Friday 31 October 2014

Screaming Scores

Considering today is Hallowe’en there’s a noticeable absence of decent horror films on British television tonight. And I’m not referring to modern slasher/zombie films. I mean proper horror films like those made by Hammer. Hammer’s first horror film “The Curse of Frankenstein”, was shown on Monday. Next time you see it take more time to listen to the music. It was composed by one of the most prolific horror film composers, James Bernard (1925-2001).

An Oscar winner and a wartime code-breaker James Bernard’s fame rests on his long association with the Hammer films, and the Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing Dracula/Frankenstein films in particular.

Before going into detail about his Hammer work I’ll take a few minutes to look at his musical background. Born in the Himalayas into a British military family James was sent to England to live with his aristocratic grandparents. It was a typical “Downton Abbey” childhood, with a piano in the nursery on which he began to play when he was about 6 years old.

Through his mother James claimed he was descended from Thomas Arne, composer of “Rule Britannia”. I haven’t had time to check this, but it’ll make a good “Out of Their Trees” article in the future.

At school he met Benjamin Britten who was visiting a schoolmaster, and who encouraged James to compose. They stayed in touch when James left school and served in the army during World War II. During the war James met his first life partner Paul Dehn, a major in MI6 who went on to write the screenplay for “Goldfinger” (among many other famous and popular films). After the war James enrolled at the Royal College of Music. On graduating he was asked by Britten to copy out his new opera “Billy Budd” for his publishers. James attended the opera’s premier with E. M. Forster.

James’s wartime work on the Enigma machine with Alan Turing, and his Oscar-winning screenplay, are best left for another time. Let’s return to his Hammer horror film music.

James had been composing for stage and radio productions for several years before he was approached by the chief music director of Hammer films. He was impressed by James’s score for the BBC radio production of “The Duchess of Malfi” and asked him to compose the music for Hammer’s “The Quatermass Xperiment” (1955) – one of my favourite films.

Readers may be familiar with the music from the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. The use of violins to produce a harsh, discordant, almost screeching sound which the “Psycho” shower scene best illustrates was actually pioneered by James Bernard in his two Quatermass films. Violins were generally used to provide a romantic or soothing emotion and James used the discordant technique throughout his films. Horror films have copied this musical technique ever since.

Hammer moved into the serious horror genre with the afore-mentioned “The Curse of Frankenstein”. James had been a life-long fan of horror and suspense, so he had the right credentials to write for horror films. You can often feel his enthusiasm fro writing a horror score in a lot of his work.

In 1958 Hammer made its first Dracula film, and in total James wrote the music for 9 Frankenstein and Dracula films for Hammer. He also wrote for other Hammer horror classics such as “The Gorgon” and “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” (his last Hammer score).

James was fortunate enough to compose the music for the film versions of three of his favourite boyhood books – “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, “She” and “The Devil Rides Out”. “She” was my introduction to Hammer films. It was shown on tv when I was a young teenager and I’ve never forgotten the impact it made on me (I had nightmares about that lava pit!). It was also the music which stuck in my mind. The main theme sounded very eerie and atmospheric. None of the subsequent Hammer films that I’ve seen have ever given me the same feeling, so I suppose the music for “She” must be my favourite James Bernard score.

James wasn’t even 50 years old when he “retired” and went to live in the Caribbean. He continued to compose for documentaries and to horror programmes, including two episodes of “Hammer House of Horror”.

For a few years Hammer horror films lost their popularity following the rise of American slasher and monster films like “Hallowe’en” and “An American Werewolf in London”. But the cult status of Hammer revived at the end of the 20th century and James found himself a popular contributor to documentaries and conventions.

I’ll end at the beginning – the beginning of horror films. In 1997 James was asked to compose a score for the classic early silent horror film “Nosferatu” (1922).

I wasn’t sure which of James’s scores I wanted to let you hear. In the end I’ve chosen the main theme from “Dracula” (1958), where you can almost sing along to the music with the blood-thirsty count’s name.

Monday 27 October 2014

Ruby and Tiny

Back in July I wrote about lgbt drummers and briefly mentioned the jazz drummer Ruby Lucas. It seems appropriate to write more about her today, during Black History Month UK and immediately after my piece about the Harlem Renaissance.

Ruby Lucas was born and raised during the Harlem Renaissance. She grew up in to become a member of a small all-female jazz/swing band and, with the partner Tiny Davis, founded a popular lesbian and gay bar in Chicago.

Much of what we know about Ruby’s life comes from her position as Tiny Davis’s partner. There’s very little information which tells us about Ruby as an individual in her own right. Most of her story is told in relation to her place in Tiny’s life.

Ruby grew up in Kansas City. Whether that is where she was born or not is uncertain. I’ve tried to track her down on the US censuses for 1940 and 1930 without success, so I cannot tell you the year of her birth or her family circumstances. It is almost certain, though, that Ruby was raised in poor surroundings.

Ruby learnt to play the piano as a youngster, and this leads me to suspect that there was music in her family background. Perhaps her parents were musical entertainers of some sort during the Harlem Renaissance years. Ruby’s musical talents were obviously encouraged by someone and she also learnt to play the drums and bass.

As a performer Ruby used the stage name Renei (or Renée) Phelan. I have seen a couple of references which indicate it was the other way rough – Ruby being her stage name and Renée her real name. I have also listened to interviews where Tiny Davis uses the name Renée for Ruby which might be supportive of this. Again, a search of the US census reveals nothing definite.

It was in Kansas City that Ruby met Tiny. Ernestine “Tiny” Davis was a member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female, inter-racial, jazz/blues/swing band which toured America during World War II. Tiny was in Kansas City performing with the Sweethearts in 1948 and was organising refreshments at the after-show party when she met Ruby. There must have been an instant connection, because shortly afterwards Tiny left her husband and children and lived with Ruby.

Soon after the war the International Sweethearts disbanded and work for female black musicians was difficult to find. Ruby not only became part of Tiny’s personal life after that but also a member of a new all-female band called Tiny Davis and the Hell Divers. This was a smaller band than the Sweethearts, just 3 or 4 members which would find work in many more smaller venues than the dance hall. Tiny was band leader and trumpet player and Ruby played the drums. The Hell Divers undertook small tours of the US and Caribbean.

Ruby and Tiny moved from Kansas City to Chicago shortly after forming the band. Tiny hinted in a 1988 documentary that they left Kansas because of their relationship (they were “thrown out” of Kansas, in Tiny’s words).

In Chicago the Hell Divers performed in clubs and bars, some of them gay and lesbian clubs. But tastes in music were changing. The swing and jazz sounds of the 1930s and 1940s were being replaced at the top of the music charts by rock’n’roll. With tour dates diminishing Ruby and Tiny decided to open their own club in the early 50s, “Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot” on Wentworth Avenue in Chicago. It soon became a well-known venue for gays and lesbians to gather and hear Tiny and Ruby perform live.

The Gay Spot could have gone into the 1960s had it not been for the ubiquitous urban redevelopment in many cities. In 1958 Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot was demolished to make way for a new road, the Dan Ryan Expressway.

With their own venue gone Ruby and Tiny returned to performing in other venues around Chicago. They had acquired something of a cult following by then. In the end it was the progress of time that stopped them performing. Tiny developed arthritis which prevented her from standing for long periods on stage. Even so, it was 1982 when they last performed professionally – that’s nearly 30 years after Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot first opened.

In 1988 Ruby and Tiny were featured in the documentary mentioned above, “Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women”, in which they performed together and with Tiny’s family. This documentary is featured on the DVD release of “Before Stonewall”.

Tiny Davis died in 1994. Ruby Lucas survived her. Nothing is recorded of Ruby after this, perhaps someone out there can let me know.

I’ll leave you with this clip from the 1988 documentary.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Renaissance Women

Following on from my article last Sunday on lgbt Renaissance composers here’s a look at a more recent group of lgbt Renaissance musicians, those in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.

It is something of a misnomer to call the movement a true Renaissance. There was no consolidated or focussed cultural or artistic past to be reborn, unlike the medieval Renaissance which saw the rebirth of learning and art resulting from the rediscovery of long forgotten and ignored Ancient Greek writings.

The Harlem Renaissance began quietly and was a consolidation of many cultural influences from African-American communities as they converged on New York City in what is called the Great Migration at the end of the 19th century. The consolidation of these influences began to be noticed in the 1920s when many African-Americans began publishing their writings and new musical experiences of modern cabaret, blues and jazz were being created.

When we look back at the Harlem Renaissance we see many names emerging as pioneers of black American culture. Many of these names are of women. But we must remember that the culture of 1920s USA, even though it seems close to ours, was different. In her recent undergraduate thesis “Women-Loving Women: Queering Black Urban Space During the Harlem Renaissance” Samantha C. Tenorio points out that within the black community of the period the term “women-loving women” “…implied a particular intersectional identity of race, gender, sexuality, and often class, due to the systemic impact of racism that produced wealth inequality, wherein the woman-loving woman’s identity as a black, often working-class, woman of non-normative sexuality located her at the lowest position of almost all social hierarchies in the United States…” Today the contributions and influence of women to the Harlem Renaissance is seen as equal to that of the men, but it wasn’t thought so at the time.

The fact that the majority of those involved were of the first generation of black Americans not born into slavery is very important. Despite their lack of wealth and property they were able to find a self expression which their parents and grandparents never had.

This new self expression included the freedom to meet and socialise in public. Nowhere can this be more evident than in the music and entertainment venues whose influence spread throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Jazz and the blues are both seen as deriving from the music of the slaves and the southern states. The blues continued the slave-music convention of expressing a desire and hope for an improvement in the singer’s life. The desire to be free from slavery turned into a desire to be happy, wealthy or accepted in society. Acceptance included sexual orientation, and many of the famous female blues singers of the Harlem Renaissance sang about same-sex acceptance.

No-one expressed this same-sex acceptance in blues more openly than Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939), who is known as “the Mother of the Blues”. She was one of many female performers who began their career on the American vaudeville stage of the southern states. It was on that circuit that Rainey first heard the blues. Using influences from both southern country and northern urban sounds Rainey developed the blues into a medium which became popular with all audiences and became commercial enough for record producers to start marketing the blues to Americans of all heritages and social groups.

Sexuality was a large element in both Rainey’s performance and lyrics, using this in her most well-known song, “Prove It On Me Blues” in which she challenges the listener to catch her with anther woman. It was performed with a knowing look, and it is generally accepted that Rainey was indeed bisexual.

During a tour of Tennessee another influential blues singer joined Ma Rainey’s show. She was the “Empress of the Blues”, Bessie Smith (1894-1937). To say Bessie led a colourful life is an understatement. Hers is also a genuine “rags to riches” story of how a woman from a poor black family used her talents to amass wealth. Most of this was achieved through a recording contract. In 1923 Bessie’s recording of “Down-Hearted Blues” sold over three quarters of a million copies in America in 6 months.

Bessie’s private life was hardly private at all. She never his her tempestuous, sometimes violent, temper, nor her sexual preferences for both men and women. She led the sort of life to which legends attached themselves, though one story may be true. It is said that she once shouted at a female lover that she had 12 women in her show and she could sleep with one every night if she wanted.

Bessie’s untimely death, like so many others of legendary performers, is also surrounded by legend. The plain truth is that she died from injuries she sustained in a car accident in 1937 at the age of 43.

From these influential pioneers, and from other female performers of the Harlem Renaissance, blues and jazz disseminated across the whole of American society and established itself as a timeless genre which still has many fans and performers to this day.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Renaissance Men

As a sort of prequel to my article on composers of the Baroque period here is my look at some from the preceding period, the Renaissance.

The term Renaissance has been used many times over the past 600 years to denote a rebirth of culture, though in a couple of days I’ll write about a more recent Renaissance which was more of a cultural explosion.

The Renaissance period spans the 15th and 16th centuries. It saw huge developments in art and culture which are still familiar to us today through art, literature, architecture and music.

I’ve said many times before that we should be careful not to picture the past with a modern mind. Attitudes and societies change. The very development of the Renaissance is testimony to that. So we have to forget modern sexuality labels. None of the people I mention today would have considered themselves as gay or bisexual.

There are several Renaissance composers I want to mention today. Their sexuality has been queried and looked at by musicologists and historians in recent years.

The first composer is Dominique Phinot (c.1501-c.1556), a popular composer in his own time. He was an early pioneer of a form of music that was particularly influential among the next generation of composers, including one I’ll mention later.

Music was pretty bland in the early Renaissance compared with the myriad of styles we have today. An innovation which was an early experiment in stereo sound was pioneered (though not invented) by Phinot. In the large cathedrals of medieval Europe the sound of 4 male singers would reverberate around the naves and chancel. People like Phinot thought “what if we split the choir into 2 and have them stand in different parts of the cathedral and sing alternately”. This was known as polychoral music. The experience of hearing voices echoing around a cathedral from first one side and then the other, of being surrounded by music, was something worshippers had never heard before.

Most of Phinot’s career was spent in Italy and southern France though, thanks to the development of printing and musical notation, he and other composers found their works distributed throughout Europe. No-one is sure when Phinot died. The generally accepted story, first recorded in 1560, was that Phinot was found guilty of sexual behaviour, sodomy, with a choirboy and was executed shortly after 1555.

There were other composers who wrote polychoral music beside Phinot. A contemporary of his had a very similar polychoral style. He was called Nicolas Gombert (c.1495-c.1560). Gombert developed the style by increasing the number of singers. Four male singers was usual for the early Renaissance choir. Gombert increased this to 8, and sometime to 12, singers. This was also new. I suppose it was the start of the male voice choir and gay men’s chorus that have become so popular.

Gombert’s use of another technique, counterpoint (the singing of 2 different harmonic melodies at the same time), was also among the most accomplished of his time. Perhaps too accomplished, because the Council of Trent (1545-63), which laid down the artistic ideals of the succeeding Baroque period, required more clearly distinguished texts to be sung in church music. As a result Baroque composers wrote fewer and simpler choral works in counterpoint.

Like Phinot Gombert is said to have been charged with sodomy against choirboys. He was employed in the Imperial chapel of Emperor Karl V as “maitre des enfants”, the “master of the children” in the choir. This meant he travelled with the emperor around the Holy Roman Empire acting as choral manager and composer. In 1540 he was replaced in this office. According to a later report Gombert was found guilty of sexual contact with boys in his charge. He managed to escape execution but was sentenced instead to several year’s hard labour on the galleys.

Just how much hard labour he endured is difficult to determine but in the 7 years he served in the galleys he managed to compose a motet which Emperor Karl found so moving that he pardoned Gombert. Perhaps he only served the first part of his sentence in the galleys – he was in his late 40s when sentenced, well into middle-age for the Renaissance. Surely he couldn’t have lasted 7 years doing hard labour AND write a motet.

After his pardon Gombert retired to Tournai, his conviction ruining his future prospects (something celebrities have discovered for themselves in the UK recently after several high-profile sex abuse cases).

At the time when Gombert was being sentenced for sodomy another composer was born who managed to escape both execution and sentence for sodomy. He was Giovan Leonardo Primavera (c.1540-1585).

As with other composers of the Renaissance, including the ones I’ve already mentioned, Primavera spent most of his time in Italy composing for the various courts and church patrons who encouraged the arts and music of the period. Like Phinot and Gombert, Primavera was a popular composer in his lifetime. His most famous work, though rarely heard, is a madrigal based on a homoerotic poem.

In 1570 Primavera was one of several people accused of sodomy at the Church of Our Lady of Loreto. It began with the arrest of one of the church’s canons, Luigi Fontino, who was accused of sexual acts with one of the new choirboys, a teenager called Luigi dalla Balla. Under the threat of torture Fontino confessed and was beheaded. Young Balla confessed under torture to willingly having sex with other men and was whipped and banned from the Papal States. One of those he confessed to having had sex with was Giovan Primavera.

Primavera was to be put on trial but he managed to escape and may have gone to Venice. The next 15 years of his life were relatively quiet. He continued to compose, and may have lived after the publication of a book of his madrigals in 1585.

As for young Luigi dalla Balla, he seems to have become a composer as well. It may be too much to think that he and Primavera might have met again. After all, Primavera spent a lot of his time in Venice, and there’s evidence that Balla wrote a couple of pieces that were published in Venice in 1584 and 1587. They seem to have been in the same city at the same time – why shouldn’t they have met?

The Renaissance saw several changes in music that were pioneered or championed by what can be described as “queer” composers. Whether it was creating the male voice choir or developing new stereo experiences, the work of these composers influenced the development of music right down to the Riot Grrrl movement, the gay disco age, and the Harlem blues.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Out Of Their Musical Tree : Cole Porter

Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Cole Porter. He has long been one of my favourite song and show writers. He has often been compared with Sir Noël Coward but I think they are two very different writers. In tribute to Cole Porter here is a look at his ancestry.

A lot is known about Cole’s wealthy background. In particular his mother Kate (1862-1952) and his grandfather James Omar Cole (1828-1923) have played major parts in his life.

But before I go into his privileged ancestry I want to look at his more humble paternal roots.

The Porter family have Irish roots. The earliest member of the family to arrive in America was James Porter (1699-1778) and his wife Eleanor. Their grandson Andrew is recorded in the 1830 census as living in Gallatin, Kentucky, but he appears to have been born in Maryland and died in Indiana. Andrew’s son Samuel Porter (1810-1883) was the first member of the family to achieve some influence in the community.

In 1851 Samuel was elected as Switzerland County representative to the Indiana State assembly. He was Cole Porter’s other grandfather, and he wasn’t the only state legislator in his ancestry, as you’ll see later.

Samuel Porter married a Scottish immigrant called Catherine McCallum. She had arrived from Scotland with her parents and grandparents in 1818 at the age of 2. Samuel and Catherine were well-off but by no means rich. Their son, also called Samuel (Cole’s father), moved to Peru, Indiana, and began to date young Kate Cole. But Kate’s father, a self-made millionaire, was at first reluctant to see the couple married.

James Omar Cole had made his fortune as a result of the California Gold Rush of 1848. As an adventurous 22-year-old he had left the family home in Peru, Indiana, and headed into the wild Wild West. From his beginnings as a mining assistant he gathered enough wealth in ten years to open several stores, a brewery, a cold-storage company and a sawmill, and become a millionaire.

James wasn’t the first adventurous member of his family. Like all Americans of colonial descent his ancestors wee even more adventurous. Many of them left their homes, either in search of a new life or to escape persecution, and they landed on American soil.

Cole Porter descends from quite a large number of these early settlers. Several families can be grouped together geographically, and I’ll concentrate of them because of their involvement in one of the many conflicts between the colonists and Native Americans – the Pequot War of 1637.

By 1636 European colonists had formed several small settlements in Connecticut consisting of just several hundred people. The area was already a battleground between several native tribes over control over land, and this developed into a battle for control over the fur trade with the colonists. The Pequot traded with the Dutch, and the rival Mohegan traded with the English. Tensions rose, and eventually it led to the capture and deaths of a Pequot chief and an English privateer.

In 1637 the Connecticut General Court (a newly appointed body that was the first to convene independently of the governing Massachusetts council) declared war on the Pequot tribe. Clerk of the Court was Thomas Welles, a settler from Warwickshire in England. He and his family had arrived in America in 1635 and came to the Connecticut settlement of Hartford the following year. Thomas is Cole Porter’s 7-times-great-grandfather.

At the 1637 General Council a special militia of 90 men was raised to fight the Pequots. They included several of Cole’s relatives. The militia made alliances with the Pequot’s rival tribes. They attacked several Pequot villages, and the Pequots surrounded the coastal trading post of Port Saybrook. They raided other settlements, killing up to 30 colonists.

In the small town of Wethersfield there lived a large number of Cole Porter’s ancestors including the Footes, Demings, Treats and Churchills (no relation to Winston), all of whom were to become influential in later American history and have many other famous descendants.

The conflict reached a tragic climax with the Mystic Massacre, an attack by the colonists and their allies on the Pequot village of Mystic. Most of the Pequot warriors had gone to attack Hartford, leaving mainly the women, children and elderly in the village. The militia callously set fire to the village and killed anyone trying to escape. Of the 600 Pequot villagers only less than 20 survived.

Many of the Pequots fled from their other villages and tried to find refuge with other tribes, most of them without success. A large group of Pequot refugees were trapped in swampland. This time the militia allowed the women and children to leave but the rest were attacked and defeated. Any surviving Pequot warriors were hunted down, by both colonists and rival tribes, almost wiping out the Pequot for good.

A second Connecticut General Court was convened at which the Pequot lands were seized and distributed among members of the militia and their allied tribes. Among the families to benefit were Cole Porter’s ancestors Thomas Barnes, Capt. Thomas Weld and Deacon William Peck, among others.

And so did Thomas Welles, the Clerk of the Court. When Connecticut drew up its constitution it was he who produced the documents, effectively declaring Connecticut a separate colony. Thomas rose in the legislature to become Treasurer, then Secretary, then Deputy Governor, and finally Governor of Connecticut, the only person in history to hold all four offices.

Throughout his career Thomas served as a magistrate and served on three witchcraft trials. One of those on trial was another of Cole Porter’s relatives, Mrs. Lydia Gilbert.

There’s another courtroom incident, though it didn’t involve Thomas Welles but his grandson Thomas Thompson. He was married twice. His first wife died leaving 2 daughters (including Anne, Cole’s 4-times-great-grandmother). Thompson remarried, and his new wife had a bit of a temper, according to neighbours, and Thompson was beaten regularly by his wife. In 1705 Thompson’s wife threw a pair of shears at him, the points entering his skull and going into his brain. It didn’t kill him instantly but he survived several days in agony, dying around Christmas time. His widow was put on trial for murder, found guilty, and (we believe, no-one is sure) executed.

Cole Porter had colonial ancestors who lived in other parts of New England. Peter Tallman was a German colonist who settled first on Barbados and then moved to Rhode Island. His grandson William married Anne Lincoln, whose brother was ancestor of Abraham Lincoln. William and Ann’s son Benjamin married Dinah Boone, a first-cousin of frontiersman Daniel Boone.

In the past decade genealogists have been discovering new records and several of Cole Porter’s ancestral lines to royalty have been disproved. One of these was through Thomas Welles above, who has no connection to the English noble family with royal blood from whom he was said to have descended. However, there is one bloodline which provides an appropriate link to an English king, and it comes through Thomas Welles’s wife Alice Tomes. Alice is descended from Piers Gaveston, the lover (and possible “wedded brother” partner) of King Edward II and Constable of Nottingham Castle.

Sunday 12 October 2014

Trending - Coming Out

I’ve noticed a trend over the past 3 years. Since this blog began in 2011 there have been more influential people and celebrities coming out as lgbt each year. Whether this is just because I’m noticing more of them or because more of them are actually coming out is difficult to tell. What it means, though, is that the list of people who have come out since UK National Coming Out Day last year is too long to publish today even if I split it into 2 lists like I did last year. Instead I’ll give an overview of the list and try to find any other trends that are emerging.

As I’ve said before, there’s a difference between coming out publicly and being out personally. I’m both – I’m out personally to everyone who knows me, and I’m out publicly to the world online with this blog. A lot of the people I’ll mention today have also been out personally to people they know and haven’t hid it, but they chose not to mention it publicly to people they don’t know.

I’ve grouped this years newly out people together according to profession – sport, acting, politics, music, and “miscellaneous”. There may be some well-known names I don’t mention today. That doesn’t make them less significant but I want to include as many other names as possible. We’ll start with the largest group, sport.

American collegiate sport has a greater significance in that country than similar academic levels in other countries. I don’t hear of many UK college or university athletes coming out, for instance. The only public sporting event I can think of is the Oxford and Cambridge University boat race. Since last year more US collegiate athletes have come out than before, bumping up the numbers in this group quite significantly.  This may be an indication of the growing acceptance of openly lgbt competing athletes in America. There have been some homophobic responses, but they have not stopped more athletes from coming out.

American football in particular has often appeared to be among the more homophobic sports. This may be changing with the coming out in February of Michael Sam. Cyd Zeigler has followed Michael’s progress in the football league closely on the Outsports website and I recommend you visit it yourself for more information.

The other football, soccer, has also been seen as quite homophobic in the UK. With the coming out of Liam Davis last year it was hoped that more professional footballers would begin to come out. Apart from German league player Thomas Hitzlsperger there has been complete silence.

Perhaps the biggest impact on lgbt sport this year was the Olympic Winter Games in Russia. After the last National Coming Out Day Russia introduced anti-gay legislation, and because the Sochi Olympics were so soon to begin Russia became a focus for protest from lgbt groups around the world. The politics and human rights issues are best dealt with at another time, but it was the anti-gay laws that led to several people coming out officially. Most significantly, Brian Boitano, former Olympic figure skating champion, came out after he was appointed to the US delegation to Sochi. He was joined on the delegation by sport legend Billie Jean King and by Caitlin Cahow, a Team USA ice hockey Olympian who came out in mid-November.

The biggest sporting coming out story was Ian Thorpe’s. Ever since his competing days as a swimmer his sexuality was subject to gossip, and Ian turned his coming out into a media event.

Staying with the Olympics we move to Tom Daley. I’m never sure how well known he is internationally but in the UK he makes more headlines than the legalisation of same-sex marriage. He came out in December.

In total 9 Olympians have come since last year, including those already mentioned.

A more unexpected outing this year came in the world of boxing, not with the Argentine couple Ana Laura Esteche and Johanna “Yoki” Giménez, but with the boxing manager Kellie Maloney who came out as transgender in August and almost immediately found herself in the “Celebrity Big Brother” house.

Moving onto the next largest group by profession, acting, we saw a handful of actors in popular television series coming out, including Andrew Scott (“Sherlock”), Monica Raymond (“The Good Wife”) and Kristian Nairn (“Games of Thrones”).

Of the singers and musicians who came out this year the most unexpected was that of Debbie Harry of Blondie. One singer trying to make a comeback was the UK’s Kavana. He came out in February while he was in the reality series “The Big Reunion”.

Reality tv and talent shows saw a large group of performers coming out, some of whom as mentioned in my recent article on singers in talent contests. Other reality tv personalities to come out include Bob Harper, a personal trainer on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser”, and Mark McAdam, a Sky Sports presenter.

Politics had a smaller number of coming out stories this year. In the UK we saw the first transgender European MP with Nikki Sinclaire. Two US Senators came out – Steve Gallarde and Jim Ferlo – and one former Senator from Puerto Rico, Roberto Arango. Germany’s Employment Minister, Barbara Hendricks, came out in December, one month after Scottish Minister for Local Government, Derek Mackay.

The last group can only be described as “miscellaneous”. They include the newly appointed head of the World Psychiatric Association, Dinesh Bhugra (how fitting to have an openly lgbt head of a profession which for many decades classed homosexuality as a mental illness). Kenyan author Binyavanga Wianaina came out on his birthday in January, the only writer on this year’s list. Less than 2 weeks ago I mentioned the 3 beauty pageant queens to come out, to which I can also add the model Andreja Pejic.

The international range of those who came out is larger than before. The bulk have been from the USA or UK, but other nationalities which appear include those from Brazil, Canada, Finland, Peru, Sweden and Uruguay.

Saturday 11 October 2014

War in Words

On 2nd October the UK held its annual National Poetry Day. This made me think of the war poets of almost a century ago. The First World War wasn’t the first to be written about in poetry, but it produced the most well-known war poets.

In today’s article I look at some of these war poets, and have a little look on either side of the First World War to other conflicts that have inspired lgbt writers to express their feelings about war.

There are several categories into which war poetry and literature can fall. The first is the heroic poetry of Ancient Greece as seen in “The Iliad”. Queer poets have often written works that come under a second category, that of homoerotic encounters within the field of war. A third category, and one which may cross over into the second, is the war poetry of lgbt writers such as Siegfried Sassoon. This category includes elegies and memorial poetry. A fourth category which I’ll leave for another time is literature by lgbt writers who use war as a background to their work rather than as a result or commentary on it.

One of the less well-known collections of war poetry, called “Drum Taps”, is by Walt Whitman (1819-1892), whose experience working with the wounded of the American Civil War produced works expressing the loss of a loved one during conflict. This is a loss experienced by all, but Whitman’s “Drum Taps” places his own attraction to wounded soldiers into a sense of personal loss.

This sense of loss continues in the literature of the First World War, but it is also often accompanied by a sense of injustice and the feeling of the futility of war. This was brought into sharp focus in the life of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918).

Owen served as an officer in the British army. He suffered from shellshock, and in 1917 whilst recuperating in Edinburgh met Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967). Sassoon introduced Owen to the Greek elegies which were to influence his work. Owen’s elegies were not merely recounting heroism and valour but also includes, through his own personal experiences, the harsh reality of trench warfare.

It is Owen’s own death on the battle front, just a week before the Armistice was signed in 1918, that provided an added level of injustice to his poems.

Siegfried Sassoon is, perhaps, the most well-known of the war poets from the First World War. At first he was a willing fighter but later, after the death of his lover at Gallipoli and experiencing the horrors of war, he began to express views against the British government’s conduct of the war. It was at this time that he met Wilfred wen and, like Owen, returned to the war in France. Unlike Owen Sassoon survived the war and lived through World War II.

The traditional elegy and the platonic homoeroticism that marked the war poetry of the First World War was carried into the 1920s and 30s by Sassoon and other writers such as Stephen Spender (1909-1995). Spender worked as a journalist in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

By the outbreak of World War II in 1939 there was a shift in society’s attitude to homoeroticism in war literature. “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, an account of the Arab conflict around the time of the end of the First World War by T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) wasn’t published until 1935, the year of his untimely death. It’s more explicit portrayal of homosexuality was seen as “acceptable” because it was centred mainly on the actions of his captors. Lawrence’s own genuine homosexual desires were played down.

World War II produced very little in the way of the war poetry that equalled the power and legacy of the First World War. In contradiction to my intention not to include later works that use the war as a background one major work which was written in the late 1970s has played a major role in revealing a little-known aspect of World War II. It is a play calledBent”. Unlike the writers already mentioned there was no personal experience upon which to base the play, only accounts from others. “Bent” revealed the persecution of gay men living in Nazi Germany.

While it cannot be classed as war literature in the true sense of the term “Bent” should not be overlooked in any literary overview of the war. Its influence has led to an increased knowledge of the horrors of war, and the creation of memorials to lgbt victims from the Holocaust.

The war poetry of the First World War was just one of the many influences in the way we see warfare today. Criticism of the injustices are not seen as cowardly, as they might have done before when going to war was seen as heroic and good. Since the First World War more visual images have become more prevalent than the written word through photographs, films and news reels. Today new war literature is a very small part of the public’s awareness of war, and the image has become more powerful than the word.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Star Gayzing : A Musical Map of Venus

In the first of my “Out Of This World” series about astronomical objects and features on other planets named after people I mentioned that all of the names used for features on Venus are female.

This became the subject of an opera by lesbian composer Sorrel Hays. The ultimate result was called “Mapping Venus”, and it was originally inspired by a NASA space mission called the Magellan Project.

Because Venus is shrouded in a thick cloud of acid vapour it has been impossible to see any surface features with earth-bound telescopes. The only way to see what was on the planet’s surface was to land probes on it, or by obtaining radar data collected by an orbiting spacecraft. In 1978 NASA’s Pioneer Venus Orbiter produced the first map of the surface using radar. Once features could be identified the task of naming them began.

The naming of all astronomical and planetary bodies is the responsibility of the International Astronomical Union. It is they who authorise the names of the asteroids I’ve been listing in my “Out Of This World” mini-series. It is also they who decided to name all the features on Venus after women, both real and mythological.

By 1989 there was a desire to make better maps of Venus, so the Magellan probe was launched. It arrived at Venus in 1990. The resulting radar images created a more detailed map and revealed a lot more features to name.

Among the lgbt women who have had features on Venus named after them are:
Jane Addams (1860-1935), social reformer and Nobel Peace Prize winner,
Josephine Baker (1906-1975), dancer and entertainer,
Aphra Behn (1640-1689), writer,
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), actor,
Karen Blixen (1885-1962), writer,
Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), painter,
Karin Boye (1900-1941), writer,
Willa Cather (1873-1947), writer,
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), writer,
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), poet,
Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), dancer,
Eleanora Duse (1859-1924), actor,
Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912), pioneer female physician,
Frida Kahlo (1910-1954), artist,
Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940), novelist, first female Nobel Literature Prize winner,
Wanda Landowska (1877-1959), harpsichordist,
Margaret Mead (1901-1978), anthropologist,
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), poet,
Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986), painter,
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), writer,
Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967), writer and art patron,
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), writer.

In 1995 Sorrel Hays was commissioned to compose a piece by Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne for their experimental drama department.  This is just one of 8 commissions Sorrel received from them since 1983, and the new commission evolved into what was to be her most ambitious project to date.

The commission resulted in the radio opera “Dream in Her Mind”. Taking NASA’s Magellan project as the starting point Sorrel created an ethereal gathering of a group of famous women from history on the planet itself.

Chief “surveyor” and cartographer of this gathering is Gertrude Stein who encourages the other women to choose which part of the planet they prefer. In the opera Sorrel includes text from Stein and other female writers who gather on Venus – Hildegard of Bingen, Simone de Beauvoir and Emily Dickinson, among others – to explore female consciousness. Not surprisingly, most of the women who gather on Venus is this musical work do now have actual features on the planet named after them.

“Dream in Her Mind” was developed into the larger work called “Mapping Venus”.

One of the main features in Sorrel’s work is the use of electronic techniques including synthesisers and pre-recorded sound. In this she often works closely with her partner Marilyn Reis, who is one of the first female audio engineers to make a mark in a male-dominated industry.

Monday 6 October 2014

Guess the Year - Answers

Here are the answers to the quiz I gave you four days ago.

1981 - Justin Fashanu becomes the first black footballer to be a million pound transfer in UK soccer.

2009 - The first season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” airs on US television.

2014 - Uganda celebrates the 50th anniversary of the canonisation of 22 boys and men murdered by the paedophile King of Buganda because they refused to have sex with him.

1982 - Paul Winfield, on of those actors whose face you recognised but can never remember the name, co-stars in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”.

2013 - Legendary singer-songwriter Frank Ocean comes out as bisexual.

1970 - Chris Dickerson is the first black American bodybuilder to win the Mr America title.

1978 - Sylvester tops the dance charts with “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”.

1877 - Edmonia Lewis is commissioned by former US President Ulysses S. Grant to sculpt his bust.

2006 - The UK holds its first Black Pride festival.

2008 - US Army Major Alan Rogers becomes the first known lgbt victim of the conflict in Iraq.

1792 - Benjamin Banneker – farmer, astronomer and surveyor – produces the first astronomical almanac to be published by a black American.

1988 - Sir Ian McKellen comes out on a BBC radio discussion programme.

1312 - King Edward II’s lover, Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall, is murdered.

117 - Hadrian becomes Emperor of Rome.

1997 - Ellen DeGeneres comes out on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”.

1998 - Dana International becomes the first transgender winner of the Eurovision Song Contest.

2011 - The US military policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed.

1951 - Gilbert Baker, designer of the first Rainbow Pride flag in 1978, is born.

1973 - Sir Elton John writes the song “Candle in the Wind” which he later performs at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997.

1984 - US equestrian Robert Dover competes in the first of his record-breaking 6 appearances by an lgbt athlete at the Olympic Games.

Saturday 4 October 2014

Celebrating Mariah

Today I feel a mixture of sadness and celebration. In August, during the run of the most recent Gay Games in Cleveland, I wrote a short series on some of the medallists from previous games. One of those I mentioned, in fact the first one and the athlete who inspired the theme of that mini-series, was Mariah Crossland.

Several weeks afterwards I was contacted by Martha Newell, a close friend of Mariah’s, who informed me that Mariah had sadly lost her battle with cancer on 3rd September.

I thought it would be appropriate today to put this link to Mariah’s obituary, written by her friends, because today is Mariah’s memorial service and celebration of her life. I thank Martha for contacting me and giving me this chance to celebrate Mariah’s achievements.

When you read the obituary I hope you will follow the suggestion given at the end and celebrate Mariah’s life. I will.

Thursday 2 October 2014

Guess the Year

October is Black History Month in the UK and LGBT History Month in the US, so here’s another quiz for you.

Below is a list of years. Below that is a list of events in lgbt history. Can you match up the event to the correct year? Only one event in given for each year. In celebration of Black History Month the first ten questions are on black lgbt history.


1)     Justin Fashanu becomes the first black footballer to be a million pound transfer in UK soccer.

2)     The first season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” airs on US television.

3)     Uganda celebrates the 50th anniversary of the canonisation of 22 boys and men murdered by the paedophile King of Buganda because they refused to have sex with him.

4)     Paul Winfield, one of those actors whose face you recognise but can never remember the name, co-stars in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”.

5)     Legendary singer-songwriter Frank Ocean comes out as bisexual.

6)     Chris Dickerson is the first black American bodybuilder to win the Mr America title.

7)     Sylvester tops the disco dance charts with “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”.

8)     Edmonia Lewis is commissioned by former US President Ulysses S. Grant to sculpt his bust.

9)     The UK holds its first Black Pride festival.

10)  Major Alan Rogers becomes the first known US lgbt victim of the conflict in Iraq.

11)  Benjamin Banneker – farmer, astronomer and surveyor – produces the first astronomical almanac to be published by a black American.

12)  Sir Ian McKellen comes out on a BBC radio discussion programme.

13)  King Edward II’s lover, Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall, is murdered.

14)  Hadrian becomes Emperor of Rome.

15)  Ellen DeGeneres comes out on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”.

16)  Dana International becomes the first transgender winner of the Eurovision Song Contest.

17)  The US military policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed.

18)  Gilbert Baker, designer of the first Rainbow Pride flag in 1978, is born.

19)  Sir Elton John writes the song “Candle in the Wind” which he later performs at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997.

20)  US equestrian Robert Dover competes in the first of his record-breaking 6 appearances by an lgbt athlete at the Olympic Games.

I’ll give the answers next week.