Life on Transphobia Island

It is fairly well known now that the UK has become one of the most transphobic countries in the world. We aren’t as bad as places like Russia or Hungary yet, but the situation is not good. Most of you will probably think that the bulk of the problem is lack of reform of the Gender Recognition Act, and the constant flow of anti-trans propaganda in the mainstream media. Some of you may be aware that there is now around a 5 year waiting list to get a first appointment at a UK gender clinic, and that in five years time that delay will be much longer. These are the things that hit the headlines, but they are not all that is going on. Behind the scenes, much worse is happening.

I’m writing this post today because today is the first time that I have resorted to ordering medication over the internet. I’m hoping that I won’t have to use it, and there are some helpful people within the NHS who are trying to get me a new hormone prescription. But without the cooperation of a GP local to me they will probably fail.

The GP services in the UK are currently organised through things called Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). There are lots of these around the country. While patients have a free choice of GPs within their local CCG, it is difficult to get care from anywhere else. A recent survey by Gender GP has discovered that 83% of CCGs in England do not have any policy in place regarding healthcare for trans people. That doesn’t necessarily mean no treatment. If you have a friendly GP whom you have know for years they will probably still prescribe. But increasingly GP services are run through large, multi-doctor surgeries where you never see the same doctor twice, and without an official trans healthcare policy from their CCG they will probably refuse treatment.

Note that I’m not asking for anything highly specialist here. The gender transition process is still handled by Gender Identity Clinics. But if, like me, you have had your gonads removed, you need an alternative source of hormones to stay healthy. In theory I should be getting a regular prescription of oestrogen. In practice GPs refuse to prescribe, even though they know I will get quite ill without it.

There are parts of the country that are not so bad. There’s that 17% of CCGs that do have a trans policy. Plus, if you happen to live in London, Manchester, Brighton or Liverpool there are specialist GP services you can go to. But for much of England there is a huge problem.

You might think that, in such a situation, someone in private practice would leap in to take advantage, but that doesn’t happen. I’ve tried three private GP services, including BUPA. All three said that they would not accept a trans person as a patient. Anyone who sets up in private practice specifically to help trans people is quickly hounded out of business by the medical authorities.

So healthcare is a problem, but a potentially far worse one is the removal of trans people’s civil rights through changes in police policy. The UK now has elected Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs) for each local force. In England, inevitably, the majority of these are Conservatives. Recently there has been a coordinated push by these people to redefine the law as it applies to trans women. In a recent post on the right-wing website, Conservative Home, several PCCs stated their opposition to trans rights, and to the LGBT+ charity, Stonewall.

The reason for the complaints against Stonewall is that their training on the Equality Act correctly explains that trans women can only be excluded from “women-only” spaces if there is a good reason for doing so. This is in line with the official guidance regarding the Act produced by the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Earlier this year an anti-trans lobby group spent a large amount of money to bring a court case demanding a judicial review of the EHRC guidance. The claimed that, under the Act, trans women should always be excluded from women-only spaces. The judge described their argument as “absurd” and “wrong in law”. Nevertheless, the media continues to put forward this anti-trans position as if it is fact, and now several PCCs have done so too.

The most extreme example is Philip Wilkinson, the PCC for Wiltshire, which happens to be where I live. He stated that he does not believe that “biological men” should be allowed into women-only spaces. The term, “biological men” is a favourite of anti-trans campaigners. Its meaning varies quite a bit. Some people say it means people with a Y chromosome, others that it means people who do not have ovaries, and others also want to exclude anyone with above average levels of testosterone in their body. But all of them agree that the term absoutely excludes all trans women.

Currently in the UK the Gender Recognition Act allows trans people to change their legal gender. That should allow them to be treated as an ordinary person of that gender in almost all circumstances. Equally, the Equality Act says that it is illegal to discrimiate against a person on the grounds that they have undergone, are undergoing or plan to undergo gender reassignment. By saying that he will bar trans women from women-only spaces, Mr Wilkinson is saying that he wants the police under his command to ignore the Gender Recognition Act and Equality Act, and to act with prejudice against any trans women they encounter.

Of course this is illegal, but if there is one thing that the current government in the UK has shown it is that they have no respect for the law, and believe that they can break it with impunity whenever they wish. The same is apparently true of Conservative PCCs. And while a trans woman who is arrested for using a toilet, or trying to buy clothes, might eventually have her day in court and win, that won’t make up for the trauma of the experience.

It is probably no accident that Mr Wilkinson’s statement was quickly followed up by the launch of a campaign by Wiltshire Police to target “sex offenders”. How they are likley to be able to spot potential rapists before they commit any rapes is a bit of a mystery. But it is axiomatic amongst the anti-trans movement that they “can always tell” if someone is trans, and Mr Wilkinson clearly believes that all trans women are, by definition, sex offenders. It is pretty obvious who the Wiltshire police will be on the lookout for.

Sadly the “we can always tell” manta is nonsense. The vast majority of people who get harrassed in public toilets and other women-only spaces on suspicion of being trans are cisgender women. They might have short hair and a fairly masculine style of dress; they might be wearing a wig for some innocent reason; or their might have lost their breasts to cancer. Many trans women are quite safe in comparison, but it doesn’t feel that way when you know that you are being hunted by the police.

So yeah, life here on Transphobia Island is not much fun right now. My advice to young trans people is to get out if you possibly can. It will get worse before it gets better.

Bristol on Saturday

It has been a long time. The last public event I did in Bristol was, I think, February 25 2020. I have done one in-person training course for the NHS there last summer, and of course a whole lot of virtual events, but this is very different.

What am I up to? Well, the Palace International Film Festival is taking place at St. Anne’s House in Brislington. It is a festival of queer cinema, and as part of the programme Tom Marshman and I will be Queer and Indecent. Well, that’s that it says on the website anyway. The longer version is, “As part of our Queer & Indecent Exhibition, join curator Kate Fahy as she talks to two local queer Bristol artists for a conversation about queer history, spaces and community.”

If you are able to attend, it is a 12:30 start. You may want to book a place as COVID security will mean a fairly limited attendance.

If you are in Bristol this weekend you may also want to check out the Queer Bristol Audio Tour put together by Anna Rutherford and collagues. If you go on the tour you might hear a familiar voice talking about Michael Dillon.

Spider Divination and Divine Androgyny

“What on Earth do those two things have in common?”, you may well ask. It goes like this.

Having given a 2-hour webinar on trans issues this morning I took a little me time and spent the afternon watching a mini academic conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sir Keith Thomas’s legendary history book, Religion and the Decline of Magic.

The papers were from people such as my friend Will Pooley who know far more than I do about magic in the early modern period. That was fun, and I learned stuff, including that there are now academics who study magical thinking amongst fringe groups on the internet. This is just as well, given the amount of nonsense being spread by the alt-right.

However, the thing that got me to sit up and take notice was a mention by an anthropologist that some people in Africa do divination with the aid of spiders. Someone in the audience posted a helpful link to the chat, so now I know how it is done.

The method used by various peoples from Cameroon uses large spiders that live in burrows — presumably a form of tarantula. The diviner has a collection of cards that are scattered around the entrance to the spider’s burrow. The whole assemblage is then covered over. The spider, thinking that her burrow has collapsed, comes out and thrashes around for a while trying to work out what has happened to the sun. Eventually the cover is removed, and the pattern of cards left by the spider is read to produce the divination.

There’s more on this, and other forms of animal divination, here. Land crabs can apparently be used in a very similar way. But in reading the article I came across this:

Androgyny seems to be a common goal among the African cultures where diviners engage in cross-gender dressing. Examples can be found among peoples from West, Central, and Southern Africa. I have long thought that this might reflect an understanding of spiritual entities as androgynous themselves (as opposed to mere humans of single sexes), and that such a posture would have value for the diviner when dealing with male and female clients.

Anyone who has done a bit of anthropology knows that in various tribal cultures around the world, non-binary people are viewed as being especially holy and often as having magical powers. Similar beliefs are found in ancient cultures such as the Scythians and the Inca.

It is generally agreed these days that the idea of a world that is gradually progressing from a belief in magic, to a belief in religion, to a belief in science, is much too simplistic. But we can occasionally see shamanistic beliefs re-purposed in organised religion. Which brings me to this article, published today in The Independent, which looks at the Graeco-Roman deity known as Hermaphroditus. Classicists now mostly accept that statues of Hermaphroditus were not pornographic jokes, as has been assumed by cis male historians for the past couple of hundred years, but rather were expressions of a mystical union of male and female.

So bascially God is non-binary (which Michelangelo understood when he painted the Sistine Chapel). They are doubtless deeply unimpressed with the current fashion for anti-trans extremism.

That Finnish “Non-Binary” Burial

Last week the newspapers were full of stories about a supposed “non-binary” burial discovered in Finland. I got a few inquiries regarding my thoughts. It has taken a while to find the time to do more than make a few scathing tweets about the poor quality of the journalism. Here’s something a little more in depth. (And if you want to check what I say against the original academic paper it is here.)

First up, the actual facts. The burial is located near Hattula in Finland, which is a town roughly half-way between Helsinki and Tampere. The grave has been dated to about 900 years ago, which means during the Viking era (at which point someone will yell at me for using the word “Viking”, but if Cat Jarman can use it I can too.). It was first excavated in 1968 and appeared to contain a single person, two swords, and clothing/jewellery that has been interpreted as female-coded. There has been much controversy over the findings, with some people claiming that this is a grave of a woman warrior, and others claiming that there must have been two bodies in the grave, one of whom was male. The current research has tried to solve that mystery by analysing the DNA of the skeleton, but has only resulted in an even bigger mystery.

I’ll pause here to note that I said “interpreted as female-coded” very deliberately. The gendering of grave goods is an imprecise art, of which I’ll have more to say later.

The result of the DNA analysis suggest that the person buried in the tomb exhibited what we now called Kleinfelter’s Syndrome, which means that they had an XXY chromosome pattern. I am going to assume that the DNA analysis is correct, because I don’t have the expetise to judge it. However, the paper produced by the archaeologists does say that the analysis was difficult, and I am entirely prepared for an expert in genetics to tell me that it was bunkum.

The DNA analysis has led both archaeologists an journalists to talk about the body buried in the grave being someone who is “intersex” and “non-binary”. What does this mean, and are these statements correct.

Let’s start with “intersex”. What this means is people who are, “born with sex characteristics that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies”. XXY chromosomes very clearly do not fit the notion of a gender binary. You will see some people talk about strict definitions of “intersex”, which generaly refers to something to do with genitalia. These definitions tend to be produced by medical people. You may also see the term “DSD” used. It stands for “Disorders of Sexual Deveopment” and is deeply pathologising, partly by suggesting that all intersex people are “disordered”, and partly by suggesting that they can and should be “fixed” in some way. When talking about intersex people in training I try to be guided by the Organisation Internationale des Intersexués, and I defend the right of intersex people to be accepted as an ordinary part of human variability.

By the way, the “Gender Critical” movement tends to dismiss intersex people as being “very rare”. There are over 100 intersex traits known to modern medicine, and between 1% and 2% of the population will have one, though many will be unaware of this. The NHS web page on the subject says that around 1 in 600 men exhibit the Kleinfelter trait, which means over 50,000 people in the UK alone. Of course many will be unaware of this, because who has their chromosomes tested?

Note that the NHS said “men” there. People with XXY chromosomes will normally be assigned male at birth because they have penises. The effect of having XXY chromosomes on the body can vary significantly, but as far as gendered appearance goes the only common effect is enlarged breasts. Some XXY people also exhibit soemthing the medical people call hypospadias, which means there is an opening on the underside of penis. This can result in the person being assigned female at birth.

Back when I transitioned, being diagnosed as XXY was the gold standard for trans women, because doctors would see that extra X chromosome and decide that you were half way to being female already. This idea was strengthed when Caroline Cossey revealed that she had XXXY chromosomes, and we all wanted to look like her. But it seems that the majority of XXY people identify as men and are happy as such.

Now on to the question of non-binary identity. I’d like to start by saying that the idea that being intersex implies that you are non-binary is on a par with saying trans women are men, because it assumes that biological factors are the sole determinant of your gender. In all probability the majority of intersex people are happy being cisgender. Remember, many have no idea that they are intersex. Some intersex people, such as Caroline Cossey, will identify as trans women. There are also intersex traits that result in a baby being assigned female at birth but being more likely to identify as male. And there are some intersex people who identify as non-binary because of their biology, or because they would have been non-binary regardless of their biology.

So the idea that the person buried in the Hattula grave is non-binary because they happen to have XXY chromosomes is nonsense. What are the actual possibilities?

The archaeologists have tried to get this right. Their paper has references to work by the likes of Anne Fausto-Sterling and Judith Butler. However, they are hampered by a legacy of assumptions being made about the gender burials which tell us more about the people making the assumptions than about the person buried. The idea that anyone buried with a sword must be a man is taking a very long time to die.

In recognising that the subject is complex, the paper’s authors look around for possibilities and occasionally end up down the wrong rabbit hole. For example, they say, “An interesting aspect of the graves containing osteologically determined females and swords is that they often lack jewellery and other feminine accessories (Simniškytė, 2007; Price et al., 2019). This is seemingly in line with the idea that the Scandinavian gender system accepted masculinity as the only normative gender and allowed only some females to obtain masculine gender in certain circumstances (Clover, 1993).” However, this grave does contain jewellery and the person buried there would probably have been assigned male at birth.

The point this does make is that trans and non-binary identities are culturally contextual. You can only say that someone is non-binary if they behave outside the cultutally accepted norms of male and female for the society in which they live. Do we know what these norms were for early-mediaeval Finnish culture? Possibly not.

It seems likely that the person in the grave would have been assigned male at birth. Very few cultures assign anyone as neither male nor female at birth, and those that do (for example the Navajo) tend to require ambiguous genitalia for make such a pronouncement. If the person in the grave did exhibit hypospadias, then they may have been assigned non-binary at birth, or been assigned female, but we have no way of knowing.

The identification of the person buried as female is dependent on the grave goods. The items of interest are a small number of brooches, and the probable presence of expensive fur-trimmed clothing. As the authors of the paper note, this could mean that the person buried in the grave was a very wealthy and powerful man who liked using excessive bling to emphasise his status.

If the person buried exhibited hypospadias then they may have been assigned female at birth, but masculine biological characteristics would have asserted themselves at puberty and this could have led to the person acquiring a liminal identity. In our culture such people are normally deterined to have been the victims of a mistaken gender assignment, and are re-assigned as men. There are several well known cases in the UK from the 1930s. We appear to be better at gendering babies now. Early mediaeval Finnish culture may well have been more accepting of non-binary identities.

But probably the person buried was identified as male at birth. They may have developed pronounced breasts during puberty or, like Caroline Cossey, they may have had a strong female gender identity, or both. We don’t know how the local culture would have reacted to this. They may have seen the person as liminal in some way and required/allowed a non-binary identity. Or they may have allowed gender transition. Again, we can’t know.

So in conclusion, the person buried at Hattula may have been a cisgender man with a liking for bling, or someone assigned female at birth who “magically” acquired male characteristics in life, or someone assigned female at birth who “magically” acquired female characteristics later in life, or someone who was assigned female at birth who transitioned socially to live as a woman. All of these explanations could possibly have been seen as “non-binary” in some way by the local culture. One of them has the buried person strongly identifiying as a man, and one has them strongly identifying as female. How the person identified themself could be rather different from how the rest of their society viewed them.

Gendering burials is hard, folks. But the act of trying to do so can teach us a lot about the complexity of human biology and identity.

At the Movies with Lana & Lily

Recently I was honoured to be asked to make a guest appearance on the podcast, Women Make SF. It is a series about women in science fiction movies, which isn’t normally my bag, but in this case the subject was the Wachowski sisters so I did have things worth saying. Also Amy and Kyle, the hosts of the podcast, are huge fans of Jupiter Ascending, so we got off on the right foot immediately.

It was a lot of fun to record, and the episode is now live. You can listen to it below:

Time and the Romans

My HistFest talk on transgender Romans is coming up next week. Many of you have already booked up for it, which is lovely, but inevitably a few of you have had issues with the timing. Well I have good news for you: it doesn’t matter. Sure, if you can’t be there on the night, you will miss the live Q&A. But you know where to find me, right? Other than that, if you buy a ticket, you will get a link that you can use any time in the next 7 days, because the HistFest people are lovely like that. So if you were planning to go to the pub, have a D&D night that you can’t cancel, or live in Australia and can’t be up in the middle of the night, it is OK. You can catch up on replay.

Tickets available here.

By the way, I’m not hassling you on my behalf. I get a fixed fee regardless of the audience size. But if we can get a really big attendance for this then HistFest will see value in doing other trans-related talks. And that will be a good thing.

Non-Binary Translated Fantasy

I have just backed a Kickstarter for a book called Alia Terra by Ava Kelly. It is a short book of fantasy stories, based on Romanian folk tales, about non-binary people, by a non-binary writer, that will be in both Romanian and in English translation. The money is being raised primarily for the illustrations, which will be by an American-Romanian trans artist, Matthew Spencer. The project is being put together by the lovely people at Atthis Arts.

You can get the ebook for $7. That has to be worth doing, right? Pledge here.

Target Achieved #My125Miles

Well that’s a relief. My fundraiser for One25 hit the target today. Thanks so much to all of the lovely people who pledged. Of course I still have to finish the distance. I have 25.77 miles to go, and 7 days in which to do it. If it would just stop bloody raining…

By the way, you can still pledge. There are no stretch goals, but there’s nothing wrong with raising more money than I’d hoped. I’m sure that One25 can find uses for the money.

On the Big Stage

Today it was announced that I will be doing a talk for HistFest (June 17th, 7:30pm UK time, booking details here). This is huge.

No, seriously. The sort of people who get on that platform are TV historians, eminent professors, or people with books coming out. Often they are all three. Recent events have featured Michael Wood, Alice Roberts, Olivette Otele, Sir Michael Palin, David Olusoga and Janina Ramirez. And they want me to talk about trans people. It feels kind of like being a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo without having actually written a book. I am so grateful to Rebecca Rideal for asking me to do this, and of course to all of the professional Classicists and Assyriologists who have helped me get the skills to make this possible.

Now all I have to do is perform, and thanks to years of experience with LGBT+ History Month I know I can do that. What I’m hoping some of you will do is buy a ticket. I want this to sell out, not for me, but to show people that LGBT+ history has a market.

By the way, if you saw my talk at the University of Durham in February, this will be mostly the same material, but made a bit more accessible for a more general audience. However, there will be some new stuff about trans men in this talk.

Half Way #My125Miles

Well, this is proving challenging. Every morning I wake up wondering if I will have got fit enough that my calves won’t ache, and every morning I am disappointed.

That’s not the hard bit, though. It is the bloody rain that is the problem. Cats hate getting their fur wet, but finding time to go for a walk when it isn’t raining is proving challenging. That’s the main reason why I am barely up with the required rate of 4 miles per day. But up with it I am. I’m at 55% of the distance, in 55% of the time. Here’s hoping the weather doesn’t get any worse for the rest of May.

The fundraising is going a little better, being at 65% of target, but it is going very much in fits and starts. There’s a lot happening right now, and if you are deciding to spend your money on helping people in India, or Palestine, or Colombia, or any one of many other deserving causes, that’s entirely understandable. But if you can spare a few quid/bucks/whatever for One25 I would be very grateful, and so would the unfortunate women that they exist to help.

I’m told that the team has raised a total of £2,243, which is great news. I have been stuck on £226 for a while. I’m hoping to get to £350, so that’s only £124 more. If 25 of you could give just £5 each I’d be there. Here’s the link to donate.

Guy Kay’s Tolkien Lecture

I have just been listening to Guy Gavriel Kay give this year’s JRR Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature. It was, as with every lecture that Guy gives, very amusing, and well worth listening to.

The topic that Guy settled on for the evening was that of how much light an author should shed upon the workings of magic in their books. Guy, of course, is famously reticent in such matters and, while he defends the right of others to write as they wish, he nevertheless wishes to advocate for his own approach. He loves to leave things to the imagination, to make, as he said, his books a dialogue with the reader, and not just a monologue by the author.

The entire lecture is available to watch on repeat on YouTube. Here it is.

Personally I am a big fan of ambiguity. One of the examples Guy used is probably my favourite scene from any of his books, that alarming encouter with a force beyond the ken of mortal men on a country road in Sailing for Sarantium.

I also like ambiguous endings, and to show that they have a place in fiction, and perhaps as a gift to Guy if I might be so bold, here is an example. It is taken, not from modern fantasy fiction, but from the work of the 16th Century playwright, John Lyly, a man much beloved of the sort of gender-bending that Shakespeare would later use, much toned down, in his own comedies.

The plot of Gallathea tells of a village that has offended Neptune and, to avoid destruction, must offer up its fairest maiden every five years to the god of the sea. As the fateful day arrives, the fathers of the two most obvious candidates disguise their daughters as boys and send them off into the woods to hide.

Both girls, Gallathea and Phyllida, are very frightened, and nervous that their disguise might be insufficient. Both are therefore delighted to meet a handsome young man from whom, they hope, they can learn how to behave as a man should. Before long, both girls are deeply in love with each other.

Woods being woods, the gods are about. Diana is hunting, and Cupid is looking for mischief to make. Seeing what has happened with our heroines, Cupid decides to make Diana’s nymphs fall in love with the “boys” too. The nymphs, of course, are supposed to remain virgins, so Diana is furious, and she summons Venus to put things right. Eventually all is revealed, and even cruel Neptune is mollified.

There remains the question of our two lovers. “How like you this, Venus?” asks Neptune.

“I like well and allow it,” she replies, “they shall both be possessed of their wishes, for never shall it be said that Nature or Fortune shall overthrow Love.”

She does, however, offer to change one or other of the girls into a boy, that they might be married. The girls’ fathers immediately start arguing over who shall lose a daughter and who gain a son. Seeing a problem, Venus suggests that the girls need not decide until such time as they present themselves at a church door. Her solution is acceptable to all and there, save for the resolution of a subplot, and an epilogue about the need for ladies to surrender to love, our story ends.

Who becomes a boy? Is it Gallathea? Is it Phyllida? Or do they choose to both remain female and eschew the strictures of heteronormativity? We are not told, and nor should it matter. As Venus knows well, all that is important is that Love shall conquer all.

I should add that the play was first performed in front of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, on New Year’s Day, 1585. No one lost their head, and therefore we can perhaps infer that the Queen was as well pleased as Venus with the ending.

If you would like to know more about John Lyly and his amazingly queer writing, you can do so via this fine podcast.

The SAGE Encyclopedia of Trans Studies

I’m in another book. It is a massive, two-volume encyclopedia, and my contribution is very small, but I am in it. I have a small section on trans people in the ancient world.

I won’t be getting a copy of the book, because this is academic publishing and even with my author discount it would be a ridiculous amount of money. But books like this are not intended to be purchased by humans. They are aimed primarily at academic libraries. If you happen to work in such a place, then do please consider buying this book because every university should have one. Purchase details are here, and I can probably get you a discount.

Thank You, Relampeio

As best as I can gather from social media, you folks are spending the holiday weekend either at Eastercon, at Norwescon, or at both. (Or possibly you are on Facebook complaining about how much you hate online conventions.) I’m not at any of these, mainly because I’m on call for jury service at the moment and this weekend is one time that I know I can get a bunch of work done without having to worry about being called away. However, I did make an exception for Relampeio, because when you get invited to be a guest at a convention in Brazil you obviously say yes.

As a result, last night I spent a couple of hours online with some fabulous people, and had a great conversation. We did a panel titled, Dissident Bodies in Science Fiction, which covered all sorts of ways in which a body can be viewed as less than human, or as inhuman.

With me on the panel were Samuel Muca, who is a podcaster, literary critic and eco-Socialist activist. He’s also blind. Thiago Ambrósio Lage is a lecturer in biotechnology, a writer, and proudly gay. And Járede Oliver is a lecturer in Social Anthropology. We had a great chat, and it is available for reply on YouTube.

The introduction and farewell are in Portuguese, but the rest of the panel is in English. I understand that that was live translation going on, but we were backstage in StreamYard so we didn’t get to see any of that.

And if you enjoyed that, why not check out the rest of the Relampeio feed, which includes events with Chen Qiufan and Nisi Shawl, plus one this evening with Amal El-Mohtar.

Queering Medusa

At long last the final piece of my LGBT+ History Month tour has dropped into place. This is the video interview I did with Dan Vo for the National Galleries Scotland exhibition on Ray Harryhausen. The basic idea is that each of Dan’s interviewees would pick a Harryhausen creature and explain how it connected to queer history. My choice was Medusa, and the edited interview is now available to view.

The most obvious thing about it is that I am still really bad at TV and should not be let anywhere near a camera, but at least I have a decent background. I’m pleased to have given a supporting role to Ifor the Dragon.

Also the story is good. There’s a lot in there about African history and Amazons. I also manage to reference Sandy Stone and Dorothea Smartt. If you want to know what they have to do with Medusa, you need to watch the interview.

What didn’t make it into the final cut was my plug for Liz Gloyn’s book, Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture. I did try, Liz. If you want to know why I was plugging it, check out my review on Salon Futura.

My thanks once again to Dan, and to National Galleries Scotland, for inviting me to be part of this series. And now, without further ado, here is the show:

It’s That Day Again #IWD2021

Yes folks, once again we have arrived at that day in the year when some people spend all day on social media reminding the rest of the world that there is indeed an International Men’s Day and it is on November 19th, because apparently many men cannot let any day devoted to women go past without making it all about them.

Thankfully I am also seeing a lot of good stuff on social media this year. I would do a post of my own highlighting wonderful women, except I know so many. There are brilliant women authors, brilliant women human rights advocates, brilliant historians and people from history, brilliant sportswomen and so on. I wouldn’t know where to start, or when to stop.

So I’m just going to leave you with the little card above, which was made as part of this year’s festivities by the lovely people at A New Normal. My thanks to Laverne Cox for the inspirational quote.

In Search of Trans Celts

On Friday I gave a talk for the lovely people at Aberration as part of their LGBTHM festival. They asked me to look for evidence of trans people among the Celtic inhabitants of Britain. This isn’t easy, and my talk was hedged around with caveats. I promised a blog post that would explain things in more detail. Here it is.

I need to start off by explaining what I mean by “Celtic”, because the Romans did not use that word to describe my ancestors. The people who lived in France were called Gauls, and the people who lived here were called Britons. Beyond that they often used local tribal names such as Brigantes, Silures and so on.

However, the Greeks used the word “Keltoi” to describe people who lived up the Danube, so north of the Balkans, including places like Hungary and Slovakia. The modern word “Celtic” is used to denote a group of Bronze/Iron Age tribal cultures that are united by a common language and culture. They spread all the way from Britain and Spain to Eastern Europe and possibly even China. Archaeologists will refer to Hallstatt Culture (named after a town in Austria) as a general term for these people. There are regions of Spain and Poland known as Galicia because the Romans knew them as home to Gauls.

This is all very simplistic, of course. The reality of the archeology is much more complex as we shall see. Also shared culture is not proof of shared ethnicity. The fact that we drive Japanese cars and watch anime does not prove that we are ethnically Japanese.

The only reference I could find regarding trans people in possibly-Celtic culture comes from Tacitus in his book, Germania. As far as the Romans were concerned, “Germany” was somewhat displaced east from our modern idea of the country. The people he was talking about were a tribe called the Nahanarvali, who were part of a larger confederation of tribes called the Lugii. Their home territory was in modern Poland, between the Oder and Vistula rivers. Tacitus wrote:

Among these last is shown a grove of immemorial sanctity. A priest in female attire has the charge of it. But the deities are described in Roman language as Castor and Pollux. Such, indeed, are the attributes of the divinity, the name being Alcis.

On the face of it, that’s pretty good. Sacred groves are things that we associate with Celts, and these people lived in an area where Hallstatt materials have been found. But were they Celts? And if so, would the same gods have been worshipped in Britain? Well, it is complicated.

Depending who you read the Lugii are described as Celtic, Germanic, or proto-Slavic. We do know that the Germanic tribe known as the Vandals lived to the north-east of Lugii territory, and that they gradually pushed westwards through the Roman era. But Tacitus says that the grove is very old, so hopefully that indicates a Celtic origin.

Then there’s the language. The Lugii sound like they are associated with the Celtic god Lugh (Irish) or Lleu (Welsh). There is an unrelated tribe with the same name in Scotland. But the name of the god, Alcis, suggests a Germanic root and an association with deer.

Also, sacred groves are not unique to Celts. I have turned up evidence of one in Sweden, and Cybele (the patron goddess of trans women) was worshipped in a sacred grove on Mount Ida in her home in Phrygia.

Then there is the nature of the gods. Tacitus says they are twin boys, and compares them to Castor & Pollux. But those gods are traditionally associated with horses, not deer. There is good evidence of a pair of twins associated with horses being worshipped by the locals in the Spanish Galicia during Roman times, but we’ve still got the wrong animal.

Of course none of this proves anything about the ancient Britons, so I turned to the Mabinogion to see what surviving Welsh legend might tell us. Somewhat to my surprise, I found something.

In the Fourth Branch, as a precursor to the tale of Blodeuwedd, we get a story about two sons of Dôn, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy. Gwydion goes on to have many other adventures, but Gilfaethwy is known only for his obsession with a young girl called Goewin. She’s not interested, and she’s a special virgin servant of King Math of Gwynedd so untouchable. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy therefore kick off a small war by stealing some pigs from a rival king, Pryderi of Dyfed. While Math is away dealing with the inevitable retaliation, Gilfaethwy is able to rape poor Goewin.

When Math gets home he finds out what the boys have done and is furious. He turns them first into deer (significant?), then into boar, and then into wolves. In each case one of the boys becomes a male of the species, and the other becomes a female, and they have children, whom Math adopts.

So what we have here is a tale of divine brothers who go through species and gender changes and produce offspring, which is all a bit reminiscent of Loki. Also the boys’ sister, Arianrhod, becomes the mother of Lleu.

At this point the story is so complicated that it is impossible to say anything concrete without sounding like Robert Graves or James George Frazer. You start to understand why they wrote the things that they did. My mind has been racing down rabbit holes ranging from Castor & Pollux and their sister Helen on the one hand, to Freyja and Freyr on the other. I could easily concoct a whole neo-pagan theology around this.

But I am a responsible historian, so I just have to say that we don’t know. It is all very mysterious.

In the meantime, if you have been sent here by the folks at Aberration, you can find a lot more about trans Romans in my academic writing. And the books that I mentioned on Friday are:

History Month Round-Up

Well, that’s over for another year. History Month is great fun, but exhausting.

A lot of people have been asking about recordings of my talks. There aren’t any. There are two reasons for this. The first is copyright. If you are giving a talk to a small audience then it is generally OK to use images that are of uncertain provenance. If you make something available for free online that’s very different, especially for places like museums and heritage properties. So we err on the side of caution.

Reason two is the transphobia that is rampant in the UK these days. At least one of the events I was involved with this year had people try to shut it down. A recording that is freely available online is a magnet for anti-trans trolls, and I’m not surprised that organisations don’t want to have to deal with that.

However, if you missed everything, then there is one recording that you can watch. The lovely people at A New Normal wanted to do an interview with me, so I sat down with Theo, their social media guru, and we recorded this.

There is one more video yet to come. Dan Vo has been doing some work with National Galleries Scotland on their Ray Harryhausen exhibition. There will be three videos, but there’s a lot of editing to be done and currently only the one with John Johnston is online. He’s talking fairly generally about Harryhausen, including the Sinbad films and Jason and the Argonauts. It is worth a watch.

My film (assuming that Dan can find something useable in the material we recorded) will be about Medusa, who is totally a feminist icon (and possibly a trans one too).

Finally while I am here, the Call for Papers for next year’s Historical Fictions Research Network conference is available. The theme is Communities, and we very much hope to be in person in London. Full details here.

The Final Week – #LGBTHM21

Only four more events to go, and then my life will return to normal. Here’s what you can enjoy in the coming week.

Wednesay 24th, 11:00am – The History of Gender in Sport
My final M Shed event. I’m just chairing this one. My panel: Sonja, Sammy, Verity and Noah, will be doing most of the talking. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing them. Free. Book here.

Wednesday 24th, 6:00pm – The Transitioned Empire: Trans Lives in Ancient Rome
I’m a bit proud of this one. This is the Annual Public Lecture of the Department of Classics and Ancient History of Durham University. Proper Classicists asking me to give a lecture. Way cool. And yes, that title is a pun on That Book. It is free. Book here.

Thursday 25th, 7:00pm – Queer: LGBTQ Writing from Ancient Times to Yesterday
This will have me in conversation with Frank Wynne, the editor of the aforementioned anthology. It is a great book, and having chatted to Frank on the phone I’m sure we’ll provide entertainment. The event is hosted by Bristol Libraries and is free. Book here.

Friday 26th, 7:00pm – Between the Lines
This is an event being staged by Aberration, a queer events group based in Aberystwyth. My talk is titled, “Trans People in Celtic Britain” and I’m on first. You do have to pay, but it is on a sliding scale and they’ll take £1 if that’s all you can afford. There are many other good things happening on the night. I have heard Jane Traies and Norena Shopland before and can promise they will be brilliant. Book here.

Talks This Week #LGBTHM21

LGBT+ History Month continues apace. Here’s what’s happening in public this week.

Tomorrow evening, I will be at the M Shed in Bristol in conversation with the wonderful Nicola Griffith. We’ll be talking about her novel, Hild, about sexuality in early mediaeval times, and about a whole lot of other things. You know, women warriors, Sutton Hoo, co-option of ancient history by the far right, and so on. This is a free talk, and you can book here.

On Wednesday evening I will be at Strawberry Hill House in South London where I will be talking about Charlotte de Beaumont, Chevalière d’Eon and being trans in the 18th century. This one you have to pay a small amount for, but it should be well worth it. I have had so much fun doing the research for this and could easily talk for two hours rather than one. The talk will have war, espionage, gender transition, ridiculous quantities of wine, two revolutions, the Hellfire Club, Rousseau, William Blake and so much more. You can book here.

Also I did a talk for a student group at Cambridge today. I’m doing one for a private client on Wednesday afternoon. And Thursday thru Saturday I’ll be helping run the Historical Fiction Research Network annual conference, and giving a paper about Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s hugely successful novel, The Last Days of Pompeii.