Thursday 29 September 2011

Star Gayzing

One of my new projects is research into lgbt heavenly bodies. No, I don’t mean Matthew Mitcham! I mean stars and planets. When I was preparing my talk “Putting the Flags Out” I intended to begin with a history of the symbols and ,  and why the astronomical symbols for the planets Venus and Mars came to be used as gender symbols.

However, the more I looked the more I discovered there were many lgbt angles to the planets and stars and soon realised it could become the basis of a presentation in its own right.

Most of the constellations and planets have Greek or Roman mythology associated with them. Some originate much earlier in the Babylonian civilisation. Even way back then some stars had gay connections.

Star atlases over the centuries have seen constellations being chopped and changed as new were created or dropped. One of those that was dropped was called Antinous. The star maps below show you the before, during and after arrangements of this lost constellation.

Antinous was a real person. He was the boyfriend of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. A native of north-west Turkey, he was born probably 1900 years ago this year. After he met the emperor he was an inseparable companion. This came to an end in 130 AD when Hadrian and his court were in Egypt. After hunting for lions in the desert Antinous mysteriously drowned in the Nile. Legend says that Hadrian had received a prophecy saying the sacrifice of the thing he loved the most would guarantee future success. Stories of ritual sacrifice, suicide and murder have surrounded Antinous’s death ever since.

Whatever the truth behind Antinous’s death, Hadrian was utterly devastated. As is often the case even today a loved one’s death is commemorated. Rather than have a park bench with a plaque, Hadrian founded a city near to where Antinous drowned and name it Antinoopolis (that’s Antino-opolis). There were statues erected and coins minted with his image all around the empire, and Antinous was declared a god. To make sure that he could see his boyfriend every night wherever he was in his empire, Hadrian also created a new constellation called Antinous.

Constellations didn’t have fixed “boundaries” in those days. There were areas in-between which had no significant stars in them and weren’t assigned to any constellation. One constellation well known to the Romans was that of Aquila (map 1).

This represented the eagle which the Greek god Zeus sent to kidnap young Ganymede because he fancied him. Hadrian chose some stars below Aquila to turn into the constellation Antinous to show him being lifted away by the eagle (map 2).

It was symbolic location, with Antinous becoming a new Ganymede, a youth taken from the mortal world into the sky to be with the gods.

The constellation remained in the sky until quite recently. In 1930 the International Astronomical Union “cleaned up” the night sky in an effort to make proper scientific research more formalised and easier. As the third star map shows the stars on Antinous were absorbed back into Aquila (map 3).

Over the coming months I’ll be revealing more lgbt star tales as I go through the zodiac and other celestial bodies. So, if you’re star sign is Scorpio look out for my entry on 24th October.

Tuesday 27 September 2011


Sad news of a friend ending his life. Miss you Paul. All my love and thoughts are with his partner Jens. I know how devastating it is to lose a partner.

Friday 23 September 2011

Happy Bisexuality Day

If you’ve been to a Pride event anywhere in the world in the past few years you may have seen this flag.

It’s the Bisexuality Pride flag, and today is Bisexuality Day.

This month also sees the 30th anniversary of the founding of the first organised bisexual group in the UK – the London Bisexual Group. The anniversary was celebrated at the annual BiCon which was held in Leicester earlier this month.

Bisexuality is one of the “labels” that have been around a long time. It was first used in the natural sciences in the 17th century to define organisms – plants as well as animals - that had both male and female parts. Bisexual was first used in human terms from the middle of the 19th century to describe the undifferentiated male and female condition found in the early embryonic state.

Even though bisexuality (as we use the word today) was being practised and groups like the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers were formed, it wasn’t a word used by them. It wasn’t until the 1940s that it came to mean the recognition of sexual attraction to men and women.

Like homosexuality, once a separate named identity was defined people formed specific bisexual groups, and soon they revealed the discrimination there was against them. The bi activism echoed the gay rights movement in its intent, though it was felt that bisexuals were being discriminated against by both the gay and straight community. Many bisexuals felt driven away and isolated and felt they were being overlooked.

Bisexual rights groups grew during the 1970s, and a varied array of groups and organisations appeared around the world. It wasn’t long before international bisexual conferences were being held.

Like most developing communities, bisexuals identified their own specific issues and problems but had no overall unity. Partly because of this Wendy Curry, Michael Page and Gigi Raven Wilbur, bi activists in the US, founded the internet site, now one of the major bisexual sites in the world.

Michael Page went on to create the Bisexual Pride flag for BiCafe’s first anniversary party on 5th December 1998, and the following year, with Curry and Wilbur, created Bisexuality Day.

Like other celebrations Bisexuality Day is not just for bisexuals but for everyone to celebrate. After all, unlike football where club rivalry borders on tribal warfare, it doesn’t matter if you’re not “in the team” you can still “enjoy being at the match”.

Monday 19 September 2011

Preparing for a few Thrills

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was trying to produce a gay Hallowe’en tour. Well, I think I’ve done it. Using my Seven Deadly Gay Sins tour as the basis I’ve put together a bigger tour with lots of new stories. I did it this way because there’s very little I could use for a traditional Hallowe’en tour with a gay theme. But don’t despair – the way it has turned out there is still blood and guts, and tales of vampires, ghosts and murder.

I intend this to be a one-off tour – never to be repeated. Because of that, and because it’ll last longer, I’m going to put up my usual charge and ask people to pre-book. I haven’t finalised a date or time yet, but if you’re interested let me know anyway.

Another reason for the increase in charge is the need to raise funds for an exhibition in LGBT History Month next February. I don’t have the financial resources that Nottinghamshire’s Rainbow Heritage has for their displays so funding it myself is my only option at the moment.

Without giving too much away – the new Hallowe’en tour will take us to old and new locations around Nottingham city centre and look at the origins of the modern vampire, a cross-dressing clairvoyant, and perhaps the ghost of Oscar Wilde. Add a good sprinkling of dismembered body parts and I think it’s a tour to thrill.

More information and full details of the tour will appear in a few days.

Friday 16 September 2011

Pink Night of the Proms

Last weekend was the Last Night of the Proms. I have always enjoyed watching it, ever since my childhood, and the thing I remember most vividly from those days are the flags. That may be the reason I became a vexillologist (that’s a studier of flags, by the way). In the past few years I’ve noticed a distinctive flag being waved in the audience. There were 3 large ones being waved enthusiastically just in front of the conductor this year. It’s this one
This is called the Pink Jack. It is becoming very visible at lgbt events worldwide. It was first used by London artist David Gwinnutt in 2005 for an exhibition he put together on what it meant to him to be British and gay. He felt he didn’t identify himself too well with the rainbow flag. Not long afterwards David began a company called Pink Jack which produced all sorts of merchandise with the flag on it – badges, t-shirts, mugs, and of course the flags themselves. The Pink Jack became very popular quite quickly. Probably the first time it was used to symbolise the lgbt community in an international setting was at the opening ceremony of the first World Outgames in Canada in July 2006 by the British team.

But back to the Proms. There are several rousing moments in the concert when the whole audience joins as one in singing a patriotic song. The one which has been used by an unofficial national anthem is “Land of Hope and Glory”. Everyone talks about Elgar writing the music, but few can remember who wrote the words. They were written by Arthur Benson (1862-1925), a member of a family that included 3 gay sons (including Arthur) and a bisexual mother (wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less).

Arthur Benson was first and foremost a teacher. He was a schoolmaster at Eton and Fellow and Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. But he loved writing essays and poetry, becoming an unofficial poet laureate to Queen Victoria. It was this connection that led to an invitation to write words to Elgar’s music for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902.

Benson’s sexuality was influenced by his moral Christian upbringing. He undoubtedly had romantic feelings towards men which, as if often the case with people form a background similar to his, began with a crush on a fellow pupil at public school. But Benson always advocated a celibate platonic relationship, which was perhaps very wise considering in later life he was surrounded by schoolboys and young men. Twice he suffered from serious bouts of depression, the first brought on while he was an undergraduate after his boyfriend left him to have a physical relationship with another undergraduate.

A new name I came across this week in connection with the Proms is Mrs. Rosa Newmarch (1857-1940). She was a musicologist, specialising in the classical music of Russia. Between 1908 and 1927 Rose wrote programme notes for the Prom concerts. But what caught my attention this week was a reference to Rosa Newmarch as “the first truly queer poet in English literature”. At a time when human sexuality was beginning to be separated, named and defined, Rosa’s poetry showed a pioneering attitude to the new views of sexuality and same-sex desire in literature. I must confess I haven’t read any of her work, but I’m going to read her biography to find out more.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Extraordinary Lives No. 2

Elagabalus, Emperor of Rome

One of the most extraordinary lgbt characters from history has to be the Roman emperor Elagabalus. You couldn’t make his life up if you tried. Even by Roman standards he was an odd-ball. Perhaps this may partly be due to him being born into a Syrian family of hereditary priests who worshipped a sun god in the form of a meteorite.

Some time ago I came across the story of Elegabalus as told by Neil Gaiman, the celebrated fantasy writer and artist. He set himself the challenge of telling Elegabalus’s whole life story in comic strip format, producing 24 pages in 24 hours. It’s a valiant attempt and has inspired me to do something similar in the future.

One of the most famous stories about Elegabalus involves his court officials scouring the Roman Empire for men who were, shall we say, especially “blessed” in the “trouser department”!! What Gaiman’s version doesn’t have room to tell is the full story, so here it is.

Elegabalus was married to his lover Hierocles (being High Priest of his own religion he could do that) with whom, so says the Roman historian Cassius Dio, he had a more stable relationship than with any of his wives. The court officials found a particularly “blessed” athlete by the name of Zoticus and brought him before the emperor. Elegabalus married him on the spot and took him to the palace baths where he saw for himself the naked truth.

But like a lot of gay, Hierocles became jealous. He was afraid that the emperor might dump him for this new muscle-bound stallion, so he furtively drugged Zoticus’s drink.

That night, as Emperor Elegabalus was high on expectation, handsome hunk Zoticus struggled to rise higher than a limp lettuce and the emperor was furious. Zoticus was immediately divorced and banished form Italy. How Hierocles would have sniggered as Zoticus was booted out of Rome with his tail between his legs!

Sunday 11 September 2011


I can’t believe its 10 years since the 9/11 attacks. Like a lot of people I can remember what I was doing when I heard the news. I was working in the art gallery at Nottingham Castle wondering why someone hadn’t taken me off for my tea-break – they were 10 minutes late. Then my colleague arrived and told the news.

I watched the unfolding tragedy that night with an ex-boyfriend who had invited me round because he and his then partner had been standing on top of the World Trade Centre a month earlier and was feeling a bit emotional.

It seems heartless to single out one group of 9/11 victims because there were so many, and there’s no way justice can be done to all of them. I’d like to mention just a few of the lgbt victims.

Officially, Victim 1 (the first body to be recovered, identified and certified) was Father Mychal Judge, a priest who was administering the last rites to a firefighter who had been fatally injured when the first tower collapsed. Kneeling beside the firefighter Father Mychal was killed by more falling debris. He was a fearless gay Catholic priest who was an active supporter of New York’s lgbt community.

The highest-profile victim whose life has left a worldwide legacy is Mark Bingham. An amateur rugby player, he was one of the passengers of Flight 93 (played by gay actor Cheyenne Jackson in the film “United 93”, the film of 9/11 that has been shown most on tv to mark the anniversary). They fought the hijackers and forced the plane to crash before it reached its target. Within a month the world’s gay rugby clubs had gathered together to create the Mark Bingham Memorial Tournament, or the Bingham Cup, the World Cup of gay rugby.

There were British victims too. Graham Berkeley was born in Shrewsbury, Wiltshire, and moved to the US in 1990. In July 2001 he met his partner Tim at a pizza place. Graham was in the 2nd plane to hit the World Trade Centre less than 2 months later.

Pamela Boyce, Vice-President of the accountants Carr Futures Inc., worked on the 92nd floor of the first tower to be hit. She told her girlfriend many times, “Don’t mourn my death; celebrate my life”.

That’s the sentiment I hope you will agree with. All the victims had a life worth celebrating by their families and friends. A good number of them, like Mark Bingham, have inspired others to create something good out of tragedy. There’s no shame in celebrating them.

If you’d like to know more about the lgbt victims go to and

Thursday 8 September 2011

Putting the Record Straight on the Lionheart

Today is the anniversary of the birth in 1157 of King Richard the Lionheart. Its common knowledge that he hardly spent any time in England. He owned more of France (part of what is known as the Angevin Empire of the English kings) than the French king did. So why would he spend his time in a little island country he is known to have hated?

Richard is often included in lists of gay kings. It must be said that Richard’s sexuality has confused historians for years. Even gay historians can’t agree. I know I’m going against most lgbt people’s opinions when I say that, to my mind, Richard the Lionheart was NOT gay or even bisexual.


It really started in 1948 – yes, as recently as that – when writer John Hervey claimed to have uncovered a “conspiracy of silence” about Richard. It was such a big “conspiracy” that it had been well known and documented for centuries and Hervey seems to be the only historian who didn’t know about it!

Hervey claimed Richard was gay because he was married but had no children (like thousands of other couples who aren’t gay), and that he spent the night in the same bed with King Philippe of France many times. Hervey failed to investigate the political and social conventions of the time.

In most cases, the only person rich enough to afford a bed was the king. Everyone else slept on straw mattresses on low benches or on the floor. Philippe couldn’t expect his ally Prince Richard to sleep on straw. Political allies in medieval times always had their beds on offer to each other. Practical reasons prevented most from taking the offers up, but Richard took up Philippe’s.

The Victorians idolised Richard, even inventing legends about him. But they were quite prudish, not, as you might have imagined, because of Queen Victoria herself, but because of the growing humanitarian and philanthropic enthusiasm that resulted from the Christian revival in the mid-19th century (particularly the Unitarians, Quakers, Methodists, etc.). It was they who began to think of “sleeping together” as meaning something else – something adults now always think of first when they hear those words. John Hervey, writing in 1948, was living in what was still essentially a Victorian England, so he had the same prudish ideas. Before the Victorians, men sharing beds was common and raised no eyebrows.

One (and only one) of Richard’s contemporary chroniclers wrote that “they loved each other so much that the king of England (Henry II, Richard’s father) was absolutely astonished at the vehement love between them and marvelled at what it could mean”. What it meant was that they were being what the Catholic church at the time expected them to be – examples of the highest form of love, brotherly love, the love for others as much as for your family. And the reason why Henry II was astonished?

King Henry II was losing control of England and his family. His wife opposed him, and his children were split between the two. Henry offended both his son Richard and King Philippe by marrying Richard’s fiancé (Philippe’s sister) to younger brother Prince John – after fathering a son by her himself! Richard went to France to show publicly whose side he was on, and it wasn’t his father’s. Its not surprising King Henry was astonished – not because Richard was in bed with another man, but that he had been betrayed by his favourite son. Philippe also promised to provide an army to depose Henry. Henry felt rejected by his son’s betrayal and it destroyed his will to carry on and he died a year later.

That’s how much things have changed. Today’s politics isn’t about physical displays of allegiance but words, words, words. Politicians are seen shaking hands, but if the Victorians hadn’t demonised the sharing of a bed by two men we might see sights like David Cameron and Barak Obama sitting up in bed together giving a press conference!

This story illustrates well the caution needed when assigning a specific sexuality to a historical person. Attitudes change, and you need to look at what’s going on around them.

Monday 5 September 2011

Extraordinary Lives 1

An Amazon of the Peaks
This is the first in a series of biographical sketches about lgbt people I find fascinating.

During my research I often come across information which catches my attention. When I was researching the family history of my ex-partner I came across the story of Phoebe Bown (that’s Bown, not Brown). My ex-partner is descended from the Bown family and Phoebe was a cousin.

Although I don’t approve of “outing” people just for the sake of it, I think the story of Phoebe Bown needs no “outing” – her life-story speaks for itself.

Phoebe was born in 1771, her father Samuel was a carpenter in Matlock, Derbyshire. It is probably from him that young Phoebe learnt the carpentry trade which she used extensively in adult life. She was also a dab hand at construction work – she once hand-built an extension to her one-roomed cottage just to house a harpsichord she had been given because there was no room in her house.

Speaking of music, it is said that she played the flute and cello very enthusiastically but not very skilfully, and sometimes joined an impromptu quartet with friends.

Phoebe’s musical and construction skills didn’t earn her a living. She had a great passion for horses and was a master horse-whisperer and horse-breaker. What she didn’t know about horses wasn’t worth knowing. Many bets were won due to her ability to judge the racing qualities of a horse.

The most visual eccentricity Phoebe had was her attire. She wore a handkerchief over her head, tied under her chin, and a man’s tall hat. She wore a dress, but over the top was a man’s long coat. Around her home, in every drawer and tucked away in corners, were dozens of knives, daggers and guns. Phoebe was afraid of being attacked in the early 1800s during the Pentrich Riots in the Derbyshire countryside that were taking place (another of my ex-partner’s ancestors was transported to Australia for his part in the riots). Phoebe went to a friend’s house with a couple of hand-made scythes so that he would have something to defend himself as well. Phoebe was more than capable of standing up for herself and was very strong. Some sources refer to her as the “Matlock Amazon”.

Phoebe was quite often terse with strangers. If she didn’t know anyone who came to see her she would take a few minutes to eye them up before deciding whether to engage fully in conversation. She once commented on the Earl of Chesterfield’s wayward son by saying “whitewash a red brick as much as you like, it’s still a red brick”.

As she grew older Phoebe became infirm and unable to earn a living (this was before old-age pension and state benefits). Such was her standing in the community that the Duke of Devonshire gave Phoebe a weekly pension for the rest of her life. Her association with the duke comes through her cousin, whose daughter married Sir Joseph Paxton, superintendent to the duke’s gardens at Chatsworth and designer of the legendary Crystal Palace.

Phoebe herself recognised her eccentricities and played on them. She asked the curate of Matlock to write an epitaph for her. The resulting verse pleased her very much. It reads:
Here lies romantic Phoebe,
Half Ganymede and half Hebe;
A maid of mutable condition,
A jockey, cow herd and musician.”

In case you’re wondering, Ganymede and Hebe were cup-bearers to Zeus, king of the Greek gods. Hebe, goddess of youth, lost her job to young mortal boy Ganymede because Zeus fancied him more than he did her. The epitaph wasn’t actually used on Phoebe’s grave, but it does show how at ease she was with assumptions of her sexuality.

Phoebe died in May 1854 at the age of 82.

The portrait of Phoebe Bown holding her flute shown here comes from “The Reliquary: the Quarterly Journal and Review” (Vol. II, 1861-2), and is copyright to Ann Andrews at

A good biographical sketch about Phoebe, written in her lifetime can be found at - scroll down to "William Hutton's 'Strong Woman'."

Saturday 3 September 2011

Guest blogger

This is the first of a series of posts by a guest blogger. Narvel Annable is a novelist, writer and campaigner. His novels are based on his own life and contain details of life in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire in the1906s. But I think I'll let Narvel introduce himself.

About Narvel Annable

My life has been a series of re-inventions.  In September 2010, a sudden promotion catapulted me from local to global author.  The Nazca Plains Corporation in Las Vegas published my third gay novel Secret Summer which is now available all over the world.  This boosted the sales of previous efforts including Lost Lad set in Heanor, Derbyshire; a rugged, macho, homophobic, hill top colliery town.  Lost Lad follows the transformation of a miserable prepubescent into the confident and happy adolescent who was re-invented and rechristened Dobba by his mates.  The move from a grim, gas lit, Dickensian Church of England all boys junior school in 1958 to Howitt Secondary School, a culture of kindness, was a dramatic improvement.

A further re-invention is described in my second autobiographic novel Scruffy Chicken.  It took place in 1963 when I emigrated to the United States and arrived in Detroit on the day before the assassination of President Kennedy.  It was a steep learning curve.  The repressed Derbyshire teenager of thick accent, deeply locked inside his shameful homosexual closet, had to fit in as a clean cut American, to be comfortable with his all-white racist buddies and appear hot to trot for the chicks.

The following years in Motown involved several jobs before graduating from Eastern Michigan University (magna cum laude) in 1975 followed by a year teaching African-American history at St Bridget High School.  Adapting to this strict Catholic environment, behind respectable spectacles, Narvel imitated his former teachers and transformed himself into a strict schoolmaster with traditional views.  This was a far cry from his parallel existence, the promiscuous, secretive chicken who consorted with Negroes and haunted the notorious bath houses of Detroit, Chicago and New York from 1964 to 1976.

People have asked me – ‘Why did you describe yourself as a scruffy chicken during your 1965 six month vacation in Britain?’  Scruffy in the title of Scruffy Chicken is not so much a comment on me; it is more a criticism of the Derby and Nottingham snobs who made me feel scruffy – scruffy accent, scruffy clothes, scruffy manners, scruffy education etc.

A rollercoaster of passion and pain, magic and menace, is celebrated in my latest novel Secret Summer.  In 1966 I fell in love with a mysterious tough guy who held me in the grip of agony and ecstasy.  The title - a comment on the necessity for gay teenage boys to lust in secret, hunt in secret and love in secret – is, sadly, still true here in the 21st century.

After several annual holidays in the UK in the late 1960s and early 1970s, chronic homesickness fuelled my departure from Detroit in 1976 to resettle in Derbyshire where I met my future long term partner Terry Durand who was married with children.  The trauma and shock of coming to terms with his life-long repressed same sex attraction triggered a breakdown and several weeks in a psychiatric hospital.  Electric shock aversion therapy was suggested as a ‘cure’ for his homosexuality.  This low point was followed by a painful and slow journey to eventual contentment and happiness.  On September 3rd 2011, we celebrated our 35 years together.

Narvel’s website is at  

Thursday 1 September 2011


One reason I love doing research is coming across unexpected connections. They could be of the “6 Degrees of Separation” type, or the “James Burke’s Connections” type.

Using the 6 Degrees type I can place myself just 3 degrees away from both the Queen and the Pope through 2 different cousins.

“James Burke’s Connections” are those which follow the examples in the tv programmes of the same name (sadly never repeated enough, if ever). These connections cover any aspect of life – science, history, geography, art, biography, philosophy, technology – each step being inextricably linked to the next. It’s easy to do this yourself these days with Wikipedia. Just start with …. anything you want really. Keep clicking on a random link and see how far away from the original subject matter you can get in 6 clicks.

I created a card game a few years based on the “Connections” idea called “Around the World in 80 Gays”. Concentrating on the lgbt community I designed cards which could be linked to as many as 6 others. I’m no good with maths, so I can’t work out the possible number of combinations.

I’ve got the cards in front of me now, so I’ll just pick 2 cards at random. They are … actor George Takei and Otto Rahn (both shown below). Now I’ll try to link them together with 4 other cards. Back in a few minutes.

Okay, all 6 cards have been linked together. I’m sure I could have come up with a better chain of connections with other cards. Never mind, this is what I’ve come up with:
1          Actor George Takei and his partner are one of the relatively few officially married same-sex couples;
2          as was Sir John Clanvowe (d.1391) and his partner Sir William Neville, Constable of Nottingham Castle;
3          at the base of which is the medieval Brewhouse Yard;
4          which at one time was under the parochial control of the Knights Templar;
5          who allegedly knew the location of the Holy Grail;
6          which was researched by gay German historian Otto Rahn.

I like a challenge. So if you can think of 2 entirely different things in the lgbt world that don’t seem to be connected, test me. Perhaps think of a famous lgbt person (dead or living) and an ancient historical event, or part of the lgbt community and a famous invention. I’m sure I can link anything together in 6 “degrees of connection” or less. Send me an email.