Sunday, 10 November 2013

Remembrance of Next Year

Next year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II. Many commemorative events are being held around the world throughout the year and I will mark the events myself with a secondary theme which will run concurrent with the main theme for 2014 (news of which later this month).

Like most people of my age I knew several generations in the family who served in the World Wars. Many of us have lost family members (both my grandmother and step-grandmother lost their first partners in the First World War, for example).

My father, who served with the Royal Signals in Burma at the end of World War II, never spoke about his war service, as most survivors didn’t. But he did “encourage” me and my siblings to recognise the realities of war. I remember vividly as a teenager watching a landmark television series called “The World at War” with my parents. We also watched the annual Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph and attended our village’s  remembrance services. It was often pointed out by my grandmother that one of the names on the memorial was her first husband, Harry. He has no grave, as he was lost on HMHS Britannic in the Mediterranean.

My mother had more of a living connection to the First World War with her father, being invalided at the Battle of the Somme, the same conflict which took the life of his friend and future wife’s fiancĂ©. Mother diligently placed poppies on the graves of her father and two uncles every year, and it’s a family tradition still upheld by my sister and cousin.

It is only relatively recently that armed forces have acknowledged the contributions made by lgbt service personnel. On Remembrance Day last year I gave a short list of lgbt soldiers who lost their lives in conflict. The growth of the lgbt community in the 1970s was instrumental in bringing to light many stories and the full extent of the persecution of gay men by the Nazis and, of course, the legacy of this was the adoption of the pink triangle by the lgbt community which is still in use today.

This part of lgbt history was revealed largely through the work of activists such as Peter Tatchell and his campaign group Outrage! Yet there has yet to be an official contingent of lgbt servicemen represented in the official ceremony of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in London organised by the Royal British Legion, mainly because there is no official national organisation that represents them. In 1980 Outrage! decided to mark the sacrifices made by the lgbt community by holding their own ceremony at the Cenotaph after the official one had ended. They called it Queer Remembrance Day. One of the key speakers at this and several later Outrage! ceremonies was Sharley McLean. She fled to Britain as a lesbian teenager to escape the Holocaust which claimed the lives of her parents and gay uncle.

Outrage! claims that the Royal British Legion denounced their various remembrance ceremonies as “distasteful” and “offensive”, but extensive research has yet to confirm this (it was probably isolated remarks from individual Legion members rather than an official statement). It should be pointed out that the national Cenotaph ceremony is not organised by the government but by the Royal British Legion and participation and wreaths are there only by their invitation (not unlike the Olympics where only official sponsors are allowed to promote the games).

At the 1999 Queer Remembrance Day ceremony Outrage! received a more welcome reception than before from the crowds who had remained after the official service. The public and Outrage! supporters applauded a group of lgbt veterans and Holocaust survivors. Again, it had no official status, but the wreaths of pink roses were permitted to be placed with the poppies laid by the national organisations. (The photo at the head of this article is from this event on 14 November 1999 - © John Hunt/Outrage!, taken from the Outrage! Website.)

Next year, when I produce my display for LGBT History Month, I hope to include a section on lgbt war victims. To illustrate the life of one war hero I am constructing a plastic kit model of a Hawker Hurricane aircraft, pictured below. This was a plane flown by Flight Lt. Ian Gleed of the RAF. It is one of several models of planes that he flew during World War II – not just models of general war planes, but models of the actual planes flown by Gleed with his personalised markings. Ian Gleed became a Wing Commander and was killed in action at the age of 26 in 1943. I’ll post photos of the completed Hurricane model next year when I cover Gleed’s life more fully.

Shortly after finishing the final draft of this article I learnt of the death of Sharley McLean on 26th October at the age of 90.

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