Friday 28 June 2019

Stonewall 50: Reclaiming Our History

The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is being commemorated across the USA this weekend. Pride of place is going to the Stonewall Inn itself and New York Pride which this year has been appointed World Pride.

Even though the Stonewall Riots were a significant event in the history of the lgbt community in the USA it wasn’t the first and only event to make a difference, and here in the UK it made little difference at all, not directly. On both sides of the Atlantic there were gay rights groups already in existence. Stonewall sparked a movement that became the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), and it was the publicity and militant action of the GLF that inspired a worldwide movement. It is the GLF who kept the Stonewall Riots in the minds of campaigners and the public, to the virtual exclusion of the other riots and homophobic attacks that had occurred before and after 1969. Thanks to the efforts of the GLF the legacy of Stonewall has dominated lgbt rights since 1969.

The biggest legacy of the GLF was the Pride march, a version of the many other protest marches that have been around for centuries.

If I’ve learnt anything by researching history it’s not to believe everything people tell you. As a schoolboy in the years around 1969 I was taught the standard Victorian view of British history. I was taught that Kings Richard the Lionheart and Henry VIII were good kings. I was taught that Florence Nightingale was a pioneer in nursing. I was taught that the British Empire was the most beneficial empire the world had ever seen (not unlike Trump’s distorted view of his USA). None of it was strictly true.

The Stonewall Riots have become a sacred event with only one interpretation that is deemed acceptable. That is not how history should be written, however much we dislike the facts. It is a fact that one section of the lgbt community was NOT more responsible for the events of 28th June 1969 than any other, despite the insistence of some that they were so. The phrase “who threw the first brick” is often claimed to have originated from the events of Stonewall, yet the phrase had been in use in the UK since long before the Suffragette movements of a century ago. And Stonewall wasn’t the big news that sent a shockwave across the world or America. It gained little attention outside the east coast of America. It is only the actions of the GLF that promoted the riots over those that had occurred many times before across the nation.

Social media and the internet is a curse as much as a blessing when it comes to informing people of their heritage. In the 50 years since the Stonewall Riots a lot of misinformation and urban myths have built up around them, some based on misinterpretation of media reports or on the personal testimony of one person who was present that only gives one perspective. Even the word Riots is been challenged by people who were there. If the lgbt community expects some respect then it should not falsify its history to score points against homophobia. Can we even trust ourselves if we lie?

In the past couple of years historians have been looking afain at Stonewall and have been trying to sift through every scrap of information to come up with a more complete picture of the events and immediate impact of 28th June 1969 and the few nights that followed.

On this 50th anniversary I believe we must begin to put more emphasis on the facts, implications and legacy of the Stonewall Riots instead of concentrating on one aspect or person. We need to get to the root of the myths and weed out the ones that have no basis. There is always a place for urban myth in society – it illustrates the attitudes, fears and perspectives of different groups in any society at a given period. But society has to be aware what is urban myth and what isn’t. So, now is the time to start to establish a definitive narrative of the Stonewall Riots before it is swamped in those myths.

Several weeks ago, as I was fact-checking the final draft of this article, I came across a YouTube video produced by the New York Times which covered exactly the same points as I had written. It put across my point about being true to our heritage far more eloquently than I did. In the end I decided that the video was much more suited to today than my intended article, so the video is shown below.

One point to correct in the video is the fact that the first march to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots were held in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles on 28th June 1970. This is not true. As I have proved in my article “Pride Cities” the first was held in Chicago the day before on 27th June. Chicago was also the first city to use the word “Pride” for their march – New York didn’t use it until 1971. This is an example of the way an urban myth can begin, with someone making a claim that isn’t backed up by fact which becomes accepted as such.

Monday 24 June 2019

A Kiss is Just a Kiss

A man kisses his young male lover, depicted on a drinking cup from the 6th century BC.
I’ve not written anything on sport lately, apart from an update of my lgbt Olympian list, so let’s get physical with another one of those ancient Greek festivals which I mentioned at the beginning of the month in my list of Queer Facts – the Diolceia.

Okay, I admit it. The part of the Diocleia I mentioned isn’t actually sport – it’s a kissing contest. I actually mentioned the Diocleia way back in 2011 in relation to the Greater Panathenaic Games. I wanted to have a more detailed look into this festival and this famous kissing contest in particular.

Let’s have some background information first. Sporting festivals in ancient Greece were always acts of religious worship. Even the ancient Olympics were about worshipping Zeus and being actively involved in the various rituals. You were banned if you didn’t. I can’t imagine any the modern Olympian going to compulsory daily church services and Holy Mass before they competed, can you? Sport was seen as an act of devotion in which the athlete, specifically male athletes, honoured the gods by showing off their own god-like bodies which they developed during their military and athletic training in the gym. This idea is developed in more detail in one of my articles from 2013, “The Body of a God”.

A lot of the local sporting festivals, such as the Hyakinthia, were created to honour some hero who had died and were often celebrated around his tomb. This is the case with Diocles of Megara, the hero to whom the Diocleian festival and games were devoted. The idea of having sporting events at a funeral may seem strange to us today, but in both Greece and Rome it was common. The hero Achilles held funeral games to honour his lover Patroklus who was killed in the Trojan War.

The kissing contest held during the annual Diocleian games is probably unique. I can’t find any reference to a similar contest being held annually (there were male “beauty” contests, as listed in “The Body of a God” article, but not kissing). If there’s any classical scholar out there who knows of another one please leave a message in the comments.

We don’t really know much more about the actual Diocleian kissing contest other than what I’ve written in the earlier articles. Let’s look at several of the elements of the contest to get a better idea of what it was all about.

First of all, what is our source for this contest? The main ancient source is the poet Theocritus of Syracuse (c.300 BC-c. 260 BC). He wrote about it in his Idyll 12. Below is a translation. Nisaea is the name of the port at Megara. The “Lydian stone” mentioned towards the end refers to the touchstone used to test the purity of gold. This translation is by the Victorian writer and early gay rights campaigner Edward Carpenter (1844-1929).

“And the Megarians, at Nisaea dwelling,
Expert at rowing, mariners excelling,
Be happy ever, for with honours due
The Athenian Diocles, of friendship true
You celebrate. With the first blush of Spring
The youth surround his tomb: there who shall bring
The sweetest kiss, whose lip is purest found,
Goes back to his mother with garlands crowned.
Nice touch the arbiter must have indeed,
And must, methinks, blue-eyed Ganymede
Invoke with many prayers – a mouth to own
True to the touch of lips, as Lydian stone,
To proof of gold – which test will instant show
The pure or base, as money-changers know.”

An early commentator of Theocritus’s poems, probably Theon of Alexandria writing 200 years after Theocritus’s death, seems to be well aware of the Diocleian festival. He gives the earliest mention of it being named after Diocles, an Athenian soldier who fled to Megara and died protecting his young lover in battle.

The second question I wanted to answer was “who was Diocles and when did he live?” (yes, that’s 2 questions but I want to answer then together). From the mention by Theocritus it is clear that Diocles lived long before his own death in 260 BC. We might be able to go even further back. In a comic play by Aristophanes called “The Acharnians” a character simply called “a Megarian” issues the oath “By Diocles!” This may be the same Diocles the Megarians celebrated with their kissing contest, though scholars are debating the theory. “The Acharnians” was written in about 422 BC, so Diocles was known to them before that. The fact that Aristophanes included the oath in his play must mean that even non-Megarian Greeks were well aware who Diocles was.

We don’t know why Diocles was exiled from Athens, or when, as there were many times before 422 BC when this could have been possible. What we can say for sure is that this Diocles is not the same one that some modern writers (e.g. Thomas F. Scanlon in “Eros and Greek Athletics”, 2002) claim was Olympic champion in 728 BC, because he was buried in Thebes next to his male lover. However, it is more than likely that, as an Athenian, our Diocles could have competed in the Greater Panathenaic Games. But as for the real identity and dates our Diocles of Megara, they may never be discovered.

The third question is why is there a kissing contest at all? Other fallen heroes had sport, poetry or song contests created in their honour. The Diocleia festival may also have had these. Like a lot of other things we do today kissing has different meanings and connotations depending on who is doing it and why. Perhaps we can guess why the Megarians decided a kissing contest was appropriate.

The manner of Diocles’ death is probably the answer. He gave his life to save that of his lover. Other festivals to heroes like Diocles were, more often than not, to commemorate their death or victory in battle. It is the circumstances of his death which may have given rise to the kissing contest. It is unlikely that this would have been created if Diocles was just a regular casualty of war, one of the many soldiers who were killed alongside their comrades. It could be that the act of being killed while protecting his lover is the reason. A simple lover’s kiss is something we see around us all the time today, as partners meet, and say their goodbyes. What could be more appropriate to celebrate the life and sacrifice of Diocles than with a contest that symbolised love.

The contests itself was open only to youths. Specifically in ancient Greece this referred to boys between the ages of 12 and 20, the ages at which they were expected to become the regular partner (called an eromenos) to an older man in the gymnasium (called an erastes). The relationship was sexual until the youth reached the age of 20 when he was expected to find his own eromenos. The bond of friendship lasted a lifetime.

The contest judges (we don’t know how many) were likely to have been even older, probably in their 30s or above, the age by which men were expected to have taken a wife. The kiss given by the youth to the judges has usually been translated as the “sweetest” kiss. We can only guess what the ancient Greeks regarded as a “sweet” kiss, but I doubt it would be a slobbering French kiss so favoured by popular film and television drama. Whichever youth was deemed to have given the “sweetest” kiss was rewarded with a garland of flowers, a common prize at Greek festivals.

Very little academic research has been done on Diocles and the Diocleia. I can’t even find any reference to archaeological excavations at Megara which indicate where Diocles’ tomb might be located. Perhaps we could know more if other ancient writings are discovered giving more details about this man and his un-named young lover.

Wednesday 19 June 2019

High Pride

In a past article I’ve written about the oldest Pride events on each continent, the most northerly and southerly, and the biggest and smallest. What I haven’t done is look at which Pride event has taken place at the highest altitude. That’s not to be confused with the highest places the Rainbow Pride flag has flown. It may surprise you to learn that a dozen Pride marches have taken place at altitudes that are above the highest point in Australia.

Most Prides that take place in major cities do so at, or close to, sea level. The reason is simple – the original settlements of these cities, most of them current capital cities, were established on the coast or next to major rivers. So you won’t see New York, London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro or San Francisco in the list below.

When deciding what constitutes a Pride event, whether it uses that name or not, is largely subjective. This is my personal definition. A Pride event should be an open public event organised by a designated committee. It should be aimed at (but not restricted to) the lgbt community to celebrate and commemorate sexual and gender diversity and to highlight lgbt rights. It takes place on a specific date in a specific public location. Any profits should go primarily to lgbt projects or charities. Pride events named or publicised to highlight specific groups within the community (e.g. Bisexual Pride, Black Pride, Transgender Pride, Internet Pride) are not included (I’ll try to cover them next year). Protest marches, political rallies and gatherings arranged in response to an event (e.g. equal marriage rallies, Orlando shootings vigils, protests outside government buildings, embassies and commercial businesses) are not included. Pride events I considered for this list had a central lgbt rights element to them, a parade or march, speeches from activists, and community celebrations of diversity, or at least two of these criteria. Finally, events such as Gay Ski Week, Disney Gay Days, gay cruises, etc. are not included because of their more commercial origins, despite fulfilling several of the listed criteria (again, I’ll try to look at these events in more detail next year).

So, where is the highest Pride? The most obvious place to look is in the Himalayan nations, but because most of the mountain towns and settlements are located in homophobic nations there’s little chance of finding any public Pride events there. However, if we look at the second highest mountain range, the Andes, we hit the jackpot.

To give you an idea of how high these cities are the International Society for Mountain Medicine defines “high altitude” as any location between 1,500 and 3,500 meters (about 5,000 and 11,500 feet) above sea level. They call any location between 3,500 and 5,000 meters (11,500 and 18,000 feet) as “very high altitude”. The top 4 cities that host an annual Pride are all within the “very high altitude” levels and are all in Bolivia.

One thing Bolivia is famous for is for having the highest capital city in the world, La Paz, at an elevation of 3,650 metres (11,980 feet) above sea level. But La Paz is actually the lowest of the top 4 High Pride cities.

Below is an illustration showing the Top 20 Pride Cities that I have been able to identify. Follow the city name down, or up, to the first triangle in that column. The triangle represents the general altitude of the city. As it happens the Top 20 all take place over 2,000 metres above sea level (and so is No. 21 – Flagstaff Pride, USA, not on the chart or list below). For exact details see the table underneath.

Below is the list of the top 20 highest Pride cities with altitudes, and the name and date (that I can find online) of the most recent or future Pride held there. The heights are approximate because various cities have varying altitudes from place to place, even my local Pride march in Nottingham ends about 30 metres higher than the start. As more research and more Prides are held in the coming years the list will undoubtedly change.

Even though I said above that I wouldn’t include any Gay Ski Weeks you may be interested to know which of them is the highest, so you can get some idea of how they might fit into the High Pride table. The highest Gay Ski Week identified so far is Breck Pride in Breckenridge, Colorado, USA, at an altitude of 2,926 meters above sea level. This would place it between Cusco, Peru, and Toluca, Mexico, in the above list. This may seem unusual, but snow levels are governed by geography and environment as well as altitude. Aspen, the most famous Gay Ski Week, takes place at an altitude of 2,438 meters, putting it between 8th and 9th place.

I cannot leave the subject of Pride in South America without mentioning Cusco again. Because Cusco is a very popular tourist destination with the iconic Machu Picchu fortress as its star attraction a few miles away visitors are often confused by the local city flag (below). As you can see it is a rainbow flag, and many visitors have assumed it is the Rainbow Pride flag first adopted by the San Francisco gay community in 1979 (based on Gilbert Baker’s original 8-stripe flag of 1978). This is not the case. The Cusco flag predates Baker’s rainbow flag by several years. It had been used unofficially as a symbol of the local Inca culture and was formally adopted in 1978.

Friday 14 June 2019

How Brother Ham and Sister Sausage Inspired the Gay Rights Movement in America

While we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots later this month we shouldn’t forget that the gay rights movement in the USA began long before 1969. One of the biggest gay rights groups was founded in 1950. It went through several names before it settled on the Mattachine Society.

In adopting that name the society was referencing an earlier group of men who, like themselves, had hidden behind “masks” to protect themselves. Gay men in the 1940s and 50s concealed their sexuality or be discrimination against. The earlier Mattachine group were men who wore real masks to protect their identities while they openly satirised and ridiculed the Church of medieval France. This earlier group was called the Société Mattachine.

The Société Mattachine was just one of many French troupes given the generic name of Sociétés Joyeuse. They originated in the 15th century and consisted of people from towns, villages and cities who formed for one specific event, the annual Feast of Fools.

There’s a lot of misinformation circulating on the internet about this Feast of Fools. The claim that it originated in a Roman or pagan religious festival is wrong (why are people obsessed with giving pagan origins to everything based on nothing but date? You can claim Pride marches have pagan originals because the ancient religions had communal processions near the summer solstice as well). Most ancient pagan festivals that were banned in the Roman Empire from 389 AD were forgotten during the long centuries that followed in the so-called Dark Ages (5th to 11th centuries).

The spring-time Feast of Fools was also not the same as the topsy-turvy Feast of the Bean and other role-reversal winter celebrations. They are different celebrations that existed before, during and after the Feast of Fools existed. Harry Hay, the co-founder of the Mattachine Society who chose the name, fell into the trap of believing the Victorian-era fabricated history of the Feast of Fools.

The Feast of Fools originated in 12th century France as a celebration held by junior clergy. Its name was inspired by the Bible verse – “You are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ!” (1 Corinthians 4:10). These clergy indulged in comic role-play as bishops and generally had a jolly good time. People have always dressed up to celebrate events, look at Pride. There was no act of worship or church service to go with. The Feast was an early form of the satirical sketches seen on television today.

Because the Feast of Fools was not a religious festival public participation increased until in the 15th century they also began to produce little satirical plays. The performers were called Sociétés Joyeuse and their plays were called Sermon Joyeux. The performers, both men and women, were often masked not only to hide their identity but to add to the satire with distorted masks. The Société Mattachine were just one of these groups.

The subjects of the Sermon Joyeux, as the name suggests, was religious. They were also comically vulgar and full of sexual symbolism. Generally the Sermon told the story of a fictional “saint” or religious character and his or her life and martyrdom. Along the way the “saint” has various adventures, all of which were thinly disguised parodies of religious practices.

Sadly, most of the Sermons were not written down. We are lucky to have a handful that were printed, and one features two of the most popular characters in the Sermon Joyeux. The “Le devot de sainct sermon de monseigneur Sainct Jambon et de madame saincte Andouille” was printed in Paris in 1521 by Jean Jehannot. The names Sainct Jambon and Saincte Andouille translate as Brother Ham and Sister Sausage. The Sermon Joyeux often had food-named characters with sexual connotations. Brother Ham refers to the back of a pig, i.e. the anus, and Sister Sausage is an obvious sexual reference still used in comedy today.

It is in “Le devot de sainct sermon de monseigneur Sainct Jambon et de madame saincte Andouille” that we encounter one of the rare instances of a hint of homosexual activity. In this Sermon a character “steals” Andouille in order to transport Jambon to another place. The allusion to anal sex would be apparent to the medieval audience, and may be a reference to the common accusations that male clergy often had illicit gay sex (also encountered in both Chaucer and Dante, contemporary authors to the time of the Feast of Fools).
The title page of “Le devot de sainct sermon de monseigneur Sainct Jambon et de madame saincte Andouille” (Image source Bibliothèque Nationale de France).
As with other “saint” characters Brother Ham and Sister Sausage come to their expected demise. Jambon is martyred by being killed and salted, just like a real joint of ham, and Sister Andouille is boiled, roasted and cut into pieces and fed to the townswomen, just like a real sausage.

The Société Mattachine may well have known and performed a version of the Sermon Joyeux of Brother Ham and Sister Sausage. They would also have known and used other well-known characters with names that had sexual connotations, such as Sainct Boude (Brother Sausage), Saincte Fente (Sister Crack) and Sainct Pilzan (Brother Foal’s-First-Tooth, referring to the first sexual awakenings of puberty and alluding to the belief that toothache was a punishment for sexual guilt; they did have strange ideas in those days!).

Even though the Sermon Joyeux were very clear in their satirical message and sexual imagery the reason they got away with it, apart from many of them being anonymous behind masks, was that the plays didn’t name specific real clergy. The clergy realised the plays were satirical and gave the Société Joyeuse some leeway. However, as the next century progressed the Sermon Joyeux became more outrageous and verging on heretical and so the church authorities cracked down on them and they were eventually banned. (The alleged Feast of Fools shown in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is NOT the same one.)

And so, the Sermon Joyeux and the Société Joyeuse of medieval France satirised the Church authorities with food and sex-related characters. The Société Mattachine were just one of many groups of local groups who performed during the annual French Feast of Fools. Many centuries later a student of Medieval French literature and drama, Harry Hay, used the Mattachine name for a gay rights movement. The masked medieval Mattachine pointed out the weaknesses and contradictions within the Church and were a role model for the Mattachine Society in the 1950s to point out the weaknesses and contradictions within society about the criminalisation of homosexuals.

In October, for LGBT History Month USA, I’ll look at the origins of the first major lesbian rights organisation, the Daughters of Bilitis.