Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Four Santas of Advent : 2) Queer Gift-bringers

If there’s ever going to be something that definitely causes controversy among traditionalists over Santa Claus it’s the suggestion of any gay connection. Evangelical Christian churches and far-right groups, and quite a few parents, wouldn’t like the idea of a gay Santa going anywhere near their children.

When it comes to being someone who represents Santa for the season in shopping centres and malls the fact that you are gay is a very delicate matter considering the general view still prevalent in many conservative, traditionalist areas (especially in the USA but very rarely anywhere else) that gay men are a danger to children. So, when a documentary called “I Am Santa Claus” was aired in the US in 2014 which featured a gay man who was a professional Santa there was the predictable outcry.

The Santa in question was Jim Stevenson (pictured below), and he is one of the many hundreds of men who become Santa every year. It’s a recognised profession with unions and organisations run by and for themselves. Stevenson, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and was 73 when the documentary was made, is also a titleholder of several “bear” contests. He is proud of both achievements.
There were several professional Santas who objected to him being involved in their work purely because he is openly gay, but not while being Santa. On the whole, though, reactions to Jim’s appearance in the documentary were positive. It seems his critics hadn’t watched it. Like all true Santa Claus incarnations you meet in the shopping centres Jim is a dedicated professional, and just like all the others, once he puts on that red suit he stops being himself and becomes Santa.

One other recent upset occurred earlier this year when Harper Collins announced it was publishing a children’s book in which Santa is portrayed as being gay and black. Not only that, but instead of Mrs. Claus he is married to another Mr. Claus, a more traditional-looking white male Santa. As you would expect there was a massive outcry from certain people and traditionalists.

It all started this time last year. Of the many thousands of Santas who materialise in shopping centres and Christmas grottos every year most of them (in the USA at least) are white. When one shopping centre chose a black man to receive the essence of Santa there was a huge outcry on social media.

All the fuss led American humourist Daniel Kibblesmith and his wife to tweet that they would teach thier future children that the real Santa Claus was black was that his white husband is the one we see on Christmas cards and in grottos. It was all meant to be a bit of satire but some people took it seriously. One person responded to the tweet with “Stop rewriting history”. As we already know from the way Santa Claus is dressed that the way he looks today is NOT how he looked in history. No-one accused J. C. Leyendecker of rewriting history by never painting Santa Claus in anything other than red.

The best response came from illustrator A. P. Quach who almost immediately conjured up an illustration of the inter-racial Santas in an embrace looking dreamingly into each others eyes. Quach also received a lot of online trolling, but it gave him and Kibblesmith the impetus to produce an actual book telling the story of the two Santas. In October the book “Santa’s Husband” was published.

Whether a black, gay Santa will ever become mainstream only time will tell. Perhaps a black Santa, which I imagine is not all that uncommon in some nations, may catch on quicker than a gay one.

For the majority of the western English-speaking world it comes as a surprise to learn that Father Christmas/Santa Claus doesn’t deliver all the presents on his own in one night. He has help, and some helpers deliver his presents on different nights. Santa may be the supreme gift-bringer but other cultures have their own characters.

One of the earliest characters who brought Christmas gifts, characters who pre-date Father Christmas, are the ones who appear in the Bible nativity story. They are known today as the Three Kings, the Three Wise Men or the Three Magi. They bring Christmas gifts to a lot of traditional Catholic nations on 6th January. The current thinking about the Three Kings is that they were priests or shamans from eastern religions. The Bible doesn’t actually mention them as being kings, male, or that there were three of them. Popular medieval culture, both religious and secular, developed a whole back story for them and turned them into the Three Kings we are familiar with today.
As eastern priests around the start of the first century it is quite possible that one, or all, of the “Three Kings” were eunuch, transgender or intersex. Many priests of eastern beliefs did have some kind of gender variation and were seen as having a special link to their deities. Even at the time of the Nativity itself there were eunuch, transgender and intersex priests all around the Roman Empire. Perhaps it is time for society to stop calling them the Three Kings, because for all we know they could all have self-identified as female – Three Queens.

From the first Christmas gift-bringers we end with one of the most recent, or at least one of the most recently rediscovered. For this we revisit my article on Galicia and the earliest same-sex marriage in Spain.

In the traditional culture of Galicia is a Christmas character called El Apalpador. He is a character who is rapidly becoming my favourite Christmas character, and he seems to have developed out of the native Celtic heritage in the early medieval period. Like Santa he is a large man with a big bushy beard, though unlike Santa his beard is ginger in colour (not unlike my own before it turned white), an indication, perhaps, of his Celtic origin. The Celts of Ireland are famous for their red hair and Ireland is part of the old Celtic “empire”. El Apalpador lives in the woods and is dressed in appropriately rugged working clothes who, like Santa, carries a sack of presents. Traditionally, these presents were chestnuts which he left on Christmas Eve, or in some places on New Year’s Eve, after going around as the children slept to check they had not gone hungry that year. He left the chestnuts to ensure they had something to eat in the coming winter months. Similar characters from the same area of northern Spain and Portugal also exist. It would be interesting to find out if this gift-bringing has any connection to the legends of St. Nicholas and when each legend began to find out which came first – Apalpador or St Nick.

El Apalpador began to disappear during the Middle Ages and the Three Kings became the primary gift-bringer at Christmas. In parts of Galicia the traditions of El Apalpador lingered and in recent years has re-emerged as a popular Christmas character, thanks to the work of Galician nationalists who began actively promoting their culture’s heritage. This became very successful and people dress up as El Apalpador just as they do as Santa Claus. Which brings me to that article on same-sex marriage in Galicia.

That marriage was made widely known due to the research of Galician historian, politician and gay activist Carlos Cállon. He is a major figure in the re-discovery of Galician tradition and heritage. We’ll end with this image of Carlos dressed as El Apalpador at a Galician national celebration in 2012. And whoever brings your Christmas presents this year I hope he/she/they brings what you desire the most.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Last Homophobic Law in the UK?

In this year in which the UK celebrates the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts it also commemorates the 20th anniversary this month of the origin of the last homophobic law passed by the UK parliament, what was to become Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.

The UK still reels at the mention of Section 28. It created more protest than any other piece of legislation since, perhaps, the 1970s. It galvanised the lgbt community into unified action for the first time since the Sexual Offences Act 1967, and was the catalyst for the creation of several leading lgbt pressure groups and organisations, of which Stonewall is the most well known.

The Local Government Act contained legislation on a variety of matters that were the responsibility of local authorities, such as planning permission, council contracts, and dog licenses. Section 28 stated that no local authority in the UK (except Northern Ireland) was allowed to “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”.

There are several theories as to why Section 28 was introduced. Most people just cling on to the idea that Mrs. Thatcher, the Prime Minister, was homophobic. But that doesn’t explain why she was one of the MPs who, in 1967, voted in favour of the Sexual Offences Act (the Labour Prime Minister at the time didn’t). My theory encompasses the vibrant British music scene, youth culture and trade union machinations in the 1980s.

Social attitudes to gay men were changing in the 1960s and 70s. The era of glam rock probably helped to encourage the acceptance among the younger generation that a visible gender-bending and androgynous look was fashionable. Bowie and Bolan set the trend in make-up and flamboyant dress that appealed to many young men who had not come out as gay which allowed them to still express their sexuality visually. Many of the older generation thought this was unmanly but never overtly labelled these youngsters of being gay. After all, there were many straight young men who dressed the same way. But then the AIDS crisis emerged.

In the 1980s glam rock virtually disappeared and was replaced by the New Romantics. Any man now seen wearing make-up in public was denounced as a “puff” and often beaten up because of the misguided belief that AIDS made it okay to victimise gay men. Many gay men were assaulted and murdered during the early years of AIDS and being gay was unacceptable to the majority of society. In 1987 before the Local Government Act became law a national survey revealed that 75% of the UK population considered homosexuality was “always or mostly wrong”.

Mrs. Thatcher and her Conservative government seemed to have the backing of the British public. The Labour Party in opposition cannot be regarded as being any different. In fact the national survey also found that 67% of Labour Party members also said that homosexuality was “always or mostly wrong”, the highest percentage of any political party (the Conservative’s were 61%).

What gave the false impression that the Labour Party were opposed to Section 28 was the after-effects of the events of five years earlier during the Miner’s Strike. Thatcher’s government had ordered the closure of many coal mines. The trade unions and Labour Party fought back with a strike that turned many coal mines into battlefields as violent picket lines developed in many areas. I, myself, was on the receiving end of one such battle. As I was travelling by bus into a local town we passed a coal mine where there was a picket line. A brick was thrown through the bus’s windscreen purely because it was a bus that was used by miners to get to work. Thankfully, no-one was injured though we all felt very intimidated.

Many members of the lgbt community supported the Miner’s Strike and several support groups were formed during its run. Among the most famous is the “Lesbian Support the Miners” group. A recent film about this period called “Pride” distorted the facts for the sake of entertainment yet people believe what they see in the film is true. It isn’t, except for the fact that there was a strike. Very quickly left-wing activists jumped on the bandwagon (as they did during the recent protest against the UK leaving the European Union) in what became a general anti-Thatcher campaign that continued after the strike ended. Other political issues pushed the two sides further left and right, and that, I believe is how Section 28 came into being.

The subject of Section 28, the education system, was also very anti-Thatcher at the time. Unpopular reform had been taking place throughout Thatcher’s first years in power. In 1980 guidance was published for local education authorities to help them formulate their curriculum policies. It included “advice” that no sex education lesson should include homosexuality. The next year the government made a firm decision to ensure all schools followed that “advice”.
In the next couple of years several school libraries began stocking pioneering lgbt education books for young people. The most famous of these was “Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin”, a photo story about a gay couple and their daughter. Many parents were offended and their views were echoed in the still very homophobic British press which itself influenced the views of many other people. The lgbt community felt they were being accused of being a threat to what was generally called “family values”.

By 1987 the Thatcher government began to worry that they might not be re-elected in that year’s General Election. During the election campaign they took advantage of the feeling of the majority of the electorate’s anti-gay attitudes and used scare tactics by saying that teaching about homosexuality could turn children gay. With the public still very much opposed to a homosexual lifestyle Mrs. Thatcher was able to win her second term in office.

By December 1987 Conservative MPs Jill Knight and David Wilshire succeeded in introducing Section 28 into the Local Government Bill that was going through parliament. The efforts of Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, Labour peer Lord McIntosh of Haringey and the Bishop of Liverpool to introduce a compromise amendment to replace Section 28 was defeated in both Houses of Parliament. There was now nothing to stop Section 28 from becoming law on 24th May 1988.

It was May 1997 before the Conservatives were voted out of office and a new Labour government took over with the express aim of repealing Section 28. That moment took time, due to the large, lingering, pro-Section 28 faction in parliament and the public. Eventually, in 2003 a new Local Government Act which would repeal the original one was introduced and approved by parliament. It became law on 18th September 2003 and Section 28 was at last consigned to the dustbin of history.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Four Santas of Advent : 1) The Ultimate Santa

Christmas is approaching rapidly and today is the first of the Advent Sundays. This year I feature the most popular (of the many) Christmas gift-bringers – Father Christmas, or Santa Claus. I use these names to identify the same character though, technically, that have different origins: Santa Claus – a Christian saint; Father Christmas – a pagan winter god. Father Christmas is a much older character than Santa Claus, who developed in Dutch colonial America. The characters have now become synonymous.
Which of the four characters pictured above is Santa Claus? Actually they all are, but who are you most likely to meet (in the English-speaking world at least) in the Christmas grotto of your local shopping centre/mall? Its number 4 of course. The others are: 1) a traditional early Victorian Father Christmas, 2) a Scandinavian Father Christmas gnome from the same period, and 3) Sire Christmas, the earliest depiction of Father Christmas from England in the 1600s.

Did you know that those first three Father Christmas’s are not recognisable to children as Santa today because of the art produced by a gay man a hundred years ago? It was the illustrations in The Saturday Evening Post by J. C. Leyendecker (1874-1951) that finally established forever the look of our present-day Santa Claus.
A typical Leyendecker Santa
The way that Father Christmas, Santa Claus and his many other incarnations (which include St Nicholas of Myra and Sinterklaas) have been portrayed over the centuries is worthy of a massive encyclopaedia (I think one must have been published). Until Leyendecker artists had portrayed Father Christmas and Santa Claus in a variety of colours and styles. He could be tall or elf-like, fat or thin, with a beard or without. There was no definitive image, not even on Victorian Christmas cards. Leyendecker didn’t invent the red-coated, white bearded version we instantly recognise as Santa Claus today but his portraits were so powerful that Leyendecker is the reason we don’t see Santa dressed in green, blue, yellow or in any other of his earlier manifestations.

J. C. Leyendecker was from a German immigrant family and studied art and engraving in Chicago and Paris. In 1899 he was approached by the Saturday Evening Post to produce a cover, the first of over 300 he produced for the magazine over a period of 44 years.

Most of Leyendecker’s covers were not Christmas orientated but many were seasonal – Thanksgiving, Easter, Mother’s Day and New Year. Most of the work for the Post and others often featured the same male model. He was Leyendecker’s lover Charles Beach. In fact Leyendecker’s artwork turned Beach into a something of a minor celebrity. People would stop Beach in the street because they recognised him from Leyendecker’s work, mainly from advertising material for shirts and socks. Charles Beach became Leyendecker’s manager and agent and pushed the artist’s work to a stage where Leyendecker was earning the equivalent of a million dollars and more a year. The couple built a huge mansion for themselves and held lavish parties to rival those of Elsa Maxwell.

It is Leyendecker’s Santa Claus illustrations which fixed our image of the loveable Christmas gift-bringer forever. So much so that the work of his contemporary and fellow Saturday Evening Post artist Norman Rockwell, and the famous 1930s Coca Cola advertising campaign featuring a Leyendecker Santa, mean that thousands of men every year dress in identical costume to recreate the Santa popularised by Leyendecker.

The first of Leyendecker’s Santas for the Saturday Evening Post, however, was a little different. It featured on the cover of the Christmas 1912 edition and showed an old, thin man dressed as Santa in a long, grubby red coat. This was an example of topical references he often incorporated into his illustrations. This 1912 Santa actually depicts one of the many Salvation Army volunteers who used to stand on streets and ring a bell and collect donations from passers-by. In August that year the founder of the Salvation Army, Gen. William Booth, died and Leyendecker’s illustration was a tribute to him. (I’m actually writing this in the café bar of the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham, my daily writing location. The building was originally the Methodist chapel that Nottingham-boy William Booth worshipped in before founding the Salvation Army. A plaque in entrance foyer commemorates this fact.)

In the USA the Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations have achieved iconic status and have come to symbolise an ideal Americanised way of life. Its influence is seen in many other American publications, not to mention Coca Cola adverts, and in something which I find particularly appropriate and can’t live without at Christmas. I’ve always been a fan of the Carpenters, Richard and Karen (I’m related to them through their English father), and I have all of their studio albums on vinyl. In 1978 they released their first Christmas album. Little did I know at the time that the album cover was a direct tribute to the Santa covers of the Saturday Evening Post (compared side by side below). Their Santa owes more to the work of Norman Rockwell in depicting him without his famous red coat and in a more informal setting, but Rockwell greatly admired Leyendecker and continued his Santa tradition. Today, no-one thinks of Santa in any other way.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Putting A Stamp On AIDS Awareness

 
There have been many ways in which HIV and AIDS awareness has been promoted. One that is easily overlooked is postage stamps. Stamp collecting is a huge pastime around the world and many children, including myself, get the collecting bug by being introduced to stamps. Serious philatelists often concentrate on one or more theme depicted on the stamp rather than collect every single stamp that has been issued.

I was quite surprised to find that there are many collectors of stamps issued for World AIDS Day and HIV/AIDS awareness in general. I wasn’t aware of that many stamps on the subject but digging deeper I found that there are hundreds of them. The strips of stamps above and below come from just the first rows of AIDS stamps which appeared when I googled the subject.

AIDS has been highlighted on postage stamps since 1988. Several nations issued stamps to commemorate the first World AIDS Day held in that year, including the ones pictured left which were issued by San Marino.

In 2009 the Universal Postal Union (UPU) started an initiative to promote awareness of the disease with the use of other material such as postcards, posters and leaflets for use in post offices. The UPU was created in 1874 and became a specialised agency of the United Nations in 1948. Over 20 nations have taken part in the 2009 initiative, including Burkina Faso, Kazakhstan, Russia and Iraq.

There are also philatelists who specialise even further and concentrate on collecting stamps depicting famous people, past and present, with HIV/AIDS. More often than not these stamps make no specific AIDS reference and are issues to commemorate the individual.

AIDS awareness stamps continue to be produced. According to Stephen Lorimer, webmaster of the AIDS On Stamps website (and women’s roller derby referee), the only year in which no known AIDS awareness stamps were issued was 2015.

Stephen Lorimer could be regarded as the current world authority on AIDS stamps, but if anyone can be described as a pioneer it is Blair Coldwell Henshaw (1949-2002). Blair was a gay man growing up in Canada. He was a keen stamp collector from his childhood but didn’t start to specialise in AIDS until the first one was issued in 1988. Blair was himself diagnosed with HIV in 1985. He stated that he had no fear of dying because he had been brought up with the frequent presence of death as a child. His mother was a “death-sitter”, someone who stayed by the bedside of those near the time of their passing. His mother instilled in Blair the belief that death is natural no matter what circumstances that may invoke fear and pain and should not be feared itself.

Throughout the following years Blair collected thousands of AIDS stamps and related postal ephemera building it into a collection which may well have been the largest collection of AID-related stamps in the world. His enthusiasm developed into a series of newsletters beginning in 1993 which gave news of new stamps and other postal news and encouraged readers to start their own collections.

Blair had noticed by 1992 that Canada hadn’t issued an AIDS stamp. He began lobbying the government and postal service who received hundreds of suggestions for themes every year. Blair’s suggestion was granted in 1995 and the first Canadian AIDS stamp was issued in May 1995 to commemorate the 11th International AIDS Conference that was held in Vancouver.

Following Blair’s death from AIDS-related complications his whole stamp collection was auctioned off. One of the 72 lots was the entire AIDS stamp collection. It was purchased by John Keenlyside of Vancouver who donated it to the Simon Fraser University Special Collections department in 2004.

In the 21st century the postal service worldwide has declined because of the improvement in communications and email, but I hope commemorative stamps will continue to bring awareness to social and health issues for as long as they exist.

Monday, 27 November 2017

From First to Last : Last

While there are many places around the world where homosexual activity is punishable by death we in the UK think ourselves lucky that the death penalty was lifted in 1861.

A lot of gay men executed in England may never be identified but the final ones have their names perpetuated in the nation’s memory. They were James Pratt and John Smith and they were both executed on this very day in 1835.

There isn’t a great deal of new information I can find concerning the trial as it is covered by various historians online. You can do no better than go to the website of Rictor Norton where you will find a transcript of the trial itself.

Although James Pratt and John Smith both protested their innocence they were both found guilty. Even though their executions proceeded as arranged there were calls for clemency and remission from the death sentence. This article will take a look at those appeals and the people involved in them and their attempts to change the sentence passed down at the trial.

During his sentencing the judge, Sir John Gurney (1768-1945), declared that Pratt and Smith had no hope of lodging an appeal or of being reprieved. Judge Gurney had a reputation for being independent and not susceptible to political pressure. He was, however, very severe in his judgements, particularly early in his career. Therefore his sentence and his opinion on a reprieve were not out of character.

In his later years he mellowed, relatively speaking. There is one court case where he didn’t pass the death sentence on a murderer, which he would undoubtedly have done a few years earlier. In his lifetime Judge Gurney was also known to be an extremely charitable man, giving several hundreds of pounds every year to various worthy causes.

The local magistrate who took the case of James Pratt and John Smith to trial was also charitable. He came from a family with strong humanitarian and philanthropic convictions, the Wedgwoods. Hensleigh Wedgwood (1803-1891) was the police magistrate at the Surrey Magistrates Court in Southwark, the district in which Pratt and Smith were arrested.

Wedgwood had trained as a barrister but never sought a position above that of a magistrate. He resigned this position shortly after the execution of Pratt and Smith, partly on grounds of conscience. He turned to his great passion – etymology and philology, words. He also became heavily involved in the Victorian craze of Spiritualism and séances.

After Pratt and Smith’s trial Wedgwood wrote to the Home Secretary urging him to commute the death sentence. Even though he described Pratt and Smith as “degraded creatures” he wrote that their crime was also practised by many rich men. Because rich men had the money to pay for secure private premises for their activity, or carry them out in the privacy of their large properties, they escaped the punishment that went to poorer people like Pratt and Smith, whose only crime was that they were caught. Wedgwood wrote that the crime of consensual sex between men does no harm to anyone, and in that respect was the only harmless crime punishable by death.

The Home Secretary who received Wedgwood’s letter was Lord John Russell (1792-1878) who would later go on to become Prime Minister. He was an advocate of parliamentary and social reform and was the chief architect of the Reform Act 1832 which extended voting rights and redistributed parliamentary constituencies to reflect the population movement resulting from the Industrial Revolution. There’s no real evidence of his thoughts about acts of sodomy but his career was dominated by matters affecting the whole of society rather than individuals.

Two surprising people who urged the dropping of the death sentence were the married couple who caught Pratt and Smith having sex in one of their rented rooms, George and Jane Berkshire. They put their names to a petition that was collected by friends of James Pratt. Even the Crown Prosecutor at the trial, Mr. Bonill, added his signature.

Various other documents and letters were prepared for a meeting of the Privy Council to be held in Brighton Pavilion, the residence of King William IV. The Privy Council met regularly to decide which appeals against convictions would receive what was called the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. The Council itself was made up of various politicians, officers of state and clergy and it was on their advice that the king would make his decision. Then, as now, the sovereign has little actual choice – the decision of the Privy Council, like parliament, is effectively binding and any sovereign who wants to keep the crown does not challenges them.

The Privy Council met on 21st November 1835 and the cases of 17 men on death row were considered. All but James Pratt and John Smith had their death sentences commuted to either imprisonment or transportation. King William IV’s personal opinions on same-sex relationships are not known, but he was a supporter of Home Secretary Lord John Russell’s parliamentary reforms.

Pratt and Smith were informed of the Privy Council’s decision several days later on the morning of their execution. Presumably, they had already guessed what the decision was when they heard the noise of the scaffold being constructed outside their jail. Hangings were rare in those days and they were the only ones awaiting execution in that jail.

James Pratt and John Smith were hanged simultaneously at 8 a.m. on Friday 27th November 1835. No one knew it at the time, because the death penalty for sodomy wasn’t lifted until 1861, that they had become the last men who would be hanged for a homosexual act in England and Wales.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

From First to Last : First

These last few days of November sees the anniversaries of two events that were significant in the lgbt histories of their respective nations. In a few days I’ll cover the trial of the last men hanged for sodomy in England. Today I’m going to cover the first known trial of a man hanged for sodomy in the American colonies.

Today, when USA is celebrating Thanksgiving, we look at the period around Thanksgiving 1624 in the colony of Virginia. Most of the English colonies followed the laws of the home country. As such they adopted the Buggery Act of 1533 which set down that anyone found guilty of sodomy would be hanged. The definition of sodomy under this act was any sexual act with a man, woman or animal which involved anal intercourse. It was not an anti-gay law because it applied to everyone. Of the 162 known death sentences recorded in colonial court documents in the 17th century there are 5 which deal with same-sex sodomy. The hanging of Richard Cornish shortly after 3 January 1625 (or 1624 as it would have been regarded at the time, because New Year was in March in those days) is the first recorded.
The trial of Richard Cornish began on 30th November 1624 in the Council and General Court of Virginia, presided over by the Governor of Virginia, Sir Francis Wyatt. An accusation of sodomy and sexual assault was brought against Cornish by a fellow mariner called William Couse.

William Couse was a 19-year-old crew member on board the merchant ship “Ambrose” of which Richard Cornish was the Master. Couse testified that on the pervious 27th August Master Cornish had sexually assaulted him in his cabin. The “Ambrose” was at anchor in the James River. Master Cornish had been drinking and called for Couse to come and put a pair of clean sheets on his bed in his cabin. Couse did so, and Master Cornish climbed into bed and pleaded with young Couse to join him. Couse refused. Master Cornish got out of bed and cut off Couse’s cod-piece. The Master pushed him onto his bed and lay on top of him, kissing and hugging him, and then raped him.

The next day Master Cornish apologised to young William Couse, yet he continued to kiss him and grab the teenager’s cod-piece on several later occasions. After Couse refused further unwanted attention Master Cornish brought him up in front of the rest of the ship’s crew and forbad any of them from eating with him. Couse was then forced to cook meals for all of the crew.

Couse had intended to wait until the ship had returned to England before making any accusation against Master Cornish. Instead, perhaps due to Cornish’s persistent harassment, Couse decided to take the matter up with the local authorities. Technically, such as accusation would have been heard by the Admiralty back in England. Being such a serious offence it isn’t likely that the Governor of Virginia himself was not present to pass sentence.

The sentence of death by hanging was inevitable. We don’t have a record of the exact date when Cornish was hanged but it was after 3rd January 1625, when a fellow crew member gave his testimony, and probably before 8th February 1625, when Couse was called to help choose a new ship’s master for the Ambrose.

Of Richard Cornish himself we know very little other than his occupation and the manner of his death. He was also known by the name of Richard Williams. Naming conventions, even in the 17th century, were not fixed. The two names may indicate that he or his family came from Cornwall. Cornwall had a very strong maritime tradition at the time, and Williams was a very common name. Perhaps there were two Richard Williams’ in the English navy and the surname Cornish was used to distinguish one from the other. As a ship’s master Richard Cornish would have been older than the 19-year-old William Couse. We can assume that he was probably born before 1600. We also know that Cornish had a brother (see below).

We know almost more about the ship “Ambrose” than we do about its master. The “Ambrose” may be the same ship that later became a colonist passenger ship, one of the Winthrop Fleet of 1630.

The case of Master Cornish didn’t end with his death. Before the end of the year his brother Jeffrey became involved in the aftermath of the execution.

Jeffrey Cornish was in Virginia Colony during 1625. He discovered his brother’s fate and sought out people who could help him to clear his brother’s name and reputation. He had heard rumours that Richard has been put to death wrongly. At Dambrella Cove in Canada (now called Damariscove Harbour Island not far from Portland, Maine; Canada was a general name given at that time to the coast of New England) Jeffrey boarded the ship “The Swan” where he had obviously been told he could find someone who could shed more light on the matter. There Jeffrey spoke to several men who knew about the case, even some who were present at his brother’s trial and execution. Jeffrey swore revenge on all who had been involved in his brother’s death, including the governor. Several witnesses overheard crew members criticising the governor for ordering Master Cornish’s execution, for which they were brought before the Governor’s Council and General Court. Criticism of the governor was an offence and both crew members were punished. One had both ears cut off and the other just one ear in addition to other punishments. Jeffrey Cornish appears not to have been charged with any offence and we know no more about him.

The case of Master Richard Cornish languished in the archives until 1971 when historian Edward S. Morgan used the case to illustrate the governance of Sir Francis Wyatt. From then on it became part of lgbt heritage often referenced in lgbt articles and, more recently, websites.

Whether the execution of a convicted rapist should be commemorated or not is a matter of opinion. Capital punishment is not what I, personally, support, and I condemn the sentence of the court but can’t condone the crime. Despite what his brother Jeffrey thought there is no evidence that the case against Master Richard Cornish was fabricated.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Queer Achievement : A Transgender Pioneer

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]

Tomorrow is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. My commemoration this year takes the form of the coat of arms of a transgender pioneer, Dr. Michael Dillon (1915-1963). There are two historic facts about Dr. Dillon and his coat of arms. First is Dillon being the first female to male transgender to undergo surgical gender reassignment in history. Second, this also means that his coat of arms is the first ever borne by any member of the transgender community.

Michael Dillon was the second child of Lt. Robert Arthur Dillon of the Royal Navy. Michael was assigned female at birth and was baptised with the name Laura. His only sibling was his older brother Robert Dillon (1914-1982).

Here is my rendition of Michael Dillon’s armorial achievement.
The Dillon family were Irish and trace their line back to Robert de Dillon (sometimes called de Leon), an Anglo-Norman knight who arrived in Ireland with Prince (later King) John in 1185 and was granted lands in what are now the counties of Longford and Westmeath. Robert de Dillon’s coat of arms, the original Dillon arms (below) are slightly different to Michael’s.
What is common to both are the lion and crescents. The lion may be a cant (a direct reference to the owner’s name) on the name de Leon. Michael Dillon’s branch of the family descends from the Dillons of Poundstown, who were created Earls of Roscommon in 1622. The 1st Earl of Roscommon used the same shield and crest as Michael Dillon several centuries later. It’s not certain when this particular design was chosen over the original Dillon arms but they seem to have been first used by Sir Richard Dillon of Poundstown in the 15th century. There is a family legend which describes how the change occurred.

The story goes that Richard Dillon fought at the Battle of Verneuil in Normandy in 1424. He brought 600 Irish soldiers with him and with the English won the battle against the French. Richard was rewarded with a knighthood from the Duke of Bedford, the English Regent of France. In addition the duke granted Sir Richard a new crest, the falcon, and a new configuration of the arms on the shield into the form inherited by Michael Dillon and the Earls of Roscommon. The falcon has been depicted with its wings in various positions over the centuries. One of the leading heraldists of the 20th century, A. C. Fox-Davies, wrote that there is a lot of confusion and no consistency over the falcon’s wing positions in English heraldry, and the Dillon falcon is no exception. The form I have chosen is described as “wings addorsed and elevated”.

Analysing the arms we can determine how the charges (the objects on the shield) looks this way. First of all, the lion. The original Dillon lion was passant (looking as if it is walking past us). Sir Richard’s 1424 lion is rampant (standing up). This is obviously because a lion passant would be virtually hidden behind the blue band (called a fess). The lion in the original Dillon crest is also standing upright.

Second, the crescents. The three crescents from the original arms now have 6-pointed stars between their points. These are representations of the black star held by the lion in the original Dillon crest.

Another alteration to the arms made by the Poundstown Dillons at some unknown stage was to include a chapeau (the medieval-looking red cap) on which the falcon stands.

The blue band, the fess, is said to have been a special augmentation granted by the Duke of Bedford. Upon it is another crescent which in this case indicates that Michael Dillon is the second son of his father, which he became after his reassignment surgery after 1949. Whether the heraldic authorities at the College of Arms at the time considered this appropriate is not certain.

In 1801 Michael Dillon’s direct ancestor, John Dillon (1739-1805), was created a baronet, a hereditary knighthood. In 1783 John Dillon had been created a baron of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Josef II. Sir John was given permission to use this title in England, which was not usually possible for people with foreign titles. Michael Dillon’s older bother Robert was the 8th baronet and 8th Baron Dillon. After his transition Debrett’s Peerage, one of the leading works on the British nobility, acknowledged Michael’s gender by declaring him to be the male heir to his brother’s titles. Sadly, Michael predeceased Robert and there were no more heirs. The titles disappeared into history.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Queen of the Party

Is it too early to think about a New Year party? I suppose it doesn’t matter what the occasion is.

Have you ever wanted to be at one of those star-studded Hollywood parties of the 1930s, 40s or 50s with celebrities left, right and centre? There doesn’t seem to be that many around these years, star-studded parties that is, not celebrities. Celebrities are everywhere. Just reading about all those interminably dull “celebrity/real life” television programmes proves that you call claim to be a celebrity just by being the brother of a film star’s dog-walker. Even the Kardashians are nobodies with their own tv series, nothing more.

But who am I to complain? Perhaps I’m just jealous. I’ve been on my fair share on television and radio programmes over the decades. No-one has ever referred to me as a celebrity. I’ve never had an invitation to a celebrity party and, as the lesbian who invented the celebrity party single-handed might have said, if you don’t get invited to a celebrity party you’re a nobody.

That lesbian’s name is Elsa Maxwell (1883-1963). For someone who spent her adult social life in the company of kings and princes Elsa’s origins are very humble. She was born in Keokuk, Iowa. The family moved to San Francisco when she was little.
Elsa Maxwell
The origin of Elsa’s enthusiasm for parties is said to come from an incident in her childhood when her parents were left off the quest list of an event hosted by one of the famously rich Vanderbilt family. Details of the story vary but, ironically, later in life when her parties were the talk of high society Elsa could claim that her parties had more Vanderbilts than anyone else. There’s nothing to indicate otherwise.

Elsa tried her hand at many things, with only modest success. She was songwriter and singer and would sometimes play the piano and sing at her parties. She acted in several films and was a theatre impresario. But it was her parties that made her as famous as the celebrities she invited to them.

It wasn’t just the food and entertainment that Elsa spent so much time over. The guests themselves were specifically chosen to bring sparks to the party. For instance, it was Elsa who introduced the film star Rita Hayworth to Prince Aly Khan, father of the present Aga Khan, at one of her parties. They married soon afterwards. In the 1920s Elsa encouraged the talents of songwriter Cole Porter, with whom she became great friends after initially finding him irritating.

Perhaps the biggest contribution Elsa made to partying was the development of the scavenger hunt and treasure hunt. Her imagination knew no bounds when planning them. In 1927 her star-studded Paris party caused an uproar around the city as guests dashed around the streets hunting for such items as a shoe belonging to the music hall star Mistinguett (she has to perform barefoot that night), a live black swan (which bit several people who had to be sent to hospital) and a pom-pom from a French sailor’s hat (the lgbt designer Elsie de Wolfe was arrested by the French Navy for theft). How could anyone top a party like that?

Well, Elsa Maxwell continued to do so for another 32 years. If later scavenger hunts never lived up to the Paris 1927 standard there were also the party themes which equalled them. Every invitation gave the party’s theme and dress code. One theme was “Come as you were dressed when you received this invitation”. Guests arrived in a wide variety of formal and informal wear and in various stages of undress. At other parties guests were asked to dress as their opposite gender.

The success of Elsa’s parties meant that she became the go-to person for the media on matters of entertaining and celebrity gossip. She wrote a syndicated gossip column and hosted her own radio show. She made regular appearances on NBC’s “The Jack Paar’s Tonight Show”.

Elsa Maxwell partied right up until the last few weeks of her death at the age of 82 in 1963. By this time she was in a wheelchair, but she was determined to attend the annual “April in Paris” ball. She died the following week.

Elsa’s heir was her partner since 1912, a Scottish singer called Dorothy Fellowes Gordon. They kept their relationship discreet but they were acknowledged as “companions”.

Modern parties don’t seem to have the same level of excitement as Elsa’s, judging by the dull parties we see in the gossip media or “celebrity” reality shows. It’s all alcohol and individual high jinks. Even the fabled parties of Sir Elton John are dull compared to Elsa Maxwell’s.

So, if you want to host a really good party take inspiration from Elsa Maxwell. Choose your guests carefully. Invite new people who will add to the atmosphere. Create your own scavenger hunt or treasure hunt. Scavenger hunts in particular offer the best opportunity for limitless imagination. Not everyone can have real celebrities at their party but at least you can have fun trying to find one in the scavenger hunt.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Weddings - Poles (and Polls) Apart

Once in a while two events on opposite sides of the world connect. We see that happening at the moment in two, apparently unrelated events – the vote of same-sex marriage in Australia, and the declaration of independence by Catalonia. Boiling it down to the basic issues of same-sex marriage and separatism in Spain we can combine them into one with a same-sex wedding in the medieval kingdom of Galicia.

We’ll begin with a wedding. A couple of years ago I wrote about the relationship between SirWilliam Neville and Sir John Clanvowe and how they were shown as a married couple. They probably went through a church ceremony identical to the marriage ceremony, but no record of it exists. It is known that the Roman Catholic Church encouraged men to form unions which may have their origin in the older practice of adelphopoiesis, a liturgy in the medieval Greek Orthodox Church, in which two men are united in something very much like a same-sex marriage.

Before I go any further I think it might be helpful to explain what a wedding actually is. I’m not talking about marriage, that’s a different concept with a different origin. It is the ceremony, the wedding that I’ll write about here.

The word “wedding” comes from the same origin as the word “wager”. They both derive from the ancient word for a pledge. A wedding was a pledge from a husband to take a woman as his wife. The pledge was sealed with a wedding ring (that’s why it isn’t called a marriage ring).
Despite modern assumptions that Christians have always had church weddings the truth is very different. For an understanding of the origin of church weddings we have to thank the gay Christian historian and Anglican deacon Prof. Diarmuid MacCulloch. In his 2015 television series “Sex and the Church” he explained how church weddings came into being.

Early Christians didn’t have ceremonies to celebrate marriages. All they did was exchange vows in front of witnesses. This type of marriage was referred to as “common law”. It was towards the end of the Dark Ages that men began to think about their inheritance, whether it was a big manorial estate or a small cottage and a couple of pigs. When a man died his eldest son inherited his property. Squabbles between siblings could go on for decades if there was no certain heir. Male relatives would fight over who was legitimate of illegitimate, based on their word about whose parents were married. The only way to prove whether an heir was from a legal marriage was to have that marriage approved by the highest authority in the world – God. People began asking priests to marry them in church in the eyes of God.

The Greek Orthodox service of adelphopoiesis, brother-making, dates from the end of the Dark Ages as well. The theory that it allowed homosexual couples (as we would call them in today’s terms) to marry was first proposed by two openly gay historians, John Boswell (1947-1994) and Alan Bray (1948-2001). Their theories were challenged by the Greek Orthodox Church, but then they would. The modern Orthodox Church is more anti-gay than Roman Catholicism. Even other historians challenged the theory, a leading critic being Robin Darling Young, but then again she would. She’s a devout Catholic and history professor at the only official Roman Catholic university in the USA.

Unfortunately, very, very few records of the first church weddings survive, but one which may be evidence of a brother-making ceremony can be found in a document discovered in the monastery of San Salvador de Celanora in Galicia, Spain. It records the union of two men called Pedro Diaz and Muño Vandilaz taking place on 16th April 1061.

Diaz and Vandilaz were “wedded” in a chapel in Rairiz de Veija, just a few miles from the current border with Portugal. They made their vows in writing in front of a priest, committing themselves to live and work together, and share clothes, food and bed. They wouldn’t have called themselves homosexuals in the way we use the term today, because that term didn’t exist in 1061. Nor would they call themselves a gay couple. They had no words for a gay couple in those days either.
The discovery of their wedding ceremony was made by another openly gay history professor, Carlos Callón. His research also supports the modern view, (deliberately) ignored by anti-church propagandists, that the Catholic Church did not victimise gay men as harshly as those propagandists claim. Homosexuality was never declared a sin in the Church, not until modern separatist evangelical churches did so. On the other hand civil authorities, elected officials, politicians and non-clergy have all put the death penalty on homosexual acts.

Carlos Callón’s research on medieval sexuality, “Friends and Sodomites”, won a prestigious prize for social sciences in 2011. The prize board praised his work and, in particular, his analysis of the origin of homophobia in the 11th and 12th centuries.

And that leaves one question? What has all that got to do with Catalonian independence? As well as being a historian Carlos Callón is also an activist in the Bloque Nacionalista Galega, the nationalist coalition of Galician political groups who, like Catalonia, would prefer independence from Spain. Carlos is an expert on Galicia history and language and was an elected local councillor for several years for the Bloque. Galicia is an area of unique culture and heritage that has more in common with Portugal than it does with Spain, while being different to both.

Only time will tell if the Catalonia situation stabilises and reaches a mutual solution. Maybe, way in the future, Galicia will move in the same direction and have a calmer path to independence. No doubt Carlos Callón (if it happens in our lifetime) will be in the forefront of that cause, just as he is in discovering recorded evidence that same-sex marriage isn’t new.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Planning Another Trip Around the World

Tomorrow night at the University of Liverpool the official launch of LGBT History Month UK 2018 takes place. The theme for next year is “Geography: Mapping Our World”.

If you trawl through my posts of 2015 you’ll notice that one of the running themes I had went by the title of “Around the World in 80 Gays”. I’ve been trying to complete another one ever since and the 2018 theme for LGBT History Month gives me the perfect reason to complete it. So I have come up with the not-very-original series title of “Around the World in Another 80 Gays”.

Rather than have “80 Gays” as a running theme interspersed with articles from other continuing series, such as “Star Gayzing”, “Queer Achievements” and “Xtremely Queer” I intend “Another 80 Gays” to be the dominant series throughout 2018. In this way I can expand on some information and devote one article to one individual rather than 3 or 4 as I did in 2015. This will also enable me to incorporate one of those other themes as well. For example, one of the first “Another 80 Gays” articles to appear (probable at the end of January or early February, I haven’t finalised the schedule yet) will also be part of my “Queer Achievements” series and will feature Alexander the Great. But that doesn’t mean that other articles from other series will not appear separately.

As with my original “80 Gays” most of the links in “Another 80 Gays” have been made well in advance and have been allocated provisional dates for publication. Most of my time next month will be devoted to writing drafts for the first 20 articles and finalising the schedule.

As before, the list of people included in the new series will be as varied as I can manage, both in time and, bearing in mind the LGBT History Month’s theme is geography, location. Each of the 80 people I will feature are connected personally or directly to the next one. To give you a taste of what is to come I can reveal that the starting point will be Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973). Taking one aspect of his life I link together another 79 lgbt individuals, the final one having a direct link to another aspect of his life (no spoilers, you’ll have to wait till the end of December 2018 to find out who person 79 is).

What I can reveal today is that as well as the above mentioned Alexander the Great “Around the World in Another 80 Gays” will also include the Emperor Nero, the first ever International Ms Leather, and Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister. Subjects covered will include diamonds, the American War of Independence, and comic books.

It is also my intention to bring this blog to end at the end in December 2018. Seven years is a long time to be doing anything and I’d like to expand other avenues in lgbt heritage.

But that is still over a year in the future. In the meantime I have a lot more research and writing to do in order to bring you some of the least expected, more unusual, not well known and (hopefully) inspiring stories from lgbt and world history.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Out Of His Tree: Wilde About Oscar's Ancestry

Perhaps the most famous person imprisoned for a gay crime is Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). In 1895 he was given a prison sentence after bring found guilty of gross indecency. I don’t think there’s been a proper look in his many biographies at his ancestry, apart from his immediate family tree, so that’s what we’ll do today.
A lot is known about Oscar’s immediate ancestry. Both of his parents were well-known in their lifetimes. His father was Sir William Wilde (1815-1876), a prominent surgeon, having the position of Surgeon Occulist to the Queen in Ireland created specially for him by Queen Victoria. He was also a noted antiquarian and writer.

The Wilde family originate in County Durham, England. Ralph Wilde moved over to Ireland after he became the agent for Lord Mount Sandford at Castlerea in County Roscommon. He was Sir William’s grandfather.

Sir William’s wife, Oscar’s mother, was Jane Francisca Elgee (1826-1896) and her ancestry can be traced back in Ireland a bit further. Jane was also a writer. She wrote poetry and prose and established a reputation that rivalled her English female counterparts. She adopted the name Speranza, an Italianate-sounding name which she thought emphasised the Italian origin of the Elgee family. She was wrong about that.

The Elgee family actually came, like the Wilde’s, from County Durham. Several Elgee brothers went to Ireland as jobbing stonemasons and bricklayers in the construction boom in the 1730s. They flourished and became quite wealthy farmers. Rev. John Elgee (1753-1823), one of the children of these brothers entered the Protestant Church of Ireland and became Rector of Wexford and Archdeacon of Leighlin. He was Jane “Speranza” Wilde’s grandfather.

Jane’s other grandfather was also a clergyman, Rev. Thomas Kingsbury, Vicar of Kildare. The Kingsburys were also an immigrant English family, originally from Dorset. Rev. Thomas’s father was an influential Dublin physician, also called Thomas, who was President of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland. He was also a close friend of the famous writer Jonathan Swift.

Rev. John Elgee, mentioned above, married Jane Waddy (1751-1804), from yet another family who migrated from England. The Waddys originate in Yorkshire and went to Ireland in the 1600s during Oliver Cromwell’s vicious Irish campaigns and were granted Clougheast Castle, County Wexford, in recognition of their services.

Jane Waddy’s parents were Cadwallader Waddy, an Irish MP, and Ellinor Tench. The Tench family were one of County Wexford’s most important landed families. In genealogical terms Ellinor is referred to as a gateway ancestor because her ancestry takes us into more noble and royal families. The Tench’s of Bryanstown to which Ellinor belonged claim Norman ancestry. Again, they migrated to Ireland from England, though much earlier than the previously-named families. They were among the first wave of Anglo-Norman invaders in the 12th century. The Bryanstown estates were inherited by them in the 1500s through marriage to the heiress of the Bryan family after whom the estates were named.

One set of Oscar Wilde’s 4-times greatgrandparents were John Tench and his wife Elizabeth Cliffe. The Cliffe’s arrived in Ireland, yet again from England, at about the same time as the Waddys. Elizabeth’s father John was Secretary of War to Oliver Cromwell and came to Ireland in that tyrant’s merciless attack on Ireland. John settled in Ireland and married a well-connected girl called Eleanor Loftus (1641-1700), another gateway ancestor.

The Loftus family were more well-connected than the Tench’s. They were deeply involved in Irish politics with many members of the family serving in the Irish parliament. Eleanor Loftus’s father was an MP, her grandfather was Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and her great-grandfather was Most Rev. Adam Loftus (c.1533-1605), also Lord Chancellor of Ireland, who was Archbishop of Armagh. Before establishing themselves in the Irish Establishment the Loftus family were, yes, you guessed, English. Adam Loftus’s first connection with Ireland came in 1560 when he became chaplain in Ireland to the Earl of Sussex. He then became chaplain to the Bishop of Kildare and, before he was 29, was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh, less than 3 years after arriving in Ireland. What a meteoric rise! Among the Archbishop’s descendants are not only Oscar Wilde but Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Wellington, “Lord Voldemort” Ralph Fiennes (and his real-life nephew Hero Triffin, who played Tom Riddle in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”), Sir Arthur Vicars and Eleanor Acheson.

It is the Archbishop’s son Sir Dudley Loftus, Oscar Wilde’s direct ancestor, who provides the link to royalty. He married Anne, the daughter of the Marshal of the Army in Ireland to Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Nicholas Bagenal (1509-1591). He was a very colourful character. After fleeing to Ireland to escape a murder charge he befriended an Irish prince, the Earl of Tyrone, who obtained a royal pardon for him. Later in life Sir Nicholas was involved in a drunken punch-up with a rival for the post of Marshal. He was about 80 years old at the time. It is his wife, Eleanor Griffith, who provides Oscar Wilde with his royal blood. She is descended from King Edward III of England and his gay father King Edward II.

I’ll end with a ghost story (it’s not that long since Hallowe’en). Young Anne Tottenham, one of Oscar’s ancestral cousins, related through the Loftus, Cliffe and Tench families several times over, was living at Loftus Hall, County Wexford, in the 1770s. One stormy night a young man sought refuge at the hall and stayed a few days, becoming friendly with Anne. One evening while they were playing cards Anne reached down to pick up a card she had dropped. It was then that she saw the man had cloven hooves instead of feet. She screamed in horror and the young man shot straight up through the ceiling. Anne was in deep shock and refused to eat or drink and died a few days later. Legend had it that the hole in the ceiling could never be repaired and it reappeared again every time it was sealed.

I wonder if Oscar Wilde heard about this family legend and used parts of it to inspire his own ghost story “The Canterville Ghost”. After all, that story also has a supernatural stain that keeps returning.