Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Hallowe'en Bride of Frankenstien

After last year’s Hallowe’en look at vampires we’ll look at that other classic movie monster this year – Frankenstein’s monster.

Like the modern image of the vampire, Frankenstein’s monster has his origin on a storm-ridden night near Lake Geneva in 1816. The story was told to the group by young Mary Shelley, the plot being inspired by a nightmare she had had. She didn’t publish it until 1831, anonymously.

It has been speculated in recent years that Mary Shelley didn’t actually write it at all. She may have told the original tale, but in 2001 John Lauritsen published a book suggesting that the novel of “Frankenstein” was actually written by Mary’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Percy was present at that monster-making night in 1816. At the risk of upsetting the feminist movement, who had seen Mary Shelley’s authorship of “Frankenstein” as an example of a strong female writer in a man’s world, Lauritsen suggested that Percy wrote the novel as a gay love story.

A gay love story?! Looking at the Boris Karloff film I can hardly think so, but Lauritsen used his analysis of the original version of the novel and Percy’s own bisexuality to develop his theories. The idea of Frankenstein as a gay love story wasn’t new. It had surfaced in 1977 in a paper called “The Problem of Frankenstein”, which compared it to such literary classics as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, Lord of the Rings and even the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau. For those who like reading psychoanalytical gobbledigook you can read this paper for yourself here.

Lauritsen claims that Percy Shelley deliberately chose to allow his wife Mary to claim authorship of “Frankenstein” to distract attention away from his own sexuality, the original 1818 version of the novel being much more homoerotic in its subtext. After reading Lauritsen’s theories I am unconvinced – he hasn’t proved to me that Mary Shelley couldn’t have written it.

The power of Frankenstein survives to this day. All over the world children and adults will be dressing up as Frankenstein’s monster, all of them copying the famous make-up created for Boris Karloff in the 1931 film. Other films, such as the Hammer horror series, and recent tv and theatre productions have tried to follow the original novel’s description more closely, but the famous flat-headed, bolt-through-neck monster will never be replaced.

The Boris Karloff films were directed by a gay ex-pat from the West Midlands called James Whale. He had gone to America to direct one of his plays on Broadway. There he came to the attention of Hollywood film producers. Signing for Universal Studios in 1931 Whale chose “Frankenstein” for his second film with them.

James Whale’s sexuality was a secret to the film-going public for many decades. He made no secret of it in his professional life, but he didn’t advertise it. Just like the original version of the novel recent historians have looked for Whale’s sexuality in his films. This has been suggested for both “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), in which the monster has been seen as symbolic of someone with “non-common” characteristics trying to exist in a world which hates and fears him. The parallels with 20th century homophobia is easily seen.

Whale died in 1957, drowning himself in his swimming pool. His last months were the subject of the novel which became the film “Gods and monsters” (1998) in which Sir Ian McKellen played James Whale.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Camping It Up With Robin Hood

I know I mentioned Robin Hood last time, but this weekend is the annual Robin Hood pageant in the grounds of Nottingham Castle. When I worked at Nottingham Castle from 1999 to 2005 I always looked forward to this last weekend of October because it was when the pageant was held. The whole of the grounds are taken over by traditional crafts, medieval entertainment and historical re-enactors. There’s even jousting with Robin Hood and his Merry Men versus the Sheriff and his evil men. It’s still a popular addition to the county’s Robin Hood calendar.
Re-enactors at the pageant
Just a couple of weeks ago I was involved in a documentary for a German tv company. They were putting together a programme about Robin Hood and his  place in the world today. My part in the documentary came about through my research into the origins of the oldest Robin Hood ballad, “The Geste of Robin Hood”. As mentioned several times on this blog I believe that this ballad, and the most famous stories from it (living in the forest with a band of men, robbing the rich, the connection to Nottingham, the archery contest, and the king’s search for Robin in Sherwood Forest, among others) are all based on the family background of Sir William Neville.

As I mentioned last time Sir William was Constable of Nottingham Castle, an important position in the personal gift of the king of England, a position that had previously been held by his step-uncle Piers Gaveston.

On my guided tours of gay Nottingham it would be remiss of me not to mention Robin Hood. As it happens there are a couple of good stories about the outlaw which link in well with the lgbt history of the city.

The first takes place in 1975. There was a street theatre group formed by several lgbt groups in Nottingham who devised a play called “Robina Hood and her Gay Folk”. The script doesn’t survive, but you can get an idea of how the play went by going through the list of characters – Robina was a female version of Robin, Maid Marian was played by a man in drag (future music journalist Kris Kirk), and a very camp Richard the Lionheart. Someone even dressed up as the Major Oak.

The actors decided to put on their play in front of Nottingham’s council house in the market square. On that particular night there was a trade delegation from the Soviet Union attending a reception at the Council House. Whether or not the play drew a large crowd I don’t know, but the Russians certainly noticed it when they left the reception. They thought the council has organised it especially for them and thought it was the real Robin Hood Society. A passing dog also thought they were real – or at least it thought the Major Oak was real because it peed up the actor’s leg!

It wasn’t long before the council realised what was going on and they got the security guards to chase the actors away. Just how they explained that to the Russians isn’t recorded, but imagine what it would have been like if you’d gone out for a few drinks that night and saw a female Robin Hood, a man in medieval drag, a Crusading knight and a tree running down the street, chased by security officers 

The castle gatehouse

And that seemed to be it as far as a gay Robin Hood until 25 years later at the 2nd International Robin Hood Conference at Nottingham University. Of all the lectures that took place one in particular caught the media’s attention. It was called “The Forest Queen” by Prof. Stephen Knight of Cardiff University. The lecture was actually about a Victorian novel about Maid Marian, but the media took the lecture’s title out of context when reporting Knight’s comment in his lecture that “the Robin Hood legend is certainly homosocial and, through all the male bonding, fighting and inter-masculine emotion, can be seen as a saga of homosexual values”.

What Professor Knight was saying was that at a time when gender studies were becoming mainstream, stories of a group of men living together would naturally lead some people to put a gay interpretation onto the characters. This is exactly what the media did. Taking notice of the word “homosexual” in the lecture, and the lecture’s title, they declared that this top expert on Robin Hood was saying the outlaw and his Merry Men were all gay. He wasn’t.

As I said in my interview for the German tv documentary the legends of Robin Hood have been interpreted and reinterpreted by every generation and every social group to suit the times they live in. That’s what makes Robin Hood such a universal hero – he is adaptable, which at the same time makes the medieval outlaw such a favourite character.

For my theories on the origins of the ballads of Robin Hood and the people who inspired them, click on “Robin Hood” in the labels list.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, and Me

I can’t have been the only gay man to have wondered as a child why he found the Tarzan films so appealing without really knowing why. As gay adult it is obvious (Gordon Scott was my favourite!).

One anniversary this year which may have gone unnoticed is the centenary of the first Tarzan story. I don’t want to let the anniversary pass, because when asked about what famous relatives I have I often include Tarzan.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (a real relative) created Tarzan for “All-Story Magazine”, an American pulp magazine in October 1912. It was published in novel form in 1914, and the first film version was as early as 1918.

What makes Tarzan a “member” of my family is the jungle man’s fictional link to the real title of Lord (or Baron) Greystoke. And it actually links Tarzan with Robin Hood! The simplified family tree below shows the relevant connections.

Burroughs’ original title for the Lord of the Jungle was Earl Marasigan but he changed this to Lord Greystoke in later books. Greystoke is situated in northern England and has its own castle. The real title of Lord Greystoke was first created in 1295, but that first lord died childless and his title died with it.

The lands and title were revived in 1321 and it is from the new Lord Greystoke that the fictional Tarzan (and the very real me) derives descent. In those days titles could be inherited through the female line. In 1569 the 9th Lord Greystoke died childless but he had several sisters who shared the right to pass on the title equally. The title itself went into abeyance – it still existed but could not be used until parliament decided which male heir of the sisters had the senior right to pass it on.

Imagine if the same rules applied to the throne of England. Under medieval peerage laws when King George VI died in 1952 the right to the throne would be held equally between our present Queen and her sister Princess Margaret, but neither of them could actually occupy the throne. Their eldest male children would become joint heirs of George VI, and until the descendants of one of these male heirs dies out totally (that could take many generations!) the law cannot decide which sister is the only heir to George VI. In the case of the 9th Lord Greystoke who died in 1569 there are 4 people who are presently his coheirs. Edgar Rice Burroughs, however, chose to create a totally fictional senior line for his Tarzan to inherit.

I descend from the 4th Lord Greystoke (see the family tree, sorry if its a bit small). So does Tarzan. And on the family tree you can see the link to Robin Hood. The 4th Baron Greystoke was half-brother to Sir William Neville, Constable of Nottingham Castle (they had the same mother, Alice). In several previous posts I’ve given my theories about the origin of the oldest surviving ballad of Robin Hood, and how I believe they were written by Sir William’s “wedded brother” (i.e. husband), Sir John Clanvowe (click on “Robin Hood” in the Labels list). My ancestry also includes an older brother of Sir William.

There was a couple of years when it looked like Sir William Neville would actually become Lord Greystoke himself. As the youngest in a large family William was not expected to inherit much on his father’s death. By the late 1340s it looked like the 4th Lord Greystoke, Lord Neville’s stepson, would not marry and have children. So Lord Neville made arrangements that would mean one of his 3 youngest sons, including the 3-year-old William, would inherit the Greystoke estates and name. Whichever was the oldest of these children to survive childhood would be the next Lord Greystoke after their half-brothers’ death. However, the 4th Lord Greystoke married late and fathered a son to carry on his line (fortunately for me, because that son is my ancestor). Sir William lost his chance to become Lord Greystoke – but he managed to marry a wealthy heiress and become an important figure at court.

There are many hundreds of thousands of people who are also descended from the medieval Barons Greystoke, perhaps even you. Among the lgbt descendants are Lord Byron, Lawrence of Arabia, Ellen Degeneres, Jodie Foster, Divine, E M Forster, Bishop Mary Glasspool, Rupert Everett, Clare Balding, Anthony Blunt, John Singer Sargent, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and painter Francis Bacon. They can all say they are related to Tarzan like I do!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Out in Algeria

The 10th of October was National LGBT Day in Algeria. Despite the impression the name gives, in Algeria homosexuality is a crime punishable by imprisonment and a fine, and October 10th is not an officially government-sanctioned celebration but a day of activism and protest. Like Jamaica Algeria is also celebrating its 50th year of independence this year.

North Africa has a much different heritage than that of the African Great Lakes are mentioned last time. Its proximity to the Middle east has meant that the most significant influences have come from Muslim cultures.

The first National LGBT Day was in 2007 and is now also referred to as TenTen – the date. This date was chosen because it was the birth date of Sultan Selim I of the Ottoman Empire in 1467, one of the greatest rulers of the Arab world.

Various groups have supported TenTen over the years, including a group called Women Living Under Muslim Laws. In 2010 the day was organised by a group of activists called Abu Nawas. This group is named after a poet from the 9th century who wrote romantic, and often erotic, poetry about his love for boys.

Black History Month embraces more than just African-American history. It also features other non-European/Oriental BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) history such as Australian Aboriginal and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and regions of the medieval Ottoman Empire in Africa.

During the medieval period the whole of north Africa was controlled by the Arabs. It is believed that sex between men and young boys and teenagers occurred across the whole region. The city of Algiers in particular gained a reputation as being the most sexually liberated city in the western world. One book in particular describes the opportunities which any 17th century man could find there. It is titled “The Topographical and General History of Algiers” and was published in 1611. The Spanish writer Cervantes spent some time in Algiers. He wrote of an acquaintance who was a Christian convert to Islam and who kept a harem of young men purely because of the sexual freedom the city gave him.

Algiers was the main Turkish port on the north African coastline and a huge naval base for both the official trading vessels from Turkey and the unofficial ships of the Corsairs, the famous Barbary Pirates.

One of the main trades which fed the Ottoman economy was in white slaves captured by the Corsairs and black slaves captured from the east coast of Africa in modern Tanzania. As with other cultures who practised slavery those enslaved often found themselves the victim of the sexual urges of their masters.

The use of boys for sexual purposes in Algiers and north Africa could also have been seen in the form of the dancing boys of the pleasure gardens and coffee houses. It became a part of the culture. Europeans and merchants would go to these venues and see the erotic dances of the boys, and it would be perfectly acceptable to have a more intimate performance with them if they wished.

This sexual freedom came to an end in 1830 when the French took control of Algeria. Whilst they imposed their Christian-based French laws over the country the Muslim culture continued to thrive. The slave trading and piracy was brought to an end, though. But the same-sex activities continued behind furtively closed doors. The French authorities knew it still went on but turned a blind eye.

Algeria and the north African countries, most of which were under European control by the 19th century, became a refuge for gay men escaping imprisonment and persecution in Europe. Or some would purely wish to live there because they enjoyed more freedom. Famous names who enjoyed the delights of Algeria included Oscar Wilde and André Gide.

After World War II Algeria turned against France and a war of independence began. Led by western Marxist ideology the country adopted an anti-homosexual stand. Today homosexuality and cross-dressing in Algeria is illegal, though the supporters of TenTen are campaigning hard to urge the Algerian government to have both decriminalised.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Tom's Games at 30.

On 28th August 1982, 1,350 lgbt athletes (and a handful of straight ones) met in a stadium in San Francisco to compete in a range of sports in the first international competition of its kind. This was the first Gay Games. This weekend the Federation of Gay Games is celebrating the 30th anniversary with lots of events.

As well as being the 30th anniversary of the first Gay Games 2012 is also the 75th anniversary of the birth of the games’ founder Tom Waddell on 1st November. It is also the 25th anniversary of his death this year so I thought it more appropriate to mark the Gay Games anniversary by looking at the life of Waddell.

Tom suffered from abuse from an early age. Born Thomas Flubacher in New Jersey in 1937 his childhood was dogged by prejudice around his German surname throughout World War II and afterwards. In the 1950s his parents split up and Tom went to live with the Waddell family who adopted him, thereby changing his name to theirs and removing one obstacle to a happy adolescence.

Tom was already aware of his sexual preferences when he entered his teenage years and his life followed the usual pattern of a closeted American Catholic at the time – confusion, denial, guilt, acceptance.

The Waddells encouraged Tom to take up gymnastics, and he competed in the gymnastics and football teams while at college. But it was a medical career Tom was aiming for, not a sporting one. In the end he got both.

It was while attending the New Jersey College of Medicine he was drafted into the US Army. After the army recognised his status as a conscientious objector Tom became assistant director of the Global Medicine programme. More significantly he was appointed team doctor of the US army’s Olympic Training Programme in the same year. At 34 years old he became the oldest member of the 1969 US Olympic team going to Mexico City.

Tom’s Olympic experiences are told here, and here. His creation of the Gay Games is told here.

One of Tom’s main aims in creating the Gay Games was to present to the world a community which was healthy and as enthusiastic about sport as straight people, which was generally the opposite to what straight people thought. The AIDS crisis had just got a grip and was threatening to destroy the few positive attitudes towards the lgbt community that had been established since the start of the Gay Right movements in the 1960s. Many people started saying AIDS was gay men’s punishment from God for being promiscuous. Tom Waddell was one of the few who was determined to prove to the world that stereotyping gay men as sex mad, unhealthy, camp wimps was wrong.

Unfortunately, just before the second Gay Games in 1986 Tom Waddell had himself been diagnosed with AIDS. He decided not to make it public until after the games finished. He died on 11th July 1987.

Tom Waddell’s vision lives on in both body and spirit. The Federation of Gay Games was formally established in 1989 and has organised the succeeding games. The spirit behind the games lives on with Tom’s wife and daughter. In 1981 Tom met a lesbian athlete on the first Gay Games committee called Sara Lewenstein. They both had a wish to become parents and they married in 1985. Their daughter Jessica, born in 1983, and her mother Sara are still involved with the Federation of Gay Games, and long may they continue to do so.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Sexuality in Samoa

We travel to the far side of the world for this part of my celebration of Black History Month. Among the many islands in the Pacific only one nation is on our list of those celebrating 50 years of independence – Samoa. For this article I’ll include American Samoa in this look at their lgbt heritage.

As with most cultures there is a huge difference between original beliefs and later colonial attitudes, quite often the latter now dominating the former. In Polynesian culture generally there were variations when it came to defining gender and sexuality, most of which are not easily identifiable with modern terms such as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

In the Samoan islands a man who dresses as a woman and/or who lives as a woman is termed a fa’afafine. Women who dress and live as men are termed fa’atama. These mixed gender roles were considered a third gender and had no stigma attached to them before European colonisation. It was perfectly acceptable for a “straight” Samoan man to have sex with a fa’afafine without thinking of himself as anything but straight. This attitude spreads across to the other Pacific island cultures which have their own equivalents of the fa’afafine. A gay man having sex with another gay man, however, was not totally accepted, even today in some islands.

These third gender roles have survived through colonial rule to the present day, with several fa’afafine organisations helping to bring wider international social understanding and acceptance if their roles and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in their home nation.

But while their existence is accepted as part of the national community in Samoa some fa’afafine have found difficulty in living an open existence in more European-based nations such as New Zealand. Fa’afafine organisations have been formed in New Zealand and the USA Pacific states to help bring awareness to nations which are more used to seeing cross-dressing and transgender roles.

As can be found in other societies around the Pacific and Asia the fa’afafine are most visible during special beauty pageants. These prove highly popular and are used as fundraising events for local charities. There are even fa’afafine beauty pageants in New Zealand.

There are several high profile fa’afafine in the present day including fashion designer Lindah LePou, poet Brian Puata, American footballer Jaiyal Saelua, and New Zealander Fuimaona Karl Polotu-Endemann.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Sound of Queer Music

Think of “gay” music and whose name springs to mind? Elton John? k d lang? Tchaikovsky? Philip Brett? Who?!

Tomorrow would have been Philip Brett’s 75th birthday. Sadly, he died ten years ago today, one day before his 65th birthday. In the world of musicology (the scientific study of music) Philip Brett (pictured right) was one of the most influential, pioneering and controversial scholars. A miner’s son from Edwinstowe in the heart of Sherwood Forest and a Southwell Minster chorister, Brett became the Professor of Musicology – the top tune tutor – at the University of California. He was even nominated for a Grammy award.

In 1976 he shocked the American Musicological Society (AMS) by saying during a lecture that Benjamin Britten’s homosexuality influenced his compositions. Some professors walked out saying his lecture was “pornography”. But today Brett’s work has become accepted and has influenced hundreds of scholars into researching the lgbt links and influences in the music of other composers and songwriters.

It was actually the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969 that was pivotal in Brett’s life and career. The riots sparked a blinding revelation, ignited by the sight of the abuse the Stonewall rioters received from the New York police. He wanted to do something. He recognised that society as a whole owes a great deal to the creative input from the lgbt community and here it was being persecuted and abused, so Brett, who was a member of the music faculty at the University of California at the time, decided to do two things which he thought would show both his support for lgbt rights and reveal to the musical world the contributions made by the lgbt community. These things were
1)      to come out publicly, and
2)      to begin research into the lgbt influences in music.

It was while studying at Cambridge (where he met and became friends with E. M. Forster) that Brett earned a one-year advanced graduate course at the University of California, Berkeley. After receiving his PhD he returned to Berkeley and stayed there for 24 years. He became Professor of Musicology in 1978.

What made him leave Berkeley was his wish to be with his partner since 1974, George Haggarty, who was Professor of English at the University of California’s campus at Riverside. Philip became Dean of Humanities at Riverside, and Distinguished Professor of Musicology the year before he died. Both Philip and George were members of the university’s lgbt group, LavendarCal.

The AMS, after recognising the academic value of Brett’s ideas and coming to terms with the concept of sexuality in music, asked him to found their Gay and Lesbian Study Group in 1989. In 1996 the Study Group instituted an award for the best publication or research paper on lgbt musicology. They named it the Philip Brett Award and is still awarded annually. Subjects of the winning publications range from Tchaikovsky to Dusty Springfield, and from opera to American vaudeville.

In June 2009 Davitt Moroney, one of Brett’s students (now a music professor at the same university himself), succeeded in gathering enough funds from Lavender Cal and other supporters to persuade the university to set up a new research fellowship into lgbt studies in any academic area. The fund is named after Brett.

Even though Brett’s reputation isn’t wide-spread, it still exerts an important influence on the development into how lgbt factors affect the arts. Davitt Moroney says there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be lgbt research into other sciences such as chemistry, physics or mathematics (ironically, there’s another Edwinstowe connection here, because Alan Turing’s father was also born there).

Philip Brett died of cancer at the age of 54 in 2002, leaving his partner of 28 years Professor George Haggarty.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Caribbean Queer Carnival

Trinidad and Tobago is another nation celebrating its 50th year of independence. It shares its early heritage with that of Jamaica, being the island from which the Carib people moved from mainland South America into what we now call the Caribbean islands. For the early lgbt heritage of Trinidad and Tobago see my article on Jamaica.

The Trinbagonian lgbt community has taken a keener interest in its heritage than the Jamaican, mainly through the work of CAISO (the Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation), an lgbt rights and community support organisation founded in 2009. Caiso is also the name given to a Trinidadian art form and the organisation includes art and history projects in its work.

Many stories of gay life in Trinidad and Tobago throughout the past 5 centuries emerged through CAISO’s project. In colonial times one of the most well-known Governors of the islands, Sir Ralph Woodford, reputedly had dozens of “pretty young men” around him. It is ironic that Woodford Square in Trinidad’s capital Port of Spain was named after him and is the area known for its nightly “parade” of transvestites.

The “after hours” scene enjoyed by gay Trinbagonians in the 1970s and 1980s included many bars who welcomed lgbt clientele – remarkably quite a few for such a small nation population. Bars such as Lote’s, Club Liquid and Just Friends were very popular, and smaller towns around the island also had their underground gay scene and venues. As with all lgbt communities Trinidad had its fair share of colourful characters, with nicknames like Stingy Brim, The Rocket, and Pongin’ Patsy being particularly well remembered.

For a bit more information about Trinidad’s lgbt heritage go here.

In recent years there have been successes and failures in the work of activists in Trinidad and Tobago. One failure was losing the debate on whether gay cruise ships should be allowed to dock in the islands. One success has been cancelling concerts by artists from other Caribbean nations who use violently homophobic lyrics in their songs.

Perhaps the biggest area where the lgbt Trinbagonians have been most widely celebrated is in art, particularly the native caiso form and carnival design.

In 1929 a group called The Society of Trinidad Independents was formed. Their aim was to promote local and indigenous art. Members of the group came from all ethnic backgrounds and they exercised a certain tolerance toward the lgbt community. Indeed, some of its leading members, such as Carlisle Chang, were gay. The Society became unpopular among the average Trinbagonian art-going public because of the blatant nudity in some of their works and their outspoken views on equality and prejudice.

Among the Caribbean as a whole there is a strong tradition of carnival and the lgbt influence is seen today in the work of Peter Minshall. Although not a Trinidad native he was brought up on the islands and is considered the leading figure in world carnival design. As mentioned in my Olympic Countdown series Peter worked on the Olympic ceremonies in Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996, and he won an Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for a Variety or Music Programme for his work on the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002.

Although homosexuality in Trinidad and Tobago is illegal, there are many activists and lgbt rights organisations working in the country to encourage change.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Coming Out Today

To celebrate National Coming Out Day today (in the US) and tomorrow (in the UK) here is a list of some of the people who have officially come out so far in 2012 (in roughly chronological order). Some of these people were already out to family and friends and within their professional circles. In coming out to the wider world most of these names have given their support to various lgbt issues and campaigns.

Todd Glass, US comedian
Jason Somerville, top poker player
Matt Bomer, US actor
Magda Szubanski, Australian actor (“Kath and Kim”)
Omar Sharif jr., grandson of Egyptian acting star Omar Sharif
Gillian Anderson, US actor (revealed a lesbian relationship when young)
Anthony Wong, Hong Kong pop star
Paul Iacono, US actor (“The Hard Times of R J Berger”)
Zachary Wyatt, Missouri state legislator
Josh Dixon, US gymnast and Olympic hopeful
Laura Gabel, lead singer of rock band Against Me!
Jim Parsons, US actor (Sheldon in “The Big Bang Theory”)
The Green Lantern, DC comic superhero
Anja Pärson, Swedish Olympic skiing champion
Anderson Cooper, CNN anchorman and broadcaster
Frank Ocean, R+B singer
Karen Hultzer, South African archer (came out at the Olympics)
Mika, singer (previously identified himself as bisexual)
Jason Ball, Australian rules footballer
Lori Lindsey, US footballer (Olympic reserve player)
Wade Davis, former NFL football player
Orlando Cruz, WBO featherweight boxer (ranked 4 in the world)

From this list it can be seen that there is wide range of professions, from acting to legislation, from singing to comic book superhero. But the largest group, some 7 in all, are athletes. Whether this is because of the large emphasis on sport this year because of the Olympics or because of a greater acceptance in sport of out lgbt athletes is difficult to judge.

There are other people who have been revealed as lgbt, though these have been widely known to be open about their sexuality at work, and have generally not been noticed until appointed to a more public role (e.g. such as US legislators or Presidential advisers).

Last year Zachary Quinto from the US tv series “Heroes” and Mr Spock of the rebooted “Star Trek” films chose the week of National Coming Out Day to come out himself, prompted by the suicide of bullied bisexual teenager Jamey Rodemeyer.

I wonder who will be coming out today?

Monday, 8 October 2012

Gay in the Great Lakes of Africa

Of all the nations of Africa who gained independence 50 years ago only one celebrates during the UK’s celebration of Black History Month. Fifty years ago today Uganda gained it’s independence. Two other neighbouring countries also became independent in 1962, Burundi and Rwanda. All 3 nations form part of the Great Lakes region of central east Africa. They have slightly different encounters with European settlers than most of the rest of Africa in that the area held an air of special mystery as being the source of the Nile. As a result it was explorers and missionaries were the first to make the region known to Europeans, not military or economic colonists.

National flag of Rwanda
The region has recently seen many troubles, not least of which is the extermination of up to a million Tutsi Rwandans in 1994. Without going into detail about the social make up of the Rwandan nation the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi are the same race so “genocide” is not the correct word. The Tutsi are descendants of the pre-colonial privileged social group – people with land and power – and they still have some of this status today. The Hutu were the equivalent of the working class who farmed the land of the Tutsi.

National flag of Burundi

Anthropologists say that homosexuality was widespread among young men in both the Tutsi and the Hutu of Rwanda and Burundi before the days of European occupation. The two social groups could have partners from the other. But what they did between themselves was always private and secret, so it is virtually impossible to know how many same-sex couples had physical relationships.

As in most other cultures, the homosexual practices in the courts of the ruling chiefs are more well documented – there was little secrecy there. Tutsi youths being trained to serve as page boys to their leaders are known to have engaged in same-sex activity. The leaders, or kings as the Europeans called them, may well have had a harem of young men as well as several wives.

In the neighbouring region of Buganda in present day Uganda, Mwanga II succeeded his father as Kabaka of “king” in 1884. He was 16. The Bugandans had similar cultural practices to the Tutsi and Hutu.

Mwanga opposed all attempts by Christian and Muslim missionaries to convert his people from their own beliefs. However, there were many converts by the time he came to power and Mwanga ordered them all to go back to their traditional beliefs or be killed. Several members of his own court had become Christian, including his “Master of the Page Boys” Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe.

As was customary in Mwanga’s culture he had many young page boys to serve his every wish at court. This included any sexual wish. Mwanaga was to go on and have 16 wives and 10 children, but in these his teenage years, new to the throne, he took advantage of his position and demanded his pages have sex with him. Most of these boys had been converted to Christianity and refused. In his fury Mwanga had 22 of them burnt alive or executed over a 2 year period, including Joseph, his Master of the Page Boys. These page boys became regarded as martyrs by the Catholic Church and were canonised in 1964.

National flag of Uganda
Given his defence of his cultural right to do whatever he wanted to do to his page boys in the face of Christian opposition, it is ironic that present day Buganda is part of a country that uses a Christian basis to justify imposing the death penalty for gay men.

Fortunately there are gay rights groups and activists within Uganda, though their fight for rights looks like it may be long one.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Flower Power - A Passionate Flower

On the one hand there’s well-known Christian symbolism associated with the Passion Flower. On the other there’s some quite overtly sexual symbolism. And I’m guessing that you’d like to hear about one more than the other!

But let’s start with its native habitat. The passion flower is an American and Asian flower. It was used by most of the indigenous American civilisations in some form or other in herbal medicine or as religious offerings.

As mentioned previously in Flower Power Xochipilli was the Aztec god of flowers, beauty and gay sex. Passion flowers are known to have been grown as sacred plants in the gardens of Aztec priests, perhaps no more so than by the priests of Xochipilli.

Across the Pacific in Japan the passion flower appears to be considered as a symbol of homosexuality, not unlike the green carnation. There doesn’t seem to be any firm evidence of exactly why this is, with several theories being suggested on the internet. One theory says that the purple colour of the passion flower was linked to the lavender of the gay rights movement in America in the 1970s. Another theory points out that the plant is bisexual. Yet another says that it became popular among gay men because it resembled a certain part of a man’s anatomy!

Developing this last theory further, it is ironic that the name Passion Flower has been used since the 1990s for a California store that sells adult toys, lubricants and lotions. For those of you who are interested in knowing more of the passion flower’s erotic associations and uses there’s a comprehensive look here.

This site makes a strong connection between the vine of the passion flower and the central American myths about the origin of maize. Here we can bring back Xochipilli. He was also as Aztec maize god and, when worshipped with the main god of maize Centeotl, became a combined single deity called Centeotl-Xochipilli. As this single deity Xochipilli was given offerings to ensure a good maize harvest.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Queer in the Caribbean

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of their independence I’m going to look at the lgbt heritage of 2 Caribbean nations – Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Their histories contain many common elements that would contain much duplication of information if treated separately, though I’ll have a look at the more recent history of Trinidad and Tobago later in the month.

The Caribbean gets its name from a South American people who settled in the islands called the Caribs. They left no written history and all we know of their culture comes from artefacts, archaeology and written accounts by European invaders in the 15th century. Any references to same-sex relationships come from a European Christian perspective in which anything the native people did was seen as evidence of the “lower status”.

The Caribs were a more war-like race than the Arawaks, another South American people who had settled there earlier, and they took the islands from them. The male captives, if any, were imprisoned, and it is recorded that the Caribs ate parts of their captives bodies to give them more strength. The Europeans, when they arrived, built up this practice to make it appear that Carib cannibalism was actually quite common and more widespread and frequent than it really was.

Reports by Spanish invaders referred to this and other acts as “against natural law”. As occurred in other parts of the world these other acts may have involved the rape of male captives as ritual humiliation. Consequently the Spanish Queen Isabella considered the “unnatural acts” by the Caribs as justification for their slavery.

The influx of slaves from Africa was the major factor in the change in the ethnic make-up of the Caribbean. Like some of the native gods and deities of central and south America some of the gods and deities from Africa had dual or intersexual natures. These beliefs mingled with the native deities and resulted in an early form of voodoo. Even today Caribbean voodoo and its related beliefs have a number of deities with lgbt aspects.

During the following centuries Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago became home for European settlers, bringing with them their own beliefs about same-sex relationships. This, in turn, influenced the laws of the islands once self-government and independence was gained in the 20th century.

The slave trade also brought with it other sexual practices – rape and prostitution. The early white colonists were predominantly male. At first, only those who were firmly established could bring their families with them. The only outlet for sexual urges (where you didn’t have to pay) was with slaves. Being regarded as property and not people this gave slave owners a warped justification for the rape of male and female slaves (that’s why so many African-Americans have European ancestry). Although they don’t specifically say so, recent studies into present Caribbean attitudes to homosexuality imply that this abuse from slave owners is a major factor in the current homophobia in Jamaican and Trinbagonian society.

The influence of the Anglican church is another big factor. The church’s disapproval of homosexual practices (quite different from their attitude to homosexual desires, though the two have often been confused) helped to give moral justification to present Caribbean attitudes.

But not everything about lgbt culture in Jamaica is bad. Some very influential and successful gay and bisexual men have Jamaican roots. Perhaps the most influential of these was Claude McKay (1889-1948) (pictured right).

Claude was born in Clarendon, Jamaica. He was the son of land-owning black West Indians of African descent. As a teenager Claude began to write poetry, not in standard English but in his own local dialect. His first poems were published in 1912.

After moving to the USA later that year he became part of a cultural explosion among the African-American community in Harlem, New York. His poems and novels of life in the suburb became one of the main contributors to the growth of the Harlem Renaissance – the cultural movement of the 1920s and 30s which influenced many areas of literature and entertainment. It saw the birth of an African-American national consciousness which went on to become the Black Rights Movement. Its influence spread to music and the creation of modern jazz and soul.

Many other descendants of African slaves who passed through the ports of Jamaica, Trinidad and the Caribbean also made huge contributions to the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Rights Movement. These include Countee Cullen, Bruce Nugent, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Wallace Thurman.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Black History Month 2012

Once again October sees the UK celebrating Black History Month. This year Jamaica is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence. But there are other nations which also became independent in 1962. They all have a different lgbt heritage and include ethnic cultures other than African-American.

These others countries are Algeria, Burundi, Rwanda, Samoa, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uganda. This month I want to celebrate them all by looking at their lgbt heritage, both before and after independence.