Monday, 23 January 2017

Inside Art

Prison may not seem to be a place that can inspire artistic endeavours but two recent exhibitions proved that this can be the case. The exhibitions took place on either side of the Atlantic and ran almost consecutively (by chance rather than design).

The first exhibition was called “Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison” and ran in September and October last year. Reading prison, or Reading Gaol as it is more widely known, has an almost hallowed place in British lgbt history. It was the place to which Oscar Wilde was sentenced for gross indecency in 1895. The incarceration inspired Oscar to write “De Profundis” and, after his release, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, thereby giving the prison an immortality it would never have acquired.

It is this connection with Oscar Wilde that inspired the “Inside” exhibition. The prison was scheduled for sale by the Ministry of Justice when the organisation Artangel stepped in with the idea of the exhibition. The Victorian building closed in 2013 as being unsuitable for 21st century requirements.
Reading Prison (photo credit University of Reading)
Artangel is an organisation which produces exhibitions in unexpected locations. A Victorian prison, although by no means for the first time, was a perfect venue. Many artists and writers, a lot of them from the lgbt community, contributed works to “Inside”. The main themes being that of incarceration, isolation and separation. Prison cells and corridors housed the works over the three floors of the prison. In addition there were public readings of Wilde’s “De Profundis” by notable actors (including Ben Whishaw and Ralph Fiennes).

Reunited, so to speak, was Oscar Wilde’s cell and its cell door. The door has been part of the collection of the National Law Museum in Nottingham at the Galleries of Justice (more of which next month).

A similar art exhibition ran in November and December 2016. This had the similar title of “On the Inside” but whereas the art at Reading Gaol was produced by artists outside the prison system “On the Inside” consisted of art produced by prisoners in US jails and exhibited in an art gallery.

The idea behind the American exhibition came from Tatiana von Furstenberg. Having come across an American organisation called Black and Pink, run and staffed by lgbt former prisoners which support those still in prison. Tatiana was impressed by the high standard of artwork in the Black and Pink monthly newsletter. All the artwork is produced by lgbt prisoners and ex-prisoners. Tatiana was inspired to contact the organisation with the idea of the “On the Inside” exhibition.

As the press release for the exhibition pointed out prisoners only have restricted access to basic materials, so the fact that they can produce high quality work reveals the amount of talent there is behind those cell doors. It you wish to see for yourself just how good these works are you can go to the exhibition website here.

Working with Black and Pink Tatiana von Furstenburg invited readers of their monthly newsletter to submit work for the exhibition. More than 4,000 pieces were submitted.
Exhibition poster for "On the Inside" based on artwork by Larry S.
“On the Inside” was mounted at the Abrons Art Center in Manhattan and included a discussion panel with Tatiana, members of Black and Pink and some former prisoners.

What both exhibitions highlighted is the extra isolation and difficulties faced by lgbt prisoners. It also showed that, whatever their crime, whatever their reason for being incarcerated, there is something in their lives that can produce pleasure through their art. It is to be hoped that those who return to the outside world can harness their artistic talents for the benefit of all.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Out of Their Presidential Trees

I don’t think there has ever been such a big controversy over lgbt rights during a US Presidential election than there was last year. The final election results also saw a reduced number of elected lgbt legislators. Whatever political party takes office in the White House and how much support they do or do not show to the lgbt community one fact remains. The White House has seen its fair share of lgbt residents and members of presidential families.

To celebrate today’s Presidential Inauguration Day (regardless of who is to be inaugurated) let’s have a look at some queer presidential relatives.

Many lgbt people are related to US Presidents. More than half of them are descended from King Edward I of England so the many thousands of lgbt people who also descend from him, including myself, can claim to be “family”. For the purposes of today’s article I’ll restrict myself to actual Presidents and their descendants or near kin. They can be divided into the four groups as given below.

There has never been any conclusive proof that any US President was gay. Some suspicions and circumstantial evidence exists for two of them.

President James Buchanan (1791-1868)
Buchanan was elected in 1857. The current belief among many historians is that his romantic partner was William Rufus DeVane King (1786-1853) who was been US President pro tempore twice. Both men were bachelors (the only men to serve full terms as bachelors in their respective offices). Surviving letters by Buchanan express deep emotional feelings towards King. The debate on his sexuality continues, even at his Pennsylvania mansion where staff are advised to only give personal opinions rather than claim they have the authoritative answers.

President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
The sexuality of Buchanan’s presidential successor, Abraham Lincoln, is so hotly debated that the topic even has its own Wikipedia page, so I suggest you go there for a more complete discussion. Speaking personally I am undecided on the issue though open-minded. There’s little to prove that his behaviour, particularly the bed-sharing between men that was common and had no sexual connotation in his lifetime, was an indication one way or the other. I include Lincoln in this list purely because of the continuing debate. I can, however, be more open to the possibility that Lincoln was bisexual.

Rose Cleveland (1846-1918)
During President Cleveland’s first year in office (1885-6) he was unmarried. For a First Lady he chose his youngest unmarried sister Rose. She had previously acted as First lady of New York State when her brother was governor. Rose’s last act as First Lady of America was to oversee her presidential brother’s wedding in 1886. In 1890 she met a wealthy widow named Mrs. Evangeline Simpson. After a while, during which time very erotic letters were exchanged between them, they moved into a house together. Mrs. Simpson went on to marry a bishop nearly twice her own age, but after the bishop’s death she and Rose Cleveland got back together and moved to Italy in 1910 where they died. They are buried side by side.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
Eleanor Roosevelt holds a unique place in the history of First Ladies. She is the one and only woman who belonged to a presidential family before becoming a presidential First Lady. I wrote briefly about Eleanor and the Roosevelts a couple of years ago and gave some indication of her romantic involvement with Lorena Hickok, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Joseph Alsop (1910-1989)
Joseph, the son of Eleanor Roosevelt’s cousin, has close family links to 3 US Presidents. The family tree below shows you which ones they are.

Joseph Alsop was a journalist and because of his family connections became known as a top insider into US political reporting. Even though he married he was a closeted gay man who was the victim of blackmail by the KGB.

Doris Fielding Reid (1895-1973)
Even though the first US President George Washington never left any descendants his siblings did and Doris Fielding Reid is one of 2 lgbt descendants of his sister Mrs. Betty Washington Lewis. Betty’s great-grand-daughter married Andrew Reid and they were the ancestors of both Doris Fielding Reid and John Arthur Holmes (below). Doris was an author who wrote about her partner in “Edith Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait”.

Gavin Arthur (1902-1972)
Gavin was the grandson of Chester Arthur, the 21st US President. Like Eleanor Roosevelt I’ve written about Gavin before.

Cyrus Cassells (b.1957)
Poet Cyrus Cassells is a descendant of President Thomas Jefferson. Two years ago I gave a genealogical account of him in my “Out of Their Trees” series. Since that article was written it has been proven through DNA testing that Cyrus’s ancestor Frances Woodson was the grand-daughter of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sarah Hemmings.

John Arthur Holmes III (b.1984)
Next week is the first anniversary of the first known same-sex marriage of a Presidential descendant. John Holmes married Hugh Eastwood last January. Like Doris Fielding Reid John is descended from Betty Washington Lewis. It was the announcement of their marriage which prompted an invitation to John and Hugh to be guests of honour at the National LGBT 50th anniversary celebrations in Philadelphia in July 2016.

I’m sure there are other lgbt descendants of Presidential families. It is an area which I would be interested in researching more fully if I had the time.

Monday, 16 January 2017

LGBT Olympians List 2017

As I promised last month here is the brand new version of my lgbt Olympic and Paralympic list. A big leap forward was made with the record-breaking number of out lgb athletes in Rio.

To add an extra dimension to my research I’ve also produced an infographic of some of the many facts surrounding lgbt Olympians (I haven’t included the Paralympians). You will find this infographic at the end of today’s article.

This summer I identified more lgbt athletes from previous Olympics during my research than in the whole of the previous 4 years. I have also been greatly helped by my friends at

This time next year, in advance of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in South Korea, there will be a new addition to my list. This will be athletes who competed in Olympic trials and qualifying events. Since London 2012 several lgbt athletes were heralded as Olympic hopefuls. Their progress to Olympism was followed closely during the various trials and qualifying events. Some were successful and made it to Rio (e.g. Spencer Wilton) while others were not (e.g. Samantha Sendel).

My method of determining who to include on the full list in the future can be summed up in the following 3 points.

1) Athletes officially selected for national teams for any Olympic or Paralympic games, whether they actually competed or not (e.g. this includes substitutes on team events who were not called upon to compete; this section excludes named athletes who were dropped from the official team or disqualified by the IOC prior to the games).

2) Athletes who were officially selected as reserve or alternate members of the national team; also athletes selected for national Olympic teams but who withdrew injured, or who were forced to boycott the games (this does not include athletes who were disqualified by the IOC or national teams prior to the games).

3) Athletes who competed in Olympic and Paralympic trials or qualifying competitions who were not selected for the national teams; this section includes those athletes who were selected but dropped from their team or disqualified by the IOC prior to the games.

In a lot of cases athletes compete in trials and qualifying events but do not envisage being selected for an Olympic team. Quite often national championships are held as trial events. Some athletes compete to achieve national rankings rather than Olympic selection. Many who do achieve national ranking see this as a step towards future Olympic success. However, the fact that a national championship is given official status by the IOC as a trial or qualifying event is enough justification for me to include all known lgbt athletes who competed at those championships as those who went on to Olympic success.

I’ll give one example to explain this. In figure skating the Canadian Championships are divided into three categories – senior, junior and novice. At the 1998 championships which served as the Olympic selection event for the Nagano Winter Games Jeff Buttle competed in the Junior category. He finished 6th and earned a place on the national junior team but not the Olympics. Four year later he competed in the Canadian Championship again which served as the Olympic selection event for Salt Lake City. This time he finished second in the senior event and was selected as a reserve for the skaters who were chosen for the Olympic team (I won’t go into why he didn’t compete when one of the selected skaters was dropped). Another four years later and Jeff competed in the 2006 championships which again acted as the selection event. This time he made the team and made his Olympic debut in Turin. He won a bronze medal. Jeff retired from competitive skating two years later, but returned to the Olympics as choreographer to the gold medallist Yuzuru Hanyu. I hope this example gives you an idea of far before and beyond the actual Olympic games an Olympic career can span. There are more examples like this in other sports.

I hope that hasn’t confused you! So, here’s the new lgbt Olympian list followed by the new infographic.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Deadliest Killers-Queers

When it comes to naming members of the lgbt community who will go down in history as villains perhaps those highest on the list would be murderers and serial killers. Some of the most infamous serial killers have been gay. The names of Jeffrey Dahmer, Denis Nielsen and John Wayne Gacy send shivers down my spine when I recall their horrific treatment of their victims.

The conviction last month of the serial killer Stephen Port reminds us that we cannot claim to be perfect (not that anyone ever has claimed that).

Because of the horrific nature of some murders we have a morbid desire to learn about them. This desire has produced hundreds of television series devoted to murder. Many of these programmes have featured lgbt murderers and serial killers. For me a serial killer is any person (with or without an accomplice) who deliberately murders more than two victims at different times. The motives and methods need not necessarily be the same.

The first two of the three serial killers I want to mention today have gone down in history as legendary figures and subjects of popular fiction – Bluebeard and “Countess Dracula”. Both are listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as being among the most prolific murderers in, and of, their respective gender. The total combined number of their victims may never be known but both are known to have killed several hundred people each.

The name of Bluebeard has become synonymous with serial wife-killers. He even became the main character in a fairy tale by the man who brought us the likes of Cinderella. One of the real serial killers onto which some people say Bluebeard was based was somewhat different. Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Sire de Rais (1407-1440) was a French aristocrat who was a companion of St. Joan of Arc, and like her became a national hero of the French resistance to English rule.

Most often referred to as simply Gilles de Rais this “hero” retired to his family estate and substituted killing Englishmen with killing French boys. During the 1430s he is said to have lured hundreds of peasant boys to their deaths at his hand. His usual method was to sexually assault them then slit their throats. Sometimes he would decapitate them and fondle the severed head. Even though he was personally responsible for their deaths Gilles was not alone in procuring the boys. His steward and two of his cousins scouted the countryside for his victims and also sexually abused the boys.

Fortunately, Gilles de Rais was arrested for hitting a priest. His trial revealed the fate of many of his young victims. He confessed to 400 murders though the actual number is probably less, albeit still over 300.

Topping that number by over a hundred is the “Blood Countess” who inspired the famous Hammer horror film “Countess Dracula”. Her real name was Countess Erzsébet Bathori (1560-1614), and she was number 79 in my 2015 series “Around the World in 80Gays”. As with Gilles de Rais the Countess’s victims were from the lower classes in society and were lured to their place of torture and death with promises of work. Also, like Gilles de Rais, the victims of the Countess were of the same gender, in her case all female.

There’s no evidence that Countess Erzsébet ever has sex with her victims, unlike Gilles, but both serial killers are recorded as displaying erotic behaviour towards severed heads. It is this sexual aspect which was developed overtly in the Hammer film.

The usual number of the Countess’s victims is given as around 650. This is based on the evidence given by a witness at her trial of a now long-long written account of the murders by the countess herself. The Guinness Book of World Records accepts this figure.

A more recent lgbt serial killer also preyed on the vulnerable classes. Unlike Gilles de Rais and Erzsébet Bathori Luis Alfredo Garavito (b.1957) was not a rich aristocrat. He came from a working-class family in Colombia. He, too, lured his victims to their deaths with promises, in Garavito’s case with gifts of money. The poor street children he entrapped were tortured and raped before being murdered.

For four years Garavito continued his horrific crimes until he was arrested for the rape of a 12-year-old. He admitted to killing over 140 boys. However, in prison he made maps which showed the locations where he killed a possible total of over 300 victims.

The recent conviction of Stephen Port and the stories of dozens of other serial killers throughout history just goes to show that no matter how vigilant we are against homophobic murders there is always the presence of danger lurking within our community.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Flower Power : Sissinghurst Succession

In these dark and dreary days of midwinter in the northern hemisphere we need a bit of colour. What better way than to think about the summer and gardens full of brightly-coloured flowers and some sunshine. One of the most popular and well-known public gardens in the UK are those at Sissinghurst Castle. This year sees the 50th anniversary of its purchase by the National Trust, even though it has been open to the public since 1938. What makes it significant to lgbt heritage is that it was created and looked after by a succession of lgbt couples.

Sissinghurst itself is not a genuine castle. It began life as a medieval manor house and was expanded during several centuries into the stately property it is now. In 1930 it came into the possession of a famous British literary couple, Sir Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) and Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962).

Their marriage became one of the most famous, even infamous, marriages in British history, not only because it lasted over 50 years and produced the wonderful Sissinghurst gardens, but also because both accepted from the outset that they would have same-sex relationships outside their marriage. As Vita Sackville-West himself might have said, love is love regardless of gender.
Harold and Vita lived in a medieval house in the village of Sevenoaks Weald until 1930. They had heard that their property was about to be redeveloped by a local farmer and they looked for a new home. Sissinghurst was recommended to them by a local agent and even though it was very run down the couple decided to buy it and move in.

The garden, in total disarray and overgrown, was to be a passion for Harold and Vita even more than the restoration of the building itself. Harold planned the new gardens and Vita did the planting. Their original plans no longer exist but we can get a taste of their ideas through the work of a succession of talented couples who have looked after the gardens ever since.

Both Harold and Vita had highly successful careers which often took them away from Sissinghurst. Yet they created a distinctive garden and regenerated the small working farm on the estate at the same time.

In 1959 Vita decided to appoint a head gardener. In the end she appointed two, Pamela Schwerdt (1931-2009) and Sibylle Kreutzberger. These two women had met at the Waterperry School of Horticulture for Ladies and established a life-long companionship. At Sissinghurst they “tidied up” the gardens and introduced new planting schemes that were more contemporary while still in keeping with Harold’s and Vita’s original ideas. The garden, which was open to the public, soon gained national attention and in the first nine years of Pamela’s and Sibylle’s time at Sissinghurst visitor figures jumped from 6,000 a year to 57,000.
In 1967 Harold gave Sissinghurst to the National Trust. The family were allowed to live there (as their grandson still does) and Pamela and Sybille were kept on as Head Gardeners. By the time they retired in 1991 they had assembled a talented team of gardeners under them who ensured Sissinghurst’s reputation would carry on into the 21st century.

The successor as Head Gardener appointed an assistant who was herself her eventual successor. The assistant, Alexis Datta, was recruited from the gardens of Cliveden House, another of the great stately homes in England. Alexis’s partner, Jacqueline Ruthven, became Head Propagator.

During Alexis’s tenure as Head Gardener from 2005 the visitor figure at Sissinghurst rose to around 195,000 a year. This is partly due to the general rise in visitor figures to heritage sites across the whole of the UK but also to the sustained reputation and increasing interest in the Sissinghurst gardens.

Not many public gardens have remained basically the same as originally planned. Many modern trends and fashions have come and gone in the gardening world but Sissinghurst has remained as a window into the world of a couple of the 1930s. While changing to reflect modern growing techniques and becoming an organic garden Sissinghurst has provided a refreshing change to those large over-flowered public gardens of larger properties. It is seen as a traditional English garden. That is its main appeal, as the photos I've included of the gardens show.

In 2013 Alexis and Jacqueline retired from their positions. Both went on to other garden projects but they left Sissinghurst with the 83-year legacy of Vita Sackville-West and Sir Harold Nicolson intact for future generations to enjoy.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Out Of Their Trees: A Report on the Wolfendens

For the first of this year’s themed articles I want to look at the family whose name was given to the parliamentary committee which paved the way for the Sexual Offences Act 1967. This Act partly decriminalised homosexual activity in England and Wales and was influenced by the recommendations made in the final report from that committee – the Wolfenden Report.

The chairman of the committee was John Wolfenden (1902-1985), at that time he was Vice-Chancellor of Reading University and later became Lord Wolfenden. I’ll give a full account of his report and the Sexual Offences Act in July. But for today I want to look at one aspect of his life which is not generally known and which surely had some influence on his opinion. John Wolfenden’s own son was gay.

Jeremy Wolfenden was born in 1934 He was the only son of John Wolfenden and his wife Eileen. Jeremy was open about his sexuality at Eton college. While he was working as the Daily Telegraph’s Moscow correspondent he found himself trapped between East and West double-espionage, having been blackmailed by both MI5 and the KGB into spying for them in return for the non-disclosure of his sexuality. Jeremy was later transferred to Washington DC where he died just after Christmas 1965.
Jeremy Wolfenden
Jeremy’s ancestry reveals large amount of legal heritage apart from his father’s contribution to the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Lord Wolfenden’s ancestry is very firmly based in Yorkshire. They were solid working-class folk who worked in the flour and cotton mills around Leeds and Halifax. Lord Wolfenden’s father George worked his way up from working class roots to become a college registrar to the local government education authority. It shows the fluidity of social mobility in England whereby George Wolfenden, a man whose father was a working-class cotton mill worker can have a son who went on to have a seat in the House of Lords.

George’s wife Emily Hannah Gawkroger (1880-1956) brings a personal link between myself and the Wolfendens. Even though I cannot find any conclusive information beyond her grandfather, Joseph Gawkroger of Sowerby near Halifax, there is little doubt that he belongs to the same family from which I, myself, descend (as do both Presidents Bush and lgbt Olympic swimmers Mark Chatfield and Susan Gray McGreivy).

Back to Jeremy Wolfenden. His mother, Lady Wolfenden, came from a different social background. She was born Eileen Le Messurier Spilsbury (1908-2004) and her ancestry could not be more varied. Her own mother was the English-born daughter of a Turkish merchant who became a naturalised British citizen in 1847.

The Spilsburys were no stranger to international geography. Eileen’s ancestor Thomas Spilsbury (1734-1795) was a member of a family of printers and engravers. Thomas’s younger brother John printed maps and is credited as the inventor of the jigsaw. In fact, the very first jigsaw was of Europe with all its nations as the interlocking pieces. On that jigsaw you can just make out the little island group which supplied the ancestry of Lady Wolfenden’s grandmother – the Channel Islands.

Lady Wolfenden’s grandmother was born Marie Susannah le Mesurier in Islington but her ancestors can be traced back for over a thousand years in Guernsey. The le Mesurier’s ancestors included highly influential people from the Saumarez, Dobree, Carye, Blondel, de Havilland and de Beauvoir families. These ancestors provided Lady Wolfenden and her son Jeremy with dozens of men who held legal offices across several of the Channel Islands. Dozens of them were appointed as jurats.

In the legal systems of Guernsey and Jersey a jurat is a judge of the royal court. The Channel Islands are not part of the UK (they are possessions of the crown, not the state) and aren’t subject to UK laws. In the time when Jeremy Wolfenden’s ancestor held these positions they were held for life (they aren’t today). Jurats didn’t need any official legal training. Their job was to determine just the facts of a legal case and make judgements on the advice of a qualified clerk or a presiding judge or island bailiff. The earliest ancestor of Jeremy Wolfenden I can find as a jurat is Guillaume de Beauvoir in the mid-1400s (incidentally, this is not the same family to which the French lgbt philosopher Simone de Beauvoir belongs).

Last year the UK celebrated the 950th anniversary of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. We should also celebrate the fact that the Channel Islands are the only part of the medieval duchy of Normandy which still belongs to the British crown. The heritage of a bloodline through the Channel Islands and their legacy within the islands’ legal system flowed down to Jeremy Wolfenden. Lord Wolfenden’s contribution to the sexual reform committee was surely influenced by the homosexuality of his son. History could have turned out very different if a less-than-enlightened chairman of the committee, one who had no known homosexual family member, had produced a report that didn’t reflect the changing attitudes to sexuality in the 1960s.

Monday, 2 January 2017

An Arresting Theme for 2017

2017 is a landmark year for the lgbt community in the UK. It marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act which partly decriminalised homosexual activity in England and Wales. It was influenced by the Wolfenden Report published ten years earlier. To commemorate these anniversaries the UK’s LGBT History Month in February 2017 has taken Citizenship and Law as its theme.

The Wolfenden Report of 1957 can be said to be England’s “Stonewall” event. After its publication many gay rights organisations began to appear and the issue of homosexuality was discussed more openly. It also led to a higher rate of portrayals of gay men in films and on television and radio. Sir Dirk Bogarde won high acclaim for his portrayal of a blackmail victim in the 1961 film “Victim”, and BBC radio has been praised for the creation of the sympathetic gay characters of Julian and Sandy in the comedy series “Round the Horne”.

I’ll be giving more detailed coverage of the Wolfenden Report and the Sex Offences Act on 27th July, the actual 50th anniversary of the Act receiving Royal assent.

This year I’ll be adapting the LGBT History Month theme as my special sub-theme throughout this year. As in previous years I’ll write several special articles throughout each month connected with the theme. My adaptation of the Citizenship and Law will include other aspects of justice and crime in connection with the lgbt community.

I have divided the theme into five sections which are listed below. I’ve put a link to a previous article to illustrate the range of topics I will be including in this new series this year.

Courts and the Judiciary – famous court cases; judges and lawyers; lgbt law societies.
Extraordinary Lives : Sir Francis Bacon.

Parliament and Legislation – laws; parliament; MPs and elected legislators.
Campaigns and Activism – lgbt rights organisations; campaigners and activists
Police and Law Enforcement – police forces; lgbt police organisations

Crime and Detection – anti-gay crimes and victims; lgbt criminals; jails and prison life