Saturday 24 December 2011

The 12 Gays of Christmas

Quentin Crisp (1908-1999)

Christmas Day tomorrow. Finding a gay man born on Christmas Day was no problem.

Quentin Crisp was born on 25th December 1908 in Sutton, Surrey. His original name was Dennis Charles Pratt, and his parents were typical middle-class Edwardians with servants. Even from an early age Quentin wanted to be the centre of attention – being born on Christmas Day provided a ready-made holiday for him to hijack and take attention way from Christmas and on to his birthday.

At school he was always “performing”. For one school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Quentin’s mother made him a costume for his role as a fairy. It was role he continued to play for the rest of his life – and he loved it because it attracted attention.

As he grew older he became more of an exhibitionist, deliberately flaunting his sexuality at a time when it was illegal. To emphasise his campness he adopted the name Quentin Crisp in 1931. He received verbal and physical abuse many times, but he rose above it all in the end with a kind of dignity that could never occur today.

Even though he achieved something of a heroic status in some gay circles, Quentin Crisp wasn’t a role model for other gay men of the time. He believed that homosexuality was disease that should be eradicated. “The world will be better without homosexuals”, he once wrote. He opposed gay rights and refused to support them even to the end of his life.

For me, Quentin Crisp was not a good role model. Growing up in a working-class community the only gay men I knew about were those like Crisp who were camp and effeminate. Coming to terms with my sexuality in a macho community was hard enough. With Crisp and others like him in the media as my only gay role models I was doubly hindered by the feeling that I had to be like them but didn’t want to. I wonder how many more thousands of gay men didn’t come out until late in life because they too thought that they had to be like Quentin Crisp?

But I don’t want to end on a bad note at Christmas. So I’ll just say how much I respect Quentin Crisp for his honesty and resilience. He didn’t care what people thought about him. He was true to himself. Perhaps that’s the best legacy he has left – an inspiration to gay men and women who are struggling to find their sexual identity.

I’m taking a short break for the holidays and will be back on 2nd January 2012 with my next Gay of Christmas. In the mean time I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and the most wonderful New Year.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Star Gayzing : Capricorn

The Christmas season is full of parties and drinking. Perhaps it is appropriate that the star sign of Capricorn begins today. Capricorn is most often associated with Pan, the chief satyr who resided over wild parties as mentioned last month.

The traditional image of Capricorn is of a goat-fish. Images of the goat-fish appear in Babylonia 4,000 years ago. The Greeks re-interpreted the creature as a manifestation of Pan. One legend, probably created purely to explain the goat-fish image, tells how Pan was attacked by the monster Typhon. In an effort to escape Pan jumped into the Nile. His body under water turned into a fish whilst hi top half remained a his goat-like form.

Pan was also the god of shepherds, and it is in this role that he appears in another part of the sky – the rings of Saturn.

Gaps in Saturn’s rings have been discussed since they were first seen several centuries ago. Astronomers weren’t sure why they occurred until space probes in the 20th century took close up pictures.

In the two outermost gaps in the rings were discovered two tiny moons – the closest to orbit Saturn. Their gravitational forces create the gaps and help to define the edges of the rings. Astronomers call them “shepherd moons”.

The first of these shepherd moons was discovered in 1990, even though it had been recorded on images taken by the Voyager 2 probe in 1981. Because of its nature as a shepherd moon the new satellite was named Pan. It’s a walnut-shaped moon 35km across and 23km high.

In 2005 another small shepherd moon was discovered in the outermost gap in the rings some 3,000km further out from Pan’s orbit. Because it too was a shepherd moon it was given the name of Pan’s boy-lover Daphnis. I’ve mentioned the Ancient Greeks’ attitude to same-sex relationships before in this blog, so it comes as no surprise that Pan had a boy-lover.

Daphnis was himself semi-divine, the son of Hermes and a nymph. His mother had been tricked by Hermes and didn’t want anything to do with the baby so abandoned Daphnis in a laurel grove. He was found and raised by shepherds. As he grew older he became famous for his beauty and music skills. Because of this Pan taught Daphnis how to play the pan-pipes and their love affair began.

In early manhood Daphnis became more of a cowboy than a shepherd, tending to a herd of supernatural cattle belonging to Helios the sun god. He fell in love with a nymph who became jealous of a rival who made a pass at Daphnis, so she blinded him. From then on all of Daphnis’s music was tinged with melancholy, yet sounding even more beautiful than before.

And so the two shepherd moons of Saturn are named after Pan and Daphnis. Closer images of these moons have been taken by recent space probes and show the beauty of their gravitational power over the rings.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

The 12 Gays of Christmas

Simon Callow as Charles Dickens

Distinguished English gay actor Simon Callow has carved out something of a niche for himself in portraying Charles Dickens. Dickens is surely the one Victorian author most associated with Christmas than any other, because of “A Christmas Carol”, perhaps the most influential literary work to feature the meaning of the Christmas spirit. In fact, our idea of a Victorian Christmas largely derives from the writings of Dickens.

Simon Callow first played Charles Dickens in 1996 is a one-man show written by gay historian Peter Ackroyd called “The Mystery of Charles Dickens”. Callow has performed this show many times around the world, as well as others based on characters and stories by Dickens.

In 2001 Callow appeared as Dickens in the US miniseries “Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairytale”. As I mentioned on 11th December when I gave Andersen as my 4th Gay of Christmas, the two had met in the 1850s.

Perhaps the appearance of Simon Callow as Dickens which most people will remember is in the science fiction series “Doctor Who”. In 2005 the episode “The Unquiet Dead” featured the Doctor and his companion Rose meeting Dickens in Cardiff on Christmas Eve 1869. Dickens was famous for his public readings of “A Christmas Carol”, and the tv episode features Callow confronting a ghost during his reading in a theatre. Through a series of encounters with ethereal gas creatures and animated corpses the Doctor shows Dickens that his writings will always be remembered.

Interestingly, this is a very rare example of a Christmas episode on tv that was never shown at Christmas! (It was first broadcast in April). Simon Callow returned to “Doctor Who” in 2011 when he made a cameo appearance as Dickens.

Whatever else Simon Callow does at Christmas he is guaranteed to be invited to reprise his role as Charles Dickens. And as 2012 is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth Simon may probably be in more demand than ever before.

Sunday 18 December 2011

The 12 Gays of Christmas

Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”. The ballet had its premiere in St. Petersburg on this day in 1892. It wasn’t considered a success at first and even Tchaikovsky himself wasn’t all that keen on it – he much preferred his earlier ballet “The Sleeping Beauty”.

Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write “The Nutcracker” based on the success of “The Sleeping Beauty” though he got a bit annoyed by the many specific instructions from his collaborating choreographer Marius Pepita on what to include in and exclude from his composition.

The composer’s sexuality has recently been reclaimed from the Soviet censorship of the 20th century. Most of his letters and papers were destroyed or doctored to prevent the knowledge of his homosexuality from reaching the “ordinary people”. Modern musicologists and biographers have reversed this censorship and have identified several gay relationships he had.

Like a lot of gay men over the years Tchaikovsky married in the belief that it would “cure” him of his sexual urges. But the marriage was a disaster and lasted less than 3 months.

Aside from this Tchaikovsky’s music proved successful. His first works were composed while he was a music teacher. Then, in 1888, Tzar Alexander III awarded him a lifetime pension which enabled Tchaikovsky to travel the world giving concerts.

“The Nutcracker” was one of Tchaikovsky’s last works. He died of cholera in 1893, a few months after the ballet’s premiere. With him at his death were his brother Modest, his gay nephew Vladimir Davidov, and Aleksei Sofronov, his servant, companion and lover who had been one of Tchaikovksy’s music students.

I can guarantee that at least one seasonal advert will use one of the melodies from “The Nutcracker”. Just this Christmas I’ve heard “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” being used in 3 Christmas adverts – for Pringles, M&Ms, and the Westfield Shopping Centre in Derby.

Friday 16 December 2011

The 12 Gays of Christmas

Out of Their Trees : No.4

Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973)

During a stereotypical Victorian December night on this day in 1899, with snow covering the cobbled streets of London, Mrs. Violet Coward gave birth to a son. Being born so close to Christmas he was christened Noël. He grew up to become one of England’s most talented and versatile actors and songwriters of the 20th century, Sir Noël Coward. Always putting himself across as quintessentially English he was, in fact, half Scottish and a quarter Irish.

Noëls’ musical talent was inherited from his father’s side of the family. His grandfather James was a chorister at Westminster Abbey, and later on an organist who wrote some of his own compositions.

Noël’s mother’s family had no great talent for music. They came from a long line of Scottish colonial types. Noël’s great-grandfather, Henry Veitch, was considered something of a black sheep. He was appointed Consul General to Madeira by King George III, and upset the British government by ignoring protocol and interfered with island politics (in particular the fight for Madeira’s independence from Portugal). Henry was recalled twice to England to keep him out of the way.

One of Noël Coward’s Veitch ancestors had a brother who emigrated to New England in 1651. From him descends a large American sub-clan which includes the Olympic swimmer, Gay Games and Outgames champion, and world masters record holder Daniel Veatch (different spelling, but the same family none the less).

The Veitch family can be traced way back into the 13th century lowlands of Scotland where they became the lairds of Dawyck Castle in Peeblesshire. They married into many of the Scottish clan families with aristocratic and royal blood. The most significant of these marriages came in the late 1500s with the marriage of John Veatch to Jane Stewart. As her name implies, Jane belonged to the great Stewart clan. She was the daughter of the laird of Traquhair and was descended from Sir James Stewart, known as the “Black Knight of Lorn”.

The Black Knight is central to one Scotland’s “what if” moments. In 1437 King James I Stewart of Scotland was assassinated and the Black Knight supported a regency for the boy-king James II Stewart. When the regent died the Black Knight joined a plot to depose the new one. At the same time he married the murdered king’s widow Joan. Whether he intended to take the throne and found his own royal dynasty isn’t certain. He had no royal Stewart blood, though he was descended from King Robert the Bruce – the historical Braverheart. If the Black Knight HAD intended to claim the throne, the established line of Royal Stewarts would not exist.

The Black Knight’s wife Joan, however, was a Beaufort, great-granddaughter of King Edward III of England and niece of Cardinal Beaufort whom I mentioned last month as ancestors of Will Young.

But Noël Coward does have some Royal Stewart blood through Jane Stewart’s female line. Her maternal grandmother was descended from King Robert III Stewart (1337-1406), father of the assassinated King James I Stewart.

With all this Scottish ancestry it would seem that St. Andrew’s Day on 30th November, or even the New Year and Hogmanay, would have been a more appropriate day to remember Sir Noël Coward’s family heritage. As it happens, the anniversary of Sir Noël Coward’s birthday today falls exactly in between the two and couldn’t be more perfect.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

The 12 Gays of Christmas

Howard Ashman (1950-1991)

One of the highlights of Christmas for me as a child was sitting down to watch “Disney Time” on tv, a compilation of clips from Disney films presented by a different celebrity each time. “Disney Time” was produced for every main Bank Holiday through the year, but the Christmas programme was extra special.

Clips from most of the animated classics were shown at these holiday times and no other. These days Disney films are on all the time and there’s nothing special about them any more.

In my opinion the last of the great animated classics were produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the Disney “revival” – “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin”. A big part in their success was the music, in particular the songs.

Howard Ashman was primarily a lyricist and playwright. His first big success was the original stage version of “The Little Shop of Horrors” in 1982. His songwriting partner was Alan Menken, with whom he continued to write songs for Disney, winning Oscars for “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”. Unfortunately, Ashman died at the age of 40 before his final Oscar was awarded. At the awards ceremony his Oscar was accepted by his life-partner William Lauch.

Ashman was executive producer on “Beauty and the Beast” and died before it was released. He had also written lyrics for several songs for “Aladdin” which was still in production. In 2001 Ashman was name a Disney Legend.

Ashman’s lyrics moved away from the romantic, nostalgic style of earlier Disney films, creating the feel of old Hollywood musicals. Ashman brought a contemporary sound to his lyrics and made them “real”. In the words of dedication that appear at the end of “Beauty and the Beast” Ashman “gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul”, and helped to bring a little more magic to Christmas.

Sunday 11 December 2011

The 12 Gays of Christmas

Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)

At this time of year the air is filled with fantasy, magic and fairy tales. A lot of familiar fairy tales originate in old folk stories going back generations which were adapted into children’s stories. Some of them were written in recent centuries. Among the most popular are the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina, the Ugly Duckling and The Emperor’s New Clothes have become staple stories of the festive season.

Andersen was already a successful writer before he published his first collection of fairy tales in 1835. “The Little Mermaid”, published in 1837, has been interpreted as Andersen’s own unrequited love for Edvard Collin, the son of his benefactor. In the words of Wilhelm von Rosen of the National Archives of Denmark Andersen’s sexuality can be reflected in “… the impossible and fatal love of a little mermaid for a prince who never really sees her, except for her art, her dancing on the small feet that hurt as if she were treading on knives.”

Discussion on Andersen’s sexuality has been going on since 1893. In recent decades more discussion has been published, and for Professor Dag Heede of the University of Southern Denmark the question of Andersen’s non-heterosexuality is beyond doubt.

In 1847 Andersen wrote his autobiography, calling it “The Fairy Tale of My Life”. He considered the real world to be like a fairy tale. In his own case this may be true. He was born into a poor family and rose to the heights of being Denmark’s leading man of letters.

Andersen travelled around Europe extensively, even becoming friends with Charles Dickens, spending 5 weeks with him in 1857 (Dickens found him a bit fussy). Andersen produced several books on travel, and by developing his own style of traditional travelogue mixed with comment, philosophy and story-telling, paved the way for modern tv travel documentaries.

Today, Hans Christian Andersen is seen as a shining beacon of children’s literature. His influence is found in literature and media everywhere, even giving the English language a few common phrases (e.g. “he’s a bit of an ugly duckling”). His birthday (2nd April) was chosen as the annual date for International Children’s Book Day, and the statue of his most famous character, the Little Mermaid, attracts thousands to Copenhagen every year.

Friday 9 December 2011

The 12 Gays of Christmas

Douglas Byng (1893-1987)

Every city and town in the UK (and a lot of villages as well) produces a pantomime for the festive season. It’s a part of British culture which mystifies and confuses most of the rest of the world. Most of them will be starting around now and go on well into the New Year.

The origins of pantomime go back centuries and cannot be traced to a single source. Two elements that are essential for a successful modern panto are the cross-dressing Principal Boy and Dame characters. The notion of cross-dressing on stage is an ancient one. Though whereas in real life the purpose of cross-dressing is usually to be perceived as the opposite sex, in pantomime it should always be clear that the Principal Boy is a girl and the Dame is a man.

Playing the Dame is a very particular skill that is very difficult to master. I’ve tried it myself several times but wasn’t very good at it.

One of the best and most influential panto Dames of the 20th century was Douglas Byng.  He was born in Mapperley, an area of Nottingham, one of the 12 children of the local bank manager. Originally a costume designer Douglas made his stage debut in 1914 and his panto debut in 1921 at the legendary London Palladium. He formed his own drag cabaret act and wrote many silly songs which he later included in some of his pantos.

During this month BBC Radio 4 has been broadcasting a one-man show about Douglas Byng based on his diaries and featuring some of his songs. The performer was someone who owed a lot to Byng’s pioneering exaggerated style in dress and double entrendre, Julian Clary.

Byng utilised his costume designing skills in most of his Dame costumes. At the time the Dame was often portrayed as an old woman in a slightly exaggerated costume. But Douglas Byng introduced something extra – parody. One of his favourite Dame costumes during the 1930s was a cape made out of bathroom loofahs. This was parodying the fashion of the time for fox-tail capes. However, as soon as World War II broke out in 1939 bathroom loofahs went from being a common household possession to a rarely obtained import and loofahs became very expensive. Douglas soon realised that his loofah cape became a valuable item – Black Marketeers could make a fortune selling it. So he always locked it in theatre safes everywhere he performed. They had become the most valuable bathroom loofahs in the world.

These days you won’t see a panto Dame that doesn’t have an outrageous costume parodying a contemporary fashion or emphasising an aspect of the Dame’s character. Such costumes have included a lighthouse costume for the Dame in “Dick Whittington” when the characters are shipwrecked, and a washing basket doubling as Widow Twankey’s skirt. Also, Douglas Byng was the first Dame to come onto stage with a different and increasingly more bizarre costume with every entrance.

So, move over Lady Gaga – Douglas Byng got there first!

Wednesday 7 December 2011

The 12 Gays of Christmas 2

George Michael

You can’t go anywhere in the shops this month without having Christmas music in your ears. It started any centuries ago, of course, with religious music and popular folk carols. But you’re more likely to hear modern pop songs than Gregorian chant.

Last Christmas, “Last Christmas” was, according to the Performing Rights Society who licence and monitor the broadcasting and transmission of music, was the 2nd most often played Christmas song (behind Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”). “Last Christmas” was written and performed by Wham! Founder George Michael, and he is my 2nd Gay of Christmas.

First released in December 1984 “Last Christmas” was set to become the Christmas No.1 that year, but the phenomenal success of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” put all other contenders in the shade. However, “Last Christmas” did make it to No.2 behind Band Aid, and since he appeared in both singles George Michael became the only artist to be at No.1 and No.2 with 2 different singles on the same Christmas Day chart.

It became the biggest selling single in the UK not to reach No.1. In Germany it holds the distinction of being the most successful Christmas single of all time.

The royalties raised by “Last Christmas” during 1984-5 were donated to the Ethiopian famine appeal, exceeding the many millions raised by the Band Aid single. However, this isn’t quite as charitable as it first appears, because the donation was made as part of out-of-court settlement between George Michael and the writers of the song “Can’t Smile Without You”, Chris Arnold, David Martin and Geoff Morrow. They had accused Michael of plagiarism because of several similar melodic sequences in “Last Christmas” were, they claimed, copied from their song.

Unfortunately, George Michael is recovering from pneumonia at the moment and has cancelled his concerts for the time being. We all hope that he recovers soon.

This year a new cover version of “Last Christmas” will be released by gay singer Joe McElderry on 19th December.

Sunday 4 December 2011

The 12 Gays of Christmas

The Archangel Gabriel

I bet when you read that I would be listing my 12 Gays of Christmas you didn’t think that an angel would be one of them.

Gabriel is the angel most associated with Christmas and always makes an appearance in nativity plays, even though he doesn’t have any part in the nativity itself. He appears at the prelude to the story which is celebrated on the Feast of the Annunciation on 25th March when he reveals to Mary that she is pregnant.

What makes Gabriel appropriate for inclusion on my list is his sexuality – or rather, his absence of gender.

All through history angels have been given human characteristics. The Bible calls them beings of pure spirit who appear in human form as God’s messengers or agents. Being creatures of spirit angles have no need to reproduce as the spirit is eternal. With no need to reproduce there’s no need for male or female, only a single gender. So you could call angels asexual or agender. About a year ago I was sitting in a pub with my friend Nick and somehow the conversation turned to the sexuality of angels. Even though Nick is a practising Catholic it was very difficult putting across the notion that angels are not interested in sex.

Angels have an important role in the history of Biblical homosexuality. Angels were sent to the city of Sodom where their physical appearance as men aroused the evil “interests” of its inhabitants. Hence the use of the word “sodomite” in olden days for an active homosexual, even though the Bible doesn’t actually mention what the inhabitants were going to do to the angels. As Sodom was a hot-bed of other Biblical sins it could have been anything, which included eating shell fish. The angles were protected by a man called Lot, said to be the only righteous man in the city, and because of it he and his family were the only ones spared from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The whole story is told in Genesis, chapter 19.

The Bible also says that some of angels thought they were more superior than God, and God threw them out of Heaven and down to earth. These became known as the Fallen Angels, with the former Archangel Lucifer as their leader. When they hit the earth they created a deep pit which went to the earth’s core, thus creating the medieval concept of a firey Hell. All through medieval times people believed that these Fallen Angels were mutated by their evil and were transformed into demons, and one of the main punishments they exacted on the souls of the dead in Hell was sodomy. Generally speaking, though, the angels appear in the Bible as messengers with good news and were a good sign.

So to help lift the mood a bit for Christmas, I’ll leave with this piece of folklore. Just as Christian tradition says that humanity was created from clay, Muslim tradition says that genies were created from fire, and angels were created from precious jewels.

Thursday 1 December 2011

World AIDS Day

Millions of people will be wearing red ribbons today, and thousands of vigils and collections will take place to help raise awareness of AIDS. There is still a large portion of society who believe that AIDS is the “gay man’s disease”. It isn’t. More “straight” people have AIDS.

Lots of different elements came together to create the first World AIDS Day in 1988. For me the defining origins can be traced to 2 very different sources – members of the General Synod of the Church of England, and a journalist at KPIX-TV in San Francisco.

There were many AIDS charities in existence before 1988 but very few outside the lgbt community which aimed at educating the world that everyone was at risk. In 1986 Barnaby Miln, a gay member of the Church of England General Synod, helped to found Christian Action on AIDS which worked with the Church of England. He created the first AIDS awareness ribbon, a short rainbow ribbon, which was worn by many at the 1986 General Synod. It was inspired by the rainbow flags in San Francisco which Miln had seen during an AIDS conference there earlier in the year. This ribbon didn’t gain popularity outside church circles, probably because of the anti-Christian attitudes of many in the lgbt community who weren’t aware of the work being done in their support. At the 1987 synod Miln suggested a specific day should be chosen to raise awareness of the disease.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the journalist James W. Bunn created a community-based AIDS education project in early 1986 called AIDS Lifeline. He, too, came up with the idea of an annual day of awareness, specifically suggesting 1st December. Through his work on AIDS Lifeline Bunn was invited to become public information officer for the Global Programme on AIDS, what is now the UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), in 1987.

Another key player in the creation of World AIDS Day is Dr. Jonathan Mann, director of the Global Programme on AIDS. Dr. Mann and James Bunn worked together closely, so Mann was aware of Bunn’s suggestion. Mann was also a member of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s working party on AIDS with Barnaby Miln, and was also aware of Miln’s suggestion. Mann liked the idea and wheels were set in motion to get the idea up and running for 1988.

With the help of Thomas Netter, Dr Mann and James Bunn came up with the first World AIDS Day on 1st December 1988. At the inaugural observance in Geneva all the contributing originators were present – Mann, Bunn, Miln and Netter.