Sunday 30 November 2014

The Twelve Noëls of Christmas : 1

My Christmas theme this year follows the format of previous ones where I take “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as my inspiration. This year I’m creating a semi-French flavour by introducing the idea of “Joyeux Noël”. I’m also thinking of one of my favourite carols, “The First Noël the Angels Did Say” and have come up with my 2014 theme of “The Twelve Noëls of Christmas”.

Over this and the next three Sundays in Advent I’ll be looking at 12 lgbt people called Noel. Here are the first three, and there’s no more obvious person to start with than …

The 1st Noël - SIR NOËL COWARD (1899-1973)
I’ve featured Sir Noël several times in my blog in the past – his ancestry, and his friendship with a war hero. Sir Noël is so well known that there’s very little I can say that is new, so I won’t bother. Instead I’ll concentrate on two lesser known Noels.

The 2nd Noël – NOEL TOVEY (b.1934)
Noel Tovey’s life can be divided into three periods. The first begins in Melbourne, Australia, with Tovey’s birth on Christmas Day (hence Noel). He came from a mixed-heritage family – his father was half African-Creole and Scottish, and his mother was half Aboriginal and New Zealander. The family were poor and Noel’s childhood was far from ideal – his father was abusive and was imprisoned, and his mother was an alcoholic. Added to this was the racial stigma of being part Aboriginal. Before he was 13 Noel had been living on the streets working as a rent-boy. It was no surprise that he wanted to get as far away from this place as soon as possible.

In 1951 Noel was arrested with others who attended a private party hosted by a well-known drag performer named Max du Barry. The authorities seemed determined to have them all prosecuted for “the abominable crime of buggery”. Noel was forced into making a confession, which wasn’t true, and he spent 3 weeks in prison. During this time he considered suicide.

The rest of the 1950s were full of denial – denial of his racial heritage, and denial of his sexuality. As a lot of gay men did in the 1950s Noel got married and fathered a child. The marriage didn’t last and Noel discovered a new avenue to escape from the stress of his life – theatre. This was the start of the 2nd period in his life.

In 1960 Noel arrived in the UK. He found work as a singer and dancer, and within a year was a principal dancer with Sadlers Wells. As his career grew he found himself working with stars such as Judy Garland, Dame Vera Lynn and Kenneth Branagh. He was also involved in the world premieres of “Oh! Calcutta!” and “The Boyfriend”. Researching 1920s dance for the latter earned him the job as consultant on the film “Murder on the Orient Express”.

By now Noel had accepted his sexuality and had a partner who, sadly, died of AIDS in 1986. Even though open about his sexuality Noel kept his racial background hidden. His partner’ death made him realise he could not hide everything forever, and this eventually led to the 3rd and present period of his life.

Sitting on a beach in Sydney while on holiday Noel said he heard ancestral voices calling him back to live in his homeland. Noel had gained sufficient confidence in facing his heritage to make him move back. His reputation as a dancer and choreographer was high. He was in demand from many Australian theatres and dance groups. He even became part of the Olympic family in 2000 when he became Artistic Director of the Indigenous welcome ceremonies that greeted athletes and delegates to Sydney.

Noel also became an advocate of lgbt and Aboriginal rights, and more recently for older people’s rights. He was awarded a lifetime achievement award in 2010 from the {also}Foundation, and received an Indigenous Fellowship which enabled him to write his autobiography.

In September this year Noel was headline news again when the state government of Victoria overturned all historical convictions for gay sex, including Noel’s time in prison. So on top of his successes through the 2nd and 3rd periods of his life he won’t end his days as a convicted criminal because of the first.

The 3rd Noel – NOEL CHEN
Noel Chen is a leading figure in the fight against Communist-led homophobia in Hong Kong. With it’s no-that-distant past as a British colony and it’s present protected special economic status Hong Kong saw many lgbt youngsters moving here to escape Chinese oppression. A vibrant lgbt culture was building up at the turn of the century but Chinese authorities still did their best to suppress any personal freedoms.

Noel Chen founded Rainbow Hong Kong in 1999, an lgbt support and campaigning group which provided advice and support. Rainbow also organised small conventions where activists from other parts of China came to speak. Chen also travels to the mainland to speak at events there.

The first major campaign organised by Chen came in 2001 after he was turned away from a blood donor centre because of his sexuality. This is a situation gay men have had to suffer in other countries since the HIV/AIDS epidemic began. Chen led a group of fellow activists and stormed a Red Cross event in Hong Kong in protest.

Later that year the Hong Kong police raided a local shop which sold S&M fetish gear. Chen led a protest against the police by having his fellow activists tie him to the iron fence outside the police station in pseudo-S&M manner. As the police removed him Chen gave a deliberately exaggerated show of pain, knowing that there was a lot of media present. The protest was broadcast across southern China.

Noel Chen isn’t well known outside Hong Kong and China, but his activism places him at the forefront of lgbt rights in southeast Asia.

Next Sunday I’ll tell you about the next three Noels of Christmas, when we learn about Victorian poetry, male beauty pageants and the Shroud of Turin.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations to Noel Tovey, who was awarded an AM (Member of the Order of Australia) in the Australia Day Honours on 26th January 2015.