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.

Glasgow Fantasy Centre Does D&D

The lovely people at the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow are doing another online event. This one is titled, “D&D and Fantasy Fiction: Giants in the Oerth”. I am definitely looking forward to this. As someone who bought one of the first (white box) sets of D&D in the UK, I can definitely say “I was there!”. And of course my fellow players were all avid fantasy readers. I’ll be fascinated to see what history says about us.

The event will be at 6:00pm GMT on January 28th. Registration is required but free (and they will probably live stream on YouTube if they exceed their Zoom capacity). More details here.

Io Saturnalia!


Today, December 17th, is the first day of the Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia. It started out as a one-day thing, and through the long history of Rome morphed into a multi-day epic holiday incorporating the solstice and terminating in the birthday of the sun god, Sol Invictus, on the 25th. Among other things, it has given us the concept of the Lord of Misrule.

As I have been doing a lot of Roman stuff recently, I figured that I should celebrate properly, which means Roman food. For lunch I had bread, olives, feta cheese and octopus. It was yummy. But what to cook for the evening meal?

The Romans didn’t have turkey. They didn’t have tomatoes or potatoes either. But they did have a vast empire, and if you were rich enough you could bring in food from the far flung corners of the empire. So what might Romans have in place of turkey? Ostrich seemed like a good idea.

Obviously I don’t need a whole ostrich, and I don’t have the means of cooking one, but Tesco does sell ostrich steaks. All I need is something to do with them. Does Apicius have a recipe for ostrich? Of course, he has two. I’ll be experimenting with the first of them. I’ll be serving it with one of Apicius’s mushroom dishes, and some green vegetables.

There will be wine, of course. Mustn’t forget to show respect to dear Dionysus.

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.

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.

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.

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.

HFRN 2021, Also Virtual

Another academic conference that I’m a regular at (and now a Trustee of) is the annual meeting of the Historical Fiction Research Network. The conference is normally in February, and that’s now definitely uncertain as far as in-person events goes, so we are going virtual. Hopefully that means we’ll be able to pull in people from all around the world (though in fairness a bunch of lovely Aussies are regulars and we had two Russians last year).

Anyway, in keeping with the times, our theme for 2021 is depictions of catastrophe. It was the end of the world, or at least it seemed like it at the time. From the Great Flood in Gilgamesh to the Heat Death of the Universe, humans have always imagined disasters. There’s so much to talk about. Here’s the Call for Papers, and the link to buy memberships.

HFRN 2021- Online
Theme: Remembering Catastrophe

Please submit papers to the Paper Proposal Form:
Deadline 30th September.

We welcome paper proposals from Archaeology, Architecture, Literature, Media, Art History, Cartography, Geography, History, Musicology, Reception Studies, Linguistics, Museum Studies, Media Studies, Politics, Re-enactment, Larping, Gaming, Transformative Works, Gender, Race, Queer studies and others.

We welcome paper proposals across historical periods, with ambitious, high-quality, inter-disciplinary 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.

This year we are using a form. Please submit papers to the Paper Proposal Form.

Deadline, 30th September.
Tickets from Helm: £40/£15

Outing the Past Goes Virtual

Outing the Past is an annual academic conference on the subject of queer history. Normally I attend, but this year it got scheduled for September 12th, and I had already accepted an invitation to go to Augsberg in Germany for a science fiction conference organised by the wonderful Sabrina Mittermeier. Of course that isn’t going to happen now. Sabrina and her colleagues have already put some of the proposed events online, including my chat with Sabrina and Maria Turtschaninoff. You can find that and several other events, on the covention’s YouTube channel. (And let me tell you that I’m seriously chuffed to be on the same programme as the Chancellor of the Klingon Empire.)

So what about Outing the Past. Obviously it is going virtual too, and that means you can all join in the fun. There will be a special one-day event on September 12th called Completing the Past. It will be all about LGBT+ History and Creative Production. There are a lot of great speakers lined up, and in particular I would like to draw your attention to the panel titled, “Heritage at home: Connecting and engaging with the LGBT+ past through creative production.” That will be hosted by Dan Vo, and it will feature a bunch of guests talking about works of art that open a door on the LGBT+ past. I can’t tell you any more about it than that now, but you know that if Dan is involved then it is goign to be awesome, right?

Meet Saint Wilgefortis

In Castle Park in the centre of Bristol there is a small, bombed out church called St. Mary Le Port. The current building is Norman dating from work in the 11th century, but archaeologists have discovered a Saxon site beneath so it is presumably much older. Because it is a useful landmark in the park, the church has effectively been a gathering point for the Bristol Pride March for a few years, and before that Pride itself took place around the church in Castle Park.

Via an article in today’s Bristol 24/7 I discovered that the church contains a chapel to Saint Wilgefortis.

Saint who, you may well ask? Well, she is apparently the patron saint of Unhappily Married Women. Her legend is that her father arranged for her to marry someone she did not like, so she prayed that she might be made repulsive so that he would reject her. The next morning when she woke up she had a full beard. That put paid to the marriage, but her angry father had her crucified as a punishment.

Wikipedia (yes, I know) lists a whole bunch of names by which Wilgefortis was known around Europe. She seems to have been particularly popular in Northern Europe, but she has found her way as far afield as Panama and Argentina.

These days historians tend to assume that the legend is entirely made up. After all, teenage girls don’t normally sprout a full beard overnight. However, there are a range of biological variations that can lead to people assigned female at birth growing beards. That can range from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome all the way to 5-ARD, an intersex variation that also leads to the young person growing a penis. It is entirely possible that young Wilgefortis knew that she was developing facial hair and had been hiding it from her parents, but decided to come clean about it in the hope of getting out of the marriage.

Just as fascinating is the fact that the worship of Wilgefortis involved the image of her being crucified, which led to some very androgynous iconography. My friends who study gender in the Middle Ages are all over this sort of thing, but Christian theology is a minefield I try to avoid playing in because you need a lot of basic knowledge before it is wise to say anything.

What I can say, however, is that the existence of a chapel to Wilgefortis in the very church that has such a close connection to Bristol Pride is a delightful piece of serendipity. I have no doubt that the local chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will take this to heart.

Queering the Classics

Today is International Non-Binary People’s Day (neatly positioned half way between International Men’s Day, which does exist, and International Women’s Day). I am rather pleased that today is also publication day for volume 49 of the CUCD Bulletin, in which I have an article.

CUCD stands for Council of University Classics Deparments, which is a professional forum for all teachers of classical Greek and Roman subjects in British Universities. That makes the Bulletin a pretty serious academic venue, albeit one that will cover issues of pedagogy as well as research. My article is titled “Queering the Classics”, and it is primarily a review of this book, Exploring Gender Diversity in the Ancient World.

However, in order to explain the importance of the book, I had to do the whole thing of talking about understanding gender and sexuality in the ancient world. And it is this that makes publication on International Non-Binary People’s Day so appropriate. The short version is that gender is a social construct, and every society constructs it differently.

Huge thanks are due to the Bulletin‘s editor, Professor Susan Deacy, who has been very supportive of my baby steps in the Classics world.

Coronavirus – Day #85

Well, what a day!

Things began overnight with a certain very rich writer of dubious children’s books spouting transphobia over her Twitter feed. I had to unfollow and block one person, but in general I was very proud of the way my own personal social media bubble rallied round. Good show, people!

Just about when that was starting to die down, the Black Lives Matter demo began in Bristol. I wasn’t able to attend, and indeed many of the Black people I know stayed away because of health fears. Cleo Lake and some other community leaders organised an online protest with the hashtag #BristolTakeTheKnee, which I participated in. And then I got on with some work.

The next thing I knew, people had toppled the statue of Edward Colston and dumped it in the harbour.

For those of you who don’t know, Colston made an huge fortune from slave trading. He did pay some of it back by donating money that helped the city, but that’s no excuse for all the lives he destroyed. However, because of that philanthropy he had various things in the city named after him, and a statue erected in his honour. Much, if not all, of this was done in late Victorian times long after the slave trade had been abolished and when the white population of the city had managed to forget its horrors.

The Black people of Bristol did not forget. For decades now they have been campaigning to have Colston’s name removed from the city. Many of my friends from Ujima have been involved in that. Members of the white establishment have fought them every inch of the way. Last year the concert hall agreed to change its name, but attempts to even acknowledge Colston’s unsavoury habits on the plaque on his statue were ferociously resisted. We all know what happens when attempts at calm and reasonable protest are blocked.

A couple of things are worth noting. Firstly the actual act of toppling the stautue seems, from the video I have seen, to have been done by young white men. When Tim Maughan wrote about the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft in Infinite Detail he wasn’t joking, and didn’t make it up. Secondly, while Avon & Somerset Police maintained a presence at the demonstration, they did not attempt to intervene or attack the crowd. Those responsible for actually toppling the statue will be investigated, but public safety was maintained and there was no violence. This sounds very different from what police in London and Manchester have been up to.

The government is, of course, livid. I would not fancy being Marvin Rees (the Mayor) or Sue Mountstevens (the Police Commissioner) tomorrow morning.

I understand that the BBC has given air time to both David Olusoga and to my friend Olivette Otele, both of whom are more than capable of explaining just why so many people in Bristol want Colston gone.

And now I have to make a radio show. It will air on Wednesday, but I should deliver it by the end of tomorrow. And I won’t have time to do any interviews. I have been collecting civil rights songs to play.

The Dan & Cheryl Show

Today I did my thing with Dan Vo for the Queer Britain Lockdown Hunt. It was a lot of fun. I covered a range of queer history books ranging from the 20th Century back to the 2nd. I also mentioned four science fiction and fantasy books. They were:

  • Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
  • Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
  • Friday by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Triton by Samuel R Delany

Obviously there’s a huge amount of queer SF&F that I could have mentioned, and I tweeted about several others, but those four had interesting stories. To find out why I chose them, you’ll need to watch the show.