Sunday, 8 December 2019

Deck the Halls: 2) Let There Be Lights

The Christmas decoration we’re going to look at on this second Sunday in Advent are the Christmas lights, and one set of lights in particular.

Lights were originally just decorations for the Christmas tree but over the past 100 years they have spread to almost any surface that can be found.

There’s often rivalry between neighbours who try to out-do each other with Christmas light displays. I suppose it’s inevitable that television companies would create contests and award prizes to the best Christmas light display. They seem to turn everything into a conflict. In 2013 the ABC network in the USA created what is now called “The Great Christmas Light Fight” (conflict is even part of the title!). There have been seven series so far plus a Hallowe’en special.

Season 5, which aired in 2017, concluded with an episode called “Season Finale” on 18th December. One of the families selected to compete was a gay couple.

Jim Cheslin and Alex Laneaux have been decorating their home in Longwood, Florida, in elaborate Christmas light displays since 2006. They were inspired by a visit they made to Walt Disney World near Orlando the previous Christmas.

Since 1995 Walt Disney World had hosted an extravagant Christmas light display owned by the Osborne family of Little Rock in Arkansas. The display contained several million individual lights and decorated the Osborne family home and property since 1986. The whole display was remounted on Residential Street, part of the Walt Disney studio back-lot which was included in the regular tram tour. It became known as The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

Inspired by this and other displays at Walt Disney World Jim Chesney and Alex Laneaux decided to create their own festive light display for the following year at their own home. It was an instant hit with their neighbourhood. Gradually, over the years, the display expanded so that by Christmas 2014 it included over 53,000 lights and 13,750 feet of extension cable. The lights were choreographed to a soundtrack of Christmas songs.

Neighbours had suggested premiering the display on Thanksgiving in the last week in November every year. This meant that Jim and Alex have to start work in September.

Needless to say their light display caught the attention of local media. In 2015 it caught the attention of “The Great Christmas Light Fight”. Janelle Eagle, the Associate Producer for the 2016 season, contacted Jim and Alex with a view to them auditioning for the show. They didn’t make it that year, but Janelle encouraged them to reapply for the 2017 season.

Once accepted for the show Jim Cheslin and Alex Laneaux had to have their display ready long before Thanksgiving. Filming of their “The Great Christmas Light Fight” episode had to be done in October for a December transmission.

Spurred on by the chance to compete with three other families from around the USA to produce their best ever light display Jim and Alex used 100,000 LED lights to create their own homage to the Osbourne Family Spectacle that had inspired them 12 years earlier. Sadly, they didn’t win the contest but Jim agreed with the choice of the winning display.

These days it’s rare for any television reality series not to have some openly lgbt input somewhere. With the “Great Christmas Light Fight” this comes with two major contributions, the aforementioned Janelle Eagle, and the host and judge in the first 5 seasons Michael Maloney.

Janelle Eagle is an ex-fundraiser for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Deformation (GLAAD) and an lgbt activist. In July 2016 she married her partner Jenna Robin.

Michael Moloney is an interior designer and has appeared on other shows, most prominently on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”. One of the episodes of the 2011 season centred around the Walker family, whose 11-year-old son committed suicide due to bullying he received because of his sexuality.

Of course, you don’t have to use thousands of lights to celebrate Christmas. And you don’t have to outdo anyone else. To coin a phrase “its quality that counts, not quantity”.

To finish with, here is a YouTube video of the Jim Cheslin and Alex Laneaux light display from 2016.

Next Sunday we’ll look at a more intimate Christmas decoration, something personal you can give to a loved one, and its links to Danish fairy tales.

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:

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.