Friday 5 June 2015

The Seven Deadly Gay Sins : Turning Yellow with Greed

Regular readers will already have sinned with me on this blog with Anger and Gluttony. We sin again today with Greed. As with the other sins greed is represented in Medieval Christian folklore by a colour, on this occasion yellow. So let’s put Greed on our Rainbow Sins flag.

Before we look at sinful Greed in lgbt heritage let’s look at how it has been defined. In some lists Greed is replaced with Avarice or Covetousness, but they mean much the same thing. The concept hasn’t changed much since Greed first appeared on a list of Christian sins in the 4th century as “philargyria”. This translates as “love of money” and is, perhaps, the most common definition of Greed. It is only later that the love of power, possessions and assets was included.

Greed has also been defined as the non-distribution of personal wealth, however much or little you have. This includes not giving to charitable causes, and I’m sure everyone has given some money to one charity or another.

One of the most despicable manifestations of Greed is blackmail. There are hundreds of known instances of gay men being blackmailed because of their sexuality. Many hundreds, if not thousands, of others have gone unreported. During the pre-Stonewall era many unscrupulous people took advantage of the laws that existed prohibiting homosexual behaviour and demanded huge amounts of money, or valuables and property, to “ensure” that the authorities weren’t informed. Some men were blackmailed into spying on their country and revealing secrets of national security.

If there was any blackmail case which made a significant impact in the UK it is a fictional one. In 1960 film makers began planning a film about a gay man who is being blackmailed. Although it didn’t become a blockbuster it is regarded as one of the most influential films made in the UK between the Wolfenden Report of 1957 which recommended the decriminalisation of homosexual activity and the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which implemented it. The film was called “Victim”.

“Victim” was significant for several reasons. First, it was the first British film in which the word “homosexual” was spoken. Second, it was the first British film to feature homosexuality in a contemporary setting. Third, it was one of the first films to depict gay men in a sympathetic leading role.

It was also significant in that a well-known romantic actor took the leading role. Many actors turned down the role before matinee idol Dirk Bogarde accepted it. But more important than his acceptance of the role was his desire to see the film depict gay life realistically. He later wrote that he insisted from the start that “there’s no point in half measures. We either make a film about queers or we don’t”. It was only years later when it became apparent that Dirk, Sir Dirk from 1992, was himself gay.

There are reports of many closeted gay men going to see the film when it was released, creeping into the cinemas in darkness after it started and sneaking out before it ended, keen to keep their identities a secret. Many of these men may have been victims of blackmail themselves. It may also have encouraged some of them to stand up to greedy blackmailers.

To end on a lighter not, here’s a story of Greed involving a gay man which isn’t about his sexuality. Nottingham-born Douglas Byng was hugely successful drag and cabaret act in the UK. By World War II he had become one of the country’s best pantomime Dames. He had learnt to design and make his own outrageous costumes, most of which parodied the popular fashions of the time. In the 1930s one of the most popular fashion items any respectable woman had to have was a short fox-fur cape or wrap with several fox tails (I remember my grandmother having one – it gave me the creeps).

Douglas Byng parodied this fox cape by creating one for his pantomimes in which the fox tails were replaced by loofahs, a very common object found in bathrooms throughout the country. After the war broke out loofahs became more and more scarce. They were imported from Asia and, like a lot of other foreign imports, stopped arriving. The desire for bathroom loofahs didn’t diminish and it wasn’t long before their value increased.

Black Marketeers took advantage of this situation and soon discovered that people would be prepared to pay anything for a loofah. Douglas Byng knew that these greedy people would stop at nothing to get their hands on any loofah they could find and make a profit out of it. Consequently, Douglas realised his loofah cape was a prime target for theft. So we have the rather strange situation of Douglas Byng locking his loofah cape in safes in theatres, hotels and banks everywhere he toured.

And that is Greed. Once again we have seen the lgbt community being a victim of a Deadly Sin rather than a perpetrator. But take heart, because according to medieval Christian folklore those guilty of Greed will all get their punishment on Hell by being boiled alive in oil for eternity – and only the best oil, of course.

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