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.

HFRN 2022 – Call for Papers

The Historical Fictions Research Network (of which I am a Trustee) has elected to hold their 2022 conference entirely online. The situation with the pandemic is too confused for us to be able to make any other plans.

Of course the great thing about being online is that we can get papers from all over the world. As with this year, we are aiming to schedule timeslots that will allow everyone from New Zealand to California to particpate.

The dates of the conference will be February 19-20.

Our keynote speakers will be:

  • The George Padmore Institute: An archive, educational resource and research centre housing materials relating to the black community of Caribbean, African and Asian descent in Britain and continental Europe.
  • Amy Tooth Murphy: A Trustee of the Oral History Society and a Co-Founder and Managing Editor of the blog Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality. Dr. Murphy will be talking about her project on the oral history of the Butch Community.

The Conference Registration Fee for this year is £75 for regulars and £40 for concessions (PhD students, low-income). Tickets are available here.

Paper proposals are due 1st September 2021: they should consist of a title, and up to 250 words abstract. The decisions on acceptance would be communicated by 1st November 2021. All papers will be delivered live and we will schedule across time-zones.

The theme of the 7th annual conference of the Historical Fictions Research Network is “Communities” and spans a wide array of topics across the disciplines of Archaeology, Architecture, Literature, Art History, Cartography, Geography, History, Memory Studies, Musicology, Reception Studies, Linguistics, Cultural Studies, Museum Studies, Media Studies, Politics, Re-enactment, Larping, Gaming, Transformative Works, Gender, Race, Queer studies.

For the 2022 conference, HFRN seeks to engage in scholarly discussions and deliberations on how communities construct their own pasts; how different versions of the past are used to create – or question – a national memory and identity; how communities challenge the narratives that have been foisted upon them or are used to oppress and discriminate; how communities challenge their own consensual understandings of their past; or how a re-evaluation of the past and past events may change a communities’ self-image. We welcome paper proposals across historical periods, with ambitious, high-quality, interdisciplinary approaches and new methodologies that will support research into larger trends, and which will lead to more theoretically informed understandings of the mode across historical periods, cultures, and languages.

The conference will prioritize (but will not be necessarily limited to) the following thematic strands:

  • Past, Present and the community writing
  • Literature, Language, and community building
  • Historical Fiction, Gaming and Community
  • Gender Writings, Health and Community
  • Textual retellings, revisions, and Community construction
  • COVID, Community and resilience
  • Queer Space and community development
  • Social Media and digital communities
  • Web series, Film adaptation and community
  • Memory, community, and identity
  • Ecological writings and community
  • Community, worldbuilding and historical imagination
  • Cultural histories of communities
  • War, Migration, and community restoration
  • National memories and identities

Each presentation will be of 20 minutes followed by an interaction session.

To register your interest in presenting a paper, please fill in this form.

Visit our website for more details and regular updates. You can also email us.

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.

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.

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:

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.

LGBT History Month – Part 5

First up I need to remind you that it is almost too late to sign up for my talk on Michael Dillon for the M Shed Museum in Bristol. This is going to include some of the latest research on Dillon.

The following day I’ll be participating in the seminar on trans rights for the lovely people at Bristol University Law School.

There’s also a new talk gone live. This one is on “Trans People in Celtic Britain” for the lovely folks at Aberration. Tickets are paid, but they are very cheap. I’ll be part of a line-up that includes the amazing Jane Traies and Norena Shopland. It is on Friday, February 26th from 7:00pm. Full details here.

As you may have seen from Twitter, I have been talking to Dan Vo about the movies of Ray Harryhausen. Sometime soon our little chat about Medusa will go live on the National Galleries Scotland website as part of their Harryhausen exhibition.

Also still to come are a podcast, and a talk on Trans Romans for an actual university Classics department.

Tomorrow in Leeds #LGBTHM21

Tomorrow I get to be part of a fabulous day of LGBT+ History being put on by Leeds Art Gallery. I’ll be doing a talk on Michael Dillon, focusing mainly on what was different about gender transition in the 1940s. There’s plenty of other great material as well. I’m particularly looking forward to the talk on Queer Nature. If you want to come along, registration is free and apparently still open. See here.

And for those of you on the far side of the Atlantic, my talk is at 3:00pm, which is Noon on the East Coast and 9:00am on the West.

Thank You, Osman #LGBTHM21


Well, that got LGBTHM off with a bang. The presentation this evening, by Osman of Hidayah, went really well. I learned a lot, and the audience did too. Plus we got some Rumi poetry, which is always worth having.

If the person who asked the question about The 1001 Nights is reading this, here’s some useful background. There are some great queer stories in the Nights, especially those featuring Abu Nuwas (who was a real person).

Next up for me, a day in Leeds. More about that tomorrow.

Hidayah Tomorrow #LGBTHM21


The first part of our Bristol LGBT+ History Month festival is tomorrow. Osman, an outreach officer from the queer Muslim charity, Hidayah, will be talking to us about “Muslim views on queer relationships over time”. I’ve just seen a trial run-through of this, and there was lots that was new to me. It should be a great evening.

Booking is free, so if you’d like to join us, please register here.

I also spent part of the afternoon recording something with Dan Vo. It involved movies and Greek mythology and queerness and you’ll be able to watch it soon.

LGBT History Month – Part 4

February is here, and there are more talks I can tell you about.

On Thursday, February 11th at 5:00pm I will be part of an event titled, “What’s next for Queer Britain?” This is a seminar put on by the Law Department at Bristol University. I will be on a panel with the renowned civil rights lawyer, Jonathan Cooper OBE, and with two of the university staff, Dr Sandra Duffy, and Dr Peter Dunne (who helped write the Irish gender recognition act).

On Monday, February 15th at 5:00pm I will be talking about “Byron and the Lion King” on behalf of Christ’s College, Cambridge. This is my talk about Byron, Ashurbanipal and the strange story of Sardanapalus, Last King of Assyria. I did this a couple of times last year, but to very small audiences and Cambridge have given me more time so there will be new stuff.

On Thursday, February 25th at 7:00pm I will be part of an event being staged by Bristol Libraries. I will be interviewing Frank Wynne, who is the editor of Queer: LGBTQ Writing from Ancient Times to Yesterday. This is a great book. It has Homer, it has Sappho, and it has Catullus (translated by Roz Kaveney). It has Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Anne Lister. And it has modern writers including Lawrence Schimel and Juno Dawson. I’m looking forward to dipping into it and chatting to Frank.

All of these events are online and free, but you do need to register.

Twitter followers will have seen news of an event in Aberystwyth too, but I don’t have booking details for that yet. There’s at least one more public event to come, which is right near the end of the month. I’m also doing two talks for corporate clients, which are invitation only.

It is going to be a tiring month, but I am getting as much done as I can because I expect it won’t be long before doing this sort of public event, at least through councils, universities, etc., is banned. If you don’t know what Section 28 was, here’s a reminder.

LGBT History Month – Part 2


Once again I have been working with the wonderful Karen Garvey and her colleagues at Bristol’s M Shed museum. Our progrmme of events this year is designed to link in with the LGBT+ History Month theme: Body, Mind, Spirit. Due to the pandemic they are online Zoom events, but that means y’all can watch them. They are free, though you do need to click though to M Shed to book. Here’s what we have for you:

  • 4th February: Osman from LGBT+ Muslim charity Hidayah talks about Muslim views on queer relationships, historically and now. This will be great. Osman has promised me a bunch of Arabian Nights stories.
  • 10th February: I will be talking about Michael Dillon – trans pioneer, one of the key figures in 20th century trans history. I have quite a bit of new Dillon research to share.
  • 16th February: all the way from Seattle, the amazing Nicola Griffith will be in conversation with me about her novel Hild, and gender and sexuality in early medieval times. If you read and loved Hild, you need to watch this.
  • 24 February: a panel discussion on the history of gender in sport. Can we do hot political topics? Yes we can. This one is early morning so we can welcome my pal, Prof. Noah Riesman all the way from Melbourne.

LGBT History Month – Part I


February is fast approaching, and all this week I will be highlighting talks that I am going to be doing as part of that.

One that I’m really looking forward is one I have been invited to do by Strawberry Hill House. That’s the former home of Horace Walpole, who was probably gay and definitely a Gothic novelist. You may have heard of The Castle of Otranto. He was also an MP, an art historian, a prodigious writer of letters, and most importantly for my purposes a wealthly man-about-town in Georgian London.

That, naturally, brought him into contact with other famous people of the time, including Charlotte de Beaumont, Chevalière d’Eon. Before arriving in London she had been a diplomat, spy and cavalry officer in the service of Louis XV of France. Her time in London will involve more spying, a gender transition, significant quantities of wine, the Hellfire Club, the American Revolution, Marie Antoinette, the French Revolution, Prince George and William Blake, to name but a few.

It is going to be a lot of fun. Book here.

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.