Monday, August 27, 2018

Who was St. Guinefort?

If you love dogs and you have had any minimal exposure to Catholicism, you're probably already familiar with St. Francis of Assisi. In the Catholic church, God is considered to be rather too busy to always help you find your lost car keys, which is usually when people decide to pray, particularly when they're late. In response, the church decided to name saints: people who definitely, totally, are 100% in heaven and can petition God's help on your behalf. Because, you know, God might listen to them. It's weird to think of God as a busy businessman with lots of little secretaries taking calls but then again, the religion is largely based on people getting tempted by a talking snake's fruit, so it's best not to think too hard about it.

St. Francis is the patron saint of animals. He's often depicted as a statue in gardens, wearing a little monk robe, a bird perched on his shoulder. St. Francis was the Disney princess of saints and therefore got a really great gig in the animal department of God's mail room. (Lesser saints have been stuck with answering the prayers of beekeepers, bellmakers, and beltmakers. St. Drogo got landed double-duty with both the patronage of coffee houses and ugly people. Saints don't just have people or places of speciality; they also have actions. If you get attacked by wolves, ask St. Defendens for help, although you could also maybe ask Francis, who, legend has it, tamed a wolf named Gubbio. On the other hand, if it's pirates who are attacking you, forget Francis; you'll want to ask for Albinus, patron saint of not being attacked by pirates. Since most of us only ever call upon saints after a night of hard drinking, I will take this opportunity to note that St. Bibiana is the patroness of hangovers.)

I could go on and on about saints because there's somewhere in the range of 10,000 of them. No one even knows for sure because, when the church first began, getting to be a saint was not a formal process.  Official canonizations didn't begin until 993, probably when someone was like, "oh, man, we're gonna end up with too many saints if we don't make the entry requirements a little bit tighter, here."

(Side note: the first saint formally canonized by a pope was Ulrich, whose specialties include anyone from the city of Augsburg, Germany, as well as pregnant women or women in labor, and anyone who's been bitten by a rabid dog.)

But for the sake of keeping this blog post concise, I want to focus on a single character from history: St. Guinefort.

Don't worry if you've never heard of him.  He's fairly obscure; the Catholic church has been denying him for years, probably because he's a dog.

But don't they know...?

The formal stance of the Catholic church has traditionally been that animals lack souls or agency or free will and therefore cannot "earn" a ticket to heaven and therefore cannot be saints.  But that didn't stop the people of 13th-century Lyon, France, from proclaiming Guinefort to be a Good Boy.

Making them honorary Presbyterians and/or cult members.

Although you've never heard of Guinefort, you've almost definitely heard of a story similar to Guinefort's.  According to legend, Guinefort was a faithful greyhound.  One day, upon returning from a hunting trip, the knight who owned him arrived to his castle to discover his infant son lying on the floor of the nursery, crying, the room in disarray: overturned furniture, pieces of suits of armor everywhere, I assume.  I don't know what medieval nurseries looked like.

Anyway, the knight found Guinefort there, bloody and acting weird, so naturally, he took the dog outside and beheaded him.

Later, he found the body of a venomous snake in the room and realized what had happened: Guinefort had selflessly attacked the snake to save the baby and ended up dead.

This might remind you of the 1800s Welsh legend of Gelert, the dog who belonged to Llywelyn and was slain defending his son from a wolf.

Or it might remind you of the 1950s Disney movie Lady and the Tramp, in which Tramp narrowly avoids being put down after being falsely accused of harming a baby while, in fact, he was saving it from a rat.

Upon the realization that Guinesfort was innocent, the knight constructed an elaborate shrine to him in the forest, with lots of nice trees and suits of armor, probably.  Again, not really sure what a shrine would look like back then.

How do we know so much about Guinesfort?  For this, you can thank Dominican friar Stephen of Bourbon.  An inquisitor and prolific writer (mostly on medieval heresies), he wrote a treatise in 1260 titled " De Supersticione: On St. Guinefort," in which he describes in ghastly detail how local folks went to the dog as a patron saint of children.  They left children at the shrine, hoping they'd come back to find them healed or at least swapped out with another healthy baby or a suit of armor or something.  Clearly an instance of idol-worship, Stephen the inquisitor had the shrine destroyed, the bones of the dog dug up and burned.  People back then really did not fuck around.  (Credit to Stephen, though: he noted in his writing that the dog's killing was unjust and tragic considering his innocence, usefulness, and nobleness.)

Stephen the inquisitor was one of the nicer, less torture-y ones, so after he destroyed the grave, he told the locals to knock it off with their dog-saint legend and left it at that.  (He considered the locals to merely be confused and described their changeling child rituals as seduced or tricked by the devil; he noted that women with sick children made easy targets.)

For all of his remarkably understanding writing (for an inquisitor), Stephen made a huge mistake: by giving so much undue attention to a local legend, he ensured that people continued to believe in St. Guinefort miracles.  After all, why would the Catholic church go to all the trouble of digging up Guinefort's bones if there wasn't some sort of magic there?

Guinefort's "grave" was actually a well and you can't exactly dig up a well; the well remained and of course the trees regrew.  As recently as the late 1800s there was a rite for sick children called "St. Guinefort's Wood," where tree branches were knotted together to "bind" the child’s ailments. A doctor in Ch√Ętillon-sur-Chalaronne confirmed the last known instance of this rite in the 1940s.

Despite the church's crusty insistence that St. Guinefort wasn't a saint and anyone who prayed to a dog was basically in a cult, St. Guinefort slipped his way into Catholic folklore.  He shows up in legends of St. Roch, a man who lived in the mid-1300s and worked with plague victims.  He ended up with the plague himself and was driven into the forest to die, but his faithful dog brought him bread until God healed him, and then he went right back to helping plague victims.  He's generally depicted showing us some leg and with his faithful dog, commonly called Guinefort.

 Bottom right corner: a well-bread dog.

St. Roch is the patron saint of dogs and falsely accused people.  You know.  Like Guinefort.

I have always loved the tale of St. Guinefort for obvious reasons.  I love dogs and was raised Catholic and think this is a fascinating bit of history.

Back when I worked at a lab with animal specimens, I had a number of portraits over my desk including a portrait of St. Guinefort and a picture of the monument to research mice.  Just a reminder to myself about the nobility of animal sacrifice.

But recently St. Guinefort came up again under pretty hilarious circumstances and that's what the second half of this post is about.

Lately I've made a fair number of posts about, you know, changing your opinion, opening your mind up to learning, that sort of thing.  I'm willing to consider other viewpoints and, honestly?  Even if they're stupid (like astrology and crystal healing), I think that as long as it's not doing any harm, it's okay.

But woo, boy.  Woo, boy, oh boy.  I've got me a hot one.

In the 2019 LA Pup pack this year there is one member who is interested heavily in what I would call "occult Catholicism."  He was raised Catholic like me but I try not to engage him much because his brand of religion sounds like a video game mixed with a peyote trip.  He seems to believe in a lot of weird stuff.  Not acceptable, talking-snake-giving-a-chick-an-apple weird, but really weird.  Like, blood rituals and secret societies and stuff like that.  Hoodoo, basically.  (I won't get into specifics here as I don't want to give too many personal details, although I will say that he told me his grandmother could bring herself back to life and that he has a suit of armor in the Vatican, both of which strike me as... not very believable.)

Every interaction with this guy.

It's very weird when someone is passionately telling you about their crazy beliefs and you're suddenly in between a rock and a hard place.  Do you play along with their delusion?  Do you try to gently correct them and risk insulting them or hurting their feelings?  Me, I normally change the subject tactfully.

In about 90% of cases, deflection works like a charm.  I've never seen the show Preacher but I think the idea of doing a dog/God mashup is a great way to piss off both human pups and religious folk, who tend to not always get along so good.  I'm not even sure how the idea of dressing up as a "dog god" is mind-blowing, conceptually, because that's like... the premise of the show, which is pretty widely considered to be blasphemous and self-servingly controversial.

Anyway, I felt the legend of St. Guinefort was a pretty innocuous way to reach out to a person who might have their deacon's collar screwed on too tight.  It's vaguely religious in nature but secular enough to be enjoyed by all.  Little did I realize what I was in for. 

Ho-ly shit.

Now's probably a good time to mention that this person not only believes everything he says but he says a lot.  He's a pretty arrogant person who never skips an opportunity to tell everyone about how incredible he is.  (To be fair, I think this is a defense mechanism; he seems to have very low self-worth to me.)  (One time, we stepped out of a festival and I said, "Give me a moment to remember where I parked my car."  To which he pointed out the cardinal directions and told me, at length, how he was a master navigator.  Which was great but utterly useless to me.  "Oh, cool, I knew my car was north-northwest, let's go."  Like, gimme a break.)

And obviously, there's no way he could have studied "all" the saints.  As I mentioned, there's about 10,000.  And Guinefort isn't a saint; he's a heresy.  The church is very anti-Guinefort.

Also, read the room!  This was in a group chat with like 10 queer people.  Exorcisms are one of those practices that I believe is inherently harmful.  When it's not being used as a justification to torture homosexuals and the mentally ill, it's being used in place of actual medical treatment, making it a dangerous exercise.

Historically it's... let's just say problematic.  Not that I believe this guy ever has or ever will perform an exorcism, but his fantasies of being a vampire-hunting, demon-slaying Catholic superhero just slipped from comically awkward to something more sinister.

I decided not to touch the exorcism thing and focus instead on the Guinefort thing.

OH MY GOD.  He still wouldn't admit he was lying out his ass!  Like... I backed slowly away from your craziness and you doubled down on your lie.

Is it really that hard to just say "I've never heard of St. Guinefort?"  Considering the obscurity of the legend, I doubted that anyone knew.  And if he wanted to pretend to know already, a cursory Google search would have shown him that Guinefort's "sainthood" is purely honorary in nature.

As politely as possible I explained that Guinefort was not a saint but still he insisted he not only knew about Guinefort but had "studied" him.  (Again: the Catholic church documents the Guinefort legend as heresy and probably would have thought Guinefort believers themselves needed an exorcism.)

But he insisted that some shadowy "they" had taught him all about Guinefort already, so I said it was great he knew the legend and let it go.

After he starting talking about the occult studies I deflected again, this time with better success.

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke

I was so totally blown away by the interaction, from the casual mention of exorcisms in a roomful of gays leather daddies, to the insistent that his knowledge of the saints encompassed all ten thousand of them plus a few heresy dogs thrown into the mix.

In any case, it gave me an opportunity to talk here on my blog about Guinefort and his unhinged fella, who might want to possibly call on St. Dymphna to intercede on his behalf.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Astrology and Crystals: I Hate Them (Because I'm a Gemini)

In my last post I talked about the leather subculture.  The leather subculture, because it is a counter-culture, rejects a lot of basic societal structures.  For example, leather folk are often very anti-religion.  This makes sense especially when you consider that organized religion is not all that friendly toward queer culture; a lot of leather folk, especially the gay men, have experienced systematic prejudice at the hands of organized religion, and have wiped their hands clean of it.

However, in order to make sense of the endless void and abyss that awaits us once we die, a lot of leather folk turn to... non-traditional belief systems.

Specifically I'm talking about astrology, but I've also seen crystals and oils make the rounds.  Today I want to talk about those things and why they INFURIATE me.

It's not just my FaceBook friends who peddle these ridiculous beliefs.  Because I make a lot of posts and read a lot of sites about fitness and wellness, my FB feed has become clogged with snake oil "supplements" claiming to help with weight loss.

Say it with me, folks: DIET AND EXERCISE.

The only way to lose weight is with lifestyle changes, not with products.

There is no magic pill or wrap or shake or vitamin. Don't waste your money.  (It's no coincidence that many oils and supplements of questionable origin that are not FDA approved come from predatory multi-level marketing schemes.)

The astrology thing in particular bothers me for two reasons: one, it removes personal agency.  Two, it's so incredibly easily disprovable.

In general I'm against any system that categorizes people because it's an over-simplification of personality and creates rigid labels that deny people their full human complexity.

Yes, even Myers-Briggs.

Side note: I am an "INTJ" personality, which, according to the Myers-Briggs website, means that I dislike rules, limitations and traditions, and believe that everything should be open to questioning and reevaluation.

 Damn it.

The reason for this post is because recently, while talking to the 2019 LA Pup Pack, someone mentioned they were a Gemini.  As usual, it was an excuse for a shitty personality trait.  People often use astrology to explain away their flaws.  The thing is, if you're aware of the flaw... why not work on it?  In this circumstance, Green said, "I'm bad at deadlines."  (The deadline is over two months away.)  Green has TWO MONTHS to get their shit together!  And meanwhile, Green had implicated me (and another person who was born in May) in that shitty personality trait.

Right here, we see the problem with astrology.  In a single sentence I destroyed the notion of Geminis having a trait by pointing out that I don't fall into that.  And Green's response?  "Oh, you're the other kind."

So Geminis are either good or bad at deadlines.

That doesn't sound like it's a "Gemini trait."  That sounds like it's literally every possibility that exists

On a side note, I love how Yellow popped in and blurted out what I was thinking, although it was pretty harsh.  And, props to Green, they took it very well.

Green went on to say that they hate labels... which is weird considering that at that point, the phrase "as a Gemini" had come up three times already.

Finally, when it came up YET AGAIN, I asked them to stop.

And they did, which was nice.  Still, it put me in a very awkward position to have to ask them to stop in the first place.

Aside from disliking labeling people, I dislike the justification of shitty traits based on arbitrary demographics.  Have some agency; work on your flaws.  And for crying out loud, don't implicate others.  Saying "as a Gemini..." immediately, by extension, implicates all other May babies in whatever you're about to say.  So you're not only abdicating your own, personal responsibility, but that of others, as well.  And that's not okay.

The only explanation for the continued belief in such a ridiculous set of beliefs is superstition; take, for example, B.F. Skinner's Pigeon Superstition experiment, in which he got pigeons to do elaborate dance rituals to get rewards.  The rewards were distributed randomly, yet the pigeons continued to believe there was some sort of causality to their fancy footwork.

Astrology can easily be disproven with a single question: Why isn't everyone born in May exactly the same?  But this has not made people any less convinced there's some truth to their horoscopes.

Look no further than FaceBook, where you will see tons and tons of posts that say things like, "the following signs will do ANYTHING for their families," and then proceed to list half of the signs.  I hate these.  They apply to everyone and create such idiotically broad generalizations that ANYONE can identify with that.  It's manipulative and, I hate to say it, it works great on people with simple minds.

I also know someone in the greater leather community who is into crystals.  Like horoscopes, crystals are one of those things that seem to me something that should have long-since been disproven.  I know next to nothing about crystals and, being a Gemini and therefore inherently curious, I decided to have an open mind and ask this crystal-believing person to explain to me how they work.

They explained that the body is made up of "chakras" which are, conveniently, arranged in a rainbow, and that you can strengthen chakras by using crystals of correlating colors.  (This sounded to me, so far, like it had been written by a preschooler.)

They offered to do a "cold read" on me.  This involved holding my hands and staring into my eyes for an uncomfortable amount of time.

At the end they suggested I needed orange and light blue, which correlate to sexuality and communication.  They said that they felt that I had trouble "feeling heard" and communicating myself, and also that the power of orange crystals could help with my gender dysmorphia.

Okay, so, full stop.

First of all, if you're reading my blog, you're probably already HYPER aware that I EXCEL at oration.  I am an author, both by hobby and by trade.  I write for fun.  I write for money.  I give presentations and classes and speeches at events and, trust me, I'm the guy you want to hand a mike to.  I have NEVER felt unable to make myself heard.  Words are my materials, and I am a master craftsman.

The saddest part of this utterly inaccurate statement was that this person had been a judge at my leather contest, and had complimented me on being incredibly well-spoken.  So I have no idea whether this cold reading was a) something that they told EVERYBODY, or b) based on some strange notion that perhaps I was secretly hiding a speech insecurity and that my incredible ability to communicate was over-compensation for it.

Second of all, I took some offense to the idea that I needed a magic sex stone.  Yes, I'm androgynous.  Yes, my gender is one of those bizarre non-binaries that people love to wrap their entire personalities around.  But guess what?  I'm not defined by my gender.  I don't really need my gender or sexuality to define me.  I don't need a label for it.  And I don't experience any sort of body dysmorphia; my body is what it is, a vehicle that I'm piloting through life, and I think it's a pretty good one, even if I'd prefer one that was taller and beefier.  A big assumption was made about how I feel about myself and I didn't like that at all; it was a stereotype.  That because I don't fit into a traditional masculine role, I must have some sort of sexual dysfunction or insecurity.  Wrong.

So, in conclusion, I determined that crystals are stupid.  (Although I will admit, very pretty.  I had a geode on my coffee table.  It helps my room decoration / interior design chakra.)

I think that everyone needs to believe in something to make sense of the world.  And that's okay.  Whether it's "traditional" organized religion, or crystals, or astrology, if it brings people comfort, that's okay.  However, these things should NEVER be used to justify the abuse of another person (as traditional religion has done), to replace scientific or medical treatment (as crystals have done), or to justify crappy personality traits, make decisions for you, or lump people into categories (as astrology has done).

Ironically, the same people who have abandoned religion for its problems have ended up emulating it in their own beliefs. 

At the end of the day, there's nothing wrong with beliefs, so long as they aren't harmful.  If a person is a Christian, for example, that's okay.  What's not okay is using those aspects of their personality to treat another person badly.  And if someone likes essential oils or crystals, that's okay, too.  So long as they're not destroying their finances in a multi-level marketing scheme or denying themselves legitimate medical treatment in the process.

There's comfort to be had in beliefs and I'm glad that I have such a wide berth of people to expose me to theirs.  That being said, as a Gemini?  I'd rather not take part.

Monday, August 13, 2018

LA Leather Pup Title

In a previous post I talked a bit about leather culture.

Here's another leather-oriented post.  This one will focus on leather pups, a subculture within a subculture.  It is somewhat NSFW so consider this your first and last warning before you start scrolling.

 This is about a NSFW as it gets.
If this doesn't make you angry as fuck then you are broken as a person.
I fucking hate minions.

If you are unfamiliar with leather culture, I can summarize it in about two paragraphs.  Post-WWII there was a movement of gay sexual liberation, in which leather had a heavy component in terms of protocol, dominance, and experience, with various types and colors of leather indicating various things.  Men had leather from the war and its ubiquitous presence as motorcycle safety gear made it a commodity that could ostensibly be useful in "vanilla" life; because of the criminalization of homosexuals during the '40s and '50s, leather culture was a closed subculture designed to allow gay men to explore BDSM dynamics in a safe, insular environment.  Aspects of the lifestyle included homoerotic masculinity, hierarchical seniority, respect for protocol and service, and community-based support.

Leather culture revolved madly around leather bars.  (The "gay biker bar" trope is there for a reason, folks.)  In order to drum up business, in the 1970s, leather bars began having "title contests," pageants designed mostly to bring in patrons. The competitive element made the title contests more interesting to watch and provided a structure for multiple hotties to go through multiple costume changes on the stage.  However, the contests soon went beyond merely being a bar gimmick.  Contests became regional in nature and "winners" held on to their title for a year, during which time they operated as a sort of liaison for the community and a pillar of what the particular community stood for.

 Y'know, wholesome stuff.

Nowadays, there are probably thousands of titles.  You can read about the original, Mr. International Leather here; it's been around since 1979.

In this day and age there are leather titles for bars, dungeons, regions, states, subcultures, and everything in between.  There's titles for boot blacks and bears, daddies and drag queens, the city of Cincinnati.  There's a leather title for rubber and a leather title for latex.  There's a leather title for just about everything nowadays.  If you go to a leather bar you'll probably meet a leather title holder, past or current.  (Most leather titles are, like a beauty pageant title, "active" for one year.)

So now that we're all on the same page, I'd like to talk about one of my favorite leather titles: LA Pup.

Los Angeles Pup is a title contest that is part of LA Puppy Pride in November.  Leather pups are pretty much what you think they are.


At Valley Pride last weekend I was asked by a cop what was up with all the people in dog masks.  (She was very openly curious and non-judgemental about it, which was awesome.)  I explained as best I could that leather pups are a subcommunity of leather folk who enjoy emulating dogs because dogs are, among other things, playful, loyal, and eager to please.

Dogs experience a world of unadulterated joy and delight in their usefulness there. 


It's a good place to be, roleplay-wise.

So much happiness.

LA Pup's mission statement is "to help build a non-oppressive, open-minded, and optimistic community in Los Angeles," one that strives for inclusive spaces where people can engage in animal roleplay without shame.

Lots of pups have trouble confronting their own self-consciousness.

So why am I telling you all about how great it is to be a dog?

...I decided to run for the title.

My previous title, Inland Empire Leather Ambassador, was fraught with drama.  That wasn't any one particular person's fault.  It's just that, in small circles, drama is bound to happen, and I was not yet entirely equipped to handle it.

 I got into some reeeeeal trouble.

After a year of learning and practicing diplomacy, learning when to shut my face and when to stand up for myself, I realized that, even though I'd had a hard title run, I had grown enormously as a person.

Although my title run has been hard I genuinely believe that the challenges it has given me have helped me grow as a person and get better at managing conflict.  I an a conflict-adverse person who generally loathes disagreement of any sort, so this has really thrown me out of my comfort zone. But I think learning to accept that not everyone will like me has been beneficial. I think I'm more confident and honest now... especially about issues that matter to me. 

 Dog awareness.

The title "Ambassador" means always putting my best foot forward. But having the title has helped me be a more conscientious person who is more mindful of his words and actions. I think the title has grown me more than I have grown my title.  And that's a good thing.

I am now nearing the end of my title and if there is one thing I have learned, it's that I don't have to live my life with an intention not to offend. Some people may not like my ideas or beliefs. That's fine. I offer them respectfully and with the intent of making the world a better place. Having done all I can to present them considerately, at this point, if people are offended, it is entirely their own problem to deal with.

Standing up for your beliefs is not meant to be easy. If it were, it would mean nothing.

The LA Pup title is one I'm looking forward to because I've always identified as a pup.  "Tony Bark" has been floating around LA for years.  I've won two Best in Shows (as a human pup) and volunteered at every event under the sun.  I've attended conferences, taught classes on human-animal roleplay, produced, and MCed conventions.  I've been in the community and this year, I decided to run, because the title will give me the visibility to do more.

Above: Tony Bark
Below: Ruby as the Iron Pupper

Running for the title involves going to a few photography events, being an active volunteer in the community, and of course the title contest itself.

I've been producing "Puppypalooza" for years.  
We herd a human sheep!

Running for the title also requires you to put together an "auction basket" for a silent raffle.  This helps offset the production cost of the production.  Initially I was worried about this but, $700 worth of sponsorships later (and counting!), this is no longer my biggest concern.  It turns out that if you ask politely, most places are more than willing to help a pup out.  Then again, maybe leatherfolk just really, really like pups.  There's a huge pup community in Los Angeles; last year's title contest had an attendance of 200-300 people and this year we expect to break 300.  I guess it's nice to see a contingency of leatherfolk who are optimistic, cheerful, relatively free of drama, generous, and... well... you know, doglike.  Leatherfolk just love human pups.  What's not to love?

The title contest itself takes place over a weekend, and is comprised of an informal meet and greet, some private interview questions with judges, some public questions and speeches...

...and a fantasy/scene production.  I'm still figuring mine out.  Plus like, four or five costume changes.

Mine are literally all Iron Man.  I might try to incorporate a Barky Barnes or Thorgi just to mix shit up, though.

So far I've found the whole thing to be a really energizing and engaging process.  I'm working alongside 7 other contestants plus last year's winner and the two producers of the contest. 

 Above: Pup Rush, the 2018 title winner, who is about the nicest husky you'll ever meet.
 Below: the contestants for this year.  Can you spot the Tony?

It's been fun.  And I might actually have a chance at winning this thing!  Paws crossed.  In any case, it's been a good use of my time lately and I'm happy to be a part of it.  Be prepared for future blog posts about my title run.

This title will finally answer the age-old question: who's a good dog?