Thursday 31 December 2015

Remembering Lives of 2015

Some members of the lgbt community who had died over the past twelve months. This list is not exhaustive but merely reflects the range of achievements that their passings represent. They include the good, the bad and the fabulous. As has been the case for many years the number of transgender victims of violence is large and I could not possible do them just today. Ages are given immediately after the names. If no actual date is known the individual appears at the top of the monthly list.

Freyda Faivus (62), 1986 Gay Games double swimming silver medallist.
10th      Taylor Negron (57), comedian, actor, writer.
18th      Lowell “John” Evans (80), ex-ex-gay advocate.
18th      Paul O’Grady (47), Australia’s first openly gay state MP.
22nd     Kamrun, gay porn actor, on his 22nd birthday.
24th      Toller Cranston (65), US Olympic bronze medal figure skater.

1st        Michael Mason (67), activist, editor of “Gay News”.
4th        Koos van den Akker (74), fashion designer.
5th        Niki Quasney (38), US same-sex marriage campaigner.
11th      Jerry Hoose (69), Stonewall veteran, founding member of Gay Liberation Front (US).
13th      Steve Strange (55), lead singer with 1980’s band Visage.
16th      Robin Duff (67), 1st openly gay parliamentary candidate in New Zealand.
27th      Rev. Malcolm Boyd (91), civil and gay rights activist.

Ike Cowen (97), leading member of Campaign for Homosexual Equality.
5th        Dirk Shafer (52), Playgirl Magazine’s Man of the Year 1992.
10th      Richard Gatzer (63), film director and writer.
16th      Lesley Gore (68), 1960s popular singer.
16th      Andy Fraser (62), bass player with 1970’s band Free.
25th      Martyn Goff (91), founder of the Booker Prize for fiction.

3rd        Ariana Victoria Jacobus (29), writer and poet.
4th        Jeane Dolan (52), Vice-President of Booz-Allen Hamilton security consultants.
8th        Marc Naimark (54), lgbt sport campaigner and Gay Games volunteer.
15th      Sydney Abbott (77), feminist writer and lesbian activist.
19th      Martin Fisher (50), Professor of HIV medicine.

4th        Debra Dunkle (60), psychologist, 1990 Gay Games double athletics champion.
10th      Sam Ciccone (71), co-founder of the Gay Officers Action League.
15th      John Jarvis-Smith, DSC (91), D-Day veteran.
17th      Bill Kelley (72), activist, founder of the US National Gay & Lesbian Law Association.
20th      Hon. Edward Adeane (75), ex-Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales.
22nd     Nicole LaViolette (52), Ottawa law professor, multi Gay Games cycling champion.
29th      Mario Cooper, leading AIDS educator and US Presidential adviser.
30th      Jim Bailey (77), female impersonator and cabaret performer.
30th      Adam Kizer (16), anti-bullying campaigner.

6th        Ronnie Gilbert (88), folk singer, founding member of The Weavers.
9th        Pedro Zerolo (55), Spanish politician and lgbt activist.
27th      Harvey McGregor (89), lawyer and Oxford don.

3rd        Alan Green (75), drowned attempting to rescue fiancé Martin Winfield (59).
4th        Daya Rani Kinnar (56), trans activist and India presidential candidate.
10th      Roger Rees (71), actor.
15th      Paul Shammin Cruikshank (50), an asteroid was named after him in November.
25th      Robin Phillips (75), theatre artistic director.

3rd        Chris Hyndman (49), Canadian designer and chat-show host.
6th        Charles van den Berg (33), Mr Gay World 2010.
8th        Alan Wakeman (79), founding member of Gay Liberation Front (UK), writer.
25th      Colin Fry (53), television psychic.
26th      Bryce Williams (41), journalist who shot ex-colleagues live on-air.
31st      Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (88), motor museum founder.

3rd        Mahran Chestnut (25), gay porn actor aka King B, and reality tv show actor.
16th      David Cook (74), original presenter of popular UK kids series “Rainbow”.
20th      Jack Larson (87), actor, Jimmy Olsen in 1960’s tv “Superman”.
21st      Honey Lee Cottrell (69), pioneering lesbian erotica photographer.

1st        Illtyd Harrington (84), ex-Deputy Leader of Greater London Council.
10th      Blue Blake (52), gay porn actor, director and producer.
10th      Wes Funk (46), novelist and broadcaster.
10th      Kurt Cunningham (46), mental health campaigner, co-ordinator of 1987 March on Washington.
22nd     John J. McNeill (90), leading figure in lgbt Christianity, writer.

1st        Dorien Grey (81), mystery novelist, real name Roger Margason.
8th        Robert Chetwyn (85), theatre director.
22nd     Dimitri Kane (20), gay porn actor.

6th        Holly Woodlawn (69), trans actor and Warhol superstar.
7th        Kenneth Partridge (89), fashion show and interior designer (for the Beatles).
21st      Maj. Adrianna Vorderbruggen (36), 1st out serving USAF soldier killed in combat.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Part 25 - A Vampire

LAST TIME : 75) Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) met 73) Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972) in 1882, almost 2 decades before her romance with 76) Olive Custance (1874-1944), who went on to marry Oscar’s former partner 77) Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945), and who were part of the literary circle surrounding Oscar’s mother, which also included 78) Bram Stoker (1847-1912).
78) Bram Stoker will forever be remembered as the creator of Count Dracula, the world’s most famous fictional vampire. His mother was a social campaigner in Dublin and was friends with Sir William and Lady Jane Wilde, 75) Oscar Wilde’s parents.

Bram’s sexuality has been discussed in several modern biographies of him. Even though he lived a perfectly standard heterosexual life some parts o f his earlier life lead some biographers to wonder if some same-sex attraction was present, present in particular some of his correspondence with the actor-manager Sir Henry Irving and the American poet Walt Whitman. Stoker was employed by Irving and his Lyceum Theatre Company and they were, indeed, very close. Whitman was one of Stoker’s heroes and after they met in 1884 Whitman was impressed by his Irish admirer. The author Fay Weldon has even gone so far as to label Stoker “a closet gay”.

Victorian perceptions of same-sex relationships were different to ours. Even 75) Oscar Wilde wouldn’t label himself as homosexual. Oscar actually had a relationship with the woman 78) Bram Stoker married. Florence Balcombe has a 2 year romance with Oscar in the mid-1870s. It ended when Florence announced she had become engaged to Stoker. They married in 1878.

One thing Bram Stoker and the Wilde’s all shared was a fascination for the supernatural. A new religion called Spiritualism was popular in Britain and Ireland at that time, and the Victorians loved ancient traditional myths and superstitions even though the society was nominally staunchly Christian. Lady Wilde published 2 books on traditional customs, superstitions and beliefs of Ireland and influenced Oscar in his creation of his own supernatural tales such as “The Canterville Ghost”. Bram Stoker, however, looked further afield for his inspiration for “Dracula”.

Our modern image of a vampire owes much to Bram Stoker. Until “Dracula” vampires were hideous zombie-like creatures (the modern movie zombie is a classic medieval vampire). Stoker turned the vampire into an aristocratic, elegant and charming gentleman who seduces his victims.

Stoker read and researched many vampire legends and came up with his fictional vampire’s name from the Romanian Prince Vlad III “Tepes” Dracula (d.1476). “Dracula” means “son of the Dragon”, Vlad’s father having been a Knight of the Order of the Dragon. So, if Bram Stoker made Prince Vlad the “father” of his Count Dracula then he surely chose 79) Countess Erzsebet (Elizabeth) Bathori (1560-1614) as his “mother”.

79) Countess Erzsebet Bathori has gone done in history as the world’s worst serial killer. She had more in common with the fictional Count Dracula than Prince Vlad. Erzsebet was of countly rank, Vlad wasn’t (he was a sovereign prince); Erzsebet came from Transylania, Vlad didn’t (he came form neighbouring Wallachia); Erzsebet drank human blood, Vlad didn’t (he just tortured and killed people); and Erzsebet’s bloodlust was in part sensual, Vlad’s wasn’t (he was just sadistic).

It is through the stories of Countess Erzsebet that a lot of the sexual and predominantly lesbian theme has entered modern vampiric culture. The great Hammer Films exploited this theme, aided by the Countess’s own lesbian activities, to include lesbian themes into their many vampire films. In 1971 they turned the Countess’s own story into the film “Countess Dracula”.

Hammer Films is now synonymous with gothic horror. It was a relatively small film studio and often worked on several films with the same actors and sets at the same time. Music is always a vital part of any horror film and Hammer had the distinctive talents of 80) James Bernard (1925-2001) on more than 30 of their films, including some of their most famous – 4 Dracula films, 4 Frankenstein films among them. He also wrote the music for “The Quatermss Xperiment”, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, “She”, “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” and “The Devil Rides Out”.

But it is James’s wartime work which helps us to complete our trip “Around the World in 80 Gays”.

After being conscripted into the RAF James found himself studying cryptography. He was sent to a top secret location, the government’s code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park. There he was appointed to the team which has the task of decoding the Nazi’s Enigma codes, and the James Bernard’s colleague who is credited with cracking those codes was …

1) Alan Turing (1912-1954), the man with whom we began our 80 Gays journey back in January.

In celebration of the completion of our journey I’ve compiled the following meandering montage of images representing each of the 80 Gays.
I hope you have enjoyed this journey. It’s been great fun to put together. There are many other routes and diversions I could have made but I hope the final route has been diverse, informative and, above all, entertaining. Who knows, I may go “Around the World in Another 80 Gays” in 2017.

I’m taking a couple of weeks off now, while I concentrate on my final preparations for my talk and display for Nottingham University in February. I shall be back briefly in New Year’s Eve with my list of some in the people in the lgbt community who left us during 2015. I’ll be back on 11th January 2016.

It’s Christmas Eve tomorrow, so let me take this opportunity to say Merry Christmas to you all and thank you very much for your continued interest.

Sunday 20 December 2015

Make the Yuletide Gay : 4

In this final Advent article for this year we’ll end our seasonal celebrations by looking at some of the many lgbt choruses, choirs and chorales who produce annual Christmas concerts and sing the songs we’ve looked at in the pervious three Sunday.

This is more of a brief history of the origin of lgbt choirs but we’ll finish with a Christmas performance by one of the oldest lgbt choruses.

I don’t really need to say that choirs since the very beginning of choral singing way back in the Middle Ages have had lgbt singers. As far as choirs formed specifically for lgbt singers is concerned we have to travel to the USA and their culture of forming choirs in support of social or political causes. This culture began with bands and small orchestras, similar to the amateur Victorian church choirs in Europe who would encourage anyone who could sing or play an instrument to join together and go carol singing. Lgbt choirs are one of many extensions of this tradition.

The earliest reliable record we have for the first lgbt chorus appears in New York City in 1971. Composer Roberta Kosse formed a lesbian chorus called Women Like Me to perform her own compositions. The chorus performed up to 1977.

A second women’s chorus and marching band was formed in 1973 by Hester Brown. This was another New York-based chorus which went by the name of the Victoria Woodhull All-Women’s Marching Band, named after a 19th century feminist and US presidential candidate. Even though they formed the core of this chorus they weren’t exclusively lesbian.

Generally, the credit for being the first lgbt chorus is given to the Anna Crusis Choir in Philadelphia. Formed in 1975 it takes its name from the musical term “anacrusis”, the name given to notes played or sung before the first beat in the first bar of a tune – a very appropriate name for this lgbt chorus. The founder of Anna Crusis was Catherine Roma who was challenged by a friend to create a folk-opera about the history of women in time for the USA’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976.

The resulting folk-opera was called “American Women: A Choral History” and was performed several times. The choir officially adopts the “feminist” identity but in 1988 they joined the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA).

The first male lgbt chorus appears to be the Gotham Male Chorus. This was formed, again in New York City, in 1977 and specialised in Renaissance music and Gregorian chant. Although this genre of music was written specifically by and for men the Gotham Male Chorus began to accept women singers in 1980 and changed their name to the Stonewall Chorale. This created the first mixed lgbt chorus.

The American tradition of forming bands and choirs to promote a social cause led to the creation of what is generally considered to be the best lgbt chorus in existence today – the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Wikipedia has an excellent article on this choir and there’s not much I can add to it, so I’ll direct you there for more information.

I mentioned GALA in passing above. This organisation was formed in 1982 and many of its founding choirs performed at the first Gay Games in San Francisco earlier that year. Today GALA had many choirs, choruses and chorales as members, and they include many international groups.

And that’s it for today. To get you into a really festive mood here’s a couple of videos of Christmas performances by a couple of lgbt choirs, beginning with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus featuring beautiful rendition of “Silent Night”. That’s followed by a fun version of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” by the Gay Men’s Chorus was Washington, and we finish with the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian chorus wishing us a Merry Christmas.

Friday 18 December 2015

The Seven Deadly Gay Sins : Going Violet with Vanity

… or Purple with Pride.

We end our look at the 7 Deadly Gay Sins today with Vanity. In some sources vanity is replaced with Pride, but as Pride has acquired a new meaning within the lgbt community I didn’t want to use it for today’s Deadly Sin.
Christian tradition makes Vanity the oldest of all the sins. Lucifer’s vanity was the cause of him being expelled from Heaven with all the Fallen Angels.

I’m sure we all know someone in the lgbt community who is often referred to as “vain”, but the sin of Vanity is much more destructive than the desire to look good or praise your own achievements. Don’t confuse Vanity with arrogance or boasting. These belong to what the Medieval world regarded as the sing of Vainglory, one of the Deadly Sins that was dropped from the list a few centuries ago. Definitions have changed slightly over the centuries. An early definition of “vain” was “futile”, which survives in sayings such as “all his efforts were in vain”. The added meaning of “proud” and “narcissistic” came much more recently.

Which very neatly brings us on to Narcissus himself. This Greek man was so full of his own Vanity that he fell in love with his own reflection.

Vanity can really become deadly to others in the wrong hands. The gay serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer killed his many victims because he didn’t want them to leave him. This was a symptom of deadly Vanity, the desire to have your own feelings and needs dominate those of others who suffer as a consequence.

But let’s not dwell on those horrors and lighten things up. Vanity can be said to be the trait of the dandies, the impeccably dressed, sometimes over-dressed, men who attract attention. The most famous dandies in the lgbt community is Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron. Both dressed to impress.
Some of you may be recognise this famous portrait of Byron dressed in traditional Albanian costume. His usual style in both clothing and appearance led to a new word being invented to describe it – Byronic.

There’s one story I like about Byron from his days in Constantinople. He was invited to the Sultan’s palace and got dressed up in the most elaborate Turkish costume. He was ushered into the throne room, whereupon the sultan just uttered a greeting and Byron was quickly ushered out again. Naturally Byron assumed his fame as a renowned poet was going to get him a more meaningful audience. Needless to say his own pride was pricked and he stormed out of the palace in a suitably Byronic huff.

Another example of someone dressing to impress and getting a put-down as response comes with Douglas Byng (1893-1987). He was one of the UK’s leading drag and cabaret performers in the first half of the 20th century. I’ve referred to him already in this 7 Deadly Sins series in relation to the sin of Greed.

Long before he became a performer he lived in Nottingham as a boy and young man. One of the traditional activities for a Sunday afternoon in Nottingham after morning church and Sunday lunch was for people to dress up in their finery and walk up and down Mansfield Road, the main road into Nottingham. This earned the name the Sunday Parade. One year young Douglas decided he’d join the Sunday Parade.

Having bathed himself in milk Douglas donned his best suit, a wig, a purple overcoat, tall cane, and tons of make-up and strolled up Mansfield Road like some Georgian dandy. He waved to imaginary friends, and his proud bubble burst when he was recognised by some neighbours and he sloped back home. “Was my face red!” he wrote in his autobiography, “Needless to say, it was, courtesy of Max Factor”.

One animal most associated with Pride rather than Vanity is the peacock. Earlier this year I mentioned the embarrassing situation of an American mistaking the rainbow-coloured peacock logo of NBC as the corporation’s support for same-sex marriage.

Another animal associated in the Medieval world with Vanity was the horse – I’m not sure why. They also gave Vanity the colour violet, and that means we can complete our 7 Deadly Rainbow Sins flag.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this 6-part series on the 7 Deadly Gay Sins. But wait! What about the 7th, you’ll be wondering?

The last of the sins is Sloth – the sin of indifference, neglect, boredom and laziness. The Medieval world gave Sloth a colour as well – light blue. But as light blue isn’t on the Rainbow Pride flag I couldn’t be bothered to do any research into Sloth!

However, I hope to redeem myself next year when I look at the opposites of the 7 Deadly Sins and look at each of the 7 Heavenly Queer Virtues.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Olympic Alphabet : E is for ...


Equestrian sport makes up one of the largest groups of lgbt Olympians/Paralympians with 13 being identified to date, and a handful of non-competing equestrians. There are also a handful of records between then.

The first equestrian competitor was Norman Elder (1939-2003) in 1960 at the Rome Olympics. As well as being the first lgbt rider he is also the first Canadian lgbt Olympian. Not only that but he was also the first lgbt Olympian to have a sibling on the same team. His older brother Jim was also a successful ride, being Olympic champion in Mexico City in 1968.

Norman Elder has been seen as something of an eccentric. He was an explorer, an artist, and he collected exotic animals. Various residents in his Toronto home included a Galapagos tortoise, a boa constrictor, a couple of pythons, ferrets, lemurs, chinchillas and fruit bat. His home was also something like a collection of curiosities those 17th and 18th century aristocrats gathered on their Grand Tours of Europe. Most of the items in Norman’s collection were gathered during his lengthy expeditions into remote parts of the world. Some of these expeditions will feature in a future “X-tremely Queer” article.

Norman competed in two Olympics. As well as Rome he competed, again with his brother, in Mexico City in 1968. He competed in both the team and individual 3-day event. Although he finished 3rd in the non-scoring jumping section of the team event they earned Olympic diplomas by becoming 8th.

Later in life Norman Elder’s reputation was tarnished by his conviction for indecently assaulting teenage boys before the time when the legal age of consent for homosexual acts was lowered. Norman died of an apparent suicide in 2003.

It would be 16 years before another lgbt equestrian competitor arrived at the Olympics. In the Los Angeles games of 1984 American rider Robert Dover (b.1956) competed in the first of his record 6 Olympic appearances as a competitor at the age of 28 (the age at which Norman Elder was at his last games in 1968). In all of his Olympic appearances he was the US equestrian team captain. There are two other records which Robert Dover may not be too keen to publicise. First is his record as the oldest lgbt Olympian to compete. At his final games in Athens 2004 he was 48 years old. Winning a bronze at those games makes him the oldest lgbt athlete to win a medal.

Robert is also the first Olympian to compete as an out gay athlete. In Robert came out before going to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, his second games, and has competed as an out Olympian in 5 games, more than anyone else (NOTE: Renée Sintenis was openly lesbian when she won Olympic bronze in the sculpture contest in Amsterdam 1928; the first out Olympian in a sport was John Curry, outed the day after becoming Olympic figure skating champion in Innsbruck 1976, and although he didn’t compete as openly gay, by time of the closing ceremony he was an out athlete - the first openly gay Olympian).

Even though Robert Dover didn’t win anything higher than a bronze medal at the Olympics he is regarded as one of the top ranking equestrian riders in America having won over a hundred equestrian Grand Prix championships in his career, more than any other American dressage competitor.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics and Paralympics had the most lgbt equestrian competitors – 9 in total, the highest in one sport at those games. They were Robert Costello (USA), Robert Dover (USA), Carl Hester (GB), Paul O’Brien (New Zealand), Kike Sarasola (Spain), Guenter Seidel (USA), Blyth Tait (New Zealand), Arjen Teeuwissen (Netherlands), and Paralympian Lee Pearson (GB). The two New Zealanders are the first male couple to compete at the same games in the same team.

One remarkable event occurred during the medal ceremony of the mixed team dressage event. Of the 12 people standing on the medal podium only 3 of them were men – and all 3 men were gay (Robert Dover, Guenter Seidel and Arjen Teeuwissien).

Paralympian Lee Pearson began his record-breaking run of medals at the Sydney games, the first of his Paralympic appearances. He holds the record for winning the most gold medals of all Olympian/Paralympians. He won 3 gold medals at all of his first 3 Paralympics. In his 4th, London 2012, he won 1 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze.

Apart from these competing riders there has also been a handful of lgbt reserves, trainers and team managers. The first was Mason Phelps, a reserve for the US team at Mexico City 1968. Peter Taylor was assistant team manager for the Canadian equestrian team at the 1993 Barcelona games. Sydney 2000 competitor Paul O’Brien was an Olympic selector for the New Zealand team at the Beijing 2008 games, whose non-competing team manager was Blyth Tait.

Lee Pearson and Carl Hester became the first - and only - openly lgbt athletes in any Olympic sport to win the same medal, in the same event, for the same country, in the same year, in the Olympics and Paralympics in the same host city. Both won gold in the mixed dressage competition at London 2012 for Team GB. (NOTE: Sheryl Swoopes and Stephanie Wheeler would have been the first to hold this record – USA, gold, basketball, Athens 2004 – had they both been openly lgbt.)
To end with I’ll briefly mention something I spotted at the London 2012 games. During the equestrian events I saw Edward Gall and his partner Hans Peter Minderhoud exchange the first same-sex lip-to-lip kiss live on television. Unfortunately, I turned off the recorder before it happened so can’t prove it!! Perhaps if I write to the BBC they’ll confirm it!

Next time the Olympic Alphabet returns it’ll be the Olympic year 2016.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Make the Yuletide Gay : 3

After my previous two Advent articles in which we celebrated the Christmas season in song we’ll now celebrate by taking the advice we read last weekend and “Deck the Halls”.

There are some people who put up a Christmas tree in October! They assume that seeing them in the shops means Christmas has actually begun – traditionally you shouldn’t put them up before Christmas Eve, and leave them up till February 1st, they say that doing different is bad luck or attracts evil spirits depending on which country you live in, assuming your country has Christmas trees, of course. But I’m sure most of us will have put some kind of decoration up by now. I tend to prefer some natural decorations – real holly, ivy and that kind of thing.

Today we’ll look at another carol, “The Holly and the Ivy” and see how these plants are highly appropriate for making our Yuletide “gay”.
The use of natural plants to decorate homes during winter is as old as civilisation itself, even older. Some historians still hold on to the pre-Victorian fantasy of thinking the use of greenery is always ritual. There’s no historical reason to assume that in all cases. People decorated their homes for the same reason we do today. Why do we paint our walls? Why do we hang pictures and photos on walls? Because our living spaces would be dull and boring without them, and the ancient peoples were just as capable of making the same choice.

Holly is a good example. People were decorating their homes with holly long before any ritual meaning was attached to it. Today a lot is written about the early Christians giving holly a new meaning by equating the thorns on the leaves with Christ’s crown of thorns. This was to persuade those very devout worshippers (today we might call them puritans, or perhaps fundamentalists) that there was no evil in placing holly in homes or places of worship.

Holly is one of many evergreens to have two sexes. Trees with berries are regarded as female and those that carry to pollen as male. It is known that these trees can, very occasionally, swap sex. A partial transformation took place recently in one of the world’s oldest evergreen trees, the Fortingall Yew. Tradition says that this Scottish tree is about 5,000 years old – that’s older than Stonehenge! It’s actually only about 2,000 years old, but that’s still VERY old.
This illustration shows you what the tree looked like in 1822. Yews are also trees which have lots of ancient legends attached to them, and they are one of the few trees you can find in almost every British church graveyard.

In October this year botanists from the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh discovered that one branch of the ancient tree had grown berries. In its entire recorded history the Fortigall Yew has been “male” and has never produced berries. Some of the media got into a frenzy over this “transgender tree”.

Trees like this yew can switch sex all over, not just one branch, and botanists believe the change has occurred because the tree is so split and divided that the branch in question produced berries as a fluke.

Holly trees can also change completely from one sex to another. Botanists believe it is a survival mechanism and that changing sexes saves certain nutrients from being used up.

That’s the holly, what about the ivy?

Ivy has different associations depending on which part of the world you live in. In northern Europe it was seen as a symbol of eternity and longevity due to it’s presence throughout the year.

In southern Europe ivy was strongly associated with the Greek god Dionysos and his Roman incarnation Bacchus, the gods of wine, pleasure, revelry, drunkenness and fertility. Greek myth says that Dionysos had a mortal son called Kissos who died young. The goddess Gaia took pity on Dionysos and turned Kissos into the ivy plant (kissos is the Greek word for ivy). Ever since then Dionysos wore a wreath of ivy around his head. Modern depictions, however, mistake this ivy wreath for vine leaves which come from a totally different myth about Dionysos and the death of his boyfriend Ampelos. This other myth made Dionysos god of homosexuality, or same-sexual acts (Eros was the god of same-sex love and relationships).

The early Roman Christian church, especially in countries steeped in the Greek and Roman myths, had a problem with worshippers bringing ivy, Dionysos’s  symbol of pleasure and fertility, into holy places (too much like uncontrolled, drunken sex, they thought). The Celtic Christians in the north had no such qualms. Perhaps the Roman church played on ivy’s northern associations with longevity and eternal life and came to adopt it as a symbol of Christ’s promise of eternal life.

The strongest link between ivy and Dionysos and Bacchus comes in their specific emblem called the thyrsus. This is a wand made from the stalk of a fennel plant topped with a pine cone. Around the stalk is entwined ivy. Academics say this thyrsus is represents the male penis (academics like bringing sex into things). Dionysos’s followers and servants carried a thyrsus at all of his hedonistic celebrations and rituals.

So, what could any lgbt seasonal celebration be complete without a bit of holly, ivy and a few pine cones?

Now that we’ve Decked the Halls let’s hear a rendition of the “The Holly and the Ivy” itself. Here’s the Denver Women’s Chorus.

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Part 24 - Earnest

LAST TIME : 71) Count Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921) was prominent in the Parisian artistic community and supported painter such as 72) Romaine Brooks (1874-1970) who had a 50-year relationship with 73) Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972), who also had a  relationship with 74) Dolly Wilde (1896-1941), niece of the famous 75) Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).
75) Oscar Wilde had actually met 73) Natalie Clifford Barney before 74) Dolly Wilde had even been born.

In 1882 Oscar went on a lecture tour of America. One stop on the tour was the Long Beach Hotel in New York, Staying at the hotel at the time was Mrs. Alice Pike Barney and her family, which included the 5-year-old Natalie. At that young age Natalie remembered the encounter and recalled it in her memoirs. She remembered how she was being chased by a group of boys and ran past a gentleman who scooped her up and away from her pursuers. That gentleman was Oscar Wilde who then sat her on his knee and told her a “wonderful tale”, as she described it.

Oscar’s influence on her mother was no less marked. Mrs. Barney wanted to be an artist, despite her husband’s objections. Oscar persuaded her to follow her dream, and she studied art under several established painters, including James McNeill Whistler, the friend of 71) Count Robert de Montesquiou and influencer of 72) Romaine Brooks. Some of Mrs. Barney’s paintings are in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Now we come to a convoluted set of relationships. In 1900 73) Natalie Clifford Barney had a short romance with 76) Olive Custance (1874-1944), a bisexual heiress and aspiring poet. Olive had been moving in London’s literary circles since the age of 16 and had met 75) Oscar Wilde. It wasn’t long after the romance began that Olive introduced Natalie to 77) Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945). The well-known relationship between Lord Alfred and Oscar Wilde and the trial that ensued is one of the key moments in the UK’s lgbt heritage. But that was a few years previously in 1895.

Olive Custance and Lord Alfred began a courtship around the time of Oscar’s death. However, Olive found herself becoming engaged to another acquaintance, an old school friend of Lord Alfred. When this other suitor returned from a trip to America Olive and Lord Alfred ran away and married in 1902, much to her father’s objections. Olive remained a close friend of Natalie Barney, making her godmother to their only child. The marriage wasn’t a particularly successful one with various issues leading to separations and reconciliations (of sorts) but they remained married. They died just over a year apart from each other.

The Wildean Web, as I call it, the many connections that can be centred around Oscar Wilde, would fill a whole volume. His reputation and personality drew people to him like moths to a flame. Those people I’ve already mentioned come from the period after Wilde became famous, but there are also other literary lgbt connections that date from his younger years.

One connection cones through the Salon, not Natalie Clifford Barney’s Paris Salon, as Oscar died before it was established, but a London Salon established by his own mother Jane, Lady Wilde. She was also a very successful writer who had a large number of influential connections.

I cannot finish without mentioning a very unusual connection. Wilde’s most famous play in arguably “The Importance of Being Earnest”. It was made into an equally famous film in 1952 starring Michael Redgrave and Edith Evans (the words “a handbag?” have never been the same since). The film was directed by the openly gay Anthony Asquith, or the Hon. Anthony Asquith, to give him his title. That’s because is father was the former British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Oscar Wilde had known Herbert Asquith since the 1870s through his mother’s connections. Before becoming Prime Minister Herbert was Home Secretary, and quess who signed the arrest warrant for Oscar Wilde in 1895? Yes, the Home Secretary Herbert Asquith.

It is Lady Wilde who introduces us to the next link in our journey Around the World in 80 Gays. One of her acquaintances was another famous writer who actually married the girl Oscar Wilde had hoped to marry. That other writer was 78) Bram Stoker (1847-1912).
In the final part of this series we’ll see how 78) Bram Stoker and two other lgbt people take us back to 1) Alan Turing.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Make the Yuletide Gay : 2

Happy Santa’s Day. Yes, it’s the feast day of St. Nicholas today and several countries are celebrating.

One of the things I enjoyed quite a lot when I was young was going carol singing with my siblings. We visited neighbours houses in the dark evenings and serenaded them with our favourite carols. As a teenager I joined my local Methodist youth club in carolling around the rural village where I was brought up.

Most people confuse carols with hymns. Hymns are specifically religious, but carols don’t need to have any religious content at all and yet still be seasonal. Today’s subject is one such carol and one of the most popular – “Deck the Halls”. It also caused a bit of a stir in an American school and a major retail chain for all the wrong reasons.

I imagine that this has happened in other places at other times, but in December 2011 a music teacher at the Cherry Knoll Elementary School in Traverse City, Michigan, decided her young pupils would not sing the traditional line in the carol that goes “Don we know our gay apparel”. The reason she gave was that the children kept giggling every time they sang the word “gay”. What the teacher substituted instead was “bright”. Changing the lyric just because children were giggling at it is a pretty lame excuse, if you ask me.

When some of the children’s parents found out they were surprised and wanted it changed back. When the Principal of the school, Chris Parker, found out he too requested that the word “gay” be reinstated into the pupil’s songsheets. He commented that the whole incident could have been handled as an educational exercise, after all that’s what teachers are paid for.

Some of the pupils were very young. They were first and second graders and probably thought of “gay” as something of a taboo word and may not have been aware of any other definition of the word other than the sexual one. They had probably never heard it being used in any other way. Its older sense meaning “bright” is rarely used today, mainly because of the extensive modern use in the context of homosexuality. I know when I was at school at that age there were many innocuous words that made us giggle and think we were saying something that was somehow rude. I’m so old that even saying the word “sex” was rude when I was 6 years old!

On a side note, if the teacher thought the word “gay” was being misinterpreted by the pupils, why didn’t she change other words they probable wouldn’t have heard before as well? Would the children know what “don” and “apparel” meant?

However, another group of people – grown-ups, this time – fell into the same embarrassing situation two years later. I don’t know if it was through over-zealous political correction or just ignorance of the public’s intelligence.

In 2013 the greetings card giant Hallmark decided to produce a Christmas tree ornament in the shape of a tiny knitted sweater. On it was stitched the words “Don we now our FUN apparel” As the San Francisco Chronicle put it, “In attempting to avoid a controversy, Hallmark had apparently offended almost everyone.”

Again, the public rose almost as one in response and complained about, and even ridiculed, the decision to change “gay” to “fun”. Didn’t Hallmark know that the carol is more well-known as they are and likely to be around long after they’ve gone? Millions of us have grown up with this carol, and we are intellectually capable of recognising the actual meaning of the lyrics.

A rather pathetic excuse given by Hallmark was that the word “gay” has multiple meanings and they changed it because they thought it would “leave our intent open to misinterpretation”. That “intent” was to introduce a feeling of “fun” into celebrations (as if using the word “gay” was going to stop the fun!). Then they turned the apology around by blaming the popular use of wearing colourful festive sweaters. That sounds pretty lame as well, as if they wouldn’t have changed the word if they had used the line on a different type of ornament or card.

Perhaps it was all just a publicity stunt. Commercial companies like creating controversy to boost their sales. The “fun” ornament was removed from Hallmark’s stores but it remained on sale on their website.

Many lgbt choirs include “Deck the Halls” in their Christmas repertoire, and I doubt any of them will change the lyrics, and I also doubt if any of them have not resisted the urge to parody the lyrics in the name of harmless seasonal fun. That’s how it should be. Gay is a harmless word and isn’t the only word in the English language that has more than one interpretation – comedians build their careers on exploiting the different meanings of words.

Let’s end with the carol itself. Here’s a rather formal rendition of the carol sung by the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.

Thursday 3 December 2015

Champions of Justice

“Champions of Justice” is the title of my newest guided tour of lgbt Nottingham. I did the full tour for a paying client for the first time a week ago and it went very well. I usually try out parts of new tours on my established tours to see what works. I tried out the last part of the new tour in summer when I did my Robin Hood tour for a group of teenagers.

So, who are the Champions of Justice, and how do they fit in with Nottingham’s lgbt heritage? Here are the basics.

There’s no way you can talk about Champions of Justice in Nottingham and not mention Robin Hood. The first lgbt connection is my theory that the ballad which forms the basis of the legend and stories familiar to us today was written by Sir John Clanvowe who was married to Sir William Neville, Constable of Nottingham Castle. There’s no room to go into the details here, but if you put “Sir John Clanvowe” into the search box you can find out more.

Robin Hood was used by the lgbt community in Nottingham as the subject of a play by a gay street theatre group in the 1970s. Of course they put their own distinctive slant on the legend. Robin was transformed into Robina, Maid Marian was a man in drag, and someone else dressed up as the Major Oak. They put on their play outside the city Council House where a reception was being held for a Soviet trade delegation. When the delegates left the reception and saw the performance outside they were impressed that the council had arranged a special performance for them by the Robin Hood Society. A passing dog was also fooled, at least by the actor dressed as the Major Oak because it peed up her leg! The council wasn’t impressed and got the security guards to chase the actors away. Just how they explained that to the Soviets isn’t known!

203 years ago this week the British government sent hundreds of troops into Nottingham to quash the rioters known as the Luddites. These were hand-weavers who had been put out of work by newly invented weaving machines. They lost their jobs, their only income, and became destitute. Hundreds of them went around smashing the new machines and attacking their ex-employers’ homes. Parliament then passed an act which meant that anyone found guilty of rioting would be hanged. It didn’t stop the rioting.

A few weeks later the 24-year-old Lord Byron stood up in the House of Lords to make his maiden speech. He had spend that Christmas in the Nottingham area and undoubtedly knew about the riots. He said that it was wrong to hang the Luddites because they had no other choice but to smash the machines and reclaim their livelihoods. His words made him a hero in Nottingham.

By 1823 Byron was known throughout Europe because of his poetry (and his pansexual antics!). He was persuaded to join the Greek fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire. He was treated like a war-hero when he arrived in Greece, even though he hadn’t seen any military action. They were so in awe of him that he they virtually offered him the throne.

Unfortunately Byron died of a fever before he saw any action. But he was – and still is – treated as a national hero in Greece. His body arrived back in Nottingham for burial. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people came to see and pass by his coffin as it rested in a city centre inn overnight. Many were there to remember him as a great poet, but many more were there to remember him as a champion of the unemployed Luddites.

These two men were among the first members of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) founded in Manchester in 1969. Nottingham was one of the first branches formed and Ray and Ike were members. Ray was also one of the city’s youngest – and first openly gay - councillors in the 1960’s and was Vice-President of the CHE. He later became a very popular radio and tv broadcaster. Ike was a former RAF officer and a university law lecturer who wrote the CHE’s constitution.

In 1977 they persuaded the CHE to hold their annual conference in Nottingham. Several city hotels hosted discussions, workshops and events, but one event created the biggest stir in the CHE’s existence thus far. One discussion was on the subject of the psychological origins of paedophilia led by a Dutch doctor and MP who had been imprisoned in Holland for having sex with underage boys. The public and the media in 1977 were outraged. Several protest meetings were held outside the hotel, and the hotel (quite understandably regarding the violent anti-gay climate at the time) cancelled the events for fear of attacks on the hotel and its staff. The event was moved to another venue (from which the media was banned). In spite of this controversy the conference was deemed a huge success.

Freedom from state censorship in the UK owes a lot to the trial in 1960 in which Penguin Books was prosecuted for obscenity for publishing local novelist Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.


This couple have appeared on this blog many times (again, enter their names in the search box). Both men were members of the Lollard Knights, a group of knights who supported the right to worship without interference or persecution from the Vatican (long before Henry VIII created the Church of England).

The Archbishop of Canterbury was very anti-Lollard and excommunicated all Lollard preachers. One carried on preaching and came to Nottingham in 1387, whereupon he was arrested. Sir William Neville, as Constable of Nottingham Castle at the time, suggested the preacher be held in the castle cells as they were more secure. The authorities agreed.

What no-one noticed after a few months was that the preacher had disappeared from the castle and was found in hiding under the protection of another Lollard Knight over a hundred miles away. It’s obvious that Sir William Neville’s Lollard sympathies had something to do with the escape. Fortunately, being one of the king’s closest courtiers, he wasn’t punished. Eventually, the Archbishop declared all Lollards heretics and had them burnt at the stake. Sir William and Sir John escaped this punishment also, both having died some years previously.

And those are just a few of Nottingham’s lgbt Champions of Justice.