Friday 27 February 2015

Coded Lives : 3 - The Chevalier's Secret

The main task of any code is to disguise the true meaning of things, to keep reality a secret, to keep people guessing. And no-one kept people guessing about his secrets more than the 18th century individual known as the Chevalier d’Éon. But then, it was his job to keep secrets because he was a spy.

The Chevalier’s life is so full of intrigue and action that it easily qualifies for an “Extraordinary Life” article. Indeed, his life is so full of intrigue and action that I intend to write 2 articles on him. This, the first, deals with his life up to 1774, the year his spymaster, King Louis XV of France, died.

Born in 1728 into a family of the Burgundian minor nobility the Chevalier, baptised Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée Éon de Beaumont, managed to gain the patronage of several influential noblemen in Paris. The most powerful of these was the king’s cousin, Prince Louis-François de Bourbon, Prince of Conti.

Europe at that time was almost constantly at war with itself. The Seven Years War began in 1756 and Charles d’Éon was chosen as an agent of the “Secret du Roi” by King Louis. This was a top, top, top secret organisation which even the French government didn’t know about. The agents spied for the king, and the king alone.

The Seven Years War can be regarded as the first “World War”. It pitted Britain against France in Europe, India, Africa and the Americas. The European campaigns relied on alliances between Austria and Prussia. Charles d’Éon was sent to the Russian court just before the start of the war to try to persuade the Empress Elizabeth to become an ally of France. The British had begun to patrol border crossings into Russia and only allowed women and children to cross into the empire. The apocryphal story often told is that Charles, disguised as a woman, managed to enter Russia, live with the Empress’s Maids of Honour and even become one of them. He successfully passed on a secret letter from King Louis to the Empress expressing the desire for a political alliance.

Whatever the facts about this first mission it seems d’Éon was trusted with a bigger mission to Russia the following year. This time he had an official government post as secretary to the French ambassador. In fact both men were working as agents of the Secret du Roi behind the French government’s back.

This time the secret mission was to persuade the Empress to give support to King Louis’s desire to put his cousin, the Prince of Conti, onto the throne of Poland (offered to him by a faction of Polish nobles). However, this mission failed and the Ambassador was recalled back to France.

Charles d’Éon found his power and influence increased when it became clear that the new ambassador, the Marquess de l’Hôpital, was inept and totally useless. Single-handedly d’Éon secured the Empress Elizabeth’s signature on the Treaty of Versailles in 1756, and secured the overthrow of the Russian Chancellor, a known supporter of Prussia. The Empress even offered d’Éon a job but, because he was a secret agent, turned it down.

D’Éon remained in Russia until 1760 when the aging Marquess was replaced by a younger ambassador. D’Éon had hoped to succeed the Marquess himself and decided his usefulness in Russia was over.

D’Éon served as a dragoon officer in several battles in the Seven Years War, and in 1762 was appointed to the delegation in London who negotiated the subsequent peace treaty. King Louis knighted him and from hence forward he was known as the Chevalier d’Éon. King George III even trusted him to carry the treaty to Versailles for King Louis to sign.

King George’s trust was misplaced. Still working as a spy the Chevalier was under orders to gather intelligence that would help King Louis of France invade England. Unfortunately, the king’s mistress, the Madame de Pompadour, discovered some of Louis’s secret files and had alerted the French government, who then tried to uncover the full extent of the Secret du Roi.

The Chevalier was now living in London as an official diplomat of the French court. The French government demanded his return, but King Louis sent secret orders for him to remain. After the French government branded him a traitor the Chevalier decided to publish selected documents and letters from his secret missions. The book caused a huge scandal. Forget Wikileaks, the Chevalier’s disclosures meant that both the French and British governments were wary of doing anything that would force him to reveal more.

King George III was wary of extraditing the Chevalier as the French government requested because of the fear he would reveal British secrets to the French. King Louis didn’t want him back for fear of him revealing French secrets to the British. However, putting on a show of solidarity with his government Louis signed an extradition order against d’Éon whilst secretly alerting him.

The Chevalier had now exposed his secret life as a spy and his diplomatic career was over. He lived in London as an exile for several more years, protected by his undisclosed secrets. Unfortunately, in 1774 his spymaster King Louis XV died, to be succeeded by Louis XVI who wasn’t interested in the Secret du Roi and wound down the organisation. The new king had a secret mission of his own, which was to see the return of the Chevalier d’Éon to France and his continued silence.

And so Charles, le Chevalier d’Éon returned to his homeland in 1777. There were several conditions. In return for a very nice pension the Chevalier had to keep his spy work secret forever, and he was to dress as a woman for the rest of his life.

That ends the tale of the Chevalier d’Éon for now. In November I’ll return with a look at his extraordinary life as a woman and try to uncover the mystery of his gender and sexuality.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Part 4 - A Torch

Last Time : German athlete 7) Otto Peltzer competed at the 1928 Olympics at which 8) Renée Sintenis won a bronze medal, and at which games was the grandfather of 9) Jacques Snyman Wiechiech, winner of 4 gold medals at the Gay Games, founded by 10) Tom Waddell.

10) Tom Waddell (1937-1987) competed at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and acted as team physician to the Saudi Arabian team at the Munich Olympics in 1976. He was a decathlete, and this provides another link to 9) Jacques Snyman Wiechiech, because Jacques won a decathlon gold medal at the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago. The founding of the Gay Games by Tom Waddell has been covered before on this blog (just click on "Gay Games" in the labels list), so I won’t repeat myself too much here. Tom himself competed at the first Gay Games in 1982.

The Gay Games were originally billed as the Gay Olympics until the US Olympic Committee objected and successfully banned the use of the word “Olympic” from the Gay Games. This setback didn’t stop the games from becoming bigger (in terms of competitors) than the Olympics.

Looking at the years in which the first Gay Games were held (1982 and 1986) it becomes clear that they occurred at the start of the AIDS crisis. The games were a direct result of Tom’s aim to show that gay men and women can be fit and healthy and compete in sport on the same level as straight athletes. The emergence of AIDS made this aim even more important. There was a lot more homophobia in sport in the 1980s than there is now.

Unfortunately, by 1982 and 1986 many gay men had contracted and been diagnosed with HIV. Many talented and promising lgbt athletes (amateur and professional) were lost to the disease, and their absence from later Gay Games was felt deeply, not least of all being the death of Tom Waddell himself in 1987.

Before I continue on the theme of HIV I want to skip back to 9) Jacques Snyman Wiechiech, who brings our next name into the link - 11) Tim Sullivan (b.1961).

When Jacques was living in the UK he played with the King’s Cross Steelers, the world’s first, purposely-formed, lgbt rugby club. 11) Tim Sullivan has been the Chair of the club since 2009, and during that time they have successfully defended their Union Cup European championship title right up to the present year.

An Olympic connection comes in 2012 when Tim was chosen as one of the torch relay runners. His nomination specifically mentioned his role in championing lgbt inclusion in sport and the community, and to the King’s Cross Steelers in particular. Running through the London suburb of Havering on 22nd July 2012, just 5 days before the London Olympic opening ceremony, Tim became one of over a dozen lgbt torch bearers chosen for their contribution to the lgbt community.

London 2012 was the most inclusive torch relay as far as the lgbt community is concerned but it wasn’t the first to feature openly gay runners. And we go back to South Africa for our next link.

12) Shaun Mellors (b.1965) connects to all the previous 3 names. Like 11) Tim Sullivan he has run with the Olympic flame. Like 9) Jacques Snyman Wiechiech he is from South Africa and has competed in the Gay Games. And as Gay Games founder 10) Tom Waddell had before him, Shaun has HIV.

Shaun was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. He declared his HIV status openly during a campaign by the South African government, but like many others like him, the stigma associated with the disease led to him losing his job. Since then Shaun has become one of the leading South African AIDS educators and campaigners.

One repercussion of the early AIDS crisis was the imposition of international travel restrictions for people with HIV. This was to effect Shaun most deeply when he travelled to the US to take part in the Gay Games in New York in 1994. He refused to answer the question about having a communicable disease on his visa application. The US government had granted special waivers to HIV+ athletes who attended the games. When the immigration authorities read an interview where Shaun admitted he didn’t declare his HIV status they deported him.

When Shaun applied for another visa a year later to attend an AIDS conference he was turned down because the authorities said he obtained his previous visa fraudulently. Luckily, colleagues in the White House AIDS Program negotiated a special waver for him. The travel ban was repealed in 2008, far too late for many.

In 2004 Shaun Mellors was chosen to run with the Athens Olympic torch through Cape Town on 12th June. Of the 60 relay runners in that city that day Shaun was one of 5 who were nominated specifically for their contribution to HIV/AIDS research or campaigns. One of the others was 13) Prudence Mabele.

Saturday 21 February 2015

The Seven Deadly Gay Sins : Seeing Red With Anger

The most popular of my tours of lgbt Nottingham is entitled “The 7 Deadly Gay Sins”. The Medieval world assigned colours to each of the traditional Deadly Sins. Six of these correspond to colours on the Rainbow Pride flag. My tour deals with each sin, one at a time, and I build up the Pride flag as I take my guests around the city and tell them about the sinful gay/lgbt history of Nottingham.

This short series of articles will deal with each sin in the same manner and I’ll look at the way they can be illustrated with lgbt heritage and build up our sinful Pride flag. The best place to start is at the top stripe as we take a look at ANGER and the colour RED with which it is inextricably linked.

Over the centuries the Christian church has included wrath, rage and fury. Impatience, revenge and vigilantism have also been classed as Anger. Indeed, patience is the corresponding opposite of Anger in the Catholic Church’s list of Seven Heavenly Virtues (to be covered next year).

One word which is included less often, however, is hate. It could be said that hate is the route cause of all the emotions under the Anger label. Recent decades have seen governments recognise hate as a crime in itself, specifically if it is directed against minority groups or opposing viewpoints.

Surprisingly, one word has never been (officially) listed under Anger, and that word is “violence”. This is very strange because the Medieval church said that the punishment the sinful angry would receive in Hell was to be torn apart alive violently.

Be that as it may, as far as the lgbt community is concerned it can be said without question that it has been a victim of Anger more than having been a perpetrator. The Medieval church said that the sin of anger can even be directed against yourself. This is why, until the middle of the last century, suicide was considered a crime, and the world still sees with sadness the high levels of lgbt suicides due to bullying or self-doubt.

There are many instances where the Anger of lgbt men and women has led to sinful deeds. Let’s look at a couple of them.

Close to home, quite literally, was the murder of Grenville Carter, a gay man who loved a few doors away from my old home in Nottingham in 1999. I wrote about this murder several years ago, but it’s appropriate to go over it again briefly to see how it fits our Deadly Gay Sins theme.

Grenville Carter was a lonely man who often walked through the cemetery behind our homes, offering rough sleepers the shelter of his home. One rough sleeper was Simon Charles, who had already served a prison sentence for attempted murder. Grenville Carter knew none of this, of course. During the month Charles lived with Grenville he became annoyed at his host’s habits, and his patience ran out and turned to rage and he murdered Grenville with an electric flex. Impatience and rage had turned to the Deadly Gay Sin of Anger.

When it comes to other lgbt murderers the name of several serial killers spring to mind (Denis Nielsen, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy). However, their killing sprees were motivated more by other sins (greed or lust, for example) rather than out of anger.

The lesbian murderer I’ve chosen to illustrate the Anger of impatience led to the death of an unfortunate neighbour.

The body of old Mrs. Chadwick was found in a Manchester street in 1948. Police first thought it was a hit-and-run attack, but a trail of blood led straight to the door of her neighbour Margaret Allen. Even though the victim was well-known as a cantankerous old miser, Margaret Allen’s reputation was worse. Margaret behaved like a man throughout her adulthood. She took on masculine jobs such as loading coal and building, and acted aggressively, and sometimes violently, to people she had little patience for. Unfortunately, this lost her a job as a bus conductor after passengers kept complaining about her pushing, hitting and swearing at them it they didn’t take their seat quickly enough.

After her mother’s death Margaret slipped into a series of mental health problems which could have been treated compassionately today. Bouts of depression and several suicide attempts drove Margaret to drink and smoke heavily. By 1948 she was calling herself “Bill” and claimed to have had some form of transgender operation.

On 28th August 1948 old Mrs. Chadwick called at Margaret Allen’s home for a cup of sugar. She had enough money to buy some but often begged off her neighbours. Margaret refused to let her into her home and lost her patience. Grabbing a coal hammer she smashed poor Mrs. Chadwick’s skull several times and pushed her out of the door into the street.

When arrested a couple of days later all Margaret said was “I was in a funny mood”. Funny or not, her characteristic impatience and quick temper led to murder. Her trial lasted only 5 hours, and the jury took less time than it took me to type this article to find her guilty. She was hanged in January 1949 after a failed attempt by her only friend, Mrs. Cole, who had once spurned Margaret’s amorous advances, compiled a petition. Only 162 people signed it.

So, we can start to build up our Deadly Rainbow Sins flag with our first Deadly Gay Sin.

We sin again in April when we look at the sin associated with the next colour on the Pride flag, orange. The colour gives a clue to which sin we encounter, and we will see if it feeds our soul or our sinful appetites!

Thursday 19 February 2015

Out of Their Trees : Freedom!

Today’s genealogical quest for US Black History Month looks at the African-American poet Cyrus Cassells. This is also the first of several articles I’ll write throughout this year to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. For several centuries the Magna Carta has been seen as a shining example of the granting or rights and freedoms under law. Cyrus Cassells’ ancestry illustrates several of these freedoms, not least of all the freedom from slavery.

Cyrus Curtis Cassells III was born in Dover, Delaware, in 1957 and was named after his father and grandfather. Much of Cyrus’s poetry gets its inspiration from his family history, though I’m not sure exactly how much he really knows about his remarkable ancestors.

Cyrus’s father, Cyrus Cassells junior, was one of only 6 African-American entrants to West Point academy in 1955, and when they were assigned segregated quarters they refused to enter their rooms. Bravely they stood their ground and were assigned new quarters where they lived among the white cadets. Cyrus junior joined the US Air Force, studied for a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and joined NASA in 1980 as a project engineer. In 1995 he was instrumental in the reversing of the court-martials of “the Tuskagee Airmen”, black pilots of World War II, one of whom was his brother-in-law.

Cyrus junior wasn’t the first in the family to fight for his rights. Back in the early 19th century members of the Cassells family were helping fellow African-Americans to escape slavery. The Cassells were themselves slaves. In about 1814 Thomas James Cassells (Cyrus’s 3xgreat-grandfather) was born into slavery. His mother was a slave called Rachel Hill and his father was her white owner William Cassells of Virginia. Although many slave owners were guilty of legal rape and fathered many illegitimate children it is apparent from surviving documents that William treated Rachel and her children as his family.

The two had 7 children, and William bought Rachel and her children land in Ohio while they were still slaves. Slavery was illegal in Ohio but racism existed. William couldn’t give his family their freedom in Ohio, however, as that would require posting a bond of $500 (a fortune in those days) to the Ohio government for each individual settling there from another state. William may have been wealthy, but not that wealthy. So he ensured that when he died they would be classed as Ohio landowners and entitled to settle on their land without paying a bond.

No doubt fearing legal reprisals back home in Virginia William chose not to free his family, giving the appearance to the outside world that they were slaves. He didn’t give them their freedom, along with his other slaves, until his death in 1824.

Using part of her Ohio property Rachel Hill ordered the building of one of the first schools for children of former slaves (which was named after her) in Berlin Crossroads, Ohio, in 1869. Her whole family seem to have been well educated while they were officially slaves of William Cassells, some of the very few slaves to be given any form of education.

Two of Rachel’s sons entered a dangerous and secret underworld where they risked their lives daily. Thomas James Cassells and his younger brother John were active participants in a network of secret escape routes for slaves called the “Underground Railroad” of which the Ohio network was the most active. I wrote briefly about the Underground Railroad in my “Out of Their Trees” article on Langston Hughes, whose grandfather was a neighbour of the Cassells and a leading member of the movement.

Members of the Underground Railroad would seek out escaped slaves. The Cassells brothers were “agents” at Berlin Crossroads, people who helped the refugees to find somewhere to stay, or obtain money from supporters before journeying by rail to securer freedom further north.

Another of the Cassells’ neighbours were the Woodsons, also freed slaves, who were even more involved in the Underground Railroad. They personally led the refugees from hiding place to the rail station. The danger they faced from their racist neighbours is illustrated by an apocryphal story in which two Woodson brothers were beaten to death when their activities were discovered. Their sister Frances went on to marry Thomas James Cassells and their eldest son, Cyrus Crayton Cassells (1845-1919), is poet Cyrus Cassells’ great-great-grandfather. Their youngest son, Thomas Frank Cassells (c.1847-1903), moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and became the first black Assistant Attorney General of Memphis in 1878. Two years later he was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the most intriguing aspect of Cyrus Cassells’ ancestry. Family tradition says that the Woodsons were grandchildren of President Thomas Jefferson. At first this seems unlikely, until you realise that Frances Woodson, wife of Thomas James Cassells, was said to be the grand-daughter of Sally Hemmings, a slave of President Jefferson.

Gossip about Jefferson fathering several children with Sally was going around in his own lifetime. Debate and controversy has continued into the present century with some historians accepting it as fact. Jefferson’s children was said to have been “fostered out” to a white farm owner called John Woodson from whom they took their name. The whole matter is dealt with comprehensively on this website. The most recent belief, based on DNA tests, is that the Woodson’s have no bloodline links to Jefferson, or any conclusive proof that Sally Hemmings is their ancestor. Family tradition is a strange thing so perhaps the Jefferson connection has some other basis.

Cyrus Cassells’ maternal ancestry also exhibits high achievement among black Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cyrus’s mother, Isabel Williston, was, like his father, of mixed-race heritage. Isabel’s African-American great-grandfather, Frank Williston, obtained an important job with the IRS, and her great-uncle Edward was a respected physician who became Professor of Obstetrics and Howard University.

Isabel’s maternal grandmother was Mary Lena Riddle, a white woman whose ancestor emigrated to the USA from Scotland in the early 18th century. The Riddles are members of the Riddel clan of Roxburghshire in the Scottish Borders. Through them Cyrus Cassells has a hereditary claim to wear the Riddell tartan. So I’ll leave you with the thought of Cyrus Cassells in a kilt and wearing the family badge proudly on his chest.

Monday 16 February 2015

Coded Lives : 2 - The Kahlo Secret

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is Hispanic America’s most famous female artist. Like so many painters she put her own feelings and emotions into her art, but for many years she kept her most anguished feelings private in an illustrated diary.

The source of Frida’s anguish was not her bisexuality but stemmed from a series of accidents that left her permanently injured, both physically and mentally. Her diary illustrates more than any other of her works why the Mexicans call her “la heroina del color” – the heroine of pain.

At the age of 6 or 7 Frida contracted polio which she disguised from everyone by wearing think woollen socks over her withering leg. This led to her developing a limp and twisted pelvis and unending pain.

Eleven years later Frida and her boyfriend were involved in an accident involving an electric streetcar. Frida was impaled on a metal handrail which smashed her twisted pelvis and lower spine. She broke her collarbone and two ribs, and her already damaged right leg was fractured in eleven places. Her boyfriend, trapped under the streetcar, sustained relatively few injuries.

For the rest of her life Frida’s injuries caused great pain, and she underwent over thirty operations and spent many months in hospital. Despite the injuries to her pelvis Frida became pregnant three times by her husband, fellow artist Diego Rivera. None of the pregnancies reached their full term – one was a miscarriage, and the others wee aborted. Perhaps she realised there would never be a safe birth for her children. This was another cause of anguish for her.

Most of Frida’s art reflected her various feelings and pains in her life, but in her personal diary she wrote and drew her expressions of her deepest emotions.

It seems that she began her diary in 1944. There’s no proper chronological order to the entries. Frida wrote and drew what she felt at the time, frequently going back to past events in her life. There are colourful drawings and collages, just as you’d expect from Frida Kahlo’s work.

At first the diary appears thoughtful and colourful. As Frida’s health deteriorated and she spent more time in hospital the tone turned darker. She drew a childish doll with one disembodied hand and eye falling to the ground. Above it she writes “Yo soy la desintegración” (I am disintegration), as if Frida recognises her body is falling apart.

Later, during her final month, she depicts herself in ideal female form though a bold mauve line dissecting her left leg at the knee representing the amputation of her leg due to gangrene. The final drawing is of a dark angel of death.

A few months later, in July 1954, Frida died. Officially the cause was pulmonary embolism, but it is widely believed that it could have been suicide.

Frida’s diary, although revealing her innermost feelings, has been known for many years. Its actual content was seen by very few and kept secret from much of the art world. When her former home in Coyoacán, Mexico, was turned into the Frida Kahlo Museum in 1958 the diary went on display. The executor of Frida’s estate, Dolores Oluedo, had refused to display the contents to both researchers and the public. It took decades before she was persuaded to have a photocopied version of the diary published. Publishers battled over the right to publish the diary, with Abrams coming out on top with an offer of an undisclosed 6-figure sum. Their version of the facsimile diary was published last year.

Friday 13 February 2015

Saints for Valentine

I know I'm a day early, but I want to wish you a Happy St. Valentine’s Day. I thought I’d use today, Friday 13th, as a better day to question the whole St. Valentine patronage and not spoil any romantic ideas you may have planned tomorrow. I should also refer you back to a previous article where I explained that we’re actually celebrating it on the wrong day.

The lgbt community has reason to celebrate this St. Valentine’s Day more than it has before, because the last twelve months or so has seen a huge positive movement towards giving lgbt couples the legal freedom to marry. The movement is still on-going and it is to be hoped that more significant moves can be made during 2015.

Another reason why this year can be celebrated more openly (on whatever day you choose to be the correct one) is because it’s the first time that St. Valentine’s patronage over lovers in the UK has applied to lgbt couples.

Let me explain. It’s all connected with the misdirected homophobia applied to the church’s attitude to gay sex. Official Christian doctrine (apart from that in the loony extremist churches like the Westbro Baptists) has said that sex outside marriage in unacceptable and sinful. It doesn’t matter who you’re having sex with – opposite or same sex. The only acceptable sex, as stated in the traditional Christian wedding ceremony, is between married couples (other religions have their own doctrines on when sex is acceptable). Because gay men and lesbians could not legally marry (only a government can decide what is legal, not the church), all sex they had was sinful, just as it was with unmarried straight couples. The Church made no discrimination when it came to unmarried sex, they demonised it as fornication, adultery or sodomy. Straight and gay sex outside married were condemned equally. The fact that governments refused to let gay couples get married was irrelevant - they were unmarried, and that's what mattered for the church.

So it is to be expected that when St. Valentine became a patron saint of lovers it was for married couples, or those engaged to be married. There has never been a Christian patron saint for straight unmarried lovers, casual relationships or lgbt couples. I suppose the nearest patron saint for lgbt couples and love (albeit, platonic and celibate) is St. Aelred of Rievaulx. Now that lgbt couples can marry he could reasonably be elevated as a patron of gay marriage. I can’t see the Pope making that decision in the foreseeable future though, can you? St. Aelred’s feast day is on January 12th, perhaps a bit too close to Christmas to be adopted as a new day to celebrate same-sex love. But what if you don’t want a Christian saint as a patron of love?

It’s generally accepted that St. Valentine’s Day, as a day specifically for lovers, was created by Geoffrey Chaucer and his gay friend Sir John Clanvowe in the 1380s. Sir John himself was able to go through a form of marriage with his male partner. In a church ceremony that was virtually identical to a wedding it is probable that he married his partner, Sir William Neville, in what historians often refer to as “wedded brotherhood”. I’ve written before about the evidence of their relationship is marked on their joint gravestone.

In these more secular days, when even the popular celebration of St. Valentine’s Day refuses to include his saintly title, it could be more appropriate for non-religious non-Christian couples to adopt Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville as the patrons of lovers.

Various publications and the media keep trotting out that old myth about the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day on 14th February is a Christian takeover of the Roman pagan festival of Lupercalia. In fact they’ve said it so often that people actually think historians have proved it! The fact is that the first time anyone linked the two together was in the 1800s when a hagiographer (a student of saints and their veneration) noticed that the two events coincided. He wasn’t a historian and he didn’t look for proof. He made the link based purely on the date, not research, despite the fact that the original St. Valentine’s Day was celebrated in May!

After almost totally ruining the romance of St. Valentine’s Day let me return to the reason why we can truly celebrate with passion this year. This is the first St. Valentine’s Day when lgbt people here in England, Scotland and Wales can declare their love for each other with a marriage proposal. And it’s the first year that St. Valentine himself can smile over them. Falling on a Saturday this year I’m sure there are lots of lgbt couples who have chosen to tie the knot and marry on St. Valentine’s Day. And as long as commercialism runs the world economy there’ll be no shortage of businesses making even more of an effort to sell their products to gay couples.

So, if you’re lucky enough to have someone to celebrate your love with tomorrow here are several patrons to choose. For the traditionalists there’s St. Valentine. For those who want a more lgbt patron there’s St. Aelred of Rievaulx. And for those who don’t want any Christian saint at all there’s Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville.

I hope you all have a totally loved-up day tomorrow.

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Part 3 - An Olympiade

Last time : (4) Otto Rahn’s search for the Holy Grail influenced the book “The Da Vinci Code”, featuring (5) Leonardo da Vinci’s alleged link to the Grail. The film version featured (6) Sir Ian McKellen, who also starred in the premiere of “Bent” a play which dealt with persecution of gay men in Nazi concentration camps, where Otto Rahn once served, and where (7) Otto Peltzer was imprisoned.
(7) Otto Peltzer (1900-1970) was a national hero between the two World Wars. I’ve featured Otto several times in previous articles, and I refer you to them here and here. Like (4) Otto Rahn he joined the SS, though this should not be seen as any indication that either of them supported the subsequent Nazi political ideals. Peltzer probably joined because he thought it would be beneficial to his athletic career, and Rahn because he wouldn’t have got funding for his Grail research. Both Ottos were seen with some suspicion by Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, and he himself questioned the Ottos. Whereas Himmler found no proof of Rahn’s homosexuality he chose to send him to Dachau camp as a guard to see first-hand what punishment gay men would receive. Peltzer, on the other hand, was suspended from the SS and in 1941 was imprisoned in Mathausen camp.

Otto Peltzer is the first identified lgbt athlete to compete in the Olympic Games in Amsterdam in 1928. He wasn’t the only lgbt Olympian there, however, as in the art competitions there was a fellow German taking part. Her name was (8) Renée Sintenis.

In a previous article I only wrote briefly about Renée. Here I write a bit more. Renée and Otto Peltzer competed in the same two Olympics – Amsterdam in 1928, and Los Angeles in 1932.

In 1926 Renée produced a bronze sculpture of the great Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi. Paavo was as big in middle-distance running back then as Usian Bolt is in short distance today. However, it just so happens that 1926 was also the year Otto Peltzer beat Paavo in a specially arranged 1500 meters race.

Renée was one of the most successful female sculptors of Weimar Germany and the inter-war period. It was her greatest period. As my previous article on her states, Renee won an Olympic bronze medal. She also became one of the very few women appointed to the Prussian Academy of Arts.

Renée fell out of favour when the Nazis rose to power. Her life as a lesbian had not been a problem during the inter-war period in Berlin. But now she found herself on the wrong side of social acceptance. She resigned from the Academy. Sadly, much of her work, and her home, was destroyed by Allied bombing. After the war Renée rose back to prominence. She was awarded membership of the Order “Pour le Mérite” For Science and The Arts, an order restricted to 30 living members who have made significant contributions in science and art. Membership is by election of existing members after the death of one of their number.

In 1957 Renée sculpted a life-size bronze statue of the bear that is the emblem of the city of Berlin. It became an iconic symbol of post-war Berlin and makes it even more appropriate to write about Renée today, because this week the Berlin International Film Festival takes place. The main prize, the German equivalent of an Oscar, is a small statuette copy of Renée’s bear. Its one of the most prized awards in the film industry, and in 2006 it was given as an Honorary Life Achievement award to (6) Sir Ian McKellen.

Back to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. There was one particular athlete representing South Africa who links to our next individual. The athlete wasn’t gay, but his sporting influence was to have a great effect on his grandson, who is gay – (9) Jacques Snyman Wieciech (b.1973).

One look at Jacques and you can see he was built for sport. His grandfather showed him the basics of athletics while he was young and Jacques pursued as many sporting chances as he was able. He was a gymnastics champion for 6 years before he was even a teenager, then he turned to track and field, following in his grandfather’s footsteps. Again he was successful, especially in European competitions.

It was while Jacques was living in the UK that he joined the oldest gay rugby club in the world, the Kings Cross Steelers. He had played rugby since childhood, encouraged again by his grandfather who was once a member of South Africa’s national rugby squad. From then on Jacques became a typical big, butch rugger player. His physique has caught the attention of many gay men in recent years (not least his husband), and its no surprise that he modelled for Colt Studios and entered the 2009 Mr Gay South Africa contest. Which is all very incongruous when you hear that his other great talent is as an operatic countertenor.

Going back to his track and field achievements, Jacques is also a Gay Games champion. In Chicago in 2006 he won gold medals in long jump and javelin. But it his gold medal in the decathlon which provides an extra direct link to the founder of the Gay Games, (10) Tom Waddell (1937-1987). And that's who with start with next time.

Sunday 8 February 2015

Coded Lives 1 : The Lister Code

As the UK celebrates this year’s LGBT History Month there is no overall theme as in previous years. Instead the organisers have come up with the title of “Faces of ’15: Coded Lives”’ Five members from lgbt history have been presented as typifying the various coded and secret lives that people lived. These five people are:
The Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810)
Anne Lister (1791-1840)
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Hugh Paddick (1915-2000)
and Kenneth Williams (1926-1988).

Let’s have a close look at these people and learn why they lived coded lives or, as the press release says, “communicated the truth about themselves and their lives through some kind of code or secret existence”. Today, and twice more this money, I’ll take one of these people as the main subject of an article. Two names, however, will be held over until March, for reasons which will become apparent then.

We’ll begin with Anne Lister. To the outside world Anne lived the typical 17th century life of a woman of privilege, what we could consider today as a typical “Jane Austen” heroine. But, as the highly respected lgbt historian Rictor Norton has said, Anne Lister can be regarded as “the first modern lesbian”, even though the term “lesbian” in relation to female same-sexuality wasn’t in use until half a century after her death. Anne’s diaries reveal that she lived her life just as we would recognise in a modern lesbian.

Lesbianism during Anne’s lifetime, like homosexuality, was not acceptable in British society. There are many examples of women living together (as in the Ladies of Llangollen), or of “masculine” women (as in Phoebe Bown). The fact that Anne Lister, as a wealthy landowner, chose not to follow convention and marry and produce children to inherit her estates, is testimony to her strong character and determination to follow her heart rather than tradition.

And in her diaries Anne details the subjects of her heart in code. Of the 4 million words in the existing 26 diaries that she wrote, one sixth of them reveals her relationship with several women. When they were decoded and published in 1988 they were considered so explicit and modern that some historians said they were fake. Further research proved them wrong.

So, what about Anne’s code? The story of how the code was broken is filled with as much controversy as what it revealed.

The diaries were stored in the archives of her home, Shibden Hall in Yorkshire, until the last member of the Lister family to live there, John Lister (1847-1933), decided to publish the plain-text diary entries in a local newspaper. Only then did John decide to decode the other entries Anne wrote in her secret code.

John asked a local antiquarian and teacher, Arthur Burnell, to help him with the decoding. The diaries have been called “the Rosetta Stone of lesbian history”, the Rosetta Stone being the artefact which lad to the decoding of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. As with the Rosetta Stone it was just one word which revealed the first clue. Having guessed that Anne used numbers to represent vowels (A=2, E=3, I=4, O=5, and U=6) the first word decoded by Burrell which allowed the whole code to fall into place was J5+3, “hope”.

When the whole code was revealed what the diaries also revealed was so shocking to Arthur Burrell that he suggested all the diaries should be burned. John Lister disagreed. Anne’s diaries may have revealed shockingly explicit details of her lesbian sex life (where even orgasms are described) but they also revealed so much more about 19th century life in Yorkshire that John thought they were too important to destroy. However, John was himself homosexual, and didn’t want to draw attention to his own sexuality by publishing the decoded diaries. This was the 1890s, after all, and homosexuality was still illegal. So John hid the diaries away and they were forgotten.

On John’s death in 1933 ownership of Shibden Hall passed to Halifax town council, who then sent their archivists to catalogue all documents and Anne’s diaries were rediscovered. But not the key to Anne’s code or a translation. That was still in the hands of Arthur Burrell who, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to pass it on to the council. He wane that the diaries might be “unsavoury” but trainee librarian Muriel Green went ahead with the decoding (presumably Arthur destroyed his previous translation).

When the town council read Muriel’s translation they too were shocked at the explicitness. They decided that any future use of the diaries for research and publication must omit all references to Anne’s sex life.

Moving ahead 50 years we come to a married mother of 3 who had recently graduated from Bradford University, Helena Whitbread. She wanted to do some research and publish it, but the subject needed to be convenient enough for her to study while still living with her family and which didn’t interfere with her paid work. She had heard of Anne Lister but, of course, was unaware of the sexual content of the coded diaries. What Helena found invigorated her with such enthusiasm that she even enlisted the help of her children in carrying out research further afield.

In 1988 Helena published the diaries and Anne Lister’s personal life became public knowledge. Helena Whitbread is still giving talks and lectures on Anne Lister. Indeed, she is speaking at the UK’s first LGBT History festival in Manchester this weekend. In 2011 UNESCO recognised Anne’s diaries’ importance and significance to lgbt heritage and added them to their “Memory of the World” programme.

As I will not be writing multiple articles every month to tie in with “Coded Lives” I still want to carry it through the year. Codes gives me my inspiration, so once a month I’ll write about various codes and symbols in the lgbt community.

Thursday 5 February 2015

Heritage Spotlight : the Ubuntu Biography Project

This month the US celebrates its African-American History Month. To celebrate the contribution lgbt people of African heritage have made I would like to mention the following Facebook page.

The Ubuntu BiographyProject, as it says on its “About” page, is “a collection of biographical tributes to SLG/LGBT/Queer Men and Women of African Descent”.

What I love most about this project is its “chronologically-timed randomness”, as I call it. That means I like the way it uses the date to decide which person is featured (not unlike the way I often plan this blog). Most often the profile features someone who was born on that day. I’m always amazed at how a new name, sometimes two, appears each day, and even more pleased at the amount of information which is given.

The founder of the Ubuntu Biography Project is Stephen Maglott. A few years ago he realised how few resources existed in which the lives of African-descended members of the lgbt community were available. In 2013 he set up his Facebook page, the Ubuntu Biography Project.

The word “Ubuntu” comes from the Nguni Bantu language of central and South Africa. It seems to be one of those words that is difficult to translate accurately. Stephen gives the word “human-ness” as its most literal translation, but I’ll quote Stephen from his Facebook page – “A more common interpretation of the meaning translates as ‘I am, because we are’. It is an empowering affirmation of humanity’s interconnectedness and of our collective responsibility to cherish one another.”

To give you an idea of the eclectic mix of the people Stephen profiles, here is a list of the people he featured in the first week of this year :
Guy Watson (b.1959), HIV educator, writer and genealogist,
Rev. W. Jeffrey Campbell (b.1966), pastor in the Fresh Start Church,
Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), acclaimed choreographer and dancer,
Rev. MacArthur Flournoy (b.1960), co-founder of Oasis Christian Fellowship,
George Washington Carver (c.1860-1943), botanist and agriculturalist,
Jamil Fletcher (b.1965), entrepreneur and philanthropist,
Tyrieak Menes (b.1989), writer, blogger, and marriage equality advocate,
Michael Sam (b.1990), professional American footballer.

The Ubuntu Biography Project has already given me ideas for future articles and sparked my interest in areas of African lgbt heritage that I knew nothing or little about. As an example, I’ll begin next month’s International Women’s History Month with an article on an extraordinary woman who lived in the American Wild West.

I hope you have a look at the project’s Facebook page. I think you’ll find it inspiring, and if nothing else it’ll prove that old saying that “you learn something new every day”. One omission remains, however. When can we read Stephen Maglott’s own profile in the Ubuntu Biography Project?

Monday 2 February 2015

The Turn of a Card

As the UK begins its LGBT History Month I return to the subject of my article written to celebrate the official launch last November. That article looked at the venue chosen for the launch and its link to the lgbt community (other than the curator) through the artist Caravaggio.

The Museum of the Order of St. John in Clerkenwell hosted the launch, and it is where Caravaggio’s painting “The Cardsharps” can currently be seen. Caravaggio’s own links to the Order of St. John were given in that previous article so today I’ll look at the painting itself, because just over 2 weeks ago a court case based around the painting came to an end (appeal pending).

What the court case proved, to use a card-playing analogy, is that the value of a painting can change as quickly as the turn of a card. The card in this analogy being in the hand of Sir Denis Mahon. He was the Caravaggio expert whose identification of “The Cardsharps” as a genuine Caravaggio turned it from a work of art worth £42,000 to one worth £10 million overnight.

The painting had been owned prior to its sale by Sotheby’s in 2006 was Lancelot “Bill” Thwaites, owner of Hornby Hall in Cumbria. He had always been led to believe that “The Cardsharps” was genuine but had no authentication. When he offered the painting for sale he did ask Sotheby’s to do a proper scientific analysis to prove it one way or the other, which Sotheby’s did. Their analysis included x-ray examination but didn’t provide conclusive proof to list it in the sale catalogue as anything other than “after Caravaggio”. Several art experts examined the painting closely and they agreed.

Why did Bill Thwaytes believe “The Cardsharps” was by Caravaggio? You have to go back to its previous owner to realise why.

Bill Thwaytes inherited the painting from his father’s cousin, William Glossop Thwaytes (1889-1965), a retired Royal Navy Surgeon Captain. Capt. Thwaytes (a “lifelong bachelor”) was an avid art collector and bought “The Cardsharps” in 1962 for a meagre £142 in a Sotheby’s sale.

Capt. Thwaytes was no stranger to Caravaggio’s work. In 1947 he had bought another of his painting, “The Musicians”, from an art dealer in the Cumbrian town of Kendall. In 1952 Sir Denis Mahon examined it and declared it to be a genuine lost Caravaggio. The captain also suspected “The Cardsharps” was genuine but didn’t carry out any further research. When the painting passed to Bill Thwaytes in 1965 this suspicion passed on with it.

Re-enter Sir Denis Mahon. As I said in my previous article Sir Denis was a leading authority on Caravaggio and had also identified other Caravaggio paintings. He bought “The Cardsharps” at the 2006 Sotheby’s auction for £42,000. He, too, wanted to run tests to ascertain whether it was a Caravaggio.

Within a year Sir Denis announced suddenly that, to his satisfaction, “The Cardsharps” was indeed a long-lost genuine Caravaggio and valued it at £50 million (more recently valued at £10 million, the amount it is insured for while at the St. John Museum).

It is acknowledged that Caravaggio’s works are often difficult to attribute because his style varied over the years and often his style was easy to copy. So I can understand why it took two investigations to confirm the attribution. I can also understand why Bill Thwaytes thought that not enough investigation had been done by Sotheby’s. Unfortunately, the High Court decided a couple of weeks ago that Sotheby’s had done the reasonable amount of research that it could and Mr. Thwaytes lost the case.

If you can’t get to see “The Cardsharps” in London in person, you can see Caravaggio’s own copy of the work which is currently on display at the Kimbell Art Gallery in Forth Worth, Texas.

As I wrote in my previous article I saw the painting myself in 2013. The current curator of the museum, Tom Foakes, is to be congratulated on bringing the painting into a public gallery, and it seems that over 400 years after Caravaggio’s death his paintings can still create as much controversy and dispute as the life of the artist himself.