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A pink letter day for Tasmania

NOVEMBER 18, 2015, saw the Tasmanian parliament vote overwhelmingly for marriage equality, and in doing so it sent a strong message to federal MPs in Australia to support the reform throughout the country.

A Greens motion for equality was passed 15 votes to 9 with the support of Liberal Premier Will Hodgman and almost half of his Liberal colleagues.

Jubilation in Tasmania over a momentous equality vote in November 2015

The Australian Marriage Equality National Director and 2015 Tasmanian of the Year, Rodney Croome, said: “I am very proud of the Tasmanian Parliament for sending a strong message to Canberra that it’s time for marriage equality and a strong message to the nation that Tasmania is an inclusive society.

“I applaud Will Hodgman, his deputy, Jeremy Rockliff, and all those Liberals who have shown courage and leadership by voting for the marriage equality motion.”

“I hope those Tasmanian federal members who are yet to declare their support for marriage quality heed the Tasmanian Parliament and take the message to Canberra that Tasmanians want marriage equality. The fact the Tasmanian Liberals had a free vote on marriage equality is a reminder to their federal Liberal colleagues that free votes are a foundational Liberal principle, and that they should do the same when voting on marriage equality legislation.”

Croome pointed out that Will Hodgman is the only current Liberal Premier who supports marriage equality and there is more support among Tasmanian Liberal state MPs than in any other Liberal caucus in Australia.

“I pay tribute to all those Tasmanians from all walks of life – couples, parents, business people, farmers, sports people and people of faith – who have patiently spoken out in support of marriage equality.” While noting a High Court ruling that states can’t individually legislate for same-sex marriage, Hodgman said it had consistently been the case that Tasmanian Liberal members have a conscious vote on the matter.

“This vote will reassure Tasmanian LGBTI couples that their parliament regards their love for each other as equal and supports their right to express their love through marriage if they choose,” Greens leader Cassy O’Connor said.

Rockliff said his “yes” vote might surprise some people. “I believe that those who are committed and in a loving relationship should have the ability, in the eyes of the law ... to get married,” he said.

At the beginning of June, 2015, about 1,000 same-sex marriage supporters took to the streets in Sydney in a colourful rally for equal rights in Australia. Corporate businesses were behind full-page newspaper ads calling for change, and politicians on both sides of parliament supported same-sex marriage on social media.

Following the public momentum, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten introduced a private member’s bill to parliament calling for overseas same-sex marriages to be recognised, and the terminology in the Marriage Act to be changed to include same-sex couples.

“For too long we in this parliament have been following, not leading,” Shorten told the parliament. “It is within our power to change this. It is a double standard that divides families, and our country. It’s not fair and it’s not who we are. And it should change,” he said.

“To some this may seem a small gesture; in truth it means so much to so many.”

New book published by Terry Sanderson

TERRY Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, has a new book out entitled The Adventures of a Happy Homosexual: Memoirs of an Unlikely Activist.

In this funny, warm and touching book Sanderson reveals how he – the most unwilling and unlikely of activists – honed his skills as a campaigner in the early days of the struggle for gay rights in Britain.

But this is more than just the story of an amazing social revolution: it’s an absorbing tale that will take you to a time when coming out of the closet was a radical act with potentially dire consequences and when fear and prejudice were the daily lot of gay people.

From the author of the best-selling self-help manual How to be a Happy Homosexual comes this eye-opening and deeply personal memoir which is as much a love story as it is a recounting of a complete transformation in our society’s approach to homosexuality.

Sanderson covers his time in the 1970s as a thorn in the side of a relentlessly homophobic council in a grimy northern town; his stint as an agony aunt on a national woman’s magazine and his 25 years writing the popular Mediawatch column for Gay Times. He has published nine books for the LGBT community, including seminal self-help books such as Assertively Gay and Making Gay Relationships Work. He is now as President of the National Secular Society.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said of the book: “This wonderful memoir by veteran LGBT campaigner Terry Sanderson offers a vivid personal snapshot of gay life in Britain over the last four decades; told by someone who was an eye-witness to our many advances and to several of our setbacks. From gay activist to agony aunt, media monitor and secular campaigner, Terry has seen, done and now written about it all. Bravo!”

A full review of the book will be published in the spring 2016 edition of The Pink Humanist.

Prof: Alan Turing Decoded, reviewed by Brett Humphreys

IN THE March 2013 issue of The Pink Humanist I reviewed Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age, a new biography of Alan Turing by Jack Copeland. I mentioned three existing biographies – Alan M. Turing (1959) by Alan's mother Sara Turing, the epic Alan Turing: the Enigma (1983) by Andrew Hodges, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (2006) by David Leavitt – and I posed the question of what value another biography provides.

That question arises again with the publication of this latest biography, Prof: Alan Turing Decoded, by Dermot Turing. This time the author is more forthcoming. Unlike Jack Copeland, he pays full tribute to Andrew Hodges's "masterly" biography at the outset. However, his aim and perspective are rather different.

He has been reported as saying that his main aim in writing the book was to challenge some widespread stereotypes about Alan Turing's life. In his epilogue he points out that most people's impressions are likely to be formed from portrayals such as those of Derek Jacobi (in the 1986 play and 1996 television film Breaking the Code), Ed Stoppard (in the 2011 television docudrama Britain's Greatest Codebreaker, later released internationally as Codebreaker) and most recently Benedict Cumberbatch (in the 2014 film The Imitation Game). No doubt the last of these, with its gross exaggeration of Alan's autistic tendencies, would be a particular incentive for him to want to describe the real man behind the myth.

Dermot Turing's perspective is that of one of Alan Turing's closest living relatives, being the son of Alan's brother John with his second wife Beryl. Unlike his half-sisters, Dermot was born too late to have known Alan personally. However, his father, who died in 1983, was one of the few people to have known Alan well throughout his life, and one of even fewer to have read Alan's "dream books", the notebooks in which he recorded his dreams for his psychotherapist during his last months.

Dermot makes use of his father's papers, including his essay My Brother Alan (not published until 2012 when it appeared as an addendum to a new edition of his mother's 1959 biography) and his full-length autobiography The Half Was Not Told Me (1967), which remains unpublished. Rather oddly, Dermot follows his father in dating Alan's birth as 21 June 1912, when the rest of the world (including Alan's own mother) thinks it was 23 June.

The challenge facing any writer following in the footsteps of such a thorough and enduring work as Alan Turing: the Enigma is to produce a full and balanced biography and yet still have something fresh to say. Dermot Turing's approach to this is to pay particular attention to evidence that has come to light in recent years. Andrew Hodges has been tracking these developments too, of course – both on his Alan Turing Website and in prefaces to successive new print editions of his book, last reissued in November 2014 to coincide with the release of The Imitation Game – but Dermot Turing has had the opportunity to weave it all into a single coherent narrative.

On the one hand, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – the successor to the wartime Bletchley Park organisation that Alan Turing worked for – continues to release relevant papers from its secret archives from time to time. GCHQ has co-operated with this book, not only by permitting use of some as yet unreleased material but also by hosting an unprecedented launch event for the book at its Cheltenham headquarters in October.

On the other hand, new information still emerges from private hands – or heads – from time to time. For example, in 2011 the writer Alan Garner recalled conversations he had with Alan Turing in the early 1950s, unexpectedly reinforcing Andrew Hodges's long-held view that Alan was fascinated by the story of Snow White and the poisoned apple. More recently, following the death of Alan's close friend Nick Furbank last year, three letters that Alan wrote to him surfaced just in time to be quoted in the book.

Around the time The Imitation Game was released, the genealogy organisation Ancestry placed a story in the press claiming that Benedict Cumberbatch is a 17th cousin of Alan Turing. More interesting, to my mind, is that the supporting pedigree presents Alan as a direct descendant of King Henry VII of England. Dermot Turing has wisely avoided delving so deep but he understandably starts his book with a little more family history than some biographers provide.

Rather than dwell on the Turing baronetcy (which he himself currently holds after inheriting it from a third cousin once removed in 1987 – hence his official designation Sir John Dermot Turing), he follows Alan's mother in mentioning some of the more eminent scientific brains of the family, who happen to be on her side. They include the physicist George Johnstone Stoney FRS, three of his children – George Gerald Stoney FRS (engineer), Edith Anne Stoney (physicist) and Florence Stoney (radiologist) – and his brother Bindon Blood Stoney FRS (engineer).

The book's account of Alan Turing's life pretty well follows the familiar sequence, with careful attention to less familiar parts such as his work on speech encipherment during the latter part of the Second World War. It includes the two episodes that throw most light on his sexuality – the death of Christopher Morcom in 1930, and Alan's brush with the law in 1952. It's interesting to read Dermot's comments, as a qualified solicitor, on the way Alan was treated by the judicial system.

Like others before him, Dermot considers the enigma of whether Alan's death was deliberate or accidental. Speaking after publication of the book, he is reported as saying he doesn't believe it was an accident, but in the book itself he remains studiously neutral, concluding by quoting words attributed to Alan's closest friend, Robin Gandy: "Some things are too deep and private and should not be pried into."

I found the book's infrastructure somewhat disappointing. There are source references for most quotations but the unorthodox way the author has chosen to link quotations to their sources is unhelpful. I suspect it also tends to mask the amount of serious research that has gone into the book. More importantly, there is no index. Perhaps the thinking behind these omissions was to enhance the book's popular appeal by making it look less like a textbook, but they're a nuisance to anyone who wants to look things up.

Nonetheless, Prof: Alan Turing Decoded is a welcome addition to the literature about Alan Turing: readable, well researched, objective and balanced, and lavishly and professionally illustrated with getting on for a hundred black-and-white images, including previously unpublished family photographs.

Meet Natural History Hero Franz Baron Nopcsa von Felso-Szilvas

MARCUS ROBINSON sets out to learn more about the eccentric gay dinosaur hunter who wished to become the first king of Albania.

WITH name like his, plus the fact that he was born in Transylvania, Franz Baron Nopcsa von Felso-Szilvás sounds like a character in a 19th-century Gothic horror novel. But there was nothing sinister about him, unless you think his passion for digging up bones of long-dead creatures was somewhat creepy.

I had never heard of the man until this autumn when he featured in a BBC Radio 4 Natural History Hero episode in which Professor Paul Barrett, a world-renowned expert on the evolution and biology of dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles, revealed that Nopcsa (also known as Baron von Nopcsa) was among the first people to study what fossils might tell us about how extinct animals lived.

Nopcsa, Barrett said, is today considered the father of palaeobiology. The baron provided the first fossil evidence that Sauropods had gone through a process of island dwarfism – shrinking body size over generations to adapt to living on islands. Barrett also pointed out that Nopcsa was “a flamboyant character and was unafraid to make his more wacky and outlandish theories public and was also one of very few openly gay men in the early part of the 20th century.”

I was captivated by the broadcast, and the moment the episode ended, I dived into the Internet to discover more about the Nopcsa. The first article I discovered about him was published on the Radio Romania International website in November, 2013, and this revealed that “the non-conformist” Nopcsa is considered the founder of two disciplines: palaeobiology and Albanian studies.

He was born in 1877 in the area of Hunedoara, in the south-eastern part of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire and today’s western Romania. One of his grandparents was reputedly another infamous and eccentric character in the Hateg region. When darkness fell, the nobleman known as “Fata Neagra” (Black Face) would don a hood and rob travellers. Local legends depict him as an outlaw, who stole from the rich to give to the poor.

Nopcsa’s career as a man of science began early. When he was 18 he left for Vienna to study palaeontology and geology. He took with him several strange bones his sister had discovered in the Retezat Mountains in 1895. He later discovered that the bones were fossils of the dwarf dinosaurs who had populated the Hateg region several hundred millions of years ago. He earned his PhD in sciences and published almost 150 science articles related to palaeontology and geology.

In November 1906 in Bucharest Nopcsa met Baiazid Doda, an Albanian who was a resident in Romania’s capital city. The two started a professional relationship as well as a love affair. According to Nopcsa, Doda was the only one who, as his secretary and lover, truly loved him, and one whom Nopcsa completely trusted.

After the First World War, the Romanian state seized Nopcsa estates and the Baron, taking Doda with him, had no choice but to settle in Vienna. Yet he would not give up his assets without a fight, and in a brawl he suffered a severe head injury when a gang peasants flung stones at him and beat him.

On April 23, 1933 in a hotel room in Vienna Nopcsa shot his lover as he was asleep and then he shot himself. In the farewell letter, the adventurer baron explained that his action was forced on him by poverty and misery.

Some of the fossils discovered in the Hateg region are were given Nopcsa’s name. The vertebra of a Sauropod got the name Nopcsaspondylus. Other dinosaurs also received the Baron’s name: Elopteryx nopcsai, Thethysaurus nopcsai, Hyposaurus nopcsai, and Mesophis nopcsai. A six-meter long sauropod Nopcsa had studied was given the name Magyarosaurus by the baron himself.

One of Baron Nopcsa’s contributions to evolutionism, which became accepted by the experts only in the 1960s was the theory that birds evolved in an area dominated by dinosaurs. Another scientific hypothesis put forward by Nopcea and shared by the scientific community today was that Mesozoic reptiles had warm blood.

A blog called Gay Influence, set up to celebrate gay and bisexual men of influence, provides more information about the baron, and reveals that he had made an unsuccessful bid to become the King of Albania.

He had travelled south to Albania, then part of the Ottoman Empire, to conduct some digs for more dinosaur fossils. Whilst there he became enchanted by the countryside and culture of the Albanians, and he soon dedicated himself to liberating Albania from the Ottomans in an effort to establish it as an independent country.

Using his personal fortune to acquire weapons, he organised rebellious forces and led the Albanians in fighting against the Turks. At the end of the First Balkan War, Albania became an independent state in 1913 under the Treaty of London.

This new Albania was to be a kingdom, but there was no native dynasty. In order to secure the recognition of the nation by other European countries, the Albanian Congress of Trieste was convened in 1913 to choose a nobleman to become king.

According to Gay Influence Nopcsa “put forth the proposition that he would be an ideal choice as king, because he was of noble birth and had strong ties to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, the fact that he was homosexual and made no effort to hide it thwarted his dream from becoming reality. He flounced around in a black velvet cape and made his attention and interest in men obvious.

“The Albanians quite naturally expected their king to marry and produce heirs, but Nopcsa tried to use his sexual orientation to advantage. He suggested that Albania sell the title of ‘Queen of Albania’ to the highest bidder, since he did not care which woman he would marry and sleep with. He agreed to produce an heir with whomever paid the highest price and use the money for badly needed infrastructure, such as building roads and hospitals.

“Although the Albanians were grateful for his role in liberating the people from the grip of the Turks, he was passed over as their king. Instead, the European powers installed a minor German prince, Wilhelm von Weid, who was deposed and expelled from Albania six months later.

“The impoverished Nopcsa lapsed into severe fits of depression. His financial humiliation was so extreme that by the end of his life his household servant had not been paid for four months. To cover his debts, he sold his fossil collection to the Natural History Museum in London, which caused his depression to worsen.

“Finally, after selling many of his prized books in 1933, he drugged Doda’s tea and fatally shot his lover and then himself. In a letter left for the police, he explained that his decision to commit suicide was the result of a nervous breakdown. His letter stated: ‘The reason that I shot my longtime friend and secretary, Mr. Bayazid Elmas Doda, in his sleep without his suspecting at all is that I did not wish to leave him behind sick, in misery and without a penny, because he would have suffered too much.’”

Baron Franz von Nopcsa left his detailed observations of the Albanian people and landscape to fellow scholar Norbert Jokl, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1942.

The documents, which give a valuable account of the Albanian culture before modernization, were then transferred to the Austrian National Library in Vienna, and Nopcsa’s palaeontological manuscripts went to the British Museum, where they languished in storage.