LGBTHM in Bristol

All of the publicity for our LGBT History Months events in Bristol in February is now live. I’ve curated this, along with Karen Garvey from M-Shed. Obviously the events are virtual, but this has allowed us to pull in guests who would not otherwise be able to appear in Bristol. Here’s a quick list. Follow the links to the M-Shed website for more info and booking details. All of the events are free, but you do need to register.

February 4th, 6:00pm — Muslim views on queer relationships over time, with Osman, an outreach volunteer from Hidayah, a support group for LGBT+ Muslims.

February 10th, 3:00pm — Michael Dillon – Trans pioneer, with me, talking about our local trans hero.

February 16th, 7:00pmNicola Griffith in conversation, in which Nicola and I will talk about her book, Hild, and how an author can make decisions about the sexuality of people from the past.

24th February, 11:00am — The history of gender in sport, in which I chair a panel of experts on that issue: Dr Sonja Erikainen, Professor Noah Riseman (joining us from Melbourne), football player Samantha Walker, and rugby player Verity Smith.

I will be doing a number of other public events on behalf of other organisations. I’ll post booking details for this as soon as I have them.

Meet Pelagius (Twice)

I owe this post to Liz Hand, who posted a NY Times article to her Farcebook feed. It was about Kid Fascist, one of the leaders of the Trumpist faction in the Senate. Like many of his kind, our boy is deeply into justifying his hideous policies through appeal to ancient wisdom. According to the article, he places the blame for all of the problems of the modern world in the lap of a man called Pelagius.

Who? You can be forgiven for not knowing this name, but back in the 4th Century CE he was at the heart of a battle for the soul of the young Christian church. On one side we have Saint Augustine of Hippo, the man who invented the doctrine of Original Sin. (Well maybe not quite invented — he wasn’t the only one with those ideas, but his advocacy made it church doctrine.) Ranged against him was Pelagius who held that humans were born free of sin, and had free will to decide whether to sin or not. The Pelagian philosophy lead to the idea that people are free to chose their own lives, whereas Augustine held that only through submission to divine authority, as represented by the church, could we be saved from sin. You can see why Augustine’s views are attractive to wannabe dictators, can’t you? They appealed to the Pope as well.

Augustine, who should not be confused with Saint Augustine of Cantebury, the man who was sent to Britain to convert Angles into Angels, was also a homophobe. I know this because I am fond of quote this passage of his about an event in his home city of Carthage:

“These effeminates … going through the streets … with anointed hair, whitened faces, relaxed bodies, and feminine gait”

That would be Carthage Pride, otherwise known as the Festival of Tanit, a Phoenician goddess who has a lot in common with the great and glorious Inanna/Ishtar, from whom all queerness flows. So thank you, Augustine for that lovely piece of evidence, but you are an awful person. I much prefer Pelagius. But then I would.

Before I explain why, I did promise you two people called Pelagius. The other one is better known as Saint Pelagia. The person who was sanctified under this name was assigned female at birth, and using the name Margarita, became a successful actress in the city of Antioch. As we know from the life of the Empress Theodora, in those days the job of actress involved a lot of sex work, but Margarita was good at it and apparently very rich. Then came a chance encounter with the local bishop, a man called Nonnus. This led to Margarita giving their wealth to the church and becoming a Christian.

However, the new convert did not behave as expected. Instead of submitting to the rule of Nonnus, they stole away from the city, cut their hair, donned male clothing, and started a new life as a eunuch hermit. This Pelagius became a famous holy man. Sadly the life of a religious aesthetic is not easy, and after a few years Pelagius died of starvation, at which point their past life became known.

We don’t know the dates of the life of this Pelagius, or even if they were a real person, but it is definitely possible that they lived later than the other Pelagius. Their official biography states that their birth name was Pelagia, but then who would want a saint who chose to use the name of an infamous heretic? Given their behaviour, it seems to me entirely likely that Margarita would have taken the name of a holy man who believed that people should live true and authentic lives, and find their own way to God.

By the way, cisgender historians looking at this story will almost always point at Margarita’s successful career as an actress and courtesan, and legendary beauty, as evidence that this could not be a trans person. We trans folk know that adopting extreme gender-stereotypical behaviour is a common tactic that some of us adopt in order to try to cure ourselves of unwelcome and dangerous feelings about our gender.

So we have two people called Pelagius, one of whom might have been trans, and the other whose philosophy can be seen as defending the right to self-actualisation. That’s pretty neat, but I have another reason to be fond of Pelagius I. You see, he was British. That is, he came from the Roman province of Britannia. His name is widely accepted to be a Greek version of his original name in his native language. In Greek his name means “the sea”. Which means that in the language of the native Britons his name would have been something like Morgan.

Pissing in the Wind

This morning I RT’d a thread by a Scottish trans person about the futility of arguing with transphobes on Twitter. They’re right, of course. There is no point in arguing with someone who isn’t engaging in good faith and doesn’t want to listen to what you have to say. That point was made very forcibly by another tweet I saw in which a trans woman was told that proving anti-trans people wrong was a form of “rape”, because it violated their “autonomy of opinion”. The whole discourse jumped the shark long ago.

The problem with the UK at the moment is that this sort of thing isn’t just true of Twitter, it has permeated the whole of society. There’s the BBC, for example, where transphobic journalists are allowed to make their own news and then report dishonestly on it as if it were unconnected with them. And then there’s the courts.

I had written something about the shameful decision by the High Court on medical treatment for trans youth, but I haven’t published it. What’s the point? If you want a medical view, here’s a very good one from an Australian doctor. Experts in trans health from countries such as the USA and Canada will say very similar things. But the court decision was easily predictable from the fact that they refused to allow trans advocates to testify, but did take “expert” testimony from people whose only qualifications were membership of anti-trans organisations.

Because of the work I do, I see quite a bit of this sort of thing from the inside, and it is everywhere right now. Organisations go through the motions, but it is very clear that decisions have been made in advance, and reports are written to justify the results that are required. Engaging in due process gets you nowhere.

It isn’t just trans people, of course. The same sort of thing is being done to the Windrush families, to the families of the Grenfell fire victims, and to many other victims of the current government’s passion for cruelty. I worry a lot about my friends of European heritage who are still in the UK, because they are going to be made scapegoats for the Brexit disaster.

There are still people who are able to engage in the political process, and some are kindly willing to carry on fighting for others even though the game is clearly rigged against them. For those of us on the bottom of the pile, however, self-care needs to come first. Enjoy the holidays, folks. Next year is going to be brutal.

Favorinus, Hadrian and Me

Thanks to Paul Weimer, I was invited to do a guest slot on a popular podcast. Wonders of the World looks at history via the lens of famous buildings. For annoying reasons, the episode on Hadrian needed to be re-recorded and I saw a request for people with interesting things to say. As a result, the new version of the episode has me wittering on about my favourite Roman, the philosopher, Favorinus. I also get to talk about Hadrian’s trip to Egypt, and why rich Roman women had a thing for Sapphic poetry. My thanks to Paul for the tip-off, and to Drew for inviting me on. You can listen to the episode here.

Thank You, Good Law Project

Here’s something else to be thankful for. The Good Law Project is a legal initiative that seeks to provide legal redress for the disadvantaged and voiceless in the UK. It is a non-profit organisation funded largely by donations. It is currently suing the government over various apparent breaches of public procurement law in which contracts for things like PPE have apparently been handed to companies run by friends of Cabinet ministers without competitive tender, or even proper scrutiny. But that’s not what I want to talk to you about today.

For a year or so now, well-funded anti-trans organisations have been bringing malicious law suits against anyone who dares to stand up for trans rights. The objective appears to be to scare the likes of local councils, the NHS and so on into withdrawing trans inclusion policies. Faced with a threatened law suit, management of such organisations will often cave in to demands rather than face the expense and guaranteed negative press coverage that would result from fighting a case they should win.

The trans community, of course, cannot fight back. Despite the constant allegations on social media that we are somehow funded by George Soros and an International Jewish Conspiracy, we have no money. Nor do we have the expertise.

However, the lovely people at the Good Law Project have decided to lend a hand. They have set up a fighting fund for taking cases on behalf of the trans community. There’s a public appeal here, which aims to raise £20,000. That’s a small amount compared to what anti-trans groups regularly raise in their campaigns, but it is a start. If you have a few quid to spare, please consider sending it in their direction.

TDoR 2020

It is that time of year again. As usual I have been helping read the list of names at the Bristol Trans Day of Remembrance ceremony. As by no means usual, this year it was virtual. I think that made it easier somehow.

Also I wrote a thing for the lovely folks at A New Normal. You can read it here.

Social media has been the usual mix. I was pleased to see Joe Biden and Kamala Harris issue a very supportive statement. I was less keen to see politicians who have spent the year bending over backwards to appease the transphobes in their parties suddenly want to be seen as trans allies. It is not a good look. This year has taught me a lot about who I can count on as allies. The number of people in that group is a lot smaller than the number of people who wave trans flags today and spit on us for the rest of the year.

Geek and Trans

As anyone who is on social media will know, this week is #TransAwarenessWeek, which basically means that us trans folk have to be aware that everyone will be looking at us more for a whole seven days. Eeek!

But this week is also the week of Trans Pride South West. There will be a (virtual) parade and community day on Saturday. I will, as usual, be helping host the Trans Day of Remembrance event on Friday. And during the week the TPSW team have been putting on a number of virtual events. One of them is called Geek and Trans: Talks about Geek Culture, Conventions and Gender Identity. It is hosted by my friend Nathan, and I am one of the people that he chose to interview about being trans in the geek community.

I’ve just finished watching it, and Nathan has done a great job getting some really interesting people on the show. He’s also edited my contribution beautifully (which I can say as I know what it was like raw). It is also not too embarrassing, so I’m OK sharing it with you. Here you go:

Michael Dillon at M-Shed

For the benefit of those of you who missed the LGBT History Month 2021 launch event last week, I have written a blog post for the M-Shed Museum about Michael Dillon. That contains most of what I said in the launch event, and a bit more besides.

Come February we (meaning M-Shed and OutStories Bristol) will be doing a series of online talks about LGBT History. That will include on by me about Dillon.

London Met Archives gets Unorthodox

Loki - Karl Johnsson
On December 5th the London Met Archives will be holding their 18th Annual LGBTQ+ Conference. There will be a lot of great content, including a panel discussion on queering museums led by the inimitable Dan Vo. And there will be me.

One of the themes of the conference is, “In what way faith, religion, and belief intersect with sexuality, transition(ing), identity and dissent?” In view of this I have offered a talk titled, “What Gender is God?” This will look at a range of religions, mainly around the ancient world, and how they have queered gender. Will there be Loki? Of course there will. And lots more besides. It should be fun.

To see the whole programme, and reserve a ticket for the entire event (£10), click here.

The image, by the way, is from volume #2 of Vei, the wonderful graphic novel in which Sara B Elfgren and Karl Johnsson give a new take on their traditional mythology.

LGBHTM 2021

Yes, I know it isn’t February yet, but there is a tradition of doing a launch event for LGBT History Month in November, and that month is almost upon us.

The being the Year of the Plague, there will be no flashy in-person show at some posh venue, but we will be (virtually) at the British Library. The online show is being produced by the inimitable Dan Vo, and I am delighted to report that I have a small speaking part. For more information, and to book a place at the event, click here.

Loving the Alien


That’s the title of a Bowie song, of course. But it is also a good title for a panel about diversity in science fiction and fantasy. No credit to me, of course. The panel is the brainchild of Philippa Ryder, who was one of the Guests of Honour at Octocon earlier this month, and is also a director of Under the Rainbow, a Dublin-based diversity advocacy organisation.

The panel will be free to watch online from 8:00pm on Friday (Oct. 23rd). Irish time is the same as the UK. Details of the other panelists, and how to register, can be found here. Hopefully I will see some of you turn up in the chat.

Bristol on Trans Health

A group of trans folks from Bristol have painted the above mural on a billboard in the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft. (If you don’t know where that is, you should go and read Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail.) The basic message is that if you live in the South West and ask to be refered to an NHS gender clinic you will have to wait for five years before your first appointment. This has a drastic effect on trans people’s lives, and on their mental health.

If you’d like to read the whole thing, there is a high res image available here.

I put it on my Twitter feed this morning, and as of the time of writing this it is closing in on 1000 likes. I think the young trans folks of Bristol have done a splendid thing here.

On Desecrating Statues

Today’s guest lecturer at the OutStories Bristol AGM was my friend Dr Alan Greaves from the University of Liverpool. As he was visiting Bristol (virtually) Alan decided to give a talk about desecrating statues. It is topical, after all. The talk focussed on one statue in particular. This one.

The statue came to the Museum of Liverpool via the estate of a wealthy collector called Henry Blundell. It is described as a “Sleeping Venus”. But, as the Museum’s website explains, the statue did not always look like that. The British Museum has a drawing made by Blundell’s friend, Charles Townley, before the statue was “restored” by Blundell’s workmen to make it suitable for display on his estates. Here is the drawing.

So the original statue was not of Venus/Aphrodite at all, but rather of the god(dess) Hermaphorit(us/e), who is shown surrounded by young children, one of whom she is suckling.

I should note that we have no idea why the Romans would have made such an image. However, they were very much aware of the existence of various types of intersex people, and would therefore not have regarded such a person as impossible, or unnatural.

The OutStories Bristol AGM

Yes, it is that time of year again. Every October, on or around the time of the birthday of John Addington Symonds, OutStories Bristol has an Annual General Meeting. We hold this in conjunction with the lovely people from the Institute of Greece, Rome, and the Classical Tradition (IGRCT) at the University of Bristol. Every year I do the boring bit of getting through the AGM business as fast as I can, and then we settle back to enjoy a fascinating lecture about queer history.

This year the lecture will be given by my friend, Dr Alan Greaves of the University of Liverpool. He’s going to talk about statue descration, which has been much in the news this year. Of course people have been desecrating statues for a very long time. In Egypt, both Hatshepsut and Ahkenaten, two pharaohs who defied social conventions, had their statues defaced. In Rome Damnatio Memoriae was such a regular fact of life that statues were sometimes made with detachable heads. But politics is not the only reason why statues have been defaced. If you want to know why this is an LGBT history talk, you’ll need to sign up and listen to Alan.

The booking form is here.

Happy Equinox!

Today is the Autumn Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. It is a day of celebration in pagan calendars, and it is well worth celebrating today.

The UK government has finally issued its response to the Gender Recognition Act consultation. As I suggested yesterday, they are not introducing any major reforms, but they are making minor changes, and crucially they are not rolling back any existing rights.

The campaign against GRA reform has always been based on lies about how the reform would give trans people “new rights” that would be dangerous to cis women. Those new rights were all rights that trans people had anyway under the Equality Act. The anti-trans campaign hoped that by complaining about rights we already have, they could persuade the government to remove those rights. That campaign has been a complete failure.

Trans people do want reforms to the GRA, but mostly what we want is legal recognition for non-binary people and for people under 18 years of age. Those two things were never on the table. Even the more trans-friendly Scottish Government has refused to countenance them. The reforms that were proposed were nice to have, but most trans people in the UK are living happily without changing their legal gender. They have already changed their names, passports, driving licences and so on, which is all people need much of the time.

From the government point of view, the objective of reform was to encourge more trans people to change their legal gender so as to bring it into line with the rest of their ID. The original proposed reforms would have done a lot to help with that. What we have been given today is very minor in comparison. The government will know this, and civil servants will probably be working hard behind the scenes to make the process easier to the extent that they can do so without legislation. And when the Scottish bill becomes law and everyone can see that it is more effective that what Westminister has done, they will quietly introduce new legislation without bothering to consult on it, because they do really want us to change our legal gender.

So where do we go from here? Well, GRA reform is now officially dead. Presumably there is no more need for any of these “feminist” campaign groups. Or, if there is, they will have to be honest about their desire to roll back existing laws. My hope is that a lot of them get distracted into things like anti-mask activism and anti-vax activism, partly because many of them are in those camps already, and partly because that’s what their paymasters in the USA are mostly concerned about now.

If that happens, then the trans community will be able to get back to negotiating with the NHS about how to improve our healthcare. And that will bring real benefits.

The main point, however, is that we would not have got here if it was not for you folks (or at least the UK citizens amongst you). Without you crashing the email servers at Downing Street with your letters of protest; without you signing petitions in your thousands; without you supporting us through your companies and trade unions; we would have seen our rights rolled back. Because the government has seen that the vast majority of the British people support their trans siblings, they have decided that persecuting us is not a vote-winner.

From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU!

Reasons to be Cheerful

Life has been pretty awful for trans people in the UK for the past few years. Most of the mainstream media outlets have devoted themselves to campaigning against trans rights for a few years now, and more recently we have acquired a government that seemed keen to support that campaign. However, over the past week or so we have seen a heartwarming level of support from ordinary British people.

The Trades Union Congress passed a motion in favour of trans rights, and explicitly condemning one of the more ridiculous astroturf organisations set up to campaign against us (an “LGB Alliance” that seems to be actively homophobic).

A group of over 100 major businesses and organisations also came out in favour of trans rights. The signatories included the Army, the Navy, the Welsh Government, and multinational companies such as Disney, Microsoft, BP and Sky.

For the first time ever, the British Medical Association explicitly came out in favour of trans rights.

And best of all, the Employment Tribunal has ruled that non-binary people are protected under the Equality Act. This is a huge deal because it provides legal precedent for an issue that was previously unclear in law.

All of which may explain why the latest piece of malicious sniping in the Sunday Times did not include any mention of rollback of trans rights, as was the case when they previously leaked what Liz Truss was due to say in Parliament. Indeed, the proposals now seem to be for a small improvement in trans rights, albeit somewhat less than Theresa May had promised.

Of course the government can still do with a bit of reminding about the overwhelming groundswell of public support for trans rights. There’s a new petition asking for a proper reform, including recognition of non-binary identities. It has over 75,000 signatures already, and when it hits 100,000 it has to be debated in Parliament, which forces Bozo and Truss to actually pay attention. If you are a UK citizen, please consider signing it. (And if you are not, please promote it to your UK friends.)

The Trials of Koli

It is Happy Book Birthday today for the second volume in Mike Carey’s Rampart Triology. The Trials of Koli describes how Koli and his friends travel down from Yorkshire towards London. We learn a lot more about the world that Koli and his friends inhabit, but this is also the volume in which Koli, Cup, Ursala and Monono have to come together as a team. This excellent review describes them as a “found family”.

One of the issues that they face while on the road is that Cup is starting to go through male puberty. It is coming to her a bit late because she has been quite malnourished, but now it is an urgent issue. This is where I probably had most input to the story, talking to Mike about the puberty process and what treatments might be available via Ursala’s box of tricks. Credit should also go to my friend Ben Vincent whose book on Trandgender Health is an excellent and very accessible guide to the subject. Ben explains things far more authoritatively than I can, and probably more clearly too.

Of course there’s a lot more in the book as well, and there are a lot more surprises to come in the third volume which will be out early next year. I do hope you enjoy the whole series. And once again my huge thanks to Mike for treating trans issues with such generosity, acceptance and support.

Tomorrow – Outing the Past

Tomorrow the lovely folks behind LGBT History Month will be holding a virtual symposium on, you guessed it, LGBT History. This one will be all about history and creative production. My good friend Dan Vo is hosting a session at 13:00, and I will be one of his guests. There might be Romans, and mosaics, and Greek theatre.

The event is free, and you can find full details here.

The Smithsonian Discovers Kush

Every so often White Media discovers ancient Black civilisations. (Don’t worry, Black folks, they will forget you again soon.) Today it is the turn of The Smithsonian Magazine, which has allowed a Sudanese-American journalist to tell the story of the African kingdoms to the south of Egypt. The tale includes Taharqa and Amanirenas, whom I have probably talked quite a bit about here already. It also includes an interesting piece of queer history.

In the New Testament the Acts of the Apostles includes a story about how St. Philip met a foreign dignatory on the road south of Jerusalem. The man was a treasury official from the court of the Kandake of Meroë, probably Queen Amantitere given the dates. This fellow, named as Simeon Bachos by the 2nd Century writer, St. Irenaeus, had an interest in Jewish religion, and had been to Jerusalem to learn more. He had obtained a copy of the Book of Isaiah which he was reading on his way home. He asked Philip for help interpreting the words of the prophet, and by the time the Apostle had finished Simeon was eager to convert to Christianity.

One obvious point here is that as a foreigner it seems unlikely that Simeon would have been welcome to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish elders of the time were a stuffy lot. The New Testament also describes him as a eunuch, which would also have counted against him. Philip may have been reminded of the time, reported in Matthew 19:12, when Jesus spoke of how eunuchs were welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven.

But what exactly does “eunuch” mean in this context. Jesus describes three types. There are those who are made eunuchs by others. Simeon might have been an ex-slave who won his freedom thanks to his skill at accountancy. There are those who make themselves eunuchs for religious purposes, such as the Roman transfeminine priestesses of Cybele, but this seems an unlikely explanation given our man’s interest in Judaic religion. Finally there are those who were deemed “natural eunuchs”; that is, men who have no desire to have sex with women. This has lead some people to claim our African accountant as the first gay Christian.

Whatever the explanation, as a eunuch Simeon would have been regarded as neither male nor female by the cultural traditions of his time. Even if he didn’t identify as queer in some way himself, he would have been seen as such by others.

To the best of my knowledge, the people of Meroë were still following Egyptian religion at the time. It would be interesting to know what the Kandake thought of Simeon’s conversion. But there has been a thriving Christian church in Ethiopia since at least 333 CE, so presumably our man made some converts among his people.

There is a painting of the baptism in the Amgueddfa Cymru, the National Museum of Wales. I believe that it is part of the LGBT history tour that Dan Vo put together for the Museum. I know Dan and I talked about it as a possible inclusion, but I missed my Guide training session thanks to COVID.