Yesterday on Ujima – Cricket, Music, Blood & Activism

I was in the Ujima studio again yesterday to do another Women’s Outlook show. Here’s what went down.

My first guest was Lisa Pagett who is Head of Women’s Cricket for Gloucestershire County Cricket Club and also General Manager of the Western Storm, out local women’s T20 franchise. Lisa was there mainly to preview the Women’s World Cup, which will see 15 matches in the South West, split between Bristol and Taunton. Bristol has the England-Australia and England-West Indies games, both of which I intend to be at. (Tickets are only £10, available here.) We also looked forward to the Storm’s campaign in this year’s Kia Super League, and talked more generally about getting women and girls involved in cricket.

Next up I had some live music in the studio. I was joined by saxophonist Sabrina De Mitri and guitarist Paul John Bailey who have a gig coming up supporting Jon Gomme at the Hall soon to be Formerly Known as Colston. They played live for me in the studio. Huge thanks to Ben, my engineer, for keeping on top of the tech for that.

You can listen to the first hour of the show here.

The second hour began with Shai from No More Taboo, the menstrual health charity. We talked a bit about some of the issues surrounding period poverty in Bristol, and what No More Taboo is doing to tackle them. We also discussed what we would like to see prospective MPs commit to so we can get some action on this in Parliament. When I first talked to Chloe Tingle when she set up No More Taboo girls unable to go to school because they can’t afford sanitary products was problem in poor countries elsewhere in the world. That it has become an issue in the UK is evidence of just how badly the austerity policies of the current government have impacted British women.

My final guests were Deborah from Co-Resist and Joe from Solar Nest. Co-Resist is an organisation that does activism through art and public engagement, while Solar Nest is a start-up business based at the University of the West of England that aims to build more sustainable and affordable housing. Deborah is managing a public engagement event for the students so that they can get feedback from the people of Bristol as to what they want from such an initiative. She also has some other projects we talk about.

Obviously I’m interested in Solar Nest from an energy and environment standpoint, but the most significant part of this interview was when Joe commented that students today have no hope of ever being able to afford their own home, especially in somewhere like Bristol.

Oh, and Deborah assures us all that clowns are not scary, not one little bit, promise.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

The playlist for the show (excluding the songs that Sabrina and Paul played live) was as follows:

  • Boney M – Dreadlock Holiday
  • David Rudder – Rally Round the West Indies
  • Lianne la Havas – Tokyo
  • Parliament – Children of Productions
  • Pretenders – Sense of Purpose
  • Parliament – Mothership Connection

If you are wondering about the predominance of Parliament, it is because George Clinton & co. are playing Bristol on Monday and I can’t go because I have a previous engagement to host BristolCon Fringe starring the fabulous Clarke Award finalist, Emma Newman.

Posted in Cricket, Environment, Feminism, Music, Radio | Leave a comment

China in Bristol

On Friday evening China Miéville was in Bristol to promote his newly published history of the Russian revolution, October. Naturally I, and many of the Bristol SF crowd, where there to see him, even though he barely mentioned SF.

Despite his background in academia (he has a PhD in Marxist theory of international law from LSE), China has written this book using his novelist brain. There are, he says, no footnotes. This sounds like a smart move. Popular history, that is history made accessible to the general public, sells very well. Also, by focusing on people and events, China will hopefully dispel the fear that his book might be full of Marxist theology, debating which comrades have the right to dance on the head of a pin and which should be executed as traitors. While some description of the disputes and demarcation lines between the various factions that created the revolution is inevitable, I trust China not to make this a work of hagiography or demonology.

One of the reasons that China gave for taking this approach is that he has a truly remarkable story to tell. Indeed, he joked that if it he had presented the plot as a novel he might have been told by his editors that it was too fantastic, even for him. Personally I am not surprised that the revolution was kickstarted by a women’s strike. After all, the French revolution was kickstarted by the women’s march on Versailles, and the Stonewall riot was begun by trans women. When it comes down to actual revolution, as opposed to just talking about it, it is always those who have nothing to lose who throw the first stone. However, some of the stories that China has found in the letters from revolutionary soldiers to the party leadership sound really interesting. I wish I had time to read the book, but of course I have a huge pile of Tiptree reading to get through.

Despite our politics often being seemingly poles apart, China and I tend to find ourselves agreeing on quite a lot. He made a point during the talk of distinguishing between those liberals who actually adhere to the principles of Liberalism (“a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality” according to Wikipedia) and those who simply support the instruments of the so-called Liberal state. He also thinks a lot about his politics. One of the questions he was asked was whether he thought it was inevitable that the revolutionaries resorted to terror tactics. His lengthy answer covered the fact that the Whites used terror tactics too, that in such situations terror may well have been inevitable, and that this doesn’t mean we should glorify it. I might have added that the original suffragettes did a lot of things that would be counted as terrorism today.

China’s view of the success and failure of the revolution appears to be (on a very simplistic level which I am sure is addressed much more deeply in the book) one of Lenin v Stalin, and in particular Stalin’s disavowal of the project of internationalism in favor of building a Communist state in Russia. You can read more about his views, both on that and on why the story of the Russian revolution is still relevant today, in this Guardian article.

On Friday he also talked about the tension between those who feel that revolution is necessary, and those who prefer to work within the establishment for what they presumably hope will be a more peaceful transfer of power. That reminded me a lot of Ruth Hunt’s comments on Wednesday about how the previous regime at Stonewall adopted an assimilationist approach to LGBT rights, emphasizing that gays were people “just like anyone else” and eschewing anything deemed too outré (such as trans people). China, of course, is a revolutionary by inclination, and these days who is to say that he is wrong? I certainly accept his point that “revolutions always eat their children” is a trite and simplistic slogan, not a natural law. On the other hand, the more chaos a revolution generates, the easier it may be for someone to sell the need for Strong and Stable Leadership.

I note in passing that internationalism is a core belief of the pro-EU movement in Britain today, and that some of the Labour support for Brexit appears to be based on the idea that revolution will be much easier to achieve in a small and isolated country than in the EU.

Politics can be really complicated.

It occurs to me, however, that most of you didn’t want me to talk about politics, you wanted to know if China has any fiction in the pipeline.

Before I get to that, there was brief discussion of his fiction during the evening. His interviewer asked whether there was any connection between his interest in fantastic fiction and his politics. China very wisely pointed that while he might be in the part of a Venn diagram that overlaps those two obsessions, the two circles are by no means congruent. Beyond that he would not commit, so allow me to propose a thesis.

Science fiction is often, though by no means always, about future history. The philosophical project of SF is to examine technological change (and other factors such as alien contact) and examine how that might change the world. Fantasy is often used to examine social issues through a framework of an alternate world (Juliet McKenna being a good example of this). Both of these things are of obvious interest to historians. And politics is, at least in part, the art of applying historical knowledge about how human societies work to try to create a better future.

As to new books, China told me that he does have a novel he is working on. However, October has eaten up two years of his life, and now he is on a book tour. He needs all of that to be over before he can get back to being a fiction writer again.

There wasn’t a lot of time to chat after the event because China had to catch a train back to London. He was, of all things, appearing at Blackwells in Oxford the following night. (That would be the bookstore with the famously pro-UKIP owners.) However, we did manage a brief catch-up. China, if you are reading this, I have checked out your pal and have read this. It seems pretty good despite the potentially incendiary headline, but he does need to think about trans identities outside of the modern Western cultural bubble.

Posted in Books, Current Affairs, History | Leave a comment

Queer Art at the Tate


The Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain is a major undertaking and something I am very pleased to have seen. I’m by no means an art expert, so this is very much an amateur review, but hopefully you’ll find it useful.

One of my main reasons for wanting to go is that the exhibition features several pieces by Simeon Solomon. They are very fine, but the thing you see as you go in is another work by an unfairly ignored Pre-Raphaelite artist Evelyn De Morgan. The image above (which has rather poor color rendering – sorry) is “Aurora Triumphans” and represents Dawn escaping the bounds of sleep. Which is all very interesting except that the model for Aurora was a woman who was believed to have been De Morgan’s lover, and who she was fond of painting tied up.

The collection includes a number of well-known pieces including Charles Buchel’s portrait of Radclyffe Hall and William Strang’s portrait of Vita Sackville-West. There are also several Aubrey Beardsley pieces, for those of you who like priapic art. (Personally I love Beardsley’s style, but the prevalence of giant penises is a bit much after a while.)

Another of my favorite pieces (though not so much for the quality of the art) is this one by Walter Crane. It is titled “The Renaissance of Venus” and it looks like a fairly standard mythological picture. It only becomes obviously queer when you know that the model for Venus was a young man called Alessandro de Marco. Crane’s excuse was that his wife would not allow him to use nude women as models, so he had to use men instead. Yeah, right.

Which brings me to the whole vexed question of trans inclusion. In my post on the Claude Cahun exhibition Andrew Butler mentions a feedback card that accuses the exhibition of not having any trans representation. Frankly I think that’s ridiculous.

To start with there is much trans imagery on show. There’s the issue of Picture Post with Roberta Cowell’s coming out story in it. There is a famous photo of Fanny and Stella (which is much sharper in real life than any of the digital versions I have seen). And there are some fascinating photos by John Deakin. One of them is from a series called “drag” which was once thought to be of drag queens but has since been discovered to be of women dressed as drag queens. Another is of a person known only as “Colin”. The originals are in the Getty Archive (e.g. this one) where they are labeled as being of a drag artist, but the Tate notes that we don’t know who Colin was, or how they identified.

There is also a very strange Hockney piece titled “Bertha alias Bernie” which could be seen as representing a trans identity emerging from the original body of the subject.

The curators have made a point of getting trans input on the show. There are cards giving input from people such as Juno Roche and Sabah Choudrey.

It is true that there are no binary trans artists exhibited. The show covers the period 1861-1967, a period in which male homosexuality was illegal in the UK. This was not a time when anyone who was openly and obviously trans was likely to become a famous artist, so I’m not entirely surprised at the absence. But there are at least two artists who identified openly as non-binary. One is Cahun, who is included because they lived in Jersey. The other is Gluck who is the face of the exhibition. Just look at this and try to tell me that this is not a trans person of some sort.

Gluck was assigned female at birth but eschewed that identity. They famously insisted on being known only as Gluck, with no prefixes or suffixes. Anyone who dared refer to them as “Miss Gluck” would be on the receiving end of a mighty strop. Being non-binary is not a new invention. There were people who were proudly non-binary at the beginning of the 20th Century.

There are two pieces by Gluck in the show. The other is “Lilac and Guelder Rose”, a painting of a flower arrangement. This was one of the paintings done for Gluck’s sometime girlfriend, Constance Spry, who was then the official flower arranger for the royal family. I’ve seen lots of pictures of it online, but none of them can capture the remarkable texture of the real thing. Gluck built up layers of paint to make each leaf and petal stand out physically from the canvass.

The painting is displayed in Gluck’s trademark frame style, which is supposed to be painted the same color as the background wall. It’s a shame that the Tate was unable to do that.

Where I will fault the exhibition is on deadnaming. Gluck and Cahun both have their birth names paraded as their “real” identities. I don’t think either of them would be happy about this.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with the exhibition. I’m certainly glad I went. My thanks to Clare Barlow and her team for putting it on.

While I was there I had a look around the rest of Tate Britain. As an art gallery it is a bit limited by being devoted to British art. There’s quite a bit of Pre-Raphaelite material in there, but frankly most of them weren’t very good. Solomon was perhaps the best of them, and they treated him abominably when he was arrested for sodomy. De Morgan was also good, but she was a woman and has been passed over because of that. The best Tate Britain can do is John William Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shalott”. Personally I much prefer Frank Dicksee’s “La Belle Dame San Merci” which is in Bristol Museum.

What Tate Britain does have is a huge Turner collection. If you have any affinity for the sea you should go take a look. Currently they also have a small William Blake exhibition which I also very much enjoyed. Alongside the Queer Art exhibition they have one devoted solely to David Hockney. I didn’t see that because you needed to book in advance to get in, but I presume it will be rather good. It is a shame, however, that so little of Hockney’s obviously homoerotic art found its way into the Queer Art show.

Posted in Art, Feminism, Gender | 3 Comments

Ruth Hunt Audio

The Bristol University folks have been very efficient in getting the audio from the Ruth Hunt lecture online. You can listen to it here (MP3).

Posted in Feminism, Gender, Religion | Leave a comment

Ruth Hunt in Bristol

Today, tomorrow and Friday I am doing training in Bristol. I have to be up in the middle of the night all three days to catch early trains. They are morning only gigs, so it would have been nice to come home this afternoon, but I wanted to stay in town to attend a lecture by Ruth Hunt. Sucker for punishment, me.

The event in question was the Anne Spencer Memorial Lecture at the University of Bristol. This is an annual lecture put on by the University Chaplaincy. Each year it addresses issues of faith from a different angle. Ruth is unusual in being both the CEO of the largest LGBT+ rights organisation in Europe and a practicing Catholic. Her talk was about her personal journey, in which coming out as a Catholic proved much harder than coming out as a lesbian, and how her faith informs her activism.

Given my involvement in the Twilight People project, I have an interest in the intersection of LGBT+ activism and faith. I also wanted to know what this person who had instigated such a dramatic change in policy at Stonewall — from firmly trans-exclusionary to enthusiastically trans-inclusive — was like.

The evening got off to a somewhat iffy start as the University Chaplain, in introducing Ruth, did a near perfect job of trans erasure. Sure he talked about LGBT a lot, but whenever he said more than that is was always in the context of sexuality only, never gender identity. Ruth, on the other hand, got it all right. She knew exactly when she needed to mention gender identity as well as sexuality, and she dropped in a number of examples of Stonewall’s trans work when she could easily have told her story without them. That was very encouraging.

Indeed, I was impressed by the whole approach that Ruth is taking with regard to leading Stonewall. She talked about how the organisation had to practice what it preached, and that meant being inclusive in who it employed as well as who it supported. Classes for Muslim teachers are given by a Muslim lesbian; the trans manifesto was written by a group of trans people recruited for that purpose. Stonewall’s job, Ruth said, was to empower, and hand over power, to members of the minority groups it is advocating for.

As to the faith stuff, it was all pretty much as you would expect. Ruth began the talk by extolling the virtues of Jesus as a social revolutionary. You can’t got far wrong with a theology based on love for your fellow humans. Even the Old Testament has plenty of good stuff in it if you know where to look. The only major problem, at least from my perspective, is St. Paul, not just because he was awful a lot of the time, but he was so consistent and articulate in his awfulness.

If you base your activism on a philosophy of love and inclusion, and in putting power in the hands of those who have little, you end up with an organisation very much devoted to equality. Interestingly, much of what Ruth was saying sounded a lot like the Women’s Equality Party. Indeed, when she was talking about being out at work she mentioned that it was often OK to have one odd thing about you, but having two (e.g. lesbian and Catholic) made you a problem; but all too often being a woman was counted as something odd as well, because it meant you were different from the default employee.

I’m firmly of the opinion that LGBT+ equality has to start with gender equality, because so many of the stereotypes on which bigotry about sexuality and gender identity are based spring from a foundation of sexism. I rather suspect that Ruth might share this view.

Anyway, it was a long day, but well worth it. Ruth’s vision for Stonewall sounds very much like the sort of organisation I would like to work with. Over the next few weeks I’ll get to see it in action. Here’s hoping my positive impression continues.

Posted in Feminism, Gender, Religion | Leave a comment

Me On Notches: Serious Trans History

In case you were wondering what all of this swanning off to conferences on Assyriology was about, all can now be revealed. I have a post up on Notches, the History of Sexuality blog. It is all about trans people who lived over 4,000 years ago. And yes, I do have evidence. I hope that someone at the British Museum reads it (or indeed reads the email I sent them) and puts the Silimabzuta fragment in the LGBT+ history exhibition they are launching in a couple of weeks.

Anyway, I’m a little bit proud of this (and very grateful to Monica, Sophus, Omar and Alexandra for their help). Hopefully it is written in a very accessible manner so you can all enjoy it. Traffic boosting would be appreciated.

This doesn’t quite count as academic publication, but I’m getting there.

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Claude Cahun at the National Portrait Gallery

Claude Cahun
Seeing as I was in London on Saturday I took the opportunity to stay over and do some art gallery visiting. With this year being the 50th anniversary of the start of the decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK, there are a lot of interesting exhibitions being staged. The most high profile is the Queer British Art show at Tate Britain. More of that later. Right now I want to talk about Claude Cahun.

Cahun and their partner, Marcel Moore, were French surrealist artists who lived together in Jersey in the 20th Century. Both deliberately adopted gender-neutral names and Cahun at least was adamant that they was neither male nor female. This is reflected in their art. That’s one of Cahun’s many self portraits above. During WWII both Cahun and Moore were active in the French Resistance, and were imprisoned for some time by the Nazis.

Cahun and Moore were forgotten by the British art establishment after the war, but Cahun in particular were rediscovered by a British artist, Gillian Wearing. As far as I can make out, Wearing identifies as female. Certainly all of the self-portraits in which she is being herself are obviously feminine. However, Wearing has a fascination with masks and gendered appearance. She has done many “self” portraits in which she is playing someone else. Her subjects include Cahun, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and various members of her family, including her father and brother. When playing someone else she makes a mask of that person’s face to change her appearance (and in the case of her brother she wore a full body suit to allow her to appear shirtless). The National Portrait Gallery has made the interesting decision to stage an exhibition featuring Cahun and Wearing together.

Gillian Wearing as Claude Cahun

This is Wearing impersonating Cahun in the persona that Cahun used for a famous series of photographs titled, “I am in training don’t kiss me”. The mask that Wearing is holding is of her own face. There is a very large version of this photograph at the opening of the exhibition and it is quite stunning.

What isn’t immediately obvious from Wearing’s impression is that Cahun is dressed as a circus strongman. In the Cahun photos the strongman’s barbells are present. The cute hairdo and makeup are therefore acting to feminize a very masculine figure; a statement that is lost by Wearing.

Personally I found the exhibition quite disturbing. Some of that obviously was a result of the art. Both Cahun and Wearing set out to discombobulate their audience. But what really got to me was the persistent misgendering of Cahun throughout the exhibition. It was as though the National Portrait Gallery, despite prominently quoting Cahun’s self-identification, was insisting that a non-binary identity was invalid, perhaps even impossible, and that therefore Cahun could only be female.

Part of this, I suspect, is that Cahun refuses to abandon their feminine side. These days “androgynous” is often taken to mean “male” by the media. Long hair, feminine clothing, colors coded feminine, and heavy make-up are all deemed inadmissible. Many of the photos of Cahun are recognizably feminine, and indeed the pictures of her on the beach on Jersey remind me of the mental image I have of Tristessa St. Ange from Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve. However, many of the images are recognizably masculine, and the fact that Cahun sometimes presents as feminine should not invalidate their non-binary identity.

Mostly, however, I think the NPG is being clueless. There is a common view that non-binary identities are a 21st century invention. The more I learn about the early 20th century, the more obvious it is that this isn’t true. When I get to talking about the Tate exhibition I’ll be mentioning Gluck, who was adamantly ungendered. The NPG manages to be respectful of Lea de Beaumont in their famous portrait of her. They should have extended the same courtesy to Cahun.

Posted in Art, Gender | 2 Comments

Susan Cooper Lecture on Video

Those of you who were unable to attend Susan Cooper’s Tolkien Lecture on Fantastic Literature at Pembroke College on Thursday can now enjoy her performance virtually. Huge thanks to Gabriel Schenk for getting this online so quickly.

Posted in Science Fiction, Video | 3 Comments

A Day at the V&A

The Siege of RanthambohrI spent most of today at the Victoria & Albert Museum in the company of some of their volunteer tour guides, in particular my friend Dan Vo with whom I have worked on various LGBT History projects. I was there to talk to Dan and his colleagues about trans terminology, and how to represent trans people in a respectful and authentic way when talking about them during LGBT-themed tours of the museum. We also took the opportunity to have a look around some of the galleries to see if we could spot some trans-themed exhibits. I’m pleased to say that I found a few. Nothing on quite the scale of a Grayson Perry Vase depicting April Ashley, which has to be their prize exhibit, but I was pleased with what I found.

I also found a mystery, which I’m going to talk about here. The picture to the left is in the South Asia gallery and is one of a series depicting the conquests of the Mughal emperor Akbar. It shows bullocks pulling cannon up a hill to attack the fortress of Ranthambhor in Rajasthan.

Most of the characters in the scene are depicted with facial hair, either mustaches or full beards, and they wear turbans. But my eye happened upon one character in the painting who is clean-shaven and is wearing what looks to be a more feminine style of head covering.

Possible hijraI know nothing about Mughal art, but I do know that hijra were common at the courts of the Mughal emperors. (They were, for obvious reasons, used in the harem as guards and servants, which gave them a place of honor in Mughal society.) So I am now wondering whether the artist has chosen to depict a hijra among Akbar’s army. Dan is going to make inquiries with the museum staff for me to see if anyone knows anything about this. If anyone reading this is an expert on Mughal history, I’d love to hear from you.

At the end of the day I got to see Dan in action doing one of his guided tours. The V&A has a wealth of LGBT+ material and Dan is very knowledgeable. If you happen to be in London on the last Saturday of a month I recommend popping along. You may even get to hear one of the guides talk about an item I found for them. Though of course the tours can’t be too long, there are several depictions of Roman emperors, and I could talk all day about them. Dear Goddess, Tiberius, what were you thinking?

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Susan Cooper’s Tolkien Lecture

Yesterday I took myself off to Oxford and made use of the fabulous hospitality of Juliet McKenna so that I could attend the 5th annual Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature. This year’s speaker was Susan Cooper, and a very fine job she did too.

Ms. Cooper will be 82 next month, and yet she is very sharp, witty and charming. She began by talking about her own time at Oxford, when there were colleges for men and colleges for women, and the thought of mixing the two would have struck horror into the hearts of the faculty. Having men and women in the same college, she said, seemed like a fantasy. And yet, here we are. Which just goes to show that if you live long enough fantasies can come true.

Cooper was at Oxford when Tolkien and Lewis were on the staff. She never met them, but attended some of their lectures. Lewis boomed; Tolkien muttered except when he was speaking Anglo-Saxon. Alan Garner, Penelope Lively and Diana Wynne-Jones were all students at around the same time. They didn’t know each other, but they all breathed the same academic air.

Professor Tolkien, with the support of Lewis, kept the literature syllabus firmly rooted in the past. 18th century novels were rarely mentioned; the 19th century was pushed far into the margins; and the 20th existed solely in the confused imaginations of students briefly cast out of lectures and needing to survive in the mundane world. They were taught Beowulf, and Arthur, and Shakespeare. They were taught about a world in which dragons existed.

All of this, of course, had been very real long before the students reached Oxford. This was the generation that spent its evenings huddled in air raid shelters listening to the sky crashing down around them, consuming the night with flame. Their childhood was a very literal battle between good and evil.

They were also, as Farah Mendlesohn noted during the Q&A at the end, children of winter. The period immediately after WWII saw some of the worst winters that England has suffered since good meteorological records began. This too found its way into their fiction.

Cooper articulated all of this in a focused and engaging fashion. The talk was filmed, so you should all be able to enjoy it sometime next week. I’ll embed the video once it turns up on YouTube. My thanks to the folks at Pembroke College for putting on a fine event, and especially for the Second Dessert and port.

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Testosterone Rex

While most of the reading I am doing at the moment is either history research or Tiptree-related, occasionally I have to read books because they are relevant to doing trans awareness training. This means that I get to read Cordelia Fine for work. Result!

The latest book by my favorite Australian feminist is Testosterone Rex, a scathing excoriation of the idea that everything about Patriarchy; from the supposed superiority of men over women, to the supposed innately violent nature of men; from the idea that men can’t look after children to the idea that trans women can never be women; all of this is explainable by one central fact: that men’s bodies are suffused with testosterone and women’s are not. The subtitle of Testosterone Rex is, “Unmaking the myths of our gendered minds,” and the book aims to deconstruct the idea of men being from Mars and women from Venus with the same ruthless efficiency that Fine’s previous best-seller, Delusions of Gender, destroyed foolish ideas about gendered bodies.

But wait, Cheryl, I hear you say, surely this does you no good. Surely the cause of trans people is crucially dependent on their being actual, fundamental differences between men and women. Shouldn’t you and Ms. Fine be enemies?

Well, no. Firstly there is the entirely practical point that I can’t think of anyone I’d less like to get into a philosophical debate with than Professor Fine. She has a mind like a laser cutter and I know I’d end up in tiny pieces. Besides, she doesn’t argue that men and women are identical; that would be foolish. What she does argue is that the differences between men and women are by no means as all-encompassing as is generally claimed, and that what differences that do exist are rarely explained solely by chromosomes and/or hormones.

What Fine argues against is biological essentialism. And it so happens that biological essentialism is also at the root of the TERF argument against trans women. Because we have Y chromosomes, they argue, and because our bodies have, at least for a while, been suffused with testosterone, we have an innate and inescapable violent nature that we can never shake off. That, they say, makes us a danger to women, and makes it important that we be excluded from women-only spaces. It is rather ironic that the arguments TERFs use to claim superiority over trans women are rooted in the same fallacy that men use to claim superiority over women.

So I see Fine as being on my side. She’s arguing that the biology of gender is much more complicated than most people think it is, and that’s fine by me.

She’s also not averse to poking fun at the whole nonsense edifice of gender mythology. Here’s an example:

Over the past eight years or so, I’ve taken part in a lot of discussions about how to increase sex equality in the workplace. Here, I would like to clearly state for the record that castration has never been mentioned as a possible solution. (Not even in the Top Secret Feminist Meetings where we plot our global military coup.)

Elsewhere in the book she explains how a biological catalyst called aromatase that exists in human cells is capable of turning testosterone into estrogen. She notes, “even the ‘sex hormones’ defy the gender binary.”

Talking of which, did you know they female gonads make testosterone as well as estrogen? Most women do have testosterone in their bodies, just at a much lower level than men. No one is entirely sure why. It occurs to me, however, that trans women are different. Those of us who no longer have testes are on hormone replacement regimes that only supply estrogen. Trans women thus eventually end up have less testosterone in their bodies than cis women.

The book is full of fascinating and very accessible explanations of cutting edge scientific research that blows gaping holes in the nonsense ideas of evolutionary psychologists and shows us just how weird the natural world can be. My favorite set of stories involves an East African fish called Haplochromis burtoni, a species of chiclid. In a series of elegant experiments various biologists have shown that large body size and high levels of testosterone are a product of, not the cause of, social dominance. You can take a “submissive” male chiclid from one colony, put it in a different tank where it has more chance of winning fights against the local males, and it will magically take on all of the biological characteristics of a “dominant” male.

Even better, one experiment identified a lone male chiclid who, despite the fact that he won fights more often than not, did not establish a territory or a dominant social position among the other fish. His testosterone levels were way down compared to his fellow bruisers. The scientist who discovered this fish suggested that he didn’t have sufficient self-confidence to believe that he was a winner, even though his fighting record was good. I suggest a possible alternative explanation: that they simply didn’t identify as that sort of fish.

There’s nothing in Testosterone Rex that specifically supports the validity of trans identities. However, the more evidence we have that biology, and in particular human biology, is way more complicated than tabloid newspapers pretend that it is, the better, as far as I’m concerned. Social inequality is based on the idea that certain groups of people are fundamentally superior to other groups of people. If such differences don’t really exist, and no one is better than Professor Fine as dispelling them, then the cause of equality is advanced.

I’d like to end with one more scientific anecdote. It is about the idea of “failure-as-an-asset”. Here’s Fine:

It turns out that presenting men with evidence that they have done poorly at something at which women tend to excel provides a little boost to their self-esteem, because incompetence in low-status femininity helps establish high-status masculinity.

Fine goes on to explain that men can increase their chances of getting a job by talking about how bad they are at “feminine” activities in their resumes and interviews.

Which is all very well if you are actually hunting for a job, but it just goes to show that sexist nonsense means that there are activities that men are effectively barred from because of sexism. If we get rid of the nonsense, the barriers go away. Equality: it is better for everyone.

Posted in Books, Gender, Science | Comments Off on Testosterone Rex

Fringe Tonight, And January Readings

Tonight sees the return of the legendary BristolCon Fringe Open Mic, at which a whole host of lovely people get just five minutes to wow us with their fiction. I have to catch a train to Plymouth tonight because I’m doing training first thing tomorrow morning, so the event will be primarily hosted by the fabulous Tom Parker. If he lets me go on early you might get a very rough piece from the space marine midwives story that I’ve been working on (also knows as the Amazons In Space story). We’ll be at the Volley from 7:00pm, with the first reading starting at around 7:30pm.

For those of you who can’t be there, I have instead the recordings from the January event. Our first reader that night was Amanda Huskisson whose work we have very much enjoyed at previous open mics so we got her back to read more from her Egyptian fantasy, Melody of the Two Lands. We get to learn a lot more about her characters in this.

The second reading came from Tej Turner who joined us all the way from Cardiff in Welsh Wales. Tej writes fix-up novels about mostly queer characters. The stories revolve around goings on at a night club in a small town. As you might expect, there’s plenty of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and a significant amount of magic too. It kind of reminded me of Charles de Lint. I have since read and enjoyed The Janus Cycle, and am looking forward to Dinnusos Rises which was launched a couple of weeks ago.

The Q&A was basically me showing off my knowledge of Egyptian history and investment banking. Sorry folks. At least I wasn’t showing off my knowledge of eating psychotropic mushrooms.

And because I love you, here’s an example of Egyptian flute playing so you can get some idea of what Neferu’s music sounds like.

Posted in Gender, History, Music, Readings, Science Fiction | Comments Off on Fringe Tonight, And January Readings

Queer Romans in London

I have had a number of conference acceptances over the last week. One is in Bologna, so probably out of reach of most of you, and one is more about the work of OutStories Bristol than about trans history. However, if you are in London in June you will have a chance to listen to my paper on Queer Romans. It will be essentially the same paper that I gave at the LGBT History Month Academic Conference in March. The conference is at Royal Holloway on June 10th. It is free to attend, and you can book a place here. Justin Bengry who runs the Notches blog is the keynote speaker and will be well worth listening to.

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Chairman Standlee Speaks – Naming the WSFS YA Award

As many of you will know, Kevin will be chairing the WSFS Business Meeting at Worldcon in Helsinki this year. One of the items that will come up is the naming of the proposed YA Award. Last year a motion to create the award was given first passage, and will therefore be up for ratification this year. At the time the name of the award was left blank to allow for consultation with fandom. This year’s Business Meeting will have to decide how to deal with that; in particular it will have to decide whether it is OK to just add a name without going through the whole two-year approval process.

The chances are that whatever Kevin rules there will be a challenge to his ruling. I say that because a) the whole question is quite complicated (Ben Yalow has his own view on how the Constitution should be interpreted), and b) those opposed to having a YA Award will doubtless use every excuse available to disrupt things because that’s the way politics works. However, so that the meeting can proceed as smoothly as possible without need for lengthy explanations, Kevin has set out his reasoning for how he will rule on his LiveJournal. If you have any questions, you can ask them there.

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Two Days in Assyria

I have been rather quiet here for a few days, though busy on Twitter. That’s because I have been in Oxford for a conference on Assyriology. I got to catch up with some of the great people I met in Barcelona, and made a bunch of new friends. I also got to hear some really great academic papers. Here are some highlights.

One of the strangest things I learned about was the Assyrian practice of appointing a “substitute king” when astronomical omens predicted the real king was in danger. Basically this meant that during an eclipse the king would retire to a safe place and a disposable person would be appointed to “rule” in his place. Then, if any magical attack happened, it would be the substitute who suffered.

Being a substitute king was no fun. All of the power still lay with the real king, who for the purposes of the interregnum was known as “The Farmer”. You got to live in the palace and eat nice food for 100 days, but after that you were killed so that the real king could have his throne back. You also got a wife, and she would be killed at the end of your reign too. This was not a nice custom.

Some of us got to chatting about the fictional possibilities, because this would make a great novel. The title even writes itself: The Substitute King. I’d set it during the reign of Esarhaddaon, partly because he was chronically ill for much of this reign, which adds plot possibilities, and partly because I could then have Taharqa and the Nubian Dynasty of Egypt in the story. Sadly I do not have the time to write this, but thanks to Adam Howe for a great paper.

Ashurbanipal's Garden Party

Talking of Esarhaddon, this is his rather better known son, Ashurbanipal, in one of his most famous reliefs. It was a subject of a paper by my new pal, Sophie Walker. (No, not that Sophie Walker; and yes, this will do my head in.) The relief shows a banquet in the royal gardens at Nineveh. If Stephanie Dalley is correct, then these were the famous Hanging Gardens, built by Ashurbanipal’s grandfather, Sennacherib. (By the way, Stephanie was at the conference.) The banquet was held to celebrate Ashurbanipal’s victory over the Elamites. However, the focus of Sophie’s paper was not the reclining king, but the seated person to his left.

That figure is believed to represent Liballi-Sharrat, Ashurbanipal’s queen. Analysis of her outfit suggests that she has deliberately adopted an Elamite style of dress. Sophie’s paper was all about why she might have done such a thing. This appears to have been a deliberate act of cultural appropriation by the Assyrian court. Exactly why they would have done so is unclear, but it is very obvious that a message is being sent to someone in this scene.

Given that the conference did not have a gender focus, I didn’t expect there would be much relevant to my own research. Little did I know that the most important paper for me would be the one by Alexandra Llado on the subject of bears in Sumer. (Despite that double-l, Alexandra is not Welsh, she’s Spanish.)

It turns out that bears were a big thing in ancient Ur. Bears are not native to the Tigris-Euphrates valley, but the Sumerian empire stretched north to more mountainous areas where bears could be found. Given the time of year most bears were shipped to the city, and the language used to describe them, it is pretty clear that bear cubs were being captured and sent to Ur for training. There was even an official job title, Aluzinnu, for someone in charge of bears. (Interestingly some Assyriologists translate this word as “jester”, presumably on the basis of context.)

It seems highly likely that the bears were being brought in for entertainment, not as fighting animals as might have been the case in Rome. This is supported by the fact that, in some of the records we have, the Aluzinnu seem to have reported to the chief Gala, a person called Dada. Those of you who have seen my presentations will know that the Gala were singers and musicians. You’ll be hearing more about Dada from me in just over a week. For now I just want to thank Alexandra for saving me from a potentially embarrassing situation.

Mention of the Gala brings me to Michael Moore (no, not that Michael Moore) who had come all the way from UCLA to present. His paper was about the Hittites, who lived in Anatolia (Turkey) and were a very different ethnic group to the inhabitants of Mesopotamia. As far as I knew, they had their own religion (though one quite important to me because their homeland was the region later known as Phrygia, whence Rome claimed to have acquired Cybele). I was therefore astonished to hear Michael talk about court ceremonies in which musicians used “Inanna-instruments”.

Naturally I asked him about this. It turns out that the Hittites were using cuneiform and the scribes had chosen to use the Sumerian word for Inanna to represent something in their own language. Probably it would have been a local goddess. But equally the word might have been chosen because pictorial evidence suggests that the instruments in question may have been Sumerian in origin. Specifically, things like this:

Sumerian Bull Lyre

All of which goes to show that it is really hard to interpret ancient texts, even when the words they use are familiar to us.

There were lots of other really interesting papers. Many of them were, of course, deeply technical. Others, while brilliant, were not that dramatic. But I want to end with my favorite paper of the event which came from my Danish friend, Sophus Helle. It was a literary paper focusing on Babylonian attitudes to death, and it strongly featured the Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The section that Sophus quoted is from the passage where Gilgamesh, grief-stricken after the death of his friend and lover, Enkidu, encounters an old man called Ut-napishti. Those of you familiar with the Epic will know that Ut-napishti is the character on whom the Biblical Noah is based. In Mesopotamian mythology he is chosen by the gods to survive the flood in an ark, and is rewarded with immortality. Naturally Gilgamesh questions him about death. The old man explains that death is something that sneaks up on mortals, unseen, and snaps off their lives as if they were reeds in the river. The passages below are from the A.R. George translation. Words in square brackets indicate unreadable signs whose meaning as been guessed from context. Ut-napishti says:

No one sees death,
No one sees the face of [death],
No one [hears] the voice of death –
Yet furious death snaps mankind!

He then goes on to illustrate this point in the next two verses.

At some point, we build a house
At some point, we make a nest,
At some point, brothers divide it,
At some point, hate between [sons] occurs.

At some point, the river rose, brought high water
A mayfly drifting on the river.
Its face looked on the face of the sun,
But in that very moment, nothing was there.

Between lines 2 and 3 of the first verse the man who built the house must have died, because his sons inherit it. Equally between lines 3 and 4 of the second verse the mayfly dies. The Babylonian poet has shown death without showing it: silent and invisible just as Ut-napishti described it. It’s beautiful.

My thanks to Monica, Lynn, Adam and Parsa for running a great event, and to everyone there for making me so welcome. I hope to see many of you again soon.

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Politics, Again

So, we have another general election, eh? Nothing like keeping the political journalists in business.

For those of you outside of the UK who are totally confused about the whole thing, the short version is something like this: a party with a very small majority is calling an election in which it hopes to gain a massive majority, even though its policies are hugely unpopular. It will achieve this partly because there is no effective opposition, and partly because it has almost all of the media on its side.

I’m sympathetic to the view that Mrs. May has called the election primarily because with a much bigger majority she won’t be beholden to the lunatic fringe of her own party, and can therefore negotiate with the EU in a sensible manner rather than by trying to pretend that she has a worldwide empire at her command. This may result in a somewhat softer Brexit than we might otherwise have got, but it may also result in the privatization of everything that’s left to be sold and a bonfire of civil rights legislation. In other words, the results will be disastrous for the majority of the population, rather than for everyone.

It so happened that my membership of the Women’s Equality Party was due for renewal, so I have renewed it. I don’t expect us to have many candidates because we can’t afford it. Also it would be irresponsible of us to further split the vote in some key marginals, so WE won’t do it. But I very much hope that WE’ll field a candidate against the obnoxious Philip Davies. That could end up being very entertaining.

More broadly I expect us to support the candidates who will do the most for equality. That probably means whoever has the best chance of beating the Tories in each particular constituency. There are some good Tory MPs around. I very much hope that Maria Miller keeps her seat because she’s been a far better opposition to the government than the Labour leadership for the past few years. Ben Howlett has done some good work for trans people as well, but his Bath constituency is very vulnerable to a swing towards the LibDems, and Bath is fairly strongly anti-Brexit, so I think he may go. But at least he’ll last longer than Thangam Debbonaire whom I expect to be purged by Labour in advance of the election. Last time around Bristol West was a very tight race between Thangam, the incumbent Stephen Williams (LibDem), and the Greens. I’ve seen a suggestion that Molly Scott-Cato, our local MEP, might be the Green candidate this time around, and I think she has a very good chance if she does go for it.

Elsewhere around the region I’ll be keeping a close eye on Chippenham where Helen Belcher is the LibDem candidate. It is a seat that the Tories took from the LibDems last time, so Helen has a real chance of getting it back. If she does she’ll be the first trans person to be elected to the UK Parliament. (There may well be other trans candidates, but I don’t think any of them stand as good a chance as Helen.)

It is hard not be utterly depressed by the whole thing. Thus far the most interesting contests appear to be Labour v LibDems, Labour v itself, and the Greens v the BBC. None of this will do any good for the country. WE might be a very small and very new party, but at least WE are trying to do our best for the country. Here’s hoping WE can have some effect. If nothing else WE intend to get women’s issues talked about during the election, and that will be a major change to how politics is done here.

Posted in Current Affairs | 1 Comment

Old

As those of you on Facebook will know by now, today is my birthday. It is also one of those birthdays with a zero on the end, which tends to prompt a bit of self-reflection.

I’m doing this post for two reasons. Firstly I’m not going to be online much today. I’ll be off to Plymouth to do some trans awareness training at the university. So I’m scheduling this post to go up tomorrow to apologize to people for not responding much to any well wishing that might be happening online.

Also at this sort of age you tend to get a bit morbid, so I’m working my angst out on you lot, OK?

Yeah, no. Who cares, right? I’m still fit enough (physically and mentally) to carry on working. I’m still enjoying life. And I have now lived for 10 more years than I expected to when I first decided to undergo gender transition. This is all a bonus.

OK, I might be a little more reluctant to take on new, long-term projects. And I do need to actually have plans in place, just in case my health takes a sudden turn for the worse. Other than that, I plan to carry on having fun.

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PKD Award Winner

Easter is a time when all sorts of award results are announced. The Aurealis Awards were handed out in Australia yesterday. Full details are here. I’m delighted to see a bunch of my friends winning stuff.

This morning by email included the announcement of this year’s Philip K. Dick Award winner. The PKD is for science fiction first published in paperback, and often turns up interesting winners. This year both the winner, The Mercy Journals by Claudia Casper, and the runner up (what the PKD called the Special Citation), Unprounceable by Susan diRende, came from small presses. My congratulations to Arsenal Pulp Press and Aqueduct Press respectively.

Oh yeah, and both books by women, which is maybe why they had to be published by small presses. It is good to see that the PKD jury doesn’t have any qualms about women writing SF.

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The Strange History of Hot Cross Buns

Easter is a time when all sorts of nonsense tends to get talked about religious history. For the record, the only evidence of a goddess called Eostre is a single paragraph written by the 8th century English cleric, the Venerable Bede. He does not mention rabbits, hares or eggs in connection with this supposed Anglo-Saxon deity. There are no known shrines to Eostre, no votive offerings, nothing.

Even more so, there is no known connection between Easter, Eostre and Ishtar, other than the fact that Ishtar’s main festival may well have been held in the spring.

I say that because Ishtar was, in part, a fertility goddess, and spring is the time when fertility festivals were held. In Rome the Rites of Attis, part of the cult of Cybele, were celebrated in late March. Spring is the obvious time to have a fertility festival.

One of the things that the ancients appear to have done at such festivals is make offerings of bread. These may have taken a phallic form. The most famous reference to this is an epigram by Martial

Si vis esse satur, nostrum potes esse priapum:
Ipse licet rodas inguina, purus eris.

You’ll rarely see that translated because it talks about eating a phallus. However, Martial isn’t extolling the virtues of oral sex. Rather, he’s probably he’s probably expressing the well known Roman abhorrence of that activity. The epigram is titled “priapus siligineus” which probably means “bread phallus”. Martial seems to be suggesting that, rather than engage in oral sex, it is much cleaner to eat a bread substitute.

So the Romans may have baked bread in phallic shapes (and frankly if they didn’t then bread might well be the only thing they didn’t make into phallic shapes), and these may have been associated with spring fertility festivals. I’ve found no firm evidence of this. What we do know is that this practice appears to have found its way into Christianity.

Kulichi

Exhibit one is the Russian Orthodox Easter tradition of baking Kulichi. These are tall, cylindrical breads traditionally topped with white icing. No doubt about the symbology there.

The 19th century French historian, Jacques Antoine Dulaure, reports that in the town of Saintonge phallic bread was still being baked for Easter in his lifetime.

The most obvious example comes from the Portuguese town of Amarante, but these magnificently phallic objects are now made for a festival in June, not for Easter.

The theory is that early Christian clergy could not stop people making bread for spring festivals. But they could ask them to make it in a different shape. And just for good measure they put a cross on top to prevent anything devilish going on.

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Susan Cooper to Give 2017 Tolkien Lecture

This year’s for the J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College in Oxford will be Susan Cooper. I suspect that most of you know who she is, but just in case there’s a clue to the left.

As usual, the lecture will take place in the Pichette Auditorium at Pembroke. The date is Thursday, April 27th and the start time is 6:30pm. Attendance is free, but you will need to book a place via Eventbrite.

I’m hoping to be there. The end of April is getting very busy but it looks like it will all work out. Hopefully I will see a few of you there.

For more details see the lecture’s website.


Update: The folks at Pembroke tell me that they plan to have the lecture available as a video on their website a few days after the event. The 2015 and 1016 lectures, featuring Lev Grossman and Terri Windling, are up there, together with one by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins about Tolkien’s language creation that I really must watch.

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