Emperor Ai of Han

A depiction of the “cut sleeve” story, where the emperor is getting some help with the scissors

We’ve talked before about how the ancient Chinese story about the bitten peach became a euphemism for homosexual love, but it isn’t the only ancient Chinese story about an emperor and another guy falling in love that has essentially been trimmed down to a short coded phrase — in this case “the passion of the cut sleeve.” I know, I know, it sounds like it’s about an enthusiastic but inept tailor. It’s not — it’s about Emperor Ai of Han.

Born as Liu Xin in 27 BCE, his father was Prince Liu Kang of Dingtao and the brother of the childless Emperor Cheng. Xin was never raised by his parents, however, but was instead put in the care of his grandmother Consort Fu. Kang died in 23 BCE with only one heir — the four year old Xin, who became the Prince of Dingtao. For several years, he seemed to be just flying under the radar until 9 BCE when he visited his dear old uncle Emperor Cheng. Typically, a prince would bring an escort of teachers along for such a visit — Xin, however, brought his teacher, the prime minister of his principality, and a military commander. When asked, Xin quoted the exact regulations that not only permitted this but — in Xin’s opinion — required it. Cheng was impressed, and became even more impressed when Xin began discussing Shi Jing, a one of the Confucian classics.

The following year, Cheng gathered together his advisors to settle on who Cheng could adopt to be his heir. It was pretty quickly decided that it should be Xin. This was not without it’s problems however — Cheng was determined that Xin should act as though Cheng was his only parent. He banned Consort Fu and Consort Ding (Xin’s mother) from the capital Chang’an, so they could not see the Crown Prince Xin. He did eventually relent (after much coaxing from his own mother) and allow Consort Fu to visit, under the rationale that she had served as a wet nurse.

Although this caused some tension, it was short lived because Cheng died in 7 BCE either from a stroke or from overdosing of unnamed aphrodisiacs given to him by his favorite Consort Zhao Hede. At 20 years old, Crown Prince Xin became the Emperor Ai of Han and his reign started very well. He immediately took a much more hands on approach to ruling than his predecessor, cut government spending, and took efforts to reduce involuntary servitude by limiting the number of servants members of the nobilty could have and freeing all servants over the age of 50.

However, Ai’s reign was soon rocked by controversy. Ai was still caught between loyalty to Cheng’s family, into which he had been adopted in order to become emperor, and the family that bore and raised him. In order to soothe the emperor, his step-grandmother Grand Empress Dowager Wang created titles for some of his relatives including Consort Fu who became Empress Dowager Gong of Dingtao. While this did help Ai, it created a rivalry between the Fu clan and the Wang clan — many members of the Wang clan were mad at the creation of titles for these relatives of the emperor, whereas Fu herself believed that her title was subpar and was really determined to hold onto a grudge. Although Ai attempted to stay out of it, ultimately he accepted the resignation of Wang Mang — the highest ranking Wang (outside of the Grand Empress Dowager herself) in his administration and the whole family soon lost most of their political influence.

Fu’s ability to hold a grudge would create even further controversies for Ai in 6 BCE. Long story short, she ordered an investigation into the family of a former romantic rival of her — the investigation was brutal and ultimately led to seventeen deaths including the death of her former rival. Meanwhile, Ai himself was frequently ill with some kind of chronic illness — an effort seems to have been made to keep this quiet, so there’s very little information. Ai was also developing a reputation for harshly punishing people in his administration and then changing his mind about it a short time later and conversely, promoting people into his administration and then abruptly firing them for little or no apparent reason.

Dong Xian

And then came Dong Xian. It is generally agreed that most emperors of the Han dynasty, although married to women, took on male lovers and it is generally agreed that the relationship between Emperor Ai and Dong Xian was one of these kinds of relationships. Their relationship began in 4 BCE, at which point Dong Xian was a very minor court official. Dong was 19 years old and was also married to a woman. Emperor Ai started throwing all kinds of promotions and honors at Dong — at a rapid rate that unnerved everyone else. However, anyone who opposed this was severely punished. A palace secretary general named Zheng Chong, for instance, was arrested and died in prison. Sun Bao — who had not objected to Dong Xian’s rewards but had attempted to free Zheng Chong from prison, was removed from his station.

Dong and his wife moved into the imperial palace pretty quickly in the relationship, but soon Ai ordered a lavish residence — as lavish as the imperial palace — be constructed for Dong and his wife. He gave Dong the most expensive jewelry in the imperial treasure and the best weapons in the armory. (The security chief for the capital city, Wujiang Long, tried to block the weapons from being given and was subsequently demoted to be security chief to a little area on the outskirts of the empire.) Emperor Ai even ordered that a tomb be constructed for Dong right beside his own tomb.

By 3 BCE — oh, right, all of that was in the first year of their relationship — Emperor Ai was intent on promoting Dong Xian to the rank of marquess. Now, the year prior a eunuch name Song Hong had reported that a prince was using witchcraft — the prince was demoted to the rank of a commoner and ultimately killed himself. To justify promoting his lover, Emperor Ai gave Dong the credit for reporting this crime. The following year, the prime minister Wang Jia — who had already tried to block the promotion — wrote a carefully worded letter saying he was concerned about what might befall Dong Xian if Emperor Ai should die first. It, predictably, didn’t go over well and Wang Jia was imprisoned under false charges, and then he killed himself. Anyone in the administration who grieved for him after his death was removed from their offices — including the emperor’s own uncle Ding Ming who was commander of all of the empire’s military forces.

Ding Ming was replaced by a man named Wing Shei — however, Wing Shei died from an illness within the year. And So Emperor Ai made Dong Xian the commander of the empire’s military. In doing so, Ai issued an edict which said “Heaven gave you to be the helper for the Han Dynasty. I know your faithfulness, and I hope that you can guide the great affairs of the empire and follow what is good.” This alarmed a lot of members of the court, because it echoed famous words used by Emperor Yao when he passed his throne to Emperor Shun.

Despite his new position, however, Dong Xian remained with the emperor in the palace at all times and did not do any actual commanding of the military. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of Dong Xian’s relatives were given important positions in the government — some of them even replacing members of the emperor’s own family.

Another depiction of the “cut sleeve” story

It was some time around this period — when Dong Xian was the head honcho general — when the famous story that would make its way into the romantic hearts and minds of China’s imagination was said to take place. According to the story, Emperor Ai and Dong Xian fell asleep together on a straw mat. When the emperor awoke, Dong Xian’s head was on his sleeve. In order to allow him to continue sleeping (after a hard day of not actually commanding the military), the emperor cut off his sleeve and left it under Dong Xian’s head. It is a really sweet story, if you ignore the absolute havoc their relationship was causing in Emperor Ai’s administration.

The next year, 1 BCE, Emperor Ai’s chronic illness — whatever it was — got the best of him. On his death bed, he decreed that his heir was Dong Xian. When he passed away a short time later, everyone — and I mean everyone, including Dong Xian — ignored this decree. Dong Xian, for his part, may not have been totally ignoring it but he was in so much shock he failed to do anything. The Grand Empress Dowager Wang, however, was not so shocked — she immediately grabbed the imperial seal to prevent Dong Xian from getting the throne. Then, she reinstated her relative Wang Mang (remember him?) and transferred command of the military to him.

Wang Mang used his newfound power to accuse Dong Xian of failing to attend to the emperor while he was dying and banned him from the palace. The next day, Dong Xian was stripped of his titles. He and his wife committed suicide that night. Although they were buried quickly, Wang Mang had Dong disinterred and reburied in a prison. Not in the fancy tomb that got built in the first year of their relationship together, in a prison. (This is why you should always wait to build a tomb for your new boyfriend!) The entire Dong family was banished and all of their assets were taken by the imperial treasury. This, by the way, was pretty much exactly the sort of thing that Prime Minister Wang Jia had been warning about in his letter. Oops.

Anyways, much like the previously mentioned bitten peach thing, the story of Dong Xian and Emperor Ai and the cut sleeve was passed down for centuries, and was often used to describe homosexuality. In fact, “Cut Sleeve” is even the title of a short story by Pu Songling in the third edition of Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, about a homosexual romance. It was first published in 1740 CE which is one thousand seven hundred forty-one years after Dong Xian’s death. As much as this was not a charming love story for the Chinese empire at the time it was happening, and as much as they moved way too fast, there’s not a lot of love stories that have endured so long.

Hadrian and Antinous

I’ve been on an ancient history kick lately so, if I were you, I’d expect the next few posts here to be about ancient queer people. To that end, I’m starting us off by bringing us back to ancient Rome. And also ancient Egypt. And all over the place, actually. I am, of course, talking about the story of Emperor Hadrian and Antinous.

A statue of Emperor Hadrian

So Hadrian was born on January 24, 76 CE in present-day Spain, where his family had moved from present-day Italy. His father was first-cousin to soon-to-be-emperor Trajan. Hadrian entered a career in politics and public service. At the encouragement of Trajan’s wife, and a few other politically influential people in Rome, Hadrian married Trajan’s grand-niece (and therefore, his own second cousin once removed) Vibia Sabina early in his career (around 100 or 101 CE). The marriage was purely political and is almost universally described as being an unhappy one. Around the time of the wedding, he was serving as essentially the liaison between the emperor and the Senate. Afterwards, he had posts in numerous places around the Empire — he was archon of Athens for many years, and even held Athenian citizenship, and also served as governor of Syria.

Meanwhile, in Turkey sometime around 111 CE, Antinous was born. Virtually no solid facts are known about his childhood, but its guessed he was born in November — possibly November 27. Some time in the Renaissance it began to be claimed by historians that Antinous was born into slavery, but modern historians are pretty agreed that that’s unlikely because contemporary Roman historians would almost certainly have mentioned that, given how the rest of his life turned out and how much more of a controversial figure Antinous would have become.

In the year 117 CE, Trajan died from a stroke, leaving no heirs. Adoption papers “proving” Hadrian was his adopted son, and therefore heir, appeared shortly thereafter — signed by Trajan’s wife, and dated the day after Trajan’s death. Making this even more hard to swallow was the fact that she was in Rome and Hadrian was still in Syria. This was a huge irregularity, as a Roman adoption required all three parties to be present — both parents and the adoptee. Nevertheless, the Roman legion quickly claimed him the legitimate emperor, so as to avoid a power vacuum. Hadrian thanked them with a monetary bonus, which may sound like a bribe but was apparently the custom of the time. (I guess that doesn’t really mean it wasn’t a bribe…) With the legion on board, the Senate didn’t take too long to confirm that Hadrian was emperor.

At the start of his reign, Hadrian remained in Syria — as there was a Jewish revolt in Judea and other parts of the Middle East that he needed to attend to. And by attend to I mean, historians now refer to it as the Kitos War and that sort of undersells the violence. In his defense, Hadrian was trying to find a more peaceful solution to the problem — but the war had begun under Trajan’s rule and the combatants were not willing to let go of the fight. Hadrian gave up a lot of the area Trajan had conquered to the east in order to stabilize the region. Then he quietly stripped Lusius Quietus — the commander of the Roman forces in Judea — of his rank. Lusius Quietus died the following year under suspicious circumstances. It’s likely that Hadrian quietly stripped him of his life too.

A surviving section of Hadrian’s Wall

With that behind him, Hadrian embarked on a tour of the empire. Perhaps the most significant stop, and one of the earliest, on this tour was the province of Britannia — Great Britain. Major conflicts were common in the region, and the Roman military was not doing well. In 122 CE, Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall to separate the Roman territory from the unclaimed parts of the island. An enormous 73 mile long wall, as it turns out, was cheaper than an enormous border army. It wasn’t the Great Wall of China or anything, but Hadrian’s Wall was still kind of a big deal. Part of the wall still stands.

A statue of Antinous

In June of 123 CE, he reached the city of Claudiopolis (now Bolu) in present day Turkey — where Antinous lived. It is believed by many historians that they met at this point and, while they did not become lovers now, it certainly had an impact on Antinous. It was probably a big part of why Antinous decided to go to pursue his education in Rome.

Hadrian returned to Rome in September 125 CE. Over the next three years, a relationship formed between Antinous and Hadrian. Antinous became the emperor’s “personal favorite” and was seen in Hadrian’s company more than his wife. Historians actually note that there is no evidence whatsoever that Hadrian ever expressed romantic or sexual interest in any women — which is kind of remarkable since usually historians are quick to “straightwash” gay people in history. Hadrian was too gay even for that. Contemporary records indicate that Hadrian and Antinous’ relationship was clearly sexual, and Hadrian wrote erotic poetry about him, though none of it survives today. There was significantly more to the relationship though. Hadrian had several “favorites” but he particularly described Antinous as being incredibly wise, and they enjoyed hunting together and — as you’ll see shortly — traveling together. Antinous, for his part, also seems to have truly loved Hadrian despite their significant age difference. There is no evidence he ever tried to use the relationship for any kind of personal gain.

Hadrian, unlike previous emperors, did not choose to stay in Rome and rely heavily on reports from abroad. Hadrian spent more than half of his reign traveling the empire. When he left Rome again in 127 CE, he took Antinous with him as a part of his personal retinue. This may have been partially because Hadrian fell ill during this year, with a mysterious chronic illness that baffled the doctors of the time. They traveled through parts of Italy, North Africa, and even made their way to Athens for a time. At a certain point they were initiated, together, into the Eleusinian Mysteries. Afterwards, they traveled to the Middle East, visiting Antioch, Judea, Syria, and Arabia. Hadrian grew concerned that the Jewish population was failing to “Romanize” so he built a Temple of Jupiter on the site of former Jewish temple and made circumcision illegal.

The tondo depicting the lion hunt

From there they headed to Egypt. In Alexandria, Hadrian made some unpopular decisions about appointing people to certain positions. Rumors began to spread about his sex life, particularly when it came to Antinous. Unperturbed by the pettiness, Hadrian and Antinous went to hunt a lion that was causing trouble in Libya. During the hunt, Hadrian saved Antinous’ life — he was so proud of this event that he made certain it was recorded in multiple histories, had it depicted on bronze medallions, had a poem commissioned, and even had a tondo (or circular artwork) made of it. Various tondos depicting Antinous and Hadrian together, including the one of the lion hunt, eventually ended up on the Arch of Constantine, where they still remain to this day. This tondo is considered particularly significant as it is the first place that Antinous is no longer shown as a thin youth but a muscular, hairy truly full grown man — leading historians to suspect that his relationship with Hadrian was probably changing.

A month or so later, Hadrian and his retinue sailed up the Nile as part of a flotilla. Antinous was with him, as was Lucius Ceionius Commodus who some historians say Antinous viewed as competition for Hadrian’s affections (but who never seems to have actually had a romantic relationship with the emperor). During this sort of Nile parade, Antinous fell into the river and died. The death is viewed as highly suspicious particularly because in all of the surviving documents there is not one place where the death is described as an accident. And there’s quite a bit of documentation that has survived. It is, of course, still possible the death was an accident, but here’s some of the other theories that are out there.

  • Some theorize that Antinous killed himself, possibly over losing Hadrian’s affections. The trouble with this theory is that Hadrian’s reaction to the death doesn’t seem like his affection was waning.
  • Some have suggested he was murdered as part of a conspiracy. There’s actually no evidence for this, and Antinous’ lack of political influence over Hadrian also kinds of makes this one a “meh” theory. But it’s very dramatic, so that’s fun at least.
  • It’s also been suggested that it was a human sacrifice, that Antinous might have volunteered to sacrifice his own life as a means of helping finally cure Hadrian of the illness he’d been suffering for three years. However, Hadrian was opposed to human sacrifice and had strengthened laws against it throughout the empire. This theory also was never even presented until 80 years later, despite the fact that rumors spread like wildfire when the death occurred.
  • Another theory is that Antinous died in a botched castration, that he may have volunteered for to keep his youth. However, again, Hadrian was very much opposed to castration and Antinous was too old (since he’s only somewhere around 19 years old at this point) to get much effect from it anyways.

As you can see, all of the theories leave something to be desired and whatever the case may be, Hadrian was absolutely beside himself with grief (and possibly also with guilt, depending on what actually happened). Egyptian priests immediately identified Antinous with the Egyptian god Osiris — dying in the Nile helped with that — and set about embalming and mummifying his corpse in the Egyptian tradition. Hadrian remained in Egypt until the following year, probably not willing to leave until his lover had been finally laid to rest.

Royston Lambert wrote a biography of Hadrian in 1984, where he described Hadrian’s feelings for Antinous as a “a mystical-religious need for his companionship.” And that’s, perhaps, underselling it. Hadrian formally declared Antinous a deity, and ordered a city be constructed at the site of his death. The city, called Antinoöpolis, was built over the city of Hir-we and all of the buildings from that city except the Temple of Ramses II were destroyed so the new city could be built. Aside from being an over-the-top memorial, the city was also a move to help integrate Greek and Egyptian cultures — Hadrian permitted Greek and Egyptian inhabitants of the city to marry, and gave incentives for Greeks to move there. Games were held there annually for several hundred years in an event called the Antinoeia. Hadrian allowed the primary god of Hir-we to continue to be worshipped — the Egyptian god Bes — alongside worship of the Osiris-Antinous deity.

The Antinous Obelisk, on Pincio Hill in Rome

It was not unheard for a person to be declared a god but it was super rare for it to be someone who wasn’t, y’know, an emperor or someone otherwise incredibly important to the world at large. It’s not clear what became of Antinous’ body, but it is hinted by an obelisk was buried at Hadrian’s country estate in Italy. Hadrian continued to surround himself with sculptures and depictions of Antinous for years to come. Over the following years, an innumerable number of sculptures of Antinous were found through the empire (in no small part because of his status as a god). 115 of those sculptures still exist — 22 of those were found in Hadrian’s country estate. Although there are various styles of these sculptures, they all clearly depict the same person so it is believed that Hadrian released an official version of what Antinous was supposed to look like, that sculptors could replicate.

Antinous as Bacchus (or Dionysus) — a statue in the Vatican

Because of the identification with Osiris, the cult of Antinous had little trouble spreading in Egypt. But Hadrian wanted Antinous to be worshipped through the entire empire. To that end, he turned to Greece. In 131 CE, he traveled there and integrated Antinous with the god Hermes — in much the same way that the Egyptians had joined him to Osiris. He founded a temple in Trapezus to Hermes-Antinous. Despite Hadrian’s best efforts, however, the Greeks associated Antinous with the god Dionysus instead and worship of Dionysus-Antinous could be found throughout much of the empire within just a few years. Although in some cases people worshipped Antinous just to make their emperor happy, archaeologists have found a significant amount of evidence suggesting Antinous was also worshipped in the privacy of people’s homes. That means people actually, genuinely liked worshipping Antinous. The cult appears to have been most prolific in Egypt, the Middle East, and Greece but evidence of the cult has been found in 70 cities and some of that is even as far away as Britain where Antinous appears to have been conflated with the Celtic sun god Belenos.

Six years later, 136 CE, Hadrian adopted Lucius Ceionius Commodus and made him his heir (as Hadrian and his wife never had kids.) However, Lucius died two years later while Hadrian was still alive so he never actually got the crown. Later that year, on July 10 138 CE, Hadrian passed away in his villa — finally losing the battle with his own health but managing to name an heir in Antinous shortly before his death. Hadrian had ruled the Roman Empire for 21 years.

Antinous’ cult would continue even longer, but would receive harsh criticisms from other pagan cults. The philosopher Celsus, for instance, criticized it — saying that its worshipers were debaucherous and immoral. That’s also how he viewed Christians, as it turns out. Christians, meanwhile, viewed the cult of Antinous as a rival religion and they vocally condemned it — insisting that it was immoral to worship a mortal human, and pointing out that he was only in that position because of his sexual activities with Hadrian. (That part at least is kind of valid.) In the 4th century, as conflicts between Christians and pagans deepened, pagans in general began to champion Antinous. Not in the sense that they worshiped him necessarily, though his cult was clearly still active, but in that he became something of a symbol against Christianity. New images and depictions of him began to be made, including a set of seven bronze medallions. Statues were broken, rebuilt, moved, damaged, repaired…..and the struggle continued until 391 CE when Emperor Theodosius officially banned paganism, and all images of Antinous were removed from public places.

Antinous, understandably, became something of an icon for the homosexual subculture of later centuries. During the Renaissance, queer art was generally focused on the mythological figure of Ganymede but — especially by the 18th century — that fascination had been turned onto Antinous. Who was, y’know, at least real. That fascination grew into the 19th century. In 1865, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs wrote about Antinous in one of his pamphlets, and Oscar Wilde spoke of Antinous in The Young King, The Sphinx, and in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The homophile newspaper The Artist began selling cast statues of Antinous about this time as well. Even straight authors were catching on — in the novel of Les Miserables, author Victor Hugo describes the character of Enjolras as “an untamed Antinous” who seemed “not to be aware of the existence of a creature called woman.”

And while Antinous may not still have quite that level of ubiquitous popularity in queer culture, he has not exactly been forgotten either. Sarah Waters included a costume ball in her novel Tipping the Velvet where the lesbian protagonist dressed as Antinous. Rufus Wainwright‘s 2018 opera Hadrian is about the emperor’s response to Antinous’ death. Even in sports they’re still remembered — the Hadrian Cup, an LGBTQ+ inclusive rugby tournament, introduced the Antinous Plate just this year in March 2020 and awarded it to the Aberdeen Taexali Rugby Club. (But, to be honest, I don’t know anything about rugby so I can’t tell you exactly what the Antinous Plate is awarded for.)

I’m not saying Hadrian set the bar too high for the rest of us, but would your lover declare you a god after you died in a river under suspicious circumstances — making you a relevant historical figure for thousands of years to come?

Polari

Alright, Nellyarda, this one’s important. It’s all about how we communicate — or, how we did. Today, we’re going to talk about Polari. Polari was a secret, coded slang language (or “cant language”) that was used by gay men (and also, only occasionally, by lesbians) in England up until the late 1960’s. A way to hide who you were and what you were talking about when out and about in public places where it wasn’t legal to be openly gay.

Now, if you’re sitting there wondering who “Nellyarda” is — that’s a good sign you live in a place where these hidden languages aren’t still in use. “Nellyarda” isn’t a person, it’s a verb — it just means “listen.” Fortunately, in much of the world, talking to other gay people about gay things isn’t a crime and you don’t need to speak in code (although we still have a lot of slang that leaves people in mainstream culture scratching their heads. To be honest, sometimes even I scratch my head — what the heck is a “squirrel friend” anyways?) But while we delve into the history of Polari, I want you to keep in mind that there are places in the world today where these coded languages are not history — where they are still used but are still vital to the survival of the underground LGBTQ+ culture there. Bahasa binan is still spoken in Indonesia; in South Africa and Zimbabwe gay English-speakers are probably familiar with Gayle language, while Bantu speakers are using IsiNgqumo. Those are just a couple examples, but there’s a whole lot of these types of languages which people examining queer language (otherwise called “Lavender linguistics“) might want to take a look at. I promise to touch on more of them in the future.

Anyways, back to Polari. The roots of Polari can be traced back to 16th century — to the traveling entertainment troupes of commedia dell’arte — a really old form of professional, kind of vaudevillian theater that originated in Italy. While traveling around Europe, entertainers developed a sort of jargon of their own, which they called “parlyaree” from the Italian word “parlare” meaning “to talk.” Parlyaree expanded a bit, started to get used by sailors — and as it expanded it picked up words from other places — thieves cant, backslang, etc; and other languages from all across Europe too, including Yiddish, French, Shelta, and others. It became popular amongst all of the undesirable parts of society — criminals, Romani travelers, prostitutes….

And, of course, “undesirables” also meant “the gays.” Most likely it was traveling gay entertainers that brought parlyaree to Britain, as a version of parlyaree was commonly used in Punch & Judy puppet shows. Many of the words were innately sarcastic or sexualized in their meanings. Speakers would often pick campy nicknames for themselves, gay men often using names that were effeminate. The language created a cultural attitude that was strong and resilient in the face of brutal abuse and discrimination. Polari was particularly useful for two things: gossip and finding men to hook up with.

Polari, coming full circle, found its way into British entertainment — adopted by the Punch & Judy shows that had brought it to the British Isles to begin with, and — much much later — in the radio comedy series Round the Horne which began airing on March 7, 1965. Round the Horne was wildly popular, and the characters of Julian and Sandy — the two characters who spoke simplified Polari — were especially popular. The good news is that they helped British society become more accepting of homosexuals. That said, gay sex was still a crime and it was certainly not great for the gay community’s safety to have the mainstream culture, including members of law enforcement, hearing their hidden language on the radio each week. This was probably one of the early contributing factors in the decline of Polari. By 1967, anti-sodomy laws in the UK began to be repealed, which meant the necessity of Polari significantly decreased.

A Julian and Sandy sketch from Round the Horne.

By the 1970s, Polari had fallen so out of favor that the gay magazine Lunch called it “ghettoising”. By 2000, when Paul Baker of Lancaster University surveyed 800 gay men, roughly half of them had never even heard of Polari. But Baker was just ahead of a resurgence of interest — a curiosity from both linguistic scholars and from queer people looking at their own history. In 2003, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, collaborating with Tim Greening-Jackson (AKA Sister Matic de Bauchery) created a Polari translation of the Bible. Although it’s available online (see that link in the previous sentence!) a leatherbound copy was displayed in a glass case at John Rylands Library in Manchester. In 2012, that copy was read aloud in the world’s longest reading of the Polari Bible — performed at a Manchester art gallery.

Despite being essentially a dead language, the more recent ties to religion have stirred up a lot of controversy. In 2017, Wescott House — a college that trains priests for the Church of England — held an evensong entirely in Polari, led by trainees from the college. The intent, according to the trainees, was to sort of “queerify” their evening prayer service, to make room within their faith for queer people. That’s a noble intent, but of course not everyone appreciated the way it was done (particularly because in Polari, “the Lord” translates to “the Duchess”) and ultimately the Church of England issued a public apology calling the event “hugely regrettable.”

Although it’s technically considered a dead language, there are some words and phrases that were definitely part of the Polari vocabulary that we still commonly use today — “drag” and “trade” are still part of our popular slang with their meanings virtually unchanged, “zhoosh” meaning “to style”, most recently popularized by Carson Kressley in the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy television series. Polari was a constantly changing language, and as such it’s difficult to research and there’s no complete dictionary of terms anywhere. I think that makes it more important to preserve the words we still know were used — so I am going to try to make a complete dictionary for this site. Stay tuned!

Robert Culliford

Arr, me hearties! Let me spin ye a yarn about some high seas homosexuality! Okay, I’m giving up on talking like a pirate. Too much of a land lubber, I guess! But we’re still going to talk about pirates. I’ll admit, I’ve been on a little bit of a “Golden Age of Piracy” kick and why not? Pirates are fantastic — swashbuckling adventurers, sailing across the ocean! And the thing is….they’re also pretty queer. Like, queer coded in movies and such, I mean.

But it turns out, pirates were actually pretty queer. A lot of it can certainly be chalked up to “situational homosexuality” — so much so that in 1645 the governor of Tortuga imported 1,650 prostitutes so that he could get the pirate men to sleep with women — but that certainly doesn’t explain all of it. For example, pirates also had something called “matelotage” which was essentially same-sex marriage. Now, there’s a lot of debate about whether or not matelots were sexual but its generally agreed that at least some of them definitely were. And even those that weren’t were very much like marriage, in terms of legal rights. If you died, your matelot got all of your share of the plunder, and any death benefits a captain might have offered to his crew. If you moved to a different ship, your matelot went with you. And matelots were frequently symbolized by gold rings worn by both parties. I mean, I know married couples that don’t sound this married.

Captain Robert Culliford

Many pirate captains kept excellent records. Unfortunately, that’s excellent records of their plunder and not so much of crew relationships. Nevertheless, we do know something about a relationship between two pirates: that of Captains Robert Culliford and John Swann.

Culliford was born in England sometime around the year 1666. By 1689, he had found himself a member of the crew of the French privateer crew of the Sainte Rose. He was one of seven British people aboard — including William Kidd and Samuel Burgess. After they heard word that there was a war going on (the Nine Years War or — as it was called then the War of the Grand Alliance), the crew staged a mutiny and wrested control of the ship from its captain, Jean Fantin. Kidd was elected captain and the ship was renamed the Blessed William. If that less-than-subtle name change made you a little irritated, try living on the ship. It must not have been particularly awesome (despite making a whole lot money in privateering) because a year later, in 1690, Culliford led another mutiny against Kidd. Afterwards, William Mason was elected captain.

Mason and his crew (Culliford included) did some fairly standard piracy in the Caribbean — you know, attacking towns and ships and stealing booty. Then they scooted up the coast of North America to sell their ill-gotten gains in New York. While they were there, Mason procured a letter of marque from the acting governor Jacob Leisler — basically, giving them official permission to engage in piracy. (Which made them “privateers” not pirates.) So they sailed up to ransack two French-Canadian towns…but like, officially, on behalf of New York, and then they captured a French ship called L’Esperance.

Mason gave L’Esperance to Culliford, officially making him a pirate — I’m sorry, privateer — captain. He renamed the ship the Horne Frigate because nothing says “this is my first boat” like putting the type of ship it is in the name of the ship. The ship didn’t stay in his command long, and the two ketches that were carrying most of Mason and Culliford’s loot ended up getting attacked and stolen by French privateers. Mason and Culliford ended up having to return pretty much empty-handed to New York aboard a different French ship they managed to steal, the Jacob. In December of 1690, Mason and his crew — with Culliford now serving as quartermaster — left New York aboard the Jacob once more.

By 1692, the Jacob had made its way to India. They robbed the people of Mangrol in the state of Gujarati, but the authorities were not putting up with this at all. Culliford and seventeen of his crewmates were captured and held in a Gujarati prison. Culliford was held there for four years before he made his escape, with a handful of his comrades. They made it to Bombay, and signed onto the crew of an East India Company ship called the Josiah. The ship made it as far as Madras (still in India — not far at all!) before Culliford led his crewmates in hijacking the ship. They sailed for the Bay of Bengal, and began engaging in piracy again.

Unfortunately for Culliford, most of the crew of the East India Company ship liked, y’know, not being pirates. So they retook the ship and left him stranded on an island near the Nicobar Islands. Ralph Stout, captaining the Mocha, found Culliford and rescued him. He was dead within the year and Culliford became captain of his ship. (Half the reports on his death say he was killed by natives of the Laccadive Islands, and half of them say he was killed by his crew when he said he wanted to retire from piracy. I’m not saying I’m suspicious, but I am going to point out that Culliford had mutinied before. Draw your own conclusions.) After this point, the ship is sometimes still called the Mocha and sometimes is called the Resolution so Culliford may have changed the name, but I can’t tell you for sure when that happened. I think the reason for the inconsistent use of the name Resolution is because there was another pirate ship sailing around in other parts of the world with the same name — but that ship is also totally inconsequential in regards to this article, so I’m going to take to calling the ship by its new name that doesn’t make me want a coffee.

Culliford sailed alongside the Charming Mary for a time, but ultimately Culliford broke off the partnership to go ransack ships on his own. That was going fine, until he set out to loot the British ship the Dorill. The Dorill, however, was not some defenseless ship and instead opened fire and broke off the Resolution‘s main mast. Culliford turned tail and headed for Île Sainte-Marie off the coast of Madagascar to lick his wounds — on the way, he still managed to plunder a French ship for a cargo worth £2,000 (which, according to my sources, would be over 400,000 American dollars today) despite his ship being fairly crippled and only having a crew of about twenty people.

Anyways, by this point Captain Kidd had turned from piracy into pirate hunting. And he also headed to Île Sainte-Marie, knowing it sometimes served as a refuge for pirates. He found Culliford there — and I’m sure he was delighted, given their history. There’s two differing accounts of what happened next: in one account, Kidd made peaceful overtures towards Culliford — acting as though he still considered him a brother, trying to lull him into a false sense of security. In the other account, Kidd thought that Culliford had a full crew and hid from him until two more ships full of reinforcements arrived. Kidd’s crew jumped ship (literally) to join Culliford’s crew. (The score is now Culliford: 2; Kidd: 0.)

This new, large crew set off in June of 1698 to leave Kidd, his thirteen remaining crewmen, and his ship (which had been ransacked of anything worth value) abandoned on Île Sainte-Marie. Culliford joined forces with Captains Dirk Chivers and Joseph Wheeler and in September they took down the ship the Great Mohammed in the Red Sea — taking for themselves treasure worth £130,000 (which is the equivalent of over 23 and a half million US dollars today.) Captain Nathaniel North of the Pelican also claimed to take part in this, but the other three captains refused to share the plunder stating that he and his crew hadn’t actually participated. Afterwards, Culliford and his allies parted ways, with the Resolution heading back to Île Sainte-Marie (and taking down another ship on the way).

Either because of his now pretty incredible wealth, or because he was seriously wanted at this point, Culliford decided to lay low and settle down on Île Sainte-Marie. Living with him, as his consort, was the little-known, pretty much inconsequential pirate captain John Swann. (See, we got to him eventually!)

Now, okay, here’s the thing. So John Swann was — in my opinion — undoubtedly Culliford’s lover. But that is — of course, as always — a matter of some debate. Swann is referred to as a “great consort” of Culliford’s in the deposition of a pirate named Theophilus Turner. Now, “consort” was also used to refer to pirate captains or crew that sailed together on separate ships, so lots of historians insist that no, this was just a platonic relationship. I don’t think that’s what “consort” means in this context for a few reasons — first of all, in that definition of consort, Culliford’s “great consorts” would be Chivers and Wheeler who helped him against the Great Mohammed. A score for which Swann was not present. Secondly, Swann and Culliford weren’t sailing together, they were literally settling down on land together. And, in fact, Swann was retiring from piracy altogether. So, while I agree that in piracy terms, “consort” doesn’t always mean lovers, I just don’t see the other use of the term applying here.

A number of Culliford’s crew left Île Sainte-Marie to go settle in Nassau. Swann may have been among them, traveling under the alias “Paul Swan.” Which is, frankly, a pretty terrible alias. Other testimonies, which I’m more inclined to believe, claim that Swann was still on the island when four British warships arrived, offering royal pardons to all of the pirates there. Swann and Culliford both accepted, and then made their way to Barbados where they parted ways. At that point, Culliford decided to return to the open sea and headed back to the Indian Ocean. He was arrested shortly thereafter, and sent to Marshalsea Prison in London. His royal pardon was promptly thrown out because the ransacking of the Great Mohammed was, apparently, not actually included in the pardon he’d received (tricky legal loopholes, I guess) and he was all set to be hanged from the neck until dead….until Captain Samuel Burgess — former crewmember of Captain William Kidd — was arrested. Culliford testified against Burgess in exchange for a pardon, and then completely disappeared. Rumors indicate he may have settled in Boston, Massachusetts, though that has never been confirmed.

With both Swann and Culliford dropping off the grid, this story leaves us with more questions than it answers. But I think the best question we can ask is….why isn’t this a movie yet?

Brief Hiatus

I want to apologize for the lack of posts the last couple of weeks, my computer is….let’s just not cooperating (I’m writing this on my phone which is not ideal) So I’ve had to order a new one. There will be new posts once that’s here!

In the meantime it is not an expense I was expecting so I’ve added a donate button on the sidebar just for the time being — if anyone wants to help offset that cost, I’d be very appreciative!

Thank you all for your understanding!

Wei Ling Gong & the Bitten Peach

Elio (Timothée Chalamet) trying to stop Oliver (Armie Hammer) from biting his peach in Call Me by Your Name

You’ve seen 2017’s Call Me by Your Name, right? Or at least read the book that came out in 2007? Okay, even if you haven’t I’m sure you’ve heard about the peach scene — it’s famous. Or infamous, I guess. So, if you haven’t, basically the gist is that Elio (played by Timothée Chalamet) masturbates into a peach, and then his like brand-spanking new lover Oliver (played by Armie Hammer) goes to eat it, and then they fight, and then they cry and…anyways, it’s emotional and sexy and kind of silly, and a lot of things all at once but it is for sure very gay. I don’t know if André Aciman, who wrote the original book, even knew exactly how gay. I can’t tell you if he knew that “pleasure of the bitten peach” was a euphemism for gay love in ancient China….but I can tell you that it was. And, of course, I can tell you how that came to be.

Lacquer painting of Duke Ling and a princess consort

Our story starts with a young man named Yuan who was the son of Wei Xiang Gong — or Duke Xiang of Wey — and a low-ranking concubine. So low-ranking I can’t find any trace of his mother’s name. Anyways, Xiang dies without saying which of his kids from which of his concubines is his heir apparent. One of the lords, Kong Zhengchi, conferred with oracles of I Ching and with a spirit, and determined that the next reigning duke (or gong) should be Yuan. So, Yuan rose to power and took the name Wei Ling Gong or Duke Ling of Wey in 535 BCE. (Like I said, literally ancient.)

The only real major event I can find during his reign was a rebellion in 522 CE, caused by his brother Gongmen Zhi being awful and abusing his power. The rebellion was led by some members of his court named Qi Bao, Beigong Xi, and Chu Shipu and was successful enough that Ling fled to Siniao. While he was in this exile, Ling admitted to not being a very good ruler. Guess that’s kind of a fair assessment of things.

Now, Ling appears in Chapter 15 of the Analects of Confucius, asking Confucius for military tactics. Presumably that was because of this admission. (Of course, Confucius doesn’t know about battlefield strategy, and like, why would he? Of all the people to ask….) Anyways, Ling got to go home and continue being a not very good ruler because one of Beigong Xi’s people accidentally assassinated Qi Bao and ended the rebellion. Oops. Ling continued ruling as duke of the state of Wei until his death in 493 BCE.

Over the course of this 42 year reign, Ling married a woman named Nanzi and they had a few sons together. Ling also, reportedly, had a male lover named Mizi Xia. Unlike Ling, who we have actual historical records of, Mizi Xia’s existence is first recorded in Han Feizi by the philosopher Han Fei — so take this story with a grain of salt. Especially since Han Fei wasn’t even born until a little over 200 years later — about 280 BCE.

Mizi Xia had to have been very attractive. Like, I guess the kind of attractive where nothing they do matters, they’re perfect, you’ll never say anything bad about them. Because they shut off your brain. We’ve all seen people like that — at least on Instagram, right? So, when Mizi Xia found out his mother was sick, he forged permission from Ling to take the duke’s carriage so he could get to her quickly. Totally understandable but also totally, y’know, illegal. But Ling was just delighted about it, praised Mizi Xia for his loyalty to his mom, and then — in some versions — gave him blanket permission to take the carriage whenever.

On another occasion — and pay attention here because this part is like the actual main focus of this whole post — Mizi Xia was eating a peach that was apparently just super super delicious and decided to give half of it to Ling. And the duke thought this was the sweetest thing. Which I kinda get, like that’s cute right? Sharing your food? Adorable.

Anyways, time went by and Mizi Xia did the unthinkable — he started to age. As his looks went, Ling suddenly found all of this was not so cute after all. He accused Mizi Xia of stealing the carriage, and claimed that he had insulted the duke by giving him a half-eaten peach. Which are both, y’know, kind of valid ways of looking at the situation if that’s how you’d looked at them at first. Kinda late to change your mind, right? Well, not if you’re the duke. (It’s good to be the duke.)

Anyways, Han Fei wrote this story as a warning about how fickle nobility could be, and how you should be wary about getting too close to your rulers. I can also see it being a story about how you shouldn’t rely too heavily on your looks to get what you want. But that is not how it got interpreted by…..well, pretty much anyone else. Everyone pretty much just focused on the part where they shared the peach and Mizi Xia’s name, along with the “bitten peach” became a poetic turn of phrase for homosexuality — showing up in the works of Ruan Ji, and later Liu Zun. Liu Zun’s poem even states “Love of the half eaten peach never dies” which makes it pretty clear that they did not finish reading the story.

Mizi Xia is even cited as a famous homosexual in the document “Poetical Essay on the Supreme Joy” by Bai Xingjian. (I’ll give you a hint what the “Supreme Joy” is — it’s sex. Like all kinds of sex. Every kind of sex, everywhere.) In the part of this document focusing on gay sex, Bai Xingjian cites a bunch of other ancient Chinese homosexual relationships from legends and historical documents from all over China. This was written some time shortly after the year 700 CE but the references make it clear that all of these names and stories would have been at least recognizable to his readers, if not well known.

Even as late as the 12th century, Mizi Xia’s name was used as a symbol of homosexuality — however, negative attitudes towards male prostitution and the “passive role” (bottoms) in gay sex were beginning to become pervasive — it’s believed that was the result of backlash to male prostitutes becoming increasingly common in China at the time. Mizi Xia was referred to in a pretty derogatory manner by author Zhu Yu — who believed Mizi Xia was a prominent example a male prostitute, that he’d sold his body to Ling for influence in the court and material possessions. And, of course, everyone assumes that Mizi Xia was the bottom. (Which makes a certain amount of sense if you consider what we all use that peach emoji for.)

These negative connotations only increased as Western attitudes about homosexuality and gender roles infiltrated China, and when the Qing dynasty rose to prominence gender roles became quite strict. The name Mizi Xia all but vanished from China until the 20th century, and even then it only appeared in obscure literature and literature about China written by Westerners (such as Sexual Life in Ancient China by Robert van Gulik). Meanwhile, the phrase “the pleasures of the bitten peach” became something of a code word, a euphemism, known primarily to a queer community that was being driven underground.

These days, the Bitten Peach is probably best known as a queer pan-Asian cabaret based in the United Kingdom. You can find them on Instagram and you really should. So, the next time you’re dropping that peach emoji on Grindr….just remember you’re continuing a grand tradition that goes back a lot further than Call Me by Your Name. And if you happen to be sending that emoji to a duke….try to stay pretty.

Sydney Cliff Murders

Queer history, as we all know, can be difficult to track down. Sometimes that’s because the language we use now didn’t exist, so it’s hard to identify queer people. Sometimes it’s because people actively tried to suppress the information. And sometimes, unfortunately, its because no one was paying attention. The Sydney Cliff Murders are one such instance — even today, this doesn’t even have a half-assed Wikipedia page. (Yet. I’m betting that will change after this though. Fingers crossed anyways.)

The Sydney Cliff murders were a string of murders from the 80’s through the 90’s against gay men in the of Sydney, Australia which may have had as many as 90 victims — primarily in Marks Park at the top of the Bondi Beach cliffs, which was a popular cruising spot for gay men, but also in some other areas that were popular “gay beats”. The police hardly ever investigated the crime scenes, just took a cursory glances and declared them suicides or accidents. Those weren’t totally off-the-wall or impossible suggestions, but let’s be honest: the police would have actually investigated them anyways if it weren’t for who the victims were and where the victims were. According to retired High Court justice Michael Kirby, the police viewed gay men as low level criminals (even though sodomy was decriminalized there in 1984) and thought that homosexuals should pretty much expect to be hurt or killed.

But it wasn’t a rash of suicides plaguing the gay community of Sydney. It was murder. And, no, it wasn’t a serial killer on the loose or anything nearly that dramatic — it was groups of violent, homophonic teenagers who knew that crimes against gay men would never be taken seriously by the police. For the most part they were right — only a handful were arrested for the murders specifically, though a number were arrested for other crimes and then later were discovered to have been involved in a murder at Bondi Beach. “Poofter bashing,” as it was called, was something of a sport.

The earliest one of these deaths that I can find is that of David Williams. He was found, naked, at the bottom of the cliffs in the area of Manly. His clothes were neatly folded at the top of the cliffs. No investigation was made, no coroner made any report about his body.

Steve and Scott Johnson

Scott Johnson was a 27 year-old American “brilliant” mathematician (some of us can do math! Not me, but….some of us!) who had graduated the University of Cambridge and moved to Sydney in 1986 to be with his partner Michael Noone. He had applied for permanent residency and had nearly completed his PhD at the Australian National University by the end of 1988, when his naked body was found at the bottom of the North Head Cliffs in Manly. His clothes were in a folded pile, with his student ID, a ten dollar bill, and his watch nestled on top of them. Police called it a suicide. Neither Michael Noone or Scott’s brother Steve believed that for a minute and made sure the police of New South Wales knew it.

On July 22, the following year, Ross Warren — a discreet but not exactly closeted television news anchor — disappeared. His car was found near Marks Park, and his keys were found in rocks at the top of the cliffs. Police reasoned he must have accidentally fallen off the cliff into the water, and on July 28 they announced they expected his body would wash up soon. It didn’t. Nevertheless, police declared that his death had been accidental, there was no foul play, and he also hadn’t faked his death. His mother Kay began writing frequently to the police, insisting they actually investigate his disappearance. Warren’s body has still never been found.

On November 23 of 1989, John Russell — a local Sydney bartender — was found dead at the bottom of the cliffs on the Bondi Beach side of Marks Park. Police investigated enough to discover he had a high concentration of alcohol in his system, and ruled he had accidentally fallen off the cliff. Not quite a month later, on December 18, Alan Boxsell was attacked by a group of teenagers in Marks Park. He managed to flee his assailants and even, surprisingly, reported the attack to the police. He identified some of the bashers. Days later on December 21, David McMahon was assaulted by a group of teenagers in almost the same place where Russell would have fallen from — one of the attackers even suggesting “Let’s throw him off where we threw the other one off.” McMahon managed to escape, and identified some of his assailants to police. Some of them were the same people identified by Boxsell. None of them were arrested due to a “lack of evidence.”

In 1990, a Thai man named Krichakorn Rattanajurathaporn was attacked with a hammer and knocked off the cliff. This one — as a nice change — was investigated and three teenagers were arrested. They would be known as the “Tamarama Three.” Despite the fact that one of those teenagers was reported saying to the police “The easiest thing with a cliff is just herding them over the edge” the police didn’t begin investigating the rash of murders.

Five months later, in December of 1990, eight boys discovered a phone number written in the toilets in Alexandria Park, and used it to lure Richard Johnson to the park after dark. There, they beat him to death. The eight boys — who would be called the “Alexandria Eight” were arrested and eventually convicted of the crime. Homicide detective Steve McCann secretly recorded conversations the boys had with each other and other inmates — they bragged about killing gay men at the cliffs at Bondi Beach. Despite this, only McCann was interested in looking into the deaths of gay men in that area. His investigation was hampered by resistance from his fellow police officers. He turned to lawyer, and official liaison between the New South Wales police and the gay community, Sue Thompson for help but even so there was only so much they could do. Through their investigation they learned that “poofter bashing” was something of a widespread sport — a gang of at least thirty teenage boys and girls, called the “Bondi Boys” frequently engaged in it as a form of initiation.

As an aside, there’s a lot of victims or possible victims here. I could not talk about them all while also talking about the police action (or lack of action, as the case may be) and keep this post to a relatively reasonable size. But I don’t want to overlook them, as so many of them have been continuously overlooked. So I am promising that there will be a follow-up post (posts?) about the victims. All 88 if I can find all of their names. I’m still making working on that list. Anyways, back to what the police were doing….

Steve Page and Sue Thompson

By 2000 — after eleven years of hearing from Kay Warren — one of her letters (which contained copies of all of her previous letters) caught the attention of the police. It was handed off to Detective Steve Page. He noticed what McCann had noticed — a lot of gay men were dying or disappearing around Marks Park. He picked up where McCann’s investigation had left off. Page was able to prove, through reenacting the scene with a dummy on December 9 2001, that John Russell was thrown from the cliff he was found at the bottom of — there was nothing accidental about his death after all. This opened the doors on many more closed “investigations” (if you can really call them that). Revisiting these cases was a major undertaking, and so it became a full-fledged project named Operation Taradale. The task force interviewed the Tamarama Three and the Alexandria Eight — all of whom denied any involvement in killing John Russell, Ross Warren, or any of the others

In 2012, at the request of Steve Johnson — now a wealthy former AOL executive — and his family, an inquest was made into the death of Scott Johnson. It was determined that the original investigation had not been thorough, and that the death should be re-investigated. As a result of this, the New South Wales police began Operation Parrabell, a review of 88 investigations into various deaths of gay men — trying to determine if the crimes should be classified as hate crimes. That list of 88 deaths is based on recommendations by Sue Thompson and criminologist Stephen Tomsen going as far back as David Warren’s death, but Parrabell met criticism — even from Sue Thompson — for their methodology. Of the 30 unsolved deaths in that list, she and Tomsen found compelling evidence of foul play in 22 cases. The Operation Parrabell task force for unsolved homicides accepted eight of those as potential anti-gay hate crimes that needed to be investigated. Those eight did not include Scott Johnson.

In 2015, another inquest into Scott Johnson’s death was made — also recommending the case be investigated again, as a homicide. In November of 2017, a third inquest formally declared that Johnson had been the victim of a hate crime. As a result, the following month a reward of one million Australian dollars was offered by the Australian government for any information leading to conviction. With no information forthcoming, the Johnson family doubled the reward in March 2020 — and in May, a man named Scott Price was finally arrested for the murder of Scott Johnson.

These cases inspired a television miniseries in Australia called Deep Water. A documentary was also made that year, to go alongside the fictionalized show, called Deep Water: The Real Story.

As of now, 22 of the Sydney cliff murders remain unsolved. A parliamentary inquiry regarding the New South Wales police’s response to hate crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals in Sydney between 1970 and 2010 is currently underway. We may never see justice for all of those many queer individuals who were lost in these murders, but I take some comfort in knowing that, finally, there are at least some people who are trying.

William Dorsey Swann

Okay, I’m going to admit that I just learned about this one this week and I’m pretty excited about it. Almost all of the information available comes from two — Channing Gerard Joseph, who is writing a book The House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens about this topic but the book isn’t out yet, and Netisha Currie — who dipped into some archives to verify the story. What I’m saying is, I’m not going to pretend to have one hundred percent of the information. Just wanted to throw that disclaimer out there first. I was really going to wait for the book to come out but, like, I’m kinda too excited to wait until it comes out next year and then I read it to tell you about this.

So, today we’re talking about William Dorsey Swann. Swann was born somewhere in Maryland sometime around 1858. He was a slave in Hancock, Maryland for the first several years of his life — because Maryland was not part of the Confederacy, their slaves weren’t freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and Maryland didn’t free its own slaves until 1864, only a couple of months before the 13th Amendment was ratified. Swann was thankfully freed before then — thanks to the intervention of Union soldiers. Swann is known to have developed friendships with other queer former slaves, including Pierce Lafayette and Felix Hall, two formers slaves who are documented to have been in a relationship.

By the 1880s, Swann had moved to Washington D.C. In 1882, he was arrested for stealing books from the Washington Library Company and from Henry and Sara Spencer — who employed Swann at the Spencerian Business College. Swann pled guilty and was sentenced to six months in jail. In October, having served only one month of his sentence, Henry and Sara Spencer petitioned President Chester A. Arthur to pardon Swann. Both the judge who had sentenced him and the assistant US District Attorney even supported the petition — pointing out that the theft of books was only an effort to educate himself. It’s unknown if the pardon was granted.

At some point in the 1880s — before or after his previous arrest we’ll never know — he began hosting what we would now call drag balls, of the sort that had begun in Harlem in 1867 with the Annual Odd Fellows Ball. Of course, those balls — while not, perhaps “acceptable” were charity events hosted by relatively wealthy, elite African Americans who could get away with things that poor freed slaves could not. Swann himself was regularly dressing in fabulous gowns, which his brother made, and calling himself “the queen of drag” — well before the term “drag” was being used much outside of theaters and certainly before the term “drag queen” was coined (which doesn’t become popular until the 1920’s). Swann was arrested at one of these balls in January of 1887 — which had both black and white guests in drag. Even so, Swann wasn’t exactly breaking new, unheard of ground, but was definitely pushing at its edges.

Excerpt from The Washington Post
The Evening Star
The Washington Critic

Until April 12, 1888. One of Swann’s balls was held in a two-story home near the corner of 12th St and F St. And it was raided by police. The guests made a mad dash for the exits — but Swann made a charge for the police themselves. He was supposedly a large, imposing man who — that night — is described as having worn a cream-color satin gown. Swann physically fought the police to prevent them from entering — with no success. This was, however, one of the first times queer people fought back against police oppression.

13 black men, including Swann, were arrested, charged with “being suspicious characters” and made to pay fines or spend 30 days in jail. Their names were published in various papers – although those lists of names weren’t the same in every paper so that’s a fun mystery for someone else to solve. The list of names that were the same in every paper were: William Dorsey, John Smith, Jacob Byard, Charles Myers, Samuel Jackson, James Waters, James Howard or Laura Howard, James Taylor, and Benjamin Moore. Some papers also listed Jacob Lewis, Samuel Lewis, Lewis Jackson and Albert Lee. Nearly all of those arrested made bail — Swann was bailed out by his employer. This was reported in both The Washington Post, The Washington Critic, and The Evening Star on April 13. The Washington Critic, notably, called the event a “drag party” which may have been one of the earliest uses of that phrase.

Swann managed to avoid having any of his balls raided again until New Years Eve of 1895. That ball was barely starting when police came in — they arrested Swann and three of his black guests — letting his three white guests go, although they were later summoned as witnesses. The three black guests were charged with vangrancy but Swann was charged with “running a disorderly house” — that’s a term I’ve talked about before, but essentially it means they were accusing him of running a brothel. The witnesses testified that they had danced and drank alcohol — hardly damning, I don’t think, but it also didn’t exactly help. Swann was sentenced to ten months imprisonment — the judge didn’t think that was enough and stated: “I would like to send you where you would never again see a man’s face, and would then like to rid the city of all other disreputable persons of the same kind.”

The trial went by very quickly — Swann was convicted three days after being arrested. Three months into serving his sentence, he decided (correctly) this whole thing was unjust and that there was something that could be done about it. He filed a petition for pardon with President Grover Cleveland. He stated that he would never engage in the crime again, that he was a hard worker and an upstanding member of the community. Thirty of his friends signed the petition. However, the US District Attorney, A.A. Birney, was not on board this time, writing: “This petition is wholly without merit. While the charge of keeping a disorderly house does not on its face differ from other cases in which milder sentences have been imposed, the prisoner was in fact convicted of the most horrible and disgusting offences known to the law; an offence so disgusting that it is unnamed. This is not the first time that the prisoner has been convicted of this crime, and his evil example in the community must have been most corrupting.”

In July, Swann’s friends began pushing harder — stating that conditions in jail were bad for his health. I don’t know if these claims were true, but a doctor who had examined Swann in March and said he was healthy diagnosed him with a heart condition in July, claiming that being held in prison could potentially be deadly. Now, knowing who Grover Cleveland’s sister was, one might imagine he would be somewhat sympathetic to the plight of queer people in the US. One would be very wrong. Grover officially denied the pardon on July 29, 1896 — proclaiming that the concerns for Swann’s health did not outweigh the “character of the offense.”

Although the petition was unsuccessful, this does mark the first time in the history of the United States that anyone attempted to take legal action to defend the rights of LGBTQ+ people to assemble. Swann did survive the prison sentence, but retired from drag (unsurprisingly, I would say). His brother continued making dresses for men who wanted to participate in drag balls, which were a tradition that continues even today.

Mr. Brown, NOT William Dorsey Swann

Sadly, there’s no actual images of Swann — he often gets paired up with pictures of this incredible drag performers but this is actually Mr. Brown from the Vaudeville duo Gregory and Brown, who introduced the “cake walk” dance to the world. That’s no small thing either but it is a story for another day.

Fernanda Fernandez

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of fairly recent events and people in LGBTQIA+ history — heck, I just wrote about two people who are still alive. In a row! So, to veer away from people with Instagram accounts, I’ve decided to go much further back. After all, one of the reasons I’m doing this is to detail queer history back to the beginning of human history. I’m not going quite that far back today though.

Fernandez is not by any means the first intersex person in the world — intersex people appear in Sumerian mythology that predates written language and is consistently mentioned as being a thing that exists in virtually all societies thereafter. But Fernandez is one of the earliest intersex people who’s name has survived in records to today.

There are no pictures of Fernanda Fernandez so here’s a picture of Capuchin nuns that I borrowed from Wikipedia.

Now, Fernanda Fernandez was born in 1755 in either Baza or Zújar — but definitely in Granada in Spain. There is nothing written or discussed about her childhood up until she took her vows to become a nun of the Capuchin Poor Clares in April of 1774 — at which time she was either seventeen or eighteen, depending on who you ask. It really depends on what month she was born in, but there doesn’t seem to be any decisive record of that.

In 1787, Fernandez began noticing that she appeared to be becoming more masculine in some ways and was starting to get sinful lustful feelings for her fellow nuns. Fernandez was a devout believer, was not trying to rock the boat, and just wanted to do right by society and God. So she reported it and asked to be separated from the other nuns. At first, everyone assumed she was going crazy. Nobody did anything.

Worried she wouldn’t be able to resist the temptations she was feeling, she started actively avoiding the other nuns. She also started a routine of strict penitence, flagellating herself spiked chains. (I guess there is kind of a case to be made that she was going crazy, but it’s probably only because people thought she was going crazy.) Doctors, to help her deal with the craziness, prescribed regular bloodletting. Let’s just take a moment to be thankful that nowadays, doctors who incorrectly think someone is going crazy usually just prescribe pills.

Within the next several years, Fernandez started becoming visibly more masculine. So an investigation was begun. She was isolated from the rest of the nuns. Doctors were called in, theologians, even the archbishop. She explained again what was happening, but this time they actually listened (kind of). A midwife examined her and discovered what she’d been telling everyone all along — that she was developing male characteristics. Including a functional, albeit small, penis. They declared her a man and took steps to make that declaration formal and legally binding.

On January 21, 1792 Fernandez was expelled from the nunnery — technically, this is what she’d asked for back in 1787, but she certainly wasn’t happy about it. She actually liked being a nun. On February 11, she was formally released from her vows and sent back to her parents, who were definitely living in Zújar at that time. (What’s kind of amazing is, this is all pretty well documented except for like who are the parents?) She was forced to change her name to “Fernando” and required to begin wearing exclusively male clothes. Despite this, she continued to occupy her time with the duties and skills of women of the time, and missed her life in the nunnery. Nothing else is recorded about her after 1792, so it’s a little tough to say, but it seems like she identified as a woman, and was likely pretty freaked out about growing a penis in her twenties. I’m sure none of what she went through helped with that.

What’s interesting is the follow-up. There are other cases in Europe and even Spain where medical examinations revealed similar findings, and it was argued that the person in question was committing fraud, pretending to be something they weren’t, and had always been the sex that was uncovered. But no such arguments were made in Fernanda’s case — it was widely acknowledged and accepted that she had been a woman and changed into a man. This is something doctors of the time widely stated was impossible. But they never denied that it happened to Fernanda Fernandez and given where medical science was at the time, that was pretty open minded of them.

Carlotta

Aside from how important queer representation in the media is, it’s also something that fascinates me. And part of that discussion, routinely, is who gets to play these characters. In an ideal world, where any queer person would be considered evenly for any role alongside cisgender and straight actors, that shouldn’t matter. But that’s not the world we live in. It stands to reason, that if transgender actors wouldn’t get considered for cisgender characters, the the reverse should be true. That’s often not the case even now. So, let’s take a moment to consider what it must have been like to be a transgender actor in the 1970’s.

Carol Byron was born in Balmain, New South Wales, Australia on September 2, 1943. She was assigned the male gender at birth and named “Richard” by a mother who ultimately abandoned her four months later, placing her child in the care of a woman named Hazel Roberts. Her new mother enjoyed teaching her song and dance routines. At eleven years old, however, her mother Evelyn came back into the picture with a new husband, and took custody of their son. This new stepfather physically abused their kid. Carol dropped out of school at 15 years old, and began working, taking a job putting makeup on mannequins and arranging the displays at David Jones. A year later, she ran away from home to avoid the abuse — but continued her job. At the age of seventeen, she took on the name Carol and began transitioning to live life as a woman.

She was arrested for crossdressing, but actually beat the charge based entirely on being flippant. Not a strategy I recommend, but when she came before the judge she asked what the “offensive behavior” was — the judge explained, dressing as a woman. And she responded, “You have a wig and robe on.” The case was dismissed.

She took on the stage name Carlotta, apparently from Empress Carlota of Mexico (who I will admit I know almost nothing about) and set about establishing herself. About this time, Lee Gordon — an promoter with a resume that included names like Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland — was opening what may have been Australia’s first drag club, the Jewel Box Revue Club in King’s Cross, Sydney. They hired Carlotta as a performer. Before too long, the club changed its name to Les Girls Restaurant and kept Carlotta on for its Les Girls caberet act. The cast was advertised as exclusively men in drag, though some — like Carlotta — were transgender women. Carlotta quickly became the star of the show. Because of that, she earned the nickname “Queen of the Cross”. Although Gordon was no longer one of the owners at this point, he continued helping Carlotta as her manager.

In 1970, she had her first film appearance — credited as appearing as herself in a movie called The Naked Bunyip. This wasn’t exactly a big break, but it did open some doors. The movie was, apparently, fairly influential. One of those doors was for her to be cast as Miss Robyn Ross on a show called Number 96 — a show that had already broken ground with gay character Don Finlayson (played by Joe Hasham) the year before. The character of Robyn Ross was the new girlfriend of character Arnold Feather (played by Jeff Kevin), and appeared in four episodes in 1972. Ultimately, it was revealed that she was a transsexual showgirl — a fact which led to the end of the romance, and the end of her storyline on the series. Here’s her “coming out” scene — the language is, obviously, not what we would currently use. To keep this scene, and the end of this storyline a surprise, her scenes were all shot on a closed set and she was initially credited as “Carolle Lea“.

Four episodes, of course, doesn’t seem like a big deal. Especially on a soap opera, which churns out new episode practically every day. But these four episodes were a very big deal because they were the first time that a transgender person played a transgender character on television anywhere in the world.

Afterwards Carlotta decided to undergo sex reassignment surgery (also known, now, as a gender confirmation surgery). Prior to the surgery, a board attempted to cure her — putting her through torturous testing including electric shock therapy on her, though she tore the wires off of her. She also, reportedly, threw a shoe at the doctors engaging in the tests. The feisty outburst worked and she was able to get the surgery. She was not, as is sometimes reported, the first person in Australia to have the procedure. She was, however, the first person in Australia that was publicly reported as having the procedure.

Some time afterwards, she was invited to do a drag performance in London. She jumped at the opportunity, the show was hugely successful, but found she didn’t enjoy it and soon returned to Australia. Where she married a guy who’s name is nowhere to be found but since I see some places where her name is reported as Carol Spencer so I’m guessing his last name was Spencer. She tried out a life of “domestic bliss” as a housewife, but it doesn’t last too long.

Carlotta at the Les Girls 25th anniversary show in 1988

Carlotta showed up on film again in 1982 playing Ron in a movie called Dead Easy. I don’t know if that character was transgender or not, it’s a fairly minor role and I haven’t seen the film.

In 1987, she toured New Zealand with a touring production of Les Girls. Short after that, her marriage ended — she left him so that he could have the opportunity to become a parent. So she resumed working at Les Girls until 1992. With her off and on career with them, she had performed with them for an impressive 26 years.

In 1994, she published her first book — He Did it her Way: The Legend of Les Girls with James Cockington. That was the same year the iconic movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was released. Carlotta was one of the inspirations behind the movie — and it, in turn, inspired her. She attempted to start her own show: Carlotta & Her Beautiful Boys which launched in 1996. This was a popular show but not a financial success and ended up bankrupting her after three years.

But Carlotta is not a woman who can be kept down. In 1997, she began appearing as a recurring panelist on the show Beauty and the Beast. (I’m linking to the Wikipedia page on this one because, personally, I was a little confused when that didn’t have to do with fairy tales and talking furniture.) On the show, the panelists answer letters from viewers and Carlotta’s life up to that point made her invaluable to the show. Kids, particularly queer kids, from all over Australia wrote the show specifically in the hopes of getting her advice. Here’s a clip of her on the show in 2001 (not talking about queer issues though, I can’t find any clips of that.)

She was popular on Beauty and the Beast and that led her to more appearances as a television personality. In 2003, she appeared on the short-lived comedy talk show Greeks on the Roof. She also published another book, entitled Carlotta: I’m not that Kind of Girl. Two years later, Carlotta launched a show that was a half-million dollar production based on her recent book Carlotta’s KingsX. She subsequently appeared on Good Morning Australia and on the music quiz show Spicks and Specks.

Carlotta’s portrait in the Australian National Portrait Gallery

Also in 2005, the cast of The Naked Bunyip reunited for a short video “In a Funny Sort of Way” which discussed the movie and its impact on Australian cinema. So, 2005 was a very busy year for Carlotta. In 2006, she appeared in four episodes of the documentary series 20 to 1. That was also the year that Australian National Portrait Gallery purchased a portrait of Carlotta and incorporated it into their collection.

Carlotta later launched a touring one-woman show called Carlotta: Live and Intimate. In 2013, she began appearing as a regular guest panelist on the morning news show Studio 10. The following year, a made-for-TV movie about her life was made called Carlotta. The film was criticized for only hinting at the harsher parts of Carlotta’s life as a transgender woman. Carlotta was played by cisgender actor Jessica Marais and while I would like to criticize that choice, but Carlotta was actually involved in the casting.

Carlotta and a young fan in 2019

In 2018, she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Her doctors caught it early, performed surgery, and she made a full recovery and jumped right back into her career. In 2019, she continued touring with her musical revue Carlotta: Queen of the Cross which features a wide variety of music, especially from other queer artists like Peter Allen (whom she had been friends with) and Stephen Sondheim.

On January 26, 2020 she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to the LGBTQ+ community and to the performing arts. Although this is the most recent and most impressive recognition Carlotta has received for her decades of work, she’s also been recognized with the King’s Cross Award, the Drag Industry Variety Award (in 1997) and a Australian Club Entertainment Lifetime Achievement Award (in 2018). That last one may have to get given to her again, as Carlotta is still performing, and no doubt has much more that she will achieve.