Sunday, 1 December 2019

Deck the Halls: 1) Three Queer Kings

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the traditional time of year when we start thinking about Christmas and putting up decorations.

Like me you’ve probably got all or most of your decorations ready. The English tradition is to put them up during Advent, and the last thing to do is to put a star on top of the Christmas tree after sunset on Christmas Eve (NEVER put the star on the tree before then). One tradition that has been forgotten is that you leave the decoration up until February 2nd, the actual last day of Christmas.

On each Sunday this Advent I’m writing about some Christmas decorations and their queer connections. Perhaps you’ll be able to get some last minute ideas, or some for next year if you’ve got this year sorted out.

Rather than put up the same decorations every year I try to have a different theme. In a previous home in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, I chose the Three Kings as my theme for Christmas 1996. Whether you call them the Three Kings, the Three Wise Men of the Three Magi these characters have become so entrenched in Christian lore (not to be confused with Christian doctrine) that they are the world’s second most popular Christmas gift-bringers, bringing gifts for all or most of the Hispanic world.

The current thinking about the Three Kings strips away all the medieval elaborations and accepts that they were eastern priests, astrologers of shamen. Being referred to a “wise” in some versions of the nativity story suggests they held honoured positions in their own communities.

In more recent years research into ancient religions and beliefs has revealed that many of the pagan faiths had priests who were either eunuch, transgender or intersex. This has led to the theory that the Three Kings were also gender variant. Another theory is that all of the Three Kings were women. This has caused some controversy among conservative Christians, as you can imagine.

For further discussion on the gender of the Three Kings/Wise Men/Magi/Queens I direct you to the following article, one of several on the internet discussing the subject: “Epiphany: Three Kings or Three Queens?”.

Back to the Christmas decorations. In 1996 I decided to use three corners of my living room to create something to represent each of the traditional Three Kings. But first I had to identify them and decide what objects and symbols I would to use to represent them.

The names were easy, they are well known – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. I was a keen heraldry buff even in 1996 so I knew that medieval heralds had invented coats of arms for them, so I made shields out of cardboard. Unfortunately, the medieval representations and sources were never consistent so in the end I had to decide which coat of arms I’d use. The same went for objects to represent the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. To add to the atmosphere of the displays I chose a different incense to go with each King. Finally, I chose a main colour for each of them. My final choice was as follows:

KING
TRADITIONAL GIFT
INCENSE
COLOUR
Casper
frankincense
frankincense
gold
Melchior
myrrh
myrrh
blue
Balthazar
gold
rose
red
 
Now I was ready to construct a corner display for each King. I was lucky, I lived in an old house that had a picture rail around the top of the room so I had something I could hang the decorations from.

I won’t go into detail about how I constructed the displays because it would take too long. Basically, I began with three cardboard boxes and turned them into triangular shelves that fit snuggly into the corners. I then suspended the shelves from the picture rail with string (you can see some string showing in the red Balthazar display). I realised that the shelves wouldn’t hold much weight so I made sure everything I put on it was a light as possible. On top of each corner display I made royal eastern headgear under which to suspended the coats of arms.

The finished displays are shown below.

On the shelves I put holders for the incense sticks and objects to represent the Kings’ gifts. Gold was represented by a cardboard gold bar. Frankincense was represented by a small oriental-looking bottle. Myrrh was represented by a small cardboard treasure chest. These are shown in close-up below.

With a bit of evergreen decoration and some tinsel the displays were complete. I still consider this to be one of my favourite Christmas ideas. I’d probably do some things differently, but in 1996 it was perfect.

I’m sure you’ll have you own ideas about how to use a Three Kings theme.

Next Sunday I’ll look at another popular Christmas decoration. No Christmas would be complete without them – fairy lights.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Indulging in the Sisters' Anniversary

Among the high-profile anniversaries of 2019 is another which has had little attention outside the USA. That is the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Its members have a highly visible and recognisable presence in the lgbt community and it is only proper that I “indulge” in their celebrating their 40 year service and devotion to lgbt causes.

What I find particularly interesting about the origin of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence is how much the anti-clerical parody and satire of its original purpose echoes the anti-clerical parody and satire of medieval French performing troupes. These French performers went on to inspire the Mattachine Society, the America gay rights organisation of the 1950s which I wrote about earlier this year.

Perhaps unknowingly the founders of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence became part of this long tradition of masked or disguised satirist groups. The use of white-face make-up by the Sisters is a direct parallel of the masks worn by those medieval French performers.

On 17th September 2012 I wrote briefly about three members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Today we’ll have a look at the origins of the Sisterhood.

The main centre of activism by the first Sisters may have been in San Francisco but their roots go halfway across the USA to Iowa.

In the mid-1970s at the University of Iowa Kenneth Bunch was a gay activist and publisher of “Radical Faery magazine” (the Radical Faeries were another early lgbt group). Kenneth also founded a small performance group called the Sugar Plum Fairies. At one of their planning meetings one of the Sugar Plums happened to mention that she knew the Mother Superior of a convent in Cedar Rapids and that she was sure she could persuade her to loan the group some nuns’ habits for some of their drag performances. Of course, the subject of drag wasn’t mentioned to the Mother Superior. Instead she was told they were for an amateur production of “The Sound of Music”.

Having acquired the nuns habits the Sugar Plum Fairies began performing around Iowa. This was an unusual sight in drag, as you might expect, as most drag performances at the time were dominated by classic diva tribute acts – Judy Garland, Edith Piaf and 1960s stars like Diana Ross. The sight of drag nuns in a pompom routine really stirred things up.

The white-face make-up characteristic of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence came through a different route.

In Iowa City Kenneth Bunch had a room-mate who was a photographer. Now and again they would indulge in the fashionable habit of taking drugs and Kenneth would then dress up and put on white make-up. His room-mate would then photograph him. For Kenneth these photos proved to be vitally influential because they appeared more dramatic and expressive than photos of him without make-up. Again, perhaps unknowingly, Kenneth had latched on to the original reason why clowns have such distinctive white make-up.

Fast forward to 1977 and San Francisco. Kenneth had now moved from Iowa and was turning into what known as the San Francisco “clone”, a denim and leather-clad macho stereotype that was becoming fashionable.

Kenneth persuaded an old activist friend from Iowa, Fred Brungard, to move to San Francisco and share a house with him. Kenneth was realising the clone look was becoming conformist so he persuaded Fred and another friend, Baruch Golden, to liven up the Easter weekend of 1979.

Just about the only drag-related items Kenneth brought to San Francisco with him from Iowa were the nuns’ habits. He was moving away from drag and towards the clone look and for some reason decided only to keep the nuns habits.

And so, on Easter Saturday, 14th April, 1979 Kenneth, Fred and Baruch decided to go into the gay quarter of San Francisco dressed a nuns. Kenneth was the only one with white-face. The sight of these “nuns” created quite a stir and so the soon-to-be-named Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence made their first appearance in public and went on to inspire thousands of others in the years that have followed.

Of course, the Sisterhood didn’t form directly out of that Easter Saturday appearance. There was another appearance by Kenneth Bunch and another friend, Edmund Garron, which created some disruption to the annual softball match between the Gay Softball League and the San Francisco Fire Department the following June.

It was only when Kenneth, Fred, Baruch and Edmund decided to move in together that the idea of a Sisterhood was discussed. The flat they shared on Ashbury Street became known as “The Convent” and was the venue for the first meetings of the newly-named Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

And they’ve been perpetually indulging in their activism, fund-raising, charity work and performances ever since. Many Orders, both in the USA and around the world have created a unique and highly recognisable element to the lgbt community. Happy 40th Anniversary Sisters.


I shall be back in December with four articles on each Advent Sunday looking at four types of Christmas decoration and their lgbt links, and ideas on how to make your own last minute decorations based on them.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

King Tut and the Mummy's Curse

Its Hallowe’en and time to scare ourselves silly with the 20th century interpretation of the many traditional global ancestor worship festivals held at this time of year. Today I’m writing about one of the most popular supernatural elements often included in 20th century Hallowe’en celebrations, the curse of the Egyptian mummy, and why we have to thank a member of the lgbt community for it.

Today the mummy’s curse has come to include that of any real of fictional Egyptian mummy but for most of the 20th century the curse was associated with one Egyptian in particular, the world famous Tutankhamun.

The fabulous treasures of Tutankhamun, not to mention the story behind its discovery, still captivates the world. A new touring exhibition of some of the treasures is currently making its way around the globe. It is being billed as the first and last chance to see these treasures outside Egypt.

The attraction of Tutankhamun is not only in the treasures and his own life story but what is alleged to have happened to those who were involved in the opening of his tomb in 1922. It didn’t take long for the media to start labelling the series of supposedly unexplained deaths as the curse of Tutankhamun. But where did that idea come from?

Curses are, of course, not a modern concept. They’ve been around for as long as humanity has. Yet none of them refer specifically to any revenge from a mummy. Even the idea of an Egyptian mummy going on the rampage to eke out its revenge wasn’t a new one in 1922.

Ever since ancient Egypt became “fashionable” during the Napoleonic era in the early 19th century there have been novels written about mummies coming alive. The first was “The Mummy!” published in 1827. Even such authors as Louisa May Alcott of “Little Women” fame tried her hand at Egyptian gothic horror in 1869 with “Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse”.

The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb sparked a revival in Egyptology. Improvements in international communications in the early 20th century made it a worldwide phenomenon. Similarly, the mummy’s curse became known worldwide, and it was after 1922 that the curse became associated with one pharaoh in particular. There were letters published in the world’s press at the time that voiced objection to the desecration of Tutankhamun’s tomb. One letter, published on 24th March 1923, stated that the Earl of Carnarvon, leader of the Tutankhamun excavation, was the victim of a curse. Carnarvon had been seriously ill just a few months after the tomb was opened. Very few people took much notice of this opinion – until the Earl of Carnarvon died two weeks later.

The press went into overdrive. They reported Carnarvon’s death as the result of the curse of Tutankhamun. Many other people on Carnarvon’s excavation team were also reported to have become victims of the curse when they died, irrespective of any proven natural cause. I won’t go into all the details but you can discover more for yourself on the internet.

Let’s return to that specific letter in 1923 which linked the mummy’s curse to Tutankhamun. It was written by the most popular novelist in Victorian England. Not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or even Charles Dickens, but Marie Corelli (1855-1924).

Marie was born Mary Mackay in London, the illegitimate daughter of a Scottish song-writing poet and his house servant. Mary inherited her father’s musical talents and began giving piano recitals under the more romantic name of Marie Correlli. It was under that name that she wrote dozens of novels and short stories. He novels were extremely popular, though a little melodramatic (very reminiscent of the extreme camp melodrama of television series like “Game of Thrones”).

Although Marie fell in love with a married man the love was not returned and she never fell in love with another man after that. At the time she was living with Bertha Vyver (1854-1941). They had attended school together before Bertha became housekeeper and nurse to Marie’s father. They lived together for over forty years. There’s nothing to prove a physical lesbian relationship between, though several of Marie’s biographers have remarked that some of her novels contain many erotic descriptions of feminine beauty which they suggest may be an indication of her own bisexuality. Bertha was an inspiration to Marie and became her literary executor. After their deaths they were buried together.

What interested Marie Correlli in the mummy’s curse and Tutankhamun was her fascination for the supernatural and esoteric subjects. The Victorian era saw a growth in a variety of beliefs and practices whether it was Spiritualism or reincarnation. The mummy’s curse was just one of the supernatural beliefs that she supported.

In her letter to the press in 1923 Marie said that the illness that had descended upon the Earl of Carnarvon was foretold in a book she owned called “An Egyptian History of the Pyramids”. She claimed it described various methods the ancient Egyptians used to poison any intruder into tombs, and that a supernatural curse is implied. It didn’t matter that the book in question was mainly fiction.

To the general public and the press what Marie said was important because she was so popular. She wondered if Carnarvon’s illness was really caused by a mosquito bite (which it actually was). Carnarvon was just one of the hundreds of people who died in Cairo from an infected mosquito bite.

The press started circulating rumours of death warnings found on the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb (there were none) and Marie Correlli confounded the issue by starting her own rumour by claiming that there was an inscription carrying the famous warning “death comes on wings to he who enters the tomb of a pharaoh” (evidence suggests she made this up herself).

But, like urban legends and modern fake news reports the public and press came to believe it as fact. They believed the mummy’s curse and Tutankhamun’s curse in particularly were true. Those who said it wasn’t true were ridiculed and were accused of proving there was a cover-up.

And so we arrive in 2019 and the mummy’s curse and Tutankhamun still has a mysteriously strange grip on society, thanks in no small part to Marie Correlli, a bisexual best-selling Victorian novelist.


I’m having another short break now. I’ll be back on 15th November.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Hadrian's Beard

Have you noticed how the fashion in men’s facial hair keeps changing? You can almost tell which decade a particular style of beard comes from. History has some famous examples (William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin).

Just over nineteen hundred years ago there was a time and person to whom a specific change in beard fashion can be attributed. The year was 117 AD and the man was the Roman emperor Hadrian (76-138), pictured below. It was because he was the emperor that his preferred style of beard became fashionable.

In the main Romans considered beards as “un-Roman”. Around the empire there were various traditional hair styles used by the inhabitants of the conquered nations (think Asterix the Gaul), but if you wanted to be considered a citizen of the Roman Empire you were clean-shaven. Some younger male Romans had neatly-trimmed beards, perhaps as a sign of reaching manhood. Older Romans tended to have no beard at all.

Roman emperors had preferred to be depicted as clean-shaven, as can be seen from their coins and statues. Below is a composite of the depictions of emperors in chronological order. Note the absence of beards before him and the preponderance of beards after him.

In pre-imperial times beards were common. As the empire expanded Romans began to see themselves as superior to the conquered nations, and to have a beard like their conquered people meant they were just as inferior as them. So, beards became of sign of barbarity and uncivilised communities.

The words “barbarity” and “barbarian” were Greek in origin and meant someone who didn’t speak Greek. They “babbled”, and the Greek for that was “barbaros”. The meaning was extended to any behaviour that was considered un-Greek and uncivilised. Ironically, it was the Greeks who influenced Hadrian in his choice of un-Roman “barbaric” facial hair.


ven though the Romans had a low opinion of anyone with a beard they hero-worshipped the ancient Greek philosophers who were always depicted with bushy beards. Most of these philosophers followed the traditional practise of having beardless boy-lovers, and had themselves been boy-lovers to older men.

This boy-lover tradition appealed to Hadrian. In general the Romans were opposed to such relationships but Hadrian was living during a period of Hellenisation in the empire which was to blossom during his reign through his influence.

This Hellenisation was actually sparked by Greece itself. There was a move among the Romanised Greek aristocracy to re-adopt the dress and styles of earlier ages to re-assert their Greekness. Through Roman influence the Greeks were also generally beardless, but around the beginning of the first millennium they began start to dress like ancient Greeks and grow beards. These became popular even among the populace. Big, bushy philosopher beards were everywhere, and you didn’t need to be a wise philosopher to grow one.

Hadrian knew Greece well. He had spent time in Athens as Archon, the appointed ruler, in 112 following the death of his mentor Sura. There were some political machinations against Sura’s supporters and Hadrian seems to have been pushed off to Greece to keep him out of Roman politics (he had been made a Roman consul in 108). This actually worked in Hadrian’s favour, and by the time the political situation had died down and he was recalled to Rome he had become enamoured of the Greek way of life. Perhaps this was when he began to grow his beard.

Hadrian’s political career got back on track on his return to Rome. He became a trusted companion and military commander to the emperor Trajan. When Trajan died on 7th August 117 Hadrian was popularly acclaimed as his successor. Hadrian kept his beard, neatly trimmed and fashionably styled. Beards were back! His Hellenisation of the Roman Empire was just as popular.

For almost a century Hadrian’s successors had beards of various lengths. Even the teenage emperors such as Elegabalus had wispy beards. The only ones who didn’t were Emperor Geta, and Diadumenian who was made co-emperor at the age of 9 by his father Emperor Macrinus. They were both killed the following month. From the reign of Elegabalus’s successor, Severus Alexander, onwards beards came and went. When the Roman Empire was converted to Christianity by Emperor Constantine the Great in 313 beards went out of fashion once more. Very few emperors were depicted with facial hair after that.

Who knows what would have happened if Hadrian didn’t keep his beard. Perhaps beards would never have become “civilised”, after all the Roman Empire continued for about another 300 years after his death and its influence would have lasted well into the so-called Dark Ages. Maybe beards never would have become popular. Who knows?

For people like myself with some form of facial hair we have much to thank a gay emperor for turning the beard from the facial adornment of barbarians into the fashionable style for the respectable and civilised gentleman. What’s more, next month’s Movember charity (where men grow beards to raise awareness and funds for male cancer research) may never have been invented.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Game of Gay Thrones: Part 3

When I wrote my original “Game of GayThrones” article in 2017 about lgbt claimants and pretenders to royal thrones I didn’t think there’d be any more. How wrong I was. Here I am with my third group, and there’s enough for a fourth next year. So, let’s get straight into it and find out about these other possible lgbt monarchs.

1) Hierocles (d.222) – proposed Emperor of Rome.

Hierocles was a Roman slave and the boy-lover to a future emperor, Gordian, but it is another emperor who proposed Hierocles as his heir. Gordian recognised Hierocles’ athletic abilities (I wonder how!) and taught him chariot racing. It was during a race that Hierocles came to the attention of the 19-year old Emperor Elegabalus.

During the race Hierocles fell out off his chariot right in front of the royal box (I don’t believe in coincidence). His helmet flew off to reveal his fresh young face and blond hair. Elegabalus was instantly aroused and wasted no time at all in rushing down to help the youth to his feet and whisk him off for a night of passion.

Now a freed slave and favourite male lover of the emperor Hierocles found himself as the “husband” in a same-sex marriage (Elegabalus was a hereditary High Priest, so he could perform any marriage he wanted). Unfortunately, Elegabalus wanted to make his “husband” his Caesar, effectively his imperial heir. Even Elegabalus’s politically powerful grandmother objected and persuaded him to nominate his cousin as Caesar instead. But for a while Hierocles was in the running for successor to the Roman Emperor.

It wasn’t that much later that the Praetorian Guard tired of Elegabalus’s ineffective rule and assassinated both him and Hierocles. The cousin became the new emperor.

2) César de Bourbon, 1st Duke of Vendôme (1594-1665) – progenitor of the bloodline of the current pretender to the Jacobite throne of Great Britain.

Here we deal with the most hypothetical claim to any throne I’ve mentioned. César was the eldest son of King Henri IV of France. However, he was born illegitimate and thus ineligible to succeed to the throne, even after he was legitimised in 1595. Consequently, César’s legitimately-born younger half-brother succeeded their father as King Louis XIII.

For most of King Louis’ reign César was involved in plots against the king’s chief ministers, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. The king exiled César several times, but they were eventually reconciled the year before Louis’ death in 1643. It is unlikely César had any plan to become king in place of his half-brother, only to replace his chief ministers.

César was reputedly bisexual. His town house in Paris was nicknamed the Hôtel de Sodome (House of Sodom). He married a wealthy duchess and it is through their heir that we encounter the Jacobite throne of Great Britain (mentioned in the first “Gay Thrones” article).

Cesar’s eventual heir was his great-grandson the King of Sardinia. The king married a French princess, the cousin of Prince Henry Stuart, the gay Jacobite “King Henry IX”. The son of the Sardinian king and queen thus became heir to both the Jacobite “Henry IX” and César, Duke of Vendome.

Let’s add more queerness – a more recent Jacobite heir, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, was the heir of the gay King Ludwig II of Bavaria, so that’s three gay/bisexual men whose bloodline heirs eventually meet and are held by the current Jacobite claimant, the Duke of Bavaria.

3) Prince Philipp von Hessen, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (1896-1980) – heir presumptive to the thrones of Finland and Chatti.

After the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire several Prince-Electors, a group of German princes who elected the Emperor’s successor, became kings by international treaty. Prince Philipp’s ancestor, Wilhelm II, Prince-Elector of Hesse, declared himself King of Chatti, the name of an ancient tribe who once lived in the Hesse region. An international congress of 1818 denied him this claim. A hundred years later his descendant Prince Philipp became heir to this rejected throne.

A real throne was available to Prince Philipp by this time. After World War I the newly independent Finland decided to become a monarchy. The parliament elected Prince Philipp’s father, Prince Friedrich Karl, as their first king. By now the Prince-Elector title had been dropped and Friedrich Karl was using the original family title of Landgrave (a high-ranking count) of Hesse-Kassel.

Philipp had a twin brother called Wolfgang, so did they become joint Crown Princes of Finland? It was decided that Philipp, the elder twin, would become Landgrave and Head of the Princely House of Hesse. Wolfgang would become Crown Prince of Finland. However, less than two months after making the offer the Finns decided to become a republic.

Recent biographies of Prince Philipp have suggested he was bisexual. He married and had several children. Like many influential aristocrats Philipp joined the Nazi party in the early 1930s and, also like many influential aristocrats, criticised Hitler’s regime during World War II. Philip’s father-in-law, the King of Italy, arrested the Italian fascist leader Mussolini in 1943 and Hitler believed Philipp was involved. Consequently Philipp and his wife were imprisoned in concentration camps, where his wife died. After being freed by US troops Philipp was held prisoner for another two years for his former role as Governor of Hesse under Hitler.

Finnish monarchists considered Crown Prince Wolfgang to be their king until his death without children in 1989. Prince Philipp predeceased him, but monarchists regarded him as heir presumptive, and the monarchists consider the throne of Finland passed to Philipp’s son.

4) Prince Manvendra Gohil Singh (b.1965) – heir to the Maharajah of Rajpipla.

Prince Manvendra is the only living male lgbt heir to a sovereign throne (I’ll mention the only living female heir to another throne in the next Gay Thrones article next year). The prince made headline news in 2006 when he came out publicly as gay.

The throne of Rajpipla in western India dates back to 1200. Under British rule the Maharaja of Rajpipla was accorded the style of His Highness. After India became independent in 1947 Rajpipla was merged with the Bombay Presidency. Indian maharajas retained their titles until the Indian government withdrew recognition of them in 1971. Even though no longer officially royal the many princely families in India are often still referred to by their former titles as a courtesy, as is also the case with deposed European royal dynasties.

Prince Manvendra will, in all probability, adopt the unofficial style of Maharaja of Rajpipla after the death of his father, even if Indian law doesn’t recognise it. No doubt he will still be referred to as a “gay Maharaja” in the media.