Friday, 31 August 2012

Sporting Legacy

History is all about living off the legacy that someone has left behind them, whether it is a political one, a cultural one, or a technological one. One of the reasons London won the 2012 Olympic Games was because of its determination to leave a sporting legacy. The motto of the games is “Inspire a Generation”. What it really needs to do is inspire ALL generations.

The main emphasis on this legacy has been to encourage more people to take up new sports. Of course, not everyone is interested in sport. A friend of mine didn’t see any of the Olympics, and some readers of this blog may have been put off this year by my Olympic Countdown series popping up every week. I don’t have any real interest in sport myself. I’m more interested in the athletes and their achievements.

The physical legacy – the sporting venues used in the Olympics – is also very important. Some of these were specifically designed to be temporary (some of them built and demolished before the IOC permit the architects to take any credit).

Throughout the period from when London won their bid in 2005 the Federation of Gay Games has worked with the London organising committee to encourage more lgbt athletes to compete at high levels. There’s still a long way to go before some sports and countries are comfortable with lgbt team-mates, and one legacy of these games may be a change of attitude.

The London organising committee has already shown its commitment to supporting the work of the Gay Games by backing London’s bid to host the 2018 Gay Games, using some of the 2012 venues for its competitions.

But I think those of us whose bodies are getting too creaky to do sports can think about what sort of legacy we can leave. I suppose my research into lgbt participation in the Olympic Games is part of my legacy. As far as I am aware I was the first to research this specific topic, and I have been pleased that it has been well received.

I adapted my Olympic Countdown series into a continuous narrative that was made available online through Pride House 2012, Outsports and the Federation of Gay Games. It is my hope that other people will begin their own research and develop what I have started. Like the 2012 motto I hope I can inspire.

I think the time is right for us in the lgbt community to make the best of this opportunity to highlight to the world the amazing contribution lgbt athletes have made, and can make, to sport.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Happy Birthday Gay Games

With the world looking at London tomorrow for another sporting opening ceremony, today we celebrate another one which was a pioneer in the world of lgbt sport. Today is the 30th anniversary of the first day of the first Gay Games. It was held in San Francisco from 28th August to 5th September 1982, and was the brainchild of American gay Olympian Tom Waddell who competed at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
The Federation of Gay Games, who now runs the 4-yearly event, are celebrating with aweekend of special events on 20th/21st October, and I’ll be saying more about the games then.

Until October I’ll present some bits of information about the Gay Games, beginning with a list of games held so far.
1982    San Francisco
1986    San Francisco
1990    Vancouver
1994    New York City
1998    Amsterdam
2002    Sydney
2006    Chicago
2010    Cologne

Way back in my Olympic Countdown series I gave a chart showing the comparison in athlete numbers at the Gay Games and the Olympics. I think its worth reproducing it again with revised figures and the London 2012 figures.

A few lgbt Olympians have competed at the Gay Games, and become gold medal-winners. The first Olympic champion to become Gay Games champion was swimmer Bruce Hayes. At the 1990 Gay Games he won 7 gold medals, and another 9 at the 1994 Gay Games.

The lgbt Olympian with the most Gay Games medals is Peter Prijdekker. He moved to the UK from the Netherlands after his Olympic appearance in 1972 and joined London’s Out to Swim club. Over 4 Gay Games Peter has won a total of 18 gold medals, 5 silvers and 6 bronzes.

The Federation of Gay Games have a group of Ambassadors from all walks of life, including the following Olympians: Judith Arndt, Michele Ferris, Bruce Hayes, Greg Louganis, Matthew Mitcham, Leigh-Ann Naidoo, Petra Rossner, Blake Skjellerup and Ji Wallace.

Finally, the Gay Games are open to all and is not elitist like the Olympic Games. People from all walks of life, ages, and fame have taken part. Here’s a short list of some notable Gay Games athletes, some of whom may be familiar to you :
Betty Baxter, Olympian (1 gold, 1 silver, volleyball, 2 Gay Games)
Geert Blanchart, Olympian (silver, in-line skating 1998)
Keith Boykin, former White House aide (gold, wrestling 2006)
Glenn Burke, professional baseball player (athletics 1982; gold, basketball 1986)
Rhona Cameron, comedian (bronze, swimming 1998)
Mark Chatfield, Olympian (6 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze, swimming 1994)
Scott Cranham, Olympian (3 gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze, diving 1990)
Richard Fairbrass, singer (cycling 1998)
Gregory Grove, aka gay porn actor Matthew Rush (bodybuilding 1998; bronze, bodybuilding 2002)
Christian Haren, the “Marlborough cigarette man” (bodybuilding 1986)
James Hormel, US Ambassador (1 gold, 2 bronze, tennis, 3 Gay Games)
Joel Mangs, aka gay porn actor Brad Patton (2 gold, figure skating 2002)
Rev. Denver NeVaar, aka Sister Who of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (bodybuilding 1990)
Chuck Palanhuik, author of “Fight Club” (gold, discus 1990)
George Takei, Star Trek star (gold, athletics 1998)
Esera Tuaolo, professional US footballer (gold, flag football 2006)
Dan Veatch, Olympian (13 gold, swimming,1998)
Tom Waddell, Olympian and founder of the Gay Games (3 gold, athletics 1982 and 1986)

Friday, 24 August 2012

Star Gayzing - Virgo

You’d have thought that with the name and popular image it has Virgo’s history would be straight forward. In fact, several sexualities or gender identities have a link to this constellation.

Once again we begin with the ancient Babylonians. They represented the constellation as their goddess Sala holding an ear of barley. The appearance of the constellation signalled the beginning of the sowing season, and this idea was continued the by Ancient Greeks. They often depicted Virgo as their own corn goddess Demeter. Other goddesses, including Astraea and Dike, have been assigned to Virgo, but the name of its main star, Spica (which means “ear of grain”), gives away its origin as an agricultural constellation.

Until recently Virgo was usually pictured as a winged woman, very much in the manner of an angel. Our idea of what an angel looks like originated with the Babylonians (via Greece). Last Christmas I explained how angels are non-human, gender-neutral, eternal spirit beings, so having one to depict a constellation whose name means “virgin” seems appropriate considering they never have sex.

One of Virgo’s other stars also has a seasonal agricultural meaning. Positioned on what was once Virgo’s “right wing” (see star map) is the star Vindemiatrix (originally Vindemiator), which means “grape gatherer” and is so-called because its appearance before dawn marks the start of that years’ wine vintage.

The legend behind the name Vindemiatrix involves one pair of the many same-sex lovers in Greek mythology – Dionysos and Ampelos. Their story could easily be told in my Flower Power series, but with its emphasis on grapes and the vine it’s probably more Food and Drink than Flower Power. So I’ll tell you it here instead. It’s a story retold in the epic poem “Dionysaica” by Nonnus. It immediately precedes the story of Kalamos and Karpos. This is how it goes.

As usual it was love at first sight. Dionysos was out hunting when he met Ampelos, a young Phrygian teenager with long curly hair. Some versions of the myth (and some Greek pottery, as seen on the plate pictured below) say Ampelos was a satyr, one of Dionysos’s Pan-like attendants. They spent so much time together, playing sports and games, that the satyrs began to get jealous. When they were apart Dionysos’s heart ached and he dreamt of the boy every night.

The wrestling match between them, given in Nonnus’s “Dionysaica”, rivals the homoerotic bout in “Women in Love” by D. H. Lawrence. Ampelos entered into these fun and games enthusiastically, but it was to lead to his death.

There are two different myths concerning Ampelos’s death. The oldest says that he climbed a tree to pick grapes from a vine and fell to his death. From this he earned the name Vinedmaitor and was placed as a star in the night sky by Dionysos. Ampelos is Greek for “vine”, and Vindemiator is Latin for “grape gatherer”. So the myth may have been created to suit the star’s appearance as a sign of the new vintage.

The version given by Nonnus says that Ampelos climbed onto a bull’s back to impress Dionysos with his bravery. In his youthful exuberance he called up to Selene the moon goddess boasting of being her equal in taming cattle (the moon and bulls have always been linked in Greek mythology). Selene decided to teach the boy a lesson and sent a gadfly to sting the bull. Ampelos was thrown high into the air and smashed his skull on hitting the ground. As if that wasn’t enough the bull then gored the body with its horns.

Dionysos went into pangs of deep grief and it was only Eros who could console him by recounting the story of Kalamos and Karpos.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Extraordinary Lives - Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu: Part 2

Two days ago I commemorated the 250th anniversary of the death of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Today is the 300th anniversary of her marriage and we take a look at her extraordinarily complicated love life.

After a romantic attachment to Anne Wortley, something which was common in her time for young ladies of her age, Lady Mary escaped marrying her father’s choice of husband by eloping with Anne’s brother Edward Wortley Montagu. Their actual marriage is not recorded, but letters written on their anniversary suggest hey were married on 23rd August 1712. Some biographers have said that the love letters Mary wrote to Anne were really aimed at Edward, ignoring the possibility that a woman could have any romantic affection for another.

On their return from the British embassy in Constantinople in 1718, after 6 years of marriage and 2 children, the couple lived mostly apart. They would spend less and less time with each other though they corresponded regularly. Lady Mary oversaw her daughter’s education and edited the many letters she wrote on her travels, which were later published.

Mary made new friendships, including the Duchess of Marlborough (confidante and rumoured lover of Queen Anne), and the Prime Minister’s family. Another friend was John, Lord Hervey. Hervey was a politician and court dandy, and someone whose effeminacy was a constant source of satire in the press and theatre.

Hervey fathered 8 children yet appears to have been openly bisexual and had affairs with a few aristocrats of both sexes. Just as today’s idea of homosexuality was different in the 18th century, so too was bisexuality. In fact, the word bisexuality hadn’t been invented (except for use in botany) so neither he nor Lady Mary would have used that word to describe their sexuality. High society in their time certainly didn’t see anything wrong in having a wife and boyfriend or, to a lesser degree, a husband and girlfriend – as long as it was celibate.

Lord Hervey’s ambiguous sexuality led Lady Mary to write that there were 3 kinds of people – men, women and Herveys. Their friendship became complicated with the arrival in London of Count Francesco Algarotti. Lady Mary and Lord Hervey immediately fell head over heels in love with him, and Algarotti encouraged them both. It was an unusual love triangle. When Algarotti returned home to Venice the lovelorn couple sent constant letters to him expressing undying devotion, and urging him to send more letters back. You can imagine the hours they would have spent on Twitter if they’d had it! Algarotti did his best to reply regularly, but he had other affairs to deal with, most notably that with a young man from Milan!

In the end Lord Hervey gave up. Lady Mary, however, decided the best course of action was to go to Venice and marry the count, hoping to get as much distance between herself and her current husband and their troublesome son as possible. Count Algarotti in the meantime had visited Berlin and fell under the spell of the man who was to become King Frederick the Great. After visiting Hervey in England, Algarotti moved to Germany to become Frederick’s court chamberlain.

Lady Mary realised nothing may come of her plans to marry Algarotti. The next few years of her life were spent travelling around Europe. In 1741 she and Algarotti became reacquainted and were able to draw a line under their affair. Mary was now largely living alone, apart from a female servant. She moved from one new home to the next, and kept in touch with her daughter, her estranged husband and friends through many letters.

Mary was now in her 70s and becoming ill with cancer. Her husband died in 1761 leaving a will which was contested by their disinherited son. This was the reason for Lady Mary’s last visit to England.

One her arrival in London Lady Mary was treated like a celebrity. Very few women of her time enjoyed such a status as she did. People wanted to visit Lady Mary Wortley Montagu because of who she was and what she had done and not because of her husband’s achievements. Lady Mary was too ill to enjoy the attention and hoped to return to the continent. She died in London on 21st August 1762.

What Lady Mary left as a legacy was her introduction of inoculation which led to the development of vaccination and the eradication of smallpox, and her letters and travel writings (including her “language of the flowers” writings). She also left a reputation, dating from the time when she went against her father’s marriage plans, as a woman with an independent and adventurous spirit. Despite her desertion of England in pursuit of Count Algarotti and several small upsets at court Lady Mary retained the affection of the London social scene that lasted long after her death.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Extraordinary Lives - Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu

Lady Mary in Turkish dress
In a year stuffed full of anniversaries two are celebrated this week, and both concern Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu.

Lady Mary has been mentioned before in my blog, most significantly as the inspiration behind my Flower Power series.

The anniversaries which we commemorate this week are:
1) the 250th anniversary of her death today, and
2) the 300th anniversary of her marriage in two days time.
Because of these two anniversaries I’m going to post one article on each day.

Lady Mary was born in 1689 in London, the daughter of the 1st Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull. After her mother’s death in 1692 Mary was raised by her grandmother, partly at the family mansion in Nottingham and partly at the family’s country estate in Sherwood Forest. In her father’s libraries Lady Mary absorbed information and started writing and gathering a wide-ranging circle of contacts.

The background to Lady Mary’s romantic attachment to Anne Wortley and her marriage to Edward Wortley Montagu is given here. The marriage was not particularly successful, even though it produced two children (the daughter becoming wife to a future British Prime Minister). At first the couple were huge socialites moving in royal circles. Mary befriended many of the literary greats of the day, including Alexander Pope and John Gay.

In 1715 Mary caught, and surprisingly survived, smallpox, though it left her face scarred for life. A year later Edward was appointed Ambassador to the Porte (Constantinople) and he and Lady Mary set off on the overland journey to Turkey.

Along the way there were many perils. On the narrow mountain tracks along the River Elbe their carriage travelled non-stop through the night. As the horses galloped along the ledge the carriage drivers fell asleep. Alarmed by the speed and closeness to the edge of the ravine, Lady Mary shouted to awaken the drivers and they narrowly escaped the fate of many previous travellers who had plummeted to their deaths.

Having then crossed the frozen Danube, Lady Mary and Edward carried on through deep snow, often fitting crude skis to their carriage wheels.  They sought overnight hospitality from remote peasant families to whom a bed and bath were virtually unknown. Dense woods surrounded the route, and packs of wolves shadowed the travellers.

But worse was to come as the travellers passed through the site of the Battle of Carlowitz. The battlefield was strewn with rotting corpses of men and horses.

Their arrival in Constantinople couldn’t have been more of a contrast – greeted by the Sultan’s emissaries and taken to opulent apartments. Lady Mary threw herself into Turkish culture as much as any western woman was allowed. Having survived smallpox she was fascinated by the method of inoculation she saw practiced by the Turks. When she came back to England in 1720 she suggested the technique to doctors to prevent the spread of the disease here.

It was a good move because a smallpox epidemic soon overcame England. To convince others of her trust in the technique Mary had her own children inoculated, and the children of the Prince of Wales. Lady Mary found herself on the receiving end of a lot of tabloid criticism, an attitude which spread quickly among society. They despised Mary for putting her own children at risk by using a new medical technique. Even clergy denounced her in sermons. Little did they realise that she was actually saving their lives and helping to lead to the eventual eradication of smallpox. Such was the power of the press.

On the subject of her children, it is true that they were a dysfunctional family. I’ll be returning to this subject in the next article of Lady Mary in two days time, when we’ll learn of the failed marriage, a troublesome son, and an unusual love triangle.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Paralympic Countdown

Following up on my piece about Andy Warhol’s Olympic paintings this post deals with other lgbt artists who have contributed to the games. As I mentioned then, the Olympics had competitions for various artistic works as well as sport.

2012 is the centenary year of the fist of these competitions, and until 1948 when the Olympics were last held in London medals were given in architecture, town planning design, sculpture, graphics, drawings/watercolours, painting, literature, drama and music. All entries had to have a sporting theme of course – the architecture and town planning section consisted mainly of sports stadiums and sports complexes and parks. This in particular is a bone of contention at the moment between the IOC and the architects of the London 2012 sports venues. Ironically (or should that be hypocritically) all architects of venues like the athletics stadium and the velodrome are banned from publicising their work before, during or after the games until the end of this year. In the past the architects got Olympic medals, now they get Olympic bans. And yet the designers of the cauldron and torches get constant publicity. Yes, I think “hypocritically” is the word I should use instead of “ironically”.

None of the winners of the various art competitions have been identified as members of the lgbt community, and many of the individuals, being amateurs, left no other mark on history and have vanished into anonymity.

Strange as it may seem the only lgbt contribution to the artistic contests seems to be among the judges. The most only one identified so far is Selma Lagerlöf, the first female winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who, presumably, judges the literature contests.

In more recent decades the IOC has used art to promote the Olympics. This has best been seen in exhibitions and posters. As well as Andy Warhol’s 1984 poster mentioned last time, another important openly gay pop artist contributed to the 1972 Munich Olympics poster portfolio.

As with Warhol, the only criteria on the art was that it should be centred on sport, and the 1972 Olympics were the first to feature pop artists of the time. David Hockney’s poster is shown here (right). This poster featured in an exhibition at the Tyne and Wear museum earlier this year alongside others from the 1972 games.

Hockney is part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. An exhibition of his landscapes, called “David Hockney: A Bigger Picture”, was shown as the Royal Academy of Arts in the first months of the year.

Among the artists creating new posters for 2012 was Sir Howard Hodgkin. Having been showered with honours and awards for his work Sir Howard can be regarded as the Grand Old Man of British Art. For his Olympic poster Sir Howard has produced a work (pictured below) which goes well with Hockney’s diving poster. Sir Howard chose swimming as his subject and used his brushstrokes to mark the strokes of a swimmer through water.

Art doesn’t need to be static. An example of the heights, literally, that one gay artist has reached at these Olympics comes in the person of Pascal Anson. When the Olympic flame arrived on British soil from Greece it was carried in a British Airways plane painted in Pascal’s special London 2012 gold design. It was also painted on 8 other planes. When athletes and visitors arrived in the UK for the Olympics many of them would have arrived on one of Pascal’s gold planes.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Star Gayzing - Frederick's Glory

Today is the anniversary of the death of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. This year is also the 300th anniversary of his birth. We’re going to look at something created in his honour by looking to the night sky and bring back, for one day, the “lost” constellation that was named after him.

This star map shows where this constellation, called Honores Frederici (or Frederick’s Glory,) was situated. It was squeezed in between Andromeda and Lacerta and was formed out of stars in Andromeda and Cassiopeia. On the star map I’ve shown the rough area covered by Honores Frederici with a yellow outline.

In my series on “The 12 Gays of Christmas” I included Frederick the Great as one of my Three Gay Kings. His rise to power coincided with conflict arising from the succession to the Austrian empire, and he was able to capitalise on this to pursue his own programme of Prussian expansion. It was to lead to the creation of the core around which the future German Empire was to form.
Frederick was a firm patron of arts and sciences. He re-organised the Royal Academy of Sciences into an organisation which was able to attract significance scientists and mathematicians of the day. Frederick was also a promoter of the Enlightenment, and encouraged new philosophy and art. Indeed, he was a bit of a musician and composer himself. Perhaps he was also an early advocate of what was the 19th century equivalent of a gay subculture. He even began collecting art with homoerotic or gay subject matters.

Frederick had a new palace built (with a no-female entry policy) called Sans Souci, and it was here that he led discussions with famous philosophers like Voltaire.

When he died in 1786 at the age of 74, Frederick was probably the most popular monarch in Europe (in his own country). It comes as no surprise that a constellation was created and named in his honour. Astronomy was beginning to be the biggest scientific subject in Europe, with new planets, comets and asteroids being discovered almost every week.

The year after Frederick’s death a German astronomer called Johann Bode created a star map on which he put his new constellation called Friedrich’s Ehre (Frederick’s Glory), which he later renamed Honores Frederici. Bode envisioned the constellation as a laurel branch entwining a ceremonial sheathed sword, a quill and a crown. It was to represent Frederick the Great as a hero, wise statesman and peacemaker. The picture below, taken from a set of cards, shows Andromeda with Honores Frederici over her shoulder. This picture, however, does not show the sword but a staff of office. It also omits the crown, which would have been placed where the word “Cepheus” is situated.

Frederick’s Glory was popular for a while but fell victim to the general “tidy up” of the constellations by the International Astronomical Union in the early 20th century. The stars that made up Frederick’s Glory returned to Andromeda.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Good Sheriff of Nottingham

Leon Unczur as the Sheriff of Nottingham

I was pleased to have seen the Queen twice during her Diamond Jubilee. I saw her at the Thames River Pageant and when she visited Nottingham. I must say that I felt as much pleasure at seeing our Lord Mayor welcoming the royal party because he’s an old friend of mine, Leon Unczur. During my 7 years working at Nottingham Castle Leon, as Chairman of the Community and Leisure Services of the city council, was also my boss. He had already entered the history books as the first openly gay Sheriff of Nottingham, and now he also holds the record as the first openly gay Lord Mayor of Nottingham, a fact he readily admits to at public events.

Every summer the Robin Hood Festival takes place in Sherwood Forest. This year’s festival began yesterday and runs until Sunday. In view of Leon’s unique appointments I thought I’d look at the Sheriff of Nottingham rather than Robin Hood and how as the Sheriff Leon has embraced the lgbt community, and learn that the Sheriff could never have actually met the famous outlaw.

First the historical background. The first Sheriff of Nottingham was created by royal charter on 28th June 1449. Until 1835 there were 2 Sheriffs because, technically, Nottingham consisted of 2 boroughs – an Anglo-Saxon one centred on St. Mary’s Church, and a Norman one centred at the castle. Several of my ancestors have held the office of Sheriff and Mayor over the centuries, giving me a hereditary right to sit on the steps of the council house, and drive my geese over Trent Bridge!

The legends of Robin Hood that are popular today are all set in the reign of King Richard the Lionheart, which was 1189-1199. So unless Robin lived to be over 250 years old he couldn’t possibly have lived to fight the first Sheriff of Nottingham in 1449. So why the confusion?

The early ballads DO feature a sheriff, but he’s the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, a much more older royal appointment. There still is a High Sheriff, appointed annually, and at the moment he is C. P. L. Francklin. He should be the rightful centre of attention.

Another confusion arises when we read the oldest surviving ballad of Robin Hood, probably written in the 1380s and printed in the 1490s, called “The Geste of Robin Hood” (“Geste” basically means “song”). In that ballad the king isn’t Richard the Lionheart. Historians generally agree that the king is Edward II. The High Sheriff featured in “The Geste” is never mentioned by name. One name that crops up a lot in historical research is Sir Henry Fauconberg. He was High Sheriff in 1323 at the same time as Edward II came to Nottingham Castle to pardon outlaws in Sherwood Forest. Sound familiar? That’s one of the “happy endings” of modern versions of the legend.

In some of my previous posts (here and here) I’ve given my theory that “The Geste of Robin Hood” was originally composed by Sir John Clanvowe, the “wedded brother” of the Constable of Nottingham Castle.

Over recent years the Labour-run city council has shown less interest in heritage, even refusing to rescue the only specific Robin Hood attraction, the Tales of Robin Hood, from closure. When Leon Unczur was first appointed as Sheriff of Nottingham he headed a special commission aimed at improving the tourist experience of Nottingham and Robin Hood in particular. As with all local politicians, nothing has yet been decided about how this can be done. But as an ambassador for the city Leon has been outstanding. His involvement in the lgbt community in the city has also been outstanding. In his first year of office he opened the city’s first exhibition for LGBT History Month (he said in his speech that this was a greater pleasure than any of his other official invitations), and he has opened Nottingham Pride in 2009 and 2010. As Lord Mayor, dressed in full ceremonial robes, he opened Nottinghamshire Pride a couple of weeks ago.

I can’t resist reproducing this part of an interview with Leon that appears on the “Robin Hood: Bold Outlaw” website.

“My partner and I were at a luncheon [in Manchester]. And of course, my partner knows an awful lot of people in Manchester and he’s well known up there. I’m well-known down here. But I was talking to somebody who was a director of a housing association – which is charitable housing – and I think he was rather surprised because he didn’t know who I was. He just knew who my partner was, but I knew so much about housing. After 20 minutes he said ‘what job do you do?’ And I said ‘I’m the Sheriff of Nottingham’. And he looked at me as if to say “we’ve just had a reasonably intelligent conversation for 20 minutes, now you’re taking the rye.’ And then my partner had to point out, ‘No, Gerald, he really is the Sheriff of Nottingham. He really does exist.’ And I think that’s often the case.”

For the full interview go here.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Standing on Ceremony - Part 1

My first interest in the Olympic Games – and flags – came through the opening and closing ceremonies. As a child I was fascinated by the parade of athletes. I’ve watched the ceremonies develop into the multi-million pound spectacles that seem to be the only criteria by which the games themselves as judged these days.

As with the torch relay it would be impossible to compile a complete list of lgbt participants in the ceremonies, but there are a lot of known names to include. Because of this I’ve split the ceremonies into two. Today I’ll concentrate on the athletes themselves and the creators, directors and designers whose work is integral to the image each games leaves behind.

The first mention must go to the athletes. Virtually all of the lgbt athletes mentioned in my Olympic Countdown have marched with their teams into the stadiums. A handful have had the honour of carrying their national flag either the opening or closing ceremonies. These have been :
John Curry – GB (1976 Innsbruck)
Brian OrserCanada (1988 Calgary)
Blyth TaitNew Zealand (2000 Sydney)
Chris WittyUSA (2006 Turin)
Gro HammersengNorway (2008 Beijing)
Caster SemenyaSouth Africa (2012 London)

As far as I can tell Greg Louganis is the only lgbt Olympian to have taken part in a ceremony in his own right. In the opening ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta summer games he was part of the parade of living Olympic greats. Then there are the athletes who are members of their national Olympic Committees and their guests who have sat in the VIP stand.

Several artistic and choreographic directors have been openly gay, including one former Olympian (Pockar) :
Brian Pockar – artistic director, 1988 Calgary closing ceremony
Dimitris Papaioannou – artistic director, 2004 Athens, all ceremonies
Jean Grand-Maïtre – choreography director, 2010 Vancouver, all ceremonies
Stephen Daldry – overall creative director, 2012 London, all ceremonies.

Just to clarify something – the creative director is in overall charge of the whole evening – cultural section, parade of athletes, official speeches, etc. The artistic director is usually the person who just does the cultural bit in the middle (Danny Boyle’s bit in London 2012 - it was great, but it was muddled and said nothing to me about being British). One mystery to solve is whose idea it was to get the whole stadium (including the VIP box!) to should join in the actions to “YMCA” at  the closing ceremony of the 2006 Turin games!

I’ve already mentioned the 2000 Sydney closing ceremony with its drag queens, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Savage Garden and Kylie. Rather amazingly, all this camp was the work of a straight director, David Atkins. He also directed the closing ceremony of the 2012 Vancouver winter games which featured Mounties high-kicking like a row of chorus girls. Not only that but television commentators remarked on the presence of giant beavers and lumberjack’s choppers with glee!

With the Olympic heritage of Greece it came as no surprise to see Dimitris Papaioannou fill his opening ceremony with well-toned young men, all accurately portrayed as naked. Actually, the performers were wearing “shorts” with fake private parts! With the special place the god Eros has in relation to ancient Greek sport it was fitting that he played a major part in the opening ceremony. Another winged Greek god, Zephyrus, lover of Prince Hyakinthos, featured in the opening ceremony of the 2006 Turin winter games.

But that wasn’t the first time that well-toned, half-naked men have appeared in an Olympic ceremony. Way back in the early days the gay Danish gymnast Niels Bukh brought his world renowned display team to the 1920, 1924, 1928 and 1936 Olympics to give exhibition displays. They didn’t perform at the actual opening or closing ceremonies, but Bukh was treated as a guest of honour by Hitler throughout the games.

When it comes to team uniforms, performer’s outfits or special costumes, the list of lgbt fashion designers is lengthy. A personal favourite was the dress worn by Carla Bruni at the opening ceremony in Turin in 2006. It was a sparkling, shimmering creation designed by Giorgio Armani and inspired by ice crystals. Armani himself has sporting connections as well, being president of the Olimpia Milano basketball team. He also designed the uniform of the England football team in 2003, and the uniforms of the Italian teams for both Turin 2006 and London 2012.

The ceremonies which can be said to have been the first of the big spectaculars was Los Angeles in 1984. With typical 1980s-style gaudiness that only California would have produced gay costume designer Ray Aghayam came up with the gaudiest at both the opening and closing ceremonies.

In 1992 the gaudiness was used more effectively in the surreal carnival-style costumes designed by Peter Minshall (probably a gay designer, but I’ll stand corrected). The closing ceremony included costumes by Harrison McEldowney.

Now that we’ve got the design of the ceremonies in place we’ll look at some of the performers in the next part in this series.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

First Anniversary

Its exactly a year ago today that I started this blog and I’d like to take this opportunity to look back on the past 12 months.

My intention has always been to present lgbt history in a positive light. I think that I have been successful in that. I have also tried to look beyond the usual lgbt themes and write about things that are not often looked at in any great detail (e.g. flowers, flags, stars and family trees). I don’t know if any reader has been inspired to do more research of their own into these subjects but I hope I have made you think about something new.

The original material for this blog came from research I had already done for my tours of lgbt Nottingham and my presentations on lgbt flags and Ancient Greek sport. As I’ve gone along I have found new subjects to write about.

At first I didn’t know if I’d have time to write a blog and fit it around my work. That’s why I’ve always kept it as simple as possible. One year later and I’m thinking of being more adventurous – but give me time.

Another conscious decision from the start was to wait to see how popular the blog became before deciding whether to continue. Even though my blog is only “up and coming” according to some tables of blog success I think there’s enough of you out there to keep on going.

One change I want to make is to get you all involved. If there’s any subject or anniversary coming up next year that you’d like to see mentioned in my blog drop me an email. You’ll get a mention.

If this is your first visit to my blog, WELCOME, I hope you like it. If you’re a regular visitor, many, many THANKS for your interest, you’ve made it all worth while.

So while I celebrate my 1st anniversary with a big fairy cake I’ll drink a toast to you all, and give you a taste of things still to come :

  • the first gay Sheriff of Nottingham
  • Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, and me
  • 12 more Gays of Christmas
  • the meteorite that became a god
  • Jack the Gay Ripper
  • And 2013 – a year of lgbt science and technology

Monday, 6 August 2012

A Queer Achievement

Heraldry has been called the floral border in the garden of history. Its an art-form that has always appealed to me because of its use of symbolism and “secret” signs. First I’ll explain the title “Queer Achievements”. A coat of arms consists of more than a shield - there is a helmet, a crest and a motto, amongst other things. What the media always wrongly call a crest is actually a shield. All the various parts of a coat of arms put together as pictured here is called an “achievement”. Unlike a logo or trademark a coat of arms can be depicted in any style – traditional, art nouveau, cubist, street art – as long as the right objects are in the right position in the right colour.

For several years I’ve been looking for specific lgbt symbolism in heraldry, but there’s very little. There’s plenty of lgbt people with coats of arms (e.g. Elton John, Lord Byron and Michelangelo) but no specific use of the rainbow or pink triangle as lgbt symbols – until now.

The full coat of arms – the achievement – I’ve painted here belongs to the current Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. Being Speaker means you need a coat of arms – it goes with the job (like the official suits of the Olympic teams - you don't need them to play their sport, but need for formal occcasions). The British press conformed to their usual standard of inaccuracy by criticising the total cost of £37,000 to the tax-payer (which includes painting the panel mentioned below and other artistic expenditure). All wrong, of course. The whole thing was paid for out of Parliament Art Collection funds which has never received public or tax-payer’s money.

John Bercow isn’t gay, but he is one of the many unsung gay allies in parliament. When he was Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions he went against his party’s instructions and voted in favour of allowing unmarried couples (lgbt and straight) to adopt. He resigned as Shadow Minister afterwards. He continues to champion equal rights in parliament.

Bercow’s arms follows convention as well as sets a new trend. The symbolism is fairly traditional and straight forward – the ladder symbolizes his rise from MP to Speaker, the gold balls represent his love of tennis, the swords feature in the arms of Essex University which he attended, the portcullis represents parliament, and the motto speaks for itself (I’m not sure how the swan fits in). In support of the lgbt community the swan holds a pink triangle in its beak and stands in front of a rainbow.

Bercow’s shield was painted on a wooden panel on the wall of the State Rooms in Westminster beside those of 97 previous Speakers. Unfortunately the panels only have room for the shield and none for the helmet and crest. Bercow’s shield doesn’t show his support for lgbt rights so the College of Arms (who designed it) suggested a break from tradition. A rainbow is painted on the reverse of the motto scroll, and pink triangles are placed between the words. This is the first time this had happened in world heraldry.

Perhaps John Bercow has set a new trend. With the motto scroll there aren’t many rules, so the triangle and rainbow didn’t really break tradition. It’ll be interesting to see if other openly lgbt people who are granted new coats of arms will ask for the same, or even if people like Elton John will start putting triangles and rainbows into their motto scrolls.

Whatever they decide I’m going to go through my portfolio and repaint all my versions of lgbt armigers (people with coats of arms) with triangles and rainbows.

With a good handful of lgbt heraldry to chose from I may begin a short series on the coats of arms of famous lgbt people. Perhaps they’ll reveal more than we actually see (I’m thinking specifically of a certain archbishop who has butterfly wings on his shield).

Friday, 3 August 2012

London's Countdown

London 2012 bid logo
London won their bid to host the 2012 Olympics on 5th July 2005. Almost immediately plans were laid to make these games as diverse and gay-friendly as possible. The London committee were the first in Olympic history to include a commitment to diversity in its bid.

One of the first decisions made by the London Organising Committee (LOCOG) was to form a Diversity and Inclusion Group, appointing an openly gay man, Stephen Frost, as its head. Former basketball player John Amaechi and Co-president of the Federation of Gay Games, Emy Ritt, are members of LOCOG.

Perhaps the biggest expression of outreach to the lgbt community came in July 2010 when they produced special pin badges showing the Rainbow Pride flag flying proudly behind the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic logos. More recently a new badge was designed showing a rainbow heart behind the logos.

When it came to recruiting volunteers for the games LOCOG appealed to all diverse groups and communities to become involved. Self-appointed spokesman for the lgbt community, Peter Tatchell, took it upon himself to actively push LOCOG into ensuring a high visibility of the lgbt community at the opening and closing ceremonies. Was he thinking of a recreation of the Sydney Olympics closing ceremony with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and 50 drag queens? Perhaps he wanted all lgbt volunteers and participants should wear the special pin badge. Who knows?

All of the 70,000 or so volunteers, working in all areas of the games, were given a test before to gauge their sensitivity to diversity issues. In the UK this sort of thing is commonplace because of our anti-discrimination laws. Questions included one on how the volunteer would deal with people complaining about 2 men holding hands, or how to direct someone to the toilet when they’re not sure what gender they are. The test has been thought patronising by some, but I know from experience that there are people out there (management included) who wouldn’t have a clue what to do in either situation.

For the big showcase events of the games, the opening and closing ceremonies, LOCOG chose lgbt director Stephen Daldry to be Creative Director in overall charge of the whole of the ceremonies. Straight film director Danny Boyle was chosen as Artistic Director in charge of the cultural elements.

But the Olympics is about sport (you’d never have guessed from Danny Boyle’s muddled ceremony). What about lgbt athletes? LOCOG has done the unique thing of including lgbt visitor information in their “Athletes Guide” handed out to all competitors. There have been appeals by some MPs for visiting lgbt athletes to come out at the games, or even seek asylum here if returning home would mean they would be persecuted, tortured or even executed because of their sexuality.

Something which we may see at every future Olympics is an official Olympic Pride House. In recent years lgbt organisations and volunteers have set up special venues for lgbt athletes, allies and families to meet and socialise. These have been very well received and high-profile. It is often forgotten that the first attempt at such a thing was in Barcelona in 1992.

Almost as soon as London won their bid plans were made to open a Pride House, quickly followed by similar plans for the next winter games in Sochi, Russia, in 2014. However, it came as no surprise to hear that a court in Russia banned the Sochi Pride House because of the alleged effects it would have on local children. The London Pride House fell victim to current financial circumstances with difficulties finding enough sponsorship and funding.
Pride House logo
 And then, with only 16 days to go, the London Pride House was saved. Organisations including the Federation of Gay Games and the European Gay and Lesbian Sports Federation joined Pride Sports UK in rescuing the Pride House. It has also received official support from LOCOG. The House opened last Friday and closes on Tuesday. A special festival to go with it is being held in various other venues around London.