Thursday, 30 May 2013

A Trio of Asia-Pacific Scientists

As promised, here is my tribute to lgbt scientists of Asia-Pacific heritage who are trying to discover more about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Keeping with the Ology of the Month and providing the Molecule of the Week I’ll start with Dr. Benny Chan, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the College of New Jersey. The reason I haven’t done a Molecule of the Week illustration is because the molecule in question has such a long name that it won’t fit – dodacapotassium hexaniobium pentatriacontaselenide, or K12Nb6Se35.3 (don’t bother trying to pronounce it unless you’re into chemistry!). This molecule or compound, along with hexacaesium tetraniobium docosaselenide (C6Nb4Se22), was discovered by Dr. Chan in 2007.

Chan’s research involves looking for superconductors that operate at room temperature, and it was while doing this research that the two new compounds emerged. Studying the compound’s crystal structures may hold the key to creating room-temperature superconductors.

A scientist I mentioned in January during my astronomy series is Dr. Martin Lo. He is an astro-mathematician who discovered gravitational superhighways through the solar system created by the sun and planets which make it easier to plot and operate space probe missions.

NASA’s Genesis mission, a probe sent to collect solar wind particles in 2001, used Lo’s superhighways to get to a point in the Earth’s orbit where gravitational forces between the planet and the Sun balance each other and kept the probe in place. This point is called a Lagrange Point and all planets and moons have them. Using his research Lo was also able to explain some of the unusual orbits of what are called the Jupiter family of comets.

Speaking of Jupiter and Lagrange Points brings me to my third lgbt Asian-Pacific scientist – Mike Wong.

Planets like the Earth have 2 Lagrange Points – one which precedes us and one which is behind us. They are roughly 60 degrees in angle from the Sun. The diagram shows what I mean. Both of Jupiter’s Lagrange Points are populated by hundreds of asteroids. Astronomers name these two asteroid groups after soldiers or participants in the ancient Trojan Wars. The asteroids orbiting in the Lagrange Point in front of Jupiter are members of the Greek camp, and those in the Trojan camp orbit behind Jupiter – except 2! Before astronomers decided to divide the two camps one asteroid in the Greek asteroid camp was named after a Trojan – Hektor. To balance things out astronomers decided to name one of the Trojan camp asteroids after a Greek – Patroclus. I’ll probably treat the whole groups of asteroids separately in a future Star Gayzing post. But for now I’ll concentrate on asteroid Hektor.

What Mike Wong and his colleague Frank Marchis discovered in 2006 while working with the University of California, Berkeley, was that Hektor was not one but two asteroids! Occasionally asteroids have their own moon orbiting around them, or rather orbiting around each other in what astronomers call a binary asteroid. Mike’s discovery that Hektor was actually one such binary was the first discovery of it’s kind among the thousands of Trojan/Greek asteroids.

Mike’s main research is on Jupiter itself, and in the course of his post-doctoral work at NASA he discovered the presence of ammonia ice in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Extraordinary Lives - Jack the Gay Ripper?

Can there be any serial killer more well known than Jack the Ripper? In fact, many modern serial killers are often labelled “Ripper”, the most notorious being the Yorkshire Ripper.

Is there any doubt that the fascination the world has with Jack the Ripper boils down to two things – the gruesome details of the murders, and the mysterious identity of the Ripper himself. Many people have looked at the original suspects and proposed new ones, but still the question remains – who was Jack the Ripper?

Among the original suspects was an eccentric gay “doctor” called Francis Tumblety. Before I discuss the Ripper connection I’ll give a brief life-story of Tumblety and then see what evidence has been put forward to suggest him as being the Ripper.

Francis was born in Ireland, some say in Canada to Irish parents. The family was living in the USA before 1850. Francis left home at the age of 17 and appears to have got a job as a bookseller (and probably also a porn distributor). When he moved to Detroit he exploited America’s growing craze for patent medicines by setting himself up as a qualified doctor. His only true medical experience was working as a drug store assistant as a teenager and later working as a porter in an abortion hospital.

It may have been his hospital experience which gave him a fascination for female body parts – not women, just their body parts. He was vehemently sexist and misogynistic. In particular he has a morbid fascination with the uterus and kept a large collection of them and other female body parts preserved in glass jars. One of his most eccentric traits was his joy in showing off his collection to his guests at the male-only dinners he hosted.

Like most of the self-proclaimed doctors who peddled cheap patent medicines Tumblety was no more than a quack doctor. In Boston he was accused of being responsible for the death of a patient, but he escaped prosecution (unlike that other quack doctor I mentioned two weeks ago, “Dr. Maxwell”, aka Hugh Brooks).

By 1874 Francis Tumblety was living in Liverpool, where he is said to have had a rather stormy gay relationship with a toy-boy called Hall Caine (later Sir Hall Caine, writer of popular Victorian novels).

In summer 1888 Tumblety moved to London, just before Jack the Ripper’s first official victim was murdered. He was arrested in November on charges of gross indecency with four men. He jumped bail and fled to France under an alias and eventually made his way back to America. There he lived with his sister and niece and died 110 years ago today on 28th May 1903.

So why did he end up on the Jack the Ripper suspect list?

In 1913 a senior detective from the Ripper case wrote to a journalist saying that Tumblety was once a suspect. Police knew of his political sympathies with the Fenians, an Irish nationalist movement, and thought he might cause political trouble. They watched his lodgings for several weeks. After the first Ripper murder his landlady gave the police a blood-soaked shirt from Tumblety’s otherwise tidy room. This seems to have been the point from which Tumbelty became a Ripper suspect. There were others, but there wasn’t enough evidence against any of them to make an arrest.

Opponents of the Tumblety-Ripper theory say that he doesn’t match any of the descriptions of the men last seen talking to the victims, mainly because of a photo of Tumbelty shows him sporting a huge distinctive moustache which the witnesses never mentioned. Several points here – the photo could have been taken at any time and not at the time of the murders, he could easily have trimmed his moustache for a while; and there’s no proof that the man witnesses saw talking to the victims was their murderer.

Opponents also say that Tumblety was in jail on charges of gross indecency when the last murder took place. Not so. Tumblety was bailed after his arrest and free to roam the streets of London again when the murder occurred.

Supporters of the Tumbelty theory point out that the murders began shortly after he arrived in London and ended after he fled to France. And how did he come by his collection of preserved uteruses? Opponents are not convinced that he had enough surgical expertise to commit the Ripper murders. He could have picked up some surgical knowledge from his time in the abortion hospital. Tumbelty also had a known hatred of prostitutes, much more so than his general misogyny, and the victims were working as prostitutes.

When he jumped bail Scotland Yard pursued him to America – the only time they bothered chasing anyone who was only charge with gross indecency. Why? And why did they ask New York police for a sample of his handwriting? You don’t need someone’s handwriting to charge someone with gross indecency.

The evidence for and against Francis Tumbelty is circumstantial, as it is with the other suspects. There’s lots of books and websites devoted to Jack the Ripper, so I advise you have a look at them yourself before you make up you mind. I’m not sure myself in I can call Francis Tumblety Jack the Ripper. But if he wasn’t then it’s a case of a “Life of Brian” syndrome – he seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

On Track to the Outgames - Part 6

After travelling around the world for three years the Outgames ventured onto European soil for the first time in 2009 for the 2nd World Outgames in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Copenhagen was no stranger to international lgbt sport. In 2003 it hosted the 8th EuroGames, and it is probably based on the success of those that the bid to host the 2nd World Outgames was launched. There is certainly more of a coincidental similarity between the logos of the 2003 EuroGames (below top) and the 2009 Outgames (below bottom). The 2009 games were arranged to coincide with Copenhagen Pride week.

As with previous Outgames there were three component elements – a conference, the sport, and an arts festival. The bid to host the games was submitted to the governing body, the Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association (GLISA) in early 2006. The bid was accepted and contracts signed in the following November.

The conference, which at previous Outgames had been held before the main sporting events ran simultaneously with the games for the first time. Bearing the title “Love of Freedom – Freedom to Love” the conference was held at the city’s new concert hall. It ran for three days and covered the same lgbt issues and concerns as in previous conferences though with a European focus. Key speakers included Georgina Beyer, the world’s first transsexual MP, American activist Cleve Jones, former NBA star John Amaechi, and Korean actor-comedian Hong Seok-Cheon.

The opening ceremony took place outside the city hall in the city square. A special stage was constructed for the speeches and entry of the athletes. The parade was filled with the usual colour and glitter and (unlike the Olympics) the rainbow flag, an integral part of the community, wasn’t banned. Teams from 92 nations took part with Denmark, naturally, being the biggest. There were also 22 teams consisting of just one team member. Officially there were 5,518 competing athletes.

The mayor of Copenhagen welcomed the athletes to the city and even the city’s cathedral was decked out in rainbow colours. Even a heavy downfall of rain during a performance by aerial artists failed to dampen spirits, which were high.

But the opening day was marred by a homophobic attack on three men after they left the ceremony. Two men were arrested, both of whom already had criminal records, and they were held in custody for the remainder of the Outgames. The three victims, who were treated in hospital, could not remember what happened.

A second incident during the track events also shocked the athletes. Just before the start of the 4x200 meters relay an explosive device was thrown onto the track injuring American runner Dean Koga. Two more devices were thrown during the police search which followed. Athletes decided to continue competing and not let that sort of stupidity put them off. Dean Koga was treated in hospital to remove shrapnel and received a heroic welcome back on track the next day – and he won a gold medal in the 200 meters.

What shocked people the most about the attacks was that they took place in Denmark, one of the most gay-tolerant countries in Europe. This tolerance was highlighted many times during the lgbt conference. It was even more brought into focus with the presence of Axel Axgil, now in his 90s, the surviving partner of the world’s first same-sex couple to marry legally. He appeared at several events over the course of the Outgames and received a standing ovation at the opening ceremony.

Next time I’ll take a look at the sporting competition in more detail, and at the cultural festival.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Simeon Solomon Appeal

Last November I posted a piece on the Simeon Solomon Research Archive. As I mentioned then, I’m a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Society (PRS) and have been a fan of Solomon’s work for many years.

Recently, with the Spring newsletter of the PRS, members received an appeal from Frank Vigon, an Educational Consultant who has been researching Jewish artists.

The following appeal is published with his permission, and is selected from his PRS appeal, an article he wrote for several Jewish periodicals, and a personal email.
I first came upon Simeon Solomon when I was preparing a talk on the rarity of Jewish artists throughout history. On researching his work further, my mind was blown by the breadth of his talent.

From an early age he showed clear artistic talent sketching many images from Jewish culture and Jewish biblical themes. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 18. He was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite group and was very much connected to the second phase of this group’s development. He was very much at the centre. So much so that Burne Jones said of him “Solomon was the greatest artist of us all”.

By far the youngest of the group, he was nevertheless popular in Victorian England. At the height of his fame reproductions of his works were to be found in many Victorian homes.

In the hothouse of the avant-garde circles in which he moves Solomon finds himself on the margins of society both as a Jew and as a homosexual. A significant body of his work is often seen as having homoerotic undertones which is heavily hinted at by some of his less supportive critics. Nevertheless his success as an artist compensates for the two potential areas of exclusion.

In 1874 Solomon is arrested with another man in a public toilet off Oxford Street, prosecuted and found guilty. The scandal destroys his reputation, his career and his personality. The vast majority of his friends and associates drop him. The galleries that exhibited his work every year since he was 18 refuse to show his work. At the age of 33 he drifts into poverty and alcoholism and becomes an outcast. He continues to work and produces some very fine pieces including some excellent portraits, some work on Christian themes and a significant number of symbolist paintings.

He drifts in and out of the workhouse, but his output is unreliable due to bouts of alcoholism. He spends the rest of his life in a downward spiral still producing work but shunned. He dies in St Giles workhouse in 1905. The tragedy is that he was such a gifted and talented artist whose craft both as an artist and poet ought to have earned him a more prominent place within the Pre-Raphaelite group. This is one of our most significant Jewish painters. His work deserves a reappraisal and certainly his memory deserves honouring.

Alongside is a picture of his grave in Willesden Jewish Cemetery as it now lies: abandoned, fallen tombstone with the writing effaced by time. I have talked with the cemetery and intend to raise enough money over the next few months to re-establish the headstone, lay a body stone and affix a plaque which will read “Simeon Solomon, Pre-Raphaelite artist, 1840–1905. This stone re-established by subscription in recognition of his unique gifts and talent.”

To at least do something meaningful with the grave I am now targeted at around £2500 to £3000 which should cover the reinstatement of the grave. I am still discussing with interested supporters the establishment of a living legacy.

I have the support of Dr. Carolyn Conroy of Art History Dept. at the University of York, who is an acknowledged expert on Simeon Solomon [and co-creator of the Simeon Solomon Research Archive].

I am happy to receive any amount no matter how small, every little bit of money contributes and will be equally valued. Some senior citizens at some of the talks I have given gave me small change and it was in many ways more appreciated than some of the very generous cheques that I have received.

I have now raised £1,400 from contributors and talks. Many have been in touch including a distant relative, Pam Solomon, and they now feel that it would be appropriate to have something from his artwork engraved on the stone. This in itself might be problematic as this is a Jewish Cemetery and "graven images" might not be permitted. Initially I am thinking of something from his symbolist period on the subject of "night, sleep and death" as he himself said: "Night, sleep, death and the stars, they are the themes that I love best"

But any help you can give will be very much appreciated, it is so good to know that there are now many people from the Jewish, gay and heterosexual community who are coming together to reinstate a much maligned and unjustly treated artist. This alone is a fitting tribute to his memory and talent.
Frank Vigon
I also think Simeon Solomon deserves to be respected for his work and not his sexuality and downfall. I was a fan of Solomon’s art long before I discovered anything about his life.

If you want to contribute to the appeal you can send cheques made out to “Frank Vigon (Simeon Solomon” and send it to:
122 Windmill Street
Cheshire SK11 7LB
United Kingdom

If you’d rather donate in another way I’m sure Mr Vigon will be pleased to arrange something. He has agreed to let me publish his email address if you want to contact him –

I’m thinking of getting some of my friends involved by hosting a Pre-Raphaelite fundraising party. We’ll dress up as Victorians, eat Victoria sponges, listen to Victorian music, and play Victorian parlour games. I’ll put prints of Simeon’s work on the walls. I might even have a little chalk and pastel drawing contest. My guests will be asked to make a donation to the fund and have fun at the same time.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

A Sweet Birthday Tribute

I’m a day early with the next Molecule of the Week, but I have a very good reason. Today is the birthday of my featured chemist, Dr. Carolyn Bertozzi of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

As my birthday tribute to her I have chosen a chemical likely to be found in her birthday cake, a chemical which has also played an important part in her scientific career – glucose. This is a representative example of one of the sugars and sugar compounds that go to form glycans, complex molecules which attach themselves to cell membranes.

For the past few years Carolyn Bertozzi has been at the forefront of a new field in biochemistry. So new, in fact, that it didn’t have a name until Caroline invented one for it – bio-orthogonal chemistry. In contrast to the methods Jay Keasling developed to produce a synthetic malaria drug (by altering the DNA of bacteria to make them produce the drug), Carolyn’s work uses chemistry to detect the way cells communicate with and recognise other living cells (without changing the DNA).

Glucose is one of the natural sugars which form these complex molecules called glycans. They attach themselves to protein or fat molecules in cell membranes and are able to detect whether the cell is working okay or is under attack from a virus or bacteria. The cell can send chemical messages to it’s neighbours to tell them to alert the immune system. The immune system in animals and humans relies on body cells (such as white blood cells) which recognise diseased or infected cells. By recognising these cells, antibodies are produced. Naturally, the thought of HIV and cancer treatments also comes to mind. In transplants these cells recognise the new organs as benign and reduce the risk of tissue rejection.

The principal behind bio-orthogonal chemistry is that scientists can tag specific glycans with another chemical to see which message they are sending to other cells. The tags work without effecting the natural biological processes in the living cells. If scientists know which glycans can recognise damaged or diseased cells they are able to detect diseases before they become detectable by current means, before the disease spreads to other cells. And by knowing which glycan passes on the diseased message you can deliver a glucose or sugar-based glycan to counter the signal and stop it from spreading.

Carolyn has won many professional awards for her bio-orthogonal work, including the 2007 GLBT Scientist of the Year from the National Organisation of Gay and Lesbian Scientist and Technical Professionals. Part of the citation of the award reads: “Dr. Carolyn Bertozzi has been chosen to receive the … award because of her outstanding achievements in applying chemistry to help answer biological questions related to human health and disease. Her laboratory group at the UC Berkeley studies cell surface interactions in the areas of cancer, inflammation and bacterial infection… As an open and out lesbian in academia and science Dr. Bertozzi has been an excellent role model for her students and colleagues.”

Happy Birthday Dr. Bertozzi.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The World's Oldest Porn?

In the remote province of Xinjiang in northern China there is a series of ancient rock carvings which may be the oldest depiction of sex ever discovered.

This post could easily have been made last month when I had archaeology as my Ology of the Month, but I thought I’d hold it back until now to tie in with my celebration of Asian-Pacific heritage. Archaeologically speaking, though, it seems that these carvings show the early influence of the west in China.

When the cave carvings, or petroglyphs, as archaeologists call this type of carving, were discovered in 1980 they were dated to about 3,000 years ago, but later research and comparisons to other carvings pushed the date back another thousands years to around 2000 BC. What they appear to show is some sort of fertility ritual or festival which shows a huge orgy.

In all 83 full figures are carved, with lots of headless torsos and floating heads (not thought to represent mutilation or death). Of the full figures 50 are female, 14 are male, and 19 are bisexual. To understand these numbers we must look at how the male and female genders are depicted. The differences are subtle but important. The drawing below shows the typical depictions in the carving for a woman (left) and a man (right).

The strange antenna on most of the women’s heads are representations of a ceremonial headdress associated with women of high status. Strangely, all of the figures have their arms in the same position. Perhaps this indicates some part of the ritual, or signifies the human connection between heaven and earth.

The figures described by archaeologists as bisexual appear to be sexually aroused men wearing female ceremonial headdresses or with female heads drawn on their chest. These have been identified as shamans and priests. The depiction of these shamans varies.

The culture which the carving represents, the one which carved it, may have been Eurasian in origin rather than east Asian. The area is near the mountainous region north of the dangerous Taklamakan Desert (it’s names means “you go in, but you won’t get out!”). It was an area where nomads from what is now Kazakhstan moved south along the mountains, like some Eurasian cultural finger poking into China!

With the area being so remote, and the current political situation, it is unlikely that any further such carvings will be found in the near future. It would be interesting to know exactly who these people were, how much ethnic mix went on with neighbouring Asian cultures, and how much this culture influenced northern China.

A scholarly article on the petroglyphs can be found here.

Monday, 13 May 2013

A Molecule For Murder

The drug of death! The chemical killer! That should get your attention! In contrast to last week’s life-saving molecule, the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, today we look at a famous chemical that was used in a gay murder.

As an anaesthetic chloroform was used extensively during surgery. Though looking at old thrillers and murder mysteries, where a hapless innocent victim is ambushed with a chloroform-soaked handkerchief being clamped over the mouth and nostrils, it is clear that there’s a darker use for this chemical.

Today’s tale begins in January 1885 in the port of Liverpool. On board the steamship “Cephalonia”, bound for Boston, Massachusetts, were two men who had just met. One was a well-off international salesman for a London textile company, 24-year-old Charles Arthur Preller. The other man was, he claimed, Dr. Walter Lennox Maxwell of London. He was no such thing. He was actually 32-year-old Hugh Mottram Brooks of Manchester - though he had studied medicine.

The two men’s friendship increased as they steamed across the Atlantic, and they both planned to carry on together to New Zealand. Preller had business in the USA first, so they agreed to meet up in St. Louis as few weeks later before heading off Down Under.

Brooks booked into a hotel under his alias of Dr. Maxwell. Preller arrived three days later. They shared the room, though to avert suspicion of their relationship Preller booked a separate room in his own name. The couple were indeed a couple, as letters discovered later would prove.

The relationship seemed to be like ones often found today – a  gay man with money finds himself in a relationship with a gay man who wants to spend it. The hotel staff noticed that it was Preller who had the money and Brooks seemed to have none. Then, on the evening of Easter Sunday, 5th April, Brooks was seen waving a roll of $100 bills around in the hotel bar. There was no sign of Preller, which was unusual as they were always seen together. Brooks was drunk, and said to the head waiter “What’s the penalty for killing a man? Would $500 get a man off?”

The following day Brooks paid his bills and left, saying Preller had gone out of town and would be back for his luggage in a few days. No-one had actually seen Preller since Sunday morning. Brooks then travelled to San Francisco and boarded a steamship for Auckland, New Zealand.

Six days later the hotel maids reported an unbearable stench coming for a locked trunk in Brooks’ room. The manager had it dragged outside and opened by the local trunk dealer. The dealer recognised it as one he had sold to Brooks the previous week. When he opened it he discovered why Brooks didn’t take it with him.

Inside the trunk was the swollen, blackened, rotting corpse of Charles Preller, naked except for underwear bearing Brooks’ name. An autopsy revealed Preller had died of chloroform poisoning. It was clear that Brooks had murdered him and a manhunt began.

Brooks was traced to the steamer crossing the Pacific. Police sent a telegram ahead to Auckland, so that when the steamer arrived police were ready to arrest Brooks.

At his trial in May 1886 Brooks claimed he bought the chloroform to treat an ailment Preller was complaining off that fateful weekend. Using it as an anaesthetic Brooks claimed he gave him a second dose when it looked like Preller was coming round during the treatment. Preller died from the overdose. Doctors found no evidence of any treatment carried out on Preller’s body.

Brooks denied the murder throughout his trial, though the police gave evidence from Brooks’ time in custody when he admitted to a fellow prisoner that he had been angry at Preller for not paying for his ticket to Auckland. Brooks was heard to admit to wanting to “fix” Preller “on account of his meanness”. Prosecution witnesses included the men who sold Brooks the trunk and the chloroform, and hotel staff who said he suddenly had a lot of money on the day he checked out.

The trial caused a sensation around the world, not only in America and New Zealand, but also in England where journalists interviewed Brooks’ parents.

The jury retired to consider their verdict on the evening on 4th June, and the following morning found Hugh Mottram Brooks guilty of the murder of Charles Arthur Preller. Brooks was hanged on 10th August 1888.

Perhaps this murder would still be well-known today had it not been for the first in a series of murders which began three weeks later which caught the public attention – the first of Jack the Ripper’s brutal killings (more of him later this month).

A more detailed account of the St. Louis Trunk Murder can be found here. 

Friday, 10 May 2013

Asia-Pacific Heroes

The USA is celebrating Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The influence of these communities and cultures have reached around the globe. Each of these cultures has a unique character in their lgbt community which is often not fully understood, or even known, to people with a strong European-based heritage.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), based in New York, has produced this leaflet of 9 lgbt heroes from all walks of life and professions who are active in lgbt campaigns or have provided a valued contribution to society.

I’d like to add my own list of 10 more notable Asia-Pacific lgbt heroes from around the world and throughout history. Some you may have heard of, some you may not. (I’ll be producing a separate list of lgbt Asian-Pacific scientists later this month).

Xiaoai, Emperor of the Han Dynasty (27 BC- 1AD)
and Dong Xian (c.23 BC- 1 BC)
Xiaoai, or Ai, was emperor of the Chinese Han dynasty for 6 years from the age of 26. His relationship with Dong, a minor official who quickly rose in power and influence, is generally believed to have been homosexual. The legend of Ai cutting off his voluminous sleeve rather than wake the sleeping Dong Xian who had rolled over onto it, has become a by-name for homosexuality – the Passion of the Cut Sleeve.

Togo Ken (1923-2012)
At the time of the growing gay rights movement in the USA in the 1970s Togo Ken was almost single-handedly championing sexual rights in Japan. He left his wife and children to start a gay bar and even campaigned for election to parliament. Togo was unashamedly effeminate, wearing kimonos and make-up, even on his election broadcasts. Despite his legendary status in Japan his place as a pioneer in the freedom of sexual expression is largely unknown elsewhere.

Georgina Beyer (b.1957)
When she made her maiden speech in the New Zealand parliament in 1999 Georgina pointed out that she was the first transsexual in the world to be elected as an MP. Of Maori descent she has spoken on racial and civil union rights and environmental issues, and has been a keynote speaker at many international lgbt conferences, including several Outgames conferences. Sadly, Georgina has recently been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease.

Margaret Cho (b.1968)
Margaret’s career has covered many varied areas – stand-up comedy, writing, fashion design, acting and song writing. She grew up in San Francisco where she began her stand-up career in the clubs around her immigrant-Korean parents’ bookshop. Margaret has appeared on many American shows, being nominated for an Emmy award in 2011 for her guest appearance in “30 Rock”. The openly bisexual Margaret has often spoken on lgbt rights and racial issues.

Louisa Wall (b.1972) – Last month New Zealand legalised gay marriage. The original bill was introduced into parliament in May 2012 by the openly lesbian MP Louisa Wall. Louisa is of mixed-race heritage, having both European and Maori ancestry. The passing of the same-sex marriage act was, she said, like winning a World Cup final – she should know, she won the 1998 women’s rugby World Cup as part of New Zealand’s national team.

Gok Wan (b.1974)
Gok has carved out a niche on British television as the only “cool” fashion stylist, having several shows running concurrently and appearing as a guest on many others. Growing up in Leicester of mixed English-Hong Kong Chinese parentage, Gok suffered racial abuse at school, causing him to gain weight and attempt suicide. Since his career took off he has gained confidence and lost weight, and has promoted positive self-body-image attitudes in schools.

Dan Choi (b.1981)
Iraq veteran and New York National Guardsman Choi was discharged after coming out on US television. Choi, of Korean descent, immediately wrote to President Obama criticising the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning open homosexuality in the US military. Choi campaigned vigorously to have the policy repealed, and formed Knights Out, a support group for lgbt military personnel. When President Obama repealed the policy in 2010 Dan Choi was present at the official signing.

Johnny Saelua (b.1988)
Jaiyah, or Johnny, Saelua made history last November when he played for American Samoa in the 2014 World Cup preliminaries against Tonga. Johnny became the first ever Third Gender soccer player. As a member of the Samoan male-born, female-identified f’afafine community Johnny believes the acceptance of his gender in his country made it easy for him to be accepted as a footballer on the national team. He also made history by playing in the first American Samoan team to win a match.

And finally, being about as topical and up-to-date as I can …

Amini Fonua (b.1989)
Just a couple of days ago this New Zealander of Tongan and English heritage (and of distinguished Tongan ancestry) came out publicly. He was already out at college in the USA and made his announcement in response to criticisms of his college being one of the most homophobic. As one of 2 Tongan athletes given wild card entries into the 2012 London Olympic Games Amina proudly carried his nation’s flag at the head of the 3-person Tongan team in the opening ceremony.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Flower Power - A Floral Molecule

Today’s flower is closely related to one I’ve already covered on this blog, Lad’s Love (Artemisia abrotanum). Today’s flower is sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua). It is the source of the Molecule of the Week, the main drug used to treat malaria – artemisinin. It’s quite a recent drug. It was first discovered and used by the Chinese in the 1970s, who were reluctant at first to pass on their discovery to the rest of the world, given the suspicion China had for the West at that time. Traditional Chinese medicine has always been highly regarded, and it was the use of sweet wormwood in medicine for over 2,000 that led the Chinese to research it’s medicinal properties.

Even though sweet wormwood grows all over the world and many drug companies now have plantations, extracting artemisinin is expensive. With almost a million people, including one child in Africa every 45 seconds, dying from malaria other methods of producing the drug, which has been the best and preferred drug for malaria treatment since 2006, has been on the minds of many biochemists.

For over ten years one gay scientist has been working on the synthetic production of artemisinin from bacteria. His name is Dr. Jay Keasling, Professor of Bio-chemical Engineering at the University of California Berkeley, and Chief Executive Officer of the Joint Bioenergy Institute, or J-BEI.

Jay’s work crosses several sciences – biochemistry, genetic engineering and synthetic biology. But at the root of his work on artemisinin is the reproduction of the chemical that comes from sweet wormwood.

Jay was born and raised on a Nebraska farm. He says that his research with producing artemisinin synthetically from yeast and e-coli bacteria has put his career in more touch with the farm than ever before.

Jay has compared the processes involved in producing the drug to a chemical factory. Using synthetically  manufactured DNA Jay has managed a way to make yeast and e-coli churn out artemisinin as if they were mini chemical factories. When Jay and his research team made their first successful production of the drug in this way in 2003 they were hailed as pioneers of bio-engineering.

In 2004 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Jay $42.5 million to carry on research in order to produce artemisinin in enough quantities to distribute world-wide. Very soon, this year, in fact, the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventi will turn Jay’s dream of a cheap and plentiful production of artemisinin into reality with the drug being launched on the market in the coming months.

Very soon millions of malaria sufferers will be treated with the synthetic drug created by Jay Keasling and, who knows, perhaps we’ll see the end of malaria as a fatal disease in our own lifetime.

But Jay is not stopping at artemisinin. Using the same techniques but synthesising other chemicals in the bacteria he has created a way for e-coli to produce a biofuel which will, hopefully, replace the oil-based fossil fuels currently ruling the world.

In 2006 Jay became “Discover” magazine’s first Scientist of the Year, and in 2010 he was announced as GLBT Engineer of the Year by the National Organisation for Gay and Lesbian Scientific and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP). Jay was profiled on the PBS programmes “NOVAscience NOW” in 2011. Here is that programme in full, but if you want to skip forward to Jay’s profile go 39 minutes and 52 seconds into the programme.

Jay Keasling’s work may change the world. And all of this because the ancient Chinese saw the medicinal benefits in a plant called sweet wormwood.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Labour Day

The recent death of Margaret Thatcher revived a lot of old differences from the time when she was Prime Minister. During her funeral there were protests from lgbt groups about Section 28, the Thatcherite law which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools. There were also other groups who chose to recreate the hatred generated from resurrecting other long-gone political clashes. In particular groups from the trade unions and coalminers.

When I was asked to produce a display for LGBT History Month this February at Nottinghamshire’s County Hall the invitation came from a trade union, Unison. I was asked if I could include the history of lgbt rights in the British trade union movement. I found there was so much to research and so little time that I printed all my research material and put it in a folder instead of design a specific display panel.

With the start of May also being the traditional time of year for the celebration of working life and people this gives me my third reason to write up some of my research and present it here today. I will describe the campaigns by and for the lgbt community up to 1985.

The trade union movement has always been at the forefront of campaigning for the rights of workers. LGBT employment rights and equality was, however, originally led by a variety of non-union groups. These included the Socialist Workers, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, the Lesbian and Gay Employment Rights group, and the Gay Rights at Work Committee.

In the 1960s and 1970s homosexuality, even after it was legalised, was still often seen as immoral. Many British trades unions, fearful of losing many members, were reluctant to openly back gay rights at work. They perpetuated the Victorian stereotype of gay men as being effeminate and not of the working class.

This attitude was prevalent in the region where I grew up, where the attitude of “if you don’t go down the pit, you’re a puff” was the rule – and it wasn’t meant as a compliment! In February I spoke to a group of lgbt youngsters from the same area who were receiving an award from the Nottinghamshire Rainbow Heritage project and I told them of the bigotry I encountered when I was their age. I wasn’t really surprised to hear from them that it still lingers.

The National Council for Civil Liberties were possibly the first to publish material specifically offering advice to trades unions on making work-places less discriminatory. Even though a high-ranking Labour MP, Tony Benn, wrote the introduction, the Labour government of the day gave it a cool reception. Surprisingly, in light of future events, it was the Tory opposition (which included Mrs. Thatcher) who pushed for lgbt employment rights.

But all was to be turned of its head in the late 1970s. Social and trade union unrest at the Labour government led to the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979. In the 1980s Thatcher’s anti-union policies united the unions, but there was still no effort to address anti-gay abuse in the work-place by the government, employers or the unions.

In 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike in protest at plans to close unworkable mines. It had the biggest and most far-reaching effect on the country as a whole than any other since the 1930s. Thousands of people travelled across the country to join or support picket lines and violent clashes between pickets and police became commonplace. Most of the country seemed to be sympathising with the miners, especially groups like the lgbt community who were already anti-Thatcher.

During the London Pride march of 1984 a collection was made for the striking miners’ families. From this collection came the formation of the group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM). During the course of the year-long strike the LGSM and a splinter group called Lesbians Against Pit Closures raised funds for the miners’ families and supported picket lines and protests. Even though the strike was centred on the Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire pits in my own area the main focus for LGSM was on the pits of South Wales because there were more personal links to that area among LGSM members.

However wide-ranging the politics of the members of the LGSM, from Marxists to liberals, from anarchists to Labour Party members, the group remained united in its cause. During the 2-year of it’s existence the LGSM raised £20,000 for the miners. Their support was rewarded the following year at the London Pride march of 1985. At the head of the march was a group of miners and their families from South Wales, proudly carrying the banner of their local lodge of the National Union of Mineworkers.

Later in 1985, at the annual Labour Party conference, a motion was debated which called for equal rights and anti-discrimination in the workplace for gay men and women. The party leadership opposed the motion but the united votes of the Trades Union Congress pushed the motion through.

Despite the general public backlash against gay men in the face of the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s the Labour Party and the trades unions continued to support lgbt rights throughout the remainder of the decade, though it could be said this was only politically motivated as part of their general anti-Thatcher policy rather than real belief in the idea.

1985 can be seen as a breakthrough year in the UK for lgbt employment rights. When the anti-gay Section 28 came into force in 1988 unified support for lgbt rights was already stable. By the time it was abolished in 2003 there was a well-planned course of action ready to begin by campaign groups. By 2006 lgbt rights in employment were finally put in place.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Sniffing Out a Gay Jekyll and Hyde

In the bathroom cabinet of every young gay man-about-town is a plethora of cosmetics (judging by those I know). In my young days all I needed was to splash on some aftershave and deodorant. Today millions of pounds are being spent by gay men on these and other things – facial creams, fake tans, lip gloss, hair gel, hair dye. These days there seems to be as many cosmetic products for men as there are for women. And why not?

The number of gay fashion designers marketing fragrances for men is ever-growing. It is, perhaps, very fortunate that today’s cosmetics are largely synthetic rather than natural Not that many decades ago people were still killing beavers and musk deer to obtain perfumes. If people today knew from which parts of the animal their perfume came from and splash onto their body in the name of smelling good they’d scream the house down!

The molecule of the week changed all that. It is coumarin, the first synthetic fragrance chemical, produced in 1868. The growth of the inorganic chemistry industry led to the possibility that there could be no natural smell that couldn’t be reproduced synthetically.

One of the champions of synthetic perfumery during the 20th century, and an early gay rights activist, was Edward Sagarin (1913-1986). He straddle the homosexual fence. On one side he was a supporter of gay rights and anti-discrimination. On the other side he supported the view that homosexuality was an illness and should be cured. Sagarin has been referred to as “the Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde of the American homophile movement” (Claude J. Summers, in his entry of Sagarin at GLBTQ Encyclopedia).

First we’ll look at Sagarin’s career in chemistry. He didn’t complete a university course in the subject but he had a keen interest. In the 1930s he began working in the cosmetics industry in New York to support his family. He quickly established himself as a respected chemist and specialist in perfumery.

In 1945 Sagarin published a highly popular and influential book on perfumes which is still valued by today’s perfumers. It was called “The Science and Art of Perfumery” and best shows Sagarin’s flair for synthetic perfumery. It also went into some detail about the history of fragrances and the several traditional methods by which perfumes were obtained. For a scientific book, Sagarin did not shy away from pointing out the links between perfumes of ancient times and their place in ritual, superstition and religion.

Obviously, being a chemist, Sagarin devoted much of the book to modern synthetic perfumery. He could not ignore a figure like Sir William Perkin in the history of the development of inorganic chemistry. Referring specifically to Perkin’s discovery of coumarin, the Molecule of the Week, Sagarin wrote: “Here was a synthetic, not only as fine as nature’s own, but different in no respect from the natural coumarin. This was man, the duplicator, in his supreme achievement”.

Though with no formal qualifications in chemistry, Edward Sagarin studied for a PhD in sociology at the age of 52. This was during the time he was heavily involved in the gay rights movement. In his “Dr. Jekyll” persona he published a book, “The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach”, in 1951, under the pseudonym of Donald Webster Cory. When his employer found out he was fired. This book was one of the first factual books on homosexuality to advocate the rights of gay men to live without discrimination and abuse. It pointed out that there were more gay men in the USA than people realised, and some reassurance to those closeted men to know that they “were not alone”. At the end of the book Cory gave his opinion that in the future millions of gay men would join together for their rights.

On the flip side of this book was Sagarin’s academic career as a sociologist. Even though hew was a member of the Mattachine Society, one of America’s first gay groups, he was opposed to the radical views and campaigns that he had seemed to advocate as Donald Webster Cory. This “Mr. Hyde” persona, an opponent of many in the gay rights movement, showed itself in his belief that homosexuality is an illness and could be cured. He expressed a view in 1976 that coming out of the closet was actually as renunciation of freedom rather than an affirmation of it.

In 1974 both personas were to clash at a convention of the American Sociological Society. As a guest of a discussion panel Sagarin  was “outed” as Donald Webster Cory by a fellow panellist. The confrontation ended with Sagarin in tears and he left the arena of gay rights for good.

Whatever Edward Sagarin’s motives for publicly opposing views on homosexuality, we can be sure that out of the bitter reception he received as an opponent of the gay rights movement, and his pioneering stand as Donald Webster Cory, we can be sure of the sweet scent of unity in his place in the history of perfume chemistry.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Ology of the Month - Chemistry

There are so many different sides to chemistry and it is everywhere. After all, everything in the universe is made of chemical elements. You could say that if physics shows us how the universe works, then chemistry shows us what the universe is made from.

During May I want to cover as many aspects of chemistry as I can, be it organic or inorganic, natural or synthetic, though some topics will also be covered later in the year (pharmacology and medicine in August, biochemistry in November, and AIDS drugs in December).

There are fewer chemists in history who can be identified as lgbt than most of the other sciences. There’s certainly many more lgbt chemists out and proud today.  As with other sciences the largest organisation for lgbt chemists can be found in the USA. The main group is the Subdivision for Gay and Transgender Chemists and Allies at the American Chemical Society (ACS) (surely there’s a shorter, snappier name they could come up with?).

The website of the ACS has an interesting little feature which has inspired me to try something similar this month. Its called “Molecule of the Week”. The website features a different chemical molecule and gives all its properties and all you need to know about what is does.

My Molecules of the Weeks will tie in with members of the lgbt community. I’m not a chemist myself so won’t go into all the scientific explanations you see on the ACS website. Hopefully, I’ll come up with 5 molecules which I intend to feature over the weeks that fall during May, and they will include drugs, poisons and perfumes. They won’t all appear on a Monday (like this week) due to other posts needing to appear on specific Mondays this month.

May is also the month which the USA celebrates as Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Also referred to as APAM, this commemorative month had its origins quite some time ago, way back in the days of Jimmy Carter. In 1978 the US Congress passed a joint Congressional Resolution to commemorate Asia-Pacific heritage across the States during the first full week in May. There were two reasons why May was chosen. Firstly, May was the month in 1843 which saw the first Japanese immigrants arriving in America. Secondly, the trans-continental railway, on which many of the labourers were Chinese, was completed in May 1869.

The success of the first Asian-Pacific Heritage Week led to support in Congress for the expansion of the celebrations. Following the example of others, such as World Women’s History Month and Black History Month, Congress approved the idea of spreading the celebration of Asian-Pacific culture across the whole month. The first full Asian-Pacific Heritage Month was in May 1992. More recently the name has been expanded into the official title of Asia-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

It’s a pity it hasn’t officially spread to other countries yet. I’ll have a couple of posts devoted to Asia-Pacific heritage. It’s a pity the timing of the previous “On Track to the Outgames” devoted to the first Asia-Pacific Outgames didn’t make it into this month. There’ll also be a post dedicated to lgbt Asia-Pacific scientists.