Thursday, 29 November 2012

Cult of the Rabbit God

Having started the month with a gay saint I’ll end with a gay god.

Homophobes have always criticised the lifestyle of us gay folk, usually claiming that we’re all at it like rabbits (chance would be a fine thing!) Which is rather ironic because in late imperial China the slang term for a gay man was “rabbit”.

This may be the reason why in Taiwan today Taoist men and women venerate a deity who appeared in a dream as a rabbit – or Tu Er Shen.

It’s difficult to determine which came first – the slang term or the deity. They may both date back to an old Chinese folk tale which was first written down in the late 18th century in a collection of supernatural tales.

One of these tales was about a man called Hu Tainbao who lived in Fujian province. One day an imperial inspector arrived in the province, a very handsome man. Hu Tianbao lusted after him but couldn’t express his feelings in public because they were not of equal social status.

Instead Hu decided to spy on the inspector while he bathed in the hope of seeing him naked. After making a hole in the bathroom wall Hu Tianbao watched the official, but he was spotted. In desperation Hu declared his feelings for the inspector, at which the official ordered Hu to be beaten to death.

But the story doesn’t end there. About a month later one of the elders from Hu’s home village had a dream. In it a rabbit appeared claiming to be the spirit of Hu Tianbao. Apparently, the lord of the underworld had just appointed Hu as the deity who presides over same-sex relationships. In the dream the rabbit tells the village elder to build a shrine to Hu’s new godly status.

This was the legendary beginning of the cult of Hu Tainabao in the Fujian province that existed by the 18th century. The main temple shrine was at Kangshan, a village just outside Fuzhou, the provincial capital. Presumably this was the home village of Hu Tianbao.

The instances of male marriages in the province were known and written about in imperial China but not officially approved. The imperial authorities tried to crack down on such practices. One imperial official called Zhu Gui wrote about the cult of Hu Tianbao after he was appointed to the province in 1765. He put himself forward as a champion of the people’s morals. In his “Prohibition of Licentious Cults” Zhu reported that “debauched and shameless rascals” prayed to a plaster idol of Hu to help them find “illicit intercourse”. These “rascals” then smeared pig’s intestines and honey over the idol’s mouth. Zhu removed the idol, and had it smashed to bits and thrown into the river.

After this the cult of Hu Tianbao went underground, was forgotten or even ignored. Perhaps it was because of this that a new legend arose saying that the villagers who built Hu’s shrine were sworn to secrecy. They couldn’t tell anyone about Hu or the reason for the shrine being there, except to those they knew wanted Hu’s specific help.

A few years ago a professor of Chinese history stated that the connection between Hu Tianboa and a rabbit deity Tu Er Shen was invented by the writer of the supernatural tales and that it didn’t exist beforehand. Perhaps Hu was invented as an alternative to the heterosexual Matchmaker God, or the Rabbit of the Moon – Tu Er Ye.
The Shrine of Hu Tianboa in Taiwan. Courtesy

Today the Rabbit Deity – Tu Er Shen – and Hu Tianbao are remembered with a shrine in Yonghe City in Taiwan. It was set up by a Taoist priest some years ago, and regularly receives visits from male – and female – couples wanting Hu Tianboa to bless their relationships.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Kathleen Rose Winter - activist, athlete, author, actor

During my research into lgbt participation in the Olympics and Paralympics I recently came across the name of Kathleen Rose Winter. The online obituaries I read revealed not just a multi-sport para-athlete but a woman with an active and diverse life. I have put together this short life story of Kathleen Rose Winter as a celebration in this Paralympic year and Gay Games 30th anniversary.

Kathleen Rose Winter was born in Chicago in 1956 into a mixed-heritage family. Her father Clifford Obanion, a former janitor of an apartment block, was African-American. Her mother Caroline Terzian came from an immigrant family from Armenia. This mixed-race heritage was a valued source of exploration into identity and provided Kathleen with the inspiration for an article in Windy City Times, Chicago’s lgbt newspaper. Kathleen’s cousin also used this heritage in her university dissertation in 2010. Kathleen’s mother seems to have remarried to a Mr. Winter, and Kathleen took his surname.

Kathleen was born with osteogensis inferfecta, a genetic condition usually known as brittle bone disease. Growing up in 1960s America with an ethnic background gave Kathleen an extra challenge, to overcome racial prejudice. Perhaps it is fortunate that she grew up in an era where the Black Rights and Gay Rights movements were becoming more vocal. This probably gave Kathleen the spirit and determination to speak out on racial, disability and sexuality issues throughout her adult life.

Kathleen was also fortunate in being a Chicagoan because that city had the only high school in the state that catered specifically for pupils with disabilities or illness. This was Spalding High School, facing the city’s Union Park where, no doubt, Kathleen would have seen fellow teenagers playing sports.

After graduating from high school Kathleen studied at the University of Illinois and at Roosevelt University, one of the most ethnically diverse universities in America. She earned a Master degree in psychology.

Over the next few years Kathleen had such varied jobs as a supply teacher and cab driver. Her experience as a wheelchair user gave her a commitment to raise awareness of the rights of people with all disabilities. She worked for a time as Access Living, a Chicago centre providing people with disabilities the chance to live as independently as possible, and she even worked in the Major’s Office for People with Disability. Kathleen’s active involvement in fighting for rights is seen in her successful legal action against the Chicago Park District over wheelchair access at Lincoln Park Conservatory.

In the 1990s Kathleen Winter mixed disability awareness with art by becoming president of the Disability Arts and Culture Centre in Chicago. As chairman of the Outreach committee she led efforts to make the Center’s work more well known and accessible to all disability groups.

Kathleen Winter meets Mrs Coretta King.
Photo by Tracy Baim. Courtesy of Windy City Times
Among her other activities was her participation in a musical called “The Plucky and Spunky Show”. This was a revue in which the whole cast was physically disabled and was performed to give the audience a new perspective on disabled people and their own view of them.

Kathleen was herself also a talented writer. She wrote for several lgbt and black publications in Chicago. Some of her work was performed by “A Real Read”, a black lgbt theatre group. Towards the end of her life Kathleen dabbled in the amateur comedy circuit.

Her first appearance in the Paralympics was in Barcelona 1992 competing in discus, javelin and shot put. By 1996 Kathleen had moved to wheelchair fencing and was ranked 4th in the USA. At the Atlanta Paralympics she was knocked out in the first round of the epée finals by the eventual silver medallist.

For the Sydney 2000 Paralympics Kathleen joined the US powerlifting team. She had taken part in the 2nd World Powerlifting Championships in 1998. Unfortunately Kathleen finished last in Sydney. Undeterred she carried on competing and finished her competitive career by winning a powerlifting gold medal at the 2006 Gay Games in her home city Chicago.

A life-long Christian Kathleen spent her childhood going to Catholic, Methodist and Baptist churches before deciding that organised religion offered no place for a disabled mixed-race lesbian. For years she didn’t attend church at all but kept her faith. With her partner Elandria Henderson, an activist for African-American lesbian rights since the 1970s, she began attending the Church of the Open Door, the first church for the African-American lgbt community in Chicago. Rev. Karen Hutt, a pastor at the church, co-officiated at Kathleen’s memorial service.

Kathleen Rose Winter died on 4th May 2008 at the age of 51. As her obituary in the Windy City Times said, Kathleen’s spirit was never daunted by her physical restrictions. She used this spirit to educate the community into the reality that people with disabilities can play vital parts.

I am sure that Kathleen would be proud of the achievements of the Paralympians of London 2012 and by the increased recognition that disability is not a barrier to achievement.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Flower Power - Lavender

Today we deal more with the colour of lavender than the flower - the colour that has had more of an impact on the lgbt community.

A few other flowers have had their names given to colours, and lavender was first used as a colour name in 1705, according to “A Dictionary of Colour” published in 1930. Its adoption among the lgbt community is a little less precise, as is the shade and hue that is used. It is possible that lavender came into use because it is a pale version of violet or purple.

Lavender and violet (violet plants in particular) were used in the lesbian community from 1927, though violet has links back to the Ancient Greek poet Sappho. Also, in the 1920s the lavender plant and its scent had become attributed to effeminate men. Phrases like “streak of lavender” and “dash of lavender” were being used in popular culture, even being paraphrased by Cole Porter with these lines from his 1929 song “I’m A Gigolo” :
“I should like you all to know,
I’m a famous gigolo,
And of lavender, my nature’s got just a dash of it.
As I’m slightly undersexed
You will always find me next
To some dowager who’s wealthy rather than passionate”.

We can perhaps theorise about the development of the symbolic use of lavender in the gay community from the symbolism of purple and mauve in the Victorian period.

Purple has been associated with royalty since the Roman Empire. As such it became a colour that expressed the decadence and extravagance of the emperors. This association with decadence lasted right into the Victorian period when it became used (along with the yellow) to symbolise those of the flamboyant, aesthetic, art-loving circles epitomised by Oscar Wilde. Wilde himself referred to “purple hours”, his experiences with male prostitutes that helped to light up his otherwise grey life.

Because the Industrial Revolution was still flexing its muscles all through the period, these aesthetic, decadent art-lovers were seen as unmanly and un-macho. These men seemed to have no interest in the pursuit of Victorian ideals like industrial advancement or imperial colonialism and spent their time in what was considered feminine interests, like the arts. As a way of pointing out these un-Victorian men the decadent purple was dropped in favour of the paler lavender to symbolise unmanly interests of the aesthetes. From this it is a short step to link lavender with effeminate men and the old perception of homosexuals.

It was in the 1950s that lavender became firmly associated with the lgbt community, though it was 1960s America that saw its use most widespread before the popular adoption of the European pink triangle.

It is, perhaps, still in America that the use of the word and colour lavender has remained constant. The gay rights movement is now often referred to as a “lavender revolution”. Since then lavender has been attributed in more recent years to many events involving the lgbt community.

One other use of the word lavender which emerged during the 1970s is in the term “lavender marriage”. Ever since the silent days of Hollywood films there have been closeted gay leading men. Some of them were known to be gay within the studio system – the old system where actors worked for the film studios like regular employees. In an era where gossip about a leading actor’s sexuality could ruin his career and the studio’s, the movie moguls ordered gay actors to marry to keep up the appearance of a straight man. This was the lavender marriage.

Today there are hundreds of lgbt organisations which have lavender in their name and in their logo, most of them in the USA. I mentioned a few weeks ago in my memorial piece on Professor Philip Brett of the lgbt group at the University of California called LavenderCal.

In the UK lavender has more of a comical association with gay men. It doesn’t have the same cultural background as a use within activism as it did in 1970s USA, with groups like the Lavender Menace and Lavender Panthers. Perhaps the Victorian symbolism with effeminism has yet to fully disappear in the UK.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Extraordinary Lives - Princess Seraphina

To mark this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance today I want to bring to you the story of a cross-dresser who stood up for herself when threatened with exposure.

This is the story of Princess Seraphina, an 18th century “molly” (a name given to cross-dressers and gay men at the time) who was extraordinary in that she appeared at the Old Bailey – not as a criminal but as a victim. In the 18th century cross-dressers were seen as anti-social and often arrested just for wearing the clothes of another gender. In his years on the scene Princess Seraphina was never arrested.

Princess Seraphina was the alter-ego of John Cooper. No-one knows when he was born - it was probably before 1710, and his home town may well have been London.

The first record of Princess Seraphina comes in 1728. A notorious thief, highwayman and bigamist called James Dalton recalled the princess in his confessions published just before he was hanged. Dalton was told of a “wedding” between two mollies and mentions Seraphina as a “bridesmaid”. This was before October 1727 when Dalton was tried and convicted.

Dalton referred to Seraphina as a butcher. Cooper described himself in 1732 as a gentleman’s servant. This may have been his position with a retired Royal Navy captain called George Breholt. After a long and distinguished career Capt. Breholt entered the naval hospital at Greenwich. Cooper says he lived with Breholt at the hospital.

By the summer of 1732 Cooper was living with a Mr and Mrs Tull in Eagle Court off the Strand. He was a friend of Mr Tull and when he and his wife became ill with a fever, what was called a “salivation” in those days, Copper acted as nursemaid to them. He was lodging with them at the time of the trial.

One public event we know Cooper attended as Princess Seraphina was the grand re-opening in 1732 of the Vauxhall Gardens. A magnificent Ridotto al Fresco was staged – an extravagant open-air entertainment. It attracted many visitors, including the Prince of Wales, who could walk through the ornamental gardens, past statues, temples and arches. And it wasn’t only the fashionable ladies and dandies who dressed in their finest clothes. Princess Seraphina met several of his fellow mollies there all dragged up for the occasion. Seraphina herself wore a calamanco gown, a fine checked gown with a silky sheen through which was woven satin thread. He hoped this would help attract a gentleman or two who would dance with her (and no doubt a bit more as well). But all Seraphina ended up with was a couple of men who had no money (presumably they’d spent their last sixpence on the boat ride across the river, which was the only way to get to the gardens).

So what about the trial? Well, on the Whit Monday holiday, 29th May 1732, the week before the Ridotto, John Cooper went out drinking – not as Princess Seraphina but as himself. In the early hours of Tuesday he was approached by one Thomas Gordon who struck up a conversation. After several pints Cooper and Gordon left. As Cooper described at the trial, as they passed an area in Chelsea Fields protected from view, Gordon threatened him with a knife and demanded he hand over his ring and that they swap clothes. Gordon threatened to accuse Cooper of trying to rape him if he went to the police.

Thomas Gordon’s version of events was slightly different. He claimed Copper approached him in the inn, and that he tried to kiss and grope him in Chelsea. It was Cooper, he claimed, who had demanded they change clothes.

Cooper went to the police and Gordon was put on trial for robbery in July 1732. Cooper appeared as himself throughout, though several witnesses did refer to him as Princess Seraphina, which caused some confusion among the judges.

Gordon’s witnesses included Mrs Margaret Holder, the keeper of the inn where the men had met. Her version of their meeting supported Gordon’s. It was also Mrs Holder who was the first to bring up the subject of Cooper being a molly.

Thomas Gordon was found not guilty.

And that seems to be the last we hear of Princess Seraphina. What do we make of the trial? Was Princess Seraphina telling the truth? Did Gordon rob him of his clothes and ring? A witness called by Gordon to them crossing Chelsea Fields said neither men looked like they were having a disagreement. Cooper had no supporting eye witness, only Mrs Holder, and her obvious disapproval of his lifestyle turned the emphasis away from the robbery and onto Cooper’s sexuality. Obviously, she had other motives – protecting the reputation of her inn.

One witness for Seraphina said the clothes he was seen wearing earlier that evening were a great deal smarter that the grubby clothes he swapped with Gordon. What would be the point of that? Only Gordon would have benefited. And why would Seraphina risk being charged with sodomy, a crime punishable by death if guilty, just for some clothes and a ring?

If you want to decide for yourself you can read a full transcript of the trial here.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Queer Achievement - Elton John

Achievement : the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.
For the first in my Queer Achievements series which features gay armigers (that’s people who have a coat of arms) I bring you the coat of arms of Sir Elton John. Following the example of John Bercow’s pioneering use of the pink triangle and rainbow on the motto scroll I’ve added them to my original painting of Elton’s arms.

Sir Elton John was granted a coat of arms in 1987. In England the way this happens is by contacting the College of Arms in London. If you’re lucky you inherit arms from a male ancestor (which you have to prove – a certificate you got from an ad in a magazine isn’t legal). Elton didn’t inherit any arms so he helped the Heralds to design a new “fun” coat of arms for him.

That’s one of the key elements in heraldry – fun, visual puns, personal jokes, and often sarcastic wit, even way back in the Middle Ages.

So where are the puns that give us clues to reveal to us that the coat of arms at the top belongs to Sir Elton John?

Most obvious is the verbal pun in the motto. Mottos can be in an any language. Elton’s is in Spanish so that it actually begins with his first name. In translation the motto also gives a pun in reference to his musical profession – “The tone is good”.

The reference to music is clearly shown by the piano keyboard design. It uses black bars that have been used in heraldry for centuries, 300 years before the piano keyboard was even invented. It’s only the way they are grouped that hints at what it is represents.

Then there’s the crest – the thing that goes on top of the helmet. Elton’s crest is Pan playing his pipes. Obvious musical reference there. But if you look closely, the pipes are blue. Elton’s first band was formed when he was a teenager and was called Bluesology.

A little more obvious are the 4 discs, called pierced roundels in heraldry, again used since medieval times. Calling them discs makes it more obvious what they represent – 2 vinyl records and 2 cds.

The rest of the shield is more obscure, but if you look at the crest again you’ll see Pan’s hoof is on a gold football. Followers of English football will know that Elton was Chairman of Watford Football Club at the time he was granted this coat of arms. Red and yellow have been the main colours of the Watford strip for many years (pictured left). The mantling – the flowing cloth fastened to the helmet – also takes the main colours of the shield, the traditional manner of colouring the mantling.

Other parts of Elton’s achievement include his honours. The helmet has its visor open, indicating Elton is a knight of the realm, as does the central badge suspended below the shield – the badge of a Knight Bachelor. Its placed in front of the others, in the centre, as it is the highest ranking honour being shown. The badge on the left is of a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) which was awarded to Elton in 1996. Connected to this is the circlet of the Order tucked away behind the shield (you can see the word “God” clearly from the motto of the Order “For God and the Empire).

The third badge, the green one, is of an Officer of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which was awarded to Elton in 1993. Technically, this French decoration shouldn’t appear in the achievement of an English coat of arms, but some artistic license can be allowed. I’ve included it because it gives the whole achievement a more balanced look with its overall pointed oval shape.

I hope you enjoyed this look at Sir Elton John’s full coat of arms.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

LGBT History Month 2013 Prelaunch

After two years of sport the LGBT History Month organisers in the UK have decided to have science and technology as the theme for February 2013. This is in honour of Alan Turing, the father of computer science, whose centenary was celebrated this June.

The special pre-launch event for 2013 takes place tonight at the place where Turing conducted his most important, and secret, work – Bletchley Park. This is also the place where Noel Currer-Briggs worked as a cryptographer. He was a member of the team that cracked the Playfair cipher which helped Allied Forces in north Africa. After the war Noel became a noted genealogist and historian, particularly in the field of Huguenot ancestry, and he became a leading expert on the mysterious Turin Shroud. On leaving the army Noel became an advocate (though not necessarily an activist) for the acceptance of gay men in the army. The British army didn’t have the restriction of a “Don’t Tell, Don’t Ask” policy like the USA, and gay men were generally tolerated as long as their sexuality was kept out of army matters and private. This was a remarkable attitude bearing in mind that homosexuality was still illegal. Noel himself was gay, and he wrote a novel based on his experiences called “Yong Men at War”. Like most gay men of that era he decided to get married, though after accepting his sexuality the marriage ended.

I too will be celebrating next year and, like this year, will continue the theme beyond LGBT History Month itself. As well as continuing my Star Gayzing series (which is, sort of, about science) I’ll choose one specific scientific subject and use it as a theme for a month. February 2013 itself will be a mixture of all sciences.

At this stage I haven’t decided on a set list of which science will feature in which month, but I hope to cover as many as possible. At the moment my proposed sciences are (in alphabetical order) :
computer science,
inventors and inventions,
and zoology.

Some of the facts we will discover are :-
·         how to mix astrophysics with gay rights,
·         the other “father of the computer”,
·         blow up a storm on Mars,
·         the truth about the Apple computer logo,
·         meet the Earthquake Lady,
·         and why stuffing a dead chicken with snow can be hazardous to your health.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Star Gayzing - The Eclipse of Apollo

If you’re reading this in the South Pacific today you’re very lucky – there’s a solar eclipse over there (though you're half a day ahead of me, so it was probably all over hours ago!). Its one of the most amazing natural phenomena. I only caught part of the eclipse that clipped the Cornish coast in 1999 – I was standing near Trent Bridge with a crowd of several hundred others.

Its no wonder that the ancient civilisations considered eclipses to have magical properties, and be omens of both doom and fortune. Sun gods have often been regarded as the most powerful of all.

In Europe one of the most famous of these gods was Apollo. As a sun god he had other names reflecting his solar attributes, such as Phoebus, meaning “radiant”, and Helius “meaning “sun” (Helios is a different sun god who was frequently identified as Apollo in Ancient Greece).

Apollo’s role as sun god is seen in the legend of the death of his lover Prince Hyakinthos of Sparta, in which his light and heat turned the prince’s blood into a flower.

Apollo was also the god whom the Ancient Greeks saw represented the physical perfection of the male body. Early Greek statues of naked young men were said to represent him. It became the duty of all male Greeks to attempt to honour the gods by striving to develop a well-defined, muscular body just like Apollo’s. To this aim they established gymnasia and it became an essential part of training for the Greek armies. As related elsewhere on this blog, these gyms were also the place where men sought sex with other men.

As well as Hyakinthos Apollo had other male partners. One of these, Cyparissus or Kyparissos, will be related in a future Flower Power article. He also turned several of his female lovers into plants after their deaths as well.

Another male lover links to two constellations which I’ll deal with next year.

Of course, the most obvious association for us in present generations is the NASA space programmes that was named after Apollo. I don’t think I was allowed to stay up to watch the first moon landing in 1969 – I certainly don’t remember seeing it. But I do remember Apollo 13. No doubt there are many lgbt astronomers and astrophysicists who were inspired by the Apollo programme.

Apollo’s name has not been given to any major celestial body, but it has been given to a specific group of smaller ones. In 1932 a German astronomer discovered an asteroid – then lost it! It took another 41 years for another astronomer to find it again. It was called Apollo and was the first of what astronomers call a Q-type asteroid – an asteroid with an orbit that brings it close to Earth or crosses Earth’s orbit. These are also called the Apollo asteroids. One actually crashed into the earth in 2008, and I’ll mention it again in January.

In 2005 it was discovered that Apollo had a little moon of its own. The whole orbit of the moon is no more than 3 kilometers, which means that if Apollo was plonked on top of my flat the moon’s orbit Nottingham would fit quite snugly within it's moon's orbit.

Enjoy the eclipse my antipodean friends.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Remembering the Fallen

For Remembrance Sunday I’d like to highlight a handful of lgbt service personnel who have been killed on active duty. Whether we approve of the motives behind specific conflicts or not we should not ignore the sacrifice made by service men and women.

Here is a list of lgbt members of armed forces from wars and conflicts throughout history who have died on active service. Some are well-known, others are not. We’ll begin with two examples from the ancient world before moving onto the present era.

DIOCLES OF ATHENS (4th century BC)
Exiled from his native Athens, this soldier fought with the army of Megara. During one battle he died while protecting his young male lover from attack. He was declared a hero by his adopted city, and for many centuries afterwards his sacrifice was celebrated at his tomb with a festival called Diocleia which featured games and sporting contests.

An army made up exclusively of 150 pairs of male couples, in the belief that men would fight more bravely with a lover by his side. They were an elite force who were undefeated in battle, even against the Spartans, until 338 BC when they were annihilated by King Philip II of Macedonia at the Battle of Chaeronea.

2nd Lt. GILBERT OWEN, MC (1893-1918)
The leading poet of World War I. Commissioned into the Manchester Regiment he suffered from shell shock (post traumatic stress disorder) during service in the French trenches. Returning to the front after treatment he was shot in the head just a week before Armistice Day. His poetry depicts the horrors of trench warfare. Owen was awarded the Military Cross posthumously.

Wing Cdr. IAN GLEED, DSO, DFC (1916-1943)
Having experienced his first flight in an aircraft at school Ian earned a pilot’s licence and joined the RAF in 1936. Surviving the Battle of Britain, earning the Distinguished Service Order and Distinguished Flying Cross, he was posted to Fighter Command in 1942. He was reported missing in Egypt after a fighter night sweep. His aircraft and remains were found years later, apparently having been shot down by enemy fire. The French awarded him a posthumous Croix de Guerre.

Maj. ALAN ROGERS (1967-2008)
A Baptist preacher from the age of 20. Commissioned into the US army in 1995. Even though Alan was a member of the American Veterans For Equal Rights, wrote a thesis on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and was photographed with his partner at a gay wedding he also officiated at, his sexuality came as a surprise to many after his death, even his family. He was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq and was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

Corp. ANDREW WILFAHRT (1980-2011)
Openly gay Andrew was a maths whizzkid with a fascination for puzzles. He joined the US army, according to his mother, in order to find a life of meaning. This meant going “back into the closet” to enter the army, though he later told his mother “everyone knows, nobody cares”. Andrew was posted to Afghanistan in 2009 and killed by an improvised explosive device. Flags in Minnesota, his home state, were flown at half mast on the orders of the state governor.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Bent, As Times Goes By

This time last month a local theatre put on a short run of the play “Bent” by Martin Sherman (with two local gay amateur actors in the leading roles). On the day after the run finished I did a guided tour for Nottingham University’s lgbt students group. Some of them had been to see the play, and were on my new tour put together specially for them (they’ve been on all the others). It just so happened that the tour went into the origins of “Bent”, so the timing could not have been better.

Part of “Bent”s origins begins in 1977 when the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) was looking for somewhere to hold its annual conference. The Vice President of the CHE was a journalist living in Nottingham called Ray Gosling. There were several other members of the CHE who had links with Nottingham as well, so they chose it as the host city for their conference.

Over the August Bank Holiday weekend in 1977 a handful of venues around Nottingham hosted meetings, workshops, guests speakers, lunches and social get-togethers. One of the host hotels was the venue for the opening night event (after registration of delegates). I can see that hotel from my window – I live in a block of flats next to it. It’s now called the Hilton Nottingham, but back in 1977 it was the Victoria Hotel (one of the remaining structures from the old Victoria Station on which the block of flats was built).

At 7.30 pm on Friday 26th August 1977 the Gay Sweatshop premiered the play “As Time Goes By” at the Victoria Hotel to start the CHE conference. The Gay Sweatshop was a street theatre group formed in 1975 (one of its founders, Roger Baker, was also from Nottinghamshire) with the aim of bringing a more realistic portrayal of homosexuality to theatre. As we shall see, is did just that with “As Time Goes By”.

The play was divided into 3 sections, each dealing with key moments in lgbt history. The first part centred around the aftermath of the Oscar Wilde trials. The third part centred around a gay bar in New York in 1969. But what was new for theatre was the theme of the 2nd section.

Part 2 was set in 1930s Berlin. When the gay Nazi officer Ernst Rohm is murdered on Hitler’s orders a group of gay men realise that Nazi persecution has put all gay men in a dangerous position. This was the first time that this aspect of the Holocaust was treated in detail on stage. Very little was known about gay victims in the Holocaust, and what happened after the CHE conference premiere was to be most significant.

“As Time Goes By” was a critical success. A national tour had been planned and in the following week Gay Sweatshop took the play to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Joining the Sweatshop was the American playwright Martin Sherman. As he would later write, “I travelled with the Sweatshop to Edinburgh for the run of ‘As Time Goes By’ and that play pumped adrenalin into my eager veins”. Sherman was inspired by the possibility of expanding an overlooked and misunderstood period in gay history, and his play “Bent” was the result. In acknowledgement he dedicated the first published version of the play in 1979 to a leading member of the production team of Gay Sweatshop’s “As Time Goes By”. Sherman later admitted that he wrote “Bent” for the Sweatshop.

I could go into more Nottingham connections to “Bent”, such as the film version starring a gay actor who was first talent-spotted at Nottingham Playhouse, or that the only national memorial to the Holocaust in the UK is in a village several miles away from the city. But I’ll leave both of those for other times.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Heritage Spotlight - Simeon Solomon Research Archive

While I was in London this summer visiting the Diamond Jubilee and Paralympics I took the opportunity to do some sightseeing. My brother and I chose a route from St Pancras to Buckingham Palace which took us along Gower Street. One of my favourite subjects is Pre-Raphaelite art. I am a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Society and the last big exhibition I worked on at Nottingham Castle was the major Pre-Raphaelite exhibition of works from the Delaware Art Museum called “Waking Dreams”.

Gower Street was where the Pre-Raphaelite movement was formed, there is even a blue plaque on the wall of the house (the photo was taken by my brother Steve).

It is only in the 1990s that I leant that one of the artists in Pre-Raphaelite circles was gay – Simeon Solomon. He also lived on Gower Street for a while, working in the studio of his brother Abraham. His is one whose work I found particularly find visually appealing before I discovered his sexuality. In 2002 I went to see “Love Revealed”, the special exhibition of his work at the Birmingham museum and art gallery.

Simeon Solomon - self portrait 1859
Perhaps because of Simeon’s imprisonment for homosexuality in 1873 his work was deliberately under-noticed by the art world. Thankfully, since the growth of gender studies in the 1970s, the acceptance of artists’ sexuality, and a resurgence of Pre-Raphaelite art, Simeon’s work is now reaching a wider and more appreciative audience. I hope I can do the same by pointing people in the direction of the Simeon Solomon Research Archive – the SSRA – at this website.

The SSRA was the brainchild of Roberto C. Ferrari in 2000. Roberto became interested in Simeon Solomon in the same way as many other students, including myself – through research into more well-known members of the Pre-Raphaelite circles. Since “discovering” Simeon, Roberto has become an unofficial champion of this under-rated and overlooked Victorian artist.

The original website was Roberto’s attempt to bring Simeon to a wider audience and out of the art world. It was established to encourage interest and further research into Simeon’s life and works. This followed hot on the heels of Roberto’s published annotated bibliography in “The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies” in spring 1999. The website quickly became popular among academics and art lovers alike.

The website you can visit today is a revamped version of the original. Much more research and resources have become available since the original launch, making it necessary for the SSRA website to be redesigned. In this Roberto Ferrari was assisted by Carolyn Conroy. Carolyn earned her doctorate with a thesis on Simeon’s life and work after his arrest for homosexuality, doing a lot of research from Roberto’s original website. Carolyn and Roberto worked on the new website together and it was launched in September 2010. Carolyn is also currently Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art at Wake University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The new website also includes information on Abraham and Rebecca Solomon, Simeon’s brother and sister who were also artists. Examples of all the Solomon siblings’ work is on the site as well as information on their exhibitions.

I have visited the SSRA website several times when looking for images to put on the living room wall, and for research prior to the big Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Nottingham Castle.

I recommend this site to anyone interested in the Pre-Raphaelites in general, and to anyone interested in gender studies and art. In the words of Roberto C. Ferrari himself : “It is my hope that with the publication of this website more individuals can learn to appreciate and respect Solomon, and perhaps more research can be conducted on this figure who still eludes art historians and Victorian scholars unsure of where he fits in the milieu of his time”.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

A Patron Saint for Homosexuals

Hallowe’en means Eve of Hallows, because today is All Hallows Day or All Saints Day. In the Christian Church it is the day when all those who have been listed as saints and martyrs are venerated. Tomorrow is All Souls Day when everyone else is venerated.

Ignorance is a very emotive word, and I’ve found that many gay people are ignorant about how much homosexuality has been embraced by Christianity. Perhaps they only see what they want to see, and believe what they want to believe, just like homophobes.

But it is a fact that the church has never officially declared homosexuality to be a sin, despite the fact that many Christians have claimed it has. The Catholic church even had a marriage ceremony for same-sex couples before the Reformation, and several saints can be identified as being gay. The Church has never had a great problem with homosexual desire, only with homosexual practice.
St Aerled of Rievaulx as depicted in his "De Speculum Carititas"
("The Mirror of Charity"), c.1142.

One Catholic saint who has been rediscovered by the Christian lgbt community in recent decades is St Aelred of Rievaulx. He was an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat born in the north of England sometime around 1110. He was educated at the court of King David the Saint of the Scots, and entered the Cistercian abbey at Rievaulx in Yorkshire at the age of 24. He became it’s third abbot in 1147.

It was during his time at Rievaulx that Aelred write on the subject of friendship. In one work he revealed his attraction to a fellow monk called Simon. But while he recognised that his carnal desires were not appropriate to his spiritual calling he did recognise that love based on physical attraction, a celibate love between two men, was just as much a gift from God as attraction between man and woman. He considered that it was a love that can be experienced in a monastery as it does anywhere else and shouldn’t be ignored. In his own words he said “Feelings are not ours to command. We are attracted to some against our will”.

Even though other monastic leaders criticised Aelred’s ideas the Church itself did nothing to contradict him. In fact it was in the following century that the Catholic church began formulating their ceremonies for same-sex couples.

Aelred spent the rest of his life based as Rievaulx, dying there in 1167. The Cistercians, the French monastic order to which Aelred belonged, gave their approval to a local cult of Aelred at his burial site in 1476, the year from which we consider him to have been recognised as a saint.

Today St Aelred is seen as a patron of many lgbt Christian churches and some have been named after him. Since his “reclamation” by the lgbt community during the emergence of gender studies in the 1960s he has become an example of how homosexuality and Christianity can be compatible. As a Christian abbot his physical desires were not consummated, voluntarily. One of the main questions within the present Christian community with regard to gay clergy is about exactly that.

Elizabeth Stewart, Professor of Christian Theology at St. Alfred’s College, Winchester, said in 2002:
“He was remarkably tolerant and frank about the fact that in a monastic community some men would be physically attracted to one another, and may indeed fall in to what he regarded as the sin of consummating that attraction… What’s fascinating about Aelred I think is that even though he’s aware of the dangers of male friendship, he still idealises it as the royal route into the divine life. And coming from somebody who was so evidently attracted to other men, emotionally and physically, I think that’s an extraordinary theological feat… I think what’s attractive about Aelred for gay people is that he is somebody who may have the ability to teach the church today that homosexuality is about more than sex. It’s about spirituality.”