Saturday 28 April 2012

Olympic Countdown

The Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 sees the first significant presence of lgbt athletes, albeit none of them “out” at the time. From 1984 the number of lgbt athletes would increase until it peaked in Sydney in 2000. Because of this it will be difficult to include full details of all of them in my posts. I’ll give as many of them a name check as possible, but I’ll concentrate on medal winners and significant events.

After the boycott of the Moscow Olympics its no surprise that Communist countries boycotted the LA games. It’s well-known that eastern European countries gave athletes performance-enhancing drugs purely to win more medals and promote “healthy Socialist” propaganda. Most of the drugs were steroids and testosterone given to female athletes, most of them unaware they were being drugged.

In 2000 the president of the East German Olympic Committee was put on trial with others, and they were convicted of “intentional bodily harm of athletes”. One of these was shot putter Heidi Krieger. By the time of the trial he had undergone gender reassignment and was known as Andreas Krieger. Even though he had questions about his sexuality as a child he firmly believes that being pumped full of steroids denied him the right to discover his sexuality naturally. Despite not appearing at the Olympics because of the LA boycott Krieger won the European Championships in 1986 and the gold medal forms part of the Heidi Krieger Medal, awarded each year to the German athlete who has done most to promote anti-doping in sport.

In Los Angeles 2 American lgbt athletes became Olympic champions. Harriet “Holly” Metcalf was a member of the US rowing 8 team that won gold, and Greg Louganis returned to be the first diver since 1928 to win gold in both springboard and platform.

A member of the US swimming team, Bruce Hayes, won his first titles the year before at the US Championships, the World University Games and the Pan American Games. In the Olympic 4x200m freestyle relay Bruce found himself swimming the same final leg against the legendary German swimmer Michael Gross. The US were ahead as Hayes and Gross entered the water. Gross overtook before the final turn. Bruce’s trademark fast finish put them equal at the finish line. In a world record time, and only 0.04 seconds ahead, Bruce Hayes won gold for the US team. “It was an honourable defeat”, said Gross.

Bruce has continued to swim in US Masters competitions, and in 1994 became the first Olympic champion to become Gay Games champion. Since then he has won a further 15 Gay Games gold medals, competing at every games since 1994. He also kept his Olympics connection by being Assistant Competition Manager for Swimming at the Atlanta 1996 games. In 2002 Bruce was appointed as one of the inaugural Gay Games Ambassadors.

On track and field in 1984 we have the first lgbt couple to compete at the same games, West German athletes Sabine Braun and Beate Peters. Neither won a medal but did win diplomas – 6th place heptathlon diploma for Sabine and 7th place javelin for Beate. This was the first of 5 Olympic appearances at the summer games by Sabine, the most by any female lgbt competing athlete.

For the 1984 games tennis made its return to the Olympics, the first time since 1928, as a demonstration sport. Several top tennis players competed, including Gigi Fernández.

Finally, one gay athlete made his Olympic debut in 1984. Equestrian Robert Dover, a member of the US dressage team, has completed in 6 Olympics, the most by any lgbt athlete.

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. 

Thursday 26 April 2012

Swimming With Olympians

When I began researching the ancestries of lgbt Olympians I didn’t know I’d be related to any of them. What has intrigued me in my research is that of the 4 lgbt Olympians I know I’m related to, all of them are swimmers!

For several years I’d known that I was related to Daniel Veatch and Francilia Agar Schofield. We all descend from the Beaufort family who were great-grandchildren of King Edward II, that well-known “Queen” of England. Dan Veatch’s ancestry is mentioned briefly in my Christmas post on Sir Noël Coward.

More recently I discovered I was related to 2 more lgbt Olympic swimmers – Mark Chatfield and Susan Gray McGreivy. All 3 of us descend from Richard Gawkroger Platts of Sowerby, Yorkshire, who was buried in 1575.

The unusual surname Gawkroger originates from a place-name. The “roger” comes from “rocher” which is a Yorkshire dialect word for a rock or crag, and “gawk” is dialect for “left”. So Gawkroger could mean “the rock on the left” – perhaps on the left of a prominent landmark or road. When surnames began to become hereditary in the late Medieval period one family adopted a surname from the place where they lived. They lived near the “rock on the left” in the Halifax area. So they became the Gawkroger family. This seems to have been around 1400.

The Gawkrogers also owned property called Platts farm, and this they began to use as a surname as well – Gawkroger Platts – to distinguish themselves from cousins who lived near Sowerby bridge, the Gawkroger Briggs family.

My ancestor Michael Gawkroger Platts’s cousin Mary married John Prescott of Halifax in 1629. Mark Chatfield and Susan McGreivy descend from this couple (as do both Presidents Bush, and astronomer Perceval Lowell and his lesbian sister, the writer Amy Lowell).

John and Mary Prescott had emigrated to Barbados by 1638, and by 1640 had moved to New England and became the founding settlers in a place they named Nashaway (after the local native tribe). Other settlers wanted to rename the town Prescottville in the family’s honour, but the local council decided to name it after John’s place of birth in England, Lancaster.

By profession John was a blacksmith, quite a good one apparently because he had his own suit of armour, presumably one he made for himself. This he wore during attacks from the Nashaway tribe. As with many other colonial settlements on native lands Lancaster came under attack, so John Prescott would have worn his armour a lot, especially in 1675 and 1676. This was when the Nashaways attacked the settlers quite violently, pillaging the town and killing men, women and children. Among the victims were John and Mary Prescott’s son-in-law Lt. Jonas Fairbanks, and 2 of their grandsons. Another grandson, 6-year-old Jabez, was lucky to survive, and he is ancestor of Susan Gray McGreivy.

The eldest daughter of John and Mary Gawkroger Platts Prescott was called Mary. She married into the Sawyers of Connecticut and was ancestor of Mark Chatfield. Other settler ancestors of Mark were Stephen Gates (ancestor of Bill Gates), and John Fobes (ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales).

With research never reaching an end I await further revelations of my blood relationship to famous people.

Monday 23 April 2012

Putting the Record Straight on - Shakespeare

Today is St. George’s Day, perhaps the only national day in the world which isn’t celebrated with a public holiday by its own country! It also happens to be the anniversary of the birth and death of England’s most famous playwright William Shakespeare.

I’m not convinced by any declaration of Shakespeare’s sexuality. The question about whether he was gay, bisexual or neither is more disputed than that of King Richard the Lionheart.

The whole theory behind Shakespeare being gay/bisexual seems to rest on flimsy evidence to say the least. First, his plays are presented by some pro-gay scholars as examples of cross-dressing fantasies he had. They ignore tha fact that plays in his time didn’t allow female actors and all female characters were played by boys. It was accepted in Tudor times, just as cross-dressing in panto is today. So, does that mean that everyone who wrote a pantomime has cross-dressing fantasies? Or that the writers of “Tootsie” or “Mrs. Doubtfire” are gay?

But the main evidence put forward for Shakespeare’s sexuality are his sonnets, his 20th sonnet in particular. Alan Bray, a respected gay scholar and historian, trashed the gay Shakespeare theory in 1995. Looking at the conventions of Shakespearean England, with its culture of emotional bonding between men (the Bromance of its age) and male bed-sharing (commonplace before the 20th century), there’s nothing in Shakespeare’s writing to indicate his own sexuality.

It seems that just because people imply a homosexual theme in someone’s writing it doesn’t mean it’s actually there. After all, Elton John has written many, very overt, straight love songs, so that obviously means he is definitely NOT gay. Right?

Saturday 21 April 2012

Star Gayzing - Taurus

You could say today’s post is a lot of bull. The constellation of Taurus presents a gay cowboy’s dream of a herd of possible lgbt links. The constellation itself was pictured as a bull by the Babylonians, the fathers of all our western star mappers.

The Taurean bull has been identified with several legendary creatures which are connected in some way, and all of them are associated with Crete, home of the ancient Minoan civilisation that worshipped the bull. The Cretan Bull itself has no gay legends, but the main male protagonists in his story do. And – surprise, surprise -  they’re all ancient Greeks!

There are several different versions of the story of the Cretan Bull. Here’s mine.

Europa was a beautiful Phoenician princess. Zeus lusted after her and decided to abduct her. He created a tame white bull whose coat shone so brightly that Europa was instantly captivated. She climbed onto the bull’s back, at which point it leapt into the sea and swam to the island of Crete, where it deposited Europa in front of Zeus. There they spent several years together, with Europa giving birth to 3 sons, the eldest of whom was King Minos.

The Cretan Bull was given to Poseidon, the chief god of Crete, who ordered Minos to sacrifice the bull in his honour, but Minos couldn’t bring himself to kill it and sacrificed another in its place. Poseidon was furious. As punishment he put a spell of bestiality on Minos’s wife Queen Pasiphae.

Pasiphae fell in love with the Cretan Bull and persuaded the court inventor to construct a wooden heifer in which she could hide so that the bull could mate with her. The result of this mating was the famous Minotaur. In shame Minos asked the inventor to create a labyrinth in which to keep the creature prisoner.

Once again Poseidon asked Minos to sacrifice the Cretan Bull. Again Minos refused. This time Poseidon sent the bull mad and it rampaged across the island, trampling on crops and destroying harvests. There was only one man who could tame the beast – Hercules.

As one of his Twelve Labours Hercules was sent to capture the bull. Using cunning and strength he subdued the beast and transported it back to Athens to prove to his master that his labour was completed. The Cretan Bull, now tame again, was allowed to roam free in the countryside.

Several years later the son of King Minos went to compete at the Athenian Games (the precursor of the Panatheneaean games) and won every contest. This made the king of Athens very angry and had the prince killed. Minos immediately declared war on Athens, defeating them and forcing them to send an annual tribute to Crete of 7 boys and 7 girls to be fed to the Minotaur.

The story of how Theseus killed the Minotaur is well known. Beforehand, having been brought up away from his homeland, Theseus arrived at his father’s court in cognito. His father was suspicious of him at first. As a test he sent Theseus to capture and sacrifice the Cretan Bull. This he did with no great difficulty, and so the beast that was such a great symbol of the Cretan culture met its. In its honour Zeus placed the Cretan bull in the sky as the constellation Taurus. Theseus then revealed who he was and he volunteered to go to Crete and killed the monstrous son of the Cretan Bull, the Minotaur. And so the symbol of the bull that was so great in Cretan culture met its end at the hands of an Athenian, somewhat symbolic of the rise of the state of Athens filling the gap made by the decline of Crete.

That’s the myth, now the queer angle.

In mythology King Minos was the first man to have sex with another man. As I’ve said several times in the past same-sex activity wasn’t taboo in ancient Greece. One myth says that Minos was also the kidnapper of young Ganymede. This particular myth first appears long after the Minoan civilisation collapsed. Ganymede’s abduction is now generally regarded as having being by Zeus (see my post on Aquarius).

Even if Minos wasn’t the lover of Ganymede, several myths say he was the lover of Theseus. After Minos’s initial anger at killing the Minotaur he mellowed towards the hero, and after Theseus abandoned Minos’s daughter Ariadne (who helped him to escape from the labyrinth) he married Minos’s other daughter. This is when the two are said to have been lovers.

Then we come to Hercules. Well, where do I start? Perhaps it’s best not to. Hercules has his own constellation, and I think I’ll keep his gender identity crisis for another time.

Wednesday 18 April 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.

Between the 1980 and 1984 Olympics a new Olympics emerged. It was the brainchild of US Olympian Tom  Waddell. After his participation as team doctor for the Saudi team in 1976, Tom returned home to San Francisco where he and his boyfriend came out publicly in the October 1976 issue of “People” magazine. They received much abuse from fellow Olympians, but it gave Tom the determination to show that gay men CAN do sport.

It was while attending a gay bowling match that the spark of an idea of the Gay Olympics occurred to Tom. He travelled around the US drumming up support and enthusiasm and very soon a group was formed to arrange the first games in 1982. But before they could begin the US Olympic Committee sued the group over the use of the word “Olympic” (where have I hear that before?). Tom protested that they had ever objected to the Police Olympics, the Dog Olympics, or the Porn Olympics, so why pick on the Gay Olympics?

Legal proceedings started, and with less than 19 days before the games began all references to “Olympics” had to be blacked out of posters and publicity. The legal battle was to last until 1987 by which time the Gay Olympics had been renamed the Gay Games. From such an unpromising start grew a movement which is still going strong, and still holds the world record for the most competitors in a multi-sport event (over 4,000 more than the biggest Olympics).

In this 30th anniversary years of the Gay Games I’ll bring more of its history in August.

Two Winter Olympics for the price of one now. At the 1984 Sarajevo and 1988 Calgary games the same 3 gay ice skaters appeared – Rob McCall, Brian Orser and Brian Boitano.

Rob McCall was a pairs figure skater who was Canadian champion 7 years running from 1981. Performing with Tracy Wilson in the Sarajevo Olympics of 1984 Rob won an Olympic Diploma for their 8th place. At the Calgary games inn 1988 they took the bronze medal.

In 1990 Rob was diagnosed with AIDS. He kept this secret because US law at that time banned anyone with HIV/AIDS from entering the USA and Rob wanted to continue touring in ice shows and competitions. Rob died in 1991 aged 33. Even as his health deteriorated he planned an AIDS benefit called “For Skate the Drama”. It was also to become his tribute event.

At that time there was a lot of denial within the sport. Many skaters either disbelieved there were many HIV+ skaters, or chose to ignore what effect AIDS would have on their sport. With major skaters dying of AIDS more and more skaters chose to show their open support by appearing at the AIDS benefit.

One skater who performed at “For Skate the Drama” was American Brian Boitano. In 1978 he had won a bronze medal at the World Junior championships. One place behind was Canadian Brian Orser. The two were to become Olympic rivals, both competing in Sarajevo in 1984 and Calgary in 1988.

Boitano won silver in 1984 while Orser took an Olympic Diploma in 5th place. At the World Championships over the next 4 years they dominated the medals, alternating gold and silver positions 3 years running. At the 1988 Olympics the media hyped up the “Battle of the Brians”. Going into the final free skating section the 2 Brians were effectively tied – whoever won this section won gold. Orser made one mistake and missed a jump, giving Boitano the gold medal.

No doubt this was a disappointment for Orser. But at least he had had the honour of carrying his national flag at the head of the home team in the parade of athletes at the opening ceremony. Orser’s participation in Olympic skating has continued. At the 2012 Vancouver games Orser coached the gold medallist Yu-Na Kim.

Boitano’s career, however, went in several directions. Sports-wise he returned to the Olympics in 1994. On the tv he earned cult status in caricature form on “South Park”; he won an Emmy for his role in “Carmen on Ice”; and has fronted 2 series of his own cookery programme.

Before we leave the 1988 Calgary games there’s some more lgbt names to mention. Former Olympian Brian Pockar was artistic director of the closing ceremony at which k d lang made her first Olympic performance, and Nat Brown was the coach and head technician for the US ski team.

I’ll return to the warmer climes of the summer games next times with a look at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Birmingham's Rhinestone Rhino

A couple of weeks ago it was announced that Birmingham City Council was putting £10,000 towards a diamante-studded statue of a rhinoceros that is going to mark the entrance to the city’s gay village.

I’ve been aware of the rhino as an lgbt symbol for several years but didn’t really look into it all that much. Birmingham’s rhinestone rhino got me more interested. So here’s what I’ve found out.

The purple rhinoceros first became a symbol of the lgbt community in December 1974. It was the idea of 2 gay rights activists living in Boston, Massachusetts, called Bernie Toale and Tom Morganti. The rhino was chosen, Toale said at the start of the campaign, because it was a very misunderstood animal, not unlike the gay community at the time. He pointed out that when threatened or angered the rhino would fight ferociously. Again, this summed up the gay community.

Even though the rhino is often called purple the original design was actually a slightly lighter lavender in colour, a widely used colour in the community (the reason why will be given in a Flower Power post later in the year). The heart was added as a symbol of love and humanity.

The rhino appeared on posters Toale designed to raise awareness of gay issues around Boston, and it appeared on the walls of the Boston underground system and public advertising spaces. After a while the cost of the campaign got too much and since they couldn’t afford to pay Boston’s public service advertising rates the posters stopped being printed. It seemed for a while that the purple rhino would disappear for good.

Even though the original purple rhino faded into the history books it was often referred to in later publications and, more recently still, websites. This breathed new life into the rhino and brought it out of Boston and into the wider world. It was picked up by a few lgbt groups and organisations, and if you Google “purple rhino” a long list of these will appear. In 2009 it was even suggested as an alternative to the Rainbow Pride flag (pictured below).

The Birmingham rhino came about through a competition. The Birmingham LGBT group and lgbt businesses in the gay village in the city felt that a distinctive sculpture would enhance the revitalisation of the city centre. With various grants and remaining funds from the council’s revitalisation budget, a competition was organised.

The winning idea came from Robbie Coleman. It will be a larger-than-life-size rhino encrusted with diamante to represent the city’s great jewellery heritage. Diamonds were also used by the Mattachine Society, a gay rights movement set up in the USA in the 1970s.

It remains to be seen whether the Birmingham rhino become a tourist attraction in its own right. But it makes me wonder if a gay village in any other city has a sculpture at its entrance.

Friday 13 April 2012

Unlucky For Some

I hope you’re not superstitious. Today is Friday 13th, a supposedly very unlucky day. Some people have said that it originated in the Last Supper. They say that 13 people were present and one the next day, Good Friday, Christ was crucified. The obvious flaw in that is that the Last Supper took place on Thursday, so it should be Thursday 13th that is unlucky.

What has more credibility is the story surrounding the suppression of the Knights Templar. I dealt with them before in relation to their supposed homosexual activity, but today I want to concentrate on the man who persecuted them – King Philippe IV of France (1268-1314).

King Philippe was one of those homophobes who used accusations of homosexuality for personal and political benefit. Anyone he had a grudge against was declared homosexual at some point – his son-in-law, the Templars, and even the pope – and there were a lot of people who didn’t like him, so there was no shortage of people to accuse.

Philippe’s obsession with gaining more power began before he succeeded to his throne. The year before his father died he married the reigning Queen of Navarre and began calling himself King of Navarre. He then took control of the queen’s French provinces of Champagne and Brie (I wonder if he had some nice black grapes to go with them!).

Next he set his sight on French provinces belonging to the English crown. Snubbed by King Edward I for refusing to act as subservient Duke of Aquitaine, King Philippe seized Edward’s French provinces precipitating a war that ended with the engagement of his daughter Isabel to Edward’s son Edward. This was to provide another excuse to accuse someone of sodomy – the one and only time he might have got it right.

In 1308 the wedding-coronation of the 12-year-old Princess Isabel to 24-year-old Edward (by now King Edward II) was notable in that Edward spent his wedding night with his boyfriend Piers Gaveston and gave him most of the French wedding gifts. This time King Philippe didn’t need to invent evidence.

Philippe then wanted more money as well as land. First he expelled all the Jews from France, seizing their assets. Then he levied a 50% tax on the French clergy, prompting Pope Boniface VIII to issue a papal bull preventing Philippe from seizing church property as well. Philippe called an assembly of his supporters in the clergy, bishops and nobles and had Boniface arrested and deposed. Philippe took this opportunity to spread rumours of the Pope being gay to discredit him as well.

With his own puppet Pope Clement V installed King Philippe then turned on the Templars, the wealthiest holy order in Europe. So, on Friday 13th 1307, again using accusations of sodomy, he began arresting every one of them simultaneously, thus bringing to an end the power of the Knights Templar. His papal pal Clement V dissolved the order for good on 3rd April 1312 – 700 years ago last week.

The last Grand Master of the Templars went to his death at the stake in 1314 cursing both King Philippe and Pope Clement. Ironically, a month later Clement died in torment from some unspecified illness, and Philippe was killed in a hunting “accident” 8 months later.

So, if Friday 13th is unlucky for the Knights Templar, it certainly didn’t turn out well for King Philippe IV of France or Pope Clement V either.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Extraordinary Lives - The Nottingham Masquerader

In Nottingham during April almost a hundred years ago a trial made headlines in the two local newspapers. It was a trial which revealed the extraordinary life story of someone most people in Nottingham recognised but knew nothing about.

Picture a typical spring afternoon on 7th April 1915 and a local character walking down a Nottingham street - a dark-skinned woman with a deformed left arm, stings of beads, necklaces, crucifixes and rosaries, bracelets and bangles. You can probably hear her jewellery rattling before you see her. This eccentric character has been around Nottingham for several years.

On this particular day she knocks on the door of the home of Mr. and Mrs. Mead. She tells Mrs. Mead she is collecting money on behalf of a home for destitute children in Liverpool. Mrs. Mead gives her tuppence and our eccentric lady moves on. A few seconds later she is approached by Mr. Mead, who is suspicious, so he asks her for identification. She hands him a business card which declares her to be Miss Ellen Phillips of 6 Wollaton Place. Whereupon the man declares himself to be Police Sgt. Thomas Mead and that there had been many complaints about her begging. He arrests the woman for fraudulently obtaining money and takes her to the city’s police cells for questioning.

In her cell some of the woman's dark skin colouring rubs off and it is found to be a fake tan. The police become even more suspicious when they discover the woman is carrying several business cards with different names on them. So they decide to hold her until further investigations were made.

The police visit the home address given on the business cards and discover an exotic den of mysticism. The woman seems to have set herself up as some kind of eastern mystic and psychic, because a sign on the front door read "Astronomy, Astrology, Clairvoyance". The little living room was decked out in Greek Orthodox style, with lamps, candles and incense, crucifixes and icons, mystical books and jars of herbs. At the time mystic-spiritualism was very popular, so there could have been plenty of people out there who wanted her services.

At her first appearance before the magistrate the next morning the most suspicious thing about her was that no-one could work out if she really was a woman. So she had a medical examination. Lo and behold, our eccentric lady turns out to be man. At his trial over the next few weeks the real story of this Masquerader, as the local press called him, began to emerge. And its a story that's quite remarkable.

On the first day of is trial he impressed everyone with his appearance. He was wearing a suit, had his hair cut, had grown a short beard and wore glasses. Press reports said he looked quite distinguished. He said was born in Serbia 42 years earlier and that his real name was Elleban Epphean. With such an unusual name for the Nottingham press to deal with, there were several different spellings given in reports, so we may never know the actual spelling. This has created difficulties in tracing him through other records.
coat of arms of the kingdom of
Serbia, still used on the national
flag of modern Serbia.

We think that ethnic troubles in Serbia is recent, but in 1876 that country was run by Islamic Turks who were persecuting and killing Christians. The violence sparked off the Russian-Turkish War. The same ethnic fighting in Serbia, particularly in Kosovo, was as much in the news then as it has been in our lifetime. Being Greek Orthodox Christian, young Elleban's father, a highly-trained doctor, decided to get himself and his 3-year-old son out of Serbia while he could and came to England in 1876. It isn't known if there was any other family.

Three years later Dr. Epphean died leaving Elleban orphaned. He was placed in a Cambridge convent, but after another 3 years, barely 10 years old, young Elleban ran away. He first made his way to London and then roamed the country before arriving in Nottingham sometime around 1905. He must have already started to wear women's clothes before he came to Nottingham, because he was a familiar sight as an eccentric woman for 10 years.

Elleban admitted all the evidence against him was correct, and he was found guilty of “fraudulently collecting money” and given one month's hard labour. The magistrates added that it might do him good.

After that I can find no record of Elleban Epphean, so his story ends there. But I'm doing more research and hopefully I'll find out more about his extraordinary life.

Sunday 8 April 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.

The Winter Olympics of 1980 was the calm before the storm.

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. It was universally condemned. Even as early as New Year 1980 some countries were talking about boycotting the Olympics that were to be held in Moscow that summer. At the Winter games in Lake Placid, USA, no serious threat of a boycott emerged and the games suffered little.

Once again it was the ice arena that saw lgbt competitors taking part. American pairs skaters Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia returned. They were World Champions and favourites for the gold medal. The practice sessions went well, but then Randy suffered a groin injury during the warm-up that was too serious for him to continue. To the disappointment of the whole world the couple pulled out of the competition.

Turning professional after that removed all hope of an Olympic gold. However, their popularity and iconic status was proved when they skated together again in the very same Olympic Lake Placid ice stadium at the 25th anniversary reunion of the 1980 US Olympic team. Needless to say they got a standing ovation when they stepped onto the ice. Randy and Tai continued to be involved in professional skating. Randy also choreographed a skating sequence for an episode of “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Skating with Celebrities” in 2006.

Performing solo on the ice in Lake Placid in 1980 was Canadian champion Brian Pockar. Disappointingly he finished 12th, but his creative talents were to be utilised in a much bigger arena at the 1988 Winter games in Calgary.

The mass boycott of the games in Moscow was a great disappointment for many athletes, both for those who competed and those who didn’t, including divers Scott Cranham and Greg Louganis whose national teams “ordered” them to stay away. Other countries, like the UK, supported the boycott but left the decision to boycott to individual athletes.

Not wanting to be denied the chance to compete some boycotted track and field athletes took part in the Olympic Boycott Games in Philadelphia, USA. Unlike his fellow team member Scott Cranham, the Canadian national champion middle-distance runner Greg Duhaime did have a chance to compete. He finished 3rd in the 5,000m. Unfortunately, Greg only finished 16th at his only official Olympics in 1984, and he died of AIDS in 1992 aged 38. Other sports, such as equestrianism, held their also held their own boycott games.

One member of the UK team was barrister Terence Etherton. He was selected for the 1980 fencing team but his name doesn’t appear in the official list of those who competed in Moscow. This suggests that he decided to boycott or was a non-competing member. Terence made history in 2001 when he became the first lgbt Olympian to be knighted, and he became the first gay Lord Justice of Appeal in 2008.

Of course, Communist-run countries didn’t boycott the games – except China. In the Cuban swimming team was Rafael Polinario, a member of the national team since he was 14. Although he finished 11th in Moscow he won gold medals in the 100m and 200m freestyle at the Pan-American Games in Cuba in 1982.

Rafael’s life follows that of many gay men in that period. He lived in an environment where his sexuality could be a reason to prevent him from competing. Being a high profile celebrity in Cuba he hid his sexuality by marrying (to a Cuban national synchronised swimmer) and fathering a daughter, Ann. Rafael and his wife separated soon after Ann was born, and after the Cuban head coach questioned his association with various “anti-socials and homosexuals” Rafael decided to defect. This he did in Canada.

Continuing to swim and coach once asylum was granted Rafael joined Toronto’s gay swim and water polo teams which competed at the first World Outgames in Montréal in 2006. Through coaching his disabled daughter Ann, Rafael had an opportunity to coach swimmers for several future Olympics.

The next Olympic post, celebrating 100 days before London 2012, will feature the first Gay Olympics.

Friday 6 April 2012

Flower Power- violets

When I began researching lgbt symbolism in flowers I never thought that it would lead me to Good Friday. It began when I took a look at the origin of the violet as a lesbian symbol. The connection to Good Friday has nothing to do with lesbianism but it gave me a reason to write about it today, Good Friday, and to use a different colour text.

According to medieval legend there were violets growing on Mount Calvary around the cross on which Jesus was crucified. As the shadow of the cross fell upon the violets they bowed their heads in shame at what mankind had done. Perhaps that story was invented to give a reason why violets were used in Good Friday services.

Now back to lesbians. The association of violets with lesbians goes back to the poet Sappho in ancient Greece. But the association in ancient Greece spreads into other areas of the lgbt community.

Just as the narcissus grew from the blood or body of a person, so too did the violet according the Greek mythology.

Attis was the lover of Cybele, the Mother Goddess. There are various versions of Attis’s death, but the common element is that Attis castrated himself under a pine tree, and violets grew out of the drops of blood as they fell onto the ground. Three days later Attis came back to life.

The legend of Attis, of how he died and came back to life has led some people to claim that the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is copied from it. The story of death and resurrection occurs all over the world at springtime, even in cultures cut off from others, so this isn’t very likely. They merely illustrate the concept of life after death which can be understood by the worshippers. But it probably explains why violets from the spring festival of Attis were used by early Christians in Good Friday services after pagan festivals were banned in the Roman Empire. Like modern Christmas trees the Attis violets were merely decorative. I can imagine some early evangelical or anti-Christian party-pooper criticising the use of “pagan” violets, and the early Christians having to justify using them by coming up with the legend of flowers at the foot of the cross.

During the spring festivals of Cybele and Attis at this time of year pine trees were chopped down, taken into Cybele’s temples and decorated with violets. On the 3rd day of the festival the novice priests would castrate themselves in imitation of Attis.

These priests were galled galli. They became a well-known community in the Roman Empire. Not only did they perform the ritual act of de-masculinisation (good word, wonder if it really exists!). Because of this the galli were often given derogatory names, just as gay men were called pansies and puffs in modern times. Parts of the modern transgender community identify strongly with the galli, and several modern cults of Cybele have been established with their worshippers adopting the name of galli.

In modern times the use of violets is lesbian symbolism seems to have been popularised by a play by Edouard Bourdet called “The Captive”. It was performed on Broadway in 1927 and caused such a sensation that it was considered obscene and police raided the theatre and stopped the show.

“The Captive” featured a lesbian romance between 2 of the characters, Irene and the unseen Madame d’Aiguines. Their relationship is symbolised by the posies of violets Madame send to Irene. This act of lesbian love was what the police considered obscene!

The idea of giving violets became popular with New York lesbians and it spread across the community. I suppose the notoriety the play received outside the community meant that it was hardly a secret sign.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Spy Wednesday

Everyone has heard of Good Friday. Most people have heard of Maundy Thursday. But how many have heard of Spy Wednesday? In medieval Ireland, today, the Wednesday before Easter Day, was called Spy Wednesday. It is named after incident in the Bible where Judas makes his bargain with the Sanhedrin to betray Christ.

For this and no other reason today I’m concentrating on espionage. In the 1960s homosexuality and spying was almost never out of the press, and tv, films and books were full of spies – James Bond, The Avengers, The Man from UNCLE. The Cambridge spy circle of Burgess, Philby and Maclean shocked the UK. What shocked the UK even more occurred in the 1980s when the “Fourth Man” was revealed as Anthony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen’s Picture collection.

For as long as there’s been civilisation there’s been spies. Each generation finds a new rival to spy on. Way back in Tudor times it was Catholic versus Protestant. One Elizabethan spy was another Anthony – Anthony Bacon.

Anthony Bacon began his espionage career at the age of 21 providing intelligence reports from Paris to Queen Elizabeth I’s spy-master Sir Francis Walsingham. Elizabeth used Bacon as her unofficial contact with King Henri IV of Navarre, who was leader of the French Protestants, called Huguenots, during the Wars of Religion. France was a Catholic country, and Henri was the heir to the French throne.

Although welcomed at Navarre’s court, Bacon earned enemies such as the wife of Navarre’s chief counsellor. The reason? Well, apparently, it wasn’t the done thing for a woman to wear her wig in church, which the counsellor’s wife wanted to. Bacon refused to support her, though why she needed his support isn’t clear. Not only that, but he turned down the woman’s offer of her daughter’s hand in marriage.

It was at about this time that Bacon was accused of having sex with his page boys. This carried the death penalty if Bacon was found guilty. His page-boys made no secret to the fact amongst themselves, though one former servant claimed Bacon bribed the boys into keeping quiet by giving them with “sweatmeats”. Sounds more like they were little “thank you” gifts to me, certainly not much of a bribe. As it happened King Henri of Navarre interceded on Bacon’s behalf and the death sentence was never passed. All of this was kept secret from the spy-masters back in England.

Despite several requests from Queen Elizabeth to return home Anthony Bacon remained in France. When he did eventually return home in 1592 after more than 12 years Bacon’s reluctance to return earlier meant he was not well received. Even his own mother criticised him.

Hoping to benefit financially and politically from his spy connections Bacon found himself left with the unpaid job of co-ordinating England’s enormous European intelligence network and contacts for the Earl of Essex. Bacon would spend the rest of his life in debt and virtually living off Essex’s friendship with his former principal informer and lover Tom Lawson.

When Essex was convicted of high treason in 1601 Bacon disappeared from the records, except for one. On 17th May 1601 Anthony Bacon was buried in London.

Until recently Anthony Bacon had existed in the shadow of his more famous (and undeniably much more interesting) younger brother Francis. The first biography of him was written in 1975 by Daphne du Maurier, and even then it was a shared biography with his brother. It was this biography that revealed Anthony Bacon’s intimate involvement with his page-boys. A lot of documents about him, including some from his trial, have disappeared. Most of what we know of him comes from the writings of people who knew him. Perhaps as a diligent spy Anthony Bacon destroyed anything that would lead a paper trail straight to him.

Monday 2 April 2012

Moominspring Celebration

Today is International Children’s Book Day. It’s celebrated today because this is the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen, the author of so many familiar children’s stories. The day is organised by the International Board on Books for Young People and they award the Hans Christian Andersen Award to a living author whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children’s literature. This year’s award went to Philip Pullman.

The recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1966 was Tove Jansson (1914-2001). She is one of the more neglected of children’s authors, and in my childhood her books were very popular in my family.

Born in what was then the Grand Duchy of Finland in the Russian Empire, Tove came from an artistic family. Her mother was an illustrator for an anti-German magazine called “Garm” and at the age of 15 Tove began submitting cartoons featuring a troll. This troll character would evolve into Moomintroll, the central character in a series of children’s books and comic strips that Tove would write for the next 30 years.

The first Moomin book was “Moominsummer Madness” (1954). What appealed to me as a child was the variety of characters and creatures Tove created (I was terrified of the Hattifateners!), and the simplicity of the illustrations. Each character had his/her/its own fully-developed personality, something lacking in other popular children’s books in the 1960s.

The Moomins became a worldwide success, particularly in Japan strangely, and in independent Finland they made Tove Jansson a leading national figure (not unlike J. K. Rowiling – but without the money!). In 1987 a Moomin museum opened in Finland, and later a Moomin World.

In the last 30 years of her life Tove wrote stories and books for adults, including several semi-autobiographical books. In some of these she explored same-sex desire and relationships, perhaps expressing her own difficulties in being in a same-sex relationship during a time when such a thing was not openly welcome.

Tove Jansson lived with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä on a bleak Finnish island. Tuulikki was the inspiration for the character Too-Ticky in the last Moomin book, “Moominland in November” (1970).

I still adore the Moomins. I’m also pleased that they have remained “pure” and untainted by the big money of Hollywood.

Long live the Moomins!

Sunday 1 April 2012

Olympic Countdown Special

A press release from the London Olympic Organising Committee has brought good news for all lgbt athletes.

Pink ribbons will be given to all out lgbt medal winners for the first time ever at the London games this summer.

Rather than the “official” purple ribbon of the games, the IOC has approved the use of the pink ribbon from which the gold, silver and bronze medals will be suspended.

In support of the London Olympic’s diversity policy it is hoped that future Olympic host cities will follow suit.

Lord Coe said that lgbt participation at the Olympics has gone unrecognised for too long, and he hoped that other coloured ribbons would be developed for female and ethnic athletes.

For some retired Olympians, like Greg Louganis, this gesture will make no difference as the pink ribbon will not be awarded retrospectively.

One other gay Olympic diving champion, Matthew Mitcham, has welcomed the decision.

“Only by being recognised as a gay sportsman can I be a role model to others”, he said, “And it will be an honour to wear the pink ribbon if I successfully defend my title”.

Lord Coe said in another press release that he hopes future Olympics will make further recognition of lgbt athletes, perhaps by the IOC becoming an official sponsor of the Gay Games, which is very unlikely – and if you don’t believe me, look at the first letter of each paragraph!