Category Archives: biography

Gay History: A Gay Martyr Who Ignited A Global Revolution

Biography: Harvey Milk, Lillian Faderman, Yale University Press, €21.99, JP O’ Malley

Sean Penn (left) won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected politician, in the 2008 film ‘Milk’

On November 18, 1977, Harvey Milk distributed a secret tape recording to a select network of close friends: “To be played only in the event of my death by assassination,” the audio began: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door,” the statement concluded.

Milk made the recordings shortly after becoming the first openly gay man to be elected to public-political office anywhere; when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Just one year later he was murdered by Dan White.

White, a fellow supervisor on San Francisco’s governing body, killed Milk because he claimed the city was being turned into Sodom by men who insisted on flaunting their homosexuality in public.

As historian and scholar of the LGBT movement, Lillian Faderman, explains in the concluding chapter of this concise, yet enormously insightful biography, Milk’s murder immortalised him forever: igniting a nationwide call to action from the LGBT community to demand equality, free from prejudice.

At the last Gay Freedom Day rally he attended before his death, Milk proposed that gay people across America gather in the US capital. On October 14, 1979, the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights had 100,000 people in attendance.

As Faderman notes, support for the LGBT movement grew in numbers over time: the second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987 drew 600,000 people; while the third in 1993 attracted close to a million. As of 2016, 43 states across the US have elected at least one LGBT person to their state legislature. And this historic progressive change spread further afield.

Indeed, it’s possible to draw a line from Milk’s death, to Ireland’s progressive move in 2015 to enshrine marriage equality into law for same sex couples; and the subsequent appointment, two years later, of the country’s first openly gay Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.

A hopeful, moving, and uplifting read, Faderman’s book tells the story of a man that didn’t fit the typical criteria for a progressive political martyr. Primarily because Milk lacked consistency in his political allegiances: he could play the liberal-pot smoking hippie, just as he could champion right wing conservatism when it suited him.

Faderman subtly hints that the circumstances of Milk’s personal life meant he never felt entirely comfortable in one firmly-rooted set of political ideals.

Essentially because he was living a double life. Born in 1930, into a conservative Jewish family in Long Island, New York, Milk never came out to either of his parents. Both died knowing nothing of his sexual identity.

As a Jew and homosexual, Milk always saw himself as an outsider who had to fight for social acceptance. He often used analogies of Jews being slaughtered in Nazi Germany. The Holocaust remained a pertinent metaphor in Milk’s speeches and editorials. Drawing lessons from European history, Milk claimed that calling any minority group pariahs, criminals, and demons would naturally only end in catastrophe.

Milk lived much of his life in a peripatetic manner: oscillating between New York, Dallas, and California. He took jobs in teaching, acting, on Wall Street and in the navy too, where he briefly served in Korea. But it was in the Castro area of San Francisco where Milk finally laid down roots and began to interact with a burgeoning gay community.

Then in his forties, Milk, along with his partner Scott Smith, opened Castro Camera: a gay camera photo development shop, which also served as a political constituency office, as well as a popular neighbourhood gay hangout spot too.

Faderman continually stresses that Milk was often shunned by certain sections of the gay community in his own lifetime.

Since the Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1969, a large proportion of the gay community across America had become synonymous with radical politics: seeking to overthrow existing social institutions.

Milk, however, was no committed leftist. He simply sought for gay people to be accepted into mainstream society as it presently stood.

Faderman points out that even martyrs have their flaws too: shortly before his death, the US Attorney General authorised that the FBI look into allegations that Milk had tried to divert funds from the Pride Foundation into his own pocket. We also read how Milk’s love life was mired in anguish, abandonment, heartache, and tragedy. One of his long-time partners, Jack Lira, hanged himself in 1977, leaving Milk a rather nasty suicide note.

Faderman’s narrative mixes the personal and the political with great skill; subtly displaying how at a fundamental level, fighting for collective political rights is really just a human yearning for personal happiness, which usually has its roots in compassion. The book is an exemplary testament to how ordinary citizens – with hope in their hearts and relentless ambition – can swing the pendulum of history towards progress and freedom.

Reference

Gay History: Alan Turing: Gay Man who Saved the World yet Died in Disgrace

What do you do to a homosexual mathematician whose code-breaking genius saved the world during World War II? Not figuratively, but actually saved the world from Nazi domination? You put him on trial, of course! You convict him of gross indecency. You force him to choose prison or chemical castration. You strip him of all dignity and hound him until in shame and despair he swallows a cyanide pill and dies.

The story of Alan Turing is one of the most disgraceful episodes of modern civilization. A man who should have been a hero of the free world and idolized next to Einstein and Newton in the history books was instead hounded to death because of religion-inspired homophobia.

In World War II, Alan Turing’s genius at breaking Nazi secret codes was so successful that the Allies could have sunk almost every single U-boat and convoy that left Germany. Turing’s work was so good it was like cheating at cards: if you win every hand, the other players will quickly figure out that the game is rigged. The Allies had to employ all sorts of tricks to hide their success; if you want a fascinating account, I highly recommend Neal Stephenson’s semi-fictional Cryptonomicon, the story of the rise of modern cryptography.

Alan Turing literally saved the world from Nazi domination. Without his work, WWII would have ended very differently. The Nazi regime might have remained undefeated, still in control of Northern Europe and western Asia. The Japanese might have retained control of East Asia. Our world maps would look vastly different today. And even if we’d won the war, without Turing’s work it’s likely that millions more soldiers and civilians would have died in the fight.

And Turing’s work didn’t end with cryptography. Today he’s best known as the inventor of the modern digital computer, the one who laid down the mathematical foundation for all computer science. His name is even enshrined in two of the most important computer-science concepts, the Turing machine and the Turing test.

If Alan Turing hadn’t been homosexual, his name might be a household word like Einstein, Newton and Galileo. What home doesn’t have a computer? If you count the laptops, cell phones, digital TVs, iPods, digital cameras and microwave ovens in your home, I’ll bet you own more than a dozen computing devices. Every one of them works on the principles laid down by Alan Turing during WWII when he was trying to develop a computing machine to break the enemy’s codes even faster.

Turing’s fall from grace came at the hands of the religious commi-bashing right, the British equivalent of America’s McCarthyism. In 1952 a gay lover helped an accomplice rob Turing’s house. During the police investigation, it came out that Turing was a homosexual. He was arrested and convicted of gross indecency, and given a choice of prison or chemical castration. Turing choose castration.

On June 7, 1954, at just forty two years of age, Alan Mathison Turing killed himself by swallowing cyanide. One of the greatest minds in the history of humankind was lost forever, and one of the greatest heroes of World War II died in shame and disgrace.

But the real shame is on the rest of us, not Alan Turing. In spite of his sexual orientation and consequent hardships he must have experienced, he remained a true patriot and mathematician. He put his mind to work to save the very society that persecuted him. It is possible that he changed history and saved more lives than any other single person in the twentieth century.

On September 10, 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown finally issued a public apology to Turing’s memory:

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him … So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

It is stories like Turing’s that keep me writing. It’s easy to have a live-and-let-live attitude toward the immoral “morality” of the Bible. It sounds nice to advocate tolerance and respect. But Alan Turing is dead, and the Bible is where it all started.

Reference

Gay History: Leigh Bowery

Leigh Bowery and Boy George.

“I will always remember the moment when a pretty faced, slightly chubby blonde boy turned up at the door of The Cha Cha Club wearing a rather hideous blue velvet cape. He told me his name was Leigh Bowery, followed by, “Graham sent me to you.” It was late October 1981.

My friend Graham Parnham had met Leigh at Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World earlier that month. Leigh didn’t know anybody on the club scene in London so Graham had sent him along to my club telling him that I would look after him. “You’ll like him.” Graham had told me, “. . . he’s Australian and a bit bonkers.” Graham was right. I liked him immediately.

Leigh had a generous spirit and sharp wit, was extremely polite and charming. I told him I’d be glad to let him in to the club so long as he promised me that he would never wear that velvet cape again. We laughed, the first of many laughs that we were to have.

It would be two or three years before Leigh started creating looks and dressing in his extraordinary and very outrageous style. Back in 1982 and 83 he wanted to be a fashion designer and would create 1940s inspired pyjama suits for me, Trojan and himself.

He’d make me dresses to wear to the club, shrewdly knowing that they would be photographed aplenty. He’d hand write labels with indelible laundry marker and stitch them into his creations. I would look forward to the Tuesday afternoons when Leigh would arrive with something new to wear out that night.

The world quite rightly remembers Leigh Bowery as the brilliant and unique performance artist that he became. Though we remained friends throughout his life, for me there is a sweetness to remembering our close friendship of those early years and the extraordinary evolution of the pretty faced, slightly chubby blonde boy in the hideous blue velvet cape.

We lost Graham to AIDS in the spring of 1994.

We lost Leigh the same year, on New Year’s Eve.”

— by Scarlett Cannon

Sex, sin and sausages: the debauched brilliance of Leigh Bowery

His shocking shows – featuring births, enemas and vomiting – thrilled and appalled. Two decades after his death, why is the influence of this 80s nightclub legend still so pervasive?

‘He was modern art on legs’ … Leigh Bowery in a jacket he customised. Photograph: Mark Baker/Photoshot/Getty Images

e was painted naked and sprawling by Lucian Freud. He “gave birth” to his own wife on stage, using sausages as an umbilical cord. And he was the star turn in Taboo, perhaps the most debauched nightclub Britain has ever seen, hosting the revelry with his face painted blue, his nose and nipples pierced and his outfit as intimidatingly outlandish as possible. But there was much more to Leigh Bowery than sheer outrageousness – and his range, daring and influence are now starting to be appreciated by a new generation.

Perhaps the most prominent sign of this reappraisal comes from Australian choreographer Andy Howitt, who is bringing Sunshine Boy, a new show about the nightlife legend, to the Edinburgh fringe this summer. “I was at the National Gallery in Melbourne and there was a big sculpture that said, ‘By Leigh Bowery from Sunshine’,” he says. “I was like, ‘That can’t be the Leigh Bowery from the 80s dance scene.’ It sparked me on a journey to find out about the man.”

Bowery did indeed hail from Sunshine, a suburb of Melbourne with around 10,000 inhabitants. Howitt visited it and spoke to his family, as well as to those in London who had known him. “You have to remember his backstory,” says Howitt. “He only lived in London for 14 years. He sold up shop at 19 or 20 and went straight there and became the icon.” Howitt fed his findings into Sunshine Boy, telling the story of Bowery’s life through dance, spoken word passages, music and, naturally, those showstopping costumes. Howitt’s performance ranges from his childhood to the Taboo years and then to his death from Aids in 1994 at the age of 33.

Umbilical sausages … Leigh Bowery ‘giving birth’ to his wife. Photograph: James Hill/Rex

.Umbilical sausages … Leigh Bowery ‘giving birth’ to his wife. Photograph: James Hill/Rex

As Sunshine Boy suggests, Bowery remains a larger-than-life persona in underground culture, even 24 years after his death. What made him so different from the other 80s club kids? Partly his looks, which still seem strikingly original. As the impresario of Taboo, he wore a different, jaw-dropping outfit every week. There was the shiny PVC mask and matching catsuit, with one larger leg as if in plaster. There was the polka dot suit worn with polka dot face. There were the lightbulbs he’d wear on either side of his face, the coloured drips that would cover his bald head, the merkin he’d place over his genitals. And then there was his wife, Nicola Bateman, worn naked and strapped upside-down to his chest. (Although Bowery described himself as gay, he married his longtime companion and sometime lover Bateman seven months before his death.)

But Bowery’s creativity was not confined to clubs. He worked with the dancer and choreographer Michael Clark, creating costumes and co-starring in his performances. He appeared in the windows of the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, wearing a different outfit each day of the week. He fronted a band, Minty, and – perhaps most famously – modelled nude several times for Freud. On the back of the Freud connection, Bowery hit the mainstream from various directions. He appeared in a commercial for Pepe Jeans and guested on The Clothes Show on BBC One, taking tea in Harrods dressed in a succession of astonishing get-ups to the soundtrack of his hero, drag star Divine.

Bowery also engaged in more conventional creative work. He was an art director on the 1991 video for Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy, a stylist for Rifat Özbek, a costume designer for Culture Club (Boy George would co-write and star in a successful musical about Bowery). His career resists categorisation. Asked what he most deplored in others by the Guardian in 1993, Bowery replied: “The urge to categorise: if you label me, you negate me.” Perhaps Boy George came up with the most accurate description when he described Bowery as “modern art on legs”. He turned himself, his body and his image into an art object, one that walked among us as well as appeared on stages and in the windows of galleries.

“People are always telling me about the time they saw him,” says Sue Tilley, Bowery’s friend and the author of Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon. “It was probably only once, but he made such an impact they have never forgotten it.” DJ Princess Julia met Bowery in the early 80s, both part of a crowd that included the artist Cerith Wyn Evans, Boy George, Clark, and Bowery’s friend and frequent co-star Trojan. Julia says Bowery, who started off working at Burger King to make ends meet, quickly became a fixture on the scene: “He was very influential because he was very inventive. He was always coming up with ideas.”

His looks, she says, were often inspired by what was happening in wider society. “The dot face, for example, was a comment on Kaposi’s sarcoma” – the cancer which caused the facial lesions that struck many Aids sufferers in the 80s. “His work was about things like body image or illnesses – and those things haven’t gone away. It confronts you and frightens you and makes you think. It’s very disruptive, to use a word of the moment.”

There is a clear line from Bowery to the performers and punters exploring extreme looks today. Glyn Fussell is the founder of Sink the Pink, a playground for the artistic side of drag culture. He says that while the twentysomethings who come to the London club probably haven’t heard of Bowery, his influence is present. “You see it fashion, you see it in the underground, you see it in mainstream culture, in RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Howdy … Bowery at home in 1984. Photograph: Steve Pyke/Getty

It is in fashion that Bowery’s influence is most explicit. Rick Owens’ “human backpack” collection in 2015 was a tribute to Bowery carrying Bateman like a papoose. Menswear designer Charles Jeffrey runs a club called Loverboy that stage shows verging on performance art, much like Bowery. And, with his floral gowns and matching face masks, Richard Quinn, the young London designer who had the Queen in attendance at his February show, has clearly been inspired by Bowery.

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For Gareth Pugh, Bowery is a consistent reference. The designer first learned about him in Fergus Greer’s 2002 book Leigh Bowery Looks: “If you go into any suburban art college you’ll always find that book in the fashion section.” Bowery is inspirational, he believes, becausehe “ created his own language. That’s the golden fleece for any fashion designer: to find something they can be known for 30 years down the line – and for it to be so iconic.”

Of course, some elements of Bowery’s work haven’t aged so well, driven by his relentless desire to shock. One of his most infamous looks was called “Pakis from Outer Space”, inspired by the Asian communities near where Bowery lived in the East End and involving blue faces, bindis and nose rings. He made blouses out of material bearing swastikas, used rags stolen from Jewish artist Freud’s studio to make an image of Hitler and appeared, naked, in makeup similar to blackface, for a Minty publicity photo.

This preoccupation with the extreme offended plenty of people. Clark stopped working with Bowery when he insisted on wearing a costume with “a cunt” written on it. Minty saw their residency at the Soho club Freedom cut short because of a show that involved Bowery “vomiting” vegetable soup into Bateman’s mouth.

Perhaps Bowery’s work was radical satire, all part of a life lived without taboos. Shocking people – and perhaps waking them up – was the ultimate aim. Speaking about a show at an Aids benefit, in which he had an enema on stage that sprayed the front row, he said: “I was quite pleased with the hostile reaction. If I have to ask, ‘Is this idea too sick?’ I know I am on the right track.”

“The idea,” says Pugh, “of wilfully doing things that get a rise out of people. He had this idea of something that is bereft of control, for good or for bad.”

A ticket to the mainstream … one of Lucian Freud’s portraits of Bowery. Photograph: Bridgeman Images

“I don’t think he was setting out with a racist heart,” says Fussell. “He was challenging the status quo. It was about challenging what he was seeing on the streets and making it hyper-realised.”

Howitt’s 40-minute show will cover Bowery’s triumphs, disasters and premature death. Bowery found out he was HIV positive in 1988 and died six years later, not long before combination therapies greatly prolonged the lives of those with the disease. “A lot of people say that if he had survived another month, he would have been OK,” says Howitt.

Tilley often finds herself wondering what Bowery might have achieved had he lived longer. “He had a lot of irons in the fire, but he died before anything properly happened,” she says. Bowery may, she muses, have gone “down the path of reality television”. After all, she concludes: “He would have been brilliant on Big Brother.”

‘Nothing Was Ever Out of Bounds’: Leigh Bowery’s Friends Remember the Legendary Performance Art Provocateur 25 Years After His Death

Cerith Wyn Evans, Baillie Walsh, and Lou Stoppard reminisce about their late friend.

Film still from Cerith Wyn Evans, DEGREES OF BLINDNESS (1988). Courtesy of the British Film Institute National Archive.

Artist Cerith Wyn Evans and director Baillie Walsh met Leigh Bowery on the London club scene. To both, he became a collaborator and a close friend—a subject to film, a designer to call on for incredible garments, an artist to admire, a conspirator to talk with for endless hours on the phone. Sometimes he helped them, sometimes they helped him. Always, they recall, he pushed them—not necessarily forward, that would be too expected, but in a new, uncertain direction that was wide, warped, strange, sweeping, and beyond anything they’d planned. Walsh’s collaborations with Bowery include the music video to accompany Boy George’s 1991 song “Generations of Love,” Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Symphony” video from 1991, as well as “Unstitched” from 1990, which shows Bowery having his cheeks pierced and was regularly screened as a backdrop to Bowery’s performances. Wyn Evans’s works with Bowery include the early films Epiphany, from 1984, and Degrees of Blindness, from 1988. Here, they reflect on their late friend with Lou Stoppard.

Cerith Wyn Evans: Baillie, do you remember he had a tattoo on his inner lip that read “mum?” It was facing inwards so that only his teeth or throat would read “mum.” I told him, If he pulled his lip down, to everyone else it read “wuw.” He said, “Yer – wooo!”

Baillie Walsh: I’ve never talked about Leigh before. It was all too close at the time.

CWE: For a while, it felt like there was a load of people who wanted a bit of it all. When someone died and there was too much attention or discussion, Leigh used to say, “Oh, they just want another slice of death pie, so they can look like they have been a part of something.” And knowing what we do know, that he was living and dealing with HIV, those comments mean more.

BW: My relationship with Leigh was private, special, and personal. I didn’t want it to be public property. But now, 20 years have passed—longer, 23 years—I don’t get the same feeling. It’s nice to see how much I remember, together with Cerith, we can see if we can wheedle out some memories—and some laughs hopefully as Leigh was a-laugh-a-minute. I would like to remember more. What I loved about him was how he’d just turned everything on its head. He made you think in a different way. The idea of “fitting in” was abhorrent to him. I want to remember that. I often try to think in the way that Leigh pushed me to, and it’s nice to have a refresher course.

Bustier with hand-sewn crystals by Leigh Bowery, early 1990s. Courtesy of Lorcan O’Neill.

Lou Stoppard: One thing written a lot about Leigh Bowery is that his whole life was a performance, a work of art. Would you agree with that, having known him more intimately?

CWE: Well, it’s yes and no. I always thought he was much more extreme in mufti, or daywear, than he was in the outfits that he wore at night.

BW: That was much more disturbing, I agree. He looked like a child molester.

CWE: There was a vulnerable side to him, which you saw if you were a close friend. He tended to keep his friends apart; he didn’t like the idea of us talking about him. We had to be kept compartmentalized.

BW: He did love to cause trouble. He loved making stories up. He loved to lie. He would tell you someone had died. He once told me that Brad Branson was dead—he is now dead, so I can tell this story. He told me he was dead because Brad had slept with my boyfriend, John Maybury, so he thought I’d like to hear that. He told it to everybody.

CWE: He absolutely adored lying. I remember him telling me a story about Les Child, who was a dancer with the Michael Clark Company, how he was going through hard times—the company had got dissolved, or was on a break, or something like that. He said, “Oh poor Les. He’s making sandwiches in a gay sauna in Soho.” And I said, “Oh you bitch.” I was laughing. It was obviously a total lie. But then two months later, I ran into Les in the street who said, “I’ve taken to making sandwiches in a gay sauna in Soho. I’ll spring back.” It was true! So you never knew.

BW: Leigh loved to muddy the waters. You never knew what was true and what wasn’t.

Still from Cerith Wyn Evans, EPIPHANY (1984). Courtesy of the British Film Institute National Archive.

LS: Can you both recall when you first met him?

BW: I can remember my first vision of Leigh. It was him and Trojan in Heaven nightclub in the “Pakis from Outer Space” blue look. Apart from the look, they seemed very shy and almost demure. It wasn’t an immediate friendship. It took time. Really, I got to know Leigh properly because I started working with him. I took him to Italy to be in a fashion show—and it was that thing of going away with people and becoming friends, him, Big Sue. He made papier-mâché head masks of himself with the drip look he used to do. So, he had 30 models come out as him. It was for a company called Calugi e Giannelli—really tacky, but we’d do anything for a fee in those days, and it meant going away with a crowd. It was over times like that that I got to know him as him.

CWE: I met him around the same time at The Bell, a gay club in King’s Cross. We used to go on a Sunday night. I nearly fell over because Leigh and Trojan walked in, and Trojan was dressed as Sheba with really intense turquoise hands and face. That look—”Pakis from Outer Space”—was like Leigh’s collection at the time. I was a student at the Royal College, it would have been around 1983. I thought: “I’ve got to do something with these people, I wonder if they’ll be in a film.” I went up to them: “Oh hello, I’m a film student at the Royal College, would you ever consider making a film?” They said, “Yes all right then. We’re going to be in a film!” Leigh really took it seriously. Suitcases would arrive with makeup. Consummate professionals, from the word “go.” And they would do anything. The film was Epiphany. We shot the whole thing on tape on huge machines that had been given by the BBC to the Royal College. You had reels of two-inch video tape—the quality was insane. But these cameras were huge and so heavy, big pneumatic things with enormous cables that would almost move around on their own. We had three cameras on Leigh at all times. He said, “Which camera should I look at? The one with the red light?” And I said, “The red light is going to be on all of them; we’re recording everything, no takes.” He just loved that atmosphere—constantly being watched, reinventing himself, and rethinking his position. You know when you see the cliché of a model or David Hemmings pretending to be David Bailey—Give me this! Give me that!Leigh was like that. Going from look to look, posing and moving. It was just heavenly to witness. It was raw. There was a levity to it. But also, there was a sense of stagecraft and something studied—it was deeply sincere, however much of a laugh it was. The pain he went through and the discomfort to get the looks. It was an exuberant celebration on so many levels.

BW: He never thought he had a look unless it was painful. If it was painful, it meant he was taking it further than anyone else would. One night, we went to Heaven when he was doing the “Mexican mask” look and wanted his profile to be as flat as possible so you didn’t get any nose. I had to take him out because he had a complete panic attack, which you rarely saw with Leigh. He was in proper, incredible pain. You couldn’t unzip the mask because it was so tight. His voice was muffled, and his face was squashed: “Get me out of this!” I took him and Nicola Bateman back to my flat, and I got pliers and scissors to try to undo the zip. I couldn’t get them into it because it was so tight against the skin. Somehow in the end, he got out of it.

CWE: There would be bruises. He would be cut to shreds after a night out.

BW: Each time he went out, he wanted to push it further, getting more and more ambitious. There were some looks he would test out and never do again. He would always gauge the response. If he was just laughed at then that was a disaster. There had to be something more thought-provoking than that. It had to be challenging.

LS: What did he want people to feel? Disgusted? Scared?

BW: Both of those things. He liked laughter too—but not just laughter.

CWE: He was physically so very strong, and often he’d be on insanely high shoes. He was so massive. One of the things he liked doing at Taboo was kicking the ceiling lights out—bang! Glass in everyone’s drinks.

BW: His behavior at times was so extreme. He would pogo around the dance floor—he was such a large being, so it was really intimidating, especially as he was dressed in such a way, with the merkin on and something covering his face. But it was never aggression in a typical sense.

CWE: Never angry.

BW: No, I don’t think I ever saw Leigh angry.

LS: Was he a private person in some ways? Is that part of the reason he performed so much with his own identity, in order to keep certain things hidden?

BW: Well he kept his HIV status from me.

CWE: Me too.

BW: That was obviously very private. But I never felt that Leigh kept secrets much from me, which was why I was so surprised when I did find out that he was HIV positive. That was such a massive thing, especially at that time, because there was nothing you could do.

CWE: Fear and paranoia was everywhere.

BW: We were all watching hundreds of people die around us. When you watched someone die, you were not only very sad you were also terrified—Is that going to be me next? I think Leigh felt that very strongly. I think Leigh didn’t want to be labelled as someone with AIDS. Leigh was much more important, much more than that. And I think that if he had announced that, and if it had gone out into the world, he wouldn’t have been given the freedom to be other than that.

CWE: You look back and think: “Why didn’t I see it?” It was so obvious. We formed a band for a while, me, Leigh and Angus Cook, who was my boyfriend at the time. We didn’t play any music. We were called Magpie Shmagpie. Sue Tilley took the press photographs, which we did on the stairs of the sexual health clinic on Dean Street: all of us coming out of the door, posing with jackets on our shoulders—Leigh’s idea, obviously.

BW: He would talk about it hypothetically: “What if? What am I going to do if I’ve got AIDS?” But everyone was saying the same thing. We lived in fear.

CWE: I remember him on his deathbed saying: “I didn’t even bloody lose any weight.”

LS: I’ve heard he started rumors when he knew he was dying that he was going off to live in a different country.

CWE: He’d say he was going to Papua New Guinea to research anthropological tribe masks. After he died, we went to Patisserie Valerie and spent about 200 quid on cream cakes and had champagne. Sue Tilley said no one was allowed to cry.

Still from Cerith Wyn Evans, EPIPHANY (1984). Courtesy of the British Film Institute National Archive.

LS: I wonder what he would do if he was alive now. Because to play with your identity is easier now than ever, with all these different platforms.

CWE: So many years have passed—it’s a different world. The implications of what Leigh started off doing, and his ways of communicating about things, have become so mainstream, in a way.

BW: Leigh would have morphed into something else. There were so many different stages he went through during my friendship with him: he started in the clubs with no idea of entering the art world; he wasn’t creating art; he was creating attention for himself. Then that ambition changed when he got the gig with Anthony d’Offay gallery, and then later he met Lucian Freud through you, Cerith.

CWE: We sort of thought, “Oh it’ll be fun to mess things up for Lucian—we’ll introduce you to Leigh and then you’ll have to paint sequins!”

BW: I feel that Lucian’s work did change after he met Leigh. Part of Leigh’s thrill was always challenging his friends, and of course he did that to Lucian. I think you can see Leigh’s influence in those pictures.

CWE: Absolutely you can. Lucian was hugely affected by Leigh’s death. He was so so close to him, he really looked up to him.

BW: I love the fact that Lucian still looked up to him even after they found a stolen picture of his in Leigh’s flat. Leigh was stealing 50 pound notes every day when he went in there.

CWE: Lucian would think that that was just wonderful. He would think it was the most noble thing to do!

BW: They deserved each other. These two really strange characters coming together—it was a match made in heaven.

LS: Baillie, talk to me about working with Leigh on your films.

BW: My favorite project was the “Generations of Love” video with everyone in the street. Leigh just loved being a hooker on the street.

CWE: With the blonde wig and the “Come to Bed” t-shirt.

BW: Leigh was the one who got me thinking: “Oh, it’s a pop video, but I can make a porn video.” It was Leigh’s influence on me that kind of pushed me the whole time. He was a great doer, always with massive enthusiasm. It was a great collaboration. We just did it. He loved getting everyone in character and in dress. He’d be pushing Sue: “Get your tits out!” He got everyone—Rachel Auburn, Les Child, Michael Costiff, Talulah—in their costumes and their appropriate looks. Les Child fought every step of the way because Leigh was trying to cover his face in Vaseline. I would say that that was our most successful collaboration. His influence pushed me to a place that I thought was really interesting for a pop video.

CWE: That video is sort of sad also in a funny way. It’s mournful. There’s a melancholy at the heart of it, this idea of generations of love.

BW: I think the last project we did together was the Massive Attack video. That shoot was the first and only argument I ever had with him, and I don’t think he ever really forgave me. He’d made a dress for Shara Nelson, and we needed to find some way to cover up the earpiece that we needed her to wear. The collar wasn’t high enough, so he suggested a wig. She looked ghastly in, but of course Leigh loved it because it was so wrong. It got very awkward in front of the band. Leigh was determined, and I had to finally put my foot down. Leigh never really wanted to be told what to do. We were never quite the same after that trip to LA. Before that, we’d been two hours on the phone to each other everyday for seven years. But then also our lives were changing. Leigh was working with Lucian—his interests were changing. Our common interests were drifting.

CWE: He’d never do what he was asked to. At that time, I did some pop videos for The Fall. And we also did a play together at Riverside Studios where he played a Chicago mafia boss. Leigh would improvise lines, and every night he would stretch his lines by quite a few minutes by writing some “new material.” I can remember him coming on doing dances or singing songs, and then going into his lines. Mark E Smith would be grumbling and laughing. One thing that has always stuck with me and has been a barometer for me ever since: Leigh would look at something and say, “Yer, it was all right. But where’s the poison?”

Almost like a kind of homeopathic thing; you would need this poisonous kernel, so that it could be transformative, something in it that was deeply subversive and could dissolve hierarchies.

BW: Exactly. As much as he did work for me, I also did a lot of work for him. He would engage you as the magician’s helper. One of my strongest memories of him is when he did the AIDS benefit at the Fridge. It was his first ‘douche’ show. He comes out dancing with a corset and a merkin. I think it was to ‘Nothing Compares to You’. He’d rehearsed it so he’d lie back on a plinth, open his legs, and squirt a fountain of water from his arse. But he hadn’t rehearsed it with a corset. So, when the time came, he couldn’t lean back. So he goes to the front of the stage and bends over to squirt over the white table cloths. Of course, he was very nervous so the water wasn’t completely clean. He’s squirting shit all over the front row of an AIDS benefit. For the second part of the piece, he put a great big skirt on that I had to get under (as I was the back of the horse, if you will). I’m meant to get him onto my shoulders so he could be ten feet tall waving in this giant skirt. I get under and it’s covered in shit, slipping around everywhere. But it’s show business—not a choice! He was properly freaked out after that show; he knew that he had pushed the poison to the limit as people were horrified. And it did cause a scandal. He’d shat on the front tables at an AIDS benefit! That was Leigh when he really did think for a minute that he’d pushed it too far. There was fear—and it was rare that you saw Leigh with fear.

CWE: If you did that now, you’d probably go to prison. Anything that was inappropriate—Leigh was like a magnet. Everything inappropriate was good. Everything appropriate was bad. It was pretty clear cut. He was really an anarchist.

BW: That’s why John Waters’s films so influenced Leigh. Divine in Female Trouble was a benchmark for Leigh in so many ways.

Still from Cerith Wyn Evans, EPIPHANY (1984). Courtesy of the British Film Institute National Archive.

LS: Was it ever tiring being friends with someone who was that unrelenting in their commitment to subversion?

CWE: No. Because he was also so sweet and gentle. Like Baillie described—I was one of the people on the other end of the phone for an hour or two a day. We’d sit there watching television and he’d be like—What is Lorraine Kelly wearing?

LS: Did you ever feel embarrassed by him?

CWE: I can remember being on holiday in Cornwall with Leigh. Sue Tilley drove Leigh down; she couldn’t get into the car because Leigh had made a frock to wear in pink dayglo. It was like a Molly Goddard dress but the size of a flat—with all this tulle bunched into the car, the entire car was full. As soon as he arrived, he ran into the sea, and it soaked up so much seawater he nearly drowned. It was completely hysterical. I can remember this one dreadful situation: Leigh would do anything to embarrass Sue in public—it was one of his absolutely favorite things to do. So, we were alone in this grand Catholic church. And this lone nun was walking towards us in her habit. Sue was going, “Leigh, no. No. No.” Sue—she’s a big girl—and she’s trying to hide behind the column in the church. And Leigh is going at this 90-year-old woman in her habit, “Oi! My friend wants to eat you out!” The nun just shuffled away. “Bless you my child.” The strange thing is it never wore you out. He was like quicksilver, also. In the next moment, it would be a completely different thing—he’d be helping you make a pea soup. He thought it was hilarious that you had to buy a huge sack of peas to make a small bowl of pea soup.

BW: I was never embarrassed by Leigh because Leigh was never embarrassed. The joke was never on Leigh; he was making the joke, so there was never painful embarrassment.

CWE: But there would be times when he would be vulnerable. He’d open up on the phone and say, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing.” He wasn’t always high octane.

BW: Leigh really led a life on the telephone. Cerith was part of that. I was part of that. Sue was part of that. A lot of our lives were spent on the phone—hours and hours a day. That’s not high octane or a performance. That’s a proper relationship.

CWE: You’d talk about things in the news…

BW: …or sometimes there was just silence. And you’d hear a sewing machine going.

LS: The construction of his garments was incredible. People often talk about how great he was at making looks, but perhaps not enough focus is put on just how skilled he was at making clothes.

CWE: He was very fastidious about the idea of learning techniques. He really looked up to Mr. Pearl, who had this career in Paris making amazing corsets. Berwick Street market was an Aladdin’s cave, where you could get the sequin fabrics and needles and threads—he would refer to that as the Stitch Bitch Trail.

LS: He’s often remembered in terms of the Club Kids. What do you make of that?

CWE: I don’t think he actually liked the whole New York Club Kids thing. He went there, he was adored there. But the people that he really liked were the ones from Jackie 60 and Mother and Blacklips Performance Cult. He liked the drag queens who were politicized.

BW: He liked the ones who were incredibly smart. He loved intelligence.

CWE: He liked revolutionary people. Political people.

BW: The Club Kids thing was an early part of his history, but his ambitions moved way beyond that. Leigh, above everything else, was incredibly intelligent, a thing that shines through for me. He had many stages. He created this persona from nowhere. And he trod unknown ground and was still reinventing every day.

CWE: And he was constantly looking for ways to undermine his reputation for what he’d become known as.

LS: Are there any particular days with him that stand out?

BW: It was his birthday, and I really wanted to fuck him over. So I thought: “I’m going to get him a cat. It’s a wicked present to give someone.” I called all the pet shops, and there was a kitten in Camden Town. So I went to the pet shop, and it had sold! I thought: “Fuck it, I’ve failed.” And as I was walking down to St Martin’s Lane through Cecil Court, there was a homeless person with a cat, saying: “Do you want a cat?” I was so shocked I said, “No,” and walked up the street. But then I thought: “Of course you fucking do.” So, I went back and bought the cat, a fully-grown black cat. It was so extraordinary and immediately friendly and affectionate. I went home and put it in a stereo box, wrapped it up and went over to Leigh’s flat. Leigh unwrapped it, saw the box and thought that I had bought him a stereo. He was saying, “Oh that’s great.” Then he opened it, and the cat jumped out. He was completely horrified at first. But then he was a great father to the cat. Leigh adored Angus.

CWE: He named him Angus, which was the name of my boyfriend at the time. He did it to punish him.

BW: The cat was always sleeping in amongst fabric.

CWE: The flat was pretty amazing. Before Trojan died, it had Star Trek wallpaper. And after he died, Leigh decided that he wanted to change it. And as he was peeling off the wallpaper, he found one of Trojan’s hairs, from when Trojan and Leigh had put up the wallpaper. Leigh said he freaked out and didn’t know what to do. “I just ate it,” he said. He just had to ingest it.

LS: Tell me about his wedding; he married Nicola Bateman.

CWE: That was quite late on. I was his best man.

BW: The wedding was one of the secrets that I didn’t know about. Cerith was privy to that. But that was another of those “What else didn’t I know?” moments.

CWE: Leigh was in Minty [his band] at that time. He was also very scared at that point, and I imagine was probably showing symptoms of HIV/AIDS. He got married so that if the worst happened, at least Nicola would have a roof over her head. He was in a furious mood all day. He had this blond wig on and a coat that he’d bought on Brick Lane that was very nice, black, heavy, silk satin—an Orthodox Jewish man’s coat. Nicola just kept saying things like, “Oh darling, this is the happiest day of any woman’s life.” She was dressed in blue and had a blue garter—everything was her “something blue.” She’d really gone for things as if it was the Royal Wedding. Her sister was the bridesmaid and was dressed in a bizarre 1960s pop-art Paco Rabanne dress; her hair was big and bouffant and had black and white make up, mod shoes and big Perspex earrings. After the wedding, Leigh said he had to go to a Minty rehearsal: “Nicola you have the money, make sure that you spend it all on a wedding breakfast.” We went to the Angus Steak House on Leicester Square, the three of us there looking like complete freaks. We had steak and chips and a salad. After, Nicola’s sister and I went to a party at the Architectural Association, where I was teaching at the time—I actually got Leigh in to teach there too—and she won a prize for best fancy dress.

BW: How long before he died did they have the wedding?

CWE: A couple of months. It was the summer, I think, and he died in winter.

BW: On New Year’s. So very Leigh to ruin New Year’s. So sick, because every New Year’s you think of Leigh.

Film still from Baillie Walsh’s UNSTITCHED (1990). Courtesy of the artist.

LS: Tell me about getting him in to teach at the Architectural Association.

CWE: I was teaching a foundation course, which I’d got into because someone had asked me to come show my films and give a talk to some students. I’d asked to see the students’ work and ended up doing these tutorials and got on well with the students. Someone was having a baby and went on maternity leave—so all of sudden I was running the foundation department at the Architectural Association, despite having never studied architecture and actually being rather suspicious of architects. I ended up teaching there for seven years. I’d try and get them to look at things around buildings: dance, fashion, the body, do plans for zoning in department stores, or map Selfridges on top of the British museum so the Assyrian department would be in the same place as the shoe department—stuff like that. It was about opening people’s minds up, to stop them just thinking about making fabulous houses on golf courses in the Mediterranean. I thought Leigh would be perfect to come in, do it for a term and see how it went. I had a bit of a budget, so we hired ten sewing machines. He suggested we have to make a pair of gloves, as that was really, really difficult. So, we did a glove making workshop—every student had to make a pair to fit their own hand, and Leigh was there to help. The students were just over the moon—they loved him. On his first day, he had been so nervous. I remember he had on this pair of trousers that Jean Paul Gaultier had given him. They were green stretch satin, the weirdest thing. They had obviously worn out so many on the bottom that they had the overlocked stitching to hold them together, over and over and over again to keep the whole thing together. I can remember looking at him; he was covered in makeup—very, very heavy foundation.

BW: It would be orange.

CWE: And lots of rouging on the cheeks. Sometimes he’d wear one of his chemotherapy wigs, which he would have gotten from a charity shop and then cut so you could see all the netting on the scalp. But he was so tall. I thought: ‘You’re huge today, four inches taller than normal.’ I couldn’t work it out. He lifted the trousers up. And inside his trainers was a pair of trannie stilettos.

BW: He loved height. He wanted to be the biggest man in the room.

CWE: He was so nervous though.

BW: But the nervousness was endearing, wasn’t it?

CWE: Absolutely. By the end of the day he knew the names of their brothers and sisters, where they came from, all of that. He’d see them two months later and be like, “So, is Mathilda still doing the veterinary college thing?”

BW: There was always a boy he really fancied.

CWE: One time, Pearl came in, and we showed them a VHS cassette of a Christian Lacroix couture show. The students had never seen a fashion show. Pearl was there whispering away about couture and handcraft with his 16-inch waist. Leigh thought the show was genius and flawless. All the students were really getting into it. So, the project developed so that at the end of Leigh’s term we were going to do a fashion show, where the models were going to be the students and they were going to make outfits, couture outfits, based on a building. A very bright boy from Bulgaria chose a Bruce Goff strange kind of desert range house from the early 1960s. There was a very privileged Iranian woman who didn’t have a portfolio and would use a brand-new giant Chanel shopping bag to carry her work. Leigh was of course like, ‘She’s a genius; she’s incredible.’ She decided that for the fashion show, she wanted to come as the Taj Mahal. So Leigh helped her make a papier-mâché dome helmet, which she decided she was going to cover in fusilli pasta, glued on and sprayed silver. Now, the Taj Mahal has a lake down the front of it, so she got some Perspex manufacturer to make these two narrow strips which went down the front with blue colored water inside and model trees glued down the side. The fashion show was very well attended—Vivienne Westwood, Rifat Özbek, Jasper Conran, and people from Vogue came. Leigh was the compere. And for that role, he decided to sport his head coming out of a toilet bowl with brown latex filled with rice krispies all down his front—like a brown shitty head coming out of a toilet—with a see-through corset, a huge skirt and black eye makeup. He had a clipboard with notes about each student and spoke in a voice as if it was a couture show: “And the next model that we have is…” I remember in one bit he said, “Dana has come at the Taj Ma Hole, oh sorry Mahal.” People were roaring with laughter. It was off-the-charts mental what people were wearing, but the students were genuinely moved.

LS: The breadth of the things you both worked with him on is quite something: films, teaching, performances.

CWE: Well, he was a very creative person, so nothing was ever out of bounds.

BW: It’s been lovely reminiscing and remembering. The tragedy is that he’s not here, because he would be pushing boundaries like no one else I’ve ever known and making me, certainly, and probably everyone else question everything.

Video-still from Charles Atlas, Teach, 1992-98Still of video by Vilma Gold

Four things you never knew about Leigh Bowery

The club scene icon’s best friend Sue Tilley shares some little-told stories from her life with the founder of Taboo

 

Leigh Bowery 20 Images

Dressed in looks dripping in colour, with overdrawn lips and exaggerated silhouettes distorting his form beyond recognition, Leigh Bowery is the Christian boy who became an icon of club-kid history, inspiring everyone from Alexander McQueen (who once went to see his band Minty before their Soho residency was shut down for obscenity) to Gareth Pugh. More than 20 years after his death, Bowery’s long-term best friend, biographer and party companion Sue Tilley, was joined by a group of enthusiasts at the Café Royal this week for a talk as part of A Curious Invitation’s Icons of Fashion series, to tell his story from a more intimate perspectiv, from exploits in London to checking into the hospital under the name John Waters and watching his bands Minty and Raw Sewage (once named the Quality Street Rappers). Here are four things we learned about the icon. 

HIS DIY DESIGNS HAVE ENDED UP IN THE LOUIS VUITTON ARCHIVES

“His goal was to be a fashion designer,” explained Tilley. “But he wouldn’t really fit in. He wrote in his diary in 1981: ‘Fashion, where all girls have clear skin, blue eyes, blonde-blown wavy hair and a size 10 figure, and all the men have clear skin, moustaches, short waved blonde hair and masculine physical appearance, STINKS.” For the most part, Bowery decided to use his own body as a canvas for self-expression, but he did make clothes for a few friends and Boy George (who was a big fan). According to Tilley, “Boy George was terrified of him and was thrilled that Leigh Bowery was making clothes for him – he was obsessed to the point of writing musicals about him and everything!” Now many of the creations Sue received are in the hands of Louis Vuitton menswear designer Kim Jones, also a big Bowery fan. “He buys his clothes off me or I swap them for Louis Vuitton bags,” chuckled Tilley, “because to be honest, he’ll look after them a hundred times better than me, put it in the vaults at Louis Vuitton, and I’d rather that than having them in a box getting tatty.”

“Fashion, where all girls have clear skin, blue eyes, blonde-blown wavy hair and a size 10 figure… STINKS” – Leigh Bowery

HE FELT THE TIME WAS RIGHT FOR TABOO TO END  

Taboo, Bowery’s iconic club night founded in January 1985, served as a meeting point for all types of people inspired by freedom of expression and absolute disregard for the traditional. The club staged its last hurrah in 1986, after asserting itself as the pinnacle of London nightlife. Tilley explained the story behind its closure. “Someone sold a big story to the papers about it being a den of vice and drugs. I never saw drugs or people on heroin or whatever, but perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right place. So this was the story, and the club had no choice but to shut it down.” But Bowery believed the time was right. “He then realised it was actually a good thing – it’s much better when something is shut down at its pinnacle when it’s still really good than when it’s died down and there’s three people from the suburbs in there. And then they asked him if he wanted to open it again and he went, “No. It’s best that it stopped when it did.”

The original club kids: Boy George and Leigh Bowery at Taboovia pinterest.com

HIS BODY PERFORMANCE ART HAD ACCIDENTAL BEGINNINGS

Although Bowery is perhaps best known for birthing his friend and wife Nicola Bateman, who came out of the performer’s ‘vagina’ with sausages for an umbilical cord, his first venture into the performing arts didn’t quite go as planned. “His first performance was at a crypt in a church that was run by the neo-naturists, a bunch of people who just walked around half-naked, the most famous one probably being Grayson Perry,” Tilley remembered. “Everyone was standing round. He went round and stripped off naked, and in the process he caught his nipple that he’d just had pierced. It started bleeding and there was blood pouring down his chest… So he put on a doctor’s coat and pretended to inject (co-performer) Trojan with various syringes, Trojan then threw lighter fuel to the floor and set fire to it, while Leigh pissed into a glass, then Trojan drank half the piss and used the rest to douse the flames. I don’t think he’d be allowed to do that nowadays because of health and safety – but everything went then. Things got a little more professional after this, but bodily fluids still played a big part in Leigh’s repertoire.”

“Leigh pissed into a glass, then Trojan drank half the piss and used the rest to douse the flames. I don’t think he’d be allowed to do that nowadays because of health and safety” – Sue Tilley

Many unfamiliar with the 80s club kids will know Bowery as one of artist Lucian Freud’s sitters. The 1990 portrait Freud painted of him, “Leigh Bowery (seated)”, was hailed by many as a masterpiece. Tilley, who also sat for the artist, explained how the two met during one of Bowery’s performances in a room with a two-way mirror. “Leigh dressed in a different outfit everyday, and he’d walk around this space like a sort of caged animal – he was very gymnastic as well, so he did a lot of high kicks and spinning on the floor. And there were musical traffic sounds and different smells coming. People used to come to the gallery for two hours – some of them were there every day to watch him. That was proper validation, because it was ‘proper art’ and it was accepted. One member of the crowd that came to see him was an old artist called Lucian Freud – because some of our friends worked for Lucian Freud they had mentioned Leigh, and he was curious and wanted to see what he was like, since he had a lot of interest in the world. He came along and was absolutely thrilled by him – especially by his calves. He said “It’s amazing! His calves go straight into his feet!” so he decided he wanted to paint him. This was a real turning point for Leigh.”

References

  • The AIDS Memorial – Leigh Bowery

Gay Guys…We Have A Problem! Its Name Is “Attitude”!

Picture it; “Coastal Twist” Fair Day, Umina Beach, October 2019. This was one of a number of inaugural events for a yearly festival for the gay/LGBT/queer community on the Central Coast of NSW. I attended this friendly-feeling event with my housemate (an ex), and my most current ex. We have all moved out of the big city, and into the peace and quiet of life in this area almost 4 years ago. The gay community in this rather large area of NSW is there, but not blatantly obvious and “out there” like it is in the city. It is not easy to meet other gay people here, and the apps only really offer sex, not friendships. One would hope that events like this could change that scenario, but…

So, we are standing in the allocated area for alcohol, having a beer. This guy appears and greets my housemate, who knows him, and his partner, from earlier days in Darlinghurst, where they ran a restaurant. They have also dropped my housemate home from Woy Woy station on several occasions, on their way home to Umina Beach. In other words, they only live a very short distance away. My housemate has always made a point of telling me what a lovely couple they are.

Anyway…we are chatting to the one who appeared, obviously an extrovert. Really nice guy, very friendly, very chatty, and not a scatter brain. I automatically took to him, and the four of us were happily chatting away about life on the coast when his partner made an appearance. Despite my housemate insisting I knew them – he does this a lot…like I knew every single gay man in Sydney – but I certainly don’t remember them, so introductions all around. The partner stood next to me, and quite obviously wasn’t interested in getting involved in the conversation going on, which made me feel quite uncomfortable. He hung around for a couple of minutes, disappeared, returned a short time later, then disappeared again. Meanwhile, I found the one we were chatting to quite affable, and thought…nice guy to get to know. Finding out that he was also on a disability pension, and free during the day had me thinking about occasional coffees or lunches to break the home monotony. Towards the end of the chat, he mentioned they were having a barbecue the next day for some friends, and would we all like to come. Thinking this was a great opportunity to get to know and socialise with some other local gays, we said yes, and in return invited them to our annual home Christmas bash at the start of December. It did cross my mind that with the partner being less friendly and sociable, there could be a problem!

As it turned out…I was right. Got up the next day quite looking forward to meeting up again, only to be told by the housemate that he had received a message from the affable partner, saying the unfriendly partner was not feeling well, and the barbecue had been cancelled. We both exchanged a look that said…we know what’s happened there. Not a word since. It has been made pretty obvious – at least from one of the two – that we are supposed to ignore each other, despite a shared sexuality, and close proximity. Needless to say, I was very disappointed! It’s almost like being back on the scene in the city, where attitude reigns supreme!

I have heard from a number of Melbourne gay guys that Sydney gays are hard to get friendly with because of their attitude…and having lived in Melbourne, I tend to agree. What is it about Sydney men that makes them think they are better than anyone else! It was difficult enough when negotiating the scene in the 80s & 90s. There is a stand-offishness with Sydney guys, an attitude that makes approaching them difficult, and awkward. I always found picking guys up in Melbourne a lot easier than picking them up,in Sydney. It’s not that I lacked a sex life in Sydney, more that you had to work harder for it, and if guys weren’t interested, they were often quite rude about it. Everyone hung around in their cliquey groups – including me – and because the group was always there, in the pubs and bars, it was difficult to meet an individual. Going to a pub or bar on your own often meant that was how you remained for the night – single and alone. It was likewise within the scenes sub-groups, such as leather guys, bears, muscle Mary’s and so on. It seemed to be a like-for-like situation, and if you didn’t fit you were left on the outer. Despite sly looks, and eye meetings, attitude more often than not got in the way. Big parties like Mardi Gras and Sleaze became, after the late 80s, just about the gym bunnies dancing…off their faces…with other gym bunnies, and if you didn’t fit the mould then…too bad. I did wonder on occasion if these Peter Pans had any sex life at all, or did they just pose and flex as a substitute! It got really bad. Attitude ruled!

I remember only too well my run-in with AIDS in 1996. It was a very distressing and traumatic experience, and one I wasn’t expected to survive. However, it was a time of big advances in HIV medications, and I got through it against the odds. After 18 months of getting my mental and physical health back together, I thought it was time to make a move back onto the scene, and start having sex again. It had been a long drought. And in that interim period, even more friends had died, and it became very obvious that I knew very few people in Sydney at that time. I think my first night back out in a pub I had always been familiar with was…scary and alienating! I knew…nobody! And found myself standing on my own all night while these groups of people socialised around me. As always, guys looked, but no one approached. I recollect feeling very distressed about it. Not being someone who did beats, saunas or backrooms, I wondered if I was ever going to have sex again. It made me very aware of the devastation that wiped out most of my social circle, and despite me hoping that HIV/AIDS would bring us,…as individuals who existed within a sub-cultural community…closer together, that instead attitude had won out, and if you were on your own within the ghetto, you were likely to remain so. It gave me empathy for those who, in the days prior to my brush with death, I had observed wandering through the scene largely ignored.

I did eventually have sex, though it came with the knowledge…at least on one occasion…that people on the scene who were on the outskirts of HIV had no concept of what I was recovering from. I wanted a slow transition back into anal sex, but the attitude was…well…why! You’re gay…you should be ready and willing to do this HIS way! That didn’t work for me…though my second encounter was a lot more reciprocal and inventive. I fortunately ran into a friend when out one Friday night, who I hadn’t had contact details ,for, and thanks to him I then had someone to go out with. Shortly after that, I ended up in a relationship for the next 16 years. Through him, I ended up circulating in his social circle, so until we moved to Brisbane, our social life was quite good. Yeah…Brisbane…

I admit to being a bit of an introvert, but not to the point where I don’t socialise or enjoy the company of other people. My partner was my opposite – he was a true extrovert, and as often happens, the opposites that we were worked. However, Brisbane defeated both of us. What is it about capital cities that make gay men develop attitude – that ability to look down their noses at other gay men, to be stand-offish, or just talk through you. There was a lot of that in Brisbane, and in the almost 4 years we lived there, we had no friends on the local scene. It was like an unbreachable barrier. In early 2014, we mutually called an end to our relationship. The next lesson in gay attitude was about to come to a head. This branch of attitude was called…social media!

I love how we give names to things that aren’t what the name implies. I first started using Facebook around 2012. There wasn’t a lot of use back then, but I then discovered that a lot of people I knew from the scene in the 80s & 90s…and assumed many were dead as they had disappeared from the scene…were actually on FB, and much to my delight I reconnected with them. Now, this is the “social” part of social media that I enjoyed then, and continue enjoying even now! I have to say that of my 150-odd “friends” on there, in reality my friend list could be reduced to about 40, as they are the only ones who respond to, and comment on, posts and status updates. As for the rest of them…I don’t know why they bothered sending a friend request in the first place! In many (most?) cases, it is a matter of commenting on friends posts, and somebody from their list checking out your profile (picture, mainly), and thinking they’d send you a request.

I used to look at the friends requests, see how many mutual friends we had, and either accepted or declined from there. However, even that method of “friends in common” hasn’t proved successful, and I’ve ended up with a friends list of mainly people who may as well not exist at all, as they neither like, nor comment on, any of the activity coming from my profile…except for the serial pests! Yep…those guys who send friends requests for no other reason than to try to hook up through FB Messenger. They seem to think because you are friends with so-and-so, you are automatically available for some dirty talk or otherwise. As soon as I accept a friends request, and seconds later a Messenger pings with a “Hi handsome” or “Hi sexy” message I think…here we go! I know it appears rude, but these days I ignore them. Back in earlier days, when it really annoyed me that they didn’t want to know anything more about me than the size of my cock, I used to bore them with long tirades about myself to see if they’d stick it out! They rarely did! In my defence, I’m not adverse to some dirty talk (as several can attest)…but I like a stranger to get to know at least a little bit about me first!

Which brings us to the modern curse of self-censorship. These days, everyone seems to be so easily offended…though I do wonder if a lot of it isn’t being offended for the sake of being offended. As I’ve stated, I know most of my friends list, but there are those in there I don’t!’t know (friends of friends) so I always have to think before reposting something…is this going to offend anyone, even if it’s a tongue-in-cheek meme.

Instagram has become, in many respects, a narcissist heaven. Every person…gay and straight…who goes to a gym has to put up daily photos with shirts off, and undies on…just! Men love to show off their cocks/cock bulges and it has become so prolific that it borders on being a yawnfest now, and it’s noticeable that none of them are unattractive. Conversations of any description are light on too…though I do check regularly to see what reactions the posts generate. ❤️😍🔥🍆💦 are all most admirers have to say!

Of course, the next step from social media were the sex apps! Fuck me…can we talk a whole new dimension to hollow, and shallow! Now we can REALLY talk attitude…and how! My experiences in my short 12-month sprint on these apps could fill a book! And virtually none of it positive! The only way I have ever been able to describe my experiences there are as…demeaning, humiliating and frustrating! It seems to be the one medium where users can be totally rude, ignorant pigs…and get away with it!

At the height of my sex app/web usage, I was logging onto Gaydar, Scruff, Grindr, Manhunt, and BBRT. It’s like a drug addiction! You’d find yourself logging on over breakfast just to see what humiliation was in store for you that day. Of all the dozens of men I had contact with over 12 months, my total scoring sex encounters amounted to…5. Of those…1 was satisfactory. Thankfully, there were no second dates. So, here are some of my (true) encounters on the apps. Take into account that I discovered early not to give your true age…but I only knocked 5 years off…I was upfront about being HIV+, (and had an undetectable viral load for many, many years), and that I was severely vision-impaired, and as a result of this, I didn’t have a car. No names mentioned to protect the guilty;

  • The guy who had hot tatts, and messaged me, whenever I was online on Saturday night, that he would drop in TONIGHT. He never made one appearance…but I would say that due to the long gaps in answering messages, others were perhaps more lucky!
  • The guy who wanted to call in at 8.00am on his way to work for a quickie, then got his nose out of joint when I said no, as I had to get up at 7.00am to walk the dogs, and that was my have- breakfast-and-wake-up-properly time…and I just wasn’t horny at that hour! No mention of alternative times from him, so bye!
  • The guy whose photo was always right next to mine on Scruff, and lived in the same suburb. After 6 months of this happening, I thought I’d just send him a message to say hi from another local…was intended to be quite innocent! I got the most abrupt message back, wanting to know what I was after! He did calm down when I explained it was intended to be nothing more than a hello from a neighbour, but it made me realise how judgemental people on these sites were.
  • The guy who kept sending me teasing messages, then messaged me one Saturday night saying that he and 4 other guys were having a party, were off their faces…and needed tops!
  • The much older guy who thought he was so desirable that he had a “stable” of guys. He visited me at home…non-sexually…and explained that he would pick and choose his sexual partner depending on his mood. Evidently, if you were lucky enough to be selected for an encounter, you were expected to drop everything and be available to satisfy his sexual requirements. Needless to say, the three times he rang me, to an unanswered phone, must have eventually given him the idea that…we’ll…I wasn’t available!
  • The guy who was in a relationship, but his partner was working, and he travelled for about an hour to get to my place, arrived at around 3.00am, then proceeded to sit and drink a bottle of wine (even I’d stopped drinking way before that hour), then at 4.00am when we hit the sack, wondered why I couldn’t keep a hard-on…could it have been that I had been drinking much earlier, and that I was REALLY tired?
  • The guy who had been messaging me for months to have an assignation. He had a profile picture of an attractive, well-groomed guy, and had there that he was into fitness. My profile stated that amongst my PREFERENCES were smooth guys, into fitness and health, as I was. Well…when he turned up, it was evident the profile picture was quite old. Wasn’t totally unattractive, but had unkempt hair and beard, was overweight…and very hairy. We did have sex, as he was actually quite a nice guy, and we lined up another date. As it turned out, I had to move back to Sydney before that came around, and messaged him to let him know. He messaged back asking who I was…that he couldn’t place me. Obviously just as well I wasn this hanging out for the second date!
  • Then there was my one quite satisfying encounter. Nice looking guy, great personality. Came over for dinner, and seduction, all achieved quite enjoyably. By this stage in my personal life, I had just split up with a partner I had been with for 16 years. We hadn’t had sex together for a number of years at this time…he had assignations behind my back (or so he thought), and I was monogamous inside a relationship…so I hadn’t had a good fucking for quite some time. Not surprisingly, my guest wasn’t a small boy, and there was some…not unexpected…discomfort after. However, the next day…it never rains but it pours…another guy messaged me could he come over. This guy was also in a relationship, but had fantasies about fucking guys raw (no condoms, that is). Not believing my luck, I agreed. He turned up for what was basically a “blow ‘n go”, but having some slight damage from the night before, there was a bit of blood when he drew out. Well…he freaked. I kept trying to reassure him that I was undetectable, had been for a long, long time, and that I couldn’t pass anything on…not even a good old-fashioned std! Anyway, after much showering and scouring, he left. I think he was having second thoughts about his sexual fantasies at this stage.
  • Then the strangest one of all! Met two guys on the Barebackers site. One was interested sexually…so I thought…and one was in a rather odd relationship, but just wanted friendship. They both knew each other quite well from the site, and both came over for a “check you out” visit. We hit it off really well, and I was quite attracted to the guy who I thought was sexually interested in me. Later that night, he dropped the other guy home and came back. We had a couple of glasses of wine, and a chat. There was a bit of touchy-feely, then he said he had to get home, so I said okay. The visits continued, and what appeared to be a friendship developed. Now, the guy informed me he used to be a gay male escort in Sydney back in the 80s. We had both already ascertained that we’d lied about our ages on the site, and as it turned out, there was only five years between us. So I got a real surprise one night when I progressed things from just tit play and tongue kissing…to oral. That was fine, but then I pulled him up off the lounge, and headed him to the bedroom. He freaked…and fled! I really couldn’t work out what was going on at all. The next time we chatted, it was like nothing had happened. A chat with our other mate revealed that he had invited his 80-odd-years-old parents to live with him…and that they (who were living in the flat of their 55-year-old son) and they actually dictated what time he should be home by! Anyway, for some unknown reason he got very stand-offish, and we lost contact just before I moved back to Sydney. At my first dinner party with friends back in Sydney, I must have accidentally pocket-dialled him. I received a rather abrupt message from him, informing me that he really didn’t appreciate me ringing him to show what a good time I was having back in Sydney! WTF!

Unlike other guys I know, by admitting my HIV+ status on these sites, I never had anyone ask me if I was “Clean”! What ignorant arseholes these people are! What gives them the right to embarrass and demean people in this way…it is just internalised homophobia/AIDSphobia. Many of the recipients of this “request” were guys who lived through the horror years of HIV/AIDS, fought the battles for access to medical care, sat back…defenceless…as their social circles – friends, acquaintances, relatives, partners – were obliterated from the face of the earth, fought their own battles with AIDS and associated illnesses, coming out the other end of it burnt out, emotionally and psychologically devastated…YET embracing new treatments and therapies, many of which had not been thoroughly trialled. They are here because they took control, found treatments that worked, thus increasing their CD4 counts, and are now living with undetectable viral loads. It is now proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that having unprotected sex with an HIV+ person with an undetectable viral load will NOT put you at risk to contract HIV! Yet there are low-lives on sex apps who have the rudeness and audacity to ask these guys if they are “Clean”? Seriously? Fuck off! And get a fucking education, you ignorant prick! I can assure you…it’s just as well you never confronted me with that!

Before I moved back to Sydney, I deleted the apps, and closed online accounts. I really had had enough. I just don’t get why guys are so dishonest, and make having sex such a difficult thing! It’s like everything that goes on through social media, and sex sites. People can hide behind profiles, and they seem to think that because there is no person-to-person contact, they have a licence to throw all decency, morals and ethics out the window…that it is just open slather to be rude, demean people, lead people on, and to hurt people with no consequences coming back on them! It is one of several big drawbacks of using these forms of media. This sort of irresponsible behaviour would never have been tolerated in the days of face- to-face meetings in bars. It is sad that gay men have cheapened themselves so much in these days of contemporary media!

I am reconciled to a sexless life these days…well, apart from what I can do myself! The gay scene in Sydney is pretty well dead. Ageism was always alive and well anyway, and that is something that has moved over into social media, and the sex/dating apps. There are no gay bars in the area I live in, and despite the odd occasional eye contact in my local clubs, there is little opportunity to meet other gay people. Most of my social life these days revolves around straight people in my own age group. It’s not that this concerns me, as they are wonderful, inclusive people…but not likely to provide a 66-year-old who still has a high libido a sex life! That some of the gay people we’ve met here have an attitude problem, doesn’t help.

A lot of gay men need to get over it! That somebody wants to chat to you doesn’t mean they want to pick you up! More often than not, they just want to interact with someone who shares their sexuality, to be able to talk”gay”. These are, in many respects, remote areas that don’t have rows of gay nightclubs and pubs, and we need to learn respect for each other, irrespective of age, disability or gender. We can be our worst enemy, and it’s time to move on from attitude and snobbery.

Next time you pass someone in your local village or town who you think might be gay…we are more often than not still obvious…throw them a smile and a “Hi”. It’s not going to cause you any harm (even if they are not gay), and it could well make that persons day.

Tim Alderman ©️ 2 019

 

 

Gay History: They Built It. No One Came.

They built a commune but nobody came

“It was a dream, and it was a good dream,” Zephram said. “Though it broke our spirits that we had no one to share it with. Now, it doesn’t matter that we didn’t have brothers. It doesn’t matter if the place survives. We carry it with us, in the moment. The work we did. What we felt.”

PITMAN, Pa. — They slept in the barn their first winter, on a straw mattress with antique linen sheets and a feather tick. There was no electricity, heat or plumbing, so they made their own candles, used a chamber pot and drew water from a spring.

They were born Michael Colby and Donald Graves, but once there, on 63 acres in the Mahantongo Valley, a bowl of land in central Pennsylvania, they changed their names to Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf and called themselves the Harmonists, inspired by a splinter group of 18th-century Moravian brothers who believed in the spiritual values of an agrarian life.

Their ideals were lofty but simple: They would live off the land, farming with Colonial-era tools, along with a band of like-minded men dressed in homespun robes wielding scythes and pickaxes. They would sleep in atmospheric log cabins and other 18th-century structures that they had rescued from the area and that they began to reconstruct, painstakingly, brick by crumbling brick and log by log.

But what if you built a commune, and no one came?

It turns out it’s not so easy to cook up a utopia from scratch. There are 1,775 so-called intentional communities listed in the Fellowship for Intentional Community’s United States directory: eco-villages, pagan co-ops, faith-based retreats and everything in between. But how do you advertise, organize and thrive? “Don’t ask us,” Johannes said. “We failed that class.”

Inspired by a splinter group of 18th-century Moravian brothers who believed in the spiritual values of an agrarian life, Johannes Zinzendorf, 64, left, and Zephram de Colebi, 65, arrived in Mahantongo Valley, a bowl of land in central Pennsylvania, in the late 1980s. Back then, they went by Michael Colby and Donald Graves. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

It was a raw, bright afternoon in April. Christian and Johannes, or to be accurate (stay with me here) Zephram and Johannes (Christian changed his name again when he realized the hoped-for brotherhood was never going to materialize, and his new last name is de Colebi), are now 65 and 64. And they have reconfigured their life here for the third time in three decades.

The 25 buildings that dot the landscape are mostly dormant, save for Zephram’s house and Johannes’s house. The two have been living separately, so to speak, for a decade, individual housing being an unlooked-for boon when their commune went to pieces and they ceased to be a couple.

They’ve sold most of their antique tools, save for a handful, which they’ve added to the collection of furniture, housewares, paintings, textiles and other Pennsylvania Dutch relics they’ve amassed over the years. The two have turned the whole lot — thousands of artifacts — into a museum, filling the cavernous barn where they spent their first winter with exhibits.

They’ve written a memoir, tragicomic, of course, and are looking for a publisher.

Their ideals were lofty but simple: They would live off the land, farming with Colonial-era tools, along with a band of like-minded men dressed in homespun robes wielding scythes and pickaxes, sleeping in atmospheric log cabins and other 18th-century structures that they had rescued from the area and that they began to reconstruct. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

It’s their second book. “The Big Book of Flax,” the story of linen processing (in history, legend and song!), came out in 2011 from Schiffer Publishing, a Pennsylvania house whose publishing motto is “Find your niche and scratch it!”

Johannes Zinzendorf feeding cattle in their early days on the farm.

Johannes and Zephram met in the 1970s at a gay-consciousness-raising group in Salt Lake City, where both were attending college. They were each dabbling in various spiritual practices: Zephram was circling around the Wiccans, attracted by their earth-centered rituals, and Johannes was sampling Hinduism.

When you’re gay, Zephram pointed out, it is not always the case that traditional religions will welcome you. So alternatives beckon.

Salt Lake City was changing, they said; they could see their future mapped out there, and it was not an appealing one. “Successful urban gays, buying property, having cultural weekends in San Francisco,” Johannes said. “Save us.”

Inspired in part by the Mormons, they began to turn over the idea of starting an intentional community in a rural setting. But how to organize? What would be the guiding principle?

They toyed with creating a gay Scottish clan (Johannes is from Texas and Zephram from Maine, and both have Scottish forebears) or starting their own version of the Radical Faeries, a vaguely pagan, spiritually based queer counterculture movement from the mid-1970s.

They moved to Bethlehem, Pa., that hotbed of Moravian culture (crafts and agriculture, mostly), where Zephram worked as a teacher and Johannes as a reporter. There they learned of a curious local offshoot of a brotherhood started in Europe in the 18th century.

As Johannes, left, and Zephram learned, it’s not so easy to cook up a utopia from scratch. After a series of success and failures, and an unrealized brotherhood, they  have rebranded themselves as curators of the Mahantongo Heritage Center, open to the public from May through October. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

Its leader was the charismatic son of a patron of the Moravian Church, who believed in a spiritual communion through sex and agricultural practice. It was not a wildly popular concept 300 years ago, and contemporary rural Pennsylvania was perhaps not the best place to resurrect its tenets, even with the sex part edited out.

Also, as Johannes pointed out: “Neither one of us is very charismatic. That was a problem.”

But they were young and eager. They bought 63 acres for $63,000 in Pitman, a tiny community in Eldred Township, and they began to rescue period cabins and structures in the area and move them to the site.

Filled with Colonial zeal, they bought an antique letterpress and began printing brochures to advertise their concept. Dressed in their homespun linen garments, made from flax they had planted and sewn themselves, they set up tables at gay-pride festivals, living-history farms and farming museums.

“People would look at us and say, ‘Oh, so you’re gay Amish?’ ” Johannes said.

They did get a few takers: a man who was interested in the culture of the early German settlers, but preferred to observe its customs rather than pitch in; a guy they called “the Primitive man,” who set up a lean-to on the property and wore loincloths in the summer (he stayed the longest but turned out to be mentally ill).

Then there was the man who brought his accordion and offered to play while they worked. Indeed, the farming chores seemed to mystify most of their would-be brothers.

“Everyone just wanted to watch us work, and that got old real fast,” Johannes said.

“We weren’t good at being able to explain the spiritual part, either. People would say: ‘Let’s write down your philosophy. Let’s create some commandments.’ But that didn’t come naturally. When we tried to explain our beliefs — spirits living in springs, the earth as mother — people just thought we were weird.”

They filled the cavernous barn where they spent their first winter with exhibits of furniture, housewares, paintings, textiles and other Pennsylvania Dutch relics they’ve amassed over the years. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

Farming the Colonial way requires lots of hands. While Zephram worked full time as a teacher in a neighboring town, which paid their mortgage and costs, Johannes was alone on the farm, having been fired from his reporting job.

“I wasn’t able to do two full-time jobs at once,” Johannes said. “I remember the first time I cut hay, seven acres that had been planted by the previous owner. I’m there with my scythe, and I started cutting, and I quickly realized that what made the brotherhood we were emulating successful is that they had 88 men, and we were only two.”

Yet the work was holy to him, he said. “I loved getting out there.”

They had cattle, sheep and goats; turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens; and cats and dogs. A pair of oxen, Star and Bright, took over the plowing duties, with a handmade plow the local auto mechanic would fix when the oxen grew balky and mangled its metal parts.

They acquired much of their livestock before building the appropriate fencing, which meant that the animals would wander off, enraging the neighbors. “They were so incredibly tame, and we loved them,” Johannes said. “We had Edward Hicks and ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’ in our mind. But for ruminants, you know, the grass is always greener.”

Their older neighbors were impressed by their work ethic and shared their folklore and practices. “These Dutch couples in their 80s had lived the lifestyle we were living,” Johannes said. “They didn’t care who we were, they just saw how hard we worked. They taught us how to broadcast seed, how to tie the corn shocks to dry the corn.” And how to sharpen their scythes on the stone walls that Zephram had built.

Early on, a woman appeared with a gift, a heavy heirloom quilt stitched with pieces of her husband’s uniform from World War II. “This kept my husband and I alive one winter,” she told them.

This building is their weaving and spinning studio. The men are known locally as the Flax Brothers, for their expertise in growing and processing flax into linen. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

There were moments of incredible joy. The day they completed the reconstruction of what they called the community house, an 18th-century log cabin with a marvelous peaked roof that they rescued from an industrial park and that took 10 years to remake. Eating outside with the animals. (“They were like our family,” Johannes said. “But they did eat all the flowers.”)

But there was menace, too. This rural township was not overwhelmingly welcoming to two young gay men and their dreams to populate a fledgling farm. They always knew when the bars closed. They would hear engines revving, and the shouts would begin: “We’re going to kill you.” “Go home.”

Johannes took to sleeping in his truck, hoping to chase the perpetrators and write down their license-plate numbers. One night, a cow was shot.

Eventually, self-sufficiency and exhaustion trumped the Colonial lifestyle. They put in a satellite phone, dug a well.

Harvesting by hand gave way at first to Star and Bright’s efforts, and then they sold the team to buy a tractor. They bought a generator and power tools, including a jigsaw. “That was fun — we put gingerbread trim on everything,” Johannes said.

They tried wind power, then solar. “You might get 40 minutes a day, and then it would crash,” he said. “Lightning storms would hit and blow up the transformer.” Four years ago, they hooked up to the power grid.

Zephram explaining the differences between various spinning wheels. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

In the wake of the unrealized brotherhood, they tried artists’ retreats, residencies and other gatherings. Worn out, they decided their empty commune would be a hermitage. “We would be hermits, each in his hermit house,” Johannes said.

Now, they raise only poultry, because the birds are easier to take care of. They turned the bunkhouse into a library; along with a collection of local religious texts, there is a prodigious array of “Star Trek” paperbacks. (In anticipation, they christened it the Brokeback Bunkhouse, and decorated its crossbeams with saddles.)

Zephram retired from his teaching job and began painting. “We try to live in the spirit,” Johannes said. Some days are easier than others.

Then one day in early 2012, their turkeys vanished. They found them beaten to death, their body parts strewn over a field and a bloody crutch tossed nearby.

It had been years since Zephram and Johannes had been threatened. The viciousness of the attack stunned them. Though they say they know the assailant, no one was charged with the crime. Yet something shifted after that day.

“People came up to us and apologized,” Johannes said. “It traumatized not just us, but the town.”

Jim Hepler, a sixth-generation farmer and Pitman native, called it a turning point. “When they arrived, people said, ‘Oh, no, we’ve got a gay community beginning here in the valley, and it’s going to be awful,’ ” he said. “That wasn’t my feeling, but there was tension. Here we are 30 years later, and it’s still two men minding their own business.”

Pieces from Zephram’s collection of artifacts. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

The turkey beating, he said, “was an awful thing.”

“It was senseless, and it was bad,” he continued. “I think the community came together then in support of them.”

Johannes and Zephram have rebranded themselves, too, as curators of the Mahantongo Heritage Center (that’s the barn with its exhibits), open to the public from May through October.

Zephram paints vibrant animistic canvases in his studio; Johannes frets about the maintenance on their copious collection of structures. In a tour of the property accompanied by their enormous bellowing turkeys (they have replenished the flock), he pointed out the peeling paint on the window trim of his hillside house.

Up on a ridge, a few art installations (a grain silo embellished with fins to look like a spaceship, and a cow-size dog made from rusty pipes) give the place a goofy DiaBeacon feel.

“It was a dream, and it was a good dream,” Zephram said. “Though it broke our spirits that we had no one to share it with. Now, it doesn’t matter that we didn’t have brothers. It doesn’t matter if the place survives. We carry it with us, in the moment. The work we did. What we felt. Star and Bright and all the animals.

“It’s not a lonely place. It’s just jumbled.”

The 25 buildings that dot the landscape are mostly dormant, save for Zephram’s house and Johannes’s house. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times
When Johannes and Zephram first began spreading the word about their concept, they set up tables at gay-pride festivals, living-history farms and farming museums. “People would look at us and say, ‘Oh, so you’re gay Amish?’” Johannes said. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times
One of Zephram’s vibrant, animistic paintings. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times
Over the course of their years living in Mahantongo Valley, self-sufficiency and exhaustion trumped the Colonial lifestyle. They put in a satellite phone, dug a well. They bought a generator, and power tools, including a jigsaw. They tried wind power, then solar. Four years ago, they hooked up to the power grid. But they still use this wood stove. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times
Now, they raise only poultry, because the birds are easier to take care of. They turned the bunkhouse into a library; along with a collection of local religious texts, there is a prodigious array of “Star Trek” paperbacks. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times
Johannes in his home. Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

Reference

Gay History: The Only Major Player To Openly Admit He Was Gay During His Career Also May Have “Invented” The High-Five!

“They can’t say that a gay man can’t play in the Majors, because I’m a gay man and I made it.”- Glenn Burke

Major League Baseball has been going strong now for well over a century. Many thousands of players have taken the field since the beginning of organized professional baseball, but only one, Glenn Burke, ever “came out of the closet” during his playing career, letting managers, teammates, and owners know he was gay.  Burke also is noted as being the man who popularized, and possibly invented, the high-five.

Burke was born in 1952 in Oakland, California.  By the age of 18, he was voted Northern California’s high school “basketball player of the year”.  A highly gifted athlete, Glenn could reputedly dunk a basketball with either hand- quite a feat considering he was just over six feet tall.  But he soon turned all his attention to baseball.

An outfielder, he was drafted by the L.A. Dodgers and, as so often happens with young “toolsy” prospects when scouts are trying to hype them, he was quickly compared to one of the greats of all time- touted as “the next Willie Mays”.

Burke made his MLB debut on April 9, 1976.  From the word go, Burke made no secret of the fact that he was gay, freely talking about it with teammates and management.  As a result of this, during his time with the Dodgers, then General Manager Al Campanis offered to treat Burke to a lavish honeymoon (actually offering him $75,000), if Burke would just agree to get married- no doubt worried that the fact that Burke was gay would be leaked or discovered by the media at some point with how open Burke was about it.  Burke responded to this marriage request by saying, “I guess you mean to a woman?”  He refused the offer.

Despite management apparently being uncomfortable about Burke’s sexual preferences, players didn’t seem to feel the same way.  Burke was often described in his Dodger days as “the life of the clubhouse”.

While things were great with his teammates, problems arose with manager Tommy Lasorda.  The issue started when Burke befriended Lasorda’s gay son, Tommy “Spunky” Lasorda Jr.  According to Burke’s sister, Burke and Spunky were just very close friends, not intimate.  In Burke’s 1995 autobiography, Out At Home,  he purposefully didn’t go into details about the extent of his relationship with Lasorda’s son, saying that it was “my business”.

Regardless, Lasorda Sr. and Burke’s relationship quickly soured. Lasorda Sr. was in denial that his son, Spunky, was gay, at least publicly, despite the fact that Lasorda Jr. made no great secret of the fact. (Sadly, Spunky died in 1991 at the age of 33 from pneumonia and was thought to be suffering from AIDS at the time).

Whatever he actually believed, Lasorda Sr. was not happy at all about Burke and his son being friends.  Given Lasorda Sr.’s position on the subject, it’s probably for the best that they abandoned a prank Spunky and Burke were going to play on Lasorda Sr. The two dressed up in drag and showed up at Lasorda Sr.’s house for dinner.  When they got to the door, Burke said they chickened out and just went home without knocking.

Even without showing up to dinner in drag, Lasorda Sr.’s liking for Burke completely soured and Burke’s clubhouse antics, which Lasorda used to love for keeping the team loose, now were no longer appreciated by the skipper resulting in a major chewing out of Burke after one particular dugout incident.  Burke’s sister, Lutha Davis, later said,

Glenn had such an abundance of respect and love for Tommy Lasorda.  When things went bad at the end, it was almost like a father turning his back on his son.

This all came to a head in 1978, when the Dodgers suddenly traded Burke away to the Oakland Athletics for Billy North. One L.A. sportswriter stated after the fact that “[the trade] sucked the life out of the Dodger’s clubhouse.”  He even claimed to have seen a couple of the players crying when they heard Burke was traded.

When Burke arrived in Oakland, his welcome was not good. A’s manager Billy Martin supposedly introduced him as a “faggot” in front of his teammates and reportedly referred to him that way several times.  Further, there were rumors that many of his new teammates would not take showers or undress if Burke was around.

With this added strain, Burke’s play on the field suffered greatly and was later compounded by a knee injury. He went down to the Minor Leagues once his knee healed up, playing in 25 games there, but then decided to call it quits.  “It’s the first thing in my life I ever backed down from,” Burke said.  “Prejudice just won out.”

In his 4-season career (1976-1979), Burke, who showed some promise when he first came up and was a very hyped prospect, ended up hitting just .237 in 523 at-bats, including 38 RBI’s, 2 home runs and 35 stolen bases.

Besides being the first MLB player to come out during his playing career, at least with teammates and management, Glenn Burke is also often credited with being the guy who invented the high-five. To be clear, “low-fives” had been around for several decades at this point, particularly within the African American community, and there are a few people who claim to have “invented” the high-five.  Perhaps they really did perform a high-five first at some point- it being not exactly a complicated extension of the already popular low-five.  The reason Burke is so often given credit is there is substantial documented evidence of his first high-five, unlike so many other claimants. Further, after he started doing this, it caught on with the Dodgers and later throughout baseball and the world.  So even if he was not really the first person to have the bright idea to convert the low-five to a high-five (which seems likely), he at least was integral in popularizing the switch.

This “first” momentous high-five happened in 1977 when Burke ran onto the field to congratulate his Dodger teammate Dusty Baker who’d just hit his 30th home run.  Rather than do a low-five, Burke raised his hand over his head as Baker jogged home from third base.  Baker got what Burke was going for and slapped Burke’s hand, thus “inventing” the high-five.  After retiring from baseball, Burke used the high five as a symbol for gay pride, even at the same time the Dodgers were selling trademarked “high-five” symbol t-shirts due to the tradition of high-fiving teammates started by Burke.

As tragic as Glenn Burke’s baseball career may seem, it was a picnic compared to his post-baseball life.  At first things went well for him.  He became a star shortstop in his local gay softball league and led his club to the Gay Softball World Series.  He said of this:

I was making money playing ball and not having any fun. Now I’m not making money, but I’m having fun.

He also competed in the Gay Games in 1982 and 1986 in basketball and a few running events.  He even took home medals in the 100 and 200 meter sprints in 1982.  He also initially had aspirations of trying to pick back up his once promising basketball career and perhaps become the first openly gay NBA player, with that distinction, of course, now going to Jason Collins.

One of Burke’s gay friends, Jack McGowan, said of Burke at this time,

He was a hero to us. He was athletic, clean cut, masculine. He was everything that we wanted to prove to the world that we could be.

However, things soon took a turn for the worse.  For reasons known only to him, Burke started doing drugs… a lot of them.  Things got even worse when, in 1987, his leg and foot were crushed when he was hit by a car in San Francisco.  Struggling to find work and now thoroughly addicted to cocaine, he found himself on the streets.  During this period, he was also arrested for drug possession and grand theft.  To add a healthy dose of lemon juice to his cuts, in 1993, he tested positive for HIV.  Just two years later, now living with his sister in Oakland, Burke passed away from complications due to AIDS on May 30, 1995 at the age of just 42.

Bonus fact

Since Burke, one other Major League Baseball player has announced to the world that he is gay, though he waited to tell anyone until after his career was finished.  The man is Billy Beane… No, not the current Money Ball GM of the Oakland Athletics.  William Daro “Billy” Beane who played for the Tigers, Dodgers, Padres from 1987 to 1995, and also played in Japan one year during that span.  In 1999, four years after retiring, Beane announced to the world that he is gay, and later wrote a book, Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life in and out of Major League Baseball.

Reference

Gay History: The ‘Macaroni’ Scandal of 1772: ‘Gay’ Trial A Century Before Oscar Wilde

Much derision was directed toward aesthetes in the late 19th century, who, led by Oscar Wilde, declared their devotion to beauty in all its forms. That moment in the history of men and their fashions is remembered today because of the fate of Wilde, imprisoned for what was then the crime of “gross indecency”. But this was not the first sensational trial of a high-profile homosexual. That had happened long before, such as in the notorious “macaroni” case of 1772.

Over the centuries, all manner of dandies have attempted to make their place in society. Wilde’s predecessor, George Bryan “Beau” Brummell became an arbiter of men’s fashion in Regency England despite his obscure social origins and lack of interest in women. Part of the secret of his success was his cultivation of a refined but understated style that avoided the kind of flashiness that could get a man condemned for “effeminate” flamboyance.

In the 1760s and 1770s, there was an explosion of public interest in the “macaronis”, fashionable society gents who were given that name because, in the eyes of the penny press of the day, they committed such cardinal sins as rejecting good old English roast beef for dainty foods from continental Europe – such as pasta. Those finicky eaters, who also sported excessive French fashions in clothing, were in some ways the predecessors of Wildean aesthetes, but they have largely been forgotten today.

Wilde, by contrast, is remembered because of his talent and for the way he was treated by the British legal system. In the 1980s and 1990s, he became a kind of “gay icon” with a new relevance to a generation struggling with the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. His disgrace at the end of the 19th century was reinterpreted as a kind of queer martyrdom that presaged later struggles for lesbian and gay liberation.

Queer theory

Enthusiasm for Wilde on the part of lesbian and gay activists in the late 20th century was connected to the rise of a new form of cultural and literary analysis known as “queer theory”. This development was heavily influenced by the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault on the ways in which textual discourse operates. The focus was no longer on identifying gay men or lesbians in past centuries but on identifying when and why those terms were used.

It was this thinking that led the prominent scholar of Alan Sinfield, a leading British queer theorist, to identity the Wilde trials of 1895 as a “queer moment” when dandyism became linked with same sex desire.

Print: ‘How d’ye like me’, Carington Bowles, London, 1772.

The stereotypical proto-homosexual man emerged as a being that was attracted to younger men, who was theatrical rather than understated, effeminate rather than manly, and artistic rather than sporting. But it was not true that Wilde became obvious as a homosexual during the course of his trial – for the simple reason that the term “homosexual” was not reported in the British media until the time of another scandal, that surrounding the Prussian Prince of Eulenburg, that unfolded between 1906 and 1909.

And the fact is that Wilde was far from the first allegedly effeminate “sodomite” or “bugger” – and here I use terms that were widely employed at the time – to be disgraced in court.

The scandal of Captain Jones

Hester Thrale (1741 – 1821) was a member of the literary circle surrounding the famous encyclopediast Dr Samuel Johnson. She kept a fascinating diary in which she noted a wide variety of sexual foibles and eccentricities in the society circles of her time. She had a striking ability to recognise homosexuals (both male and female). Thus, in the entry for March 29, 1794 she discussed “finger-twirlers” as being a “decent word for sodomite”. In one passage, recorded in late March or early April 1778, she recalled the time six years earlier when a certain Captain Jones had been convicted of crimes against nature, and sentenced to die:

He was a Gentleman famous for his Invention in the Art of making Fireworks, and adapting Subjects fit to be represented in that Genre; & had already entertained the Town with two particular Devices which were exhibited at Marylebone Gardens & greatly admired: viz: the Forge of Vulcan in the Cave of Mount Etna, & the calling of Eurydice out of Hell – If he is pardoned says Stevens, He may shew off the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; it will have an admirable Effect.

Jones was a man of fashion in society who had been convicted at the Old Bailey for sodomising a 13-year-old boy. The link that Thrale made between camp dandyism and same sex scandal was rife in the papers of the time. As one correspondent put it in a letter to the Public Ledger on August 5, 1772, Captain Jones was “too much engaged in every scene of idle Dissipation and wanton Extravagance”. He was referred to as this “MILITARY MACCARONI [original emphasis]”. And, the writer concluded, “therefore, ye Beaux, ye sweet-scented, simpering He-She things, deign to learn wisdom from the death of a Brother”.

Arguments were brought forward that the boy’s testimony was unreliable and Jones was granted a royal pardon on the condition that he left the country. Members of the public seethed with indignation at the thought of an establishment cover-up and a variety of men fled to the Continent.

The macaronis have, however, been remembered for their style rather than for imputed sexual notoriety. We remember the uncouth revolutionary soldier who was originally mocked by the British as a “Yankee Doodle” for having “Stuck a feather in his cap / And called it macaroni”. But we’ve forgotten how queerly peculiar such an act may have seemed in the wake of a trial that bears comparison with those endured by Wilde a century later. That Americans could appropriate the song as a patriotic air implies a degree of innocence or, perhaps, of convenient forgetting.

Reference

Gay History: The Unbelievably True Story of Jobriath, Music’s First Openly Gay Rock Star

Imagine watching the Empire State Building suddenly transform into giant spurting penis to ejaculate a figure dressed in a major King Kong look across a stage. Now, imagine this mysterious figure shedding the ape costume and emerging as the most fabulous Marlene Dietrich you’ve ever seen.

No, this isn’t the fever dream of a Hell’s Kitchen gay after watching Kong: Skull Island. This flamboyant and provocative series of events almost happened. The performance, set to take place at the Paris Opera House in 1973, would’ve introduced the world to glam rock’s first openly gay rock star. Through a sea of glitter, the crowd was to feel a potent mix of astonishment and arousal before whispering his name: Jobriath.

That you’re almost certainly wondering who the hell Jobriath is should betray the fact that his grand entrance never happened, but to dismiss Jobriath as yet another failed rock star would do a disservice to his legacy. The truth is, for all his failures, Jobriath paved a path for queer musicians. Without rock’s self-proclaimed “true fairy,” artists like ILoveMakonnen, Frank Ocean, PWR BTTM, Mykki Blanco and everyone in between might not be around to queer up the music industry.

Decades ago, in an era punctuated by the queerbaiting antics of Lou Reed and David Bowie, Jobriath’s star power proved to shine too bright, too fast—he was the Icarus of glam rock with a gloomy ending to match. Spanning multiple identities, enough tragedy to fill a Lifetime Original Movie, and a wealth of ideas that would never come to pass, this is the story of America’s first gay rock star.

The Adolescence and Abandonment of Bruce Wayne Campbell

You’d be forgiven if you thought the story of Jobriath’s adolescence was written by an overeager fiction writer. After all, his name shares similarities with both Batman and the star of Evil Dead and hails from a town that sounds like a history book. Yet, Bruce Wayne Campbell of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania really did exist. And he was even something of a child prodigy on the piano.

The Film Collaborative

Born the son of an Army man in the dirt track town, Campbell spent his youth moving from army base to army base with his family. It was a childhood light on friends and heavy on a blooming sexual identity that infuriated his family. It was an existence that wasn’t meant to last and, after a brief stint in the Army that ended with him going AWOL, he ran away to start a new life as Jobriath Salisbury in the sun-soaked streets of Los Angeles.

Detours and the Discovery of Jobriath Salisbury

Like any great glam rock origin story, Jobriath’s rise began with a little bark and a lot of hair follicles. A short time after arriving in LA, he accompanied his friend to the audition for the notoriously outlandish musical Hair. Despite only going to help the friend with lines, he was cast into the role of Woof and was soon performing to sold out crowds every night. Under the bright lights, he got a taste of stardom that changed his life.

Though as talented as he may have been in his role, he wasn’t immune to the vices of the 1960s. A cocktail of drugs strong enough to tranquilize a herd of buffalo mixed with his overinflated ego and he eventually left Hair in a blaze of glory—taking two of his costars with him to start a band called Pidgeon. You know, because it was 1969 and naming your band after sky rats was glam. The trio recorded a strange, baroque folk album that sounded like a chipper nightmare before the band promptly fell apart.

It was from this point that Jobriath’s AWOL status caught up to him and he was detained by military police. He was thrown into a military psychiatric hospital, suffered his first big breakdown, and then broke away from the padded walls to take on California one last time. It didn’t take long for him to pick up his old habits As he recalled years later, “I was floating down in the gutter. I didn’t eat. I just drank beer all the time. With no money, I hustled for booze and drugs.”

While he hustled, a new chapter in Jobriath’s story was being written thousands of miles away in New York. It was there that Jerry Brandt, legendary manager of Carly Simon, sat in the offices of Columbia Records’ Clive Davis listening to Jobriath’s demo tape. To his ears, he’d found the star he was waiting for.

The Film Collaborative

Jobriath Boone and Jerry Brandt’s Big, Gay American Disaster

The year was 1972 and Jobriath had just shed his steak-themed last name and emerged as Jobriath Boone—–just in time for Brandt to change his life forever. After search through LA to find him, Brandt quickly whisked the burgeoning star back to New York, got him a record contract with Elektra Records rumored to be worth $500,000, and began one of the most ambitious advertising campaigns of the decade.

“Jobriath is going to be the biggest artist in the world. He is a singer, dancer, woman, man. He has the glamour of Garbo. He is beautiful,” Brandt explained to Melody Maker before telling Music Week: “It’s Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles, and now Jobriath.” To Brandt, Jobriath was glam rock’s gay, glittered Jesus Christ and he wanted the world to know his name.

Jobriath’s face was plastered across full page ads in Vogue, Penthouse, and Rolling Stone and put on posters on hundreds New York City buses. For Brandt’s pièce de résistance, a 41’ by 43’ billboard high atop Times Square was erected featuring Jobriath naked and posed as a Roman statue broken at the base and crawling across the floor.

The AV Club

When it came time to record the album, Brandt convinced Elektra Records to book them at Olympic Studios, the famed recording studio favored by bands like The Rolling Stones. It was within these soundproofed walled that a 55-piece orchestra accompanied Jobriath on a glam rock journey through the eleven tracks that made up his self-titled debut album. Despite the aggressively sexual S&M ballad “Take Me I’m Yours” and the swaggering bravado of “I’m a Man,” reviews were warm and encouraging.

The problem was that outside of the industry, Jobriath’s flagrant sexuality produced a product the public just wasn’t ready for. By the time the giant wave of marketing finally crashed down, Jobriath’s overhyped debut had become a disastrous joke. A debut concert at the Paris Opera House with a $200,000 price tag and the Empire State building ejaculating the star was quickly scrapped.

He made his television debut in an unforgettable yet restrained performance on a prominent nightly show called The Midnight Special. It was notable for his outlandish costume that could best be described as ‘spaceman by way of hamster tunnel tubing’ and was restrained because, after being barred from performing his S&M jam “Take Me I’m Yours” by producers, he instead performed “Rock of Ages” and his single “I’m a Man.” Late night just couldn’t handle a glitter-dipped gay rocker singing, “Any day you could buy me or tie me up.”

Alongside his TV debut, he headlined two sold out shows at The Bottom Line in all his unsheathed, gay glory to modest, 400-person crowds. The positive response brought some hope to Jobriath and Brandt but that momentum crashed down at a follow-up concert at Nassau Coliseum. There, the crowds immediately bombarded him with shouts of “faggot” as trash was thrown until he fled the stage. Elektra Records quickly pushed out the second and final album, Creatures of the Street, shortly after that disastrous show with leftover material from the Jobriath recording sessions and dropped him from their label.

With no future at Elektra, Jobriath embarked on one final tour and severed his partnership with Brandt. Like any good rock star though, Jobriath went out with a bang. His final show at the University of Alabama led to five encores that ended when the excited crowd pulled the fire alarm and sent the fire department rushing in. It was glorious moment that showcased the star Jobriath could’ve become had the country been ready to embrace that courageous homosexuality of rock’s first true fairy but ultimately signaled the end to his life as Jobriath.

The Downfall and Death of Cole Berlin

In 1975, high above the iconic Chelsea Hotel in a pyramid-topped apartment, Jobriath Boone was laid to rest alongside his brief career. From his ashes, the character of Cole Berlin emerged. When he wasn’t hustling or auditioning for the role of Al Pacino’s lover in Dog Day Afternoon, Cole spent his nights performing 1930s cabaret songs at The Covenant Gardens restaurant. His existence, perhaps for the first and only time, appeared restrained and mundane for a few years. It wasn’t until 1979 that the façade of normality was ripped away in an interview with Omega One magazine.

“Jobriath committed suicide in a drug, alcohol and publicity overdose. That whole hype just drove him crazy,” Cole said of his former identity. It was the statement of a broken man and, as the interview continued, he didn’t hesitate to talk about his personas as if they were a polyamorous family he’d moved in with. “Schizophrenia is my lifestyle. I think everybody is schizophrenic but they’ll all fighting it,” he explained. “I, or should I say we, are not fighting it. Come over. I’ll ask some of us to come out and play.”

Years after the interview, his lifestyle on the streets caught up with him and he soon contracted AIDs. On the Chelsea Hotel’s 100th anniversary in November 1982, he played his last public performance and, on the morning of August 4, 1983, police broke up the front door of his rooftop apartment and found his dead body. A decade after towering over Times Square, he died alone and abandoned—–his body decaying for four days before anyone found him.

The Great, Rock Resurgence of Jobriath

As tragic as his career and life were, time has ultimately been kinder to Jobriath. In the years following his death, the glamorous singer has become ingrained in the rock and roll folklore thanks to one of rock’s most iconic queer artists. In one of the strangest twists in Jobriath’s story, rock legend Morrissey of The Smiths has become integral in establishing the singer’s legacy.

In 1992, Morrissey expressed interest in having him as the opening act for his “Your Arsenal” tour–—unaware that the singer had died nearly ten years ago. It was a tragic request but, ultimately, served as a catalyst for Jobriath’s revitalization. In the two and a half decades since Morrissey first took an interest in rock’s first true fairy, a wealth of information and music has unearthed his story. Previously unreleased music filled Lonely Planet Boy in 2004 and As the River Flows in 2014; his first two albums saw a rerelease in 2008; and, finally, a documentary by Kieran Turner called Jobriath A.D. came out in 2012.

Four decades after crooning for audiences to let him be who he was on the track “I’m a Man,” the repercussions of Jobriath’s fearless embrace of his sexuality, Empire State Building ejaculation and all, are finally being celebrated.

Reference

Gay History: The Erasure of Eleanor Rykener: A Case Study in Trans- and Bi- Phobia

The internet informs me that this week is Bisexual Awareness Week (consider: is your cat aware of the bisexual movement? Oh, and on a serious note, visibility matters). Allow me, then, to raise some questions about the way medieval studies has handled and assimilated the fascinating case of John Rykener, a male-cross dressing prostitute. If you took a gender-oriented medieval studies course in the last decade or so, or if you’ve read Karras’ Sexuality in Medieval Europe textbook, you’ve probably met John Rykener’s story in one form or another.

Allow me to tell you about Eleanor Rykener: assigned male at birth, she fell in with a woman named Elizabeth Broderer, who gave her women’s clothing and called her Eleanor. We do not know if Eleanor sought out Elizabeth, or if Elizabeth identified something in the young man she knew as John Ryknener that she could exploit: but as far as we know, it was with Elizabeth that Eleanor first lived as a woman.

Elizabeth was conducting a complicated and exploitative business, in which her daughter substituted for Eleanor in bed with men who believed they were sleeping with Eleanor. It is not recorded whether money was involved, but that seems likely. The court record says that Elizabeth’s daughter Alice did this ‘for lust’, but I would not be willing to take that as a given: it seems plausible to me that Eleanor and Alice worked together, willing or unwilling, in a scenario which allowed Elizabeth to maintain her daughter’s public respectability while Eleanor accrued the ill repute of a prostitute.

Somehow, from there, Eleanor met a woman named Anna, who is referred to by the court transcript as “meretrix quondam cuiusdam famuli domini Thome Blount” (the whore of a former servant of Thomas Blount). It is possible that Anna was a prostitute regularly frequented by this former servant of Thomas Blount, but the various evidence assembled by Karras, in Unmarriages, on the varied roles and statuses of unmarried couples, leads me to think Anna might just as easily have been the mistress or even domestic partner (eg, if the said servant were already married and separated) of this unnamed gentleman. For reasons not given in the record, she taught Eleanor how she might have sex with men ‘in the manner of a woman’: for which we can read, in a receptive position.

We do not know why Eleanor sought out this information, or why she acted on it. Perhaps she desired a sexual relationship with a man. Perhaps she wished to extract more substantial benefits, material or otherwise, from her work as a prostitute – since she was socially stuck as a prostitute anyway. It seems she was still living with Elizabeth Broderer, and – for one reason or another, bear in mind we do not know her motivations – an individual named Phillip, the rector of Theydon Garnon, would seem to have been her first client. (Or perhaps her non-commercial lover? Bear in mind this is entirely possible: People do sleep with trans women because they like them!) Eleanor seems to have been of limited resources at this time, because she took (was given? stole?) some garments from Phillip. When Phillip demanded their return, she convinced him to back off by asserting that she had a husband who would defend her in court.

Next, Eleanor seems to have made a break for it: she moved to Oxford, and tried – for five weeks – to establish herself as an independent women in a women’s trade, that of embroidery. She continued to sleep with men (in a marsh, the court record says). Once again, we cannot say whether she sought their company for pleasure or for money. Something may have gone wrong, though, because Eleanor next moved to Burford to work as a tapster. In Burford she continued to sleep with men, but here the court records that only four of her eight lovers paid her. Did she expect payment from the others and not receive it? Perhaps. But it’s equally plausible that she enjoyed and desired sex with men. This possibility I have seen raised in discussion of John (Eleanor) Rykener as a male homosexual.

Next, in Beaconsfield, Eleanor had sex with two men “as a woman” and one woman, Joan, “as a man”. Now, here I want to stress some things we DO know and some things we DON’T. We DO know that when the medieval record speaks of “ut vir concubuit cum” and ” concubuerunt ut cum femina” (‘[he] as a man lay with [Joan]’ and ‘[they] lay with [him] as a woman’) it does not speak of what clothes Eleanor was wearing at the time, or what name she went by. The issue at hand is who did what to whom, as is nicely demonstrated by the verb forms: he-as-a-man had sex with Joan, they (two franciscans) had sex with him-as-a-woman.

What we do not know here includes:

• Whether Joan of Beaconsfield considered herself to be having sex with Eleanor, or with John, Rykener.

• What Joan and Eleanor did together. Concubere could in fact mean lie down together, and Eleanor did not give her testimony in Latin: we don’t know what she said that she and Joan did which the court records as ‘concubuit‘. Eleanor may have spoken in compatible passive/active terms, or she may not.

• Assuming that Eleanor and Joan had penis-in-vagina intercourse, that does not tell us why they did so. Even if Joan met and bedded John Rykener, did she know about Eleanor? Was there an experiential difference, for either of them, between Eleanor(?John)’s conduct in bed and that of other men?

• Conversely, we do not know which identity Eleanor was presenting when she slept with the two Franciscans – but that possibility has already been raised by queer historians, who are generally quite keen to point out that John Rykener’s male lovers could have known exactly who and what they were doing.

Returning to London, Eleanor committed ‘the aforementioned vice’ with several more churchmen, but the record does not state if they paid her – nor, in this instance, does it specify cum femina. However, it seems her efforts to find more respectable work had not succeeded, because finally, we know that she propositioned one John Britby to commit a ‘libidinous act’ with her in a stall by Soper’s lane, for an agreed-upon-sum. John Britby swore to the court that he thought she was a woman at that time.

The court record also says that Eleanor had sex cum vir with assorted nuns and married women. This addition lacks the detail of her encounters with men and with Joan, and I would be inclined to suspect it of being an embroidery upon Eleanor’s testimony, designed to both mark out John Rykener as a particularly depraved individual and enforce public perception of him as male by ensuring that everyone knows he could and did have lots of sex cum vir. However, even allowing for the fact that this assertion has less to hold it up than the previous account, I find it curious1 that it tends to appear as a footnote only to the history of John Rykener, when the following comment about numerous priestly clients who pay better than other man gets a fair bit of circulation.

Eleanor Rykener is rarely cited, despite what her testimony can tell us about women’s lives in marginal professions in the 15th century. (I note that Kim Racon at Notches has also blogged about this lack.2) John Rykener is spoken of, and John/Eleanor, but never Eleanor or Eleanor-John. Whenever I’ve had the pleasure of teaching this topic, I’ve made a point of speaking of Eleanor Rykener and her trial, because… well, it seemed the decent thing to do.3 At the very least, Eleanor Rykener was a cultivated public persona (comparable to a drag act, perhaps?) – and given she seems to have run away and tried to take up a woman’s profession other than prostitution twice, the common summary of her story as ‘male crossdressing prostitute’ is incredibly reductive. Karras herself notes on p. 184 of Medieval Sexualities that the Rykener and a 14th century Venetian prostitute, probably a hermaphrodite, named Ronaldo/Ronaldina, are far from the standard sodomite, who did not normally wear women’s clothing. It is very unlikely that John Rykener was, in modern terms, a sad gay man who found crossdressing the only way to get laid – there’s enough other evidence to suggest that medieval blokes found ways to bang that didn’t involve ladies’ clothes!!

II: The Questioning of John Rykener 1395: Transcription

Corporation of London Records Office, Plea and Memoranda Roll A34, m.2 (1395)

Undecimo die Decembris anno regni regis Ricardi secundi decimo octavo, ducti fuerunt hic coram Johanne Fressh maiore et aldermannis civitatis Londoniensis Johannes Britby de comitate Eboracum et Johannes Rykener, se Elianoram nominans veste muliebri detectus. Qui die dominica ultimo preterita per quosdam dicte civitatis ministros noctanter inter horas octavam et nonam super quoddam stallum in venella vocata Sopereslane inventi fuerunt iacentes, illud vitium detestabile, nephandum, et ignominiosum committentes, pro seperali examinatione coram dictis maiore et aldermannis super premissa fienda et audienda etcetera. Qui quidem Johannes Britby inde allocutus fatebatur quod ipse per vicum regium de Chepe die dominica inter horas supradictas transiens, dictum Johannem Rykener vestitu muliebri ornatum, ipsumque mulierem fore suspicantem fuerat assecutus, petens ab eo, tanquam a muliere, si cum ea libidinose agere possit. Qui ab eo argentum pro labore suo petens sibi consentiebat, invicem transeuntes ad illud complendum usque stallum predictum. Ipsi tamen tunc ibidem per ministros predictos in eorum maleficiis detestabilibus capti fuerunt, carcere vero mancipati hucusque, etcetera. Et predictus Johannes Rykener in veste muliebri hic adductus de materia predicta allocutus cognovit se fecisse in omnibus prout idem Johannes Britby superius fatebatur etcetera. Quesitum fuit ulterius a prefato Johanne Rykener quis ei docuit dictum vitium exercere et quanto tempore, in quibus locis, et cum quibus personis masculis sive feminis illud actum libidinosum et nephandum commisit. Qui in animam suam sponte iuravit et cognovit quod quaedam Anna, meretrix quondam cuiusdam famuli domini Thome Blount, primo docuit ipsum vitium detestabile modo muliebri exercere. Item dixit quod quaedam Elizabeth Brouderer prius vestivit ipsum veste muliebri; quae etiam conduxit quandam Aliciam filiam suam diversis hominibus luxuriae causa, ipsam cum eisdem hominibus in lectis eorum noctanter absque lumine reponens et eandem summo mane ab eisdem recedere fecit, monstrando eis dictum Johannem Rykener veste muliebri ornatum ipsum Alianoram nominantem, asserens ipsos cum ipsa sinistre egisse. Item dixit quod quidam Philippus, Rector de Theydon Gernon, concubuit cum eodem Johanne Rykener ut cum muliere in domo cuiusdam Elizabeth Brouderer extra Bisshoppesgate, quo tempore dictus Johannes Rykener asportavit duas togas ipsius Philippi. Et quando idem Philippus illas petiit a prefato Johanne Rykener, ipse dixit quod fuit uxor cuiusdam hominis, et si ipse illas repetere vellet faceret maritum suum versus ipsum prosequi. Item dictus Johannes Rykener fatebatur quod per quinque septimanas ante festum santi Michaelis ultimo elapsum morabatur apud Oxonium et operatus est ibidem in veste muliebri in arte de brouderer nominans ipsum Alianoram. Et ibidem in marisco tres scolares ignotos, quorum unus nominatur dominus Willielmus Foxlee, alius dominus Johannes, et tertius dominus Walterus, usi fuerunt sepius cum ipso abominabile vitium supradictum. Item fatebatur prefatus Johannes Rykener quod ipse die veneris proximo ante festum sancti Michaelis supradictum venit apud Burford in comitate Oxonium. Et ibidem fuit commorans cum quodam Johanne clerc atte Swan in officio de tapster per sex septimanas proximas sequentes, infra quod tempus duo fratres minores, quorum unus nominatur frater Michael et alius frater Johannes Barry, qui sibi dedit unum anulum aureum, et unus frater carmelitus et sex diversi homines extranei commiserunt cum illo vitium antedictum. Quorum quidem fratrum et hominum supradictorum quidam dabat dicto Johanni Rykener .xii. d, quidam .xx. d, quidam .ii. s. Item fatebatur idem Johannes Rykener quod fuit apud Bekenesfeld et ibidem idem ut vir concubuit cum quadam Johanna filia Johannis Mathew, et etiam ibidem cum ipso concubuerunt ut cum femina duo fratres minores alienigenae. Item fatebatur dictus Johannes Rykener quod post eius ultimum adventum Londoniae quidam dominus Johannes quondam capellanus ecclesiae sanctae Margaretae Patyns et alii duo capellani in venellis retro ecclesiam sanctae Katerinae iuxta turrim Londoniensem commiserunt cum illo illud vitium antedictum. Item dixit dictus Johannes Rykener quod ipse sepius concubuit cum quampluribus monialibus ut vir, et etiam concubuit modo virili cum quampluribus mulieribus, tam maritatis quam aliis, quarum numerum ignorat. Item fatebatur dictus Johannes Rykener quod quamplures presbiteri fecerunt illud vitium cum illo ut cum muliere, quorum numerum ignorat, et dixit quod citius cepit presbiteros quam alios quia plus vellent sibi dare quam alii.

I: The Questioning of John Rykener 1395: Translation

On 11 December, 18 Richard 11. were brought in the presence of John Fressh, Mayor. and the Aldermen ofthe City of London John Britby of the county of York and John Rykener., calling [himself] Eleanor, having been detected in women’s clothing, who were found last Sunday night between the hours of 8 and 9 by certain officials of the, city lying by a certain stall in Soper’s Lane” committing that detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice. In a separate examination held before the Mayor and Aldermen about the occurrence, John Britby confessed that he was passing through the high road of Cheap on Sunday between the abovementioned hours and accosted John Rykener, dressed up as a woman, thinking he was a woman, asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her. Requesting money for [his] labor, Rykener consented, and they went together to the aforesaid stall to complete the act, and were captured there during these detestable wrongdoings by the officials and taken to prison. And John Rykener, brought here in woman’s clothing and questioned about this matter, acknowledged [himself] to have done everything just as John Britby had confessed. Rykener was also asked who had taught him to exercise this vice, and for how long and in what places and with what persons, masculine or feminine, [he] had committed that libidinous and unspeakable act. [He] swore willingly on [his] soul that a certain Anna, the whore of a former servant of Sir Thomas Blount, first taught him to practice this detestable vice in the manner of a woman. [He] further said that a certain Elizabeth Bronderer first dressed him in women’s clothing; she also brought her daughter Alice to diverse men for the sake of lust, placing her with those men in their beds at night without light, making her leave early in the morning and showing them the said John Rykener dressed up in women’s clothing, calling him Eleanor and saying that they had misbehaved with her. [He] further said that certain Phillip, rector of Theydon Garnon, had sex with him as with a woman in Elizabeth Bronderer’s honse outside Bishopsgate, at which time Rykener took away two gowns of Phillip’, and when Phillip requested them from Rykener he said that [he] was the wife ofa certain man and that if Phillip wished to ask for them back [he] would make [his] husband bring suit against him. Rykener further confessed that for five weeks before the feast of St. Michael’s last [he] was staying at Oxford, and there, in women’s clothing and calling himself Eleanor, worked as an embroideress; and there in the marsh three unsuspecting scholars – of whom one was named Sir William Foxlee, another Sir John, and the third Sir Walter – practiced the abominable vice with him often. John Rykener further confessed that on Friday before the feast of St. Michael [he] came to Burford in Oxfordshire and there dwelt with a certain John Clerk at the Swan in the capacity of tapster for the next six weeks, during which time two Franciscans, one named Brother Michael and the other Brother John, who gave [him] a gold ring, and one Carmelite friar and six foreign men committed the above-said vice with him, of whom one gave Rykener twelve pence, one twenty pence, and one two shillings. Rykener further confessed that [he] went to Beaconsfield and there, as a man, had sex with a certain Joan, daughter of John Matthew, and also there two foreign Franciscans hall sex with him as a woman. John Rykener also confessed that after [his] last return to London a certain Sir John, once chaplain at the Church of St. Margaret Pattens, and two other chaplains committed with him the aforementioned vice in the lanes behind St. Katherine’s Church by the Tower of London. Rykener further said that he often had sex as a man with many nuns and also had sex as a iman with many women both married and otherwise, how many [he] did not know. Rykener further confessed that many priests had committed that vice with him as with a woman, how many [he] did not know, and said that [he] accommodated priests more readily than other people because they wished to give [him] more than others.”

References

Australian Storytelling: Australian Folklore – An Interview with Peter Dargin

Again, the Captain Pickles mentioned in this interview is my Great Grand Uncle, Captain George Rickinsom Swan Pickhills. The misspelling of his surname was common – and evidently infuriated him.

A question asked of me at the Mudgee workshop conducted by Helen McKay, was “Where do you get your folklore?”

Sometimes I take known stories from the universal folklore and adapt them to a local setting. “Swagman’s Stone Soup” is an example. Further to this is the development of stories around a particular Australian theme – bush-rangers. Stories that adapt the history of Outback N.S.W. during the 1870’s-80’s.

The first introduces Silly Billy Brown. He demolishes the family toilet trying to shoot a crow stealing eggs from the chookyard. Billy runs away on a one-eyed horse (at a similar age and time to Sidney Kidman) to become a bushranger but is bushranged by Captain Twilight. They meet up with Captain Daylight and become the Daylight Gang, living at their secret Rocky Billabong Hideout. This is a traditional use of three characters.

Extended stories bring in The Three Troopers: Sergeant Flashman, Trooper O’Kane and Trooper Crump. Mrs Kate Brown, Molly Brown and Miss Elizabeth Goodheart, of Dunlop Station, feature as strong characters. Captain Daylight and Sergeant Flashman compete for the heart of Miss Elizabeth Goodheart.

These characters have their place on a Time Line — from the New Calendar 1752 to the 21st century. It starts in England before the First Fleet: shows the Crimean War, for Sergeant Flashman; the death of Daylight, then follows Silly Billy Brown, who, as William Browne MP, fails in his attempts to get the railway through the Outback. Captain Twilight just fades away, but, there is a link with the present.

At Terrible Tiny Tilpa, Lizard McGinnis, Old George and a smelly swagman provided volumes of information, mystery and unbelievable history, for a similar volume of ale, when I was researching “Around the Pubs” for ABC 2CR.

They took me to a long, low, mud house on the banks of the Darling River to meet first child of Daylight and Elizabeth Goodheart. Miss Day (Captain Daylight’s real surname), never married. The young man she loved and her two brothers died in the horrible mess that was Gallipoli.

She was waiting for the mailman to bring her a telegram from the Queen telling her she was 100 years old.

Don Day is remembered as a dashing bushman, not as a bushranger. He drowned rescuing a woman and her three children. Their horse bolted tipping them into the river. He rescued the people then dived down to cut the horse from the dray. He never came up. The horse did, more dead than alive, but the Great Grey-green Darling River kept Don Day.

After shearing, his friends made a memorial at Daylight Point. It’s a sight that brings tears to the eyes and a lump to the throat. I know, because Miss Dianna took me there.

She sat straight in her side saddle as the horses trotted up a rise overlooking one of the grandest waterholes on the Darling River.

And there it was, a big black billycan on a fire of bronze logs.

It sat on a large flat rook, dragged for miles by bullock team. Engraved into the billy can is:-

“In Memory of Donald Francis Day 1850-1896 — Elizabeth Day, Twilight, Cpt. Rtd. Dianna Day, William Brown, JP Frank Day, Judge Long, Rtd. Gordon Day, Ned O’Kane, Insp.” Little crosses are punched after Frank and Gordon.

“Even Captain Pickles was here. He brought people down from Bourke on the wandering Jane.”

I helped Miss Dianna down. The horses trotted into a small broken-down yard, lush with grass. I made a fire, then filled our billy from the river. We had jolly jumbuck, boiled potatoes, johnnycake and billy tea.

Red cloud bars turned grey. Frogs and night insects started chatting. I dropped another log onto the fire, showering red sparks and stirring the low flames. When I looked up small silver twinkles dotted the sky and Miss Dianna and a curlew were both talking at once.

She told how Aboriginal women saved her life, and her mother’s, when she was born. How, in the 1890 flood, Joey Quartpot rescued them, one by one, in his bark canoe. Of her brothers, young and wild, riding all the way to Sydney to join the Light Horse to fight for King and Country. And her mother, going to live in a flat in Manly where she knitted socks and made Christmas Puddings for the ANZACS, only to die of a broken heart.

The past flickered through the flames, as she went further back to tell about Daylight and Twilight.

She laughed about William Browne MP. “He became rather fat, bald and pompous. But his heart was in the right place. He stuck up for the Outback.”

The tail of the Southern Cross was hanging low over the river. “I come here every year for the morning of the day Dad drowned.” She walked stiffly to the bronze billy can, lifted the lid then pulled the end off one of the logs. It was hollow.

Night melted. The first ray of daylight speared down the long waterhole into the bronze log, striking a large crystal in the bottom of the billy can. A shaft of light shot upwards, through the overhanging coolabah, scaring the hell out of the black and red cockatoos and blinding the last stars.

“Bushranging, booze and battle took the best of our youth, Peter.”

That night gave me the folk lore and a store of stories – fact, fiction and fantasy – to last me a lifetime.

Miss Day received her telegram from the Queen. She rests beside the long, low, mud-brick homestead. No one lives there but, at times, a swagman calls, tidies the garden then disappears towards the Tilpa Pub.

Peter Dargan, Travelling Writer, Dubbo, NSW. © 1995

Reference