Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Four Santas of Advent : 3) Meet the Wife

Every good man deserves a good woman, the old saying goes, and no more so than with Santa Claus. Though long before he had a same-sex partner he had a wife. It may have taken several hundred years before Santa got a wife, but Mrs. Claus is now an equally essential part of any Christmas season.

Perhaps the reason it took so long for Santa to be given a wife is probably because until the Victorian period he was still largely regarded as an incarnation of St. Nicholas, a medieval Catholic bishop who would not have been allowed to have a wife. The first time a Mrs. Claus was presented to the world was in the Christmas 1851 edition of “The Yale Literary Magazine”. Sadly we don’t know the name of the person who wrote about her in an article entitled “Holiday Week”, only as A.B.

Mrs. Claus didn’t really re-appear in recognisable form until 1887 when an article in the “Good Housekeeping” magazine gave a description of how she was dressed. The main purpose behind her presence, however, was to instruct the article’s author, who was describing a dream he had, on how to build the perfect kitchen.

The definitive Mrs. Claus appeared two years later in 1889 in a poem called “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride” by Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929). The poem was included in a book of verse for children, yet Katharine gives a feminist spin on the Claus household. The name “Goody” was a colloquialism for “Goodwife”, a term that was very popular in the olden days used instead of the more formal Mrs. It’s a term that wreaks of the old-fashioned notion that a good wife stays at home in the kitchen (ideally the perfect kitchen) while the husband went out to work. And that is precisely the view of the Claus household that people had in those days and, in some areas, still do today.

Katharine Lee Bates gave her Mrs. Claus a will strong enough to persuade her husband to let her get out of the house, away from the kitchen with its Christmas sweets, Thanksgiving turkey and rainbow chicken that laid Easter eggs. Santa Claus welcomes his wife onto the sleigh for his Christmas Eve travels. The only time Santa is a bit reluctant to share his duties is when Mrs. Claus asks if she can go down a chimney instead of him and deliver the presents herself. However, Santa lets her have her chance at gift-bringing. Once all the presents have been distributed the Claus’s return home. Katharine’s poem about the adventures of Goody Claus, Mrs. Claus, became very popular.

To link Mrs. Claus with last week’s article on Leyendecker Santa I’ve put two illustrations side by side (below). The image on the left is the cover of a late Victorian edition of Katharine’s “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride”. It doesn’t actually show Mrs. Claus, but it does show Santa very clearly and, as you can see, he isn’t dressed in the familiar red outfit, but in a long yellow robe. The image on the right comes from a postcard of 1919 depicting the Claus couple. By 1919 J. C. Leyendecker’s Santas had become hugely popular and illustrators were painting Santa in the familiar red outfit favoured by him.
Katharine Lee Bates never became “Mrs.” or “Goodwife” herself. She never married. In 1891 she became an Associate Professor at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. There she had met Katharine Coman, a tutor in history and political theory who later became Dean of the college. Their relationship has been described as a Boston Marriage, so named because of many female partnerships that developed in that area in the late 1800s.

In 1893 Katharine Lee Bates travelled across America. These were the days long before the expansion of cities and metropolises and unspoilt countryside. The many natural wonders of the landscape impressed her so much that she composed a poem immortalising those wonders. It first appeared in print on 4th July 1895. Once people had begun to set the poem to music the words became an anthem of America. The poem, and the song, is called “America the Beautiful”, the unofficial second national anthem of he USA.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Felica Esperanto Tago (Happy Esperanto Day)

The Rainbow Pride flag with the international symbol for Esperanto, a green star.
Tomorrow is one of the lesser-known annual worldwide celebration - Esperanto Day, often called Zamenhof Day after the language’s creator. Esperanto is 230 years old this year and, like everything else, has followers in the lgbt community.

Let’s have a look at two gay men who are leading figures in the world of Esperanto. One was President of the World Esperanto Association and the other was the founder of the League of Homosexual Esperantists.

John Christopher (or JC as he is usually known) Wells was born in 1939 in Bootle, Merseyside, an area of England known for it’s distinctive regional accent. He was raised in Lancashire and Derbyshire. Wells’ interest in languages began when he was at primary school. He started to learn French and when he started at prep school, Latin. He left school with “O” levels (school education certificates) in French, Latin and Greek.

It was after leaving school at the age of 16 that Wells became interested in Esperanto. With an obvious talent for learning languages he became fluent quite quickly, and is also a talent which manifested itself in another area of spoken language – phonetics.

At the very heart of every language is the way it sounds. You may recognise German or Chinese even if you don’t understand it. Phonetics gives a scientific approach to how a language is spoken, even within regional pronunciations of the same word. Esperanto uses the phonetics of languages that have common origins to produce a language that sounds relatively familiar to them all. JC Wells learnt a specific form of phonetic writing when he was at Cambridge University which was at one time common among secretarial students, shorthand. It helped him to develop a form of phonetic writing which is the international standard for recording pronunciation. Wells’s fascination for phonetics led to him studying the subject as an undergraduate at University College London (UCL), where he went on to become a lecturer and Head of the Phonetics and Linguistics Department.

JC Wells’ PhD dissertation was on the Jamaican dialect in London, later published in 1973. This was a result of his relationship at the time with a West Indian, and later on with a native of Montserrat, Gabriel, who became his civil partner.

From 1958 Wells attended many international Esperanto conferences around Europe. Several years later he realised that the Esperanto-English dictionaries in print were somewhat outdated. So he compiled a new one which was published in 1969.

In 1971 Wells became a member of the Academy of Esperanto, and between 1989 and 1995 was President of the World Esperanto Association. His work on phonetics has influenced the whole field of philology (the study of languages) and he was responsible for revising the system of symbols used to teach phonetics worldwide – the International Phonetic Alphabet. It’s often how the pronunciation of words is given on Wikipedia. Wells continues to write on phonetics in his retirement.

The Ligo de Samseksamaj Geesperantistoj (the League for Homosexual Esperantists or LSG) celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. It was founded in 1977 by Peter Dunning (1928-2002). Peter was born in Berlin and his family were among the few lucky ones able to escape Germany in 1937.

Peter became an enthusiastic Esperantist and joined the Esperanto Association of Britain. He was one of many British Esperantists who, as well as J. C. Wells, attended many international conferences.

After recognising that a large number of Esperantists were gay Peter decided there was enough interest to found an lgbt group in 1977, the LSG, which gained recognition from the Esperanto Association of Britain. Peter ran the LSG virtually single-handedly from the beginning from his home in Twickenham, which he also ran as a guest house, and later from his flat in Richmond-on-Thames, Surrey.

By the time he had moved to Richmond the LSG had members in 40 different countries. Local groups met regularly in most of them. In 1990 the LSG asked to be formally incorporated with the World Esperanto Association. This was granted, though not without the inevitable opposition from committee members who were traditionalist Esperantists and from countries where homosexuality was illegal.

Peter Dunning was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the late 1990s and he lessened his workload as the illness took its toll. He died in October 2002.

The legacy Peter left was of a vibrant international lgbt Esperanto group which attends the World Esperanto Conferences on a regular basis. In 2010 the Chief Executive Officer of the World Esperanto Association, Osmo Buller, declared that the conference could not be held in any country where homosexuality is illegal.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Four Santas of Advent : 2) Queer Gift-bringers

If there’s ever going to be something that definitely causes controversy among traditionalists over Santa Claus it’s the suggestion of any gay connection. Evangelical Christian churches and far-right groups, and quite a few parents, wouldn’t like the idea of a gay Santa going anywhere near their children.

When it comes to being someone who represents Santa for the season in shopping centres and malls the fact that you are gay is a very delicate matter considering the general view still prevalent in many conservative, traditionalist areas (especially in the USA but very rarely anywhere else) that gay men are a danger to children. So, when a documentary called “I Am Santa Claus” was aired in the US in 2014 which featured a gay man who was a professional Santa there was the predictable outcry.

The Santa in question was Jim Stevenson (pictured below), and he is one of the many hundreds of men who become Santa every year. It’s a recognised profession with unions and organisations run by and for themselves. Stevenson, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and was 73 when the documentary was made, is also a titleholder of several “bear” contests. He is proud of both achievements.
There were several professional Santas who objected to him being involved in their work purely because he is openly gay, but not while being Santa. On the whole, though, reactions to Jim’s appearance in the documentary were positive. It seems his critics hadn’t watched it. Like all true Santa Claus incarnations you meet in the shopping centres Jim is a dedicated professional, and just like all the others, once he puts on that red suit he stops being himself and becomes Santa.

One other recent upset occurred earlier this year when Harper Collins announced it was publishing a children’s book in which Santa is portrayed as being gay and black. Not only that, but instead of Mrs. Claus he is married to another Mr. Claus, a more traditional-looking white male Santa. As you would expect there was a massive outcry from certain people and traditionalists.

It all started this time last year. Of the many thousands of Santas who materialise in shopping centres and Christmas grottos every year most of them (in the USA at least) are white. When one shopping centre chose a black man to receive the essence of Santa there was a huge outcry on social media.

All the fuss led American humourist Daniel Kibblesmith and his wife to tweet that they would teach thier future children that the real Santa Claus was black was that his white husband is the one we see on Christmas cards and in grottos. It was all meant to be a bit of satire but some people took it seriously. One person responded to the tweet with “Stop rewriting history”. As we already know from the way Santa Claus is dressed that the way he looks today is NOT how he looked in history. No-one accused J. C. Leyendecker of rewriting history by never painting Santa Claus in anything other than red.

The best response came from illustrator A. P. Quach who almost immediately conjured up an illustration of the inter-racial Santas in an embrace looking dreamingly into each others eyes. Quach also received a lot of online trolling, but it gave him and Kibblesmith the impetus to produce an actual book telling the story of the two Santas. In October the book “Santa’s Husband” was published.

Whether a black, gay Santa will ever become mainstream only time will tell. Perhaps a black Santa, which I imagine is not all that uncommon in some nations, may catch on quicker than a gay one.

For the majority of the western English-speaking world it comes as a surprise to learn that Father Christmas/Santa Claus doesn’t deliver all the presents on his own in one night. He has help, and some helpers deliver his presents on different nights. Santa may be the supreme gift-bringer but other cultures have their own characters.

One of the earliest characters who brought Christmas gifts, characters who pre-date Father Christmas, are the ones who appear in the Bible nativity story. They are known today as the Three Kings, the Three Wise Men or the Three Magi. They bring Christmas gifts to a lot of traditional Catholic nations on 6th January. The current thinking about the Three Kings is that they were priests or shamans from eastern religions. The Bible doesn’t actually mention them as being kings, male, or that there were three of them. Popular medieval culture, both religious and secular, developed a whole back story for them and turned them into the Three Kings we are familiar with today.
As eastern priests around the start of the first century it is quite possible that one, or all, of the “Three Kings” were eunuch, transgender or intersex. Many priests of eastern beliefs did have some kind of gender variation and were seen as having a special link to their deities. Even at the time of the Nativity itself there were eunuch, transgender and intersex priests all around the Roman Empire. Perhaps it is time for society to stop calling them the Three Kings, because for all we know they could all have self-identified as female – Three Queens.

From the first Christmas gift-bringers we end with one of the most recent, or at least one of the most recently rediscovered. For this we revisit my article on Galicia and the earliest same-sex marriage in Spain.

In the traditional culture of Galicia is a Christmas character called El Apalpador. He is a character who is rapidly becoming my favourite Christmas character, and he seems to have developed out of the native Celtic heritage in the early medieval period. Like Santa he is a large man with a big bushy beard, though unlike Santa his beard is ginger in colour (not unlike my own before it turned white), an indication, perhaps, of his Celtic origin. The Celts of Ireland are famous for their red hair and Ireland is part of the old Celtic “empire”. El Apalpador lives in the woods and is dressed in appropriately rugged working clothes who, like Santa, carries a sack of presents. Traditionally, these presents were chestnuts which he left on Christmas Eve, or in some places on New Year’s Eve, after going around as the children slept to check they had not gone hungry that year. He left the chestnuts to ensure they had something to eat in the coming winter months. Similar characters from the same area of northern Spain and Portugal also exist. It would be interesting to find out if this gift-bringing has any connection to the legends of St. Nicholas and when each legend began to find out which came first – Apalpador or St Nick.

El Apalpador began to disappear during the Middle Ages and the Three Kings became the primary gift-bringer at Christmas. In parts of Galicia the traditions of El Apalpador lingered and in recent years has re-emerged as a popular Christmas character, thanks to the work of Galician nationalists who began actively promoting their culture’s heritage. This became very successful and people dress up as El Apalpador just as they do as Santa Claus. Which brings me to that article on same-sex marriage in Galicia.

That marriage was made widely known due to the research of Galician historian, politician and gay activist Carlos Cállon. He is a major figure in the re-discovery of Galician tradition and heritage. We’ll end with this image of Carlos dressed as El Apalpador at a Galician national celebration in 2012. And whoever brings your Christmas presents this year I hope he/she/they brings what you desire the most.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Last Homophobic Law in the UK?

In this year in which the UK celebrates the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts it also commemorates the 20th anniversary this month of the origin of the last homophobic law passed by the UK parliament, what was to become Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.

The UK still reels at the mention of Section 28. It created more protest than any other piece of legislation since, perhaps, the 1970s. It galvanised the lgbt community into unified action for the first time since the Sexual Offences Act 1967, and was the catalyst for the creation of several leading lgbt pressure groups and organisations, of which Stonewall is the most well known.

The Local Government Act contained legislation on a variety of matters that were the responsibility of local authorities, such as planning permission, council contracts, and dog licenses. Section 28 stated that no local authority in the UK (except Northern Ireland) was allowed to “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”.

There are several theories as to why Section 28 was introduced. Most people just cling on to the idea that Mrs. Thatcher, the Prime Minister, was homophobic. But that doesn’t explain why she was one of the MPs who, in 1967, voted in favour of the Sexual Offences Act (the Labour Prime Minister at the time didn’t). My theory encompasses the vibrant British music scene, youth culture and trade union machinations in the 1980s.

Social attitudes to gay men were changing in the 1960s and 70s. The era of glam rock probably helped to encourage the acceptance among the younger generation that a visible gender-bending and androgynous look was fashionable. Bowie and Bolan set the trend in make-up and flamboyant dress that appealed to many young men who had not come out as gay which allowed them to still express their sexuality visually. Many of the older generation thought this was unmanly but never overtly labelled these youngsters of being gay. After all, there were many straight young men who dressed the same way. But then the AIDS crisis emerged.

In the 1980s glam rock virtually disappeared and was replaced by the New Romantics. Any man now seen wearing make-up in public was denounced as a “puff” and often beaten up because of the misguided belief that AIDS made it okay to victimise gay men. Many gay men were assaulted and murdered during the early years of AIDS and being gay was unacceptable to the majority of society. In 1987 before the Local Government Act became law a national survey revealed that 75% of the UK population considered homosexuality was “always or mostly wrong”.

Mrs. Thatcher and her Conservative government seemed to have the backing of the British public. The Labour Party in opposition cannot be regarded as being any different. In fact the national survey also found that 67% of Labour Party members also said that homosexuality was “always or mostly wrong”, the highest percentage of any political party (the Conservative’s were 61%).

What gave the false impression that the Labour Party were opposed to Section 28 was the after-effects of the events of five years earlier during the Miner’s Strike. Thatcher’s government had ordered the closure of many coal mines. The trade unions and Labour Party fought back with a strike that turned many coal mines into battlefields as violent picket lines developed in many areas. I, myself, was on the receiving end of one such battle. As I was travelling by bus into a local town we passed a coal mine where there was a picket line. A brick was thrown through the bus’s windscreen purely because it was a bus that was used by miners to get to work. Thankfully, no-one was injured though we all felt very intimidated.

Many members of the lgbt community supported the Miner’s Strike and several support groups were formed during its run. Among the most famous is the “Lesbian Support the Miners” group. A recent film about this period called “Pride” distorted the facts for the sake of entertainment yet people believe what they see in the film is true. It isn’t, except for the fact that there was a strike. Very quickly left-wing activists jumped on the bandwagon (as they did during the recent protest against the UK leaving the European Union) in what became a general anti-Thatcher campaign that continued after the strike ended. Other political issues pushed the two sides further left and right, and that, I believe is how Section 28 came into being.

The subject of Section 28, the education system, was also very anti-Thatcher at the time. Unpopular reform had been taking place throughout Thatcher’s first years in power. In 1980 guidance was published for local education authorities to help them formulate their curriculum policies. It included “advice” that no sex education lesson should include homosexuality. The next year the government made a firm decision to ensure all schools followed that “advice”.
In the next couple of years several school libraries began stocking pioneering lgbt education books for young people. The most famous of these was “Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin”, a photo story about a gay couple and their daughter. Many parents were offended and their views were echoed in the still very homophobic British press which itself influenced the views of many other people. The lgbt community felt they were being accused of being a threat to what was generally called “family values”.

By 1987 the Thatcher government began to worry that they might not be re-elected in that year’s General Election. During the election campaign they took advantage of the feeling of the majority of the electorate’s anti-gay attitudes and used scare tactics by saying that teaching about homosexuality could turn children gay. With the public still very much opposed to a homosexual lifestyle Mrs. Thatcher was able to win her second term in office.

By December 1987 Conservative MPs Jill Knight and David Wilshire succeeded in introducing Section 28 into the Local Government Bill that was going through parliament. The efforts of Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, Labour peer Lord McIntosh of Haringey and the Bishop of Liverpool to introduce a compromise amendment to replace Section 28 was defeated in both Houses of Parliament. There was now nothing to stop Section 28 from becoming law on 24th May 1988.

It was May 1997 before the Conservatives were voted out of office and a new Labour government took over with the express aim of repealing Section 28. That moment took time, due to the large, lingering, pro-Section 28 faction in parliament and the public. Eventually, in 2003 a new Local Government Act which would repeal the original one was introduced and approved by parliament. It became law on 18th September 2003 and Section 28 was at last consigned to the dustbin of history.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Four Santas of Advent : 1) The Ultimate Santa

Christmas is approaching rapidly and today is the first of the Advent Sundays. This year I feature the most popular (of the many) Christmas gift-bringers – Father Christmas, or Santa Claus. I use these names to identify the same character though, technically, that have different origins: Santa Claus – a Christian saint; Father Christmas – a pagan winter god. Father Christmas is a much older character than Santa Claus, who developed in Dutch colonial America. The characters have now become synonymous.
Which of the four characters pictured above is Santa Claus? Actually they all are, but who are you most likely to meet (in the English-speaking world at least) in the Christmas grotto of your local shopping centre/mall? Its number 4 of course. The others are: 1) a traditional early Victorian Father Christmas, 2) a Scandinavian Father Christmas gnome from the same period, and 3) Sire Christmas, the earliest depiction of Father Christmas from England in the 1600s.

Did you know that those first three Father Christmas’s are not recognisable to children as Santa today because of the art produced by a gay man a hundred years ago? It was the illustrations in The Saturday Evening Post by J. C. Leyendecker (1874-1951) that finally established forever the look of our present-day Santa Claus.
A typical Leyendecker Santa
The way that Father Christmas, Santa Claus and his many other incarnations (which include St Nicholas of Myra and Sinterklaas) have been portrayed over the centuries is worthy of a massive encyclopaedia (I think one must have been published). Until Leyendecker artists had portrayed Father Christmas and Santa Claus in a variety of colours and styles. He could be tall or elf-like, fat or thin, with a beard or without. There was no definitive image, not even on Victorian Christmas cards. Leyendecker didn’t invent the red-coated, white bearded version we instantly recognise as Santa Claus today but his portraits were so powerful that Leyendecker is the reason we don’t see Santa dressed in green, blue, yellow or in any other of his earlier manifestations.

J. C. Leyendecker was from a German immigrant family and studied art and engraving in Chicago and Paris. In 1899 he was approached by the Saturday Evening Post to produce a cover, the first of over 300 he produced for the magazine over a period of 44 years.

Most of Leyendecker’s covers were not Christmas orientated but many were seasonal – Thanksgiving, Easter, Mother’s Day and New Year. Most of the work for the Post and others often featured the same male model. He was Leyendecker’s lover Charles Beach. In fact Leyendecker’s artwork turned Beach into a something of a minor celebrity. People would stop Beach in the street because they recognised him from Leyendecker’s work, mainly from advertising material for shirts and socks. Charles Beach became Leyendecker’s manager and agent and pushed the artist’s work to a stage where Leyendecker was earning the equivalent of a million dollars and more a year. The couple built a huge mansion for themselves and held lavish parties to rival those of Elsa Maxwell.

It is Leyendecker’s Santa Claus illustrations which fixed our image of the loveable Christmas gift-bringer forever. So much so that the work of his contemporary and fellow Saturday Evening Post artist Norman Rockwell, and the famous 1930s Coca Cola advertising campaign featuring a Leyendecker Santa, mean that thousands of men every year dress in identical costume to recreate the Santa popularised by Leyendecker.

The first of Leyendecker’s Santas for the Saturday Evening Post, however, was a little different. It featured on the cover of the Christmas 1912 edition and showed an old, thin man dressed as Santa in a long, grubby red coat. This was an example of topical references he often incorporated into his illustrations. This 1912 Santa actually depicts one of the many Salvation Army volunteers who used to stand on streets and ring a bell and collect donations from passers-by. In August that year the founder of the Salvation Army, Gen. William Booth, died and Leyendecker’s illustration was a tribute to him. (I’m actually writing this in the café bar of the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham, my daily writing location. The building was originally the Methodist chapel that Nottingham-boy William Booth worshipped in before founding the Salvation Army. A plaque in entrance foyer commemorates this fact.)

In the USA the Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations have achieved iconic status and have come to symbolise an ideal Americanised way of life. Its influence is seen in many other American publications, not to mention Coca Cola adverts, and in something which I find particularly appropriate and can’t live without at Christmas. I’ve always been a fan of the Carpenters, Richard and Karen (I’m related to them through their English father), and I have all of their studio albums on vinyl. In 1978 they released their first Christmas album. Little did I know at the time that the album cover was a direct tribute to the Santa covers of the Saturday Evening Post (compared side by side below). Their Santa owes more to the work of Norman Rockwell in depicting him without his famous red coat and in a more informal setting, but Rockwell greatly admired Leyendecker and continued his Santa tradition. Today, no-one thinks of Santa in any other way.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Putting A Stamp On AIDS Awareness

There have been many ways in which HIV and AIDS awareness has been promoted. One that is easily overlooked is postage stamps. Stamp collecting is a huge pastime around the world and many children, including myself, get the collecting bug by being introduced to stamps. Serious philatelists often concentrate on one or more theme depicted on the stamp rather than collect every single stamp that has been issued.

I was quite surprised to find that there are many collectors of stamps issued for World AIDS Day and HIV/AIDS awareness in general. I wasn’t aware of that many stamps on the subject but digging deeper I found that there are hundreds of them. The strips of stamps above and below come from just the first rows of AIDS stamps which appeared when I googled the subject.

AIDS has been highlighted on postage stamps since 1988. Several nations issued stamps to commemorate the first World AIDS Day held in that year, including the ones pictured left which were issued by San Marino.

In 2009 the Universal Postal Union (UPU) started an initiative to promote awareness of the disease with the use of other material such as postcards, posters and leaflets for use in post offices. The UPU was created in 1874 and became a specialised agency of the United Nations in 1948. Over 20 nations have taken part in the 2009 initiative, including Burkina Faso, Kazakhstan, Russia and Iraq.

There are also philatelists who specialise even further and concentrate on collecting stamps depicting famous people, past and present, with HIV/AIDS. More often than not these stamps make no specific AIDS reference and are issues to commemorate the individual.

AIDS awareness stamps continue to be produced. According to Stephen Lorimer, webmaster of the AIDS On Stamps website (and women’s roller derby referee), the only year in which no known AIDS awareness stamps were issued was 2015.

Stephen Lorimer could be regarded as the current world authority on AIDS stamps, but if anyone can be described as a pioneer it is Blair Coldwell Henshaw (1949-2002). Blair was a gay man growing up in Canada. He was a keen stamp collector from his childhood but didn’t start to specialise in AIDS until the first one was issued in 1988. Blair was himself diagnosed with HIV in 1985. He stated that he had no fear of dying because he had been brought up with the frequent presence of death as a child. His mother was a “death-sitter”, someone who stayed by the bedside of those near the time of their passing. His mother instilled in Blair the belief that death is natural no matter what circumstances that may invoke fear and pain and should not be feared itself.

Throughout the following years Blair collected thousands of AIDS stamps and related postal ephemera building it into a collection which may well have been the largest collection of AID-related stamps in the world. His enthusiasm developed into a series of newsletters beginning in 1993 which gave news of new stamps and other postal news and encouraged readers to start their own collections.

Blair had noticed by 1992 that Canada hadn’t issued an AIDS stamp. He began lobbying the government and postal service who received hundreds of suggestions for themes every year. Blair’s suggestion was granted in 1995 and the first Canadian AIDS stamp was issued in May 1995 to commemorate the 11th International AIDS Conference that was held in Vancouver.

Following Blair’s death from AIDS-related complications his whole stamp collection was auctioned off. One of the 72 lots was the entire AIDS stamp collection. It was purchased by John Keenlyside of Vancouver who donated it to the Simon Fraser University Special Collections department in 2004.

In the 21st century the postal service worldwide has declined because of the improvement in communications and email, but I hope commemorative stamps will continue to bring awareness to social and health issues for as long as they exist.

Monday, 27 November 2017

From First to Last : Last

While there are many places around the world where homosexual activity is punishable by death we in the UK think ourselves lucky that the death penalty was lifted in 1861.

A lot of gay men executed in England may never be identified but the final ones have their names perpetuated in the nation’s memory. They were James Pratt and John Smith and they were both executed on this very day in 1835.

There isn’t a great deal of new information I can find concerning the trial as it is covered by various historians online. You can do no better than go to the website of Rictor Norton where you will find a transcript of the trial itself.

Although James Pratt and John Smith both protested their innocence they were both found guilty. Even though their executions proceeded as arranged there were calls for clemency and remission from the death sentence. This article will take a look at those appeals and the people involved in them and their attempts to change the sentence passed down at the trial.

During his sentencing the judge, Sir John Gurney (1768-1945), declared that Pratt and Smith had no hope of lodging an appeal or of being reprieved. Judge Gurney had a reputation for being independent and not susceptible to political pressure. He was, however, very severe in his judgements, particularly early in his career. Therefore his sentence and his opinion on a reprieve were not out of character.

In his later years he mellowed, relatively speaking. There is one court case where he didn’t pass the death sentence on a murderer, which he would undoubtedly have done a few years earlier. In his lifetime Judge Gurney was also known to be an extremely charitable man, giving several hundreds of pounds every year to various worthy causes.

The local magistrate who took the case of James Pratt and John Smith to trial was also charitable. He came from a family with strong humanitarian and philanthropic convictions, the Wedgwoods. Hensleigh Wedgwood (1803-1891) was the police magistrate at the Surrey Magistrates Court in Southwark, the district in which Pratt and Smith were arrested.

Wedgwood had trained as a barrister but never sought a position above that of a magistrate. He resigned this position shortly after the execution of Pratt and Smith, partly on grounds of conscience. He turned to his great passion – etymology and philology, words. He also became heavily involved in the Victorian craze of Spiritualism and séances.

After Pratt and Smith’s trial Wedgwood wrote to the Home Secretary urging him to commute the death sentence. Even though he described Pratt and Smith as “degraded creatures” he wrote that their crime was also practised by many rich men. Because rich men had the money to pay for secure private premises for their activity, or carry them out in the privacy of their large properties, they escaped the punishment that went to poorer people like Pratt and Smith, whose only crime was that they were caught. Wedgwood wrote that the crime of consensual sex between men does no harm to anyone, and in that respect was the only harmless crime punishable by death.

The Home Secretary who received Wedgwood’s letter was Lord John Russell (1792-1878) who would later go on to become Prime Minister. He was an advocate of parliamentary and social reform and was the chief architect of the Reform Act 1832 which extended voting rights and redistributed parliamentary constituencies to reflect the population movement resulting from the Industrial Revolution. There’s no real evidence of his thoughts about acts of sodomy but his career was dominated by matters affecting the whole of society rather than individuals.

Two surprising people who urged the dropping of the death sentence were the married couple who caught Pratt and Smith having sex in one of their rented rooms, George and Jane Berkshire. They put their names to a petition that was collected by friends of James Pratt. Even the Crown Prosecutor at the trial, Mr. Bonill, added his signature.

Various other documents and letters were prepared for a meeting of the Privy Council to be held in Brighton Pavilion, the residence of King William IV. The Privy Council met regularly to decide which appeals against convictions would receive what was called the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. The Council itself was made up of various politicians, officers of state and clergy and it was on their advice that the king would make his decision. Then, as now, the sovereign has little actual choice – the decision of the Privy Council, like parliament, is effectively binding and any sovereign who wants to keep the crown does not challenges them.

The Privy Council met on 21st November 1835 and the cases of 17 men on death row were considered. All but James Pratt and John Smith had their death sentences commuted to either imprisonment or transportation. King William IV’s personal opinions on same-sex relationships are not known, but he was a supporter of Home Secretary Lord John Russell’s parliamentary reforms.

Pratt and Smith were informed of the Privy Council’s decision several days later on the morning of their execution. Presumably, they had already guessed what the decision was when they heard the noise of the scaffold being constructed outside their jail. Hangings were rare in those days and they were the only ones awaiting execution in that jail.

James Pratt and John Smith were hanged simultaneously at 8 a.m. on Friday 27th November 1835. No one knew it at the time, because the death penalty for sodomy wasn’t lifted until 1861, that they had become the last men who would be hanged for a homosexual act in England and Wales.