Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Historic Hispanic Beauty


Spain made history in August. Or rather Miss Spain did.

It’s been a bumper year for coming outs (or is it comings out, or out comings?) by celebrities, athletes, politicians, etc., as I’ll mention in more detail in 12 days time. There are still some areas where openly lgbt people are few and far between, and female beauty pageants is one of them.

This article deals with traditional female beauty pageants, and not lesbian, transgender or other lgbt contests.

In the words of an old British saying “you wait for ages, and three turn up at once!” (usually in reference to buses). In 2014 you could say that about lgbt beauty queens. After years of hearing very little about any lgbt sexuality three top national and international beauty queens have come out as lesbian or queer. They are :

Djuan Trent, Miss Kentucky 2010,
Patricia Yurena, Miss Spain 2008 and 2013, and
Maria Walsh, Miss Rose of Tralee 2014.

Of these three Patricia Yurena has had the most distinguished career so I’ll deal with her later. And before I go into more detail about the others I should admit that they aren’t the first female lgbt beauty queens to step onto the pageant stage. In 2012 Mollie Thomas (representing West Hollywood) and Jennelle Hutcherson (representing Long Beach) entered the Miss California contest though neither made the finals. In 2013 Annalouisa Valencia, the second Hispanic beauty queen in today’s article, entered the Miss South Carolina pageant. Like Mollie and Jennelle, Annalouisa didn’t make the final.

The first of the three beauty queens to come out this year was Djuan Trent in February. In 2011 she entered the Miss America pageant as the reigning Miss Kentucky, and was the first winner of the pageant’s “Contestant’s Vote” – similar to winning Miss Congeniality, I suppose. Being Miss Kentucky made Djuan the first known lgbt beauty queen to represent an American state though, she wasn’t openly lesbian at the time.

On 24th August Maria Walsh of Philadelphia became the first international openly lesbian beauty pageant champion. Four days earlier she had won the Miss Rose of Tralee 2014 title, a world-wide pageant for any women of Irish heritage or descent.

But the crown of the most titles won by an out lgbt beauty queen goes to the current Miss Spain, Patricia Yurena. Not only is she the first lesbian to represent her country but she is also the first to reach the final of the Miss Universe pageant. The title of Miss Spain gives the holder the right to compete in the following Miss Universe. Unfortunately, Patricia’s first win as national beauty queen in 2008 was while she was 17 years old, and the Miss Universe rules stipulate that all entrants must be over 18 before 1st February in the year they enter. Patricia wasn’t 18 until 5 weeks later so missed out on her first shot at an international title.

However, the 2008 Miss World pageant was held after her birthday so Patricia was able to compete, and she came in the top 15 semi-finalists. She was able to re-enter the most recent Miss Universe contest held in Moscow last November. She finished as 1st runner-up (or second, as they say in most competitions).

All of the women mentioned today are pioneers in their own right, challenging the assumption in much of society that all beautiful women are straight. In general they all received positive responses from pageant organisers and, as Djuan Trent wrote on her blog, “I would love to one day live in a society where coming out is no longer necessary because we don’t make assumptions about one another’s sexuality and homophobia is laid to rest…” It’s what we all hope for, isn’t it.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Out-Spoken Language


Hello, omis, palones and omipalones! How bona to vada you eke again! Fantabulosa!

No, I haven’t gone mad and have started writing rubbish. Those words of welcome were very familiar to me when I was growing up and listened to the radio. They were spoken every week by two characters called Julian and Sandy in the comedy series “Round the Horne”. They were the first overtly camp, gay characters on British radio, and were very, very funny. They have since become legends, even perhaps icons, among the older generation of the gay community in the UK. They popularised a style of slang used a lot in the gay community (mainly in London) called polari, and the words at the start of this article is a polari greeting.

One of the characteristics about any group or subculture is the development of a distinct set of words and phrases that it uses as a kind of secret language, unknown to “outsiders”. The most famous of these is Cockney rhyming slang. In most cases the use of a secret language gave empowerment to a stigmatised or maligned section of society.

Other countries have their own lgbt slang, and as part of my celebration of the US Hispanic Heritage Month I’ve looked at one from a Hispanic nation – the Philippines.

I came across swardspeak earlier this year when I was researching articles for the Asia-Pacific Heritage Month. It was a perfect subject for a separate article so I did more research into it, and here it is.

There is a parallel between the early use of swardspeak and the origin of polari. Both were very much centred round the world of entertainment, specifically the theatre. The theatre and entertainment industry has always attracted a large number of lgbt performers and back-stage crews. It was one of the few areas in society where gay people were “tolerated”.

The swardspeak of the Philippines developed relatively recently compared to polari, in the mid-1970s. The leading populariser and developer of swardpeak was a student called Rikki Dalu. Although there is little evidence to suggest that swardspeak was an established slang language beforehand it is probably right to support the assumption made by Filipino academics who have studied its origins that Rikki invented a single set of linguistic rules and words that make up swardspeak.

Although it came to be used most commonly in gay theatre and fashion circles swardspeak actually began somewhere totally different – in the classroom.

Rikki Dalu was studying Spanish at the University of the Phiippines-Diliman. He wasn’t enjoying it very much and began forming new words from Spanish into nascent swardspeak. For instance, “chica” (girl, in Spanish) became “chikahan”, which became a greeting among swardspeakers; “infierno” (hell, in Spanish) became “imbigerna”, shortened to “imbud” or “im”, meaning “angry or upset”. From a simple set of slang words there developed a whole dictionary and grammar. Over the decades other base words have been taken from other languages.

Rikki belonged to a group of drama students who then began creating new words. Some came from other slang languages or colloquialisms. Some of the swardpeak vocabulary comes from substitution, changing one of two letters, and addition of extra letters or suffixes/prefixes.

This Philippine gay slang language, complete with its own grammatical rules, didn’t have a name when it first left the university classroom and into the back stages of the theatre and fashion world. According to Reneiro Alba, in a paper published by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts in 2006, the person who first used the name “swardspeak” was Nestor U. Torre, a journalist and film critic, in the late 1970s. “Sward” is itself a slang word, a name used in the Philippines for a gay man.

Prior to 1986 the Philippines was subject to martial law and freedom of speech was restricted. In this environment many Filipinos found themselves unable to speak against the government. In the gay community there was must victimisation and discrimination, making it very difficult for gay men to talk freely in public about themselves. The English polari developed in a similar environment.

Like every living language swardspeak in always evolving. Many new words have come in as fashions in culture change. In particular a lot of trade and celebrity names have entered swardspeak. A couple of examples are: “X-Men” (from the comic book and film franchise) meaning “having come out as gay, no longer heterosexual/butch”; and “Oprah Winfrey”, meaning “promise”.

Even the very name of the slang has become a victim of fashion and seems to be losing its appeal and the more general name “gayspeak” has been growing in popularity. This may be because of a similar rise in popularity of the slang in general Filipino culture as a way of indicating its main origin.

After several decades of being a secret language swardspeak has played a major part in entertainment shows on Philippine television. With the more acceptance of gay man in society, as with polari in the UK, swardspeak no longer became secret. With the growth of the internet many swardspeakers have openly spoken the slang in word and sound, and several dictionaries have been produced online.

It’s not certain how swardspeak/gayspeak will develop in the coming years. The gay Filipino culture is so different to that in the UK, so perhaps it will thrive, whereas polari had become a historical curiosity with very few speakers.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Out Of His Tree : Hispanic Celt


The US Hispanic Heritage month began last week. So here’s a genea-biology of a Hispanic lgbt writer, Antonio Hoyos y Vinent (1882-1940).

Its fitting that ancient Spain is one of the oldest locations of the Celts because Antonio inherits Celtic blood from 2 very different countries. He also descends from the great Spanish hero El Cid, though not through the bloodline you might expect.

The Hoyos family originates from El Hoyo de Pinares in central Spain in the heart of the ancient Celto-Iberian lands. The male line can be traced back to the 9th century and undoubtedly contains Visigoth and Roman blood as well as Celtic and indigenous Spanish. The family branch to which Antonio belongs settled on the north-western coast of Spain, where some Celto-Iberian culture still survives in the Basque lands. Antonio’s family became Señores de la Torre, de Encina y de Campillo.

Antonio’s great-grandfather Bernábe (1761-1831) married into another family of ancient Spanish blood, the Rubin de Celis family. In 1866 Antonio’s great-uncle was created Marquess of Hoyos and a Grandee of Spain. He died childless ten years later and the title passed to Antonio’s father Isidoro.

Antonio’s mother was Doña Isabell Vinent y O’Neill (1843-1919), daughter of the 1st Marquess of Vinent. The Vinent family can also be traced back many centuries. Most of this ancestry came from the Balearic Islands and has less Celtic blood. On the death of his mother, who became Marquesa of Vinent after the death of her father, Antonio inherited the title himself and became a Grandee of Spain.

You probably noticed O’Neill in Isabella’s name. Spanish naming convention, just in case you’re not sure, usually assigns the father’s family name followed by the mother’s. You have surely also already guessed where Doña Isabell’s mother comes from. And you’d be wrong! Her mother, Doña Ana O’Neill y Alves was actually Portuguese.

Doña Ana does have Irish blood, though we have to go back to the 1740s to find it. During the wars in Great Britain over Catholic Stuart succession to the British throne many Catholic families were dispossessed of their long-held estates. This included the O’Neill family who were the Princes of Clanaboy (Cloinne Aodhe Buidheo in Gaelic). Prince Feilim O’Neill fled to France where he fought with the French against the British. His grandson settled in Portugal. His descendants have lived there ever since and still enjoy the title of Prince of Clanaboy which is internationally acknowledged and recognised.

It may be interesting to know that the Celts of Ireland are believed to have come from Spain. So, in a way, the Celtic bloodline of the O’Neill’s was returning to its Iberian roots.

Even though both the Hoyos and Vinent families are aristocratic Grandees of Spain there doesn’t seem to be any bloodline to Spanish royalty through them. So where does Antonio Hoyos y Vinent get his descent from El Cid? Surprisingly, through the Irish O’Neills.

One of the joys of genealogy is finding unexpected bloodlines. The diversion of El Cid’s DNA through the Irish line is one of them. Actually, genealogists believe most people of European ancestry is descended from him. I am. The descent to Antonio Hoyos y Vinent is as follows. Each name below is the child of the person/couple named immediately above it. One ancestor of note is King Fernando III of Castile and Léon. His reign united the kingdoms of Castile and Léon. He was canonised as Saint Ferdinand in 1671.

1)    Rodrigo Diáz de Bivar, “El Cid”, d.1099.
2)    Elvira (Ximenes) Diáz de Bivar; married Prince Ramíro de Navarra, Count of Maçon, d.1116.
3)    King Garcías V of Navarre, 1099-1150.
4)    Infanta Bianca de Navarra, d.1158; married King Sancho III of Castile, 1135-1158.
5)    King Afonso VIII of Castile, 1155-1214.
6)    Infanta Berengaria of Castile, 1181-1244; married King Afonso IX of Léon, 1166-1230.
7)    King Fernando III of Castile and Léon, St. Ferdinand, 1200-1252.
8)    Infanta Leonor of Castile, 1239-1307; married King Edward I of England, 1239-1307.
9)     Princess Elizabeth of England, 1282-1316; married Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Hereford, 1276-1322.
10)   Lady Elizabeth de Bohun; married James Butler, 1st Earl of Ormonde, d.1337.
11)   Lady Alianore Butler; married Gerald FitzMaurice, 3rd Earl of Desmond, d.1398.
12)   James FitzGerald, 6th Earl of Desmond, d.1463.
13)   Lady Joan FitzGerald, d.1481; married Thomas FitzGerald, 7th Earl of Kildare, c.1421-1477.
14) Lady Eleanor FitzGerald; married King Conn Mór O’Neill of Tyrone.
15) Conn O’Neill, last King of Tyrone, c.1480-1559.
16) Princess Sorcha O’Neill; married Brian Ballagh O’Neill, Prince of Clanaboy, d.1529.
17) Muirchertach O’Neill, Prince of Clanaboy.
18) Donal O’Neill, Prince of Clanaboy.
19) Conn Boye O’Neill, c.1590-c.1630.
20) Ever O’Niell, c.1625-c.1689.
21) Capt. Feilim O’Neill, c.1660-1709.
22) Capt. Conn O’Neill.
23) João O’Neill, Prince of Clanaboy, 1720-1788.
24) Carlos O’Niell y Ferriera, Prince of Clanaboy, 1760-1835.
25) José Maria O’Neill y Torlades, Prince of Clanaboy, b.1788.
26)   Ana O’Neill y Alves, b.1819; married Antonio Vinent y Vives, 1st Marquess of Vinent, 1809-1874.
27)   Isabel Vinent y O’Neill, Marquesa of Vinent, 1843-1919; married Isidoro Hoyos y de la Torre, 2nd Marquess of Hoyos, 1839-1900.
28) Antonio Hoyos y Vinent, 3rd Marquess of Vinent, 1882-1940.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Peaceful Queer Achievement

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]

Today is the International Day of Peace. Two years ago I wrote about an lgbt Nobel Peace prize winner, Jane Addams. Today I write about another – Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961), the Secretary General of the United Nations, and the only person to receive the prize posthumously.

In the coat of arms I’ve produced toady I’m using more artistic licence than before. All of the established rules of heraldry are adhered to but I’ve added elements which are not generally used but are not necessarily banned. I’ll explain what I’ve done and why during the course of the article. I wanted to create an international design which would belong uniquely to Dag Hammarskjöld. First of all may I apologise for the picture quality. My scanner seems to be nearing the end of its usefulness and the clarity is not as good as previously.
Because Dag was Swedish I’ve used Swedish heraldic practice as my starting point. Let’s begin with the shield. This design is a good example of what is called canting arms – the objects on the shield are a direct indication of the name of the family name. Thus we have hammers in the arms of Hammarskjöld. I’m not sure how long the family has used this design but they certainly used it when they were created nobles of Sweden in 1610.

Once ennobled the family were entitled to place a specific coronet to the top of the shield. The coronet is used by Swedish nobility who didn’t have titles, like the Hammarskjölds. The type of helmet also is indicative of the family’s ennobled rank. This produces an anomaly in international heraldry, as in England this particular type of helmet is reserved exclusively for the monarch.

Over the helmet is the crest of two arms in armour holding another hammer, another reference to the family name.

One of the big artistic licences I’ve used is to add the flag of the United Nations to the top part of the shield, an area called the chief. Way back in January 2013 I described the use of civil coats of arms by council leaders (the Lord Mayor of Nottingham, in that case), and how two coats of arms can be placed side by side on the same shield in the manner of a married couple (the council leader “married” to his/her council).

In the case I gave for Nottingham, the specific Lord Mayor I featured has no personal coat of arms but was entitled to use the city arms on its own during his term of office. In today’s case the United Nations has no coat of arms, so Dag Hammaskjöld, as Secretary General, could not place his next to them. Rather than leave the whole heraldic achievement with no indication of Dag’s international role I’ve adapted a rule used by some international orders of knighthood and in some English coats of arms.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (not to be confused with the island nation of Malta) has special observer status at the United Nations. The Order’s “head of state”, the Grand Master, divides his shield into quarters, with the Order’s arms in the 1st and 4th quarters and his family arms in the 2nd and 3rd. I didn’t think was distinctive enough so followed another of the Order’s practices used for all its senior knights by placing the UN flag in the chief. The chief has also often been used in English heraldry to place special designs recognising some great honour and achievement. As head of the UN I thought this method was most appropriate for Dag. It would be great if this idea could be used officially, or unofficially, by the UN today.

The biggest artistic licence I’ve used is the inclusion of the medallion below the shield. This is a depiction of the Nobel Peace Prize, for which Dag was nominated in 1961 but was killed before it could be awarded. In practice only medals bestowing a title or high national honour are placed below the shield – orders of knighthood, etc. The Nobel Peace Prize is one of the highest international honours anyone can receive but it has no heraldic status. I feel it is an appropriate medallion to display in this case. The medallion has no ribbon so I’ve placed a representation of a ribbon in United Nations blue behind it, even though the Nobel Prizes are not actually awarded by the UN. When I can think of a more appropriate colour for the ribbon I’ll change it.

Finally, I’ve placed the rainbow Pride colours in the wreath on top of the helmet. While my previous coats of arms have had the colours placed on the back of the motto scroll, which is allowable in English heraldry, I couldn’t find any motto for the Hammarskjöld family. Neither is there an official motto of the UN so I chose not to have a motto and place the rainbow colours on the helmet wreath instead. As a rule the wreath should be in the principal colours of the shield, like the flowing mantling around it.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Donating to Denim Day


Like most people I give to charitable causes. As a gay man I often donate to lgbt health charities, particularly my local HIV prevention programme (to which I also spent many hours donating my time before my present working hours prevented it).

Most of us also give to charities which have no specific lgbt connection. Cancer is one of the biggest causes people donate to. Having lost both parents and a partner to cancer this is another cause I donate money to.

Today I’ll be donating to another, because today is Jeans for Genes Day in the UK. This is an awareness day for sufferers of genetic disorders. It was founded in 1996 by two brothers who had chronic granulomatous disorder (CGD), a genetic disorder, and they hope that £2 million is raised every Jeans for Genes Day to help children suffering from any sort of genetic disorder.

One of the great ideas about the campaign is that the charity encourages people to wear jeans and denim at work instead of their usual clothes or uniform. I’m not sure my boss will let me do that, being in a front-line customer service position in a posh office complex. Perhaps if I stay sitting at the reception desk no-one will notice. But that defeats the whole point of wearing jeans today!

You may be wondering by now what this has got to do with lgbt heritage and history. Well, if you remember, last month I told you about Simon Bostic, a sufferer of CGD who entered the history books as the first surviving recipient of a bone marrow transplant from a non-relative.

As I mentioned in that article Simon’s survival has inspired millions to put their names on bone-marrow registers and give people like the founding brothers of Jeans for Genes Day hope for the future. Just last week a Nottingham teenager, Ethan Buttress, discovered he is the only bone marrow match to a young boy he’s never met on the other side of the world. What is particularly notable is that Ethan in the UK’s youngest ever bone marrow donor, at the age of 19. Without the pioneering medical work in the 1970s to ensure Simon Bostic survived his transplant, the Jeans for Genes charity and Ethan would never had made the news.

Simon Bostic’s survival was also instrumental in the creation of one the UK’s most well-known bone marrow charities, the Anthony Nolan blood cancer and bone marrow register.

Whether this fund-raising ideas will spread internationally is hard to predict. Let’s start by doing it ourselves. Wear denim at work one day this week in support of all children suffering from genetic disorders like CGD. You never know – if Simon Bostic can survive and win a Gay Games medal perhaps there’s a future lgbt Olympic champion out there waiting for hear that his/her illness can be treated.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Out of the Union

Tomorrow history will be made if Scotland votes for independence. A lot has been written in the press and debated about the reasons for and against leaving the union with England. It’s a confusing issue, even for the English. The actual union is between the Crowns of England and Scotland, not the nations. Scotland has always kept its own laws, legal system, church and even public holidays. As the centuries progressed and power moved away from the Crown and onto Parliament after the English Civil War, London gained more control over new laws that applied to both nations – tax, economy, defence and the health system.

I’m sure there’s one specific historical person who’ll be turning in his grave at the thought of England and Scotland going their separate ways. And the surprising thing about him is that he was Scottish.

King James VI of Scotland, who was also King James I of England, fought several years against his advisers in favour of a union of the two crowns.

James inherited the English throne in 1603 on the death of Queen Elizabeth I. After such a strong female monarch England was slightly taken aback by the less macho James. There were leaflets being printed which summed up what a lot of people thought – “Elizabeth was king, now James is Queen”.

This sentiment was felt generally around the country. Everywhere he went he was met by cheering crowds who, it is claimed, shouted out “God bless Queen James”!

But this wasn’t just a reflection of his style of rule in his first years but because he had a reputation for having a young toy-boy on tow most of the time. This started before he came to England. He had several aristocratic young men as his “favourites”, and even after he inherited the English throne and had married there were several young men close at hand. After the informal separation from his wife two particular young men attracted his attention, and the concern of the court. They were the Earl of Southampton and the Duke of Buckingham.

James was also keen on uniting the two countries in some way. He wasn’t keen on uniting the governments and wanted the Scottish laws and government to remain separate. But he DID want to unite the Crowns, the thrones and defence of the realms into one new kingdom. He gave this kingdom the name Great Britain.

The main defence of any island kingdom is the navy, and the English navy was the best in the world, famous for its defeat of the Spanish Armada and for its mastery of circumnavigation and exploration. It was also a period of piracy. The English preferred to call this privateering (one of my Tudor cousins, Hercules Foljambe, was a privateering pirate).

To prevent ships from being attacked on the high seas by others from their own country they flew national identification flags. With his united navy King James decided a newidentification flag should be used, so he asked the admirals and heralds to come up with a suitable design. They tried to unite the English and Scottish flags (still, officially, the ONLY national flags for the British people). What they came up with are the designs below.

King James didn’t like any of them. He told the admirals and heralds to go away and try again. Perhaps he gave them an idea of what he envisaged, I don’t know, but when they came back they had produced a design so unique, so distinctive, and so classic that it’ll be very familiar. This is it –

At this stage Ireland was not united to Great Britain so its red diagonal cross is missing from this original design. James liked this a lot, probably because it inadvertently disregarded the rule that no precedence should be given to the English or Scottish flag. Why? Because it’s a heraldic flag – when described in official heraldic language the background is described first as the important base upon which all the other elements are placed. The background is the blue of the Scottish national flag. Scotland has heraldic precedence! Perhaps James realised this – he hasn’t been called The Wisest Fool in Christendom for nothing!

You’ve probably had a thought by now – if Scotland becomes independent what happens to the Union Jack (or Flag, it doesn’t matter what you call it, trust me, I’ve been a member of The Flag Institute since 1988)? Will it lose the blue? The Flag Institute asked its members a vote on what should happen. Most of them said a new flag should be designed. I didn’t, and for one reason. The Union Jack and the name Great Britain signify the union of the Crowns of England and Scotland, not their political parliaments or governments. All through the independence campaign it has been made clear that the Queen will remain as the Head of State and Queen of an independent Scotland. So really there should be no change. Think of it like the situation when Australia and New Zealand, both realms formerly within the British Empire, became independent. They retained the Queen as head of state and the UK naval ensigns they had used while colonies. The political independence of Scotland is similar.

Whether the people in power, or indeed fellow members of the Flag Institute, are fully aware or understand the historical background is questionable.

Its all very confusing. At least if parliament decides to consign the name Great Britain to history we’ll still have the United Kingdom. The full name of the country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The only change will be the words “Great Britain” being substituted by “England”.

Before I go, an explanation about the UK’s national flag. The Union Jack is the flag of the Crowns not the people. There is NO national flag for the British people apart from the individual flags for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Within the present century the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had to state in parliament that the government “permits” the British people to use the Union Jack “as if it was the national flag”. No Prime Minister has yet declared that it IS the national flag of the people. It is only in the last ten years that people in the UK didn’t have to get permission to fly the Union Jack outside their own homes!

No doubt the politicians won’t care about any of this. Whichever way the vote goes tomorrow I hope that the two most important things about any nation on an international stage – it’s name and it’s flag – will not change. I’m sure King James would think the same. After all, he chose them both, and I can’t think of any other queer creations that have made a bigger impact on world history in the last 500 years than the Great Britain and it Union Jack.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Our Heritage Out on Display

This weekend the UK celebrates its annual Heritage Open Days, its 20th anniversary, in fact. Lots of buildings and locations around the country are open fee to the public. Some of them only ever open on these two days because they are private stately homes, so it’s a great opportunity for people to explore hidden treasures. Alas, you those who live too far away to visit them that’s an opportunity they have to forget. But there may be another way to see amazing objects.

In my previous Heritage Spotlights I’ve looked at memorials, archives and museums. Today I’m looking at something from the comfort of my own home.

On my annual culture trip down to London last year my brother and I popped in to the British Museum. They had produced a guide to some of their lgbt-related exhibit. I mentioned that and another museum guide in a previous post.

This year I hope to go to more museums to spot lgbt exhibits, and will try to get to the Victoria ad Albert (V&A) Museum. They produced a guide to some of their own lgbt-related exhibits this summer for London Pride, like the British Museum before them. Their guide was snapped up quickly and I won’t be able to go around with one in my hand.

Fortunately for me, and for everyone else, the V&A has just launched a new strand to their blog. It’s called “Out on Display”, the same name as their guide. The blog is written by Dawn Hoskin, an assistant curator at the museum and Co-Chair of its lgbt group.

But I’m sure you’d like to have a look for yourself here.

Now we don’t have to go to the museum to learn about the items in their collections, and we can keep up to date on new research.

For several years the V&A, and several other museums in the UK, have celebrated out LGBT History Month in February with special events and exhibitions, and the V&A has also produced other lgbt events throughout the year.

Its more than 15 years since I went to the V&A with my sister, and I am looking forward to the trip this year.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Surviving 9/11

Today’s anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in America gives me a reason to highlight the courage of those groups of people who often get overlooked – the survivors, the first responders, and the emergency services. 9/11 affected them profoundly. Only now are their actions being recognised officially with many of them being invited to the 9/11 Memorial Museum with families and partners of victims. Many documentaries in the past couple of years have centred on survivors’ stories.

"The Advocate"
 magazine produced a remarkable edition on 23rd October 2001. It concentrated on the events of 9/11 and featured all of the lgbt victims and testimonies of many lgbt survivors. If you can, get a copy – it’s one of history’s best contemporary accounts of 9/11.

What I intend to do today is bring forward more survivor stories whose courage in the face of terror. It is possible to recount events of that fateful day using the testimonies of some of the lgbt survivors and emergency services. I didn’t want to split the article, so today’s post is quite long.

It seemed like just another Tuesday morning. Children went to school. People went to work. Robert Ryan arrived at the Morgan Stanley office in the South Tower of the WTC. Over at the Pentagon a meeting was scheduled for 8.30 a.m. and Capt. Joan Darrah of the US Navy was preparing to attend. Everyone will remember how clear and sunny the day was, and this only helped to make the images from that day even more vivid.

At 8.40 the skies brought terror to people’s lives as American Airlines Flight 11 smashed into the North Tower of the WTC. Most people busy at work thought it was a bomb.

The public address system across in the South Tower advised that there was no need to panic or evacuate, but Robert Ryan decided to usher his staff out of the office anyway. Many other offices did the same. At this stage no-one in the South Tower had any notion of what was yet to come. In the confusion Robert got separated from his team. He hoped they would all meet up outside.

Dazed and confused city workers poured out of the North Tower and joined the evacuees from the South Tower and surrounding buildings into the central plaza and the streets. The air was filled with flying debris and paper and it soon became apparent that this was more than just a bomb. People looked up to see a gaping hole in the North Tower belching out smoke and fire with debris falling from all floors. They realised with horror that some of this debris was actually people jumping from the tower.

As Robert left the South Tower, separated from his work team, a second plane crashed into it and threw the escapees into a panic. As more debris fell people ran for cover in all directions, knocking Robert and many others to the floor. Less than 30 minutes earlier he had been sitting in an office just 4 floors below the impact.

Scambling to his feet under a wave of fleeing feet he lost his shoes. Many people did. One of the images which still stands out in his memory today is the number of shoes littering the streets as he himself fled barefoot for safety.

The scale of the emergency made emergency and rescue services call in all the available staff they could – those off-duty, on leave, on reserve, or retired. Sitting at home watching tv, retired New York firefighter Tom Ryan (President of FireFLAG-EMS, the national organisation for lgbt fire and emergency service crews) watched the second plane hit the tower. He called his old fire station to offer help. He needn’t have waited for a reply – it was obvious he was going to head in anyway.

Over at the Pentagon Capt. Joan Darrah’s meeting was nearing its end. The Pentagon was aware of the attacks in New York and went onto high alert. Joan left the meeting at 9.30 and made her way out of the building and over to the nearest bus stop. Minutes later American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the very room she had just left, killing the 7 colleagues who were still in there as well as many others.

Emergency services scrambled and Pentagon staff rushed to offer help. Six months previously Phillip MacKee was a computer and internet security specialist. He was also a part-time volunteer firefighter. He had decided to become a full-time firefighter earlier in 2001. This was his first major emergency.

Back in New York people were oblivious to this latest attack. They were rushing for cover and assistance. Ambulances sped to hospitals carrying the wounded and dying. The hospitals were beginning to fill up with those injured from the streets and space was already beginning to run out. In one of those hospitals was Mark Caruso. He was a police detective who worked the hospital morgue in processing and identifying bodies and personally informing relatives and next of kin of their loss. It was never a pleasant job at the best of times, but times were about to get worse for Mark.

As news of the Pentagon attack began to reach the horrified citizens of New York, just over an hour after the first plane attack, an ominous rumble filled the air and the ground shook as the South Tower began to collapse. It came down like a pack of cards.

Dust and debris was blown out from the base of the tower at a huge speed as screaming crowds ran desperately to escape. The dust clouds were suffocating. There was no time for the dust to settle before another ominous rubble filled the air and the North Tower collapsed.

Retired firefighter Tom Ryan arrived at Ground Zero shortly afterwards. The colleague he spoke to earlier was to perish in the debris before he got chance to speak to him again. In all Tom lost 5 active members from his former fire crew, and 20 more with whom he had worked over the years. In the months that followed he learnt that at least 25 of the 343 firefighters who died that day were closeted lgbt men and women. They had the courage to enter the terror of 9/11 but feared coming out at work.

As people tried to get away from the area they found shelter and help from volunteers and strangers as well as professional emergency personnel. Many charities and organisations saw wounded and dazed survivors wandering the streets past their offices and they opened their premises with offers of first aid, comfort and the all important access to outside communications. Local mobile signals had been transmitted from the WTC and landlines were the only way for people like Robert Ryan to contact loved ones and tell them they were okay.

In West Village, Manhattan, less than 2 miles from Ground Zero, the LGBT Community Centre threw open its doors. Staff and volunteers spent the day providing drinking water and food and a place to clean the thick dust from faces and clothes, as well as a place to just sit down and rest. Over the coming weeks many of the survivors returned to take advantage of the counselling services, thankful for the Centre’s help at their moment of need.

Nine hours after the first attack Robert Ryan was still wandering barefoot through New York, passing part of an engine from one of the planes lying in the street. He managed to find somewhere to rest. He and other survivors were still covered in such a thick layer of dust that hosepipes were sprayed on them to remove it.

Across in East Village the Hetrick-Martin Institute for LGBTQ Youth was also in a flurry of activity. Staff and students of the day school (today known as the Harvey Milk High School) were trying to find out if people they knew in the WTC had survived. The institute also provides assistance for homeless lgbt youngsters. Deanna Coce, a case manager there, didn’t notice any of them arrive that day. It makes you wonder – how many homeless gay teenagers, disowned and ignored by their families, and unaware of where to go for help provided by places like the institute, perished on 9/11 and will never have their names known or placed on any 9/11 memorial?

At the Pentagon emergency services and military personnel were working together to rescue survivors. Like many that day, at the Pentagon and in New York, Phillip McKee inhaled a lot of dust and smoke, and the health problems it caused for hundreds of people remain with them to this day. Over the next 3 days Phillip and his crew kept on working. Only a serious injury to his leg stopped him from doing more and he found himself in hospital.

Three days passed, and New York hospitals were still working at full tilt. Mark Caruso, in the Manhattan hospital morgue, later admitted to being “scared, sad and horrified” as the case load increased. Hardly anyone went home, they slept at the hospital wherever and whenever they could. The work at city morgues must never be overlooked in any account of 9/11. Just two weeks ago on UK television a documentary was broadcast about the struggle to identify the remains of many victims from 9/11 that are still stored in morgues across New York.

Ground Zero was a site of devastation for many months. Firefighter Tom Ryan was there for 8 days, catching whatever sleep he could in the fire station. During that time he attended the funeral of Father Mychal Judge, the official Victim 1 of 9/11, a chaplain in the NY Fire Department and an openly gay Christian. As the coffin was being carried into the church a pall-bearer stumbled and Tom stepped into his place.

Capt. Joan Darrah also attended funerals and memorial services for victims of the Pentagon attack. Many mourners attended with their partners. Joan couldn’t because of the “don’t’ ask, don’t tell” policy in the US forces at the time. It made her realise when, or if, her partner Lisa would have been informed if she had died.

There may still be same-sex partners of 9/11 victims who have never let themselves be known for fear of outing their late partners. The partners of the 25 closeted firefighters who died may never be known or acknowledged publicly. And there are surely many lgbt survivors who find telling their stories too stressful and will never speak of it again. Survivor guilt may also play a part in this. I dedicate today’s article to all lgbt survivors and surviving partners, known and unknown.

Since 9/11
Robert Ryan took a year’s disability leave and left Morgan Stanley. He registered his domestic partnership in 2005. He and his partner Ralph Martinelli moved to Idaho in 2007 where they fought to get domestic partner health insurance for Robert. Robert now works for Moreton and Co., and is a member of International Frontrunners. In 2011 he created the Facebook page “Honour Your Local 1st Responder on 9/11”.

Joan Darrah left the navy the following June. She campaigned for the repeal of “don’t tell, don’t ask”. This was one reason for her decision in 2006 to attend the Outgames in Canada instead of the Gay Games in the US. She married her partner Lynne Kennedy in 2010 shortly after the policy was repealed.

Tom Ryan continued as President of FireFLAG-EMS until 2003. He is now President Emeritus. Also active in the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, he speaks at events on partnership pension rights and about being a gay firefighter.

Mark Caruso retired from the NYPD in 2002. In 2011 he became a contestant on the US reality tv series “Survivor: South Pacific”.

Phillip McKee became wheelchair-bound after his leg injury. Periods of depression and post traumatic stress disorder were eased by his ability as a stained-glass artist. Sadly, his injuries sustained at 9/11 were responsible for his death last year at the age of 41. It isn’t known if his name will be placed on official 9/11 victim lists.

Personal Postscript
This has been a difficult article to write. I went through dozens of survivor accounts (straight and lgbt) and found the experience quite emotional. My own recollections of that day seem insignificant. I was working at Nottingham Castle. A colleague arrived 20 minutes late to cover for my lunch break and said everyone was watching the events on tv and had lost track of time. Later that afternoon my ex-partner arrived unexpectedly and invited me to dinner. He wanted some company that evening. He told me he had been standing at the top of the WTC just 3 weeks earlier and was feeling very vulnerable.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Queer Country


Perhaps it’s just me, but I always thought country and western music was always a bit camp. When I was growing up country music was all tassels and rhinestones with Dolly Parton being so prominent (no reference to body parts intended!). The image of a male country and western singer was as opposite to my view of a butch cowboy as it could be (I watched too much “Bonanza”, probably).

It is, therefore, strange that there are so few major country singers who are openly lgbt. I didn’t realise how resistant the country music industry was to openly gay artists and songs.

Having said that, it is also strange that there is a prolific amount of lgbt country music out there, but not necessarily in the mainstream. It can hardly be called “underground” music either.

Over the years lgbt music and musicians have been becoming more accepted and it is only among the “hardcore” of each genre where resistance to lgbt artists has been most vocal.

Perhaps the first well-known lgbt singer with country music roots that most people will have heard of is k d lang. Her first album, “Truly Western Experience”, was released in 1984. She didn’t come out until 1992, so I’ve taken that year as a starting point (or ending point?) and will look at lgbt country singers who came before her, a couple of openly gay and lesbian performers who can be regarded as pioneers in the genre.

For several decades before the 1970s there were a handful of country songs with lyrics that were perceived as being gay. One of the earliest was called “Lavender Cowboy” from the 1930s. Although there’s nothing much to say it has any reference to homosexuality the song was banned from US radio.

The attitude to homosexuality in country music in the decades that followed is summed up in the title of a 1951 song “The Sissy Song”.

Out of the gay rights campaigns of the 1960s and early 70s came the first openly gay country album. It was called “Lavender Country”, echoing the title of the 1930s song, and it was released in 1973 by the band of the same name.

Founder of the Lavender Country band was Patrick Haggerty. Hailing from the American north-west and raised on a farm with country music all around him Patrick found country the best way to express what he felt about being a gay man in the US. The band included 2 other lgbt musicians, Eve Morris and Michael Carr, and a straight lead guitarist, Bob Hammerstromm. The album wasn’t produced by a big Nashville label, but by Seattle’s Gay Community Social Services.

The band toured up and down the west coast and performed at Pride events. Lavender Country never made another album but its influence and significance was recognised when the album was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2000.

Also in 1973 a pioneer of lesbian country music, Alix Dobkin, released her debut LP “Lavender Jane Loves Women”, and she became the first openly lesbian country singer to release an openly lesbian album. Alix was a seasoned established singer-songwriter on the Greenwich Village scene since the early 1960s. It was when she came out as a lesbian in 1972 that she began to write openly lesbian lyrics and songs.

Throughout the late 1970s lgbt country music performers began to produce independent albums and perform at newly-formed lgbt country music events and societies. They became popular at Pride events across the US.

Since the early 1990s, not long after k d lang came out, lgbt country music began to grow and become more popular in the lgbt community. I don’t think the latter was influenced by the former as much as the former was by the latter. The movement built up gradually until, in 1998, the Gay and Lesbian Country Music Association was formed.

If you’re interested in lgbt country music and want to know more go to the Queer Music heritage website here, here and here.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Musical Flower Power : Going Gaga Over Ferns

Although ferns don’t have flowers I feel that this series should include all things botanical. I’ve mentioned before that some plant species are named after real people (as well as characters from myths and legends) today I deal with one of these plants – or indeed 19 of them.

In 2012 a genus of fern (a group made up of at least 19 different species) was named after Lady Gaga. I can’t resist shamelessly name-dropping at this stage and recount this personal anecdote which has absolutely nothing to do with plants but I like telling it!

During my time as duty manager at a Nottingham hotel I had the pleasure of meeting Lady Gaga. She and her dancers were staying at the hotel in January 2009 while they performed as the warm-up act for the Pussycat Dolls. This was the same night that Lady Gaga became No. 1 in the UK charts for the first time.

After the show Lady Gaga and her entourage came back to the hotel bar. Lady Gaga seemed rather tired and went to bed after a few minutes. Her 5 male dancers, however, remained, and seemed to be rather hungry. They asked for some bar food – they didn’t mind what – so I cooked up a bowl of “cheesy chips” (French fries with melted cheese on top) for each of them. They couldn’t get enough of them, and I swear all 5 of them had 3 bowls each! I almost ran out of cheese!

After about an hour, not long after 1 a.m., they asked if there was a good gay club they could go to (only 2 of the dancers admitted to being straight, and two of the others were a couple). Being a Friday night I suggested they try NG1, one of my favourite places. I wish I hadn’t. We’d been chatting for an hour and got quite flirty, and one of them invited me along (can’t remember which one, perhaps it was the gay one who was single!). I couldn’t leave work, or course, and they all dashed off to NG1 leaving me to wash their dirty dishes and finish the night audit. I know where I would prefer to have been!

Now I’ve got that out of my system let’s return to the ferns. I thought of explaining why they’re named after Lady Gaga but I can’t do any better than let you see this video from the actual scientists who chose the name.

In that video you had a brief look at the fern’s DNA sequence with GAGA in it. Maybe an explanation of the significance of these letters to all of us might be helpful.

DNA’s famous double helix shape is made up of 4 chemicals – yes, only 4 chemicals. They’ve each got a fancy scientific name and, fortunately, biologists often refer to them by just their initial letter. The 4 chemicals are thus called A, C, G and T. You saw them in the video but they didn’t say what they were.

Each physical characteristic that organisms inherit, whether it’s a genetic instruction to a group of cells to turn into blood, or a leaf, or produce hormones, is contained in specific sections of the DNA. The various combinations of the 4 chemicals form the “programming” for these instructions. You’ve guessed that there’s a limited number of combinations 4 chemicals can make, so each “programme” can consist of several hundreds or thousands of these combinations. The chemicals G and A can quite often appear together, and less often repeat themselves as GAGA. Even less often they appear within a larger combination of chemicals, and so on, until the full sequence making one specific genetic instruction is produced.

The video explains that the GAGA combination is found in exactly the same place in the DNA sequence in all 19 species of the ferns. It doesn’t occur in the same place in other ferns, nor in any other living organism. That, and the other reasons given in the video, make the GAGA combination a significant feature of the 19 fern species. This was enough for biologists to create a new genus called Gaga, and even several ferns with other botanical names were found to have the GAGA sequence and were renamed Gaga.

Unfortunately for other celebrities scientists are beginning to think about abandoning Latin names for plants and animals and using English names instead, even in China or up the Zambezi. This makes no sense as, even in English, one organism could have a different English name in every country, or even in every town (I know of 3 different words used in England for a hedgehog, for instance). Biologists will get confused if they start using more than one name, which is why Latin names began to be used in the first place. Who cares if the names sound funny or unpronounceable? There’s plenty of scientists out there with equally funny and unpronounceable names. Try telling them that they’ve got to change them.

Human DNA also contains sequences with GAGA but not in the middle of the long sequence found only in the Gaga ferns. From the biggest dinosaur to the smallest amoeba there’s a bit of GAGA somewhere in all of us!