Friday 28 February 2020

80 More Gays Around the World: Part 6) Under Southern Rainbow Skies

Last time on “80 More Gays”: 12) Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942) built a villa on the site of an ancient temple, as did 13) Robert Kitson (1873-1947) on the site of a temple to 14) Zeus-Serapis, both in Taormina, a Sicilian town with mythological connections to the constellation Taurus, the location of a star cluster which gives its name to an initiative chaired by 15) Lisa Harvey-Smith (b.1979).

15) Dr. Lisa Harvey-Smith was Chair of the Women in Astronomy chapter of the Astronomical Society of Australia. In 2014 they launched the Pleiades Awards which aims to promote and encourage female inclusion, involvement and recognition in astronomical sciences. The awards are named after the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus.

Lisa Harvey-Smith is at the forefront of popular science education and is well-known in Australia, appearing in many programmes, documentaries and news reports. Among her many public appearances was a question-and-answer session at Sydney Observatory during Sydney Mardi Gras 2015. This led to Lisa developing a touring lecture show called “Star-gayzing”.

Lisa’s main work in the field was in a major role in the development of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). As its name suggests, this is an array of linked antennae that covers an area of a square kilometre. It is located near the Murchison Radio-Astronomy Observatory in the homeland of the Yamatji people of Western Australia.

From the start the Murchison scientists included the indigenous community when planning the SKA, showing local elders where the antennae might be placed and learning about the significance of the locations in Yamatji heritage. This produced an increased awareness of the rich heritage of the traditional indigenous view of the night sky and inspired an exhibition by Yamatji artists on the subject which toured several countries. Lisa Harvey-Smith co-authored a paper called “Engaging Indigenous Students in the Australian SKA Project” which detailed other ways in which scientists and the Yamatji had worked together.

There are a variety of different stories of the night sky among the indigenous nations in Australia. One of these is that the Milky Way represents the creator god common to the indigenous nations, the Rainbow Serpent, which has many local names but all of them refer essentially to the same deity. The most significant stories of the Rainbow Serpent occur in the Dreaming, the time when the universe was formed and the land created.

To the Yamatji the Rainbow Serpent is called 16) Bimarri. Bimarri is believed to live below a cliff at Ellendale, some 364 kilometres from the Murchison Observatory. One story about Bimarri recounts its battle with a sea snake after which it moved inland, creating the rivers, streams and landscape as it went. The Rainbow Serpent has no set gender or sexuality. Most stories seem to prefer to identify the Bimarri as male. Stories of other representations of the Rainbow Serpent prefer a female or androgynous identification.
Sculpture depicting Bimarri, the Rainbow Serpent of the Yamatji, at Ellendale. Photo by Richard McLellan.
Australia produced many exhibitions and performances which showcased their cultures. The first was the “Festival of the Dreaming” in 1997, an arts festivals held to celebrate the forthcoming 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Many of the productions featured all-Aboriginal casts, including a production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Nights Dream” directed by 17) Noel Tovey (b.1934), an indigenous actor and choreographer, and was a landmark in Shakespearean theatre as the first all-indigenous cast. Noel took the idea of dreaming and wove the Rainbow Serpent into the design of set and costumes. The Rainbow Serpent is very much a living part of indigenous culture and is a frequent inspiration for art. Noel was later called upon to be artistic director of the indigenous welcoming ceremony for members of the International Olympic Committee to the Sydney 2000 games.

The Sydney Olympics have, retrospectively, become the most diverse in Olympic history. To date, 66 lgbt Olympians have been identified, of which 12 were openly gay, lesbian or bisexual. In addition there were 2 Olympians who would today be identified as intersex. There were also 3 athletes who have since become transgender. The most recent of these is 18) Sandra Forgues (b.1969).

Sandra Forgues competed for France in the men’s doubles slalom canoe at three Olympics. She won a bronze medal in Barcelona 1992 and a gold in Atlanta 1996. Sydney was her final Olympic appearance. She was also three times world champion, and won two gold medals at World Cup events in 1992 and 1994 held here in Nottingham.

Sandra was able to train full-time while she was employed by France Telecom. On leaving France Telecom she set up her own company in 2004 called Media Broadcast Technology (MBT). The company provides digital and software provision to broadcasters in Europe and Morocco. The biggest project so far was for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in 2015. BMT provided time logging and results used by the world’s media at the inaugural European Games.

A link between the EBU and Morocco comes in the form of the Eurovision Song Contest. Despite its aim to unite member broadcasters in music the Eurovision Song Contest has often been dogged by racist, political and homophobic conflict. In 2019 France attracted opposition to its choice of performer, a  French-born Moroccan inger called 19) Bilal Hassani (b.1999).

Next time on “80 More Gays”: We enter a fictional world of racist and ethnic conflict when life begins to imitate art, and we see how easily mistakes are made.

Monday 24 February 2020

The Rainbow Parliament

On Wednesday Nottinghamshire Rainbow Heritage, of whom I’m a founder member (in fact it was my idea, after being approached by the Heritage Lottery Fund to help me develop my lgbt guided tours) is holding its annual celebration for LGBT History Month UK. This year I’ve been able to put together a small table-top display.

I’ve used the research I’ve done for this blog as the basis for some panels on lgbt history. One panel contains general information on local lgbt history and another is on the origins of some Christmas traditions which I featured last December. The main panel is on lgbt representation in the UK parliament. Since at least 2005 the UK has had the most openly lgbt members, in both the House of Commons and House of Lords, than any other national parliament in the world.

Rather than have a static, flat panel full of eye-numbing statistics I’ve designed a tactile, moving exhibit in the form of a rotating Big Ben clock tower (officially called the Elizabeth Tower).

On each side of the tower is a chart showing the total known lgbt parliamentary candidates and elected MPs there have been in the current parliament and the three preceding ones. The numbers include candidates and MPs who were not out publicly at the time.

Below is a video of that exhibit and how it fits together and works. Below that are reproductions of the charts on each side. The date are those of the current and previous parliament and represent periods from the day of one general election to the eve of the next. The numbers includes MPs and candidates who have subsequently come as members of the lgbt community.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover a while back that there were actually some lgbt history tours around the Houses of Parliament themselves. I don’t think any other national parliament does this. The lgbt tour is called Pride at Parliament. It concentrates on stories and politicians connected to the current building constructed. I hope to go on one of these tours myself on one of my annual trips to London.

If you’re heading to London yourself perhaps you’ll have time to go on a Pride at Parliament tour. The tours are on specific dates so you may not be there at the right time. I’ll leave you today with a link to the tours webpage here.

Wednesday 19 February 2020

80 More Gays Around the World: Part 5) Tourists and Taurus

Last time on “80 More Gays”: 9) Polycrates of Samos (d.522 BC) lent his name to a psychological complex exhibited by 10) Paul Morphy (1837-1884), who played a game of chess during “Norma”, an opera which inspired 11) Marion Bradley Zimmer (1930-1999) to write an Arthurian novel, a genre popularised by the Victorians including 12) Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942).

12) Charles Robert Ashbee was an architect and designer though he also wrote several novels. One of these was an Arthurian Utopian fantasy, “From Whitechapel to Camelot”. Ashbee founded the Essex House Press after William Morris’s more famous Kelmscott Press closed. Many books were published by Essex House and Ashbee created the type faces called Endeavour and Prayer Book.

With William Morris Ashbee was the major player in the Arts and Crafts Movement. He established several Arts and Crafts School in London which produced furniture, jewellery and metal work.

On several occasions Ashbee was asked to design buildings. After renovating the country home of Col. Thomas Shaw-Hellier in the 1890s the colonel invited Ashbee to design and build him a villa in Taormina, a popular tourist destination on Sicily. It was especially popular with gay men.

Oscar Wilde sampled the delights of Taormina and a gay photographer, Wilhelm von Gloeden, a friend of Shaw-Hellier, spent most of his life there building up a large portfolio of photos of young male nudes. A lot of British men visits the town escaping the anti-gay-sex laws in the UK. One of them, Sir Harold Acton, once described Taormina as “a polite synonym for Sodom”.

It is assumed that Col. Shaw-Hellier was homosexual. He married very late in life (at the age of 63) and was friends with many of the gay men who visited Taormina. Charles Ashbee was certainly gay, even though he tried to uphold Victorian respectability by marrying and having four children.

The site of Shaw-Hellier’s new villa in Taormina was on the site of an old temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. The villa was built in 1907 and became known as the Villa San Giorgio. Shaw-Hellier died in 1910 and his villa is now the Hotel Ashbee.

Ashbee and Shaw-Hellier had a mutual gay friend on Taormina, 13) Robert Hawthorn Kitson (1873-1947). Kitson had just built his own villa in the town, the Casa Cuseni, in 1905. It became a magnet for visiting celebrities – Chanel, Picasso and Garbo, amongst others. Roald Dahl is said to have got the idea for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” when he stayed there.

Today Casa Cuseni is an Italian national monument and museum. In 2018 one of the original frescoes was “revealed” to the public as part of a tour of the town. It depicts a real event in Kitson’s life. In 1908 an earthquake hit Messina, half an hour’s drive up the coast, killing around 80,000 people and creating many orphans. Kitson and his lover, an artist called Carlo Siligato, decided to adopt one of the orphans. The depiction in the fresco is the first known example in art of gay adoption. This website includes a YouTube video which gives a detailed look at this fresco.

As mentioned earlier Charles Robert Ashbee’s villa, now the Hotel Ashbee, was built on the site of an ancient temple. So was the town’s main church. It was built on the site of a temple to a Greco-Egyptian god who was created through the deliberate merging of Isis’ husband Osiris and the chief Greek god. The new deity can be called 14) Zeus-Serapis.

Zeus-Serapis was “created” by the Ptolemys of Egypt in the 3rd century BC in an attempt to unit the Egyptians and Greek communities. It became a popular cult and lasted for 700 years and a sacred bull had an important influence on it.

In Egypt there was a cult to Apis, a sacred bull who was transformed into the god Osiris when it was sacrificed – Osiris-Apis (a name which developed into Serapis). The Ptolemys, being Greek, knew that their Greek subjects wouldn’t worship an animal god, or even a mixture of bull and man like Osiris-Apis. So they depicted the bull god in the form of their own chief god Zeus, and Zeus-Serapis was “born”.

Zeus has strong links to bulls himself, most famously in the story of Europa. I wrote about the multiple bull connections in the Europa myths in my article on Taurus back in 2012. Being immortal Zeus was actually Europa’s great-great-grandfather, she being descended from his lover Io who was transformed into a cow to keep her a secret from his wife Hera. It’s interesting to know that Zeus was also great-great-grandfather to his male lover, Ganymede.

Back to Sicily and the town of Taormina, the location of a temple to Zeus-Serapis. The town’s name actually translates roughly as “I stay with the bull”, and a mythical creature, half woman, half cow, called a bucentaur, appears in the town’s coat of arms (below) which was adopted in 1928. And the town itself sits in the shadow of Monte Tauro – Mount Taurus.
Taurus is, of course, one of the major constellations. Within the constellation is a group of stars called the Pleiades. I also wrote about them a couple of years ago, of their link to drag queens, and their connection to Dionysos, the god of wine and cross-dressing who is also known as the Bull God (there’s that animal again).

The Pleiades, representing a group of sisters, have provided the inspiration behind an initiative within astronomy aimed at improving the status and inclusion of women. There is also a set of awards which accompany the initiative called the Pleiades Awards. These was given to organisations, universities or observatories which champion female equality within astronomy.

The initiative and the awards were launched in 2014 by the Women in Astronomy Chapter of the Astronomical Society of Australia. The Chair of the chapter at the time was 15) Dr. Lisa Harvey-Smith (b.1979).

Next time of “80 More Gays”: We meet the Rainbow Serpent of the southern skies and celebrate the millennium with a centenary.

Friday 14 February 2020

Queer Achievement: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

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

As today is the commonly observed St. Valentine’s Day (even though, as I’ve explained before, it’s the wrong date) it would seem appropriate to talk about hearts in heraldry.

First of all, let’s look at the armorial achievement of a member of the lgbt community which features hearts prominently. Below is the achievement of St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) as depicted in a window at the refectory of Oriel College, Oxford, where he was a Fellow. He’s the latest to join a group of lgbt saints, having been canonised in November last year.
 The arms were granted by the College of Arms to John Newman of London on 15th February 1664, an appropriately close date to today’s modern observance of the wrong St. Valentine’s Day. There’s no record of any connection between either the date or St. Valentine to the Newman family, except one we invent ourselves.

When the new St. John Henry Newman became a cardinal the College of Arms failed to find any genealogical link between him and the John Newman of London and couldn’t confirm to the cardinal that he was entitled to use this particular coat of arms. However, as a Roman Catholic cardinal St. John Henry Newman was also subject to the separate heraldic rules and practices of the Vatican who could.

Even though the original meaning and significance of the original Newman hearts is lost to us the Christian interpretation that followed St. John Henry Newman’s appointment as a cardinal gives us an insight into the minds of medieval heralds.

The three hearts were interpreted as symbolic of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They also symbolised Christian love - charity. The yellow background symbolises the glory of God. Medieval heralds would interpret designs in this way to reflect the owner’s profession or calling.

The meaning of the heart as a symbol of love has been established for several centuries. The heart shape, however, has some very different sexual meanings that predate that of romance.

Quite often sources on the internet and in print will say that the familiar love-heart shape is nothing like that of a real heart. It’s not supposed to be accurate – it’s symbolic, like lots of other shapes. For instance, how many real stars have points on them like those on the American flag? The heart shape has evolved over the centuries, and early representations (as a symbol of love) do show it more anatomically accurate. Over the centuries the shape has changed to suit artistic styles. Even today there are many different styles with fat hearts, hearts with very pointed bases and some that are highly stylised or abstract.

The early heart shapes were “upside down”, the points were at the top. In the 14th century they turned around, so, technically, today’s hearts are upside down, not the original ones.

The shape of the modern love-heart can be traced back to ancient times. The first recognisable heart shape appears on coins and weights from Attica in Greece in the 6th century BC (one is pictured below).
 Historians have established that this shape doesn’t represent a heart but the seed of a plant called silphium, or silphion. This was a very common herb related to parsley and carrot. There was a thriving trade in this plant and its seeds in the ancient world because it was thought to be both an aphrodisiac and a contraceptive. I can just imagine the ancient Greek athletes and soldiers munching on a mouthful of silphium seeds before they had sex with their boy-lovers.

If you want to conduct a “scientifically controlled experiment” to test out its properties I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. Silphium was so popular that it was consumed into extinction in ancient times.

Like so many things there’s no recorded continuity of use to link the silphium seed to the love-heart. Only the similarity of shape makes us assume there is. It’s a common shape after all, as is seen in the coat of arms of the Denmark (below).
The Danish design was adopted way back in the 11th century. It forms the senior component of the current arms of the kingdom and as such was used by King Christian VII of Denmark (1749-1808), a troubled king with a history of mental health problems who has been identified as bisexual in recent decades. The earliest records mention that the heart-shapes in the Danish coat of arms represent water-lily leaves.

There’s another heraldic heart shape which represents something very personal to half of the world’s population and is seen in the coat of arms of the Italian Colleoni family (below). You’ll notice that the hearts are point upwards, as the earliest hearts were depicted. That’s because they don’t represent hearts at all.
 These arms belonged to the family of an Italian soldier called Bartolomeo Colleoni. He was a great hero in Venice in the 15th century and had a statue erected in his honour. It’s still there. At the base of the statue is Colleoni’s coat of arms. While the modern rendition, as above, invariably depicts three inverted hearts the statue shows them as they were originally intended (below).
Yes, each of the inverted hearts actually represent testicles! A spurious urban legend explains this by claiming that Bartolomeo had three testicles. It is more likely that they are a soundalike pun on his name - coglioni is the Italian slang word for testicle.

So, that’s my contribution to St. Valentine’s Day, a look at hearts. Though, after that last example you may never see a love-heart in the same way again.

Monday 10 February 2020

80 More Gays Around the World: 4) From a Complex to a King

Previously on “80 More Gays”: 7) Athena, who appeared as a man to act as a mentor, had a huge statue in her honour made by 8) Phidias (5th century BC), the creator of a statue of Zeus, one of the Wonders of the World, both statues being among the greatest construction projects in Greece, to which also belong lesser-known projects by 9) Polycrates of Samos (d.522 BC).

9) Polycrates was the ruler of the Greek island of Samos. He made Samos the home of culture and science with people like Pythagoras and the poets Anacreon and Ibycus living on the island. Anacreon and Ibycus were among the most pederastic of poets. That is, they had many boy lovers and wrote poems about them. It is said that Polycrates could easily be Anacreon’s equal in the number of boy lovers he had, but Ibycus could out-number them both.

Among Polycrates’ huge construction projects were a fortified wall around the island, a temple to Hera, and a tunnel through Mount Castro. Its no wonder Aristotle specifically named him in his criticism of such costly projects.

Polycrates’ name has become applied to a psychological complex; as one medical website puts it, “the paradoxical despair over too much good fortune”. Even though the complex is named after Polycrates it isn’t he who displayed it. One of his allies, the Egyptian pharaoh, wrote to Polycrates saying that he felt the gods might become jealous of his success and he advised him to throw away something he valued in order to avoid their punishment. This Polycrates did. He threw his most precious jewelled ring into the sea.

Several days later a fisherman caught a huge fish and thought it was a worthy gift for Polycrates (you can see where this is going, can’t you). The tyrant’s jewelled ring was found inside it (this tale may be apocryphal as similar versions appear in many other cultures).
Cover illustration from around 1890 of an edition of “Der Ring des Polykrates”, a lyrical balled written by Friedrich Schiller in 1797.
A couple of years later a provincial governor in Syria invited Polycrates to rescue him from an imminent Persian invasion. However, he should have listened to his daughter’s warnings after she had nightmares of seeing him dead. When Polycrates visited the governor he was promptly assassinated. It was a trap. This allowed the Persians to take over Samos.

There are many examples of the Polycrates complex in history. One often mentioned in text books is the story of 10) Paul Morphy (1837-1884).

Paul Morphy was a chess prodigy and considered by some to have been the greatest chess player of his era. At the age of 12 he played three games against a chessmaster and won them all. At the first American Chess Congress in 1857 he became the US champion. In Europe he beat all of the chessmasters he played against.

Back home in New Orleans Morphy laid down a challenge to play against anyone in the world. No-one took him up on the offer because everyone knew he couldn’t be beaten. This led to Morphy into giving up chess for good. He considered he had become too successful and became riddled with guilt.

Morphy was found dead in his bath in 1884. His celebrity status led to many fake stories being circulated, such as the spurious story of him arranging dozens of women’s shoes around his bath before he died. Naturally, this kind of story fuelled talk about his sexuality. Like so many people, we’ll never know for sure. Morphy’s sexuality was first questioned in 1931 in “The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis”. At the centre of this was a letter written by his European tour manager who referred to himself as “…a lover, a brother, a mother…” to Morphy.

Whilst it is true that Morphy had a somewhat feminine personality and never married or had any serious relationships with women (except one in a novel) it is best to say “possibly”. The whole question was also covered in issue 2 of a short-lived magazine on lgbt chess called “Chess Pride” in 1998.
One of Morphy’s matches became legendary. It is often called the Opera Game because it took place in the private box of Prince Karl II, Duke of Brunswick, at the Italian Opera House in Paris. The duke had previously invited Morphy to a performance of “Norma”, an opera Morphy was keen to see. However, they spent the whole time playing chess with Morphy with his back to the stage.

“Norma” isn’t a very well-known opera. The title character is a druidic high priestess in Roman Gaul in love with the Roman proconsul. Despite its obscurity “Norma” inspired a novel by 11) Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999).

Marion Zimmer Bradley is best known for her historical fantasy and science fiction novels. “The Forest House” is her take on “Norma”, transferring the action from Gaul to Roman Britain. The novel was published in 1993 and was a prequel to her previous novel “The Mists of Avalon”. It was actually the first novel Marion began writing when she was 17. She didn’t finish it until she was in her 60s.

Although Marion’s novels are still popular her personal reputation was tarnished after her death following accusations of child abuse against boys and girls with her husband.

“The Mists of Avalon”, published in 1983, is probably Marion’s most famous novel. It was her first to have an Arthurian theme. She also wrote several novels with an Atlantis theme, and I’ll return to that subject in July.

Perhaps the reason why “The Mists of Avalon” became so popular was because of its feminist slant. The 1980s were a time of radical feminism and the legends of King Arthur, being distinctly macho and masculine, were revived by a new feminist angle that reflected the mood of society at the time.

This revival wasn’t the first. King Arthur has always been a major heroic character but every now and then, such as the feminist angle in the 1980s, society feels to need to breathe new life into him. This is what happened in 19th century Victorian England. With the industrial revolution changing the world some people felt that progress was too quick and that a return to the ideals of the past should be revived. The old folk tales and heroes of England were seen as role models for this revival.

In the forefront of this revival, and using the Arthurian legends as their main themes, were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts movement. Both groups had members and associates in the lgbt community. At the head of these was Simeon Solomon, a painter whose reputation was virtually destroyed because of his homosexuality. In recent years his neglected grave has been restored.

There was also May Morris, daughter of William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. And there was also Sir Edmund Gosse, a Pre-Raphaelite associate and poet. But to continue our “80 More Gays” sequence let’s look at an Arts and Crafts designer and Arthurian novelist called 12) Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942).

Next time on “80 More Gays”: We talk a lot of bull about an Italian hotel, and let it take us halfway round the world to see Seven Sisters.