Wednesday, 30 January 2013

All Kinds of Astronomy

The Outlist of lgbt astronomers which I mentioned in the introduction to the Ology of the Month on 8th January contains just a handful of the living out lgbt space scientists around the world. Many other, such as Frank Kameny and Sally Ride are no longer with us.

Even using the word “astronomer” hides the wide range of areas and specialisations within the subject, each with their own qualifications and skills. Its like grouping footballers, darts players and boxers together as sportspeople.

So here’s a sample group of experts in various different aspects of astronomy.

Lisa Harvey-Smith (b.1979) – radio astronomy.
English-born Lisa is a research astronomer at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world, in Sydney, Australia. Lisa specialises in radio astronomy and is one of the leading advocates for the Square Kilometre Array, a radio telescope comprised of many separate radio telescopes linked together to form a total collecting area of, as the name suggests, about a square kilometre.

Todd B. Hawley (1961-1995) – space education and international collaboration.
When humanity finally decides to get round to space travel again, perhaps back to the Moon, some people will have been influenced by the International Space University, co-founded in 1985 by Todd Hawley. The university’s aim it to promote international co-operation in developing human space exploration. Perhaps the best way I can do justice to Todd is to direct you to this video.

Laura Kay – research into active galactic nuclei (AGN), and an “umbraphile”.
Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College, Columbia University, USA. Her first research after graduating was studying auroras and cosmic rays at the Amundsen Scott station at the South Pole. Laura’s main research interest now is in AGN, galaxies with huuuge black holes in their centre, and their relationship to seyfert galaxies, galaxies with huuuuuuuuuuge black holes at their centre. She is also an out and proud umbraphile – an eclipse lover.

Martin Lo – space navigation.
Every probe launched into space needs to have its complete journey planned in advance – it needs a map. This is the responsibility of the Navigation Manager. Martin Lo has worked on many space missions plotting and calculating the best routes. Usually this is done using the gravitational pull of the sun, planets and moon. Perhaps Martin’s great achievement is his discovery of the Interplanetary Superhighway – a network of “tunnels” between the planets created by the combined gravitational forces of several planets. This superhighway is the most efficient and quickest way to navigate through the solar system.

James B. Pollack (1938-1994) – planetary atmospherics.
James, a colleague of the great Carl Sagan, studied atmospheres on other planets in our solar system, especially Mars and Venus, which is why a Martian crater is named after him. He was involved in all the interplanetary missions that NASA undertook after the Apollo missions ended. Using his studies of the evolution of the atmospheres on Venus and Mars James and Sagan came up with theories on the extinction of the dinosaurs and a nuclear winter on Earth. The theories on the nuclear winter helped campaigners to urge governments to reduce nuclear weapons and led to disarmament treaties.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Heritage Spotlight - Holocaust Memorials

In commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day I want to bring the heritage spotlight onto the Holocaust memorials around the world which specifically remember the gay victims of Nazi persecution.

In the 1980s, when the Berlin Wall came down and the country became a unified nation once more, Germany began to reassess its position in international politics and acknowledge its past role in world history. The most painful memory to address was the persecution of many sections of society during the Holocaust.

At first many people, particularly in Germany, believed that all physical evidence of the Holocaust should be destroyed because the memory of it was horrific enough. But it became apparent that preserving the old Nazi concentration camps was the only effective way to keep the horrors in people’s minds, especially as testimonies of living memory diminished with time. Many memorials were erected to the Jewish victims. As other groups persecuted by the Nazis began to realise their own losses in the Holocaust they too erected monuments.

Gay victims are remembered around the world. I have divided them into three geographical groups, and list them chronologically. If you want to know a bit more about them go to this website where there are more details and photographs.

Group 1          GERMANY
1984    Mauthausen concentration camp.
1985    Dachau concentration camp.
1985    Neuengamme concentration camp.
1989    Berlin.
1990    Buchenwald concentration camp.
1992    Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
1994    Frankfurt-am-Main, in Platz Schäfergasse.
1995    Cologne, Wallraf-Richarts-Museum.
2008    Berlin, in the Tiergarten.

Group 2          EUROPE
1987    Amsterdam, Netherlands, in Westermarkt.
1990    Bologna, Italy, in the gardens of Villa Cassarini.
1993    The Hague, Netherlands, in Koninginnegracht.
2000    Rome, Italy, near Metro Piramide.
2005    Trieste, Italy, at Risiera San Sabba, an Italian concentration camp.
2005    Laxton, Nottinghamshire, UK, at the Holocaust Centre.
2007    Saint Malo, France.
2011    Barcelona, Spain, Cuitadella Park.

Group 3          THE WORLD
1999    Achorage, Alaska, USA, in the municipal cemetery.
1999    San Francisco, USA, in the Pink Triangle Park.
2001    Palm Springs, Florida, USA.
2001    Sydney, Australia, in Green Park.
?          Winnipeg, Canada, in the grounds of Manitoba Legislative Building.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum currently has a travelling exhibition called “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945”. It ends its occupancy at the Compass Community Centre at Lake Worth, Palm Beach County, Florida, today. It moves to the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri, which will host the exhibition from 6th February to 10th April. For more information go here.

Friday, 25 January 2013

A Queer Star-Gayzing Achievement


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

I’m combining two of my series today – heraldry and astronomy.

A coat of arms can belong to an organisation as well as a person, among them countries, cities and towns all around the world. Some places still use coats of arms that have been around since the Middle Ages. The city where I live, Nottingham, has had a coat of arms from 1610 at the earliest.

Just like the royal arms of the UK or the Presidential seal of the USA, which are only used by the Head of state during their reign/term of office, Nottingham’s arms are used by it’s Lord Mayor in his official capacity.

As I mentioned in October the present Lord Mayor of Nottingham, Leon Unczur, is the first openly gay incumbent in that post (and the only openly gay Lord Mayor in the whole of the UK) and, as such, is the present “owner” of Nottingham’s coat of arms.

To incorporate the Ology of the Month into the mix the full achievement includes the city’s crest which represents Nottingham Castle with a star and moon sitting on top of the towers. This crest is taken from the city’s medieval seal which predates the shield design by some 200 years. When Nottingham was given city status in 1898 this seal became the crest.

The castle is an obvious reference to my old work place, Nottingham Castle. In previous posts I have mentioned that the castle had at least 2 known gay constables (here and here) – the site managers, as it were. The origin of the wavy star and crescent on the towers is obscure, but Wilfred Scott-Giles, a leading heraldist of the 20th century, believed that both originate with the Crusades of King Richard the Lionheart. Many people put Richard on their list of lgbt royals, but I don’t. The reason is given here.

A word about the crescent first. The connection to the Crusades immediately brings to mind the crescent of Islam. But just like the English cross of St. George there was no connection at the time, it came later and wasn’t used at the time of Richard the Lionheart. It seems to be an emblem used by crusader knights (like the cross).

The wavy star is a heraldic representation of the sun, a popular dynastic emblem in England most famously referenced by Shakespeare when he gives Richard III the words “this Sun of York”. So both the star and crescent are emblems suitable for Richard the Lionheart, and both appear on his Great Seal of England. But why do they appear over Nottingham Castle?

In fact Richard the Lionheart has a significant place as the only person in history to lead a successful attack on Nottingham Castle. The basics are known to any Robin Hood aficionado. King Richard left his brother Prince John in charge of the country while he went off on crusade. John made such a pig’s ear of it – raising taxes, and squandering the ransom money raised when Richard was captured – that the Lionheart was in no mood for brotherly love when he escaped and arrived back in England. He headed straight for Prince John who was at Nottingham Castle at the time.

Prince John got wind of Richard’s return and was scared. He knew he was in trouble. He told his baronial allies to gather at Nottingham and defend the castle. In the meantime, John said, he would go and warn some of his other garrisons in other castles. So off he went, if effect running away to leave Nottingham to defend themselves.

By the time Richard arrived the castle was prepared. As a contemporary account puts it, the army arrived with “such a clangour of trumpets and clarions, that those who were in the castle … were astonished and were confounded and alarmed, but still they could  not believe that the king had come and supposed that the whole of this was done … for the purpose of deceiving them.”

Many men were killed on both sides, and it was only after an embassy was sent to the attackers that the castle garrison realised that King Richard really was there. They surrendered on the spot.

It may be because of this event that the medieval town corporation chose to commemorate the event in their seal. This is, of course, just speculation on my part, as no other satisfactory theory has ever been suggested for the castle having a star and crescent on its towers.

For just a couple more months Lord Mayor Leon will be the out and proud “owner” of the city’s coat of arms bearing a crest which commemorates the Lionheart’s taking of Nottingham Castle. 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Frank Takes Activism Into Space

It all begins and ends in space.

In the history of the gay rights movement one name puts activism among the stars – Frank Kameny (1925-2011). In one of the few quirks of fate it is homophobia that put it there. If it wasn’t for Frank’s homophobic bosses he may never have taken a lead in the gay rights movement of 1960s America. And if it wasn’t for his prominent role in that gay rights movement he may never have had asteroid 40463 named after him. In the official citation announcing the naming of the asteroid it was Frank’s activism that took up the most space behind the career from which he was fired in 1958, astronomy.

Frank Kameny studied physics at Queen’s College, Harvard, after which he became a teaching fellow there. In 1956 he graduated with a PhD in astronomy. It was his thesis which led to the asteroid being named after him. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After receiving his PhD Frank moved to Washington DC where he taught at the Astronomy Department of Georgetown University. By the following summer he was employed as a civilian by the US Army Map Service. But he wasn’t there long. Several months later he was arrested for homosexuality and fired.

Not one to sit back and be walked all over, Frank fought back by taking the government to the Supreme Court. He didn’t win his case for reinstatement but it did begin his involvement in lgbt rights which would carry on for the rest of his life.

His achievements in the gay rights movement in America are many, and none can be said to be insignificant. From the formation of the Mattachine Society (one of the first gay rights groups) to the removal of homosexuality from classification as a mental illness, and from protesting outside the White House to the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in the military, Frank’s voice was always one of the loudest. His achievements were recognised by the Obama administration with both an official apology for his dismissal for homosexuality in 1958, and with the awarding of the Theodore Roosevelt Award (the most prestigious honour the government can award one of it’s employees, even though Frank was no longer one of them).

But, as Dr. Jane Rigby says in the video below, Frank was the most famous astronomer that most astronomers had never heard of. Following his dismissal Frank had little involvement with astronomy. He did, however, join the American Association of Variable Star Observers. It was through this group that Frank Kameny came to have his asteroid named after him. The story behind it is related by gay astronomical technologist Richard Kinne here.

The YouTube video by Jan Rigby mentioned above gives a good overall picture of Frank’s life. At about 25 minutes in length it may seem a little slow and like a presentation at a conference, but it is worth listening to all the way through, and gives Frank’s life from a gay astronomer’s point of view.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

On Track to the Outgames

Following last year’s marathon series on the Olympics you probably don’t want to hear any more about sport! But this year is one of the big years for lgbt sport with the 3rd World Outgames taking place in Antwerp in July and August.

The Outgames originated in controversy but has emerged as a worthy companion to the Gay Games. Let’s get the controversial origins over with first before we look at the sport.

There are still many people around who were involved in the events. Because of this I think there is too much personal opinion and emotion influencing both sides of the argument and their version of what happened. It’s a difficult task for any historian to please all the people all the time. Even Carolyn Symons, author of “The Gay Games: A History” (Routledge, 2010) had to admit defeat when trying to reconcile conflicting views of the split, and I know that whatever I write will upset someone from either one or the other side.

In 2001 the 2006 Gay Games were awarded to Montréal, Canada. By the beginning of the century the Gay Games were becoming a major international sporting event, regardless of the sexuality of the athletes. This was helped by open participation and support of some of the world’s top lgbt sportspeople, including openly out Olympians, as well as major sponsorship, celebrity involvement in ceremonies, and support from politicians.

The first Gay Games of the 21st century, those on Sydney 2002, were a sporting success but a financial failure. There were various factors affecting this and not everything can be laid at the door of the organising committee or the FGG. Because of these factors the FGG decided to exercise more direct control over budgets and non-sporting cultural elements of future games. They also decided to downscale competitor numbers to be more on a par with the Olympic Games’ usual 10,500 target.

This was the background to the split that occurred in 2004.

The original Montréal bid committee had changed since winning the Gay Games. Support had also been received from the city’s leading tourism organisation and a significant amount of funding came from the government. There were too many non-lgbt fingers in the pie looking after their own interests who weren’t going to let anyone take any of their bit of the pie away. This left little room for negotiation. Montréal 2006’s plans didn’t fit in with the new direction taken by the FGG. This was clear at the 2003 FGG Board meeting.

The Board wanted a scaled down version of Montréal’s plans with fewer paid staff and more volunteer organisers. As well as budget, they also wanted more control over marketing and sponsorship agreements.

The Montréal 2006 committee had been sold on being presented as centrepiece of Tourism Montréal’s own aim of promoting the city on the world lgbt tourist map. Were they more interested in the money that would come into the city than the opportunity for lgbt athletes to compete in a non-discriminatory environment? It’s a political ploy that is played out all around the world, even here in Nottingham.

That was the situation in 2003 – the FGG were not willing to let Montréal 2006 organise the Gay Games based on their winning bid, and Montréal were not willing to let the FGG turn it into a much more limited event. The FGG were looking to secure a financial future for the games, and Montréal was looking to provide the biggest and best lgbt sporting event they knew they could produce. Both sides had common ground, but it was the differences which seemed insurmountable.

Negotiations failed to reach agreement and a split was inevitable. The FGG cancelled all contracts with Montréal 2006. What concerned those outside both organisations was the overtly political point-scoring both sides engaged in and whether the split would effect the lgbt community as well.

What the Montréal 2006 team had in it’s favour was an experienced, high-profile, lgbt sporting hero to put it’s case – Mark Tewksbury. An Olympic swimming champion and member of the Olympic athlete’s commission, Mark had significant involvement in a major sporting organisation. He was aware of the challenges his negotiating team had against a large body like the FGG.

Mark had come out in 1998, the same year he led calls for the International Olympic Committee to deal with corruption in their bidding process after it was discovered that several IOC members had received “gifts” in exchange for voting for Salt Lake City’s bid to host the 2002 Winter games. Mark was an outspoken critic of the IOC and left the athlete’s commission in protest. His criticism, however, was not unheeded and the IOC changed its bidding process. His role in the promotion of the first World Outgames was crucial to its success.

In January 2004 the Montréal 2006 team organised a conference to discuss the general direction of international lgbt sport. It looked at the IOC, the FGG and other sporting organisations, taking what they considered the best points from each and building a new vision for the future.

The following March this conference met again and formed the Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association (GLISA). They negotiated new contracts with the Montréal 2006 team to organise Rendez-Vous Montréal, a sporting and cultural event that included the first World Outgames. Mark Tewksbury was elected it’s co-president.

In the meantime, the FGG reopened the bidding process for it’s 2006 games. Losing bids from 2001 were invited to resubmit them, adapting them to fit the new vision of the FGG, and the games were awarded to Chicago.

The Chicago games stuck with the dates originally allocated to Montréal because athletes had geared themselves up specifically to reach peak performance at that event. The Montréal Outgames also bore this in mind, and decided to programme their event two weeks after the Chicago games ended, thereby still catching a lot of athletes at high performance levels. Some athletes competed at both events. Now that two lgbt sporting festivals were being held within one month in 2006 there were fears that one would overshadow the other as athletes had to decide which games they would concentrate their efforts.

With the controversial origins over the sport could begin. Next time I’ll take a look at the first World Outgames proper. Because there is not yet an official history (or an attempt at one, as far as I can find) of the Outgames I have based most of my research on the reports by Cyd Zeigler from

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Out Of This World

We all know that the planets are named after ancient Greek gods and goddesses, and that lots of objects like asteroids, satellites and stars are also named after mythological figures. But with the discovery of each new celestial object the challenge after cataloguing it is giving it a name. It sounds so much better to refer to the asteroid Michelangelo instead of asteroid number 3001.

Several constellations have been named after real lgbt people, and I have dealt with them in my Star Gayzing series – Frederick the Great and Antinous.

It is natural to name something after a famous person or to recognise their contribution in a particular field. So the skies are full of objects named after real people, more so than in any other science. Here are some people in the lgbt community who have had objects that are “out of this world” named after them.

With the universe full of an infinite number of objects it is possible to name a star, planet or galaxy after each and every one of us (I hope I don’t have a black hole named after me!) and all our ancestors. So where do I start? Well, since the Ology of the Month is astronomy, let’s start with lgbt astronomers.

There’s very few celestial objects named after lgbt astronomers. Here are ones I’ve found.

JAMES B. POLLACK (1938-1994)
A NASA research scientist who specialised in planetary atmospheres and evolutionary planetary climate change. He had a crater on Mars named after him in 1977.

FRANK KAMENY (1935-2011)
Lecturer in astronomy who was fired in 1958 after admitting his sexually. He was a pioneer of the 1960s gay rights movement and asteroid 40463 was Frankkameny named after him the year after his death.

SALLY RIDE (1951-2012)
Space shuttle astronaut, the first American woman in space. She was outed by her partner after her death. The asteroid Ride (no.4763) is named after her.

And that’s about it, except for asteroid 7307 which is named after George Takei, the Star Trek actor. There’s also asteroid 2309 Mr Spock, which I include because Zachary Quinto played the character in the rebooted version.

Other lgbt scientists have fared a little better. Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), naturalist and explorer, has asteroid 54 Alexandra named after him, and a sea on the Moon. Sir Francis Bacon (subject of an Extraordinary Lives feature next month) has asteroid 2940 named after him, and mathematician George Washington Carver (1864-1943) has a moon crater named after him.

There are a few more writers and authors whose names have been given to objects. Asteroid 4474 is named after Marcel Proust, and no. 4635 is named after Arthur Rimbaud. Both also have craters on Mercury named after them, as do fellow writers Abu Nuwas, Lord Byron, Miguel de Cervantes, Nikolai Gogol, Thomas Mann, Martial, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Walt Whitman.

The planet Venus has a whole plethora of exclusively female names for craters, including those named after lgbt women - Jane Addams, Aphra Behn, Sarah Bernhardt, Willa Cather, Simone de Beauvoir, Emily Dickinson, Isadora Duncan, Eleanora Duse, Frida Kahlo, Selma Lagerlöf, Margaret Mead, Edna St Vincent Millay, Georgia O’Keefe, Rosa Bonheur, Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, and Virginia Woolf.

Craters on Mercury have also been named after Alvin Ailey, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Tchaikovsky, Aaron Copland, Michelangelo and Phidias (sculptor and designer of the Parthenon).

Back to the asteroids – Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo are up there in the asteroid belt, as are Friedrich Nietzsche, Andy Warhol, Benjamin Britten, Camille Saint-Saens, Jodie Foster, Sir John Gielgud, Arthur Schopenhauer and Olympian Johnny Weir. All of the Monty Python team have asteroids, so that includes Graham Chapman.

And if you want to continue with fictional characters, how about asteroid 246247 Sheldoncooper. Fans of the American tv comedy series “The Big Bang Theory” will recognise this name as the main character played by gay actor Jim Parsons.

Several more fictional characters have asteroids named after them, including Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, who are always being talked about as a gay couple, which they’re not. And my favourite has to be asteroid 58345 which is called Moomintroll, named after the little character created by Jove Jansson.

And finally, features you can see through a modest telescope – more craters on the moon, named after Leonardo da Vinci, Alexander the Great and Cyrano de Bergerac.

There are lots more celestial objects named after people in the lgbt community but I think I’ve mentioned enough for you to get out your telescopes and have a look around for yourselves. Happy star “gayzing”.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A Ride Out In Space

One of the saddest events last year was the passing of Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, and the first and only lgbt astronaut. To many people her sexuality was not really known as Sally kept it private among her close family and friends. It was only after her death that her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, decided to reveal it to the rest the world.

Sally’s great-grandfather, William Ride, came from Derbyshire, from a village only about 20 miles from where I live (she also has Welsh and royal blood through her grandmother). William emigrated to America, where he married, had a family and settled in California.

The road to Sally’s pioneering role as the first female NASA astronaut began at school where her interest in science led to her to go on and study astrophysics while studying for her PhD at Stanford University.

Her involvement with NASA began in 1978. In the remarkably short time of 5 years Sally became only the 3rd female astronaut in history aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. A year later she was on Challenger again, and was preparing for a third trip when in 1985 the Challenger shuttle exploded on lift-off killing all on board.

Sally was appointed to the presidential commission which investigated the accident, a duty she was recalled to perform again after the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster – the only person to serve on both commissions. Her days as an astronaut were over, but she was appointed to NASA HQ in Washington DC and founded it’s Office of Exploration.

Away from work Sally Ride kept her personal life private. She married fellow astronaut Steve Hawley in 1982. By 1985 she was in a relationship with an old friend from her teenage tennis-playing years, Tam O’Shaughnessy (both held national tennis rankings in the late 1960s). Sally and Steve Hawley divorced in 1987.

With her partner Tam and three other associates Sally founded Sally Ride Science in 2001. This is an organisation which concentrates on science education in schools, with particular encouragement to girls to take up science subjects. Sally also co-wrote 5 educational books for children based on astronomy. In 2011 NASA launched 2 space probes to the Moon in order to map it’s gravitational field. Sally Ride Science gained permission from NASA to make images from the mission available to all American schools. When the mission came to end just before the New Year NASA decided to crash-land the probes into a Moon crater. Because of her contribution to space education and in memory of her achievements the crash site has been named Sally Ride by NASA. Asteroid number 4763 had already been named after her. NASA is planning several celebrations of her life.

Sally Ride received many awards from science and astronomy organisations for her contribution to space exploration and has been inducted into the US National Women’s Hall of Fame. Two elementary schools have also been named after her.

Sally’s legacy is difficult to determine. Her historical place as the first American woman in space will always be the first reason why she is remembered, but her educational work with schools will surely have inspired young Americans to take up science, even inspired them to follow in her footsteps and become astronauts.

Her place in lgbt history as the first, and so far only, lgbt astronaut is equally assured. Whether this will inspire other lgbt astronauts to come out will remain to be seen.

At the moment perhaps it is Sally’s work with NASA’s Office of Exploration, her leadership of NASA’s first strategic planning effort, and as a member of the Review of US Human Space Flight Plan Committee, which may be most important in the years to come as we begin to think about human space travel again and head back to the Moon – or even beyond.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Flower Power - Cypress

We return to the young male lovers of the sun god Apollo for today’s Flower Power, if you can call a tree a flower – it’s still botany.

There was a young guy called Kyparissos from Chios, an island just of the coast of modern Turkey, who, as is often the case in these myths, was gorgeous and athletic. And as with Apollo’s other boy lover Hyakinthos, Kyparissos had been coached by the sun god in sport. With Hyakinthos it was the discus, with Kyparissos it was javelin throwing.

According to one ancient source Apollo turned to Kyparissos as consolation after the tragic death of Hyakinthos, something to bear in mind for later.

In the meadows and woods around Chios there lived a large stag that was sacred to the island’s nymphs. This stag had got so used to people that it often wandered into the towns and homes where it was petted and fussed over, no more so than by young Kyparissos. He even used to make flower garlands for it and rode on its back.

One hot summer’s day, not unlike the one on which Hyakinthos was killed, Kyparissos was out in the meadows with his javelin. Perhaps he was doing some target practice, throwing his javelin at tree trunks. The stag was sheltering from the heat by resting at the foot of a tree, and in the darkness of the shadows Kyparissos couldn’t not see it. He threw his javelin, and on retrieving it discovered that he had killed his beloved stag. He was quite distraught as you can imagine. Not only had he killed a favourite companion, but a sacred animal of the nymphs and a popular beast in his community.

Once again it was the brightness of Apollo the sun which caused an innocent life to be lost. In despair Kyparissos called upon Apollo to end his own life as punishment. But Apollo had already lost one lover recently, Hyakinthos, and didn’t want to lose another. He was sure Kyparissos would overcome his grief. He was wrong. Eventually the youth died from his grief. For the second time Apollo turned the body of a lover into a plant.

From Kyparissos’s body grew a tree which the ancient Greeks named after him – the cypress tree. Apollo was sad at his second lover’s death so soon after the first and chose to make the young man and the cypress a symbol of mourning – “You shall be mourned sincerely by me, surely as you mourn for others, and forever you shall stand in grief, where other grieve” (the words of Apollo from “Metamorphoses” by Ovid).

Ever since then the cypress tree has been placed in graveyards. By association it became sacred to the Fates and the Furies and the gods of the Underworld. Romans would place branches of cypress over the bodies of respected citizens  prior to their burial. Even into the 19th century the cypress was used as a symbol of mourning.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Star-Gayzing - The Meteorite That Became a God

In recent years the city of Homs in Syria has become known as a war-torn victim of internal conflict. But in ancient times, when it was called Emesa, it was famous as the centre of a cult centred around a large meteorite and an effeminate emperor.

There are a few sacred stones said to have fallen from the sky. Historians and archaeologists are not sure about the exact origin of the Black Stone of Emesa. Probably no-one ever will because (if it still exists) its buried under a mosque. But archaeologists often refer to it as a meteorite. Legend says it fell from the sky directly from the sun god El-Gabal. Considering its size (from depictions on ancient coins it was about the size of the average refrigerator) it must have made a spectacular entrance through the atmosphere. No wonder the locals thought it came from the sun god.

It’s not unusual for such a large object to smash into Earth. The Black Stone of Emesa may have been one of the Apollo asteroids I mentioned in November. A recently as 2008 a similar sized asteroid weighing 80 tons crashed into the Nubian desert.

The Bedouin nomads worshipped the El-Gabal stone and settled in Emesa where they built a shrine around it – they probably got tired of carting it around with them because it was so heavy! The leaders of the tribe became the hereditary kings and high priests of El-Gabal.

The ancient Roman writer Herodian describes this shrine as housed in a huge temple decorated with gold, silver and precious gems. All the neighbouring kingdoms paid tribute to the meteorite every year. He describes the meteorite as a big black stone in a rough conical shape with various markings on its surface (probably ritual carvings made by the early nomads who worshipped it).

This temple housed the meteorite until 218 when it was transferred to Rome by the emperor Bassianus. This teenager was the hereditary high priest of El-Gabal and the meteorite, and he is better known to us by a name taken from his god – Elagabalus. Over a year ago I featured Elagabalus in my Extraordinary Lives series, so I won’t go over it all again here. More appropriately for the Ology of the Month we’ll look at his special relationship with the meteorite.

It wasn’t long after becoming emperor that Elagabalus decided to bring the stone from Homs/Emesa to Rome. In doing so he decided to make El-Gabal superior to the Roman gods. He even married it to a statue of the goddess Astarte.

Just as the El-Gabal meteorite was housed in a luxurious temple in Homs/Emesa, so Elagabalus built one for it in Rome. All of the sacred Roman relics were brought from their own temples. He created a special festival in its honour during which free food was distributed. Another ancient writer, Cassius Dio, also says that boys were sacrificed at this festival.

The first entry of the meteorite into its new temple was a splendidly over-the-top occasion. The stone was placed onto a chariot and pulled by four pure white horses bedecked in gold fittings and ornaments. Elagabalus himself led the horses by the reins, walking backwards in front of them. Following this chariot was a procession of cavalry and guards carrying all the other scared Roman statues, with offerings and imperial insignia. And alongside the procession were the Roman citizens carrying torches and throwing flowers and bouquets at the meteorite as it passed. Beside the emperor were bodyguards to ensure that he didn’t fall over, and he could see his route by the gold dust scattered on the road.

At the new temple Elagabalus climbed up inside the towers and threw gold, silver, rich cloths and clothing wildly to the crowds below. The scramble to grab all these riches caused many citizens to be trampled on or crushed and many lost their lives.

It wasn’t long before the Romans got tired of Elagabalus and his extravagant lifestyle. His worship of the meteorite above the gods of Rome was unpopular, and his general behaviour was that of a spoilt brat. In the end the military got fed up with his effeminate behaviour – dressing in extravagant robes (when he dressed at all) and wearing make up, giving all-male parties, and “marrying” a particularly well-endowed charioteer.

In the end Elagabalus was beheaded whilst trying to escape his own execution. He was just 20 years old.

As for the meteorite – as soon as Elagabalus was out of the way it was shipped back to its temple in Homs. No-one knows where it is now. It may have been smashed up when the temple became a Christian church, or buried underneath the mosque which occupies the site today. But for a couple of years it was the chief deity of the whole of the Roman Empire from Spain to Turkey and from the Atlas mountains to the northern boundary of the Roman Empire marked by the wall built by that other gay emperor, Hadrian.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Ology of the Month

Next month is LGBT History Month in the UK. The theme is Science, Maths and Technology. This was chosen because Alan Turing, the father of the modern computer and computer science, was born a hundred years ago. To celebrate I’m going to carry the theme throughout the year, concentrating on one science each month – what I am calling my “Ology of the Month”.

The first “Ology of the Month” links in with the 12 Gay Days of Christmas theme. The last of this traditional holiday period is Twelfth Night followed by Epiphany. These commemorate the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem and the Wise Men. So the first Ology of the Month is … not actually an ology! It’s ASTRONOMY.

Of course, it wouldn’t be appropriate to choose astrology as it’s a belief rather than a science. However, historically speaking the study of the sky began with astrology. Astrologers were among the first people who tried to make sense of the universe and were pioneers in scientific research. After all, it was observation of the stars which led to the organising of a calendar allowing communities to plan ahead with their harvests, and was instrumental in navigating the oceans. It also helped to plan ahead for seasonal celebrations like New Year. And it also led to the construction of huge monuments likes Stonehenge and the Pyramids which are aligned to specific points in the sky.

Another reason to choose astronomy for this month is because the BBC is holding its third “Star Gazing Live” event from tonight.

For each Ology of the Month subjects I’ll try to mention an appropriate lgbt organisation to go with it. It seems that lgbt scientific groups are more common in the USA than anywhere else, as are named lists of lgbt staff and academics in universities, so it will be seen that most of the groups will be American.

The first group is the Outlist of Lesbian Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Astronomers. This list is compiled by Professor Omer Blaes of the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). It also includes many lgbt allies who are supportive of the rights of lgbt astronomers and physicists to work in an non-discriminating working environment.

Prof. Blaes studied in London and Italy before becoming an Assistant Professor at UCSB in 1993. He has published many articles and papers on his specialist areas of black hole astrophysics, compact objects and accretion flows (no, I don’t know what that means either!). 


Yesterday I reached 10,000 page views on this blog. I never believed it would be a success, or that many people would be interested in anything I wrote. I want to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you, and hope you will continue to visit my blog.


Saturday, 5 January 2013

On the 12th Gay Day of Christmas ...

My blogger gave to me …


The 12 drummers drumming represent the traditional drummer boy that has become part of the traditional Christmas, as featured in the well-known carol. The drummer boy led troops into battle in days of old.

My Christmas gay days end today with 12 soldiers who would, in old times, have marched behind the drummer boy.

Served with the Naval Brigade during the Indian Mutiny. He committed suicide after being called to give evidence in court against his cross-dressing boyfriend.

2) NICHOLAS DE RAYLAN (1873-1906)
Served in the US army during the Spanish-American War. After his death it was revealed he was a woman – much to the surprise of “his” widow and ex-wife.

3) ERNST ROHM (1887-1934)
Leader of the Nazi paramilitary Strumabteilung (the SA). Hitler knew of his homosexuality, but it was his political threat that led to Rohm’s murder in the Night of the Long Knives.

4) LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1888-1935)
Legendary hero of Arab independence. Following his accidental death Winston Churchill said “We may never see his like again”.

5) KARL WOOD (1888-1958)
My Dad’s art teacher. Injured serving with the Gordon Highlanders in World War I. Painted thousands of UK windmills. Became a Benedictine brother after serving a prison sentence for homosexuality.

6) SIR OSBERT SITWELL (1892-1969)
Commissioned into the Sherwood Rangers cavalry regiment but kept falling off his horse. He said he preferred giraffes. He transferred to the Grenadiers Guards.

7) WILLIAM AALTO (1915-1958)
American who fought for General Franco in the Spanish Civil war. One of his campaigns is said to have inspired the novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. Dismissed from the Communist Party due of his homosexuality.

Served in the Israeli army before becoming Staff Sgt. in the US army reserves.  Dismissed after coming out, she fought for reinstatement but lost. Founder of American Veterans for Equal Rights.

9) GLENN MARSH (b.1963)
Served in the Royal Marines before turning to acting and producing gay porn under the name Blue Blake. Appropriately for today’s subject, he won the Mr Drummer UK in 1990.

10) ERIC ALVA (b.1971)
Staff Sgt. with the US Marine Corps. He was the first Marine to receive serious injuries in Iraq. Afterwards he campaigned for the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

11) DANIEL CHOI (b.1981)
Iraq veteran, and 2nd Lt. in the US National Guard. He campaigned for the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, often attracting much publicity.

12) JAMES WHARTON (b.1987)
Lance Corporal in the Household cavalry. He was the first out soldier to feature on the cover of the army’s official magazine. He was part of the Sovereign’s Escort at the royal wedding in 2011.

Friday, 4 January 2013

On the 11th Gay Day of Christmas ...

… my blogger gave to me …


In the traditional sequence of gifts from the medieval period the pipers arrived yesterday, and this was the version I was taught at school. However, the modern version moves the pipers back one day to the 11th day of Christmas, so here are the postponed pipers.

As I said last year you can’t have Christmas without music. Tchaikovsky’s “Sugar Plum Fairy” from “The Nutcracker Suite” is being used in television ads again (this Christmas for Pringles and Barclaycard). On this 11th Gay Day of Christmas I bring you 11 lgbt music-makers of different genres.

With room for only eleven names it is a difficult task to produce a list that represents the whole range of musical tastes. If your favourite type of music isn’t on the list, don’t worry, it doesn’t mean I don’t like it!

1) Sotiria Bellou (1921-1997)
Rebetiko (traditional Greek folk) singer

2) Mark Chatfield (1953-1998)
Choral and baroque musician

3) Rob Halford (b.1951)
Rock singer, lead singer of Judas Priest

4) k d lang (b.1962)
contemporary pop, ballads and country

5) Ashley MacIsaac (b.1975)
Celtic-folk-rock violinist

6) Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (b.1934)
Composer, and Master of the Queen’s Musick

7) Cole Porter (1891-1964)
Song and musical writer

8) Peggy Seeger (b.1935)
American folk and country singer

9) Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967)
Jazz and swing composer and pianist

10) Junior Vasquez (b.1949)
DJ and record producer

And finally, someone who seems more appropriate for tomorrow,
11) Kate Schellenbach (b.1966)
Drummer with the Beastie Boys.

NOTE : I'm having difficulty inserting images today. Hopefully they'll be back tomorrow.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

On the 10th Gay Day of Christmas ...

… my blogger gave to me …


In the traditional sequence of gifts from the medieval period the leaping lords arrived on the last day of Christmas, and this is how I was taught it as school. However, the modern version moves the lords to the 10th day today, so I have placed them here to fit the modern version and avoid confusion.

I don’t know if these lords are likely to leap around at Christmas more than anyone else, or more than at any other time of year, but here are 10 living British lords. All except one (at the moment) are Life Peers – people whose titles are not hereditary and belong to them for their lifetime only. It would be wonderful if someone could get them all together next Christmas and get them leaping for charity – it’s been done before several times in recent years with other lords.

1) Rt. Rev. DAVID HOPE, Baron Hope of Thornes (b.1940)
First entered the House of Lords in 1995 as Lord Bishop of London, then became Archbishop of York (he once described his sexuality as a “grey area”). Created a life peer in 2005.

2) WAHEED ALLI, Baron Alli (b.1964)
Media entrepreneur and television producer. Created a life peer in 1998.

3) SIR JOHN BROWNE, Baron Browne of Madingley (b.1948)
Former head of BP. Created a life peer in 2001.

4) CHRIS SMITH, Baron Smith of Finsbury (b.1951)
The first openly gay Cabinet minister. Created a life peer in 2005.

5) SIR TERENCE ETHERTON, Lord Justice Etherton (b.1951)
Former British fencing champion, and Lord Justice of Appeal since 2008. Chancellor of the High Court from next week, with probably a life peerage to go with it later.

6) PETER MANDELSON, Baron Mandelson (b.1953)
Former First Secretary of State. Created a life peer in 2008.

7) GUY BLACK, Baron Black of Brentwood (b.1964)
Executive Director of the Telegraph Media Group. Created a life peer in 2010.

8) DEBORAH STEDMAN-SCOTT, Baroness Stedman-Scott (b.1955)
The only female peer in a civil partnership. Created a life peer in 2010.

9) SIR MICHAEL BISHOP, Baron Glendonbrook (b.1942)
Former boss of British Midland International airline. Created a life peer in 2011.

10) RAY COLLINS, Baron Collins of Highbury (b.1954)
Trade union leader and General Secretary of the Labour Party. Created a life peer in 2011.