday 6 September 2017

Gay Notes on Jack the Ripper

There never seems to be any decrease in the public’s morbid fascination of Jack the Ripper. Unlike other serial killers this fascination is based mainly on the greatest mystery – who was jack the Ripper?

In this article I wrote about the theories about Francis Tumblety being the Ripper. Each generation adds new names to the list of suspects which all add to the fascination. In the 1960s the Duke of Clarence (1864-1982) was suggested, and in the 1970s Walter Sickert (1860-1942).

The case of the Duke of Clarence has spawned many royal conspiracy theories concerning his own death, much like the ones which infest the internet today in connection with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In some respects the two royals share certain traits. They were adored by the public, they dared to go against royal protocol, and the early deaths produced huge outpourings of public grief not seen with other royal deaths.

The Duke of Clarence’s name was HRH The Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. He was the Prince William of the Victorian era, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales and heir to his grandmother’s throne. There are many lgbt websites which list him. This is based on speculation based on the assumption that he was involved in the famous Victorian homosexual brothel scandal called the Cleveland Street Scandal.

While there may have been some vague rumours about the Duke’s sexuality in his own lifetime there has yet to be any proof that he even set foot in Cleveland Street. The scandal deserves its own article, which I will leave for another time. In my own opinion I do not think the Duke of Clarence was gay.

As with the supposed link to Cleveland Street the Duke’s link to Jack the Ripper attracted speculation and conspiracy theories, and both have been proved wrong. The link to the Ripper was first made by Thomas Stowell, a British surgeon, who wrote an article in 1970 for “The Criminologist” magazine. Even though he never mentioned the Duke of Clarence by name Stowell gave enough coded references for others to suggest that he was implying the Duke was the Ripper. Stowell denied the implication shortly before his death a few days after his article was published.

That didn’t stop conspiracy theorists from coming up with others that involved the Duke of Clarence. In 1976 Stephen Knight’s book “Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution” suggested that Jack the Ripper was a prominent doctor who was ordered by senior members of the royal family to murder all the people who knew that the Duke of Clarence was secretly married and had a daughter. These claims made in the book can all be dismissed. All of it is circumstantial and based on the testimony of someone who later admitted it was all a hoax. See the Wikipedia entry on the book for more information.

What Stephen Knight’s book also did was link the Duke of Clarence to the artist Walter Sickert and claim for the first time that Sickert was involved in the murders. There was no secret in the fact that Sickert was a Ripper fanatic. He once lodged in a room in London where, his landlord claimed, was once rented by Jack the Ripper. Sickert even produced a painting of the room which he titled “Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom”. In his book Stephen Knight claimed that the Duke’s alleged daughter became Sickert’s mistress. All of Knight’s information came originally from an alleged illegitimate son of Sickert and his mistress. This son was the man who later declared he lied and that it was all a hoax. Even though Knight’s theories can be discredited there are still conspiracy theorists who have spent years picking holes in the proof that Knight was wrong.

Of the more recent attempts to prove Walter Sickert was the Ripper is the work of the acclaimed lgbt author and crime writer Patricia Cornwell. In 2002 she published “Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed”. So sure was she about Sickert’s guilt, and still is, that she said at the time that her reputation as a serious writer was at stake.

The reception of Cornwell’s book produced as much controversy as Stephen Knight’s. Part of the theory concerns her belief that Sickert was misogynistic and painted woman in this way. Critics also claim that Sickert was in France when some of the Ripper murders occurred. Cornwell proved that he was not – he was in London doing sketches in the music halls for his famous series of paintings on the subject (I know one of these painting well as it was on display at Nottingham castle where I used to work).

Another connection made by Patricia Cornwell is the analysis of letters supposedly written by the Ripper and signed by him. The handwriting closely matches that of Walter Sickert. However, many Ripper experts consider the Ripper letters to be hoaxes, so we only have to accept them if we consider Sickert was the Ripper.

Cornwell’s reputation didn’t seem to suffer much. Certainly her bank balance didn’t. She has continued to research and published another book earlier this year which contains more evidence to support her theories.

Whatever the truth, whatever the facts, there’s no doubt that jack the Ripper will continue to be the subject of theories, conspiracies and controversy for the foreseeable future.

Saturday 2 September 2017

How Super It Is To Be Queer

In the fight against crime and the pursuit of justice there have been no more popular figures than the comic book superhero. The concept of heroes with extra-human superpowers has been with us since ancient times, the most famous superhero of all time being Hercules. Like Hercules recent fictional heroes have fought demons and dangers with equally superhuman powers. The 20th century saw the creation of the stereotypical “caped crusader” who fights the villains and injustices of the contemporary world.

Gay male characters have appeared in mainstream superhero comic book franchises (eg. Marvel and DC Comics) for several decades. In the majority of cases these few gay characters have not been very heroic in nature at all and mirrored the attitudes towards homosexuality that was common in the period in which the story was written. The worst example comes from a 1980 story featuring The Hulk. Two men attempt to rape Bruce Banner in the shower of a YMCA. The men are depicted as stereotypical 1970s gay porn jocks. The story features other unpleasant incidents and characters, straight ones as well, but it is generally regarded that the portrayal of the two gay men is a regrettable episode in a universe in which a good gay male role model never existed.

The Batman universe was rocked in 1955 when an American psychologist published a book in which he claimed Batman and Robin was a gay couple. To counter the outcry from fans the character of Batwoman was created in 1956 as a love interest for Batman. Ironically, the 2006 reboot of the Bat-universe has Batwoman as a lesbian ex-US army officer who was discharged under the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. She was given her own comic book series and was the first comic book superhero to propose to his/her partner (though not the first to marry) in print.

On the subject of Batman reboots, in 1986 the villain Joker was reimagined as a butch muscle-bound villain with effeminate mannerisms who wore lipstick.
Fortunately, the 1990s saw the emergence of lgbt superheroes who became major characters, though the majority still have mere supporting roles. The lgbt community itself had been reaffirming itself in the wake of the emergence of AIDS and the growth of the Pride movement so it was only natural that, at last, superheroes could tell their readers they were gay and be people who are respected by other superheroes.

It is generally thought that the first comic book superhero to come out as gay was Northstar in 1992. Apparently, they character was always intended as a superhero who was gay from his first appearance in issue 120 of Marvel Comic’s “Uncanny X-Men” (April 1979). He was a member of an ensemble superhero team, Alpha Flight. During the AIDS crisis the writers decided that Northstar would contract HIV and, indeed, die of AIDS. But Marvel weren’t yet ready to have a major hero come out as gay and the illness was due to the fact that he had been away from his native magical fairy kingdom too long. Apparently the existence of a superhero who was a fairy was more acceptable and believable than a superhero being gay! The circumstances surrounding Northstar finally coming out in 1992 began when he found an abandoned infant who had AIDS. Since 2002 Northstar has been a full member of the X-Men, and he and his partner Kyle had the first same-sex wedding in a comic book series in June 2012 in “Astonishing X-Men” issue 51.

There was, however, one established character who came out before Northstar. In 1991 the DC Comics character Pied Piper, originally a villain who was introduced in “The Flash” issue 106 (may 1959), came out to the eponymous lead superhero in issue 53 of “The Flash”. Pied Piper was a reformed villain and went on to assist The Flash in the fight against crime.

Several other superheroes were later portrayed as openly gay from their first appearances. The first of these were Midnighter and Apollo, two superheroes from “The Authority” series of comic books originally published by WildStorm comics. Although there were only hints about their sexuality from their first appearance in issue 4, volume 2 of “Stormwatch” (February 1998) they didn’t actually mention they were gay even though it was generally accepted that they were. When they finally kissed in 2000 the world’s media went into meltdown.

Since then dozens of superheroes, both headline and supporting characters, have come out or have been introduced as lgbt. In 2011 a whole new team of lgbt superheroes called The Pride was created by gay comic book artist Joe Glass who formed the central characters of his independently produced series. While they may seem to play on traditional lgbt stereotypes than mainstream superheroes they have proved popular.

In 2015 the Advocate magazine published a list of 52 lgbt superheroes and villains. You can see the list here. Since then a lot more lgbt superheroes have appeared. The most recent addition to the superqueer world includes Doctor Endless who was introduced this month into the “Suicide Squad” comic series. Doctor Endless is the first genderfluid superhero.

The iconic Wonder Woman was recently out as lesbian in her comic book series. She is arguably the most famous and most important female superhero there has ever been. Whether her sexuality will be transferred to film versions only time will tell.

If, like me, your interest in comic book heroes (ignore their film versions. I do) has been re-ignited you may be interested in looking at a these lgbt comic book (not necessarily superhero) fan websites – Prism Comics and Gay League.