Friday 31 August 2018

Queer Cryptids

As we approach the end of the Pride season have you noticed how many unicorns you’ve seen? Unicorns seem to be everywhere. Amongst my other interests I’m a cryptozoologist and understand why members of the lgbt community feel some affinity with such fabulous creatures. After all, some people claim we don’t exist.

A cryptozoologist is someone who studies fabulous beasts, mythical creatures and strange animals. Yes, we’re talking about Yeti, Nessie and fairies. Until very recently I wasn’t really aware of any other lgbt cryptozoologist. The more open lgbt cryptozoologists on the internet seem to be of a younger generation than myself. Gay Star News published a feature on the current fascination for unicorns and the people who look for weird creatures and cryptids.

Cryptid is the all-encompassing name for these creatures. The words cryptid and cryptozoology indicate their mysterious nature. Their apparent strangeness and “otherness” has been mirrored over many centuries in the attitudes of society with regard to homosexuality and gender identity. They are seen as being outside conformity and the normal understanding of the world, just like many members of the lgbt community feel.

Included by many cryptozoologists, myself one of them, are heraldic beasts, my specialist area. Many of these beasts are common to myths and legends – the unicorn, griffin, mermaid, etc. Some heraldic beasts are very real. The female pelican, for example, had the legendary trait of pecking at her chest so her chicks could feed on her blood. This blood-letting is shown often in heraldry and I’ve illustrated it a couple of years ago in the coats of arms of two lgbt people, Julia Pell and Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton.

In the 1990s I designed and sold badges which featured heraldic beasts (below). In view of the growing popularity of cryptids in the lgbt community, not to mention the world of Harry Potter and his Fabulous Beasts, I may redesign them and start selling them again (they've all been copyrighted to myself, by the way, and I do not give permission for them to be reproduced).

I adopted one heraldic beast as a personal mascot, a rare beast called an alphyn (seen on the bottom row of badge designs). I chose it because its name is similar to that of my grandmother’s family, who spelt their name Alphey in Tudor times. Just like the pelican of the Pelham and Pell families, people and places adopting beasts with similar names is common in heraldry. The London borough of Enfield shows the heraldic beast called the enfield on most of the street signs.

As well as the composite animal cryptids like the unicorn, griffin and alphyn, who are made up of body parts from different animals, there are also the humanoid cryptids. The most well-known of these is the mermaid. Today the term mermaid has been used to describe many water spirits and creatures. Sirens, tritons, naiads and many others have been depicted as half-human and half-fish, personified in recent popular culture by Ariel from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”. There’s so much to say about mermaids and the lgbt community that I’m going to leave them for separate article next month entitled “My Ancestor was a Mermaid”.

All through history people have been catching glimpses of strange, unknown creatures. Legends and stories have developed around them, trying to explain their origin. Remote locations have always been ripe for sightings of cryptids.

In ancient Greece many myths and legends were told about strange creatures and societies living near the edges or dark places of their world. Medusa, the Harpies and the Cyclops are still familiar cryptids. One of the lesser know cryptids is a race of being called the Makhlyes. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing 2,500 years ago, described this race of north African humanoids as being sexually divided down the middle of their bodies, one side being male and other female.

Medieval explorers wrote down what unfamiliar creatures they saw and medieval writers collected all those stories together into books called bestiaries. Familiar creatures, like the pelican, were included. Another creature that is familiar to us today but rarely seen by the majority of Europeans at the time was a creature called the cameleopard. It was a cross between a camel and a leopard. Today we call it a giraffe.

Perhaps, one day, we’ll discover the reality behind some cryptids. Perhaps we’ll find the real Nessie and discover if it really is a plesiosaur. Or perhaps we’ll find out if Bigfoot and Yeti are the same species.

Theories about Bigfoot have been very popular and lots of books have been written about it. Michael Grumley (1942-1988), was a gay writer who, with his partner Robert Ferro and their friends, formed an informal group known as the Violet Quill. Members of this group were responsible for the renaissance of gay literature after the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

In “There Are Giants in the Earth” published in 1974 Michael Grumley suggested that Bigfoot and similar humanoid cryptids are the last remaining members of a species of giant which once populated Earth. They now are very few in number and live in isolated caves and underground tunnels.

As my interest in cryptozoology has been rekindled in the past few weeks I wonder if there are any more cryptids that will become lgbt icons and mascots. In the USA the legendary Mothman and the less well-known Flatwoods Monster have been adopted by some lgbt people.

With so many genders and sexual identities being recognised and brought into the open perhaps there’s room for everyone to have their own personal cryptid mascot.

Monday 27 August 2018

Homohoax : Forging Threesome

“Fake or Fortune” and “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces” are two UK television programmes in which art experts and art detectives investigate the origin of paintings. These paintings may be in a well-known art gallery or a private home, but the paintings featured in both series have either been labelled as forgeries or of questionable origin. Some paintings have been revealed as fakes or unproven to be genuine but some have been confirmed as original works by major artists. It’s the sort of detective work that uncovered the real identity of a portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie I wrote about last month. Another recent success was the confirmation that a portrait of the Duke of Buckingham, the lover of King James I, was a genuine Rubens.

History is littered with art forgeries, including the one by Michelangelo which was the subject of my first Homohoax article. One of the biggest forgery scandals of the 20th century was one which involved three gay men during the 1950s and 1960s. Even the life story of one of them was a fake.

Elmyr de Hory was born into an aristocratic family who had estates dotted around the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was an ambassador and his mother came from a distinguished family of bankers. Both of his parents were killed during World War II and Elmyr fell on hard times. To survive he began to sell of his family’s art collection.

Everything in the previous paragraph is a lie (except falling on hard times). It is what the man himself told his biographer, Clifford Irving, in 1969. It is only in the past decade that researchers have uncovered the true facts of his personal background.

Elmyr’s real name was Elemér Albert Hoffmann. He was born in Budapest in 1906. His father was recorded as a “wholesaler of hand-made goods” and his mother was what we used to refer to as a housewife. His parents didn’t die in the war but survived and divorced.

Elmyr, the name by which he is usually known, studied art from the age of 16. He soon discovered he had a talent for forgery and in the late 1920s he was arrested for cheque fraud and counterfeiting documents. He also discovered that he had a talent for copying the styles of famous painters and in 1946 he sold a drawing to an English aristocrat who was told it was by Picasso. It wasn’t. It was by Elmyr. It was also around this time that he developed the persona of an impoverished baron forced to sell his art collection, rather than the impoverished artist that he really was.

After going into partnership with an art dealer who took the biggest cut of his profits Elmyr decided to leave Europe and eventually moved to the USA where he lived for the next twelve years. He was doing well until 1955 when a Chicago art dealer discovered that some of the paintings he bought from Elmyr were forgeries and pressed charges against him.

For the few years afterwards Elmyr painted original works. His reputation as a forger had come to the attention of the FBI because of the Chicago affair but he found a steady income hard to some by and returned to forgery. He found another art dealer to partner with, but like the first it didn’t work out and Elmyr got so depressed that he attempted suicide.

It was during his convalescence in New York that Elmyr met Fernand Legros (1931-1983). Fernand was born in Egypt and moved to France after World War II. He married an American woman in order to gain US citizenship and promptly left her in Paris and moved to New York.

Elmyr decided to move down to Florida and took Fernand with him. Apparently, it was on the drive down to Miami that Fernand persuaded Elmyr to become his dealer. Even though Fernand was claiming to take only 40% the profits he was actually taking more without telling Elmyr the real price his painting fetched.

On one of their journeys around the USA the pair met French Canadian Réal Lessard (b.1939). Fernand fell in love with him and together they continued to fleece Elmyr out of his cut of the profits. They also helped to validate Elmyr’s fake paintings by forging documents and art catalogues. They were even able to bribe some less than honest art experts to claim that Elmyr’s forgeries were genuine.

Once more disappointed by the loss of earnings that was being withheld from him Elmyr decided to move back to Europe. He broke off his business partnership with Fernand for a while but was persuaded to take him back. Fernand bought him a villa on Ibiza where he continued to produce paintings for which he received $400 a month while Fernand and Réal were selling them for thousands.

In 1966 the three fraudsters were uncovered. A Texas oil magnate had accumulated 56 of Elmyr’s paintings. For a couple of years Elmyr’s work wasn’t up to its usual standard and his paintings were becoming recognisable as fakes. The Texan prosecuted the threesome. Fernand and Réal were arrested at the Ibiza villa and convicted of fraud, while Elmyr went on the run.

Eventually Elmyr gave himself up and was put on trial in Spain. Because there was no evidence that any of the revealed forgeries were painted on Spanish soil (Ibiza) he couldn’t be charged with forgery. Instead Elmyr was charged and convicted of homosexuality (illegal in Spain at the time) and of consorting with criminals (i.e. the convicted Fernand and Réal). He was sentenced to two months in prison.

The publicity surrounding the trials of all three turned Elmyr into something of a celebrity. Clifford Irving wrote his biography, he was interviewed in the media and newspapers, and the illustrious Orson Welles made a documentary about him. The new found fame was a shot in the arm for Elmyr and he began to produce original works again and opened his own gallery on Ibiza.

In the background, however, was the spectre of fraud charges in France. It took several years for France and Spain to agree on extradition terms and it looked like Elmyr would be forced to stand trial in France. As soon as his live-in companion, Mark Forgy, told Elmyr that extradition had been authorised Elmyr went to his room and took an overdose of pills and alcohol. Mark rushed him to hospital, but Elmyr died in his arms on the way.

Elmyr’s celebrity status in popular culture is sustained by the mysteries waiting to be verified about his real life. His reputation in the art world is less welcome. There are still some of his forgeries hanging on the walls of galleries and the rooms of the rich and famous.

Today Mark Forgy, Elmyr’s sole heir, is the owner of several hundred of Elmyr’s paintings, all of them forgeries of old masters and famous artists. Usually, when forgeries are revealed they are destroyed, but Mark’s collection forms a unique record of one of the biggest art scandals in history.

Thursday 23 August 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays : Part 25) Singing For Our Laurels

Previously on 80 Gays : 50) Sadiq Gillani of Lufthansa worked previously for an airline in Rio de Janeiro where Lufthansa flew the German team to the 2016 Olympics in which some athletes competed in Flamengo Park, designed by 51) Lota de Macedo Soares (1910-1967), whose partner 52) Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was one of the few female Poets Laureate, the current UK holder being 53) Dame Carol Ann Duffy (b.1955).

53) Dame Carol Ann Duffy was appointed as the UK’s first female Poet Laureate by the Queen in 2009. There have been speculation about the sexualities of a previous Poet Laureate, Lord Tennyson, but Dame Carol is the first openly lesbian holder of the position.

Dame Carol was an avid reader in her childhood. She began writing poetry when she was at primary school at the age of 11. Encouraged and supported by her English teacher Carol had some of her poems published when she was 15. She won the 1983 National Poetry Competition and in 1996 became a lecturer in poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University where she is still a faculty member as Professor of Contemporary Poetry.

When Poet Laureate Ted Hughes died in 1999 Carol Ann Duffy was considered as his replacement. However, Carol was in a relationship with fellow poet Jackie Kay and had a young daughter, and she wouldn’t have felt that the appointment would fit in with her private family life, if it was offered to her at that time.

Dame Carol has written poems on a variety of subjects ranging from the traditional poems to celebrate state and royal occasions to MP’s expenses and David Beckham’s Achilles tendon injury. In 2010 she wrote “Vigil” for the AIDS candlelight vigil at Manchester Pride.

There is also a Scottish Poet Laureate whose official traditional title is Makar. The first modern Makar was appointed in 2004. He was Edwin Morgan (1920-2010), the first openly gay holder of the position. The third Maker, the current one, is someone I’ve already mentioned, Jackie Kay, Dame Carol’s ex-partner.

The word “laureate” comes from the practice of crowning the winners of the Pythian Games with a laurel wreath. Because these games were held at Delphi at the shrine of Apollo the victory wreath was made from his sacred plant, the laurel. Apollo was the god of poetry and music and the Pythian Games began as song contests.
 The original Pythian contests consisted of entrants singing in honour of Apollo accompanying themselves on the lyre. This is why the type of song became known as lyric poetry, and why the words of songs are still called lyrics. Gradually the rules of the contest were relaxed to include singers with an accompanist lyre player or flute player. It was at about this time that athletics were introduced and the contest were officially given the name of the Pythian Games and began to be held once every four years, two years after the ancient Olympics. Very quickly the Pythian Games became the second most prestigious of all the Greek games. Other Greek sport festivals had song contests as well, the Greater Panathenaean Games, for instance.

There was also another type of song contest in ancient Greece, the amoebaean song contest. This name comes from “locus amoenus” which means “pleasant place”, indicating the countryside (as opposed to the busy, noisy places of the city and town). Amoebaean songs were usually sung by shepherds and goatherds to keep themselves entertained on the long hours out in the countryside. Once a theme was chosen two singers would take turns to improvise two lines of the song, each one trying to outdo the other in poetic skill.

The amoebaean songs and poems are classed as pastoral poetry because of their origin in the countryside. One poet is said to have invented this genre, a Greek poet called 54) Theocritus of Syracuse (c.300 BC- c.260 BC).

Theocritus was born in the Greek colony of Syracuse on Sicily. It is possible that the pastoral genre and amoebaean song contest were practiced on Sicily when Theocritus was a boy and he established the genre in its written form. His is the earliest surviving written forms of both. In his pastoral poetry, his Idylls, Theocritus includes an example of an amoebaean song contest between two herdsmen.

All through his poetry Theocritus has themes of boy-love and homoeroticism. In Idyll 12 he writes of his delight in the return of a young lover and hopes that he would be forever remembered as a lover of boys. Also in this idyll he mentions another contest that took place every year at the tomb of Diocles of Megara, a soldier whose fame rests on him saving the life of his boy-lover by sacrificing his own. The contest was a kissing contest to see which boy gave the “sweetest” kiss to an adult judge. Oh, the agony of responsibility the judges must have felt. Actually, agony is right, because the word given by the Greeks to any contest, whether, sport, poetry or kissing, was “agon”. Agony is the concept of competition, and those who compete are called antagonist and protagonist.

The modern idea of agony as being something painful can certainly be applied to the modern television song contest. The histrionics of competing on such shows like “X Factor” or “Britain’s Got Talent” seems too theatrical from some contestants at times. Another song contest was “American Idol” which began broadcasting in 2002. It was a version of the UK’s “Pop Idol”, the first winner of which was Will Young. He came out as gay the day after the final was televised.

“American Idol” has also featured lgbt singers, and one of the first lgbt contestants to achieve stardom was 55) Clay Aiken (b.1978).

Next time : We see what falls out of Clay Aiken’s family tree before we take him into the recording studio and pull a few strings.

Sunday 19 August 2018

Star-Gayzing ... To Seek Out New Worlds

In August 1988 an article was published in “The Astrophysical Journal” called “A Search for Substellar Companions to Solar-type Stars”. This presented the first evidence of the scientific detection of a planet orbiting another star, an exoplanet. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of this discovery let’s look at some significant contributions members of the lgbt community have made in the hunt for new worlds.

One of the earliest men to speculate on the existence of exoplanets was the philosopher and spy Giordano Bruno. I featured him as one of my Extraordinary Lives in 2015. He got into a lot of trouble with the Roman Catholic Church about his theory on the existence of multiple Christs. His theory about an infinite number of stars and an infinite number of planets caused no problem to all to the church. Giordano theorised that in a Christian universe God would send a Christ to every infinite planet. The Church taught that there will only ever be one Christ and said an infinite number was heresy. They accepted his science without question, but scientists at the time didn’t.

Sir Isaac Newton wrote that the stars were just like our Sun and were all at the centre of similar systems like our own, though he stopped short of using the word “planets”.

Many scientists and philosophers before and since have theorised about exoplanets. Our present generation of scientists includes openly lgbt astronomers in the hunt for other worlds. Here are three of them.

The Planet Hunters : (left to right) Wladimir Lyra, Rebecca Oppenheimer, B. Scott Gaudi.

One of the problems facing astronomers is how to determine what is a planet and what isn’t. I mentioned the problem earlier this year in my article “Discovering Dwarves”. Astronomer Dr. Rebecca Oppenheimer led a team that discovered the first brown dwarf star in 1994. The data that was gathered has helped astronomers tell the difference between a brown dwarf star and a giant gas planet. It was her discovery of the brown dwarf which led Dr. Oppenheimer to concentrate on planet hunting.

Rebecca Oppenheimer is currently the principal investigator of Project 1640 based at the American Museum of Natural History where she works as professor, curator and chair of the Astrophysics Department. Project 1640 is an imaging system which uses special techniques on images collected from Mount Palomar Observatory near San Diego in California.

At the time of its foundation the project’s contrast imaging system was the most advanced in the world and was cannibalised from ground-breaking technology developed for a previous project called the Lyot Project. Rebecca Oppenheimer was a leading member of that project as well.

Project 1640 and the Lyot Project before it used a technique called coronography. Basically, this is a method of creating an artificial eclipse when instruments are pointing at a star. The star is made to dim to an extent whereby any object orbiting it, such as a planet, if any, is easier to detect.

Another technique is gravitational microlensing in which the minute gravitational pull of a star can effect the light coming from a more distant star. Ripples in data can mean a planet is orbiting the star in front. One of the leaders in this technique is Dr. B. Scott Gaudi, Professor of Discovery and Space Exploration at Ohio State University. In 2008 he led the team that discovered the existence of the first Jupiter-Saturn-type exoplanets. This was of interest to another field of research – the search for extraterrestrial life.

In our solar system Jupiter and Saturn were instrumental in stabilising the habitable zone in which Earth orbits and in pulling away lots of asteroids that might crash into it. Perhaps these new exoplanets (with the cumbersome names of OGLE-2006-BLG-109Lb and OGLE-2006-BLG-109Le) mean there could be an Earth-like, life-bearing planet just waiting to be discovered.

Scott Gaudi has received many awards for his work, as has Rebecca Oppenheimer. One particular award, a grant from the National Science Foundation, allowed Scott to use the outreach component of the award to promote astronomy and astrophysics to the lgbt community. When he was growing up as a young gay teenager in Illinois Scott had no gay role models and science was a means to overcome doubts and stresses of being a gay youngster, much as some lgbt athletes did with sport. The award meant that Scott could present himself and others as being accepted and successful in the world of science and openly lgbt.

Back in October 2016 I wrote an article about Dr. Wladimir Lyra’s attempt to rename some exoplanets. The focus of his scientific work, however, is not so much on looking for planets as working out how planetary systems are formed. Using computer simulations he has developed scenarios whereby it is possible to theorise how planets form out of dust clouds around all types of star. This has helped to determine which stars are likely to have planetary systems and compares the data with actual observations.

Doctors Rebecca Oppenheimer, B. Scott Gaudi and Wladimir Lyra are just three of the lgbt astronomers who are involved in the hunt for new worlds and are encouraging the next generation.

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Celebrating a Flood

It may seem strange to celebrate a flood as very often floods leave devastation in their wake. But if you live in a country as dry as Egypt the flooding of the Nile can be seen as a good thing.

If it wasn’t for the Nile flooding there would be no Egypt. The floods provided the water and fertile silt essential for the growing of food. The Egyptians realised thousands of years ago that the Nile flooded at the same time each year and so they could prepare their crops and fields in advance. The arrival of this life-giving annual flood was celebrated more than the gathering of the harvest itself.

Egypt still celebrates this arrival of the annual flood with an annual festival and holiday which begins this week and is called Wafaa El-Nil.

Like every other aspect of Egyptian life the flooding of the Nile had its own god, an intersex dual god called Hapi. The two parts of the ancient Egyptian nation, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, had their own specific representation of Hapi. Upper Egypt had Hapi-Meht and Lower Egypt had Hapi-Reset. They were identical except for their headdresses. Hapi-Reset wore papyrus leaves and Hapi-Meht wore a lotus flower. They were often depicted together pouring water from a vase or tying together the two symbolic plants represented in their headdresses, as in the illustration below (though this particular illustration shows him wearing the same headdress).

The more ancient a deity is the more sexually fluid he or she seems to be. Time and time again I come across references to ancient gods having intersex or transgender qualities. This is possibly an indication of the attitudes which ancient cultures had to gender identity. When we move into less ancient times and the more familiar Greek and Roman gods gender identity becomes less varied and there is a move towards sexual preference.

Quite often, as in the case of Hapi, it is the actions of the gods which effect the way they are depicted in art. As an ancient god of the Nile floods Hapi was regarded as a god of fertility. His annual flood at this time of year brings life to the flood plains and fields. The universal symbol of life and fertility is the mother figure. Quite often creator deities are female and have total or predominantly female physical attributes. The Greek creator god Gaia, one of the most ancient Greek deities, and the modern concept of Mother Earth are female constructs of a universal life-giver. For this reason Hapi is always represented as a man with female breasts.

Hapi’s skin colour is also decided by the actions of his floods. He is either blue-skinned, representing the flood water, or green-skinned, representing the vegetation fed by the waters.

The cult of this ancient intersex god goes so far back in history that his name was probably the original name of the Nile itself (Nile is a Greek-derived name). Later he began to take on various functions of an even older go, Nun, the god of the primeval water from which the world was born. Hapi also took Nun’s wife as his own as a result of this.

The centre of Hapi’s cult was on the Elephantine Island at the First Cataract of the Nile, the white water rapids which reminded the ancient Egyptians of a mother’s milk, another factor contributing to the representation of Hapi with breasts.

With much of the world having sweltered in uncharacteristic heat waves this summer it is easy to see why an arid nation like Egypt would welcome the arrival of an intersex god and his floods at this time of year while other nations fear them.