Sunday 11 October 2020

80 More Gays Around the World: Part 22) Action on Land, Terror in the Sky

Last time on “80 More Gays”: 58) Jacinto Benavente (1866-1954), Spanish dramatist, chose not to write during the first years of the Franco regime because of state censorship of the theatre overseen by 59) Luis Escobar (1908-1991), an aristocratic actor and theatre director, as was 60) Nicole Stéphane (1923-2007), a Rothschild baroness and cousin of 61) Hélène van Zuylen (1863-1947).

Before her marriage 61) Hélène van Zuylen was Baroness Héléne Betty Louise Caroline de Rothschild. She inherited the theatrical talent of her family by writing plays, as well as poetry, novels and short stories. Under the pen-name Paule Riversale Hélène probably collaborated with her partner Renée Vivien on several works.

Hélène was married to Baron Etienne van Zuylen van Nijevelt van de Haar. They had two sons. Whilst still married she began a relationship with Renée Vivien, and Renée is said to have considered herself to be married to Hélène as well. But Hélène’s claim to fame is far removed from her writing.

Before meeting Renée, Hélène gained celebrity status as a pioneering female motor racer in the era when racing was more Chitty Chitty Bang Bang than Formula 1. Helene’s husband founded the Automobile Club of France in 1895. Three years later he organised the Paris-Amsterdam motor race. It also included a tourist car section in which Hélène, the only female, participated. As such she would be better described as the first female participant of a motoring event rather than a race. Below is a remarkable photograph of Hélène in her car at the start of the section that began at Champigny.

Photo: Rijksmuseum
Several years later Hélène competed in an actual race, though her car developed mechanical problems and she pulled out. With her contemporaries Camille du Gast and Anne, Duchess d’Uzès, Baroness Hélène van Zuylen is regarded as a pioneer of female racing. Motor racing is still very much male dominated. There are very few openly lgbt racing drivers, but one pioneer of female and transgender racing made her name in the mid-20th century - 62) Roberta Cowell (1918-2011).

I have written about Roberta Cowell twice, so you could read them first for more detailed information. The articles are here and here.

At the end of the war in Europe, the 75th anniversary of which we commemorated in lockdown this year, Roberta was a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft I. After being liberated and later demobbed she returned to motor racing. This was also the beginning of the period in her life when she began to recognise her true gender and she became the first woman in the UK to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

Roberta also tried to continue flying. She bought an old de Havilland Mosquito plane in 1958 in which she hoped to set a transatlantic crossing record. However, the plane needed a new engine and none could be found. The flight was abandoned and the plane was scrapped.

Roberta Cowell was a Spitfire pilot during the war, one of few known lgbt pilots of the 20th century. Today there are many more, including my friend Rob, and many are members of the National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA). Although US-based the NGPA has chapters in Canada, Australia and the UK. One notable lgbt pilot and member of the NGPA was 63) David Charlebois (1962-2001).

In the lgbt community several names are remembered more than others in connection with the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001. Father Mychal Judge is remembered as a victim at the World Trade Centre as he administered to another victim, and Mark Bingham is the passenger of Flight 93 who took part in the heroic rebellion against the hijackers. These heroes often overshadow the other lgbt victims, such as David Charlebois.

David was the co-pilot of American Airlines Flight 77 which hit the Pentagon on that bright, sunny morning. His flying career began after he graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Datona Beach, Florida, and he joined American Airlines in 1991.

Although never fully closeted as a gay man David decided to be more open about his sexuality when he joined the NGPA. The final stage in this pubic coming out process was his participation in the NGPA contingent in the March on Washington in 2000. He helped to carry the association’s banner. When their section came to the end of the march he and several colleagues dashed further back to join the American Airlines own lgbt group, GLEAM, to finish the march twice.

One the morning of the 9/11 attacks David woke at 6 a.m. and made coffee and bagels for guests who had stayed overnight after a party he hosted the night before. We’ll never know his precise role in the aftermath of the hijacking of his plane three hours later. In his memory the NGPA set up a scholarship named after him.

David Charlebois had the air in his blood, so to speak. His father was US Air Force Reservist, later a CIA agent, and travelled the world. This explains why David was not born in the USA but in Morocco in the city of Kenitra where there was a US naval base. This had been established there in 1942 when the city had a different name.

Before being renamed Kenitra after Moroccan independence from France in 1956 it was called Port Lyautey, named after one of France’s most important colonial administrators, 64) Hubert Lyautey (1854-1934).

Next time on “80 More Gays”: Morocco helps us to remember things past as we return to Marcel Proust and a worldwide mania.

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