Thursday 29 March 2018

Flower Power : Botanical Crowning Glories

With so many international sporting festivals this year (Winter Olympics and Paralympics, Commonwealth Games, Gay Games, Asian Games, Youth Summer Olympics, among others) athletes’ attention turns to winning medals. The ancient Greek games from which so many of them take their inspiration didn’t have medals. Instead they had various prizes, and those that didn’t had victory crowns made from sacred plants as their only reward.
We saw some acknowledgement of these victory wreaths at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, both in the form of the games logo (above) and in the olive wreaths presented to the medallists on the victory podium.

Only the winners of the ancient games were awarded victory wreaths. There was no prize for coming second or third. All of the athletes, regardless of which shrine the games were being held, has trained the same way. Athletes joined a gymnasium as a boy of about 12, and were immediately sought out by an older athlete as a training and sexual partner. It gives a whole new slant of the term “gym buddy”. That is why there was always a statue of Eros in every gym. Without repeating what I’ve written many times before Eros was associated with male same-sex activity more than with any other kind.

The ancient Olympics were the most famous and most prestigious games. Olive trees grew in the grove around the temple of Zeus at Olympia and were considered sacred to him. One myth recounts that Herakles brought the first olive tree to Olympia after one of his many adventures and planted it at Olympia to honour his father Zeus. Herakles is also said to have founded the Olympic Games and was the first to present the victors with a wreath of olive branches.

Before we look at the other floral victory wreaths let’s look at which games awarded them. The Olympic games were the most important of the four Panhellenic games. These were the games that were open to all Greeks regardless of which city state they came from. The other games were held in specific years of the Olympiad.

An Olympiad is a period of time, not an event. It lasted four years and the Olympics were held in the first year, as the modern games still are. If you’ve wondered why the 2018 Rio Olympics were referred to as the games of the 31st Olympiad even though they were only the 28th games that have been held, that’s the reason why. The World Wars prevented games from being held for the 5th, 12th and 13th modern Olympiads.

Here is a table of the ancient Panhellenic games and where and when they were held. 




Year 1

Olympic Games


Year 2

Isthmian Games (April-May)


Nemean Games (July)


(modern day Archaia Nemea)

Year 3

Pythian Games


Year 4

Isthmian Games (April-May)


Nemean Games (July)


(modern day Archaia Nemea)

In the second year of the ancient Olympiad two Panhellenic games were held. The first was the Isthmian Games held at the temple of Poseidon at Corinth. The victors of these games were awarded wreaths of pine fronds. The pine tree was sacred to Poseidon, the god of the sea, because it was used for building ships. Like the flora used for the other victory wreaths pine was considered a vital part of the local economy and culture and held sacred significance.

During the 5th to 1st centuries BC the Isthmian pine wreath was temporarily replaced with one made of celery. No, not the crunchy salad celery but the leafy wild celery from which it was cultivated. I can’t get the image of a hunky naked Greek athlete standing on a victory podium with a wreath made of stick of celery on his head! It’s like something out of the abysmal “Horrible Histories” alleged children’s educational television series. But while the Isthmian Games regained the pine wreath the Nemean Games always awarded wild celery victory wreaths.

Wild celery was considered to be unlucky to the ancient Greeks. So why would anyone use it to celebrate victory? The reason goes back to one of the myths about the creation of the Nemean Games. An oracle had told a local king that his son, Prince Opheltes, should never touch the ground until he had learned to walk. One day the Seven Against Thebes, a group of legendary heroes who led an army against the usurper of the Theban throne, rested for a while in the foothills of the Arkadian mountains. There they met a nursemaid carrying the baby Prince Opheltes. The nursemaid offered to fetch some water to refresh the heroes and laid the baby down onto a bed of wild celery, ensuring that he couldn’t touch the ground. It wasn’t high enough to stop a snake from slithering up to the baby and killing it. This seemed like a bad omen to the Seven heroes and to bring good luck in their mission they held funeral games in the baby prince’s honour at the place where he died. Funerals were always occasions where sport played a major part in Greece, so this was not unusual. Victory wreaths made from wild celery were given to the victors. That’s one of the myths of the Nemean Games and celery. The modern revival of the Nemean Games still has wild celery wreaths as the only reward for the victors.

The fourth of the Panhellenic Games was the Pythian Games held at Delphi in honour of Apollo. These games awarded the most famous victory wreath of them all – the wreath that has given its name to the best of other endeavours. The laurel wreath.

The honour of being appointed a Poet Laureate or a Nobel laureate originate in the ancient award of a laurel wreath (the word “baccalaureate” comes from a different source). The reason is because of the original contests held at the Pythian Games. I’ll write more about this later this year as part of my “Around the World in Another 80 Gays” series, but, briefly, the Pythian Games originated as song and poetry contests. Apollo was god of music and poetry and Delphi was his most important shrine. Sport was added to the games a few centuries later.

The laurel was sacred to Apollo. The myth goes that he and Eros argued over who had mastery over archery. Eros secretly created two arrows, one of gold and one of lead. He shot the gold arrow at Apollo, giving him an overwhelming feeling of sexual passion. Eros then fired the lead arrow at a nymph called Daphne, giving her an overwhelming revulsion to sex. Apollo pursued Daphne relentlessly, ignoring the nymph’s protests. In desperation Daphne called upon the gods for help and they turned her into the first laurel tree. Apollo’s passion was not diminished and he declared his eternal devotion to the laurel. Since then Apollo was always seen wearing a laurel wreath on his head. Therefore the Pythian Games awarded laurel wreaths to the winners of the poetry and song contests in honour of Apollo.

I like the idea of presenting floral victory wreaths. Like the 2004 Athens Olympics it’s a nod to those ancient games which have inspired so many modern games. At least it’s more likely to be welcomed than having all-male naked sport with same-sex couples is likely to be.

Sunday 25 March 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays : Part 11) Questioned Gender

Previously : 17) Andy Mangels (b.1966) was editor of “Gay Comix”, for which 18) Jon Macy contributed before writing a graphic novel based on a Victorian gay porn novel which was in turn based on the life of 19) John Saul (1857-1904), a self-styled “molly” or “moll”, a term later applied derogatorily to female athletes like 20) Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956).

In an article in “Vanity Fair” magazine in 1932 sports writer Paul Gallico labelled 20) Mildred “Babe” Didrikson a “muscle moll”. It was not meant as a compliment. For many men the sight of women sweating during competitive sport was considered very unfeminine and undesirable. This attitude was hard to get rid of. Even with criticism directed at them it did nothing to stop women from taking up athletics.

Mildred Didrikson Zaharias, known as “Babe”, pursued many sports – track and field athletics, baseball, basketball, softball, diving, bowls and roller skating. Her competitive career began in 1931 playing basketball for the insurance company where she worked. She became famous a year later when the company entered her into the Amateur Athletics Union national championships. Babe won 5 out of the 8 track and field events she entered, setting 5 world records in the process. This lead to her inevitable inclusion in the US team at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. She won 2 gold medals and 1 silver.

After the Olympics Babe left athletics behind and took up golf. In this she had greater success. For over a decade she was the world’s leading female golfer. Her successes earned for her a long-lasting place in sporting history. At the end of the 20th century when achievements in all areas were being analysed to recognise the individuals who made the greatest impact in their chosen careers Babe Didrikson Zaharias was included in all of the sporting lists. She was ranked the 20th century’s top female US sports personality by both the Associated Press and ESPN.

There was another female champion at the 1932 Olympics who had her femininity questioned. 21) Stella Walsh (1911-1980) won the 100 metres. Her birth name was Stanisława Walasiewicz and she was born in what was then part of imperial Russia before a partitioned Poland was reunited in 1918. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when Stella was just a year old. Cleveland had a large Polish community and Stella grew up with a strong sense of her Polish heritage and nationality. This was to be a disadvantage when she tried out for a place on the US team going to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.

She had won several national and international athletics championships under her anglicised name of Stella Walsh. After the US Olympic trials Stella was selected as an alternate athlete. However, when her birth nationality was confirmed she was dropped. Being 17 years old at the time meant that she wasn’t old enough to apply for US citizenship. Stella reapplied in time for the 1932 Olympics. However, less than a month before the trials she lost her job and stunned America, where she was by now a famous athlete, by declining to take the oath of citizenship. The reason was that she had got a job at the Polish consulate and was going to compete for Poland.

Stella acquired US citizenship in 1947, but was unable to compete for the US at the 1948 Olympics because Opymic regulations banned athletes who had previously competed for another nation. A "marriage of convenience" to an American was the only choice she had to qualify, but by then she had passed her athletic prime.

Never considered a woman of conventional female beauty Stella was typical of the “muscle molls” like Babe Didrikson Zaharias who were so derided. Interestingly, it was at her second Olympics at the infamous 1936 Berlin games that she was beaten into second place in the 100 metres by American Helen Stephens who was accused of being a man. A gender test proved she was not. It was 44 years later, however, after she was murdered that Stella Walsh’s own gender was challenged.

On a snowy night in December 1980 Stella was mugged and shot in a Cleveland car park. For a brief moment her athletic achievements were lauded in news reports and obituaries as her name re-entered the public consciousness. This attention disappeared briefly after John Lennon was shot four days later, but it reappeared a few days later in a different light.

Stella’s autopsy revealed that she was born intersex. To the minds of most people in the 1980s this meant that she was not a woman and gave her an unfair advantage in athletics. Accusations flew around denouncing her as a fraud and a freak. Calls were made for her athletics medals and records to be revoked. To their credit the International Olympic Committee refused to do either because they didn’t consider Stella to have broken any of their rules on gender verification during her competitions, nor believe that she intended to defraud anyone.

Since Stella’s sad death understanding of intersexuality has improved but still has a long way to go. Many support groups and organisations for intersexuals have appeared increasingly during he 21st century, an old terms such as “hermaphrodite” are being gently discouraged.
The Olympic flag in the colours of the intersex flag designed by Morgan Carpenter of Organisation Intersex International Australia.
The term hermaphrodite has been used for centuries. On Intersex Awareness Day last October I looked at the historical use of the term and its origins in this article. The misunderstanding of intersex during the ancient times often classed eunuchs with hermaphrodites. From the ancient sources we discover that there were a few individuals who were referred to as “natural eunuchs”, or congenital eunuchs as is now preferred. The thinking today is that these congenital eunuchs were intersex.

According to the Roman jurist Ulpian (d. 223 AD) Roman law made a distinction between congenital and castrated eunuchs. Congenital eunuchs were allowed to marry, for instance, while castrated eunuchs were not. The lgbt Emperor Hadrian made castration equal to murder.

Hadrian had a one-time friend, a philosopher called 22) Favorinus of Arelate (c.85 AD-c.160 AD). He was born in southern France and, against the custom of his time, was not killed at birth when he was found to be a congenital eunuch. For this we should all be eternally grateful, for Favorinus can be seen a role model for modern gay men who express their personality openly and proudly.

Favorinus was highly intelligent as a child and quickly developed skills as an orator. This was made him famous and popular. Oratory was a common form of entertainment in those days and audiences loved his style in both oratory (witty, thoughtful and captivating) and appearance (effeminate mannerism, no beard, high-pitched voice and heavy female make-up). Other orators criticised his effeminate manners (they rarely criticised his oratory skills). In a mirror to the criticism of “muscle molls” Favorinus was considered too “feminine” to be an orator.

Favorinus also taught rhetoric and oration to people like Herodes Atticus, and Emperor Hadrian took him under his wing. For some reason Favorinus lost the emperor’s favour in the 130s and exiled him to the island of Chios. He returned only after Hadrian’s death. From then on he became known as an authority on law, grammar, education and science. He accumulated a vast library which he bequeathed to Herodes Atticus.

Favorinus was open about his personality, a personality formed from his intersexuality, and his confidence in presenting it to the world despite criticism was a major factor in his success and fame. He can be seen as a role model for young intersexuals and lgbt youths today who face abuse because of the way they present themselves to the world.

Favorinus is one intersexual recognised from the Roman Empire. Most, as I mentioned above, were killed at birth. Those whose parents chose not to kill their child may have hidden their physical differences throughout their entire lives as Stella Walsh did. Through her athletic career Stella always turned up to competitions in her running gear and didn’t use the changing rooms with other female athletes.

In 1978 the skeleton of a wealthy Roman woman was discovered in London. In 2015 DNA analysis revealed that she, too, may have been intersexual. We’ll never know her real name but she is known to science as 23) the Harper Road Woman (c.60 AD).

Next time : The rebellion of Boudicca leads to a Yiddish celluloid closet.

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Puppet On (and Off) a String

Top row (left to right) : War Horse; Terri Rogers and Shorty Harris; Big Bird; Elmo; Beaker.
Bottom row (left to right) : Ronnie Burkett with two of his marionettes; one of Jeff Karsner’s marionettes; Wayland Flowers and Madame; Peter Minshall’s giant puppets at the Atlanta Olympic opening ceremony.
Today is World Puppetry Day. Here in Nottingham we are celebrating with a whole week of puppet-related performances and workshops. I have always been interested in puppetry. It’s in my blood. During World War II my mother and her siblings performed in many concerts in their local area to raise funds for the war effort. My mother was 8 years old when war broke out. The driving force behind these concerts was my grandfather’s friend who lived with the family, Uncle Bill Hayes. He was a professional music hall entertainer.

Uncle Bill could tell jokes, sing, do magic, performed comic character acts and operate puppets. My family and other local amateur performers were roped in to help with his concerts (several tricks were performed in the UK for the first time by Uncle Bill and my mother, his magician’s assistant). As I was growing up I heard many stories about those concerts. They gave me a love of puppets, performance and magic. I still have the marionettes my parents bought for me in the 1970s. I even made some “Star Trek” hand puppets in the 1980s for a youth concert.

It is only in past few years that I have realised how many lgbt puppeteers there are. There are organisations and Facebook groups, and puppeteers who specialise in lgbt issues such as coming out and anti-bullying. It would take a long time to go through them all, so I’ll present a selection of lgbt puppeteers to celebrate World Puppetry Day.

I’ll start with something which is high-lighting the puppet festival here in Nottingham and is making its debut in the city. Its one of the most famous of contemporary puppet performances – “War Horse”.

Andrew Kohler and Basil Jones are a married gay couple from South Africa. They met at art college in Botswana and quickly recognised their shared love of puppetry. In 1981 they formed the Handspring Puppet Company. Andrew and Basil created puppet shows for schools and later for adult audiences which also included themes tackling racism and human rights. In 2007 their reputation came to the notice of director Tom Morris who was mounting a theatre adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel “War Horse”. Tom approached Adrian and Basil to create a realistic horse puppet and the other puppets for “War Horse”. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Another talent my Uncle Bill had was for ventriloquism. One of the more distinctive ventriloquists that I remember from British television in the 1970s was a woman called Terri Rogers (1937-1999). At that time there were many ventriloquists on tv and I recall only two of them being women – Shari Lewis and Terri Rogers. Little did I know at the time that Terri Rogers was transgender. As well as being a talented ventriloquist Terri was a magician. She wrote several magic books and developed tricks and illusions for stars like David Copperfield and Paul Daniels.

Perhaps the most famous puppets in popular culture, apart from Punch and Judy, are the Muppets. Throughout the career of Muppet creator Jim Henson he used various types of puppet. An early collaboration was with Kermit Love (1916-2008), an openly gay costume designer and puppeteer who pioneered the use of the full-body costume puppets that made the Muppets famous. Perhaps the most famous is Big Bird from “Sesame Street”, the first and most enduring of the many puppets Kermit Love created. Incidentally, Kermit the Frog is not named after Kermit Love. They are both named after the son of President Teddy Roosevelt, Kermit Roosevelt.

Kermit Love was mentor to another Muppeteer, Kevin Clash. Kevin had a childhood love of puppets and, like myself, was making puppets at the age of 10. In his teenage years Kevin contacted Kermit who in turn put him in contact with Jim Henson. For almost 30 years Kevin Clash was Elmo in “Sesame Street”. This ended with his resignation in 2012 after unfounded allegations of under-age sex were made. However, the incident led to Kevin coming out to the media as a gay man.

Kevin’s reign as Elmo came after the brief tenure of Richard Hunt (1951-1992). Richard came from a show business family and puppetry was an early interest, fuelled by the early Muppet appearances on tv. He began working for Jim Henson in 1969 and was the original puppeteer behind (or underneath) many popular Muppets, including Scooter, Beaker, Statler, Sweetums and several Fraggles. For the year before Kevin Clash’s arrival he was also Elmo. Richard Hunt died of AIDS at the age of 40.

Ronnie Burkett is a Canadian marionetteer. His self-written performances often have adult themes. He founded his own company in 1986 and has toured the world. One of his more recent successes, “Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy”, was a semi-autobiographical piece about a young gay puppeteer. It toured internationally for 2 years.

Jeff Karsner (1961-2012) was a gardener by profession – Head Gardener of the Children’s Garden at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. He was also a board member of the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry. He used inspired imagination in his garden designs and even used plants to create puppets. Other puppets were made out of rubbish, trash, discarded objects and bits and pieces you might find in a cupboard or drawer. Jeff was also a swimmer and won a bronze medal at the 1994 Gay Games in New York. He died accidentally at his home and donations in his memory were made to the International Puppetry Museum in Pasadena.

Wayland Flowers (1939-1988) was a familiar face on television on both sides of the Atlantic. So, too, was his famous creation Madame. In many ways Wayland paved the way for some modern puppeteers and ventriloquists who, like Terri Rogers above, often used outrageous and adult content in their cabaret and club acts which became the staple content for recent popular adult puppet musicals like “Avenue Q”.

Peter Minshall is a Caribbean carnival costume designer. His expertise was used to great effect in the Olympic opening ceremonies of Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996, and the closing ceremony of Salt Lake City 2002. Carnival costumes became giant puppets with his creations of 20-feet-tall stick people. It is said that he is also the inventor of those inflatable dancing figures you often see on car dealer forecourts.

And these are just a few of the lgbt puppeteers and puppet creators who have enlivened many minds of children and adults alike. There are many other areas which I have no space to go into – shadow puppets, Punch and Judy, the puppets of stage shows like “The Lion King”, and children’s tv favourites like Thunderbirds.

Saturday 17 March 2018

Queer Achievement: Shamrocks Among the Daffodils

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]

I’m combining two themes today – heraldry and family history. I’m celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by looking at an Irish couple who have been given a Welsh name.

The Ladies of Llangollen is the name given to Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831), two Irish aristocrats who spent over 50 years living together near the Welsh village of that name.

Among the stories of same-sex relationships between women in pre-20th century times the lives of the Ladies of Llangollen have gone down as one of the most famous, genuine lesbian love affairs. But before we look at it in more detail here’s my representation of their coats of arms. Lady Eleanor’s is on the left and Sarah’s is on the right. They are placed this way round because 1) the left hand side is the most senior heraldic position and Lady Eleanor was the elder of the two, and 2) the Butler coat of arms is older than the Ponsonby’s and is also the most heraldically senior.
Rather than use lozenge shapes on which to place their coat of arms, as would have been customary in their lifetimes, I have chosen a modern presentation and placed them on shields. Once convention I have kept is the placing of a bow and garland around the arms. Women did not display the family crest on helmets so I have left those out.

So, what’s their family story? The Butler and Ponsonby families lived several miles from each other in County Kilkenny, Ireland. The Butlers held the title Earl of Ormonde and Eleanor’s father is regarded today as the 16th Earl. He didn’t use the title himself because a previous holder of the title was found guilty of high treason and had all his titles, Irish and English, taken from him (he was attainted, to use the proper word). It was Lady Eleanor’s brother who regained the title after parliament decided the attainder should only have applied to the family’s English titles, not the Irish ones.

Sarah Ponsonby’s great-grandfather William was the 1st Viscount Duncannon. Through another great-grandfather Sarah was 5th cousin to Lady Eleanor. Here’s the family relationship.
Lady Eleanor and Sarah met in 1768. There was an instant connection of spirits between the two and they began to make plans to avoid the customary fate of aristocratic young ladies of being married off to a man they hardly knew and may never even love. Their families tried to keep them apart after an aborted attempt to “elope” together.

During a trip to Wales Eleanor and Sarah put their foot down and began to live in a cottage they christened Plas Newydd just outside Llangollen. There they could no longer rely on allowances from their wealthy families and lived in reduced circumstances.

It wasn’t long before Eleanor and Sarah earned the local name of “the Ladies” and the cottage became a place where many famous and influential people visited – Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Wellington, Wedgwood – all eager to meet the couple who were rapidly becoming society celebrities because of their lifestyle. Even Queen Charlotte wanted to visit them because they were so famous and she persuaded her husband George III to give them a pension.

The Ladies of Llangollen both lived into old age. Eleanor was almost 90 years old. They are buried together in St. Collen’s Church, Llangollen. Their cottage, Plas Newydd, is now a museum.

Let’s look briefly at the Butler and Ponsonby coats of arms. They both have a connection in that they represent the occupations of their ancestors.

The Butler arms are quartered. The yellow quarters with the blue zigzag top are those of the male-line ancestors of the Butlers. They lived in the Middle Ages before surnames became consistently hereditary. This quarter shows the arms of the Walter, or FitzWalter, family. Hervey Walter was appointed Chief Butler of Ireland in 1177 by King Henry II of England. Hervey’s son Theobald was the first in the family to adopt the surname le Botiler, which has come down to us as Butler. A butler wasn’t like those we see in stately homes and whodunnits today. A royal butler was in charge of the food and drink of the court and given to someone highly trusted. Well, would you want to give the job to someone who is likely to poison you? The other quarters in the Butler arms are called an augmentation of honour because they indicate the family’s royal appointment of Chief Butler.

The Ponsonby arms show a less obvious way of commemorating a family’s royal appointment. A family legend recounts that one of the Ponsonbys was created royal hair-cutter by Henry II in the same year as Hervey Walter was created Chief Butler. Hence the family adopted three hair combs as their coat of arms. It’s an interesting legend but there’s no real evidence of it being fact.

To end with let’s have another look at that family tree above. You’ll see that Lady Eleanor Butler is descended from the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven. This is the same sexually perverted Earl of Castlehaven featured in my article “No Haven at the Castle”.