Port Lockroy blog 2: Happy Polar Pride!
Laura Büllesbach, museum manager and postmaster at Port Lockroy, celebrates Polar Pride by remembering British polar explorer and botanist Elke Mackenzie.
To mark Polar Pride Day, which takes place every 18 November, our team at Port Lockroy had a day of colourful celebrations. Polar Pride was initiated in 2020 and highlights the contributions of LGBTQ+ people to polar sciences in both Antarctica and the Arctic. And what better place is there to celebrate than on our gorgeous island surrounded by glaciers and gentoo neighbours?
Laura celebrates Polar Pride (Credit: Laura Büllesbach/UKAHT)
As if the weather knew that there was cause to celebrate, we woke up to sunshine, a cloudless sky and mountains being reflected in the shimmering sea. Invigorated by the glorious weather, we located a vast array of glue, scissors and pens and rolled up our sleeves. In a creative crafting session, everyone produced a variety of Pride placards and decorations. And then we were ready to march!
Have we ever had a Pride parade with sledges, anyone? Dressed in our most colourful puffer jackets and equipped with flags and handmade placards, our procession of five (plus Bluey the bear) walked and pulled our way over the length of our 200m-long island. Instead of music, we were accompanied by the cries of skuas and snowy sheathbills over our heads.
Bridie celebrates Polar Pride (Credit: Laura Büllesbach/UKAHT)
At the end of our procession, we raised the Pride flag high into the sky on our flagpole, where it will stay for the rest of the season because Polar Pride is every day! With the gentoos cheering us on from a distance and the Antarctic sun shining in our faces, this was the most special Pride celebration I have ever had.
To me, Pride means being able to feel comfortable in being myself in this different and unknown environment. It also means seeing and experiencing it with open eyes, challenging heteronormative biases when observing the nature around us and advocating for more diverse polar sciences beyond queer identities.
Most importantly, it means thinking about and honouring the people that have come before us. Here in Port Lockroy, we are walking in the footsteps of Elke McKenzie – a trans woman and passionate lichenologist. An Assistant Keeper of lichen collections at the Natural History Museum in London, Elke had a special interest in the lichens of Antarctica.
In 1943, scientists were sent to Port Lockroy as part of the Second World War’s secret Operation Tabarin. Elke joined and finally got a chance to study them up close. She went on to spend three years in Port Lockroy and managed to collect over 1,000 specimens – even discovering a new species of lichen!
Until today, her discovery Verrucaria serpuloides is the only known lichen with a permanent habitat under the ocean water. Apart from conducting her studies, Elke documented everyday life on base with diary entries, photographs and wonderfully detailed drawings.
Clare celebrates Polar Pride (Credit: Laura Büllesbach/UKAHT)
After her return from Port Lockroy, Elke became the director of the Farlow Herbarium of Cryptogamic Botany at Harvard University and even went back to Antarctica again in 1964. In 1971, she legally transitioned. Harvard was unsupportive of her decision and forced her into early retirement, which brutally ended her successful career.
Almost all of Elke’s work was published before her transition and under her birth name. This includes her book ‘The Secret South’, which describes her experiences during Operation Tabarin. In her later works, however, she began to include her chosen name.
In the 1972 issue of Occasional Papers of the Farlow Herbarium of Cryptogamic Botany, she acknowledged herself, “Thank you to Miss Elke Mackenzie for technical and bibliographic assistance in the preparation of this paper”.
Raising the Pride flag (Credit: Laura Büllesbach/UKAHT)
Today, when I admire the colourful lichen I see on beach walks and write base diary entries that continue the ones she wrote back in the 1940s when we have art-making sessions or take photographs of our life on base, it feels like ours and Elke’s lives are not so different. I wonder what she must have felt like and thought about, standing on those same rocks as we are today.
I wish she could see that 80 years after her time in Port Lockroy, a Pride Parade is marching across the island!
– Laura Büllesbach, museum manager and postmaster, Port Lockroy
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