Introducing Outremer

It is late in 2003 and I am in Stafford in Middle England for FantasyCon. It is an up and down event. On the downside, it takes place on the same weekend as the final of the Rugby World Cup. The English win. That chap Wilkinson. I am unhappy. But I am at the convention, at least in part, for the awards. China Miéville is busy finishing writing The Iron Council and has asked me if I will stand in for him at the award ceremony where The Scar is up for Best Novel. So I get to make a speech on China’s behalf, and I get given an ugly little Cthuloid statue to take back to him. Ah well, at least it wasn’t a bust of Lovecraft.

At the banquet I am sat next to a lad from Newcastle called Chaz. We bond over a number of things, including a shared devotion to the San Francisco 49ers. “What have you written?” I ask. “Well,” says Chaz, “I have this fantasy series set in an alternate version of the Crusades, and it has just started to come out in America…”

It is 2003, two years since 9/11 and two years into George W Bush’s quest for vengeance. Crusader rhetoric is the order of the day. The West is cast as Christian, Iran and Iraq are obviously Muslim. Tony Blair has recently deployed the Dodgy Dossier; David Kelly is dead; and the invasion of Iraq is well underway. This man wants me to read a fantasy series based on the Crusades? It had better be bloody good.

Of course it was.

Outremer is the collective name given to the four Crusader kingdoms founded after the First Crusade. Their actual history is deeply fascinating, and some great historical novels could doubtless be set in them. Brenchley, however, is doing that fantasy thing where a thinly disguised version of real history, with added magical seasoning, allows him to talk about the real world without the associated baggage that readers are likely to bring to it. He can’t have known, when he started writing the books, how appropriate they would become. The first one was published in the UK in 1998. But sometimes we luck into things.

What Chaz didn’t luck into was recognition for what he had created. I did my best with reviews in Emerald City, but the books didn’t capture the imagination in the way I’d hoped. Maybe they were too timely. Maybe there was too much queer stuff for the audience of 20 years ago. Regardless, I am absolutely delighted to have been given the opportunity to bring them to a new audience.

I’m particularly pleased to have the first book nearing completion during LGBT+ History Month. The mediaeval world has been presented to us as relentlessly heterosexual for decades, but we now know that was far from the truth. Human beings have always been queer, and a lot of what actually happened in those days has been carefully excised from history. Slowly modern historians are undoing that erasure. There have even been questions asked of that most macho of men, Richard Couer de Lion. Brenchley is not writing about real people, so there can be no one to say that there is no proof they were queer. Having them in the book is simply portraying the period as it existed, which is a good thing to be doing.

There will be more publicity for Outremer in the coming weeks. I very much hope that the books manage to find a new audience.

One Night in Stratford #LGBTHM22

On Thursday evening I will once again be participating in the LGBT+ History Month event at the Shakepspeare’s Birthplace Trust in Stratford-on-Avon. Sadly I won’t be in Shakepeare’s birthplace this time, but a virtual event means that you folks can get to see me in action from all over the world.

The talk I’m doing for them is a short version of my “Girls on Stage” talk, focusing solely on the theatre of 16th and 17th Century England. So no Greeks or Kabuki in this one, but there is so much batshit genderqueer stuff in the plays of the period that there will be no trouble filling the time.

To give folks a flavour of what I’ll be talking about, I have done a blog post for the SBT website. You can find it here.

To book a free place for the entire programme, go here.

Girls On Stage: A Trailer #LGBTHM22

The fabulous Gigi from A New Normal asked me if I would mind doing a little chat for LGBT+ History Month. I suggested maybe a bit of a teaser to encourage people to attend my M Shed talk on cross-dressing in the theatre. So we did. Now it is online and you can watch it below.

And if that sparked your interest you can catch the whole talk here. It is on February 24th, and it starts at 7:00pm so it is convenient for some of you folks across the Pond too.

LGBT+ History Month is here

Yes, it is February again, which means I am going to be busy doing talks. There will be only two public ones this year, and both will feature my new theme for this year: crossdressing in the theatre. This was inspired by reading some great research on the boys who actually played women in Shakespeare’s plays. I hope that the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust would pick up on it, and they did. I will be part of an Outing the Past event on February 17th. See here for details.

One of the things that delighted me about this is that, in researching the talk, I discovered that our Will was really quite conservative. Other plays written by his contemporaries were much more queer, including some actual trans material.

I’m doing a related talk for my friends at M Shed Museum in Bristol. It turns out that they have a fine collection of Japanese prints, including a number of portraits of kabuki actors. Also they wanted a much longer talk, so this one will visit ancient Greece, mediaeval China and Japan as well as Elizabethan/Victorian England. It is on February 24th, and you can book here.

M Shed also has a bunch of other talks that I have helped curate, including ones by my friends Andrew Foyle and Norena Shopland, and one by a Chinese queer activist, Qiuyan Chen. Check out the What’s On listing for details.

There are, of course, talks happening all over the country. This year some of the hubs are doing in person events again, but I suspect that quite a few will be virtual still. You can find a list of all the events here.

I’m doing a bunch of talks for private clients too. That doesn’t mean I’m getting big bucks, it means it is for a local or company LGBT+ group and they want to restrict access to members. This is mainly repeats, but I’ll possibly be doing one for Trans Day of Visibility in March that might turn into next year’s public talk.

Dydd Santes Dwynwen Happus!

Or Happy Saint Dwynwen’s Day to you English speakers.

But who is Saint Dwynwen, and why should we be happy on her day? Well, she is the Welsh patron saint of lovers, so today is the Welsh version of Valentine’s Day. These days it is associated with almost as much ritual consumerism as the better known love festival.

Valentine was an early Christian martyr, executed for trying to convert the Emperor to his beliefs. He died on February 14th, 269 (according to Catholic Online). It is unclear how he came to be associated with being in love. Dwynwen has a much better claim to the job.

Dwynwen was one of the 24 daughters of King Brychan Brycheiniog, whose territory is the region we now call the Brecon Beacons. She was, naturally, the prettiest of them, and there was competition for her hand. A young man called Maelon Dafodrill was particularly smitten with her. What happened next varies a lot from one story to the next.

Some say that Dwynwen rejected Maelon’s advances and he became furious with her, perhaps even raped her. Others say that she loved him in return but she had been promised to someone else by her father. Whatever happened, she prayed to God for help and he proved remarkably willing to get involved.

There may have been a potion of forgetfulness, provided by an angel, which either erased the pain of the rape, or the pain of losing her love. Also the unfortunate Maelon was turned into a pillar of ice. And finally God granted Dwynwen three wishes.

For the first wish she asked that Maelon be unfrozen forthwith, which shows that she had a rather better understanding of compassion and forgiveness than God.

For the second wish she asked that God take good care of all true lovers, that their lives might prove happier than hers, which is where she got the patron saint job from.

And finally she asked that she be allowed to never marry. She lived out her life in a nunnery, and founded a small church on a little island near Anglesey.

So what are we to make of all this? Was Dwynwen a broken-hearted lover? If so, why did she not just ask God to allow her to marry Maelon? Was she put off men by Maelon’s bad behaviour? Perhaps, but she seemed willig to forgive him. Or maybe she just wasn’t interested in men at all.

What we do know is that she was a kind-hearted girl who wanted the best for others. (She is also the patron saint of sick animals.) And I rather like the idea that the Welsh patron saint of lovers might be lesbian or asexual.

Buy Me for Christmas


If you missed my HistFest talk on trans Romans first time around, you have a second chance. It will be available for a number of days over the holiday period. What’s more, for the ridiculously low sum of £8.68 (that’s £7.50 plus EventBrite fees) you get not just me, but five other great history talks by actual, genuine historians too. That has to be better than watching Christmas movies, right? If you would like to purchase access, you can do so here.

By the way, I don’t get a cut of this. I was paid a flat fee for creating the talk. But if you do watch my bit that will help encourage the lovely HistFest folks to commission more trans-related material, which would be a very good thing.

Alternative Canada

This morning Kevin and I visited the McCord Museum. We chose it, of all the various cultural destiations in Montréal, because it has an exhibit devoted to the local indigenous people. There are, we were told, 11 different cultural groups native to the region we know as Quebec. They range from the Huron or Wendat people, who are related to other Iroquoian-speaking peoples from around the Great Lakes region, to the Inuit.

What you hope for from such exhibitions is to to learn fascinating things about these indigienous cultures. What you get, most of the time, is shameful tales about how badly they have been treated by Europeans. You get stories of massacres, of populations decimated by Western diseases, of broken treaties, of stolen children, of horrendous suicide rates among indigenous youth. Quebec is no exception.

I will note that the exhibition in the McCord was less despressing that the equivalent one in the museum in Hobart, Tasmania. There we were greeted with sorry photographs of the last known members of the native communties, dating from decades ago. There are over 1.6 million indigenous people living in Canada. Some 800 of them participated in the creation of the exhibition in the McCord. Some of them are on video venting their frustration at how badly they are treated, still.

The final room of the exhibition encourages visitors to make a meaningful connection to indigenous people, and to start on the journey of becoming an ally. The way that they talked about listening to people, and being respectful of difference, was very similar to the things we say in the Diversity Trust training about becoming an ally to trans people. There’s a lesson in that, I suspect.

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.