Saturday 30 August 2014

The Musical Legacy of Oz

The most lasting legacy from the musical score of “The Wizard of Oz” is the song “Over the Rainbow”. The song became such an overnight favourite that people are still recording their own versions of the song today.

To the lgbt community the rainbow gained significance with the gradual adoption of the Rainbow Pride flag. It is often assumed that the song inspired the flag. Gilbert Baker, the flag’s creator, has put it on record that he didn’t have “Over the Rainbow” or “The Wizard of Oz” in mind when he made his first flags in 1978.

The film itself has also left a legacy. Many remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, sequels, prequels and parodies have been made. Many times new songs and new music has been written. Perhaps the most famous song inspired by Oz actually doesn’t come from any of them. Elton John’s song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is the title track form his 1973 album. The album was reissued earlier this year.

Instead of going into a list of music by lgbt and straight artists inspired by “The Wizard of Oz” here’s three videos illustrating 3 different ways in which that inspiration saw light.

First is “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” itself, representing the many songs that have no Oz connection other than being the source of inspiration.

Secondly is a song from a “remake” of the film, a re-imagining from the 1980s tv series “Fame” (the grown-up version of “Twee” – sorry, “Glee”).

Lastly, a song from a re-imagining of sorts, “Wicked”. This musical, written by Stephen Schwartz, and based on a novel by the gay writer Gregory Maguire, tells the story from the viewpoint of the Wicked Witch of the West. I’ve chosen one of the more well-known songs from the show, as performed at the 2006 Tony Awards.


Wednesday 27 August 2014

Exactly How Many Ruby Slippers Have You Got, Dorothy?

Perhaps the most enduring appeal of “The Wizard of Oz” is its visual element. The costumes have become iconic with copies of Dorothy’s blue pinafore dress and ruby slippers popping up at fancy dress parties, drag shows, Pride parades, and just about everywhere else. The actual costumes from the film fetch thousands of pounds at auction.

The famous ruby slippers don’t appear in the book from which the film was based. Dorothy wore silver shoes and the ruby ones were created to give a more visual impact on the colour film. The decision to change them is credited to one of the film’s screenwriters, Noel Langley. The slippers themselves, and their rediscovery were the work of two gay men – costume designer Adrian (1903-1959) and costume collector Kent Warner (1943-1984).

Because of their special iconic status the ruby slippers are well covered on the internet with hundreds of websites, blogs and videos dedicated to them alone. It would be pointless for me to compete with them and write a definitive article. So here’s a brief look at Adrian and Kent Warner.

Adrian (full name Adrian Adolph Greenberg) was chief costume designer at MGM studios. He had been a prolific designer since the days of silent film in 1925. Over 200 films have Adrian’s name attached to them. Apart from “The Wizard of Oz” his most famous films include “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936), “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) and Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948). The list of stars for whom Adrian designed dresses and gowns reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood greats – Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, and many others.

When commissioned for the Oz film Adrian designed hundreds of individual costumes (over 100 for the Munchkins alone), though he did “borrow” old costumes from previous projects. The gown worn by Glinda, for instance, was originally created for Jeanette MacDonald in the film “San Francisco” (1936).

Adrian’s original design for the ruby slippers resembled Arabian shoes with curled up toes. These were rejected because they looked too exotic on the feet of an ordinary girl from Kansas. The red sequins, however, were kept for the subsequent slippers (of which at least 5 different pairs are known to exist). One alteration, made by the gay director George Cukor on his few days as director, was the addition of red bows.

I’ve just made a throw-away remark about the number of ruby slippers that exist. As in modern films and tv several identical costumes are made, some for stunt/body doubles, others reserved in case of damage to the original. No-one knows for sure how many ruby slippers were made, but if it wasn’t for Kent Warner only one pair would exist today.

There may be more value in having only one existing pair, but they have exerted such an influence over costume collectors’ imaginations that they can still fetch thousands of dollars at auction (the most recent pair went for over $666,000).

Two events occurred at about the same time that meant the slippers gained a new significance.

The first was the untimely death of Judy Garland in 1969. As with all famous stars her death saw an increase in interest in everything about her. This was most notably so within the gay community who had regarded Judy as one of their champions for years, and her death is inextricably linked to the Stonewall Riots that occurred the night after her death.

The second event was the sale of MGM studios in 1970. Everything in storage was to be auctioned off – sets, furniture, props and costumes. After the production of each film everything was saved for future use in other films. In fact, only the mundane objects were reused. Elaborate costumes and props hardly ever were used again unless a sequel was made. The fantastic costumes of Oz were destined to remain in storage, gathering dust and moths, until they disintegrated. In 1970 a huge auction sale was arranged for all the items that were still in good shape, the rest was junked. The man chosen to trawl through the costume stores and catalogue everything for sale was Kent Warner.

Kent Warner has been a fan of Adrian’s work since childhood and entered the film industry himself as a costume designer. He had worked for MGM and other studios. He was also an avid collector of film memorabilia, particularly costumes, for both his own enjoyment and for profit. To this end he and his boyfriend Ron Wind often “took” costumes that had been placed in storage for years (and in all probability never to be used again). He also searched through rubbish bins and skips for items that had been thrown away.

Over the years Kent amassed a collection of many costumes from famous films. Knowing his keen interest in historic film costumes the new MGM owners asked him to go through their warehouses and stores. It must have been an Aladdin’s cave for him.

It is known that Kent discovered at least 5 pairs of ruby slippers, including the Arabian pair (one pair had been given as a competition prize in 1940 and was, until then, the only pair known to exist). Kent kept a pair of slippers for himself and sold several others. Only one pair was to be placed in the 1970 auction. With Judy Garland’s death barely a year beforehand these slippers acquired a special status – they didn’t even need to be labelled at the pre-auction viewing.

Whether there was a deliberate attempt by the new MGM owners to bump up the value of the slippers by only offering one pair for sale (as is likely) the anonymous buyer certainly thought they were the only pair that existed.

You can find out the fate of each pair of the existing ruby slippers by going online. Just google “ruby slippers”.

Perhaps the world can just about cope with 6 existing pairs of ruby slippers. Any more and their value would lessen. In this year when we commemorate the 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz”, the 55th anniversary of the death of Adrian, the 45th anniversary of the death of Judy Garland, and the 30th anniversary of the death of Kent Warner, the ruby slippers are still glowing with their own special magic.

Sunday 24 August 2014

Out of Their Trees : My Friend Dorothy

Believe it or not the iconic film “The Wizard of Oz” went on general release 75 years ago this week. It had been previewed 2 weeks earlier on 12th August. This week I’m celebrating the anniversary with Oz themed articles. In a couple of days I’ll look at one of the most recognisable and iconic items from the film and later at Oz-inspired music. But first I can’t resist concentrating on the ancestry of Dorothy herself – Judy Garland.

There’s a lot of research that has already been done on Judy’s family tree so I can’t claim to have done any original research myself today.

Judy Garland’s real name, as many people may know, was Frances Ethel Gumm. The Gumm family had been settled in Tennessee since before it became a state in 1796. The first of the family settlers was called Norton Gum (with one “m”). He married Sally Clampet shortly before this in 1793. They were among the first inhabitants of Jefferson township. From humble origins Norton became Constable of Rutherford County and overseer of the county highways within a year.

Several of Judy’s ancestral families bring out the darker side of history which most people with ancestry in the southern states will have. In 1861 the Civil War began in the United States. The divisive issue was slavery. Most of Judy’s Tennessee ancestors – the Gums, the Baughs and the Marables – all owned slaves, many of them. This seems strange to me as these families were devout Methodists, members of a church founded by an anti-slavery campaigner. How ironic it is, then, that one of their descendants, Judy Garland, should become an icon of another much abused section of society of more modern times.

Shortly after the outbreak of war Judy’s great-grandfather, John Aldridge Baugh, became a sergeant in the Millersburg Militia, a brigade of the 2nd Tennessee Confederate Infantry Regiment. On 30th December 1862 a Union army approached Murfreesboro, home town of Judy’s Gum, Baugh and Marable ancestors at the time. That night the Union soldiers camped near the town and sang to keep up their spirits.

The Confederate soldiers, including John Aldridge Baugh, camped out in the outskirts of the town ready to defend Murfreesboro. In an event reminiscent of the Christmas truce in the trenches of 1914 the Confederates joined in the singing. It was a popular song they all knew and it helped to remind them all of what each side was trying to defend. The name of the song they sang on that cold winter night? “There’s No Place Like Home”.

New Year 1862/3 was spent in battle outside Murfreesboro. It was one of the most bloody of all in Tennessee with over 23,000 killed.

We’ll move now to Judy Garland’s royal ancestry because it reveals her family’s involvement in another civil war. After several decades of misidentification, both accidental and deliberate, Judy’s royal line was only officially confirmed by genealogists in 2004. This was when it was proven that Judy’s grandmother Clementina (1857-1895) was the daughter of John Aldridge Baugh. Clementina married William Tecumseh Gumm (1859-1906) in 1877. William’s unusual middle is a reference to a chieftain of the Shawnee Native American tribe of the same name who was held in high regard for his courage.

John Aldridge Baugh’s own grandmother was Agnes Batte. Her ancestry has been well documented for over a century having come from a well-known family of early settlers in Virginia. John Batte (1606-1654), Agnes’s great-great-grandfather settled in the colony in 1646. The Battes came from Yorkshire in northern England (lots of the family still live there though they now often spell their name Battie or Batty). John Batte’s wife was Martha Mallory, whose ancestry is full of influential and titled Northern families and is descended from King John.

John Batte’s father Henry was a Cavalier officer, one of the Royalists who supported King Charles I in the English Civil War. The Mallorys were also prominent Cavaliers and when the English Civil War ended with victory for the opposing Roundheads (the Parliamentary army) it was prudent for the defeated Royalist and Cavaliers to head abroad for safety. Anyone with Royalist sympathies would have been targeted for violence or even imprisonment.

There are some online genealogies which give Judy Garland royal descents from King James IV of Scotland (1473-1513) and King Edward III of England (1312-1377). Having checked these lines I find there are several misidentifications and don’t support them.

And finally, it is well-known that millions of people have royal ancestors, including myself. So I don’t find it particularly strange that Judy is distantly related to another of King John’s descendants by the name of Lyman Frank Baum (1856-1919). If you’re not familiar with that name I’ll tell you that he was an American author who wrote a children’s book published in 1900 called “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”.

Thursday 21 August 2014

From the Far Side of the Globe : West

Living 50 miles west of the Greenwich Meridian my final hunt for the most far-flung of Gay Games medallists brings me “back home”, taking the meridian as my most westerly point.

It’s a pity that the only out gay UK soccer player, Liam Davis, hasn’t competed at the Gay Games. No-one gets closer than him to the meridian. He plays for Gainsborough (0° 46’ W), where most of my family live and where I lived for a few years. Liam actually lives in the seaside town (and location of many happy childhood holidays) of Cleethorpes (0° exactly). With his partner he co-owns a café which is less than 1km from the meridian line.

The Greenwich Meridian passes through a handful of countries – the UK, France, Spain, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Togo. These last 5 are all in Africa and are not known for their lgbt rights. However, both Ghana and Algeria have sent athletes to the Gay Games though none have won medals.

Which leaves us looking at the European nations, all highly represented in international sport. To be fair to all 3 countries I’ve nominated one athlete from each to represent their nation as a whole.

With France being the European country through which the meridian passes for the longest there are a large number of possible locations to find my nomination as the most westerly French medallist. My nomination is Pierre Huguet. Pierre, a history teacher, won a gold and 2 bronze medals in 3 relay teams at the 2010 Cologne Gay Games. He was living in Marseille at the time and ran with several international runners who teamed up at the contest. He also won an individual silver medal in the 300m steeplechase.

Pierre’s hometown in Niort (0° 27’ W) and he studied at the University of Poitiers (0° 20’ E) just across the meridian. Pierre is a committee member and co-webmaster of Frontrunners Marseille. He is also an honorary members of Glasgow Frontrunners, a club he visited in 2012 just after it was formed.

Surprisingly few Spanish athletes have won medals at the Gay Games. Some may have joined teams from other nations (e.g. if working or studying abroad). My nomination for the most westerly Spanish medallist is Natividad Pericot Roos. Her home town is San Vicent del Raspeig (0° 31’ W) and she works in Alicante (0° 28’ W). Natividad is another tenpin bowler (we had Dion Leslie of New Zealand last time). At the Cologne Gay Games in 2010 she picked up a gold medal with the women’s social team contest (with Caroline Lacharte and Stefanie Goss) and a bronze with Caroline in the women’s social team doubles.

With the meridian passing through London there are dozens of athletes to choose as the most westerly British medallist. I’ve nominated Simon Bostic. His life story deserves a little more attention as he has provided a legacy with has affected thousands and inspired millions.

In 1973 Simon was less than 2 years old and doctors said he wouldn’t see his 3rd birthday because he was born with CGD (chronic granulomautus disease), a condition where bone marrow can’t produce fully effective white blood cells. People with HIV will know the health implications of this. Any infection could be life-threatening. His older brother Andrew had died of CGD at the age of 2 and his own only hope of survival was a bone marrow transplant.

There was no bone marrow match in Simon’s family so a media appeal was launched and 50,000 people volunteered for testing. Only one was a match. The transplant took place on Friday 13th April 1973 and was a success. (On a future Friday 13th I’ll go into more detail.) Simon’s place in medical history is assured as the first survivor of a bone marrow transplant from a total stranger, a non-relative.

Since the transplant Simon has inspired hope in other bone marrow patients and has been instrumental in inspiring millions of people to register as possible donors. Until Simon’s successful operation the only real incentive to donate bone marrow was help to a close relative. Now anyone in the world could be considered a possible match.

At the Gay Games in Amsterdam in 1998 Simon won a silver medal in the Latin dance category with Alan Charles Wale. Today Simon works for Charity Challenge which organises expeditions to raise funds for various charities. He was head of Operations for the 2010 Comic Relief climb up Mount Kilimanjaro of which Martina Navratilova took part.

I hope you found this little series of articles interesting, but if I had to choose only one nomination from each of the four points they’d be the following:

North  Bjarni Snæbjörnsson, Sveinseyri, Iceland (65°N).
South  Mariah Crosland, McMurdo Station, Antarctic (77°S).
East    Rae Torrie, Gisborne, New Zealand (178°E).
West   Simon Bostic, London (0°).

Monday 18 August 2014

From the Far Side of the Globe : East

From the cold climates of Alaska and Iceland we head east and somewhere a bit warmer. My criteria for the most easterly of the Gay Games medallists is the point furthest from the Greenwich Meridian along, or near, 180°E in the Pacific Ocean.

Several Pacific nations have sent teams to the Gay Games, most of them attending their nearest games held in Sydney in 2002. One island nation which straddles the 180° meridian is Fiji. They sent a team to Sydney but didn’t return home with any medals.

New Zealand is the country with the nearest land to the 180° meridian. As with my previous articles it has been difficult to ascertain for certain where medallists called home at the time of their medal win. Many athletes don’t live in the cities or towns in which they have membership to a sports club, for instance members of Team Wellington (based on North Island) may live over 50 miles away on South Island but official results only record their team name. So once again I’m looking at birthplaces or previous residences.

The two main cities on North Island, Wellington and Auckland, have both sent many athletes to the Gay Games. As it happens they are on almost identical degrees of longitude (Auckland 174° 44’ E; Wellington 174° 46’ E), and they include such varied individuals as the partner of the Mayor of Kapiti, the grandson of an All Blacks rugby player, and the same-sex marriage campaigner who got arrested.

But I need to look further east than either city if I want to find the most easterly Gay Games medallist. I’ve chosen to name three of these briefly, all of whom have lived beyond 176°E.

First of all is Kerry Stevens. Kerry was born in Dannevirke (176°E), a town in the south of North Island. He married in 1963 and moved to Nelson on South Island where he began working in the music industry at the South Island Organ Company. In 1994 he attended the Gay Games in New York and won 2 gold medals as part of the 4x100m relay team (with Ross Baxter, Ron Judd and Berend Westera). He also won an individual silver in the 100m backstroke and a bronze in the 100m breaststroke.

More recently Kerry has been a broadcaster and executive producer at radio New Zealand where he presented mainly musical programmes and interviews. His interest in music is also reflected in his membership of Gay and Lesbian Singers in Auckland.

Just a little further east of Kerry’s home town of Dannevirke is the city of Hastings (176° 51’ E) on the eastern coast of North Island. This is the hometown of a medallist who competes in a sport that isn’t in the Olympics – tenpin bowling.

Dion Leslie has made tenpin bowling his career. He had been playing bowls since he was a teenager, and in 2002, at the age of 21, entered the bowling competition at the Sydney Gay Games. He came away with a bronze medal.

Dion moved to Wellington to study commerce and administration, something which he combined with his love of bowling by working in a bowling centre in Porirua. In 1999 he became general manager of the Strike Entertainment Centre in Lower Hutt, Wellington. This meant he was in the perfect place to host the bowling competition for the 2nd Asia-Pacific Outgames held in Wellington in 2011. He even found time to enter the competition himself, winning a silver medal in the men’s doubles contest.

Dion’s Strike Entertainment bowling alley also hosted a World Record. In 2002 Dion organised a record attempt at the world’s longest continuous game of tenpin bowling. The bowler was Stuart Ripley, and he succeeded in breaking the record by bowling for 122 hours!

Now we come to the athlete who is the medallist to come from the most easterly point on the globe. Her name is Rae Torrie.

The most easterly town on North Island is Gisborne (178°E). This where Rae was born, and like many she went to Wellington to university. She studied history and went on to study Social Sector Evaluation Research at Massey University. Most of her work has involved evaluating employment and pay policies in local and national government, but her early work involved evaluation of equal employment policies and Maori affairs.

In 2002 Rae entered the dance competition at the Sydney Gay Games. Her dance partner was Ros Bignell and they won a silver medal in the Latin category.

Now that we have gone as far east as we can go we head west next time. Rather than keep going west and end up almost back where we started we go to the far side of the globe and look for our most westerly Gay Games medallist on the Greenwich Meridian.

Friday 15 August 2014

Passing the Torch to the Youth

You probably know what Sochi 2014 means. You probably know what London 2012 and Rio 2016 mean. But what about Nanjing 2014? Not many people are aware that the Olympic movement organises games for teenagers – the Youth Olympics. And as one international sports festival (the Gay Games in Cleveland) comes to a close another (the 2014 Youth Olympics) opens in Nanjing, China.

The Youth Olympic Games (summer and winter) are restricted to athletes from the age of 15 to 18 (those aged 14 are eligible if they reach 15 before 31st December of the Youth Olympic year). This highlights one of the many anomalies and inconsistencies in IOC ruling in that there have been many athletes who have competed at the main Olympics before they were 14!

The youngest lgbt Olympian certainly wouldn’t have qualified. At the Innsbruck Winter Olympics in 1964 figure skater Ondrej Nepela competed less than 2 weeks after his 13th birthday. Ironically, he would have qualified for the Youth Olympics (had they been held) in 1968.

The idea for the Youth Olympics has been around for decades but the International Olympic Committee didn’t create an official games until 2007. These are the host cities of the summer and winter Youth Olympics :

Summer 2010             Singapore
Winter 2012                 Innsbruck, Austria
Summer 2014             Nanjing, China
Winter 2016                 Lillehammer, Norway
Summer 2018             Buenos Aries, Argentina.

During the London 2012 Olympics a lot was made of the fact that London was the first city to host the summer games 3 times. Indeed it was, but Innsbruck beat London to the first 3-time host record by hosting its third Winter Olympics earlier that year.

Even though many in the lgbt community don’t recognise or question their sexuality until after their teenage years there hasn’t been (to my notice) any Youth Olympians who were “out” as lgbt when they competed. However, it is possible to name the first out athletes from both the summer and winter Youth Olympics – Tom Daley and John Fennell, respectively.

The age restriction at the Youth games also means that British diver Tom Daley was able to compete in 3 Olympics in less than 5 years. When Tom competed in Beijing in 2008 he was 14. The first Youth Olympic summer games were held in 2010, so he qualified to compete there as well. Still only 18 in 2012 Tom competed in the London Olympics and won a bronze medal.

John Fennell came from a big sporting family. His father David, for instance, is a legend in Canadian sport, a Canadian football league player. In 2012 John competed in the first Youth Winter Olympics, finishing 7th in the luge contest. He came out to the Canadian Chef de Mission, Olympic star Mark Tewksbury, just before this year’s Sochi games in which he again competed in the luge.

There have been a few lgbt Olympians who would have been eligible for a Youth Olympics had they been held before 2010. Just out of my own curiosity I compiled the list below. For the purpose of this list I am applying the present Youth Olympic age criteria to the historic Olympic Games.
Berlin 1936
Dora Ratjen (Germany, athletics), 17 years.
Helen Stephens (USA athletics), 18 years.
Melbourne 1956
Susan Gray McGreivy (USA, swimming), 17 years.
Tokyo 1964
Marion Lay (Canada, swimming), 15 years.
Ewa Klobukowska (Poland, athletics), 17 years.
Grenoble 1968
Ondrej Nepela (Czechoslovakia, figure skating), 17 years.
Mexico City 1968
Karin Büttner-Janz (East Germany), 16 years.
Raelene Boyle (Australia, athletics), 17 years.
Munich 1972
Scott Cranham (Canada, diving), 17 years.
Innsbruck 1976
Randy Gardner (USA, figure skating), 17 years.
Montréal 1976
Greg Louganis (USA, diving), 16 years.
Sarajevo 1984
Edel Høiseth (Norway, speed skating), 18 years.
Los Angeles 1984 (demonstration sport)
Tine Scheuer-Larsen (Denmark, tennis), 18 years.
Seoul 1988
Jhonmar Castillo (Venezuela, diving), 17 years.
Sydney 2000
Eleni Daniilidou (Greece, tennis), 17 years.
Lauren Meece (USA, judo), 17 years.
London 2012
Tom Daley (GB, diving), 18 years.
Sochi 2014
John Fennell (Canada, luge), 18 years.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

From the Far Side of the Globe : North

From well below the Antarctic Circle a couple of days ago we travel to the far side of the globe and look for the most northerly Gay Games medallist. It would have been perfect if I could have found someone who lived north of the Arctic Circle (66° 33’ N) but there is one person who came from very near it. This seems strange considering there are many more settlements north than there are south.

Perhaps the best place to look for the most northerly medallist would be places like Alaska, Scandinavia, Russia or Canada.

There have been a few Alaskan athletes at the Gay Games but they have been registered as being from the state capital Anchorage (61° 13’ N). Further research will reveal if any of them came from further north. The 5-member Team Alaska who entered the Cologne 2010 games came away with 12 medals between them. Among this medal-winning team was Darl Schaaff. He has a close connection with the current Gay Games in Cleveland. He was co-chair of the Site Selection Committee who chose both Cleveland as the 2014 host city and Cologne as the host of the previous games.

Erik Richards, one athlete I mentioned last time, was from Fairbanks in Alaska (64° 50’ N), also the home town for a while of new dad Jake Bartholomy. Jake won two marathon golds, one in Sydney 2002 and the other in Chicago 2006. On both occasions he had not lived in Fairbanks for several years. I’m sure there’s another Fairbanks athlete to discover but for now I’ll name Jake Batholomy as my joint most northerly Gay Games medallist (I’ll come to the other joint medallist in a minute).

Apart from Alaska the most northerly team to enter the Gay Games comes from Iceland. Most of them have been registered as residents of Reykjavik (64° 08’ N). Being based only a few miles further south than Fairbanks Team Iceland takes the place as the most northerly team of medallists. The largest group of Icelandic competitors attended the 2010 Gay Games in Cologne. They comprised of a soccer team and a team of swimmers from the Styrmir club in Reykjavik and between them the 8 swimmers won 28 gold, 3 silver and 4 bronze medals.

Mind you, they were all pleased to actually get to Cologne in the first place. When they competed in the Outgames in Copenhagen in 2009 the Icelandic banks had recently collapsed, there was upheaval in the government, and the world recession was hitting them hard. In fact, they had to sell vegetables, condoms and toilet paper just to raise enough funds for them to attend the Outgames. That’s dedication! Things has improved slightly by the time of the Cologne Gay Games, thankfully.

But one member of Team Iceland comes from further north than Reykjavik and is the other joint most northerly Gay Games medallist (also, as far as I can tell, the most northerly Outgames and EuroGames medallist) – Bjarni Snæbjörnsson. His home town is Sveinseyri, an old port in northern Iceland which, at over 65°N, is only around 69 miles (111 km) south of the Arctic Circle. As with Jake Bartholomy, Bjarni was resident further south when he competed in Cologne 2010. On that occasion Bjarni was a member of three 4x50m relay teams that each won gold medals.

The success of Team Iceland in the pool, not only at the Gay Games but also at the Outgames and EuroGames, was key to the decision made by the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics organisation to hold their championships in Reykjavik in 2012. Until 2012 Iceland never considered itself a major player in international sport, so these swimming championships was big news for Iceland, and undoubtedly the biggest sporting event that country had ever staged until then. So due credit should go to Bjarni and his fellow Strmir swimmers for creating this legacy.

Outside sport Bjarni is an actor and drama teacher. With Sigfridur Eyrín Fridriksdottir he formed a camp musical double act called Viggo and Violetta who have performed at many Icelandic and international Pride events.

Jake Bartholomy and Bjarni Snæbjörnsson, my joint most northerly Gay Games medallists, may not have been resident in the farthest north location when they competed but I present them as representatives of the two most northern teams, Team Alaska and Team Iceland.

Saturday 9 August 2014

From the Far Side of the Globe : South

Let the games continue! We’re right in the middle of a great international sporting summer and over the next two weeks I’m concentrating on sport. The 9th Gay Games begins tonight with over 11,000 athletes arriving to compete for the coveted gold, silver and bronze medals. From its modest beginnings in San Francisco in 1982 the Gay Games has grown into a sporting event to rival the Olympics in its international participation. And in celebration of this fact I’ve written 4 articles on medal winners from the most far flung of locations.

I’ve looked for Gay Games medallists who come from the most northerly, southerly, easterly and westerly points on the globe.

North and South presented no problem, but with East and West, rather than go for locations on either side of 180° E/W or along the International Date Line I’ve chosen the Greenwich Meridian as my most westerly line and 180° as my most easterly. Today I’m looking SOUTH.

Bodies such as the International Olympic Committee only accept athletes who belong to official national sporting committees, events like the Gay Games also welcomes athletes who are not. Athletes can compete as individuals with no ties to sports clubs or nations and most compete as members of clubs or organisations. They may all march into the opening ceremonies in national groups, but they compete for their club. Very often teams are made up of athletes from several different countries, which is quite useful if you want to enter the football contest with a couple of friends and join up with a team who are a couple of men short.

So, which Gay Games medallists come from the most southern point?

ANTARCTICA - Yes, the Antarctic has been officially represented in international sport. Even though the following people can’t claim Antarctic nationality they both registered as being resident there, so have become the South Pole’s first official international athletes.

At the 2002 Sydney Gay Games the Antarctic was represented by two competitors, both powerlifters. Mariah Crossland and Erik Richards were both working in the US Antarctic research centre at the McMurdo (at 77°S well below the Antarctic Circle). Mariah worked in computer support and Erik was a space scientist.

Mariah, a native of Montana, USA, began working at McMurdo in 1992. She was always an active person – cycling, hiking, skiing and weight training. Down at the South Pole the weather was hardly ever conducive to outdoor pursuits, particularly during the 6 months of night they call summer down there.

Fortunately McMurcdo Station has a gym, and there were several small annual sporting contests held for the station’s thousand or so international residents. Mariah took up powerlifting after being inspired by the first powerlifting contest there in January 2002. Later that year the Gay Games were to be held in Sydney, Australia, and Mariah began to train for her first competition. Mariah was lucky enough to find Erik Richards as a training partner. Erik had competed in powerlifting competitions since he was a teenager back home in his native Alaska. He had arrived at McMurdo in 1999, and agreed to accompany Mariah to the Gay Games.

At the Gay Games Mariah competed against the Aussie Katrina Robertson, her only opponent in her Women’s Masters 90 kg category. In the squat life both women lifted 160kg, but Mariah’s attempt to lift 170 failed so they were equally placed. Mariah bench-pressed 107.5 kg to take the lead on points, but could not match Katrina’s dead-lift of 185 kg and was overtaken on points to end up with the silver medal.

Erik competed in the Men’s 100 kg Open category against Randy Evans and Steve Heyl. Unfortunately he failed in his 3 attempts to life 195 kg in the squat life and “bombed out” of the competition. Erik has continued to work in the space industry and currently lives and works in New Mexico (you can’t get much of a contrast in temperatures than that!).

In more recent years life hasn’t been kind to Mariah since then. In later 2011 she discovered she had ovarian cancer and returned to her Montana home. With the support of her partner Candace, Mariah found herself surrounded by people who helped to pay her medical bills. To make her feel “at home” when she arrived back in Montana a friends, a snow sculptor, sculpted a polar bear outside her house to remind Mariah of her Antarctic adventures. Another friend even donated some of the profits of her novel (a murder mystery set in Antarctica) to Mariah’s medical bills.

Next time we look north and travel to the far side of the globe.

Thursday 7 August 2014

Ancient Conflict Remembered : Sacred Valour

With so much emphasis being given this year to the centenary of the start of World War I and 75th anniversary of the start of World War II we tend to forget that there have been other conflicts and wars throughout history which have had the same devastating impact on communities and armed forces. It seems that the further back you go in history the less importance we place on the sacrifice of those who lost their lives in battle. Yet where would the USA be without the convictions and valour of the “Revolutionaries”, or the UK without the Norman invasion of 1066?

In the history of the lgbt community in war one of the most ancient and well-known of all regiments has been the Sacred Band of Thebes. Originating as far back as 378 BC this band of soldiers is famous as consisting of 150 male couples in what we would regard today as same-sex relationships. The Ancient Greek attitudes to and definitions of gay sex and love are different to ours so I prefer not to call them “lovers”, even though that is the word most often applied to them.

Last week marked the anniversary of the battle which saw the Sacred Band destroyed by the might of King Philip II of Macedonia and his son Prince Alexander (later called “the Great”) in 338 BC.

You may have seen recent movies and television series which are based in the ancient world (“Gladiator”, “Spartacus”, “300”, “Game of Thrones”, etc.) where computer effects insist on showing biologically impossible amounts of blood and guts flying everywhere. While this is pure artistic licence it still shows how brutal and violent ancient warfare could have been.

The Sacred Band of Thebes were considered an elite fighting force and were formed to defend the city of Thebes from their enemies the Spartans. The number of the soldiers in the Band, 300, was a common number in other Greek army units, which immediately places a new angle on the Spartans own “300” as featured in the film. Interestingly, when the Spartans entered the Ancient Olympics they were often ridiculed for their long, “girly” hair and open displays of affection. By the formation of the Sacred Band, however, the Spartans had turned into the hard-fighting, puritanical force that became a by-word for austerity.

Even though Ancient Greek soldiers were expected to form emotional and sexual bonds with a fellow combatant it seems that only Thebans chose these couples specifically for their Sacred Band. The reason for the Band being sacred may be to reflect the Greek ethos in the training camps and gymnasiums where daily prayers and offerings were made to the god of male love, Eros.

The first successful campaign of the Sacred Band was in 378 BC against a much larger invasion force from Sparta. As part of a Theban-Athenian allied army the Sacred Band helped to force the Spartans to withdraw.

The most decisive victory for the Thebans against Sparta was at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. Once again the Thebans were outnumbered but Spartan command was ineffective and they suffered a crushing defeat. This cemented Thebes’ place as a major independent Greek state and bolstered the Sacred Band as a crack troop of highly disciplined soldiers.

That reputation continued for over 30 years. During that time the state of Macedonia rose in prominence due to the military expertise of its king Philip II. After acceding to the throne in 359 BC Philip began the expansion of his kingdom. To his ultimate benefit he was dragged into what is known as the Third Sacred War by several states, including Thebes, who wanted protection and defence against the states of Phocis and Athens. Eventually, in the face of Philip’s growing power across the Greek peninsula, a peace treaty was negotiated.

Athens wasn’t really happy with the treaty but it kept Philip away, who turned his attention to Byzantium. The pro-war party in Athens succeeded in pushing through an alliance with Byzantium and this was the last straw for King Philip. Heading for Athens he found his route “blocked” by the Thebans whom he hoped would ally themselves with him. Instead they allied themselves with Athens and the stage was set for the Battle of Chaeronea.

Precise details of the Battle of Chaeronea on 2nd August 338 BC are scarce, but it is recorded that at the start of the battle Athenians and their allies were stretched 2½ miles with the Thebans with the Sacred Band on the right wing.

Both sides were equally matched. On the Macedonian side Philip commanded troops on his right wing and his son Alexander commanded troops on the left wing facing the Thebans. After some time of fighting Philip decided to pivot his line of troops clockwise into the Atheneans. At the same time Alexander pivoted his troops anti-clockwise, punching their way through the middle of the Greek line, thereby separating the Thebans from their allies. That was the decisive moment when the Macedonians took control of the battle.

The Theban army cut off by Alexander’s manoeuvre fled. The Sacred Band of Thebes, true to their reputation, stood their ground. Surrounded and outnumbered the 150 couples fought like demons, but Alexander’s soldiers cut them to pieces. Its easy to picture the massacre as it would be re-imagined in modern blood-splattered movies but as usual reality would not have been so graphic but nonetheless violent.

After the battle King Philip surveyed the slaughter. Coming upon the bodies of the Sacred Band he is said to have remarked “Perish any man who suspects that these men neither did nor suffered anything unseemly”, a comment which could also be pertinent in the modern world of homophobia as well as a tribute to the valour of the Sacred Band of over 2,000 ago.

The Ancient Greeks honoured their fallen heroes in battle. After the Battle of Chaeronea the bodies of the fallen were buried and a monument of a lion placed over them. Later excavations discovered 254 skeletons buried 7 rows. Historian believe, as I do, that these could quite possibly be the remains of the Sacred Band of Thebes. It also raises the possibility that 23 couples survived the battle.

In this year of remembrance when war memorials around the world become the focus of commemorations let us not forget the valour of times past.
The Lion of Chaeronea, the statue placed at the burial site of the 254 bodies believed to be
the Sacred Band of Thebes. Photo Ó Ismene 2011.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

On the Fiddle

There are one or two popular sayings about fiddles and violins. Perhaps the most famous is “Nero fiddled while Rome burned”. This saying came to mind first as soon as I thought about writing an article on lgbt violin or fiddle players. I was trying to think of who was the most famous fiddler in history. Being a historian I realised that the fiddle hadn’t been invented in Nero’s time. So before I go into lgbt violinists I’ll clear up the historical confusion around what Nero would actually have played and why the saying isn’t as anachronistic as it appears.

The story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned is a complete myth. For a start he wasn’t even in Rome at the time – he was in Antium (called Anzio today) some 35 miles away. Nero is known to have been a musician, or at least keen on music. According to several ancient writers, on hearing of the conflagration Nero leapt up and sang a song about the destruction of Troy. What is known for sure is that he returned to Rome and oversaw the reconstruction of the city.

The rest of Nero’s life – as creator of gladiatorial festivals, as giver to the poor, as persecutor of Christians, as popular ruler, as lover of both men and women, as a bit of a sexual pervert and one of the most evil men in history – can wait for another time. Let’s get back to the fiddle.

It was some 150 years after the event that reports of Nero playing a musical instrument as he sang were written down. The instrument named was the kithara, a stringed instrument not unlike a lyre. There’s a word in Latin – “fides” – which means “string”. A diminutive of the word, “fidicula”, was used to designate any stringed instrument. As the word evolved through European languages it became “fiddle”. Even later “fiddle” became associated with just the violin and not all stringed instrument in general. And so that’s how we get Nero playing a fiddle.

Moving a bit closer to our own time the next significant lgbt violin player was Arcangelo Corelli. Last month I included Corelli in my glance at Baroque music. Working his way from a supporting violinist in 1675 to leader of music for Queen Kristina of Sweden in 1687 Corelli helped to establish the distinct character of chamber music. Think of it in terms of sport. Chamber music was the cheerleader, an entertaining diversion to the main event. Like cheerleading, chamber music soon took on a life of its own and today we have both international cheerleading contests and permanent chamber orchestras.

Speaking of chamber orchestras, Keith Pascoe, a founder member of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, made headlines late last year. As a member also of the Raidió Teilifís Éireann Vamburgh String Quartet he boycotted the Irish Russian Chamber Music Festival in Moscow in October. This was the period when President Putin pushed through his anti-gay laws and Pascoe was a gay performer who boycotted the festival. The quartet went ahead with their appearance at the event with a substitute violinist.

In spite of this negative karma there has been a little upsurge of violinists in the lgbt community in the past 18 months. Craig Halliday has been performing at several Pride events in the UK with his electronic violin. In the US last month there was Andrew Sords playing solo in the Pride concert in Decatur, Georgia, and Carnegie Hall hosted a Pride concert featuring Tona Brown, the first female transgender African-American to give a solo performance there.  But one violinist who leaves a lasting visual presence is Hahn-Bin from South Korea, who in 2012 adopted the new stage name of Amadeus Leopold. This young gay violinist is often remembered fro his Mohawk haircut and garish make-up rather than his violin playing.

One of the most popular and familiar violinists to appear regularly on British television when I was young was Stephane Grappelli. He played mainly jazz, but I remember him teaming up with Yehudi Menuhin several times. Stephane’s sexuality was not known outside musical circles, and only after his death did colleagues begin talking about his homosexuality.

Mentioning jazz leads me on to the versatility of the violin. It isn’t restricted to classical or chamber music. The violin has been used for centuries in folk and ethnic music. The opening ceremony of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter games had an energetic segment devoted to several folk styles found in Canada. The segment built up to a short performance by openly gay folk-rock fiddler Ashley McIsaac. He also wrote a charity single for a Ghanaian skier who became the first from his country to enter the Winter Olympics that year.

An ethnic musical style developed in Europe which almost disappeared into history is klezmer. This is largely a traditional music of the Ashkenazi Jews. Until the 1970s only societies within the Ashkenazi community played klezmer, most often to be heard at parties and bar/bat mitzvahs. In more recent decades klezmer music has seen a revival and has become known to a wider audience, even getting as far as to winning a Grammy award for a band called The Klezmatics. This group was founded by lesbian klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals who studied classical violin and discovered klezmer music travelling around the Mediterranean in her youth. Since then she has been championing klezmer music.

At the other end of the scale from traditional music is contemporary and experimental music. One of the high profile lgbt violinists in this genre is Owen Pallett. This multi-talented Canadian musician brings indie-pop and experimental electronic rock into his violin playing.

I’ll sign off with this video of a string quartet called Well Strung. This all-gay quartet has pulses racing wherever they perform, and it’s not all because of their music!