Saturday 30 June 2018

The First Openly Gay Olympian - A Century Ago

With the World Cup dominating the television channels at the moment let’s take a look at another sport which is just behind in media coverage – tennis.

What can connect the two sports is the issue of lgbt inclusion. Football is notorious for not welcoming (male) lgbt players, despite their worthless paper declarations to the contrary. Reports of homophobic chants at World Cup matches and the general anti-gay stance of the host nation Russia has highlighted the problems.

The issue of lgbt inclusion in sport goes back further than you might think, and it illustrates well the long-standing homophobia of football and its damaging influence on other sports.

At the beginning of the 20th century Danish tennis tournaments were governed by the Dansk Bolspil-Union (DBU, the Danish Football Union). One of the stars of Danish tennis was Leif Rovsing (1887-1977). Between 1907 and 1916 he won five national doubles championships.

Leif Rovsing came from a wealthy family. On the whole tennis was a sport of the wealthy while football was a favoured sport of the ordinary working people. This was a European-wide distinction and in football, with its class prejudices, echoes of this distinction still linger. Leif joined the Copenhagen Ball Club, a member of the DBU, which had a tennis section.

At the Wimbledon tournament in 1910 Leif competed in both the men’s singles and doubles competitions, though he was knocked out in the second round of the singles tournament by Britain’s Lt. L. E. Milburn, and knocked out of the doubles tournament in the first round by the Fyzee brothers from India.

Despite this Leif was Danish national singles champion, and in 1912 qualified for the Stockholm Olympics. Again, he played in the outdoor singles and doubles tournaments (in those days there was both an indoor and outdoor tournament). He only played two matches, both of which he lost and didn’t progress to the next round. Yesterday and today are the anniversaries of those two matches.

His first match on 29th June 1912 was against Sweden’s Sven Wennergen in the third round, after having been awarded a walkover result in his first scheduled match. With his doubles partner Victor Hansen Leif played against a Russian couple in the second round on 30th July, again after a walkover decision in their first scheduled match.
These matches on 29th and 30th June 1912 at the Stockholm Olympics make Leif Rovsing (abovve) the first known lgbt Olympian.

Also at Stockholm was fellow gay Dane Niels Bukh who was coach to the gold medal winning Swedish men’s gymnastics team. Niels had hoped to compete at the previous games in London 1908 but was dropped from the Danish gymnastics team because he was too muscular and butch and his physique didn’t fit in with those of the rest of the team.

In 1917 the DBU began investigating reports that Leif Rovsing had sexual relations at his home with an 18-year-old male tennis student. We are still familiar with the old homophobic excuse that gay men are a corrupting influence on the young, and the DBU used this as their reason to ban Leif from playing in any tennis tournament for four years.

At the investigation committee Leif admitted that he did indeed have intimate moments with young men, without actually admitted to sexual activity which would undoubtedly have resulted in a life ban.

As such this also makes Leif Rovsing the first openly gay former Olympian in 1917.

Tennis was Leif’s life. Having inherited a fortune from his father he didn’t need to find employment and he lived for tennis. He urged the DBU to reconsider their ban, but to no avail. Using part of his fortune he set up his own private tennis club, the Dansk Tennis Club, in 1919.

In 1921 the ban on Leif’s playing career expired and he immediately launched himself back onto the Danish tennis circuit. The newly-formed Danish Lawn Tennis Association invited Leif to become a member of their team heading to the 1923 Indoor Tennis World Championships in Barcelona. With doubles partner Erik Tegner he reached the final, but lost to the French couple Henri Cochet and Jean Couiteas.

Things seemed to be returning to normal for Leif, but in the background the Copenhagen Ball Club reopened the 1917 case and called for a renewed investigation. They recommended a further ban on Leif Rovsing in 1924, which the DBU agreed to put into force. However, this time there was at least a little leeway for Leif. Even though he was banned from playing for Danish clubs or from representing Denmark he could play against Danish players abroad, as long as their clubs agreed.

For a couple of years there was the hope of a revival to his career. In 1927 the Klovermarkens Tennis Club organised a tournament at which Leif was invited to play. Lots of top Danish players were also invited but, because these players were members of the Danish Lawn Tennis Association, one of the organisations included in the 1924 ban and still under the control of the Danish Football Union, the Association refused to allow Leif to take part. The Klovermarkens Tennis Club took the DBU to court and, once again, the unfounded belief that gay men are a corrupting influence dominated the case and a new ban was imposed on Leif.

With his professional tennis career now over Leif concentrated on his own Dansk Tennis Club. He travelled extensively in the Far East and recaptured his love of its culture in the decoration of the club buildings. He then began to concentrate on a campaign to demand that lgbt athletes in all sports should not be discriminated against and allowed to compete at the same level as any other athlete. This he did through letters, magazines and lectures.

After World War II Leif began writing regular articles in “Vennen”, the magazine published by the Forbundet af 1948 (The Association of 1948), the gay rights organisation founded by the activist couple Axel and Eigil Axgil. Leif also contributed financially towards the publication coats of the magazine.

In 1955 police raided the offices of “Vennen” is response to reports that it had published pornographic images of boys. The police extended their raids to the homes of people they considered were directly responsible for publishing the images. Leif Rovsing’s home was one of them. He was arrested and held in custody for fifteen days before being released. Leif was convinced an unfounded accusation made of him having sex with a teenage boy was made against him out of revenge for him writing against the DBU.

Leif continued to write articles for lgbt publications up to his death in 1977. He had blazed a trail of activism in sport for fifty years, and all funded though his inherited fortune. He didn’t ask for donations and he had no charitable organisation to fund his work. He left his fortune to the Dansk Tennis Fund which he had founded to manage his Dansk Tennis Club. The Club is still in existence today.

Leif Rovsing was the first openly gay athlete to challenge the established homophobia in sport, and in particular against the football organisations who controlled tennis in those days.

With the world in the midst of football and tennis frenzy it would be appropriate to bring Leif Rovsing out of the shadows and give him his rightful place as a pioneer of lgbt inclusion in sport.

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays : Part 19) Tarzan Speaks and Mexico Revolts

Previously : 31) Clive Aspin is active in the promotion of pride among traditional Maori sexualities, an example of which appears in the legend of 38) Tutanekia which is commemorated in a popular World War I song, similar in sentiment to another popular war-time song by 39) Ivor Novello (1893-1951).

39) Ivor Novello’s original name was David Ivor Davies, and you can’t get a more Welsh name than that. He was born in the Welsh capital of Cardiff. His mother, Clara Novello Davies, was a renowned singing teacher and founder of a women’s choir and it was her musical connections that got Ivor his start in music. Ivor would change his name to Novello legally later in life.

Ivor’s first significant contribution to music was during World War I when he wrote the music to a poem written by an American writer. This song was “Keep the Homes Fires Burning”. It was published shortly after war was declared. The sentiment of the words made the song a success, and after the British public adopted it as a patriotic message to their brave boys fighting in France it became as popular as the Maori song “Pokarekare Ana” was in New Zealand during World War II.

After the war Ivor wrote many songs and musical comedies. As his fame spread so did publicity shots, and it was one of these that put him on the road to the silver screen. Film-makers thought he had the perfect looks for a romantic lead in silent films. He starred in two early Alfred Hitchcock films, “The Lodger” and “Downhill” (which Ivor also wrote). By 1930 Ivor Novello was the UK’s top male film star.

He was soon given a contract as a writer and actor by MGM in Hollywood. It was for MGM that Ivor wrote what can easily be his most famous line. It doesn’t come from a song, but from a film. Even more than 80 years after the film was released in 1932 they have been repeated many, many times. Ivor’s words are “Me Tarzan, you Jane” from the film “Tarzan the Ape Man”. Ivor later said, “I never wrote such rubbish in my life”.
His acting career was equally disappointing. He only appeared in one film for MGM and his position as a rising Hollywood leading man and sex symbol came to nothing. He came back to the UK and carried on with his musical career to greater success.

Perhaps the problem was with Hollywood. The silent film industry was relatively small and there was very little room for more than one handsome hero. The death of Hollywood’s first sex symbol, Rudolf Valentino (himself surrounded by a whole network of lgbt connections, including one which I’ll mention later), in 1926 left a void that was hard to fill. Even though Ivor Novello was of heart-throb of British cinema and more than capable of filling Valentino’s romantic shoes he was not really a swash-buckling action hero. Besides, MGM had another actor they were also grooming as a “New Valentino”, a young gay immigrant from Mexico called Jose Sarmeniego. MGM turned him into the sex symbol who became known as 40) Ramon Novarro (1899-1968).

40) Ramon Novarro had been acting in silent films since 1916. When Ivor Novello was being the star of British films Ramon gained stardom as Ben Hur in 1925. MGM were already billing him as a “Latin Lover” and he quickly became the frontrunner to fill the shoes of Valentino which Ivor Novello couldn’t.

Unlike Ivor Novello, Ramon Novarro struggled with his sexuality. As with other gay men in early Hollywood he was “encouraged” to marry just for the sake of the studio’s reputation. He refused. When his MGM contract finished he found work hard to find, although he didn’t need to work because his salary from 20 years with MGM was enough for him to live on for the rest of his life.

By the 1960s Ramon was virtually forgotten. He appeared in a handful of American tv series as guest star, but the manner of his death in 1968 brought him back into the spotlight – for the wrong reasons.

Ramon often hired male prostitutes to come to his Hollywood mansion. Two brothers got hold of his address and posed as rent-boys. They believed Ramon must have lots of money at his home. When Ramon refused to give them any he was tied up, tortured and beaten. Ramon died in agony, chocking on his own blood. The brothers got away with only 20 dollars. Over the years various sensational “details” of his death were published, including the unfounded claim that Ramon’s body was found with a sex toy which Rudolf Valentino had given him.

Ramon Novarro was born in Mexico into a highly respected family. By the time he was a teenager Mexico was in turmoil. Mexican President Diaz lost the support of his people. There was corruption, inflation and unemployment, and eventually revolution broke out. Ramon and his family were living in Durango at the time. In 1913 Durango was besieged by rebels and counter-rebels and the family escaped to Mexico City.

In Mexico City inter-rebel fighting led to the arrival in the city of an individual whose story I told in more detail in “A Revolutionary Colonel”, 51) Amelio Robles Avila (1889-1984). While Robles Avila continued to fight for the Zapatista forces Ramon Novarro and his family returned to Durango which had become relatively safe. In 1916 they decided to escape the revolution by entering the USA. Almost immediately Ramon entered the film industry with uncredited bit parts in several films before becoming a star after his role in the title character in the 1925 film “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ”.

Among the other reasons why the Mexican Revolution occurred was a scandal implicating President Diaz’s son-in-law. Some 42 men were arrested in a police raid on an all-male party. Only 41 of them were arrested, which is why the incident is (quite appropriately in this sequence of 80 Gays) called 42) The Dance of the 41 (1901).

Next time : The nameless 41 lead us to murder in the Czech Republic.

Friday 22 June 2018

Flower Power : The Festival of Lilies

The Festa dei Gigli 2017. The towering festival structures outside Nola Cathedral.
People who visit the Italian city of Nola on this week every year can witness one of the traditional festivals registered by UNESCO on their list of events of Oral and Intangible Heritage.

The Festa dei Gigli – the Festival of Lilies – is held in this week every year to celebrate the city’s patron saint, St. Paulinus of Nola, whose feast day is today, 22nd June.

Who was St. Paulinus and what connection does he have with lilies? His full name was Pontius Meropius Anicius Paulinus and he was a Roman citizen. He was born in around the year 353 in Bordeaux into an influential senatorial family. His father was a prefect of Gaul who owned estates in France, Italy and Spain. Paulinus was thus able to receive a good education and his parents sent him to a teacher and poet who had been tutor to the emperor’s son, Ausonius.

Ausonius is one of those historical characters whose sexuality has often been subject to speculation. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it is said that he had a large collection of homosexual literature which shocked even the Romans by its explicit content. Secondly, Ausonius was famous for translating a Greek riddle which asked “how can three men engage in four sexual positions?” (I’ll let you work it out!).

Ausonius was of Greek ancestry and had spent some time at the court of the Greek Byzantine emperor. He was well aware of “Greek love”, the sexual activity between mentor and student which was common in ancient Greece (as illustrated on this blog in the numerous articles on sex between Greek athletes and soldiers). Paulinus became Ausonius’ student in the 360s. Ausonius found his pupil extremely intelligent and handsome.

Some of Paulinus’s later poems and letters indicate that a mutual love existed between the two, often expressed in physical terms, though whether this involved sexual activity cannot be proved. Even though the empire had been nominally Christian since 313 Paulinus had yet to adopt the Christian faith which throughout its first millennium celebrated same-sex attraction but demonised same-sex activity. Whatever their physical relationship Paulinus was Ausonius’s favourite pupil and they remained in touch right up to Ausonius’s death in around 394. The distinguished lgbt historian Dr. Rictor Norton is sure there was some relationship between them based on their letters. I tend to believe him.

Paulinus soon entered public office when, at the age of 24, he was appointed a suffect consul (a kind of substitute for the elected consul). This gave him senatorial rank. Within three years he was appointed Governor of Campania province in southern Italy. He reacquainted himself with Nola, a city he had visited as a child with his family who had estates near by. He had marvelled at the shrine of St. Felix of Nola and the devotion of its citizens. As governor Paulinus built a road for pilgrims to visit St. Felix’s shrine and built a hospice of the poor.

Paulinus relinquished his governorship at the age of about 30 to embark on a life of leisure. He married a Christian lady called Theresia and was himself baptised. Their only son died in infancy, and this was the cause which put Paulinus and Therasia on their road to a life of charity and austerity. They gave away many of their land and possessions.

To his surprise Paulinus was ordained in 394 and he and Theresia moved back to Nola. They “separated” in order for them both to pursue a near monastic life. After Theresia’s death Paulinus was consecrated Bishop of Nola in 409.

Now we come to the legend of the lilies. Medieval saints often had fabulous stories invented to link them with various patronages (as with St. George, St. Nicholas and St. Valentine, among others). Paulinus had several legends attached to him. One is that he introduced bells into churches. The legend of the lilies is another, and it goes as follows.

The Roman Empire was in decline and marauding forces were attacking southern Italy. Nola was attacked and Paulinus was able to lead all the children to safety in the mountains. All the men of Nola were captured and taken to north Africa as slaves. When the marauders had gone Paulinus returned to Nola with the children.

A widow’s only son and heir had been taken as a slave and she pleaded with Paulinus to get him back. Paulinus sailed across to Africa and tried to buy the widow’s son’s freedom. All his efforts were in vain. Eventually he offered himself in exchange for the man’s freedom. This offer was accepted and the widow was soon reunited with her son in Nola.

Paulinus gained the respect of his new owner his acceptance of his plight. Two years later Paulinus predicted some danger which threatened his master, and when the danger was revealed and avoided Paulinus was offered his freedom. He refused to accept unless all the men taken from Nola were freed as well. Surprisingly, this was agreed and all the men went back home. The citizens of Nola welcomed the return of their menfolk with arms full of lilies.

This is one version of the legend. There are variations. Following Paulinus’s death many years later the people of Nola began leaving lilies at the altar of the cathedral in his honour on the anniversary of his death (the usual date for saints’ feat days). From there an annual ceremony developed, and over the generation this grew into a week-long festival. The lilies were presented in more and more elaborate bouquets until eventually special wooden stands were built for them and carried through the streets. This developed even further into 80-feet-tall decorated structures that are carried through Nola in today’s Festa dei Gigli.

To finish with, here is a video of last year’s Festa dei Gigli. You can see very clearly the towering floral offerings which are carried into the city square, and the ceremonial boat in which sits a statue of St. Paulinus. He was truly a man with a lot of Flower Power to have the people of his city still celebrating his return from slavery with lilies nearly 1,600 years after his death.

Monday 18 June 2018

Flag Poles and Tuning Forks

During US Pride Month one visible change you’re likely to notice in major US cities is more Rainbow Pride flags on display. Most of the flags I’ve featured over the years have been adopted, created and used in the lgbt community. Collectively they have created a whole new area of research to vexillology, the study of flags, which could not have been possible until the 1980s. There are many different specialist areas already established in vexillology – religious flags, military flags, political flags, yacht club flags, flags on stamps and even flags on tattoos, to name a few. Sexuality and gender is the newest area of research, still in its early days, thanks to the many Pride flags that have been created since the Rainbow Pride flag in 1978.

More often than not the reason why a flag was adopted in the past, and the name of the designer, wasn’t considered important enough to be put on record, not unless it was something as important as a national flag. That’s where vexillologists do their work and carry out research.

Several lgbt vexillologists have contributed to flag research outside the lgbt world of Pride. Today I want to concentrate on a man who was the first to research five specific flags which were included in the ground-breaking book “Canadian City Flags”, revealing the cultural and socio-political stories behind each of them.

Mark Ritzenhein was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1958. In the 1980s he studied for a degree in music from Michigan State University in East Lansing. From there Mark went on to become a professional piano technician (he tuned and repaired pianos). Mark was in the right place at the right time to be an openly gay man. Just a decade earlier East Lansing became the first place in the USA to include homosexuality in legislation that was protected from discrimination. Just a few miles away in Ann Arbor its citizens elected the first four openly gay politicians in the US.

Despite being a pioneering city there was still homophobia among East Lansing’s elected representatives. In an interview Mark recalled that one councillor said that every “queer” belonged in San Francisco. “You go to San Francisco”, was Mark’s thought, “This is my home and my community, and I have every right to be part of it and to stay here”.

Mark moved just a mile away to Okemos in the 1980s. It was at a gay bar there in 1982 that he met his life partner and future husband Stephen Wilensky. They moved in together shortly afterwards and they lived there until Mark’s early death.

In late 2011 Mark was diagnosed with a brain tumour. With great dignity and peace of spirit Mark prepared for the inevitable. He said his official goodbyes to family and friends while he was still able to. He contacted a local sculptor, Jim Cunningham, and together they created a sculpture of a huge tuning fork entitled “Clang Tone”. Following Mark’s death his partner Stephen donated the sculpture to Michigan State University, and it can be seen there today.

Mark and Stephen were both avid collectors. Steve had collected lgbt literature since the 1970s. Mark collected anything from cook books to t-shirts and, of course, flags. Over 2,000 items from their collections were selected by the couple which they donated with a cash endowment to Michigan State University. The collection of literature alone provides an unbroken chronicle of gay literature from its rise in the 1970s in small independent bookstores located in “gay villages” to mainstream publishers and multi-national bookstores of today.

It was during his illness that Mark left his mark in vexillological history. As a proud out gay man he had paraded in Pride marches with a flag held high. Like the majority of we vexillologists Mark was a knowledgeable enthusiastic amateur. That is not to say that we have no academic discipline. There are very few full-time paid vexillologists.

Mark was a member of the North American Vexillilogical Association (NAVA) from 1986. NAVA published a book of US city flags in 2005. When they began compiling a follow-up book of Canadian city flags Mark Ritzenhein jumped at the chance to, as he put it himself, make “…his first – and likely last – scholarly contribution to vexillology”. He knew he was dying and threw his enthusiasm for flags into researching some of the most obscure municipal flags from some of Canada’s remotest communities. While not all have any official status as cities these communities are the largest in the terrority.

The editor of “Canadian City Flags”, Edward Kaye, remarked that the flags from the five largest communities in the territory of Nunavut were perhaps the most difficult to research. Kaye also remarked that of the nine contributors to the book Mark delivered his before the others.

On the accompanying map you can see the locations and flags of the five “cities” Mark researched. On a purely vexillological note you may notice that all five flags take the Canadian pale as their basis (pale is the heraldic term for a vertical stripe), made famous by the Canadian national flag. Canadian pale has become an official term in both vexillology and heraldry for a central stripe that is twice the width of one on either side.

Mark’s research gathered together information from many sources and uncovered details about the emblems, designers and histories. Together with historical flags used by the five cities Mark’s research provides the first major study of Inuit flags in the world. You can read his research for yourself, for “Canadian City Flags” is available from Amazon, etc.

Fortunately, Mark was able to see his research in print, and can be rightly proud to have called himself a “proper vexillologist” and flag expert.

Mark succumbed to his illness on 6th July 2013, content in the knowledge that he had been able to say his goodbyes and establish a legacy for future generations.