Tuesday 28 February 2012

Olympic Countdown


It was in the 1960s that gender testing of athletes began to have a major effect – some good, some bad – in many sports.

First, it should be clear that failing a gender test doesn’t make a woman a lesbian. Several women who failed the test have had an otherwise comfortable straight life-style. What qualifies them for inclusion in the broader lgbt community is their genetics – the part of their body carrying the information which says they are female AND male.

Genetics was one of my favourite subjects in biology (I didn’t know at the time that my grandmother was related to Charles Darwin). So I hope I interpret the science behind gender testing in an understandable way.

The chromosomes in every body cell contains all the DNA needed to create YOU. Only one chromosome determines gender. This gender chromosome has 2 types called XX and XY. Only the XY chromosome carries the “male gene switch”.

You inherit half of your gender chromosome from each parent. The halves join together to form a new gender chromosome in 1 of 4 possible combinations that will determine YOUR gender – XX for a girl and XY for a boy. I inherit my X chromosome from my Mum, and my Y chromosome from my Dad (see diagram). My sister inherits one X chromosome from both.

When an embryo is big enough the male gene in an XY chromosome “switches on”. After that male hormones are produced. Like Pass the Parcel these hormones pass the “male message” on to receptors, which they then pass on to the DNA. If all goes to plan the embryo develops into a bouncing baby boy.

Sometimes the hormone receptors don’t work properly and don’t pass on the “male message”. It’s as if the music in the Pass the Parcel stops and the parcel stays where it is when the music restarts. With no “male message” being passed on the embryo goes into “default” XX mode and develops into a bouncing baby girl. The problem is that male hormones are still there and so is the XY chromosome. Sometimes the receptors stop working well into the development process and the baby is born with both partly-formed male and female sexual organs. These individuals have been called hermaphrodite or intersex. There are other medical conditions affecting gender recognition, and with more understanding of the biological processes more accurate medical names have been given.

In gender testing a cheek swab was taken from female athletes. The cells were stained so that a microscope can see the gender chromosome. The XX gender chromosome shows up as a spot. No spot means the cell is XY – male. So women who had XY chromosomes but whose male hormone receptors didn’t work were regarded as male.

In the 1960s there was a lot of talk about some female athletes from eastern Europe being men or had taken performance enhancing drugs. The IOC introduced gender tests in 1967. Almost immediately some very successful female athletes “retired”, the most famous being the sisters Tamara and Irina Press. Between them they had won 5 Olympic gold medals. Whether they retired to escape the gender test or the improved drug test will probably never be known.

The first athlete banned by the IOC was world champion female skier Erika Schinegger. She was preparing for the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble when she failed the test. Schinegger retired from sport and became transgender. Erik Schenigger appeared on an Austrian television programme in 1988 to give the World Championship gold medal he had won in 1966 as Erika to the silver medal winner.

The first Olympian to fail the test was the 1964 relay champion Ewa Kłobukowska. Her story is told here.

Spanish hurdler María José Martínez-Patiño was permitted to compete in the Olympic trials for the 1992 Barcelona games after years of protest. She failed the gender test at the 1988 World University Games. After having 3 years of her personal life being discussed, and away from competition, María was unable to qualify for selection for her home team on home soil. She retired from competition and has since become Professor at the Faculty of Education and Sports Sciences at Vigo University, Spain.

Other female athletes have failed the IOC’s test but most were allowed to compete, including Edinanci Silva who competed for Brazil in judo in Atlanta 1996. In 1999 the IOC dropped gender testing though kept the right to test in certain individual cases. Most recently the case of Caster Semenya created a lot of media attention after her success at the 2009 World Athletics Championships. In 2010 she was cleared to continue competing. But less than a year ago the IOC announced they would instead begin testing women for “higher than natural testosterone levels”.

The issue of transgender athletes at the Olympics is still very blurred. Without an actual case being challenged the current policy is to allow trans athletes at the games only if they’ve completed reassignment surgery, received legal recognition and had a minimum of 2 years hormone therapy.

My next Olympic post will return to the chronological history of lgbt participation and will include the man who founded the Gay Olympics.

Sunday 26 February 2012

Oscar meets Dorian

Tonight is Oscar night. All those “luvvies” will be trolling along the red carpet in their best drag. Some of them will go home with a little man called Oscar.

There are lots of other awards around these days, so people who lose out on an Oscar can win something else – an Emmy, a Bafta, a Golden Globe, a Dorian. A Dorian? Yes, a Dorian.

The Dorian Awards are presented by the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association in the USA. They are awarded to the film and television industry which concentrates on film and programmes which appeal specifically to the lgbt community, some awards having slightly quirky names.

The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association was formed in 2009 by a group of people who worked as journalist or critics in all areas of the media. The awards are not divided by gender like others, so the is no Best Actor or Best Actress, just Film Performance. This year’s awards were announced on 16th January, and I thought it might be interesting to see how many of them also pick up an Oscar tonight. Here’s the list:

Film of the Year : “Weekend”

Film Performance of the Year : Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady”

Documentary of the Year : “We Were Here” (recently broadcast on BBC4)

LGBT-themed Film of the Year : “Weekend”

LGBT-themed Documentary of the Year : “We Were Here”

Campy (Intentional or Not) Film of the Year : “The Muppets”

Unsung Film of the Year : “50/50”

For the full list of Dorian film and tv award-winners and nominations go to http://galeca.com

Friday 24 February 2012

Out of the Blocks

One of my ongoing projects is research into lgbt participation in sport. This was originally inspired by the Gay Games. When the LGBT History Month chose sport as the theme for 2011 and 2012 I extended the research and produced a timeline of lgbt sport for the History Month website. Since then I have been revising, updating and correcting each entry.

Among the sporting trivia I discovered along the way was that a world champion sheep-shearer won a gold medal at the first World Outgames, and that a 16-year-old cross-dresser played truant from school to climb – unaided – a 200 feet tall sea stack.

The timeline is available on the LGBT History Month website. Perhaps you could print it out and use it in your own celebrations for the Olympics, or for the EuroGames in June.

I also collected various statistics, especially on the Gay Games, and I believe I have the most comprehensive list of Gay Games medal winners in the world – with almost 10,000 names. I’m going to tell you more about them for the 30th anniversary of the first Gay Games in August.

I keep working on the timeline and will be producing a new version in time for the Olympics in July.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Mardi Gras

Today is Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras (which means “Fat Tuesday”), and signals the start of the Christian season of Lent. During that period Christians are encouraged to “give something up for Lent”, meaning that they should go without something they really like for 40 days until Easter. After the excesses of the Christmas period which officially ends on February 1st.(in my childhood my chapel always held it’s Christmas parties at the end of January), the denial of favourite things during Lent was a good way of making sure you could still enjoy the next big celebration of the year with ample time to recover from Christmas. Originally Christians gave up certain foods for Lent (particularly meat and diary products) so what they had in store had to be eaten up on Shrove Tuesday. That meant using up flour and eggs by making pancakes. Hence today is also called Pancake Day.

The great feastings and celebrations before the start of Lent tomorrow developed into carnivals and colourful masked parades that were held throughout Europe during the medieval period. Combine this with the river-borne decorated boats (called floats) of other celebrations and you get the typical gay Pride parade, with the fantastic costumes and colour, large decorated vehicles, and half-naked (sometimes fully naked) hunks cavorting around in the streets.

Naked men chasing each other were part of the Roman festival of Lupercalia which was held in mid-February. In the typical role-reversal you find in all these types of festival, priests would dress up in goat skins and chase naked youths through the corn fields. These youths represented wolves, and the priests chasing them represented goats and symbolised the protection of livestock and crops from wild animals. The day ended with feasting and drinking (and no doubt a bit of ritual sex between the captor “goats” and captured “wolves”), and the sacrifice of a dog.

The festival was named after Lupercus, the god of shepherds, the Roman version of the Greek god Pan (Pan’s own gay credentials were revealed in my post on the constellation Capricorn).

The name Mardi Gras has come to be used for carnivals, parades and celebrations at other times of the year – a lot of gay Prides were rename Mardi Gras for a brief time, including London Pride. The most famous one still is – Sydney Mardi Gras. It signals the first of the big lgbt street parades every year and has become one of the biggest and most important of all Pride events.

The Sydney Mardi Gras began as most early gay Prides did, as a commemoration of the Stonewall Riots of June 1969 in New York. Sydney held their first Pride event in June 1978. Being in the southern hemisphere June in Sydney is in the middle of winter so it was moved to their summer in February 1981. Their Pride was already being called Mardi Gras by then, so it was probably a conscious decision to move it to the traditional Mardi Gras season.

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras now attracts over 10,000 participants and it is a major feature of the city’s tourist calendar. It also holds a unique place in the UK, as the Sydney Mardi Gras parade of February 1999 is the only lgbt Pride parade that has been broadcast on UK national television in its entirety (although it was broadcast 5 months later on 3rd June).

Monday 20 February 2012

Star Gayzing - Pisces

Regular readers of these Star Gayzing posts will not be surprised to hear that the constellation Pisces dates back to ancient Babylon. Probably originally representing the two great rivers – Tigris and Euphrates – and their meeting point at the sea, fish were added to the ends to symbolise water. It is in this image that the constellation Pisces is pictured today.

In classical Greek times these fish joined together by a cord came to represent Aphrodite and Eros, the mother and son gods of love and lust (which I’ll come to later). The most common version of the legend relates to the same story I told you about Pan in my Capricorn post. Zeus, king of the gods, had defeated the Titans and locked them up – just like you see at the start of Disney’s animated film “Hercules”. But the mother of the Titans, Gaia (or Mother Earth) sent another of her children to depose Zeus.

This child was a hideous monster called Typhon. As soon as he was let loose he was spotted by Pan who raised the alarm. Several of the gods jumped into a river to escape the monster, including Pan who turned into a half-goat, half-fish creature. Aphrodite and Eros also jumped into a river. As soon as they hit the water they too were transformed, this time completely into fish (or were rescued by fish in another legend). Later legends were created to make the constellation fit the image of two fish tied together with a cord. One say that Eros was still a child at the time of Typhon’s attack, and to make sure he didn’t get swept away in the river Aphrodite tied him to herself with a cord.

Way back when I began my blog I did a series of posts on ancient Greece and the role Eros played in gay sex. He was worshipped at all the gymnasia, where naked youth and men trained for war and sport. There was usually an altar to Eros in every gym, and before battle or sport contest each soldier-athlete would pray to Eros and give him offerings.

On the Greek pottery and vases from the 6th century BC which depict sex, less than 1% depict male-female sex, and on the 99+% of the rest, the male-male sex, Eros appears as a symbol of erotic love. As I said in August, if a straight man described someone as erotic he should really be referring to another man. The Ancient Greek of that time found nothing erotic in women at all! How times and attitudes have changed!

And on the subject of sex, it seems appropriate to return to the subject next time when we’ll learn about how the stars that connect gay sex with Alice in Wonderland and fluffy little Easter bunnies!

Saturday 18 February 2012

Olympic Countdown

Since this article first appeared a lot of new information has been revealed and new research has been carried out. This article should be seen as a mere snapshot of the information known at the date of its publication. Several facts may now be outdated or inaccurate.

Ondrej Nepela (1951-1989) is the youngest ever lgbt Olympian, first appearing in the 1964 Innsbruck games just a week after his 13th birthday. Even at that young age he was good enough to become the Czech national skating champion the same year, a title he held every year (except 1969) until he retired in 1973. In 1965 he won his first European championship medal, a bronze, aged 14. His career was truly remarkable, and future successes (to be told in later posts) place him as high as John Curry in the lgbt superstar ratings.

At the 1964 summer games in Tokyo Canadian swimmer Marian Lay made her Olympic debut. She was another teenage athlete, being only 15 at the time. Young Marion finished 5th in the final of the 100 meters freestyle, a race won by the legendary Dawn Fraser in the first ever under-1-minute finish (Dawn Fraser has been the subject of several rumours of her being lesbian but all are unfounded). Also in 1964 Marion Lay became the Canadian 100m freestyle champion. Before her next Olympic appearance in 1968, as well as being Canadian 100m freestyle champion every year inbetween, Marion won the gold medal in the same distance at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica.

Also at the 1964 Tokyo games was Polish sprinter Ewa Kłobukowska. She was trained by Stella Walsh, the Polish-American Olympic sprinting champion whose death in 1980 revealed her to be intersex. Ewa won the bronze medal in the 100 meters, and she was a member of the 4x100m relay team that won gold. The same relay team went on to win further success in the European Championships in 1966, but then the IOC decided to ban Ewa from sport and demand she return her medals. The reason? The new gender tests that had been introduced in 1967.

What must have hurt most was the humiliation this straight woman had with her gender being discussed and, by implication (in the press), her sexual orientation as well. Ewa’s exact genetic condition was never revealed, but she proved the IOC testing was flawed by giving birth to a boy in 1968 – women who fail the IOC test shouldn’t have the physical means to conceive a child.

To add insult to injury the IOC demanded that Ewa should return all of her Olympic medals. As part of a relay team you’d think that her exclusion from the medal record would apply to the whole team. If Ewa, as a “genetic male”, gave her an unfair advantage over other female athletes then it gave the whole team an unfair advantage as well. But, no. The IOC said Ewa’s relay team-members could keep their medals.

Gender testing is sport has always been controversial. On 28th February I’ll outline the history of gender testing at the Olympics.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Flower Power - pansy

2012 seems to be a year full of anniversaries – the centenaries of Alan Turing and Bayard Rustin, 400th anniversary of the first English Olympics, and 30th anniversary of the first Gay Games, among others. Someone I mentioned on Remembrance Day celebrates 2 more.

Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu died 250 years ago this year and married 300 years ago. She was one of those rare things in pre-contemporary times – a woman who was respected in her right, rather than an 18th-century “politicians wife”. Her letters about her time in Turkey were published and became very popular. From them developed the “language of the flowers” which was most popular during the 19th century. The romantic Victorians compiled a whole pot pourri of meanings for every known flower.

Some flower names also became slang terms, and it is with the most famous slang term for a gay man that I begin my series on Flower Power.

At school I remember teachers and other children using the word pansy to mean any boy who was a bit soft, weedy and too girly. Fortunately I fell more into the “geek” category.

Pansy seems to have been first applied to gay men in America over a hundred years ago. Some gay men have always dressed in a distinctive and slightly camp feminised fashion – think about Quentin Crisp, or the stereotypical gay characters created by entertainers like Dick Emery. Perhaps the word “dandy” could apply to some of these men in a different period. But at the beginning of the 20th century dressing in this manner was called “pansying up", no doubt comparing the bold colours of the clothes with those of the flower. I haven’t been able to find out if pansying up was a term created by the gay community or one given to it. It seems that effeminate younger men in particular who pansied up were called “pansified”, and from this came the name “pansy”. Since then, camp gay men have often been given the derogatory name of pansy.

In the 1930s during prohibition in America may illicit gay-owned bars and clubs sprang up in New York. They became popular with all sections of society who couldn’t get alcohol anywhere else. The entertainment provided for the clientele included many gay performers and drag artists. These underground bars became the centre of what was called the Pansy Craze.

One artist who has taken the concept of pansy as an abusive term to create a positive-thinking art project is Paul Harfleet. As a gay man he had experience of verbal abuse in the streets. Whenever he walked though those streets again he was confronted by his memories. Paul used the common practice of laying flowers at the scene of fatal accidents or crimes to create his own project. Instead of bouquets of flowers he chose to leave one single live pansy planted as close as possible to the site where he received abuse. He called his project the Pansy Project.

Paul chose the pansy because of its association with a term of abuse and turned the abuse on its head, because the name pansy comes from the French verb “penser” meaning “to think”. It was a means for Paul to think about how the abuse affected him negatively and how he could change it. As Paul says on his website: “Placing a live plant felt like a positive action, it was a comment on the abuse; a potential ‘remedy’.”

Since Paul planted his first pansy he has had to plant many more, even here in Nottingham where he was verbally abused in 2006 when he left a local night club. Paul photographed every pansy he planted and put the photos on his website.

If you want to know more about Paul Harfleet and the Pansy Project go to http://thepansyproject.com

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Will the Real St. Valentine Please Stand Up?

Happy St. Valentine’s Day.

But are you sure you’ve got the right date?

Today's feast day of St. Valentine of Terni has been a day for declaring love for several centuries. But Valentine of Terni has nothing to do with love or romance. No accounts of his life mention any of his supposed romantic acts until over 1,000 years after he died.

Valentine’s connection with romance didn’t start until 1381 when the one and only Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his poem “The Parliament of Fowls”. In it he wrote:
“For this was on St. Valentine’s day
When every bird comes to choose his mate”

This was the first time that birds mating and a saint were mentioned together. Chaucer had invented the modern Valentine’s Day. This idea was developed by fellow poets, including Sir John Clanvowe. In about 1386 Clanvowe wrote “The Book of Cupid, God of Love”. Again, he connected Valentine with love and birds:
“And ever more two and two as mates,
As if they had chosen for this year
In March, upon St. Valentine’s day”.

At the end of Chaucer’s poem he writes:
“Saint Valentine, who is fully exalted on high,
Thus small birds sing for your sake:
Now welcome, summer, with your soft sunshine
That had made the winter weather to break.”

You can hardly welcome summer in the middle of February, and what birds are stupid enough to start mating in winter. Clanvowe and Chaucer are very clear about which month their birds are mating – May (the Clanvowe quote mentions March once in his poem. He mentions that it is set in May 10 times – perhaps it was a mistake in transcription).

May was the traditional month for romance and Chaucer’s poem was written to celebrate King Richard II’s engagement on 2nd May 1381. That date is the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa – NOT St. Valentine of Terni. Valentine of Genoa was well known throughout Europe because Genoa was a major commercial port controlling the majority of sea trade routes in the Mediterranean. Chaucer certainly visited the port and knew about its saint, and Clanvowe, whilst a soldier, had also been there. The English poets knew St. Valentine of Genoa, but not Valentine of Terni who was a little-known local Italian saint.

Over the years the romance of St. Valentine’s Day developed with fake legends, most significantly the myth that Valentine’s Day is really the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia which took place in the middle of February. But we know that the original St. Valentine’s Day was in May, so Lupercalia has nothing to do with it at all.

The confusion may have arisen in the Renaissance when ancient classical writings became available to the Europeans for the first time. The Catholic Church went looking for pagan festivals to claim as the origins of Christian ones. Here is my theory. Antiquarians may have noticed that St Valentine of Genoa’s feast day in May came during the Roman festival of Floralia. Unfortunately it was also the major festival for prostitutes, so perhaps to distance itself from such a connection the church looked for another Valentine – Valentine of Terni in February – to stick the pagan origins onto. The transformation was completed when the Pope made him patron saint of Terni and lovers in 1644.

Recent scholars has brought Chaucer’s and Clanvowe’s contribution to Valentine’s Day to the fore. Chaucer may probably have become just a minor poet if it hadn’t been for Clanvowe. They knew each other well. Both were royal courtiers. Clanvowe’s “husband” Sir William Neville was Constable of Nottingham Castle when Chaucer was put in charge of it’s repairs. William’s nephew married Chaucer’s niece.

It was Clanvowe who first called Chaucer the “Father of English Poetry”, a title which he carries to this day. It was also Clanvowe who, in his own writing, popularised Chaucer’s use of English instead of Latin or French, paving the way for Shakespeare 300 years later.

So, if you don’t get the Valentine you hoped for today, why not try all over again on the original St. Valentine’s Day on 2nd May!

Saturday 11 February 2012

Guest Blogger - Narvel Annable

I have been criticised for comparing Gay Rights with the 1960s Civil Rights movement in the USA.  Accordingly, in Nottinghamshire’s February/March 2012 edition of Queer Bulletin I was delighted to read the words of Coretta King –

“Dr Martin Luther King would be a champion of gay rights if he were alive. Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, in Albany, Georgia and St. Augustine, Florida, and in many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own. I salute their contribution.

“Homophobia is like racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanise a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood. This sets the stage for further repression and violence that spread all too easily to victimise the next minority group”.

I am proud to have made a decision to major in African American History at Eastern Michigan University at a time when the Detroit race riots were tearing that city apart.

I thank Coretta King for her encouraging words and am grateful for the good work of Bayard Rustin, a gay African American who was the organisational “mastermind” behind much of the civil rights movement’s work.
Narvel Annable

The Queer Bulletin to which Narvel refers is the bi-monthly newsletter of the Nottinghamshire Lesbian and Gay Switchboard. For quite a few years now QB has been bringing news and advice to the lgbt community in the city and I have myself contributed to it many times.

The QB article was published in the same week as Martin Luther King Day was celebrated in America. One name that needs to be brought to the fore this year is Bayard Rustin, another figure whose centenary is being celebrated in 2012.

Bayard’s contribution to the human rights movement cannot have been greater than at the march on Washington in 1963 at which King made his famous “I have a dream …” speech. Bayard organised the march and rally himself, with his sexuality being used by both politicians and media to smear the event.

As Narvel suggested, there are people who deny that King had any interest in human rights outside the black community. Recently Tony Dungy, a professional American football coach, has made statements to that effect.

Fortunately leading gay black activists have used Bayard’s centenary to point out that people cannot turn off one part of their personality to suit those working with them who have other prejudices. Martin Luther King was black and straight. Bayard Rustin was black and gay. They worked together closely on the same human rights issues and, as Coretta King has said, there can be no doubt that her husband would have been a champion of lgbt rights as well.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Olympic Countdown

Since this article first appeared a lot of new information has been revealed and new research has been carried out. This article should be seen as a mere snapshot of the information known at the date of its publication. Several facts may now be outdated or inaccurate.

Before I move on from the 1936 Berlin Olympics there’s one more athlete at those games who deserves a mention.

Dora Ratjen (1918-2008) was a German athlete who came 4th in the high jump. In 1938 she won the gold medal and world record at the European championships. But later that year she was arrested because police believed she was man dressed as a women (a criminal offence at the time). An examination proved that Dora was indeed physically more of a man than a woman, but there was enough reason to believe why he was declared female at birth. Intersex babies were often more easily identifiable than Dora had been, and his gender had posed a problem to the midwife. On 28th February I’ll go into more detail about how this could happen.

At the trial the judge said that Dora couldn’t be found guilty of fraud because he had always been led to believe he was female. Subsequently Dora changed all official documents to show himself as male and adopted the name Heinrich. He agreed to stop participating in sport and returned his European gold medal. In the film “Berlin 36” Heinrich’s experiences in the Olympics were fictionalised to show he was forced to compete as a woman by the Nazis. This is untrue.

The Olympics don’t have any more positively confirmed lgbt competitors until 1956 when we reach the Winter Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. Here we meet our first identified lgbt Winter Olympian, Ronnie Robertson (1938-2000). Ronnie Robertson is the first in a long line of gay male ice skaters, who make up the largest group in an Olympic winter sport (13 positively identified to date, plus 3 possible others).

In the 1950s three men dominated American figure skating – Ronnie Robertson and the Jenkins brothers, Hayes and David. At the 1956 games they finished 2nd, 1st and 3rd respectively. The competition was so close that the judges took 2 hours to decide there was only 0.07 of 1 point between gold and silver positions. Having come 2nd behind Hayes Jenkins twice more that winter Ronnie decided to turn professional.

As is often the case with sportsmen Ronnie took up skating as a child to improve his health. By the age of 14 he was US Junior Champion. It was on the US skating circuit that Ronnie met Art Gelien who was a junior pairs skating champion. They became a couple not long afterwards.

Art was also an aspiring actor and singer, and very soon he became much in demand in the 1950s, and from his earnings from acting Art helped to finance Ronnie’s training. These earnings were quite substantial, as Art was the biggest Hollywood teen idol of the 1950s with millions of teenage girls swooning over him. He acted under the name of Tab Hunter.

Art accompanied Ronnie to the 1955 World Championships and on the subsequent world tour. At the 1956 Olympics Ronnie won the silver medal. I am unsure if Tab Hunter was there to support him. Their relationship petered out after that. Ronnie Robertson died 12 years ago last Saturday at the age of 62.

Later in 1956 the Olympics moved south of the equator for the first time for the summer games in Melbourne, Australia. One of the competitors was 17-year-old American swimmer Susan Gray, the earliest surviving lgbt Olympian (2 weeks ago I found out that I am related to her – we both descend from the Gawkroger Platts family of Yorkshire). What gives Susan another place in the history of lgbt Olympics is her involvement in the Gay Games.

At the first Gay Games in 1982 the games founder, Tom Waddell, persuaded two fellow Olympians to take part. One was hammer thrower George Frenn (who was straight), and the other was Susan Gray (by then Mrs. Susan McGreivy). George and Susan acted as torch bearers at the Gay Games opening ceremony.

Susan McGreivy was a lawyer by profession, by 1984 working for the American Civil Liberties Union. It was in this capacity that she was involved in the long battle between the Gay Games and the US Olympic Committee over the use of the name “Gay Olympics”, which is how the games were originally marketed. I’ll return to this legal battle in April.

Monday 6 February 2012

Out of Their Trees

Lauren Meece

Today is Lauren Meece’s 29th birthday. Happy Birthday Lauren.

Lauren represented the USA at the 2000 Sydney Olympics (the gayest Olympics ever – so far) in judo. At the age of 17 she was the youngest judoka at the Sydney Games and the youngest ever US judo team member. After the 2008 Olympics Lauren caused a ripple when she criticised the lgbt community for putting more emphasis on someone’s sexuality in sport than someone’s sporting endeavour.

Is there anything in Lauren’s ancestry which gives clues to her career? As far as sport is concerned, yes there is – but not judo. Lauren’s great-uncle Wilbur Meece was a golf pro and Central Kentucky champion, the state where the family had lived for over 200 years. There must certainly be a healthy gene in the family because Wilbur’s father was still very active at the age of 100 years old. His great-grand-daughter Lauren was born on the 1st anniversary of his death.

The first Meece (originally spelt Meiss) to live in Kentucky was Thomas Meece. Originally from Pennsylvania Thomas moved with his family to Pulaski County, Kentucky, in about 1800. Thomas’s father Johann, however, came from farther afield.

Johann Meiss emigrated to America from Württemberg in Germany with his wife and 2 brothers in about 1750. They settled in Pennsylvania. At that time there was unrest between the English and French colonists. This developed into the French and Indian War, which put the German settlers in the idle of a conflict between the English on one side and the French with their Iroquois allies on the other.

In 1757, while Johann Meiss and one of his brothers were working out in the fields they were attacked by a band of Iroquois. One brother (I’m not sure which) was shot dead on the spot and the other ran towards the farm house pursued by an Iroquois. A fence stood between the brother and safety. But as he was leaping up and over it the Iroquois caught up and smashed his tomahawk into his skull. This particular attack remained in people’s memory for several generations.

Back in Pulaski County, Kentucky, Lauren’s grandfather Virgil Meece married Jennie Jones. Jennie’s great-grandmother came from another family of European continental settlers, the Chaudoins from Silly-de-Long in France. The first Chaudoin settler, François, was a barber-surgeon who was called up to join the Virginia militia in the same conflict in which the Meiss brothers were murdered. However, as a French settler serving in an English colonial army during the French and Indian War, François was, in effect, helping the English to fight his fellow Frenchman. Not surprisingly, François deserted and a wanted poster set up around Virginia put a price of 40 shillings on his head.

After the war ended differences were forgotten, and François’ 2nd wife was Susannah Weaver (Lauren’s ancestor). Her family had been among the earliest settlers in Virginia, arriving in 1622 from Shropshire.

Also through Jennie Jones Lauren descends from an important French settler called Mareen Duvall. He was a Huguenot and settled in Maryland in 1650. He owned several thousand acres of plantation and it made him and his family very wealthy. Even today, anyone with the surname Duvall is considered American aristocracy like the Vanderbilts, Astors, Fords and Roosevelts. Mareen left a large family, many of whom married into other “aristocratic” families, and among his descendants (all Lauren’s cousins) are 2 US Presidents (Obama and Harry Truman), former Vice President Dick Cheney and his lesbian daughter Mary (all 3 are also descended from settler Richard Cheney of London), the Duchess of Windsor, and actor Robert Duvall.

Friday 3 February 2012

Alan Turing Centenary

One of the anniversaries in 2012 which is being celebrated across the world is the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, OBE. If it wasn’t for him you wouldn’t be reading this because his mathematical work was the foundation for the first computer. The UK government, however, seem to be oblivious to the scale of his contributions to science and technology and the modern world, and the only thing they seem to be doing is issuing a commemorative stamp!

We are at the best possible time in terms of technological achievement to celebrate the life and genius of Alan Turing. We’re not too close to his work to not realise how important it is, and not too far away for those who knew him to be given the opportunity to give personal insights into his work and the man himself.

As far as my home county is concerned, Nottinghamshire can claim some little part in Turing’s background. His father Julius was born in Edwinstowe in very heart of Sherwood Forest in 1873. The family were living there because Alan’s grandfather was Rev. John Turing, Vicar of Edwinstowe.

Next year’s LGBT History Month is being dedicated to science and technology in honour of Turing, with a special pre-launch in November this year at Bletchley Park where he conducted much of the work on cracking the Nazi war codes.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

World Digger's Day

LGBT History Month in the UK begins today. Today is also World Diggers Day. It is a day when we think about all those archaeologists and students out there in the freezing cold, scraping away with their little trowels, uncovering the world’s long-lost heritage. World Diggers Day was started by British archaeologist Lawrence Shaw as a Facebook event on 1st Feb. 2011.

Archaeology has always intrigued people, whether it is King Tut’s tomb, the lost cities of the Aztecs, or Stonehenge. In recent years the subject has been “sexed up” with books and films about relic hunting and the whip-cracking antics of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft.

Several lgbt archaeologists have made significant discoveries. Perhaps the one who reminds people of Indiana Jones being pitted against the Nazis in the search for sacred relics is Otto Rahn (1904-1939).

Otto Rahn scrambled through caves in France in search of clues to the location of the Holy Grail. His books on the subject aroused the interest of Heinrich Himmler who invited him to join the SS and the Nazi relic-hunting department. Otto was homosexual, and after rumours of this got to Himmler’s ears Otto found himself doing guard duty in Auschwitz for 3 months. The following year Otto resigned from the SS and he committed suicide shortly afterwards.

Some people have said that Otto Rahn inspired the Indiana
Jones character, but in reality it is just a remarkable similarity of events.

A British contemporary of Otto Rahn was Francis Turville-Petre (1901-1941). His major discovery as in 1925 when he found part of a skull, now named Galilee Man, which was the first evidence that Neanderthals lived outside Europe. At the age of 27 he moved to Berlin and joined Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexual Research, one of the earliest gay campaign groups in the world. Whilst in Berlin he persuaded his friends Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden to sample the “delights” of the Berlin nightlife. The visit inspired Isherwood to write “Goodbye to Berlin”, which was turned into the musical “Cabaret”. Francis died at the young age of 40. (His nephew and namesake lives just a couple of miles away from me).

Ironically, perhaps the greatest lgbt archaeologist died only a month before Francis Turville-Petre. He was Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941). Sir Arthur’s sexuality was suppressed for most of his life. He married his cousin and had no children. After his wife’s death from tuberculosis in 1893 he always wrote on black edged paper. In 1924, at the age of 73, Sir Arthur was arrested in Hyde Park with George Cook and both were charged with committing public indecency.

Sir Arthur was a pioneer of Aegean archaeology and is most famous for excavating the Minoan civilisation on Crete. His work there began in 1900 and he unearthed what he claimed was King Minos’s palace. Using techniques more akin to Disney World than archaeology he restored and rebuilt parts of the ruined palace which upset other archaeologists. The many wall paintings and objects depicting bulls, along with the labyrinthine corridors of the palace, led Arthur to believe he had uncovered the origins of the Minotaur legend. Even though some of his techniques would be questionable if used today, Sir Arthur’s reputation is among the highest.

The Minoan civilisation has a few lgbt elements connected to it. King Minos was believed at one time to have been the founder of pederastic love – the man-boy sex that became common in Ancient Greece.

And according to Sir Arthur Evans the mythological labyrinth itself gets its name from the labrys, a heavy double-edged axe that had some sacred and ceremonial associations with the Minoans. The labrys was associated with Minoan priestesses and ancient matriarchal societies. Greek mythology says that the original labrys was owned by Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, those female warriors who killed or exiled all male-born children. Hercules stole the labrys from Hippolyta and gave it to Queen Omphale of Lydia, to whom he spent 3 years as a slave dressed as a woman. From this association the feminist and lesbian communities of the 1970s in the USA adopted the labrys as their symbol. It enjoyed some popularity for quite a while but has since been superseded by other symbols.