Wednesday 31 March 2021

A Star-Gayzing Cenotaph

On this day in 1727 (in the Julian calendar that was in use in England at that time) Sir Isaac Newton died. Some of you, like myself, may have seen his tomb in Westminster Abbey, London, but if a French architect called Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799) had got his way Newton would also be commemorated in a colossal 150 meter (492 feet) diameter spherical cenotaph in Paris. I’m glad I haven’t decided to publish this article tomorrow, April Fool’s Day, because you’d probably think it was a hoax.

First of all, let’s get Newton’s sexuality out of the way. In 2013 I wrote about Newton’s probable place on the lgbt spectrum (very apt description bearing in mind his work on the spectrum and rainbows). Very little information is available to say for sure how Newton would have identified his sexuality, assuming he ever thought about it. Thinking about it and labelling it seems to be a very modern thing to do. In 2013 I was content, and still am, to place him in our modern “queer” category without putting any other modern gender or sexuality label upon him. No doubt historians and scientists will be debating the subject for centuries.

As far as Newton’s scientific reputation is concerned there is no doubt. He was hailed as a champion of reason over superstition, which is ironic because he believed in astrology and witchcraft (not the modern Wiccan faith which didn’t exist in his day). After his death many architects and artists began designing tombs and monuments for him. Only Westminster Abbey was deemed appropriate for his official state tomb.

The Westminster tomb and the other un-built monuments emphasised Newton’s contribution to science, which was invariably illustrated with images of ancient Greek gods and religious symbolism. The colossal design by Étienne-Louis Boullée in 1784 did away with most of this un-scientific and superstitious decoration (except for thousands of cypress trees, symbols of mourning in the ancient Greek religion). The design used simple shapes, primarily the sphere. Below is one of Boullée’s drawings.

In the words of Dr. Patricia Ricci, Associate Professor of the History of Art and Director of the Department of Fine Art at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania, “Its controversial theme, enormous size, and innovative design doomed the project from the start.” If it had been built it would have been the tallest building in the world at 150 meters (480 feet) tall, about 8 meters (26 feet) taller than the then record holder, Strasbourg cathedral.

The main feature of the cenotaph was the 150 meter sphere. Visitors would have entered the building at ground level and walk up a large staircase into a tunnel that led right into the centre of the structure. There visitors would be surrounded by the huge hollow interior. If visiting during the daytime people would see the whole surface of the sphere around them display an accurate portrayal of the stars and constellations. This was achieved by each star being a hole in the sphere where sunlight shone through. At night-time the interior was lit by a huge lantern inside an armillary sphere at the very centre.

You could say that this cenotaph was the largest planetarium ever designed, though no planets were represented within it and it was static. Speaking of planetaria, even though Boullée’s design never got off the page it inspired the design of a real modern-day planetarium, the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York, part of the American Museum of Natural History. The Hayden Planetarium was built in 2000 and is 27 meters (87 feet) high.

The Hayden Planetarium

Even it we cannot say exactly if Sir Isaac Newton would identify himself on the lgbt spectrum, his unbuilt cenotaph has indirect links to modern lgbt astronomers thought the Hayden Planetarium. The Associate Director is Brian Abbott who does talks and presentations there. The planetarium currently has a writer-in-residence, the gay British playwright Stephen Laughton. He is working with Dr. Rebecca Oppenheimer, Curator of the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History, a planet-hunter and discoverer of the first brown dwarf star. They are researching and collaborating in the development of a new play.

Finally, if Boullée had been able to build Newton’s cenotaph it may have been located where the Eiffel Tower is today. Below is an artist’s impression of how it would look if you could visit it.

I’m going to have a few days break for the Easter holidays. I’ll be back on April 10th when we’ll be looking at how a floral headdress inspired Napoleon and the art deco movement.

Friday 26 March 2021

Pardon His Sexuality

Last December I mentioned that I studied Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” at college. I still dip into it now and again, always reading it in its original Middle English. Chaucer is often called the father of English Poetry. He was one of the first poets to write in English rather than in French which was the written language of the English court at the time, or Latin, the written language of the Church. Even further back in this blog I revealed that it was Chaucer and a gay friend, the poet Sir John de Clanvowe, who created St. Valentine’s Day.

“The Canterbury Tales” consist of a series of tall tales and allegorical stories told by a group of pilgrims on their way from London to Canterbury. The characters were all caricatures of familiar stereotypes of Chaucer’s time, though some of their occupations are obscure to say the least. The Knight, the Miller and the Friar present no problem (because Chaucer doesn’t give them personal names I’ll use a capital first letter when referring to the pilgrim and a lower-case first letter when referring to their profession). But what did the Franklin, Manciple, or Reeve do? Today we’ll look at two of the pilgrims and discover how Chaucer presented their sexuality and gender.

First, the Pardoner. In the medieval Church bishops appointed men to go from church to church issuing pardons or indulgencies. These were documents recording a person’s admission and repentance of sin. By the time of “The Canterbury Tales” many pardoners were selling fake indulgencies and keeping the money for themselves. Some also sold fake religious relics, such as a chicken bone they claimed was a saint’s finger. Another duty of the pardoners was to collect alms and money for charity. Chaucer tells us that his Pardoner money for the Hospital of Blessed Mary of Rounceval at Charing Cross in London (long since demolished to widen the road at one end of Northumberland Avenue at Trafalgar Square). This hospital was at the centre of a scandal involving the theft of alms money by the hospital proctors. Chaucer is making it clear that the Pardoner is not to be trusted.

Chaucer introduces his pilgrims in the General Prologue. After mentioning that the Pardoner is a friend of the Summoner (more about him later) Chaucer describes the Pardoner as follows (in my translation):

“This Pardoner had hair as yellow as wax,
But smooth it hung like a clump of flax;
Hanging in small strands these locks he had,
And over his shoulders they over-spread,
But in long, thin strands one by one.
As for a hood, to look more attractive, he wore none,
For it was packed in his knapsack all the while.
He thought he rode wearing the latest style
With flowing hair, except for a cap his head was bare,
Such staring eyes he had, like a hare.
A pilgrim badge was sewn into his cap.
He carried a small pouch in a large pocket
Full of pardons from Rome.
He had a voice as high-pitched as a goat.
He had no beard, nor will he ever have,
As smooth as he had just have a shave.
I believe he was gelding or a mare.”

To medieval readers this physical description gave them no reason to question the Pardoner’s gender or sexual identity. His hair, voice and beardless chin all indicated to them that this pilgrim was a eunuch or an effeminate man, what we might describe in our modern labels as intersex or homosexual.Over the past hundred years scholars have analysed the Pardoner’s gender and sexuality. The biggest clue given by Chaucer is the final line, “I believe he was a gelding or a mare”. A gelding is a castrated horse, and a mare is a female horse, of course, clearly indicating a eunuch and effeminate man. The popular medical opinions at that time suggested eunuchs were cunning and devious which when added to the corruption attributed to his profession makes the Pardoner come across as a very unpleasant character.

Once scholars had looked at the Pardoner’s gender and sexuality they began looking at his relationship with another pilgrim, the Summoner, also a church official. As the name suggests a summoner issues summons to people called to appear before church courts (usually for things like adultery or heresy). Like pardoners, summoners often took bribes and had a very corrupt image. As far as Chaucer’s Summoner is concerned there couldn’t be a character of a more opposite physical appearance to the Pardoner. It seems strange that these two characters could ever become friends.

he Summoner is described in the General Prologue immediately before the Pardoner as follows (again my own translation):

A Summoner was with us in that place
Who had a fiery-red and cherubic face,
All pimpled he was, and his eyes were narrow,
As horny and lecherous as is a sparrow.
With black scabby eyebrows and straggly beard
His face was one that children feared.
There was no mercury, lead compound or sulphur,
Borax, white lead tincture or cream of tartar,
No ointment that could cleanse or bite
To rid him of his pustules white,
Nor of the boils on his cheeks.”

Not a man pleasing to look at. Chaucer also says that he ate a lot of garlic, onions and leeks washed down with red wine. It is in this inebriated state that the Summoner seems to spend all of this time on the road to Canterbury. I should explain here the brief reference to a sparrow. The idea that sparrows were lecherous is centuries old and no-one really knows why the birds have gained this reputation. Thankfully this reputation has disappeared since Chaucer’s time.

So, why would an academic think that the unpleasant, smelly Summoner would be the sexual partner of the Pardoner, for that is what they have suggested? The answer lies in the lines which come a little afterwards when the Pardoner is introduced. Again, here’s my translation of the Middle English text:

“With him rode a gentle Pardoner
Of Rouncival, his friend and companion,
Who had come straight from Rome.
Very loudly he sang “Come hither, my love, to me!”
The Summoner provided him with a strong bass line,
There wasn’t a trumpet that can make half the sound.”

These two pilgrims are singing a love song, and that’s what prompts some scholars to think they are partners. Added to this are the words “stif burdoun” in the original text which I, following others, have translated as “strong bass line”.

One theory put forward is that “stif burdoun” (“stif” is the same as “stiff”) is slang for a sexual act based purely, it seems to me, on the interpretation of “stif” and how you interpret the Summoner giving it to the Pardoner. Modern usage of “stiff” in relation to sexual acts is commonplace, and this presents an obvious interpretation. This theory is tenuous in my view.

Added to this tenuous interpretation is the meaning of the word “burdoun”. This was indeed an old word for a bass accompaniment to a song in medieval times. But it was also one of the medieval variant spellings of “burden”, meaning a donkey or ass. Donkeys, asses and horses have always been popularly regarded as being particularly well-endowed, so the interpretation of “stif burdoun” as “stiff donkey” could be seen by some to imply a sexual act.

Whether it is medieval double entendre or a modern misinterpretation there’s nothing else to link the Pardoner and the Summoner sexually. As for the idea that they are singing a love song to each other, all I can say is that I have lived in a city centre from over 20 years and have often been out and about in the pubs and clubs on a Friday and Saturday night. Without exception there has been groups or couples of men staggering around the streets singing popular modern love songs. They are singing together, not to each other. This is also my interpretation of the song of the Pardoner and the Summoner.

To end this rather lengthy entry, here’s a video of the Pardoner’s Tale from the animated series of “The Canterbury Tales” produced a couple of decades ago. It’s in modern English, though I can’t say it’s a completely accurate translation. What is accurate is the visual portrayals of the Pardoner and the Summoner.

Monday 22 March 2021

Homohoax: Legacy of a Nobody

[Homohoax: A hoax, prank, deception or fraud committed by, targeted at, or attributed to the lgbt community]

There are many composers who were huge celebrities in their lifetime and national heroes, yet there are also once-famous composers who are virtually unknown in the modern music world and yet have become cults because of it. One such composer is Dag Esrum-Hellerup (1803-1891).

Born in the Danish city of Aarhus Dag was blessed with having a musical father (very little is known about his mother and he says little about her in his own memoirs published in 1883, or in the biography of him written by Prof. A. Pirro published in 1909). Dag’s father, Johan Henrik Esrum-Hellerup (1773-1843), was a humble railway crossing guard who became a self-taught virtuoso on the flute and the ophicleide, a precursor of the modern tuba.

Johan’s musical talent was spotted by a member of the court orchestra of the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin who happened to be waiting at the station crossing where Johan worked and who heard him playing the ophicleide during a break from his duties. Johan was duly invited to join the Duke’s court orchestra. The whole family, including young Dag, moved to Schwerin. Not long after that Johan was appointed to the chamber orchestra of King Christian IX of Denmark. With this background Dag was able to mix with the top musicians in Scandinavia.

Dag studied the ophicleide under his father but efforts proved unsuccessful and Dag turned to the flute. He studied under Friedrich Kuhlau, a pianist and composer known as the “Beethoven of the Flute” (despite not being able to play the flute himself!). Dag became an accomplished flautist and began to gain a reputation in his early 20s as a composer. He rapidly became popular with the public, fellow musicians and royalty. Richard Wagner called him “the Danish Wagner”.

For a while Dag was the toast of the upper class musical circles of Europe. Recently discovered documents at Windsor Castle have revealed that he gave a recital of one of his flute quartets for Queen Victoria. This was shortly after the marriage of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) to Princess Alexandra of Denmark (the princess had known Dag at the Danish court of her father King Christian IX).

For reasons not entirely understood Dag’s reputation and popularity faded quickly in the 1860s. Neither his memoirs nor the 1909 biography give any details. His final years were spent in seclusion and he died in 1891, choking on a fish bone while attending a performance of Wagner’s “Parsifal” (at the invitation of Wagner’s gay son, Siegfried). His death attracted only one sentence in a Danish newspaper. He was remembered by few and even his 1909 biography went largely ignored.

Dag Esrum-Hellerup was rediscovered in the late 1970s by musicologist and authority on Nordic music, Robert Layton (1930-2020) who came across one of the few remaining copies of the biography. It immediately sparked his interest and he began researching deeper. At the time Robert was involved in preparations for the publication of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and thought Dag Esrum-Hellerup deserved an entry. Robert quickly wrote an entry on Dag and submitted it just before publication.

Even though next to no music by Dag has survived his legacy remains. More details of his life have been emerging slowly over the years and he has become something of a cult figure. In 2013 he became the inspiration for a contest organised by Grove Music/Oxford Music Online. This legacy is remarkable because – Dag Esrum-Hellerup didn’t exist.

Everything you’ve read in this article so far, except for the two immediately preceding paragraphs, is fiction. Dag Esrum-Hellerup was the brainchild of the above-mentioned Robert Layton, who was indeed a respected musicologist, expert on Nordic music, and contributor to the New Grove Dictionary.

Before we look at Robert Layton I’ll just separate some facts from the above fiction. The ophicleide is a genuine musical instrument. Friedrich Kuhlau was a real person who composed flute music and called the “Beethoven of the Flute”, and it’s true that he didn’t play the instrument. Esrum and Hellerup are names of real villages with railway crossings.

Robert Layton’s expertise in classical Nordic music led to him writing several articles for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He was known for his sense of humour and some people were on the receiving end of his practical jokes, which included the global musical world with his entry on Dag Esrum-Hellerup.

The hoax article was revealed very quickly when a Danish musician read the fake entry and tried to find Dag’s birth certificate. When Robert admitted it was all a hoax the editor of the dictionary, Stanley Sadie, was furious and had it removed from the second edition. However, Dag Esrum-Hellerup became a cult when Stanley Sadie acknowledged the hoax in an article on this and other musical hoaxes in “Musical Times”, which he also edited. Other musical writers and critics have added to the story over the years with fictional additions to Dag’s life story, as I have above.

Robert Layton was a leading authority on the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and in 1986 was awarded the Sibelius Medal by the Sibelius Society of Finland. In 1988 Robert was made a Knight of the order of the White Rose of Finland, and in 2001 was made a Knight of the Royal Order of the Polar Star (Sweden). Robert was survived by his civil partner Chuan Chiam.

The Dag Esrum-Hellerup hoax was the main inspiration for the Grove Music Spoof Article Contest organised by Grove Music/Oxford Music Online. There could be a danger that Dag Esrum-Hellerup will become more famous than Robert Layton, the gay man who invented him.

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Paddy Power

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. This is one those religious feast days that has become very a popular secular celebration. Most people don’t care who St. Patrick was as long as he gives them an excuse to get drunk.

Millions of us with Irish ancestry (my great-grandmother was Irish) will be celebrating all things connected to the Emerald Isle today, though sadly without the St. Patrick’s Day parades.

There’s quite a history behind the lgbt community and the various battles to be included in St. Patrick’s Day parades, especially in the USA. There’s isn’t enough space to go into the full history here, but if you’re interested here’s a brief timeline of the difficulties lgbt groups have had in trying to join New York City’s parade. Other US cities have been welcoming lgbt paraders for several years.

Anyway, this should be a day to celebrate. So are seven lgbt “Paddies” who have made their mark of the community and the world. The legacy of most of them has come at a high price, however.

1) Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) – I couldn’t really list any lgbt Irishman without including Oscar Wilde. However, his influence is gradually fading within the lgbt community because each new generation has newer role models and heroes to commemorate. I’m sure some famous gay men were forgotten after Oscar Wilde hit the headlines due to his involvement with Lord Alfred Douglas. That’s where historians have a vital role to play – to resurrect and raise awareness of forgotten or overlooked people and events that have all helped to build our community. Oscar still exerts his influence among the older generations. In December he was back in headlines when plans were revealed to turn Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned for gross indecency, into luxury apartments. Many British “A” list actors are campaigning to prevent this from happening. If memory serves, the gay activist Peter Tatchell once suggested that Reading Gaol would be the perfect site for the UK’s first permanent lgbt museum – if only he’d put his money where his mouth was. I take consolation in knowing that the door to Oscar’s cell will be saved – it’s currently part of the collection at the National Museum of Justice here in Nottingham.

2) Arthur Gore, 7th Earl of Arran (1903-1958) – Although English by birth the Earl of Arran held an Irish title and came from a distinguished Irish dynasty. He inherited his title from his father in 1958 but didn’t take his seat in the House of Lords because he committed suicide 28 days later. It is generally believed that personal struggles over his homosexuality was the reason. He was succeeded by his brother, a Liberal Party peer, who introduced the Sexual Offences Bill into parliament in 1965. Despite the majority Labour House of Commons voting against it twice (the Labour Prime Minister didn’t support it) the earl’s bill made its third successful passage through parliament to become the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales. This is seen as a landmark in gay rights and may never have made it through parliament without the 7th Earl’s brother pressing for a change in the law. Sadly, other people (i.e. the Labour Party, as usual) took the credit.

3) Declan Flynn (c.1952-1982) – Just as the murder of Harvey Milk gave impetus to the San Francisco lgbt community the murder of Declan Flynn gave impetus to the community in Ireland. Declan worked at Dublin Airport and was a volunteer at the city’s gay resource centre. On 9th September 1982 Declan was walking home after a night out with a friend. As he walked through Fairfield Park he was attacked by five teenagers who beat him to death with sticks. The murderers were quickly caught and put on trial. They all admitted to the killing but the judge, to everyone’s surprise, even the killers’, gave them all suspended sentences. A debate was held in parliament on the verdict. On 19th March 1983, eleven days after the sentencing, a protest march through Dublin was organised by the lgbt community and many supporters and allies. It was the largest gay rights demonstration seen in Ireland up until then. It inspired the relatively small Dublin Pride, which had been in existence since 1974, to form the first Dublin Pride march several months later. Declan Flynn is still remembered in the community, and the bridge in Fairfield Park which bears a memorial to him was decorated when Ireland passed their same-sex marriage act in 2015.

4) Lyra McKee (1990-2019) – Mention the name Northern Ireland to people of my generation and a subconscious image comes to our minds of “the Troubles”, the conflict between Irish republican militants and the British authorities who between them caused the death of hundreds of people. Even though “the Troubles” were officially resolved peacefully several decades ago there are fringe militant groups who still occasionally bring terror to Northern Ireland. In April 2019 lesbian journalist Lyra McKee was covering a militant republican protest in Derry when she was hit by a bullet. She later died in hospital. One of the militants was charged with her murder. Condemnation came from all sides and many nations and Lyra’s death was made more tragic when it was revealed that she was going to propose to her partner that week. Lyra’s death served as a reminder that violence and militancy are around us all the time and more determined efforts were made to keep peace in Northern Ireland.

5) Michael Dillon (1915-1962) – Physician, writer and Buddhist monk Michael Dillon is one of the pioneers in the British transgender community. In his early 20s he began taking testosterone pills. While recovering from a hypoglycemic attack a sympathetic plastic surgeon performed a double mastectomy and gave him medical certification which enabled Michael to amend his birth certificate. The surgeon put him in touch with Harold Gillies who had performed reconstructive surgery on penises of injured soldiers and intersex patients. This led to Michael Dillon becoming the first transgender man to have phalloplasty between 1946 and 1949. When Michael’s story was revealed to the press in 1958 he fled to India where he became an ordained Buddhist monk.

6) Eva Gore-Booth (1870-1926) – A distant cousin of the 7th Earl of Arran (above) Eva’s privileged background gave her an awareness of the social and economic differences in society and became an activist for the less privileged. Her main focus was on women’s suffrage. After the Easter Rising of 1916, one of the major events of “the Troubles” I mentioned above Eva campaigned successfully for the release of her sister Constance who had been sentenced to death for her involvement. Constance later became the first woman elected to the British parliament, though she refused to take her seat because of the British involvement in Ireland. Eva was also a poet, and when her health declined in the 1920s and she was no longer able to take an active part in her campaigns writing poetry became her main occupation.

7) Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904) – Another leading figure in the women’s suffrage movement was Frances Cobbe who was also a pioneer in animal rights. In 1875, in response to increased awareness of experiments carried out on animals, Frances founded the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection. It was the world’s first anti-vivisection organisation. It was renamed the Victoria Street Society and in 1897 it acquired the name which it uses today – the National Anti-Vivisection Society. In 1898 Frances left the society to found the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. This merged with the New England Anti-Vivisection Society in 2012 to create Cruelty Free International. Frances supported the work of the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals in successfully lobbying for the introduction of animal welfare legislation.

Friday 12 March 2021

Transgender Dragons

Now and again there’s a report in the media which raises questions about gender determination – not in humans but in animals. In December there were reports that a lizard in an Australian aquarium had changed from female to male at the beginning of last year and scientists don’t know how or why.

Gender switching is not uncommon outside our hominid family. In fact it is well documented among reptiles and fish, including lizards and even crocodiles. Several years ago I wrote about gender-switching in chickens which may have led to the origin of stories about the legendary creature the basilisk or cockatrice. The gender determination process in lizards is similar, especially in several species that are named after another legendary creature, the dragon.

Like chickens and birds lizards’ chromosomes are given the names ZZ, which normally indicates a male lizard, and ZW, which normally indicates a female lizard. High environmental temperatures seem to trigger a sex change in embryos in pre-hatched eggs. It is the temperature of the eggs that determines whether the ZZ embryo of a male lizard develops into a female before it hatches. These female lizards with ZZ male chromosomes are even capable of producing normal offspring, all of them normal ZZ males.

In 2015 this type of gender determination was studied in a species of lizard called the central bearded dragon. This dragon lives in the tropical regions of Australia and despite their monstrous name they are no bigger than a domestic cat. Researchers found that around 10% of the dragons they examined were females with ZZ male chromosomes and no ZW female chromosomes. It was the first time that genetic gender differences of these lizards had been found in the wild.

But what is puzzling biologists is that one species of lizard closely related to the central bearded dragon called the Boyd’s forest dragon has unexpectedly changed sex from female to male in adulthood. The dragon in question lives in the Sea Life aquarium in Melbourne, where she had been given the name Doris.

Doris had lived as the aquarium for the past 6 years and has laid many eggs and produced many young. She lived in a tropical forest exhibit with two other Boyd’s forest dragons, a male and a female. Sadly the male dragon, called Old Mate, died in 2019 and the two female dragons were transferred to a new tropical exhibit in early 2020. Shortly afterwards Doris began exhibiting behaviour that was not typical for her gender. She began to eat regularly. Female Boyd’s forest dragon’s usually only binge eat in one short period prior to laying eggs, but Doris was eating like a male dragon. Then Doris started to change skin colour and develop a more prominent crest and she began to grow larger, just like a male dragon.

Doris the Boyd’s forest dragon.
Photo from the Sea Life Aquarium’s Facebook page.
These changes were noticeable to the aquarium staff particularly the reptile keeper Tom Fair (who is openly gay, by the way, but that’s not relevant to this story). The animals at the aquarium are given a medical check regularly and during one of them Tom took Doris to the aquarium vet. An ultrasound confirmed that Doris was a female dragon. Ovaries and underdeveloped eggs were detected. Then, a month later at the next check Doris was given another ultrasound. This time there were no ovaries and no eggs, and instead Doris had developed testicles. Doris was now a male dragon.

Scientists are both mystified and sceptical. Adult reptiles had not been known to change gender before. As explained above sex changed has only been found in embryos in unhatched eggs. The only other species known to change sex in adulthood is the clownfish (yes, the same fish as Marlin in “Finding Nemo” – I wonder if Disney will ever make a sequel about Marlin as an adult suddenly changes sex. I doubt it – you know how prudish the American are on these subjects).

There are several tentative theories about how Doris (I suppose we should start calling him Boris now) changed gender. A lot of research and observation will have to be done before any proper theory can be formulated. Over a year later scientists are no nearer to providing an answer. Until we know for sure that Doris won’t or can’t change back he goes down in history as the world’s first transgender dragon.

Sunday 7 March 2021

The Seven Voyages of ...

…no, not Sinbad, but an equally intrepid explorer who also encountered visited distant lands, saw strange creatures and battled pirates on the high seas. He would surely have become the hero of tales in the “1001 Nights” had he lived centuries earlier. He is legendary in the country of his birth, and was even celebrated in one of the most ostentatious (and unnervingly intimidating) Olympic opening ceremonies ever. His names was Zheng He (1371-1433) and he was admiral of the Treasure Fleet of the Ming emperor of China.

There are several similarities between Zheng He and the legendary Sinbad. Both were Muslims, both sailed through the Indian Ocean many times, and both may have sailed further than anyone else in their lifetime.

A wax figure of Zheng He in the Quanzhou Maritime Museum, Fujian Province, China.

Zheng He was born into a Muslim family in Kunming in Yunnan, in what is now a province of China but was then a semi-independent region still ruled by the former imperial Mongol dynasty. Zheng’s birth name was Ma He. Islam had spread to south-east Asia several centuries earlier through trade routes and there’s still millions of Muslims in Yunnan province today. Zheng was descended from the first Governor of Yunnan, appointed by Kublai Kahn. It is claimed Zheng descends from the Prophet Mohammed through his governor ancestor. This is very possible, though no complete record of that descent exists. It is also believed that Zheng’s father took the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj.

When he was about 10 years old Yunnan was invade by the Ming army. Zheng’s father was killed and he was captured. Almost immediately he was subjected to the usual punishment given to male captives – castration, and he became a eunuch.

Eunuchs in Ming China were mainly captured slaves. They were generally regarded as non-male and non-female and could be regarded as a third gender in a way similar to some members of the hijra community of the Indian subcontinent. Most of the Ming eunuchs worked at the imperial court and civil servants often regarded them with suspicion and condescension. Being close to imperial ears eunuchs could be chosen to act as spies against court officials. It was possible, therefore, to eunuchs to be trusted by the emperor and rise in power above the court official who despised them.

Zheng became a slave of the Prince of Yan, Zhu Di, the governor of Beijing. Zheng came to earn the prince’s trust and took a leading role in many of his military campaigns. In 1402 Prince Zhu became emperor. It was the new emperor that Zheng was bestowed with that name in place of Ma. From that moment it was a quick rise in the military ranks for Zheng and he become a diplomat, admiral and Grand Director of the seven voyages of the Treasure Fleet.

The emperor devised these treasure voyages in 1403 and set about constructing the fleet. The treasure the ships were to carry was gold, silver, rich brocades and silks, and porcelain to foreign lands in exchange fore rich goods to bring back to China. They also carried envoys and diplomats with letters from the emperor to give to foreign heads of state and transport foreign ambassadors back to China with their treasures to give to the emperor.

The treasure ships were huge. When Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” across the Atlantic 90 years later he could have fitted ten of his ships inside just one of those treasure ships. Not only that, but each Treasure Fleet consisted of 300 ships, including the treasure ships themselves as well as supply ships and military ships. Imagine seeing those sail over the horizon straight towards you. Likewise, there was a massive crew, up to 27,000 people on each voyage.

In recent years, especially since the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the first voyage, more interest has been taken in Zheng He and the Treasure Fleet. During the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games there was a section devoted to Zheng He in which hundreds of men dressed in blue waved 20-feet-long paddles in the air to represent the waves of the sea (above). When the paddles were held up together they showed paintings of the Treasure Fleet. At the end of their section they formed the outline of one of those massive ships.

Among the more recent documentaries about Zheng He is shown below. It shows better the routes of his voyages and gives some new theories about his influence in the countries he visited. 

Monday 1 March 2021

Running the Birthday Boy's Flag Up the Pole

There’s nothing guaranteed to cause an argument than to claim a famous person from history was gay, especially if that person is a national hero in a predominantly homophobic country. The most recent argument has been the furore over renewed claims that the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) was gay.

Today is the anniversary of his birth (the date most accepted by historians), so it seems appropriate to have a look at his queer credentials. The latest researcher to fly Chopin’s gay flag up the pole (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) is Moritz Weber, a Swiss concert pianist and music journalist.

Moritz isn’t the first person to look at Chopin’s sexuality. There has always been some ambiguous nature attributed to him, even in his own lifetime. He was never in really good health and his physical frame and appearance could be quite androgynous, often described as effeminate by his contemporaries and biographers alike. Chopin’s music was also often described as effeminate, or even childlike.

When Chopin was living in Paris his pieces were popular with female pianists, of which there were many. One music historian, Jeffrey Kallberg, has said that this would have coloured people’s attitude towards Chopin and his music making it less popular with musicians and music lovers who preferred more robust compositions from the likes of Beethoven. Attempts to “butch up” performances of Chopin’s works became common among male pianists in the 20th century.

Chopin’s sexuality has become such a big topic in recent decades. Early biographers often ignored or down-played and sexual aspect in his life, except in two instances which I’ll mention later.

One of the more recent biographies, “Chopin” by Bernard Gavoty published in 1977, took the closest look at that time into Chopin’s sexuality and his supposed love affairs. This led one reviewer to remark that Chopin was portrayed by Gavoty as a “sexually repressed man-child”.

By the end of the 20th century Chopin had become established within the lgbt community. The defunct, though partly archived, website, an online encyclopedia, contained a reference to him in one short matter-of-fact sentence in its article on classical music published in 2002. It said “More certain is the bisexuality of Frédéric Chopin”.

In 2018 Alan Walker wrote “Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times” (Fryderyk is the Polish spelling of his name). Walker addressed the issue of letters Chopin wrote to Tytus Woyciechowski (1808-1879), Chopin’s fellow student at the Warsaw Lyceum and later a pioneering agriculturalist and freedom fighter. These letters are also the ones which Moritz Weber studied but Alan Walker is “much inclined to doubt” that there is anything romantic contained within them.

We have the covid lockdown to thank for the new examination of the letters. While in lockdown Moritz began looking more closely at the composer’s letters. It is known that some were missing. This isn’t unusual considering how long ago that were written. I’m sure most of you have thrown away or lost a lot of the letters you have received.

Another problem with Chopin’s letters is that when they have been translated from Polish the personal pronouns have been changed. The use of gender in grammar affects different languages in different ways. If you’ve ever used a Google translation you’ll know gender pronouns get mixed up in many languages. In pre-Google translations of Chopin’s letters phrases he used in writing to men, such as “I love him”, have usually been translated as “I love her”.

Chopin’s letters to Tytus Woyciechowski have survived but not those from Tytus to Chopin. Because of this there interpretation is based purely on one side of the correspondence. The precise relationship Chopin had with Tytus, therefore, can never be definitively labelled. Despite the romantic overtones in Chopin’s letters there’s nothing to indicate that there was ever any physical relationship, or that Tytus was anything other than heterosexual.

It has been suggested that Chopin was asexual throughout his life though he felt a deep love fore several other men. These included Julian Fontana (1810-1869), a fellow Polish composer and Chopin’s musical executor who lived with him in Paris for two years. There was also Antoni Wodzinski (d.1928), a writer who had also lived with Chopin in Paris. Both of them received romantic letters from Chopin.

Critics of any suggestion that Chopin was not heterosexual point out his love affairs with two women, most notably with a French novelist George Sand, the pen-name of Aurore Dupin (1804-1876). Before that Chopin is supposed to have got engaged to Maria, the sister of Antoni Wodzinski. Maria was one of those many female pianist who loved Chopin’s works. She was also a talented artist. The portrait of Chopin at the top of this article was painted by her when she was 16 years old.

Although most early biographers present the engagement between Chopin and Maria as fact there is no written evidence from either of them that one existed. Likewise with George Sand. There’s no written evidence that they were romantically or sexually involved. True, George Sand wanted a relationship and asked some of Chopin’s friends if he was single. However, for Chopin any relationship may have not been conceivable. After their first meeting Chopin is said to have remarked “Is she a woman?” George often dressed in male clothes and smoked cigars, and she was never regarded as particularly good looking.

Even though the “couple” lived together on Mallorca for a couple of years there was no relationship. Chopin’s health was getting worse at that time and the two eventually fell out and separated.

Today it is generally accepted that Chopin and George Sand were not romantically involved. Even the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw, the world’s leading protector of the composer’s legacy, admits there isn’t any evidence of one. I’m sure that opinions and new theories will continue to emerge. For now perhaps we should think of Chopin as a romantic asexual who may never have had sex at all. It seems apparent to me that he was attracted to men more than he was to women, even though he lived in a society where men regularly expressed their affection for each other.