Thursday 27 February 2014

Dragging It Out With Music

On Tuesday night I joined my colleagues on the Nottinghamshire Rainbow Heritage project at the council house in Nottingham for our annual celebration of LGBT History Month. Part of the celebration featured a performance by two members of a local energy company who entertained the capacity audience with their drag double act. It’s highly appropriate that drag cabaret formed part of the celebration because, as I’ve mentioned before, Nottingham was the home city of one of the UK’s most famous drag performers and cabaret artists of the 20th century – Douglas Byng (1893-1987).

Douglas Byng features a lot in my lgbt tours of Nottingham. There are plenty of stories about him that I can use, not all of them on the same tour. For today I want to pull some of these together into one article.

We’ll start with his birth – where else? Douglas wasn’t born in the city centre but in a suburb called Carrington about a mile away, too far away to actually take the tour on foot. His father Joseph Byng was the manager of the Nottingham Joint and Stock Bank which was in the city centre just behind the council house. The bank is now a branch of the French Connection fashion store. I explain on my tours a little about Douglas’s family background in front of this store, of how appropriate it is that Douglas became interested in fashion, and how Joseph and his first wife and 10 children lived in an apartment on the top floor. After the death of his wife the family moved out to a new house in Carrington, where Joseph lived with children and his 2nd wife, and where Douglas was born.

The road out of the city centre to Carrington is called Mansfield Road. At the end of the Victorian period and into the start of the 20th century this road was the place to be seen on a Sunday afternoon. After church and Sunday lunch people would dress up in their finest and walk up and down Mansfield Road (its quite a long road) during what was called the Sunday Parade.

While he was still a youngster Douglas decided he’d take part in this Sunday Parade. Wearing a wig made from hemp matting, a purple overcoat and a tall cane he strolled up Mansfield Road and back down again. He waved to passers-by and greeted imaginary friends, and then encountered a very real neighbour who recognised him. Douglas was deeply embarrassed at being discovered and never took part in the Sunday Parade again. Considering this is now the route of the annual Nottingham Pride march from the city centre to the Pride site it seems that Douglas wasn’t the last gay man to dress up and be noticed on Mansfield Road.

This interest in dressing up didn’t impress Douglas’s parents, however. They sent him off to live with his eldest brother in Germany in an effort to curb his enthusiasm for theatrics. There Douglas studied music which would become a vital part of his later career in cabaret. Also putting the kibosh on his parents’ intentions Douglas grew more interested in costume as his brother owned a lace factory (Nottingham was a leading lace-making centre at the time and it’s lace-makers were in demand around the world).

Douglas returned to England before the First World War and began his career as a theatrical costume designer. In 1914 he took to the stage himself in a seaside concert party. He first appeared in pantomime in 1921, and in 1924 played his first Dame role in “Dick Whittington”. For those unfamiliar or confused by British panto the Dame is a comedy role played by a man in drag, usually quite grotesque or eccentric in character. It was in the Dame role that Douglas was to make his name in the 1930s and it enabled him to use his design skills to create ever increasingly outlandish costumes, something that has now become essential in British panto.

Dames had previously been played “straight” as men dressed as little old ladies (think of Old Mother Riley, or a comedy version of Norman Bates from “Psycho”). Douglas brought more fun, imagination, and indeed glamour, to his costumes, often parodying the fashion of the time. In the 1930s there was a fashion for short fox-fur capes complete with rows of fox tails. My grandmother had one, it was creepy!

Douglas parodied these capes by designing one made out of bathroom loofahs instead of fox tails. It presented problems a couple of years later when World War II broke out because loofahs were imported, and they became difficult to obtain. Douglas realised that his loofah cape was in danger of being stolen. There were plenty of Black Marketeers who’d think nothing of stealing it and selling the loofahs at a profit. So Douglas decided to lock the cape away in a safe when it wasn’t needed for performances. Needless to say, this made the cape more valuable than the real fox-fur capes, and a valuable asset.

Douglas performed in Nottingham several times in pantomime at the Theatre Royal, another stop on my tours. After retiring to Brighton on the south coast he still visited Nottingham to see his siblings, several of whom lived well into their 90s, and a brother who died in 1983 at the age of 103. Douglas himself died at the age of 94.

To end this article I’ll show you this video of Douglas Byng in action doing one of his cabaret acts. It’s not very crisp in either sound or vision I’m afraid. Rather than appear in full drag as he did in his usual cabaret act, Douglas gives the suggestion of drag with a few simple items of clothing in this old film from 1932.

Monday 24 February 2014

Medal Quest : A Vancouver Double

Eighty days to go before the Darwin Outgames, and Medal Quest returns to the subject of medal design with one lgbt artist who has designed medals for both the Winter Olympic-Paralympic Games and the Outgames that have been held in Vancouver, Corrine Hunt. I mentioned Corrine briefly in my article last year on the Vancouver Outgames. Here is a closer look at her Olympic-Paralympic medals.

A major factor in the decision to award the Vancouver Olympic medal design to Corrine was her work in traditional First Nation art of her native Vancouver Island and heritage. Her artistic background is as influential as is her cultural background. Four of Corrine’s uncles from both sides of her family are First Nation artists in their own right, and it was one of these uncles who gave Corrine her first interest in jewellery making in metal.

It was also this uncle who introduced Corrine to the history and use of art by the people of her First Nation ancestry, the Kwak-waka’-wakw nation. Through her grandmother Corrine also has ancestry from the Alaskan Tlingit nation which also has an influence on her work.

From her home on Vancouver Island Corrine went to study anthropology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver City. In 1985, inspired by her uncle, she began making her own engraved metal jewellery. Personally, I find Corrine’s style pleasing to the eye and gives an organic nature to the metalwork which makes it come alive.

So, how did Corrine come to design the Olympic medals? In 2008 the Vancouver Organising Committee (VANOC) asked for design proposals. Corrine was one of 48 artists who submitted ideas. This group was then short-listed to 8. No actual designs were submitted at this time. Corrine’s idea that each Olympic and Paralympic medal should have a unique design taken from a larger work appealed to VANOC, as was her idea of using the orca as symbolic of power and strength, and the raven as an expression of speed. Both the orca and the raven are major emblems in her First Nation heritage.

Another Vancouver artist was chosen to help bring Corrine’s designs to reality. Omer Arbel is an industrial designer who developed the process by which each of Corrine’s medals was cast with individual undulations, reflecting the individual design on the medal faces and reminiscent of the rolling Canadian landscape on the ski slopes. This made all the medals doubly(!) unique – no two medals had the same design or the same undulations.

The Paralympic medals were made in exactly the same way, each one individual and unique. They were more square in shape than the Olympic medals and went through the same 30-step process of manufacture. In total there were 615 Olympic and 399 Paralympic medals struck. Incidentally, all of them were made from recyclable materials. The metal came from old computer circuit boards and televisions which would otherwise have gone to land-fill sites. There is an excellent short video on this website which describes the creation process of the medals.

Shortly after the Paralympic Games ended Corrine received the Aboriginal Achievement Awards for the Arts.

Less than six months later she was asked to design more Vancouver medals – a Vancouver Double. This time the request came from the organising committee of the 2nd North America Outgames. Once again the symbolic representation of the orca and raven, joined by the wolf’s tail, were used.

Turning Corrine’s artwork into the design to be struck onto the medals was a fellow lesbian artist from the Vancouver area, Carol Weaver. I hope to write more about Carol and her work later in the year, as she also fits in nicely with the overall theme for 2014 of music with her being a musician and music therapist.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Winter Whistler

If ever a Winter Gay Games or Outgames were to be organised one of the leading candidates for the first host city would surely be Whistler in British Colombia, Canada. It has a well-established place in international sports history as being the co-host of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games and a host of other world sports festivals, including the summer Gay Games and Outgames. But what Whistler also has is a long history of a highly successful annual lgbt (non-competitive) winter sport festival, currently known as WinterPRIDE.

From its modest beginnings in 1992 WinterPRIDE has grown into an internationally renowned event attended by several thousand people (on a par with the Winter Olympics) with highly popular après ski entertainment. But it nearly collapsed through tragedy ten years ago when it’s founder and organiser Brent Benaschak died unexpectedly.

It all began when the state of Colorado introduced legislation which allowed employees and landlords  to discriminate against members of the lgbt community. Colorado was the home of the highly popular gay ski week at the famous Aspen resort. Brent Benaschak had been to the Aspen event several times but in 1992 he wondered why he’d want to visit Colorado and spend his cash to the benefit of a state that openly discriminated against gay men. Many American skiers are said to have boycotted Aspen in 1993.

At the time Brent was director of his own travel company called Out of the Slopes which specialised in skiing holidays. He also owned a Bed-and-Breakfast house with his partner on Fire Island in New York State. Having had a love of skiing from the age of 16 Brent owned another Bed-and-Breakfast house in Whistler, and encouraged his Fire Island guests to stay at his Whistler house rather than go to Aspen.

Brent came up with the idea of a gay ski week in Whistler. He gave it the name Altitude. That first event over one weekend in January 1993 attracted less than a hundred people but it was successful enough for Brent to decide to produce another.

Altitude quickly became a popular event with attendance figures rising each year. The city of Whistler itself welcomed this new addition to its winter calendar. Brent collected together a handful of staff to help organise the event and with the help of up to a hundred volunteers Altitude looked in good shape when the unexpected happened.

Brent Benashack died on 30th December 2003, just one month before the next Altitude was due to begin. The circumstances surrounding his death from a fall from his apartment were not certain, but at the age of 41 it came as a big shock.

The whole future of Altitude was thrown into doubt. The most pressing question was could the event go ahead as planned? Would Brent’s family, who had now inherited Out of the Slopes, Brett’s travel business which owned the rights to Altitude, be happy for it to proceed? The family was happy for Altitude 2004 to go ahead but after that they wanted to hand it over to another company. Enter Lee Bergeron.

Lee Bergeron was a San Diego-based businessman who had been coming to Altitude for several years and offered to buy Out on the Slopes and Altitude from the Benaschack family. Negotiations and legal paperwork took eleven months to complete during which time Bergeron set about organising Altitude 2005.

It was a fraught handover for those who had been involved in organising previous Altitudes as various accusations of blocked bids and secrecy flew around Bergeron’s purchase. Despite, perhaps, having the best of intentions Bergeron found Altitude difficult to control from his San Diego base and decided to stop producing it.

Back in Whistler itself a group of people who had helped Benaschak organise the pre-2005 events banded together to save Altitude. In just 12 days they put together a business plan and successfully bought the event from Bergeron. They formed a new company called Alpenglow Productions which has run the event since 2006.

In partnership with Vancouver Pride and Altitude became WinterPRIDE. The regeneration of the event came at a perfect time. In 2010 the Olympic Games came to Vancouver and Whistler, and the team who produced WinterPRIDE organised the first official Pride House venues at the Olympic and Paralympic Games (an lgbt centre organised at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics was a much smaller venture). The venues for the Vancouver Pride House provided a massive boost to both the lgbt community in the area and showed the Olympic movement what level of lgbt support for the games there was in the community.

Sandwiched between the Olympic and Paralympic Games WinterPRIDE 2010 welcomed many more athletes from around the world and ensured its continued success, with several events having to be moved to larger venues in subsequent years.

Perhaps the time is right for Whistler to offer its services to host a one-off joint Winter Out/Gay Games?

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Skating On Thin Ice

Long before Oscar Wilde’s trial for gross indecency the trial of Captain Robert Jones for sodomy in 1772 hit the headlines and caused a stir. In the social circles of Georgian London he was well-known and the early press made his story known up and down the whole of England.

Capt. Jones became famous for more than just being convicted of sodomy. In the same year he published a book which paved the way for 14 lgbt Winter Olympians to compete in one particular sport – figure skating.

First, a brief history of skating as a sport which will reveal why Capt. Jones’s book “A Treatise on Skating” was such a pivotal moment.

People living in the frozen icy areas of the world have been skating on ice for thousands of years. Children have played on ice for just as long, but it wasn’t until the 13th or 14th century in Holland that the rough skates they all wore were given sharp edges. The freedom of movement generated by the sharp-edged skates meant you didn’t need to push yourself along with sticks (similar to skiing), so people could now skate more freely around the ice.

It wasn’t long before skating races became possible, and this is the origin of speed skating. It probably isn’t a coincidence (I don’t believe in coincidence) that the most successful speed skaters in history have been Dutch. In fact, 4 of the 9 known lgbt Olympic speed skaters are Dutch.

Robert Jones was born in north Wales in around 1740 (a character witness at his 1772 trial said he’d known Jones since he was about 15 or 16 some 17 years previously). By the time this witness first met Robert, the Jones family were living in London where Robert’s father was a tailor.

From hearsay reports that appeared in the press during his trial it seems that young Robert also had a fascination for fireworks which were popular forms of entertainment at the time. Because of his fascination none other than the future Prime Minister, William Pitt the Elder, enlisted Robert into the army – where else but into the artillery – and he joined the barracks at the Woolwich arsenal. From there Robert was to rise through the ranks to Lieutenant (not captain, as he was often reported as being and the rank under which his books were published). His love of fireworks stayed with him, and in 1765 published “A New Treatise on Artificial Fireworks”.

It was his second book, “A Treatise on Skating” which gave Capt. Jones his place in sporting history. This book was the first published instruction book for skaters. Robert Jones was an accomplished ice skater from his youth and gained such a good working knowledge of the sport. In his book Jones described how to score circles and figure 8s into the ice. I don’t know if this was a new idea, but it is generally accepted that the publication of the book was the moment at which figure skating was born.

But we have to wait almost a century before we see jumps, twists and movements in figure skating which we see in modern championships like the Olympics. There were popularised by an American skater called Jackson Haines in the 1860s. Music accompaniment and more dance-like movements were introduced a little later.

One element that has since been dropped from major competitions is the skating of figures as described by Capt. Jones in his book and after which the sport got its name.

Jones’s “Treatise on Skating” was published in the same year as his trial. Details of the trial and a great deal of background information can be found here on Dr. Rictor Norton’s lgbt history site. Sodomy was punishable by death in Jones’s day, so the fact that he was having sex with a 12-year-old boy several times meant that he was putting his reputation and life at risk if it was discovered. You could say he was skating on thin ice!

That ice finally cracked and gave way when the boy confessed to his family and Jones was put on trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. His execution was all set for the second week in August 1772 when his plea to King George III was successful in obtaining for him a royal pardon. However, there was a condition, that Jones should leave the country for good.

There are various reports of Capt. Jones’s whereabouts after his exile, though none, apparently, from himself. A newspaper report of June 1773 claimed that he was at that time living in Lyons, France, in some grandeur with “a lovely Ganymede” (his servant). Later reports in The Times of 1788 seem to place him in Constantinople. But we’ll never know for sure where he died.

Capt. Robert Jones’s “Treatise on Skating” is still in print, including a 2010 edition in which the whole of the first edition of 1772 has been digitised. HIs legacy to sport is the establishing of one of the most popular of today’s winter sports. Without him we would never have seen the likes of Peggy Fleming, Sonia Hennie, Scott Hamilton, Torvil and Dean and Evgeny Plyushenko, not to mention great gay skaters like John Curry, Ondrej Nepela and Brian Boitano.

Monday 17 February 2014

Medal Quest : Out of Their Trees Special - John Curry

One of the athletes who first got me interested in the Olympics was the British figure skater John Curry. The year John would have celebrated his 65th birthday, and as he died 20 years ago I though he was a suitable candidate for an Olympic “Out of Their Trees” article. Fortunately, I did quite a bit of research a couple of years ago when I did a lot of Olympians’ ancestries so have found out a lot about his family tree. It illustrates just how much genealogy can bring up unexpected surprises, and the were several with John Curry.
Before I start I should like to offer my congratulations to John’s mother Mrs. Rita Curry (pictured left) who celebrated her 100th birthday on 28th December. Her ancestry gave me the biggest surprise of all.

All of John’s immediate ancestors came from the English Midlands. All 8 of his great-grandparents were born in either Warwickshire, Shropshire or Worcestershire. It is not, however, where the Curry family originated. They came from Drumraney in County Westmeath in Ireland.

The first to settle in England was Joseph Curry, He arrived sometime before 1830 for it was in that year that he married fellow Irish immigrant Frances Chambers in Birmingham. Their eldest son, also called Joseph, became a plasterer like his father, but a young son called John entered the jewellery industry that made Birmingham world famous (making him an earlier John Curry who has a connection with precious metals!).

My first surprise when researching the Olympic champion’s ancestry came when I identified the wife of Joseph Curry junior. In 1863 he married the widowed Mrs. Elizabeth Smith. And the surprise came with the name of her father Benjamin Wigley. Wigley is a name I was familiar with because just before beginning this research I had researched the ancestry of my then partner. He has Wigley ancestors as well. It’s not a common surname, so could it be that they were related?
I can’t find Benjamin Wigley’s birth record so can’t say where he was born, but I do know that he wasn’t born in Staffordshire where he was living with his family at the 1841 census. My partner’s ancestors came from neighbouring Derbyshire, and there are dozens of Benjamin Wigleys in the parish records there. Unfortunately there’s not enough evidence to prove that John Curry’s ancestor is one of them. The common use of the name Benjamin in the Wigley family makes it almost certain that John’s ancestor is indeed a member of the Derbyshire family, yet in spite of searching records for the past 2 years I can’t find any actual proof. That’s one of the risks we genealogist have to take sometimes – to put our knowledge and experience on the line to make a probable link. However, I firmly believe he is one of the Derbyshire Wigleys.

From my research into my partner’s ancestry we find that Benjamin Wigley could actually give John Curry an ancestry going back as far as you can go. That’s because the Wigleys are “gateway ancestors” – the term given to families who link to many aristocratic and royal lineages and have an already established long family tree. Even though I can’t confirm Benjamin’s place in the Wigley family it’s almost certain that he descends from Ralph Wigley (d.1628), who gives John Curry a royal descent from King Henry II, and also a line of descent from Piers Gaveston, the lover of King Edward II.

But the link to my partner wasn’t the biggest surprise. That came when I traced Mrs. Rita Curry’s lineage.

Mrs. Curry’s grandmother was Maria Anne, the daughter of a wealthy coal merchant who lived in Worcester called Joseph Hodgetts. When Maria was about 10 a Mormon missionary called Thomas Smith, the brother of the Mormon founder, came from Salt Lake City in Utah to preach in England in 1849. In Worcester he succeeded in converting many to Mormonism, including most of the Hodgetts family. The exception was Joseph Hodgetts, who remained staunchly Anglican, though he supported his family’s decision to convert. He even hosted several visiting missionaries in his home.

The eldest Hodgett son went to Utah and became a missionary. On a return trip home he persuaded the rest of the family (except his father) to go back with him. Joseph persuaded his wife and youngest children to stay behind after he had chased them across the Midlands to Liverpool and onto a steam ship to intercept their sailing vessel to the USA. It really did surprise me to discover that John Curry’s great-grandmother Maria Hodgetts was one of the pioneer British Mormon settlers in Utah.

Maria had only been in Utah for a short time before news of her mother’s illness arrived and she returned to Worcester. Her mother died a few months later. Widowed Joseph lived with Maria, and later with Maria and her husband John Richards, and died in 1881. Maria’s youngest son, Harvey Richards, was Mrs. Rita Curry’s father.

The whole story of the Hodgetts’ conversion to Mormonism and their emigration to the USA can be found all over the internet. It would have made a great episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Saturday 15 February 2014

Medal Quest - Escapades on Ice

With 125 days left before the start of the 9th Gay Games in Cleveland/Akron we take out first look at some of the Gay Games medal winners of the sports which are keeping us on the edge of our seats this week – figure skating and ice hockey.

These are two sports which have been always blighted by stereotypes in the men’s competitions. Ice hockey has always been seen as a macho-man’s sport and one which is too “hard” for gay men. Figure skating, on the other hand, has more often than not had more than it’s fair share of “is he/isn’t he?” questions about skaters’ sexuality.

In a way, the Gay Games are a bit like some of the early modern Olympics. The first officially recognised Olympic Winter games were held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. But several summer games had winter sports in them before this. The 1908 London summer Olympics had figure skating. In Antwerp in 1920 this was joined by ice hockey.

Both figure skating and ice hockey have been popular sports at the Gay Games. Ice hockey made its first appearance at the third games in Vancouver in 1990. Figure skating first appeared in the New York Gay Games in 1994.

For a time there was some talk about establishing a separate Gay Winter Games. Denver, Colorado, was even chosen as the venue for the inaugural games in 1986, but problems with funding and logistics led to the project being abandoned.

I’ll take a look at the figure skating medallists during the Paralympic Games next month. But for today let’s look at medal winners in ice hockey.

It’s no surprise to learn that it was the Canadians who introduced ice hockey to the Gay Games – it’s a national sport. Complete results for the tournaments in Vancouver 1990 are not available but the gold, silver and bronze medals went to Team Seattle, Los Angeles Blades and Team Vancouver respectively. There was also a women’s tournament. Results have not been published. Three teams are known to have competed, one from Saskatchewan, one from Alberta, and an unidentified third team.

Overall the traditional US/Canada rivalry has put the Americans at the top of the ice hockey medal table, with 32 teams winning medals of various colours. Needless to say, the fact that the US have entered more teams over the decades is a big factor. Canada, in comparison, has had 14 teams win medals.

Most of the teams were originally formed specifically for the Gay Games and have been the catalyst for lgbt ice hockey clubs forming across north America.

A few of the individual medallists from the Gay Games ice hockey tournaments are :

Lauren Apollo, who played on USA’s national women’s ice hockey team in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the 2002 Sydney Gay Games she won a gold medal with the Bad Dogs team. Lauren played for the University of New Hampshire Wildcats in the early 80s, and in 2010 was inducted into the university’s athletic Hall of Fame.

Brent Benaschak, founder of the WinterPride festival (originally called Altitude) in Whistler, British Colombia. He who won a bronze medal with Vancouver’s Cutting Edges team in Sydney 2002. I’ll be saying more about WinterPride next month.

Kevin Brauer first competed at the Gay Games in the 10km road race in Vancouver. He returned in Sydney 2002 to win a silver medal with the Colorado Climax hockey team. Kevin is currently the Director of the North American branch of the Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association, the organisers of the Outgames.

Brian Cordeiro has probably more gold medals in ice hockey than anyone, but complete lists of team members are not available for some Gay Games. As a member of the Boston Lobsters (originally Boston Pride) team Brian won gold in Amsterdam 1998, Sydney 2002 and Chicago 2006.

Daniel Gawthorp was the main mover in establishing the first ice hockey tournament in Vancouver, and is an author, biographer, and first editor of “Xtra! West” lgbt magazine. He formed the Cutting Edges hockey team for the 1998 Gay Games, and was on the same bronze medal team as Brent Benaschak.

The Leftwing team – a true family affair! Siblings Rebekah, Bobby and Mary Seaman, their mother Kathy Seaman and her partner Jen Putney, and Jen’s brother Ted and his wife Rebecca, won silver medals in Chicago 2006.

Many more players could have been mentioned but space restricts me to those above.

Thursday 13 February 2014

LGBT Olympians in "The Nation"

The Sochi Olympics have made the subject of lgbt Olympians a hot topic. At Christmas I was asked by Cyd Zeigler of to provide some information on past Olympians for an article he was writing (see below).

My enthusiasm for the Olympics is well-known, and my series “Olympic Countdown” has received the highest number of page views since this blog began (except a couple of articles about the leather community). My research never stops, and I hope to expand my “Olympic Countdown” series into a book to be published in time for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

In the meantime, here is a link to the article by Cyd.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Remembrance : So Very Nearly the First Openly Gay Olympic Champion

Otto Peltzer could easily have become the first openly gay Olympic champion in 1936. The reason why he didn’t was because he was a victim on the Nazi persecution of gay men. I gave a brief story of his life in my original Olympic Countdown series in 2012. Today I’ll take a look at how high he climbed in German athletics and the depths to which he was plunged by persecution.

The best place to start is 1926 and Otto’s success as an athlete. He entered the Amateur Athletics Association championships in London. This was not long after German athletes were welcomed back into international competition after being banned since World War I. Also present at the championships was the reigning Olympic 800m champion, the UK’s Douglas Lowe. Otto beat him, breaking the world record in the process.

Otto returned to Germany as the country’s new star athlete. A few months later a specially arranged 1500m race was set up between Otto and a select group of top runners, including the legendary Olympian Paavo Nurmi of Finland. In a nail-biting finish Otto passed Nurmi on the final bend and crossed the line in another world record time.

Before the end of 1927 Otto had broken German records in 500m, 600m, 800m, 1000m, 1500m, 2000m, 850 yards, and 400m hurdles, and held 5 world records. His international celebrity was such that when the German team visited the USA in 1927 Otto was the only one to be invited to meet the President.

After he was chosen national team captain by his fellow athletes for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics Otto criticised the way athletes were treated. The German Olympic committee threw him off the team, at which the rest of the team declared “If he goes, we all go”. Needless to say, Otto was reinstated. He was chosen as the German team captain again for the 1932 Los Angles games.

The following year Hitler came to power and began his regime of hatred. The 1870 German statute against sodomy, known as Paragraph 157, was revised and violently enforced.

In 1935 Otto was arrested on suspicion of homosexual contact with young athletes. He was taken to Gestapo HQ and interrogated by none other than Heinrich Himmler. Fortunately, an influential friend, a high ranking doctor in the Nazi Party, succeeded in gaining Otto’s release, but a couple of months later he was rearrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Himmler was determined NOT to allow any possibility of Otto, a “sodomite”, becoming the German team captain again at the forthcoming home Olympics in Berlin in 1936.

Although Otto wasn’t sent to a labour camp (this time) he was forced to wear an identifying badge with the letter “A”, signifying the German word “arschficker” (you can probably work out the English translation).

Just 2 days before the Berlin Olympics began Otto was released early from prison. He was forced to sign a declaration stating that he would not take part in German sport again. Otto returned to his old athletics club and became an unofficial trainer. This displeased the Nazis and he was arrested for the 3rd time in 1937. Once again he found himself being interrogated at Gestapo HQ, and once again his old doctor friend stepped in. This time Otto was ordered to leave the country, and if he ever criticised the Nazis his family would be imprisoned.

When World War II broke out Otto was in Sweden. He began writing sports articles and training at several sports clubs. Some of his articles were scathing of German athletes and praised non-German athletes as being better. The Nazis were still working on ways to stop his actions for good, and tried to have Otto expelled from Sweden.

In the end the Nazis appeared to give up. Otto was given reassurances from the Gestapo that all charges against him would be dropped if he returned to Germany and kept out of sport. Naïvely, Otto agreed, but as soon as he set foot on German soil the SS arrested him for the 4th time, this time as an “incorrigible enemy of the Reich”. He was sent to Mauthausen labour camp as a political prisoner.

Mauthausen was also known as Mordhausen – the “Murder Houses”. A large quarry was filled with other prisoners breaking and carrying large rocks. The tall sides of the quarry were called “Parachute’s Wall”, because the prison guards threw weakened prisoners from the top to their deaths. When Otto arrived he believed he was only there for 3 months “re-education”, but the camp commandant laughed and pointed to a chimney and told Otto he’d probably be out in less. Otto was beaten regularly by the guards, and forced to carry heavy stones up hills for 8 hours at a time. Unlike many he survived to the end of the war, and when the camp was liberated by the Americans in 1945 Otto was just skin and bone.

Holocaust survivors are often resilient – they had to be to get though it all. So it is astonishing that 6 months after liberation and subsequent hospitalisation Otto completed a 5000m run in a time of 17 minutes 28 seconds!

Otto’s competitive career may have been over, but for the rest of his life he trained many successful athletes, especially members of the Indian Olympic team. His achievements and life after the war are subjects more suitable for another time.

But a postscript to all this is that in 1999 the German athletic association, the DLV, created the Otto Peltzer Medal, an honour to be awarded to athletes who have made significant contributions to German athletics and sport.

Sunday 9 February 2014

But, Mr. Putin, the Ancient Olympians All Had Sex With Boys!

Whatever you think about the International Olympic Committee not wanting anti-Putin protests at the Sochi winter games in response to Russia’s anti-gay legislation, we can surely all agree that Putin’s attitude to homosexuality is based largely on ignorance.

More than one social commentator in the UK has mentioned the similarity between Putin’s laws and the Section 28 legislation introduced into the UK by Margaret Thatcher’s government. The similarity ends there, because Putin’s legislation is not restricted to local government, which Section 28 was. Mr. Putin is worried that gay men corrupt and abuse children – “leave our children alone” he said last week, similar to the excuse given by Russian judges last year when they banned an official Pride House from being established during these current winter games.

As today’s article title states, the Ancient Olympics and sex with boys was so integral to each other that if any of the ancient Olympians travelled forward to our time they’d be shocked by the absence of boy sex during the athlete’s training. But then they’d also be shocked by our modern idea of democracy (votes for women? No slavery? What sort of democracy is that, they’d say).

I’ve written several articles on this blog over the years that have gone into the subject of Ancient Greek soldier-athletes and their boy-sex activities. I won’t go over it all again today, so I’ll direct you to here .

Friday 7 February 2014

Medal Quest : Winter Olympians

Eagerly anticipating tonight’s (or this afternoon’s, in my case) spectacular opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics I present my most up-to-date list of lgbt Winter Olympians. Not all of these were openly out when they competed.

Perhaps the best way to present the list is alphabetically. Of course, over time this list will become out of date as more athletes are identified. The list gives name, country, sport, and Olympic year/s.

Anonymous (not “out”); USA; biathlon; 2006
Geert Blanchart; Belgium; speed skating; 1992, 1994
Brian Boitano; USA; figure skating; 1984, 1988, 1994
Anastasia Bucsis; Canada; speed skating; 2010
Jeff Buttle; Canada; figure skating; 2006
Caitlin Cahow; USA; ice hockey; 2006, 2010
Toller Cranston; Canada; figure skating; 1972, 1976
John Curry (1949-1994); GB; figure skating; 1972, 1976
Nancy Drolet; Canada; ice hockey; 1998
Randy Gardner; USA; figure skating; 1976, 1980
Renate Groenewold; Netherlands; speed skating; 2002, 2006, 2010
Joan Guetschow; USA; biathlon; 1992, 1994
Edel Høiseth; Norway; speed skating; 1984, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1998
Erika Holst; Sweden; ice hockey; 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010
Barbara Jezeršek; Slovenia; cross-country skiing; 2010
Stine Brun Kjeldaas; Norway; snowboard; 1998, 2002
Ylva Lindberg; Sweden; ice hockey; 1998, 2002, 2006
Cheryl Maas; Netherlands; snowboard; 2006
Rob McCall (1958-1991); Canada; figure skating; 1984, 1988
Ondrej Nepela (1951-1989); Czechoslovakia; figure skating; 1964, 1968, 1972
Ryan O’Meara; USA; figure skating; 2006
Brian Orser; Canada; figure skating; 1984, 1998
Anja Pärson; Sweden; skiing; 2002, 2006, 2010
Brian Pockar (1959-1992); Canada; figure skating; 1980
Ronnie Robertson (1937-2000); USA; figure skating; 1956
Emanuel Sandhu; Canada; figure skating; 2002, 2006
Matt Savoie; USA; figure skating; 2006
Blake Skjellerup; New Zealand; speed skating; 2010
Vibeke Skofterud; Norway; cross-country skiing; 2002, 2010
Sarah Vaillancourt; Canada; ice hockey; 2006, 2010
Sanne van Kerkhof; Netherlands; speed skating; 2010
Johnny Weir; USA; figure skating; 2006, 2010
Marieke Wijsman; Netherlands; speed skating; 1998, 2002
Christine Witty; USA; speed skating; 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006
Ireen Wüst; Netherlands; speed skating; 2006, 2010

The run-up to the Sochi games has been accompanied by protests and controversy around Russia’s anti-gay legislation. No doubt this may have put some lgbt athletes off coming out, as is understandable considering there’ll be more attention on them than there would be if they came out at a “regular” Olympic Games.

This hasn’t stopped various national Olympic committees from appointing openly lgbt members in official delegations. The most high profile of these are members of the USA delegation – Billie Jean King, Caitlin Cahow, and Brian Boitano (who came out officially when he was appointed), all of them with previous Olympic experience either as an athlete or coach. Even the decision to include them has been criticised by some as a deliberate act of protest.

If history is anything to go by, I doubt if any protest or boycott at Sochi will make any difference. They haven’t worked in the past. But let’s not take up too much space with my opinions. Let’s celebrate the right of lgbt athletes to compete without discrimination in the sport and list the known lgbt athletes competing over the next couple of weeks in Sochi;
Belle Brockhoff, Australia, snowboard
Anastasia Bucsis, Canada, speed skating
Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, Austria, ski jump
Barbara Jezeršek, Slovenia, cross country skiing
Cheryl Maas, Netherlands, snowboard
Sanne van Kerkhof, Netherlands, short track speed skating
Ireen Wüst, Netherlands, speed skating

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Simeon Solomon Appeal - Update

Last month I received an update from Frank Vigon on the appeal to raise funds for the restoration of the grave of the Victorian gay artist Simeon Solomon. I thought I’d share it with you.

Dear friends,

It is some time since you heard from me and I am pleased to report that we have made amazing progress.

The original target sum for the project increased as we found out what it would cost to restore the original grave to a suitable condition. This involved restructuring the base area to make it possible to re-erect the original headstone and make the ground surface strong enough to receive the new body stone.

Joss Nankoo, the sculptor, has been very supportive and has tried to keep his fee for the creation of the body stone as reasonable as possible. I'm sure you will be pleased to see his design for the memorial and the progress he has made on the sculpting itself.

Mark Williams, the superintendent of Willesden Jewish Cemetery, has been extremely supportive of the campaign and has already been able to carry out the initial renovation work to make the site ready to receive the body stone.

The final figure that needs to be raised to meet the cost of restoring the grave is £4,100. I am pleased to say that to date, with your help, we have been able to raise $3,500. I still have a number of talks and presentations to make and I am confident that we shall be able to raise the balance needed to fund the project.

lf you have any contacts or friends who would like either to make a contribution to the fund, or would like me to come along to give an illustrated talk on Simeon Solomon (without fee or expenses) please do let me know. I am happy to take every opportunity to raise Simeon Solomon's profile as a major Pre-Raphaelite artist.

The next phase of this process will be to initiate a new fund raising campaign to put together a sum of at least £50,000 to establish a yearly Art PhD research scholarship in the name of Simeon Solomon in perpetuity. This will be done in association with Professor Elizabeth Prettejohn at Art Department in the University of York.

We are also hoping to establish an annual Simeon Solomon Lecture to be given at the University of York.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for all your help support and advice and hope that you will be able to come along to the unveiling of the stone which will take place at Willesden Jewish Cemetery in July. I will keep you posted about the date nearer the time.

In the meantime please continue to send me ideas for fund raising or contacts and venues for possible talks. We can all be happy that we have been able to be part of a common action to restore Simeon Solomon's reputation as an artist and give him the recognition that was due to him both in restoring his grave and making his work known to an ever increasing audience.

Very best wishes Frank Vigon

You can contact Mr. Vigon and contribute to the appeal by visiting this site.

Joss Nakoo at work on the new headstone. Photo by kind permission of Frank Vigon.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Rapping Out A Queer Beat

The US is celebrating its annual Black History Month this month. I’ll be writing some articles on black music later in the year in October when we celebrate Black History Month in the UK. In the meantime, here’s a look at one of the music genres that originated in the black community, where singers have been considered homophobic and have used anti-gay lyrics, and in which a large number of recent artists have been openly lgbt – hip hop and rap.

Hip hop was originally, and to some extent still is, centred around the urban black youth culture in America. This particular community in the 1970s, when the hip hop genre first saw the light of day, was often violently homophobic. Some rap lyrics were deliberately anti-gay, reflecting the attitude prevalent in the African-American community at the time that no black men could ever be homosexual.

In turn, this seemed to alienate the black community from the lgbt community as there was a perception that all black people were homophobic, and so hip hop never really became part of 1970s gay culture.

Even so, within the hip hop culture there were young gay black men who wanted their music to be accepted by both communities. Some were even rejected from the hip hop community when their sexuality became known.

The beginnings of the gay hip hop movement began in California. The first hip hop song to be released by an openly gay artist was in 1982 – Man Parrish’s “Hip-Hop, Be Bop (Don’t Stop)”. Shortly afterwards rap entered the hip hop genre. The song became popular in the lgbt community though Man Parrish himself, because he was both gay and non-black, suffered from discrimination in the hip hop community.

During the 1990s many gay rappers and hip hop artists were performing gay lyrics in underground clubs. By 1998 the first gay hip hop band, Rainbow Flava, released their first album online. This mixed black/white group had several members during its lifetime who went on to have solo success – most notably Tori Fixx and Juba Kalamka.

Juba Kalamka went on to co-found Deep Dickollective. Often called “the Godfather of Homo-hop” Juba met fellow gay hip hop MC Timm’m T West at a gay film screening in 1999. Juba, Timm’m and Phillip Atiba Goff, another gay hip hop MC they met after enrolling at Stanford University, gave their first joint performance as Deep Dickollective in early 2000.

Just over a year later, when straight hip hop was a prominent voice in the mainstream music charts, the organisers of the East Bay (Oakland) Pride decided to showcase the lgbt hip hop talent that California had and asked Juba to put together an event. And so the world’s first annual lgbt hip hop festival was born.

Between 2001 and 2007 the PeaceOUT World Homo Hop Festival (as it became known) was hugely popular and spawned several smaller sister festivals in New York, Atlanta and London.

By 2003 the internet listed at least 40 openly gay rappers and MC. Many of them performed at the PeaceOUT festival, and at several festivals Alex Hinton filmed and interviewed performers for his 2006 film documentary “Pick Up The Mic”.

With this increased exposure within the lgbt community lgbt rappers found a voice that challenged the often homophobic hip hop mainstream. With the heart of the gay hip hop scene in the USA it’s no surprise that most out rappers are American, but as their music spread around the world, mostly by internet and then by public performance, the notion of a non-American gay rapper led to many European and international rappers coming out and many aspiring lgbt rappers starting out on their careers as openly gay artists.

While the terms “homo-hop” and “queer hip hop” have been used in the early years as a definitive identity for both the music and the artists, the last decade seems (to me) to have seen lgbt rappers becoming part of the hip hop “establishment”, where their sexuality is secondary to their music, yet often influenced by it.

It says something about the power and influence of hip hop when you see openly gay rappers such as Zebra Katz, Kaoz, Azaelia Banks and QBoy on lists of the Top 50 most influential lgbt people in the last 3 years. Certainly more rappers seem to make these lists than rock stars. While some homophobia still exists in hip hop, the pioneers of “homo-hop” have shown that music has the power to inspire, and have become influential members within the whole hip hop community.