Sunday 8 December 2013

The 12 Gay Birthdays of Christmas : Part 1

My Christmas celebration this year centres on birthdays. Over this and the remaining Sundays in December I’ll be looking at 3 lgbt people whose birthday’s fall on significant dates in the Christmas calendar, whether this year or in the year they were born. Here, on this 2nd Sunday in Advent, are the first 3 of my “12 Gay Birthdays of Christmas”.

Matthew Shepard (1976-1998)
(born on 1st December, which this year is the 1st Sunday in Advent).
Matthew Shepard has become recognised worldwide as pivotal in the fight against hate crime and homophobic attack. I’m sure a lot of you know Matthew’s story, but it is worth remembering again in this 15th anniversary year of his death. Matthew was a student at the University of Wyoming majoring in political science. On 6 October 1998 he met 2 men who offered to drive him home, but instead they drove him to a remote field near the town of Laramie and proceeded to rob and beat him. They tortured Matthew mercilessly and tied him to a fence and left him there. Matthew was barely alive when he was discovered the next day and was rushed to hospital, but he died of his injuries 5 days later. The incident hit the headlines across America, and the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church had the affront to mount an anti-gay protest at Matthew’s funeral. The 2 murderers were given double life sentences each. At the time there were no laws dealing with this sort of crime committed on the basis of sexual orientation. Several attempts to pass a new law failed in several successive US administrations. Finally, President Obama signed what is often referred to as The Matthew Shepard Act (or The Shepard/Byrd Act which also recognises the sacrifice of James Byrd jr., who was killed in a race hate attack, also in 1998) on 28 October 2009. The legacy of Matthew’s death and the fight against hate crime has resulted in many people, including celebrities, keeping his name alive. Matthew’s mother Judy is now a leading advocate and campaigner for lgbt rights and the fight against hate crime. She was present when Obama signed the Shepard/Byrd Act.

Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978)
(born on 5th December, the feast day of St. Nicholas, the Christmas present-giver and origin of Santa Claus).
This is something of a prelude to next year’s theme of music. January will feature some musicologists and music historians. Even though Sylvia Townsend Warner is best known as a novelist and poet she was known in her earlier years as an expert on Medieval and Tudor music. In fact, she had hoped to study composition in Vienna under Arnold Schoenberg. Unfortunately, the start of the First World War prevented her from pursuing this career path. Instead she began to work in a munitions factory. She did continue her musical interests, however, by joining a committee that was researching 16th and 17th century music. The end product of this was the 10-volume “Tudor Church Music”, published between 1922 and 1929. During this time Sylvia began writing poetry and short stories. It was also the period when she met her life partner Valentine Acland, another female poet, and they spent the rest of their lives together. Sylvia’s musical career was finally abandoned once her poetry and novels were published, though she often included musical themes or used her musical knowledge in some of her work, most notably in her novel “The Corner That Held Them” about 14th century monastic life.

Norman Douglas (1868-1952)
(born on 8th December, which this year is the 2nd Sunday in Advent).
Norman Douglas was an aristocratic, half-Scottish, half-German writer and novelist whose indiscretions led to him moving all around Europe. With his European family background it was perhaps natural that he write about the many places he visited. His talent for combining observation, anecdote and light-heartedness made his travel books written in the pre-First World War years very popular. However much he travelled he eventually found a home for himself and his publisher and “companion”, Giuseppe Orioli, on Capri. The “indiscretions” I mentioned almost began at school, which he hated. He told his mother that if he wasn’t removed he’d arrange to be expelled for sexual malpractice! In Russia while working for the British diplomatic service Norman was placed “on leave”. At the time he had 3 Russian mistresses on the go and got one of them pregnant and her family (allegedly related to the Romanovs) weren’t too  happy. Back in the UK he married his cousin (who was 2 months pregnant) and had 2 sons, but the marriage ended in divorce after he discovered his wife was having an affair. Norman got custody of his sons but his ex-wife tried to have him charged with paedophilia, and failed. In 1916, however, Norman was accused of sexual offences against a 16 year old boy. He denied the charge saying he only kissed him and gave him some cake and a shilling. But when another incident involving 2 younger boys came to light Norman decided to jump bail and head out of England. Away from all this (and a couple of other scandals involving children) Norman was friends with a lot of influential writers of the period, including D. H. Lawrence and W. Somerset Maugham. His novels often contain elements of moral questioning, and he described his own book of limericks, published in 1928, as “one of the filthiest books in the English language”. He died at his home on Capri in 1952.

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