Monday, 8 February 2016

Out of His Cosmopolitan Tree : Kwame Anthony Appiah

Today’s subject, Kwame Anthony Appiah (b.1954), is a philosophy professor and cultural theorist. He has used his multi-cultural ancestry and upbringing to champion the Cosmopolitan philosophy.

In an article in “Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education” (2008) Appiah defined Cosmopolitanism as “universality plus difference”. That’s very much what various sub-communities have been, and still are, fighting for, to be accepted by everyone and to have their differences of race, gender, sexuality, religion, politics and ability recognised as of equal status. Some people have misused this philosophy to support their own political or economic ideals of globalisation. The internet has lots of sites which explains Cosmopolitanism better than I can.

Cosmopolitanism also applies on a personal level to Kwame Appiah, an Anglo-African, bi-racial, gay man with a white American partner. Kwame’s philosophies were directly influenced by the general cosmopolitan views of his father, the Ghanaian statesman Joseph Emmanuel Appiah (1918-1990).

Joseph Appiah was born into a family of noble Asante (Ashanti) blood. His ancestors have been involved in the government of the Asante state since it was formed in 1701. The Appiah family trace their lineage back to the founding father of the old Asante Empire, King Osei Kofi Tutu I (c.1660-1717). Osei Tutu was already the ruler of the Asante people. He managed to unite various other tribes and groups together against their oppressive rulers of the wider area. On succeeding in gaining his supporters’ nomination as their first king (or Asantehene) of the Asante Empire in 1701. A new constitution was formed, one which survives to this day among the Asante, one which survived the expulsion to the Seychelles of the royal dynasty by the British colonial government in 1896. They retained their court in exile.

The exiled Asante royal family received only partial recognition from the UK government of their former status in 1924 and in 1931 a new king-asantehene succeeded to the exiled Asante throne. His name was Osei Tutu Agyeman Prempeh II (c.1892-1970). He worked hard with the Asante tribal representatives, the colonial government back home in Africa, and nationalist groups to have the Asante Confederacy, as the empire was now termed, restored. He was successful and is hailed as one of the greatest heroes of modern Ghana and the Asante. He was recognised by the UK government and awarded a knighthood as a head of state in his own right.

In King Prempeh II’s court his Chief Secretary, a kind of Prime Minister, was James Wellington Appiah. Not only was he his Chief Secretary but he was also his brother-in-law, having married James’s sister. James’s son was Joseph Appiah, Kwame’s father. Joseph was also to become as leading figure in Ghana politics, and also held the position of Chief Secretary to King Prempeh II’s successors. After the independence of Ghana from the British in 1957 Joseph became an MP in the new parliament.

Kwame Appiah’s maternal ancestry is no less distinguished in politics and statehood. In 1959 his father Joseph married Enid Margaret Cripps (1921-2006), known to all as Peggy. She was the youngest daughter of one of the UK’s most famous and controversial politicians, the Rt. Hon. Sir Stafford Cripps (1889-1952). Crips was expelled twice from the Labour Party and had Communist sympathies. During World War II he has a seat on the War Cabinet and later served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The post-war economy was difficult to control and in the end he did what all failed Labour Party Chancellors have done – he devalued the pound. Sir Stafford’s father was also an MP before being created the 1st Baron Parmoor in 1914. He became a member of the UK’s first ever labour government in 1924.

The Cripps family had many political family links and two of Sir Stafford Cripps’s great-grandfathers were MPs. One of them, Richard Potter, became an MP because of his disgust at the unfair and corrupt representation within parliamentary seats and was instrumental in influencing the Reform Act of 1832. Richard’s son, also called Richard, married the daughter of Kwame’s other MP great-grandfather. But the main connection between them was the railways, not politics.

Richard Potter jr was Chairman of the Great Western Railway and President of the Grand Trunk Railway in Canada. Lawrence Heyworth (1786-1872), MP from 1848 to 1857. The Heyworth family were northern wool merchants who saw the invention of the railway as a means of expanding their market. They even expanded into South America where Lawrence became a director of the Central Argentine Railway. Back in the UK he began to move away from business and into railway investment.

Lawrence Heyworth was also a campaigner for the free trade movement and the abolition of slavery. He married one of his servants and had several children, the eldest of whom married Richard Potter jr.

Returning to the Cripps family line we can go further back. Lord Parmoor’s parents were cousins, both grandchildren of William Lawrence, a surgeon. Their brother was Sir William Lawrence, 1st Bt., a physician to Queen Victoria. Their ancestors included the Fettiplace family who can trace their line back to the Boleyns. Kwame descends from Queen Anne Boleyn’s great-grandfather.

Through several lines Kwame Appiah is descended from some Magna Carta barons of 1215 and an illegitimate son of King Henry I of England (1068-1135).

If you look at Kwame’s Wikipedia page you’ll see the claim that he also descends from the Winthrops of America. He isn’t. His great-great-uncle married a Winthrop, not Kwame’s ancestor.

On both sides of the family Kwame Appiah has political and royal blood from both Europe and West Africa. With such a family background it would have been hard for him not to be an advocate for Cosmopolitanism and the acceptance of diversity.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Polarity Rocks!

Way back in March 2013 when my theme for the year was science and my “Ology of the Month” was geology I wrote about the work of a gay geophysicist Allan Cox and his role in proving the theory of continental drift. That validation wouldn’t have been possible without the work of another gay geophysicist with whom he shared the Vetlesen Prize (the “Nobel Prize” of the geological world) in 1971. The other recipient was Stanley Keith Runcorn (1922-1995).

Here’s a quote about Keith Runcorn (he was always known his second name) which shows how important he was to geophysical research. It comes from the introduction to “Mantle Dynamics: Treatise of Geophysics”, edited by David Bercovivi, who described Runcorn as “a unique figure in that he was at the forefront of major discoveries in palaeomagnetism that led to the modern theory of plate tectonics…”.

Stanley Keith Runcorn was born in the industrial north west of England in 1922. For a man whose professional career revolved around rocks it’s not surprising to learn that his father was a monumental mason. Despite these humble origins he went on to study at Cambridge University, where he was during most of World War II.

Runcorn’s work in the field of geophysics and geomagnetism would eventually lead to an invitation from NASA to help in their Galileo Orbiter project and their research into interplanetary magnetic fields. He was even accepted an invitation to join the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1981.

Runcorn never hid his homosexuality but didn’t involve himself in gay rights. He travelled almost constantly, researching and lecturing, attending conferences and accepting academic positions around the world. His stamina was immense, as was needed in his favourite leisure activity, rugby. He was an active president of the Newcastle University rugby club when he was a professor there.

It was on one of his many lecture trips that he met his death. In 1995 Runcorn was invited to speak at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. One night he picked up a professional kick-boxer and karate black belt in a bar and took him back to his hotel room. The next morning his battered and strangled body was found in his hotel bathroom by a maid. The kick-boxer was later arrested and found guilty of murder.
Runcorn became interested in geomagnetism in 1946 shortly after becoming a physics lecturer at Manchester University, where he met fellow academic Alan Turing, the “Father of the Computer”. He later moved to Cambridge University and in 1956 he was appointed Professor of Physics at Newcastle University. He remained there until his retirement in 1988.

It was known that rocks retain their magnetic orientation as they cool, thus indicating the direction of the magnetic North Pole at the rock’s formation. Runcorn and his colleagues discovered some rocks had a reversed polarity to layers immediately above and below them indicating that the magnetic North Pole was at the geographic South Pole. Some of these rocks also showed the polarity pointing in different directions, as if the magnetic North Pole itself had moved.

This movement of the North Pole wasn’t a theory which all scientists accepted. At first Runcorn himself didn’t accept that it indicated continental drift, only what is called apparent polar wandering. He changed his mind when he moved from Cambridge to Newcastle in 1956.

The continental drift theory wasn’t universally accepted. It had developed from late Victorian studies into earthquakes. The invention of the seismograph helped to prove that shockwaves moved through the centre of the planet in several ways, and this led to the realisation that Earth wasn’t a solid lump of rock but had a molten interior and solid core. Once the scientific world got their heads around that idea a new one emerged, or re-emerged. Sir Francis Bacon way back in the 17th century noticed that the coastlines of West Africa and South America almost fit together. He didn’t give any explanation or reason for this, but in 1915 Alfred Wegener brought this “coincidence” back to the science world, with evidence from fossils, to create the continental drift theory. As with other theories like black holes, evolution and the sun-centred solar system, other scientists laughed. It was the study of paleomagnetism in rocks, and the works of Keith Runcorn and Allan Cox among others, which helped to prove Wegener was right.

Finally another quote. This one was written in his own lifetime, in celebration of his 60th birthday, and was published in “New Scientist” on 28th April 1983. Peter J. Smith wrote, “Runcorn has probably made more original contributions to more branches of the subject than any other geophysicist; but if history judges his work on that basis alone, it will come up with an incomplete assessment. For what would be missing would be the effect of his enthusiasm on others, in ways not recorded in the formal literature. There is no one better at persuading people to do things they might not otherwise have been inclined to do. There is no one better at perceiving likely growth points in geophysics, at getting the money to pursue them and at encouraging people to work on them. And finally, there’s no one with a more impressive grasp of the whole field of geophysics on Earth – or the Moon for that matter.”

It is Runcorn’s work in interplanetary geophysics and for NASA which we will return to in the future in a “Star Gayzing” article.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Olympic Alphabet : H is for ...


There have been several equality and human rights issues that have affected the modern Olympic movement. The biggest current issue surrounds the acceptance of lgbt athletes and their life-style. A recent ruling by the International Olympic Committee has, to some extent, clarified its position on the inclusion of transgender athletes, but only time will tell if it brings full trans inclusion.

Here we are, two years after the Sochi Winter Olympics and Russia shows no signs of repealing the anti-gay laws it introduced just before them. In this modern era news and views are disseminated instantly around the world via the internet and digital media and it is very easy to forget that similar controversies didn’t get as much global coverage as they would do today.

The example I want to give you today is of an anti-gay controversy that occurred in the run-up to the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. Most people will remember the terrible bomb attack that killed Alice Hawthorne and injured over a hundred others. The bomber had previously targeted an abortion clinic and a gay bar. The other anti-gay controversy involving the Atlanta Olympics gained much national coverage but received little beyond its shores.

In the ultra-traditional Cobb County in the Olympic host state of Georgia, USA, concerns about gay lifestyles had been bubbling under the surface for several months in 1993. A local theatre had some gay references in a play and complaints were made to the County Commissioners. During summer the Baptist church in Marietta, the county capital close to Atlanta, of which many members were very right-wing, held a workshop at which its pastor, a television evangelist, voiced concerns that the “gay agenda” was threatening the “traditional family structure”.

A draft resolution was presented to the Commissioners, co-written by the pastor, which expressed those same concerns. Among the reasons given in the draft was the recent decision taken by Atlanta to give some domestic rights to same-sex partners, the Georgia State governor offering to host a future Gay Games in the city, and the 1993 March on Washington for LGB Rights. The Baptist pastor and his congregation were having NONE of that on their doorstep.

Despite a local group organising an opposition meeting a week before the County Board met on 10th August 1993 the Commissioners voted 3 to 1 to adopt the resolution. The only dissenting Commissioner was Bill Cooper. At a later meeting they also withdrew all arts funding, including that for the local theatre.

Opposition became very vocal. The Cobb County Coalition formed on 31st August and arranged rallies, protests and a Queer Family Picnic/Protest and attracted national attention. The Commissioners resolutely refused to rescind the resolution. Then matters became more intense when the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) awarded the volleyball competition to Cobb County on 30th January 1994. The newly constructed volleyball centre in Marietta had its grand opening that same week with much celebration.

Choosing a Cobb County venue was the catalyst for the formation of another protest group called Olympics Out of Cobb by Jon-Ivan Weaver and Pat Hussein in Atlanta on 14th February 1994. The group lobbied ACOG most strongly urging them to reconsider their decision, but ACOG tried everything it could to avoid being dragged into one side of the dispute on Cobb County’s anti-gay resolution, re-iterating the ideal of an Olympic truce.

A truce was far from the minds of either side. Gradually other community groups and organisations began pinning their colours to one side or the other. Rabbi Stephen Lebow gained support of 37 other interdenominational clergy in calling for the resolution to be dropped, only to be followed a few days later by the Marietta Baptist church gaining 200 clergy calling for it to be retained. A “compromise” offered by the Commissioners found little support on either side.

In June 1994 the lgbt community stepped up its campaign. At Atlanta Pride on 18th June Cobb County Coalition and Olympics Out Of Cobb took part in the march and received huge amounts of support. Then on 22nd June there was an unexpected turn of events. Shannon Byrne, daughter of a Cobb County Commissioner who voted in favour of the resolution, came out publicly as a lesbian. She expressed her concerns, and those of others living in Cobb County, and of the pains of being targeted. Then, just over two weeks later Greg Louganis, the greatest Olympic diver of all time, who had himself only recently come out publicly at the opening ceremony of the Gay Games in New York (on the same day as the Atlanta Pride march), called upon ACOG to remove the volleyball contest from Cobb County. Ironically, or even as a result of the Cobb County controversy, the volleyball competition at those Gay Games attracted over 20 percent of all the athletes attending – that’s over 2,000 volleyball players! Greg make his appeal at a reception organised by the US Olympic Committee at which he received the Robert J. Kane Award for his Olympic achievements. He used his acceptance speech to mention Cobb County and the general absence of support of lgbt athletes.

The controversy was now something ACOG and the IOC could not avoid addressing. They announced that they were considering moving the volleyball competition out of Cobb County as a means of avoiding unwanted attention and probable disruptions and protests to the events, carefully avoiding any comment that could be used by either side as support for their views. The County Commissioners then bounced back saying that they’d withdraw their venues from the Olympics if ACOG demanded the removal of their anti-gay resolution, thereby effectively shooting themselves in the foot. Two days later ACOG moved the volleyball contest out of Cobb County.

But that wasn’t the end of the matter. As the 1996 Olympics got closer Cobb County held on to its resolution and campaign groups continued to protest. Various threats from the more extreme protestors to disrupt the Olympic torch relay which was to pass through Cobb County in July 1996 were avoided by ACOG deciding to redirect the relay out of Cobb County in April 1996.

By this time two other US counties had passed similar anti-gay resolutions – Spartanville and Greenville counties in South Carolina. Spartanville quickly dropped its resolution after the first wave of protests. Greenville, however, held out and received the same treatment as Cobb County, the Olympic torch relay was rerouted out of the county, much to the understandable dismay of the few torch bearers whose legs of the relay were cancelled.

As we move through the 21st century and look around at anti-gay legislation in all levels of government it seems, at times, that nothing has changed in the 20 years since the Atlanta Olympics. Change is always gradual and it is to be hoped that all politicians will soon stop challenging the lgbt lifestyle.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Extraordinary Life : Holocaust Survivor

To commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day we look at a Holocaust survivor whose life straddled both sides of the conflict. His name is Pierre Seel (1923-2005). I must give Chris Furneaux of the Australian lgbt radio and online channel Joy 49.9 the credit for suggesting I write about him today.

As his name suggests Pierre Seel was French. He was born in Alsace, a part of France that borders Germany. For centuries the region has been a political ping-pong ball bouncing between the two countries. During Pierre’s lifetime he found his home town, and indeed his own nationality, changing twice. From 1871 Alsace was a French province but at the end of the Franco-Prussian War it became part of the German Empire. Then, after the defeat of the German in the First World War possession of Alsace was returned to France.

In France at the time of Pierre’s birth there was no law prohibiting homosexuality though the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church led many to hide their sexuality in public, and even from their own families, as was the case with Pierre.

In 1939 he was in a well-known gay “cruising” site when his watch, a precious gift from his godmother, was stolen. He reported it to the police, but the officer he reported it to was not sympathetic. He shouted abuse at Pierre because of his admission to being in a notorious cruising site and placed his name on a list of homosexuals. This list had no official or legal purpose but it was to prove disastrous to many in a very short time.

The Second World War began with Britain, followed by France, declaring war on Nazi Germany later in 1939. In response Germany invaded and annexed Alsace. Now Pierre and his fellow Alsace natives found themselves being treated as German citizens subject to the laws of Nazi Germany. Pierre joined many others in working secretly for the French Resistance.

That list of homosexuals to which Pierre’s name was added was handed to the German authorities and soon Pierre was arrested by the Gestapo and subjected to painful physical and emotional torture, including being forcibly sodomised with a wooden stick.

In May 1941 Pierre was transferred to the Schirmeck labour and “rehabilitation” camp in the south of Alsace. More than 15,000 Alsatian citizens were imprisoned there over the next 4 years, all being forced to work with little rest or food. There were none of the infamous Pink Triangles on the uniforms of the gay prisoners, this camp did not use them. Instead Pierre wore a blue bar which was used to indicate someone who was anti-social. This also implied homosexuality and was virtually just as bad. Life for a gay man in the labour camp was still hazardous. Gay men could not find comfort in their own subgroup because fellow prisoners and SS guards alike regarded them as the lowest class of society.

When Pierre was arrested he became separated from his boyfriend Jo but he saw his beloved again in the labour camp. He could not acknowledge Jo, but watched in horror as the guards stripped Jo naked and set the guard dogs on him. The bloody death of his boyfriend marked Pierre for the rest of his life and gave him a fear of dogs.

To his surprise and relief Pierre was released, the camp’s commander having been satisfied that he had been “re-educated”, though Pierre would have to report daily to the Gestapo. Pierre returned home to his family but nothing was ever said of his experiences or sexuality.

Now a “free German” citizen Pierre was conscripted into the Nazi army. He was placed in the Wehrmacht which contained other Alsace natives forced to fight against the Allies. Then, in 1943, he was surprised again, this time to find himself being sent to the Nazi’s Aryan-breeding programme. He was only there for a few days.

By summer 1944 Pierre found himself on the Russian front, one of the most hostile combat zones of World War II. As the Allies pushed from the west and the Soviets from the east the Nazi regime began to crumble. Pierre found himself the only survivor of his post and surrendered to the Soviets.

He made his way to Poland where he joined a refugee convoy of concentration camp survivors. The Red Cross arranged for them to travel to Odessa on the Black Sea and Pierre was placed in charge of order and discipline at the refugee camp there. Eventually he managed to catch a train back to Paris and from there back to Alsace. He never revealed the full truth of his experiences, they were too traumatic, and for nearly 40 years his story was hidden in his memory.

Alsace once more changed hands after the defeat of the Nazis and the French laws were restored – except one. In 1942 the Vichy government of Nazi occupied France outlaws sex between adults and minors. This law was retained after liberation. Pierre received abuse from his own family because of his sexuality and eventually he sank into what he called “years of shame” when he tried to come to terms with his sexuality.
The memorial illustration dedicated to Pierre Seel, one of several produced by the Italian lgbt rights group Arcigay in 2015.
In 1950 he decided to marry, not telling his bride about being gay. They had 3 surviving children. Family life was very unsettled as work took them all around France. He also felt uncomfortable relating to his children, He became stressed and depressed and haunted by nightmares, He turned to drink and tranquilisers. The stress grew as the decade progressed and in 1978 Pierre and his wife separated.

In 1981 Pierre attended a book launch for “The Men With The Pink Triangle” by Heinz Heger, one of the inspirations for the play “Bent”. It was then that Pierre decided to speak out, anonymously in writing at first, about the truths behind the persecution of gay men by the Nazis. He was particularly keen to highlight the French victims, as most of the prevailing stories of persecution were about German gay men.

Pierre became a well-known activist and campaigner for the recognition of lgbt Holocaust victims at memorial commemorations. In 1994 he published his life story with the help of a journalist and fellow activist Jean Le Bitoux. Because of his high profile appearances in the media and elsewhere Pierre received more homophobic abuse, some of it physical. Through it all Pierre’s dignity and resolve remained steadfast.

By 2003 Pierre Seel was receiving official recognition for his activism. In 2005 France’s President Jacques Chirac spoke about the plight of French Holocaust victims, a tribute to Pierre Seel’s campaigning.

Pierre Seel died 7 months after President Chirac’s speech. By the end of his life he had gone to live with his partner Eric in Toulouse and had received the acceptance of his lifestyle from his family. A street near where he lived in Toulouse was named after him in 2008.

Pierre’s persecution during the Holocaust was not unique, except perhaps for his forced non-combative career in the Nazi army, but his testimony as one of the very few French gay Holocaust survivors and his personal experiences helped to change French attitudes to Nazi persecution of their countrymen on occupies France who were all too often forgotten during remembrances.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

A Queer Philosopher's Achievement : Francis Bacon

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]
One of my favourite historical lgbt people is Sir FrancisBacon (1561-1626). He was a true man of many talents – a statesman, a scientist, a philosopher and a writer. Before I go into his coat of arms you may like to read about his philosophical credentials in his entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Basically, Sir Francis Bacon was among the first champions of the belief in proper investigation, observation and experimentation of the natural world. He was also a leading statesman of his time and his coat of arms shown below illustrates that.

Francis Bacon was born in 1561, the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, a prominent statesman at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. On 22nd February 1568 Sir Nicholas and his brothers were granted a coat of arms which was inherited by their descendants including, of course, Sir Francis Bacon. Below is his full achievement of arms.
The shield show two coats of arms quartered together. In the top left and bottom right quarters are the arms of the Bacon family, and in the other quarters are the arms of the Quaplode family. The Quaplodes were a landed family in Norfolk whose heiress married into the Bacons. Their descendants inherited both arms in this configuration. This would also be the coat of arms used by Sir Francis’s older brother Anthony Bacon. Both used cadency marks to indicate which son of Sir Nicholas they were. Anthony, as the 4th son, would have put a small bird called a martlet on his shield. Sir Francis, as 5th son, put a small circle called an annulet on his. I have not shown this annulet in my painting because Sir Francis is the only member of his family who was entitled to use any of the other devices you can see.

What can we see that tells us that this is the specific coat of arms of Sir Francis Bacon and not anyone else in his family? We need to follow his political career to decode the design. With each new appointment the paraphernalia surrounding the shield changed. Originally Sir Francis would have used a shield, including his cadency mark, with a simple helmet like the one is shown in Michelle Dumaresq’s achievement. In 1603 Francis was knighted, which meant he changed his helmet for one with an open visor, as used by other knights such as Sir Elton John.

In 1617 Sir Francis was appointed Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. This high office of state would have enabled him to show a representation of the Privy Purse which contained the Great Seal below his shield. I’ve tried to find a good quality image of the Privy Purse he would have used to no avail, so I haven’t show it.

Sir Francis was appointed Lord High Chancellor of England and was created a peer of the realm with the title Baron Verulam. This was the highest position in the state that any member o f the lgbt community had held since Sir Piers Gaveston, King Edward II’s lover, was appointed Guardian of the Realm in 1307.

The Lord High Chancellor is still one of the highest offices of state. If you have ever watched coverage of the State Opening of Parliament you would have seen the Chancellor of the day hand the speech to the Queen from the steps of the throne in the House of Lords. You would also have seen an Usher carrying the ceremonial mace which is placed in front of the Queen. Sir Francis was entitled to show this mace, 2 of them, behind his shield.

On being created a Baron Verulam Sir Francis would have changed his helmet again. As a peer he used the more elaborate helmet with a gold barred visor you see here. Modern peers are entitled to place a coronet sitting on top their shield to show their rank of nobility. During his lifetime there was no coronet for a baron. But in 1621 he was promoted to a viscount with them title Viscount St. Albans. His boss, King James I, authorised the use of a coronet for viscounts, and this is the one I show.

Right at the top of the painting, on top of the helmet, is the crest. You may think that the boar is a pun on the family name of Bacon, bit it isn’t. The boar crest was actually that of the Quaplode family and in the grant to Sir Nicholas’s father in 1568 replaced the original Bacon crest which was a griffin. The family motto at the bottom translates as “Mediocrity is Stable”.

Sir Francis resigned as Lord High Chancellor in 1621 over a bribery scandal and the use of the maces behind his shield was stopped. However, I like the look of the maces and it reminds me that members of the lgbt community have been involved in the government of England for centuries.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Olympic Alphabet : G is for ...


At first it might seem that there’s very little that lgbt gymnasts have contributed to the Olympic Games. After all, there’s only 4 known lgbt Olympic gymnasts (Karin Büttner-Janz, Kris Burley, Laís Souza and Rose Cossar), nowhere near the size of the figure skaters or equestrian riders that I’ve covered in the two previous Olympic Alphabet article.

But if you go back a hundred years to include the Danish gymnast Niels Bukh we see a different picture. I’ve written about Niels Bukh several times before, most recently in my “Around the World in 80 Gays” series. He formed the modern style of gymnastics and would have been the first known lgbt Olympian if he hadn’t been dropped from the Danish team at the 1908 London Olympics because he looked too butch! His influence is still felt today in modern gymnastics.

Karin Büttner-Janz is one of those lesser-known lgbt Olympians who actually holds some significant records. She holds the joint record for the most medals won by an individual lgbt Olympian at one games. At the 1972 Munich games Karin won 2 golds, 2 silvers and 1 bronze. She shares this record with Ian Thorpe, who won 3 golds and 2 silvers at Sydney 2000. Karin’s medal haul was the highest in the gymnastics events, though the great Olga Korbut won more gold medals (but not on her favourite apparatus, the asymmetric bars, which Karin won – see video below).

In the 1970s the Eastern bloc behind the “Iron Curtain” dominated world gymnastics. Karin represented her native East Germany from the age of 16 and took part in 2 Olympics, Mexico City 1968 and Munich 1972. She won medals at both. She even has a gymnastic move named after her, the janz salto. Here’s a video of Karin performing her signature move in her gold-medal-winning routine at the Munich Olympics. It’s near the end when she leaps up from the lower bar and does a backwards somersault before grabbing the upper bar. Blink and you’ll miss it!

There wasn’t to be another lgbt gymnast at the Olympics for another 22 years. In fact, NONE of the remaining lgbt gymnasts were even born when Karin Büttner-Janz was competing (she retied in 1972).

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics the first and, so far, the only male gay gymnast competed. He was Kris Burley of Canada, though he wasn’t out publicly at the time. Kris didn’t make it past the qualifying rounds in the various apparatus in Atlanta but 3 years later at the 1999 Pan-American Games he won 2 bronze medals.

After his competitive career Kris worked in the entertainment and event management industry behind the cameras. He also did what quite a few gymnasts did – he joined Cirque du Soleil. More recently he curated a photographic exhibition called “Heroic Authenticity”.

Kris’s involvement in the Olympics continued during the 2010 Vancouver Winter games. His experience in event management landed him the job as Senior Manager at the receptions held by the Premier of Ontario. During the next games, the Sochi 2014 Olympics, he expressed his opposition to the boycott that many people called for (mostly from those who it wouldn’t have affected, and who showed blatant hypocrisy in not calling for boycotts of several other international sporting events that were held in Russia both before and after the Sochi Olympics).

Also competing for Canada is British-born Rose Cossar. She competed at the London 2012 games in rhythmic gymnastics and was the gymnastics team captain. This was her only Olympic appearance and she retired shortly afterwards. Since then she has come out and has become a leading voice for lgbt inclusion and acceptance in sport. To this end Rose supported the Pride House at last year’s Pan-American Games in Toronto, an event for which Kris Burley played a key role in securing as a member of the Toronto 2015 bid team.

Sometimes athletes retire from one sport to take up another. This is the case with our next lgbt gymnast. Laís Souza had won 3 bronze and 1 silver medals at the Pan-American Games of 2003 and 2007. She competed for Brazil at 2 Olympic Games. Her first was Athens 2004. In the team all-round competition at Beijing 2008 she was won an 8th place Olympic Diploma. In 2012 Laís was again placed on Brazil’s gymnastics team. Unfortunately in the month between being selected and the start of the London games she injured herself in training and was forced to withdraw.

After retiring from gymnastics Laís turned to a totally different sport – aerial skiing. She was selected for the Brazilian skiing team in 2013. Sadly, as with London 2012, she was injured in training a month before competing at the Olympics. Her injuries prior to Sochi 2014 were severe and she was left paralysed from the neck down. Several months later she regained some sensation in her lower body and her slow recovery began. The Rio 2016 Olympic organising committee paid for Laís to receive English lesson while being treated in the USA, and the Brazilian government even granted her a lifetime pension. Laís’s recovery may never be complete, but she had become active in speaking to sports groups, as well as coming out, and when I last checked (December 2015) she was beginning to learn how to walk again. Laís’s competitive career may be over, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she was given a place in the Olympic torch relay.

Although it is too early to say for sure, there’s likely to be more lgbt gymnasts at the Rio Olympics this summers, and we may even had 2 male gymnasts competing. Among the hopefuls are Jeffrey Wammes of the Netherlands, who just missed out on a place at London 2012, and America’s Josh Dixon. Both of these gymnasts are openly gay and they will be the first gymnasts to be so at the Olympics.

Before I sign off, there’s one more athlete to mention just briefly. One event included in the Olympic gymnastic programme is trampolining. Only one known lgbt trampolinist has competed at the Olympics, Australia’s Ji Wallace. The reason I haven’t included him fully today is because I intend to include him in my article for the letter J. I won’t reveal what subject will be covered by that letter, but the fact that it’ll be published on February 29th – Leap Day – may be a hint!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Believe It Or Not : World Religion Day

It came as a surprise to me to discover that there was a World Religion Day. I was even more surprised to find out that it began over 50 years ago. And there’s also a World Philosophy Day in November and a National Day of Reason (held in the USA) in May, and I’ll cover those celebrations at those times.
We have to go way back to 1950 to encounter the first ever World Religion Day, and held on the 3rd Sunday in January ever since – that’s today. It began in the USA and, believe it or not, wasn’t the brainchild of some evangelical Christian but of the leaders of one of the world’s lesser known major faiths (if that’s not a contradiction), the Baha’i faith.
In 1949 the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’i faith in the US, probably having the horrors of World War II and the world’s slow readjustment to life post-Holocaust in mind, recognised that most religions had common spiritual goals even if they differed doctrinally. The Assembly came up with World Religion Day as a way of encouraging understanding of each religions’ differences and of working together to held shape a better world. (I’ll write more about Baha’i and some of its lgbt adherents in March.)

One of the illustrations which gives an idea of how much the world’s religions and beliefs are connected through history is the one shown below, designed by Simon E. Davies for the Human Odyssey Facebook page. It charts the origin and evolution of many world faiths. But an even more impressive illustration is one you can find here. I won’t even attempt to explain it – the work put into it must have been phenomenal.

My home county of Nottinghamshire became the centre of much attention last year because of religion and lgbt issues. The focus was on a gay Anglican priest who was refused a license to officiate as a hospital chaplain. He can still work elsewhere but the fact that he was gay and married was what made it headline news.

Also last year the UK’s Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement moved its HQ from London to Newark, a quaint market town just down the River Trent from Nottingham.

Many of my article over the past years can be included in the “religion” label. The myths and legends of Ancient Greece is littered with references to same-sex activity between the gods and mortals, and all the athletes and solider had same sex partners. In fact, you could argue that the Olympic Games were created solely for religious purposes.

Various historical characters have declared themselves to be gods. Most of the Roman Emperors did so, and one, Elegabalus, belonged to a hereditary priesthood to an ancient sun god called El-Gabal.

Last year I wrote a little about the Caribbean faith of Santeria which had it’s origins in the Yoruba culture and religion of west Africa as well as Catholicism. That article also touched on the subject of faith adopting and adapting the deities of older religions into their own pantheons. The debate on the acceptance of homosexuality in African Christian churches is very prominent at the moment with the world Anglican churches discussing the subject in Canterbury at this very moment.

I also mentioned several Roman Catholic Cardinals in that same series, “Around the World in 80 Gays”. While it may be politically correct to condemn the homophobic stance of the Catholic Church and the hypocrisy of some of its clergy, it should also be noted that there are many lgbt people of religious belief at work in the community today helping to change attitudes. There are many lgbt-orientated churches of many faiths, and many thriving lgbt groups within established faiths. So, Believe it or Not, the lgbt community has a vital place in religious life today.