Saturday, 30 January 2016

Olympic Alphabet : H is for ...


There have been several equality and human rights issues that have affected the modern Olympic movement. The biggest current issue surrounds the acceptance of lgbt athletes and their life-style. A recent ruling by the International Olympic Committee has, to some extent, clarified its position on the inclusion of transgender athletes, but only time will tell if it brings full trans inclusion.

Here we are, two years after the Sochi Winter Olympics and Russia shows no signs of repealing the anti-gay laws it introduced just before them. In this modern era news and views are disseminated instantly around the world via the internet and digital media and it is very easy to forget that similar controversies didn’t get as much global coverage as they would do today.

The example I want to give you today is of an anti-gay controversy that occurred in the run-up to the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. Most people will remember the terrible bomb attack that killed Alice Hawthorne and injured over a hundred others. The bomber had previously targeted an abortion clinic and a gay bar. The other anti-gay controversy involving the Atlanta Olympics gained much national coverage but received little beyond its shores.

In the ultra-traditional Cobb County in the Olympic host state of Georgia, USA, concerns about gay lifestyles had been bubbling under the surface for several months in 1993. A local theatre had some gay references in a play and complaints were made to the County Commissioners. During summer the Baptist church in Marietta, the county capital close to Atlanta, of which many members were very right-wing, held a workshop at which its pastor, a television evangelist, voiced concerns that the “gay agenda” was threatening the “traditional family structure”.

A draft resolution was presented to the Commissioners, co-written by the pastor, which expressed those same concerns. Among the reasons given in the draft was the recent decision taken by Atlanta to give some domestic rights to same-sex partners, the Georgia State governor offering to host a future Gay Games in the city, and the 1993 March on Washington for LGB Rights. The Baptist pastor and his congregation were having NONE of that on their doorstep.

Despite a local group organising an opposition meeting a week before the County Board met on 10th August 1993 the Commissioners voted 3 to 1 to adopt the resolution. The only dissenting Commissioner was Bill Cooper. At a later meeting they also withdrew all arts funding, including that for the local theatre.

Opposition became very vocal. The Cobb County Coalition formed on 31st August and arranged rallies, protests and a Queer Family Picnic/Protest and attracted national attention. The Commissioners resolutely refused to rescind the resolution. Then matters became more intense when the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) awarded the volleyball competition to Cobb County on 30th January 1994. The newly constructed volleyball centre in Marietta had its grand opening that same week with much celebration.

Choosing a Cobb County venue was the catalyst for the formation of another protest group called Olympics Out of Cobb by Jon-Ivan Weaver and Pat Hussein in Atlanta on 14th February 1994. The group lobbied ACOG most strongly urging them to reconsider their decision, but ACOG tried everything it could to avoid being dragged into one side of the dispute on Cobb County’s anti-gay resolution, re-iterating the ideal of an Olympic truce.

A truce was far from the minds of either side. Gradually other community groups and organisations began pinning their colours to one side or the other. Rabbi Stephen Lebow gained support of 37 other interdenominational clergy in calling for the resolution to be dropped, only to be followed a few days later by the Marietta Baptist church gaining 200 clergy calling for it to be retained. A “compromise” offered by the Commissioners found little support on either side.

In June 1994 the lgbt community stepped up its campaign. At Atlanta Pride on 18th June Cobb County Coalition and Olympics Out Of Cobb took part in the march and received huge amounts of support. Then on 22nd June there was an unexpected turn of events. Shannon Byrne, daughter of a Cobb County Commissioner who voted in favour of the resolution, came out publicly as a lesbian. She expressed her concerns, and those of others living in Cobb County, and of the pains of being targeted. Then, just over two weeks later Greg Louganis, the greatest Olympic diver of all time, who had himself only recently come out publicly at the opening ceremony of the Gay Games in New York (on the same day as the Atlanta Pride march), called upon ACOG to remove the volleyball contest from Cobb County. Ironically, or even as a result of the Cobb County controversy, the volleyball competition at those Gay Games attracted over 20 percent of all the athletes attending – that’s over 2,000 volleyball players! Greg make his appeal at a reception organised by the US Olympic Committee at which he received the Robert J. Kane Award for his Olympic achievements. He used his acceptance speech to mention Cobb County and the general absence of support of lgbt athletes.

The controversy was now something ACOG and the IOC could not avoid addressing. They announced that they were considering moving the volleyball competition out of Cobb County as a means of avoiding unwanted attention and probable disruptions and protests to the events, carefully avoiding any comment that could be used by either side as support for their views. The County Commissioners then bounced back saying that they’d withdraw their venues from the Olympics if ACOG demanded the removal of their anti-gay resolution, thereby effectively shooting themselves in the foot. Two days later ACOG moved the volleyball contest out of Cobb County.

But that wasn’t the end of the matter. As the 1996 Olympics got closer Cobb County held on to its resolution and campaign groups continued to protest. Various threats from the more extreme protestors to disrupt the Olympic torch relay which was to pass through Cobb County in July 1996 were avoided by ACOG deciding to redirect the relay out of Cobb County in April 1996.

By this time two other US counties had passed similar anti-gay resolutions – Spartanville and Greenville counties in South Carolina. Spartanville quickly dropped its resolution after the first wave of protests. Greenville, however, held out and received the same treatment as Cobb County, the Olympic torch relay was rerouted out of the county, much to the understandable dismay of the few torch bearers whose legs of the relay were cancelled.

As we move through the 21st century and look around at anti-gay legislation in all levels of government it seems, at times, that nothing has changed in the 20 years since the Atlanta Olympics. Change is always gradual and it is to be hoped that all politicians will soon stop challenging the lgbt lifestyle.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Extraordinary Life : Holocaust Survivor

To commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day we look at a Holocaust survivor whose life straddled both sides of the conflict. His name is Pierre Seel (1923-2005). I must give Chris Furneaux of the Australian lgbt radio and online channel Joy 49.9 the credit for suggesting I write about him today.

As his name suggests Pierre Seel was French. He was born in Alsace, a part of France that borders Germany. For centuries the region has been a political ping-pong ball bouncing between the two countries. During Pierre’s lifetime he found his home town, and indeed his own nationality, changing twice. From 1871 Alsace was a French province but at the end of the Franco-Prussian War it became part of the German Empire. Then, after the defeat of the German in the First World War possession of Alsace was returned to France.

In France at the time of Pierre’s birth there was no law prohibiting homosexuality though the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church led many to hide their sexuality in public, and even from their own families, as was the case with Pierre.

In 1939 he was in a well-known gay “cruising” site when his watch, a precious gift from his godmother, was stolen. He reported it to the police, but the officer he reported it to was not sympathetic. He shouted abuse at Pierre because of his admission to being in a notorious cruising site and placed his name on a list of homosexuals. This list had no official or legal purpose but it was to prove disastrous to many in a very short time.

The Second World War began with Britain, followed by France, declaring war on Nazi Germany later in 1939. In response Germany invaded and annexed Alsace. Now Pierre and his fellow Alsace natives found themselves being treated as German citizens subject to the laws of Nazi Germany. Pierre joined many others in working secretly for the French Resistance.

That list of homosexuals to which Pierre’s name was added was handed to the German authorities and soon Pierre was arrested by the Gestapo and subjected to painful physical and emotional torture, including being forcibly sodomised with a wooden stick.

In May 1941 Pierre was transferred to the Schirmeck labour and “rehabilitation” camp in the south of Alsace. More than 15,000 Alsatian citizens were imprisoned there over the next 4 years, all being forced to work with little rest or food. There were none of the infamous Pink Triangles on the uniforms of the gay prisoners, this camp did not use them. Instead Pierre wore a blue bar which was used to indicate someone who was anti-social. This also implied homosexuality and was virtually just as bad. Life for a gay man in the labour camp was still hazardous. Gay men could not find comfort in their own subgroup because fellow prisoners and SS guards alike regarded them as the lowest class of society.

When Pierre was arrested he became separated from his boyfriend Jo but he saw his beloved again in the labour camp. He could not acknowledge Jo, but watched in horror as the guards stripped Jo naked and set the guard dogs on him. The bloody death of his boyfriend marked Pierre for the rest of his life and gave him a fear of dogs.

To his surprise and relief Pierre was released, the camp’s commander having been satisfied that he had been “re-educated”, though Pierre would have to report daily to the Gestapo. Pierre returned home to his family but nothing was ever said of his experiences or sexuality.

Now a “free German” citizen Pierre was conscripted into the Nazi army. He was placed in the Wehrmacht which contained other Alsace natives forced to fight against the Allies. Then, in 1943, he was surprised again, this time to find himself being sent to the Nazi’s Aryan-breeding programme. He was only there for a few days.

By summer 1944 Pierre found himself on the Russian front, one of the most hostile combat zones of World War II. As the Allies pushed from the west and the Soviets from the east the Nazi regime began to crumble. Pierre found himself the only survivor of his post and surrendered to the Soviets.

He made his way to Poland where he joined a refugee convoy of concentration camp survivors. The Red Cross arranged for them to travel to Odessa on the Black Sea and Pierre was placed in charge of order and discipline at the refugee camp there. Eventually he managed to catch a train back to Paris and from there back to Alsace. He never revealed the full truth of his experiences, they were too traumatic, and for nearly 40 years his story was hidden in his memory.

Alsace once more changed hands after the defeat of the Nazis and the French laws were restored – except one. In 1942 the Vichy government of Nazi occupied France outlaws sex between adults and minors. This law was retained after liberation. Pierre received abuse from his own family because of his sexuality and eventually he sank into what he called “years of shame” when he tried to come to terms with his sexuality.
The memorial illustration dedicated to Pierre Seel, one of several produced by the Italian lgbt rights group Arcigay in 2015.
In 1950 he decided to marry, not telling his bride about being gay. They had 3 surviving children. Family life was very unsettled as work took them all around France. He also felt uncomfortable relating to his children, He became stressed and depressed and haunted by nightmares, He turned to drink and tranquilisers. The stress grew as the decade progressed and in 1978 Pierre and his wife separated.

In 1981 Pierre attended a book launch for “The Men With The Pink Triangle” by Heinz Heger, one of the inspirations for the play “Bent”. It was then that Pierre decided to speak out, anonymously in writing at first, about the truths behind the persecution of gay men by the Nazis. He was particularly keen to highlight the French victims, as most of the prevailing stories of persecution were about German gay men.

Pierre became a well-known activist and campaigner for the recognition of lgbt Holocaust victims at memorial commemorations. In 1994 he published his life story with the help of a journalist and fellow activist Jean Le Bitoux. Because of his high profile appearances in the media and elsewhere Pierre received more homophobic abuse, some of it physical. Through it all Pierre’s dignity and resolve remained steadfast.

By 2003 Pierre Seel was receiving official recognition for his activism. In 2005 France’s President Jacques Chirac spoke about the plight of French Holocaust victims, a tribute to Pierre Seel’s campaigning.

Pierre Seel died 7 months after President Chirac’s speech. By the end of his life he had gone to live with his partner Eric in Toulouse and had received the acceptance of his lifestyle from his family. A street near where he lived in Toulouse was named after him in 2008.

Pierre’s persecution during the Holocaust was not unique, except perhaps for his forced non-combative career in the Nazi army, but his testimony as one of the very few French gay Holocaust survivors and his personal experiences helped to change French attitudes to Nazi persecution of their countrymen on occupies France who were all too often forgotten during remembrances.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

A Queer Philosopher's Achievement : Francis Bacon

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]
One of my favourite historical lgbt people is Sir FrancisBacon (1561-1626). He was a true man of many talents – a statesman, a scientist, a philosopher and a writer. Before I go into his coat of arms you may like to read about his philosophical credentials in his entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Basically, Sir Francis Bacon was among the first champions of the belief in proper investigation, observation and experimentation of the natural world. He was also a leading statesman of his time and his coat of arms shown below illustrates that.

Francis Bacon was born in 1561, the son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, a prominent statesman at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. On 22nd February 1568 Sir Nicholas and his brothers were granted a coat of arms which was inherited by their descendants including, of course, Sir Francis Bacon. Below is his full achievement of arms.
The shield show two coats of arms quartered together. In the top left and bottom right quarters are the arms of the Bacon family, and in the other quarters are the arms of the Quaplode family. The Quaplodes were a landed family in Norfolk whose heiress married into the Bacons. Their descendants inherited both arms in this configuration. This would also be the coat of arms used by Sir Francis’s older brother Anthony Bacon. Both used cadency marks to indicate which son of Sir Nicholas they were. Anthony, as the 4th son, would have put a small bird called a martlet on his shield. Sir Francis, as 5th son, put a small circle called an annulet on his. I have not shown this annulet in my painting because Sir Francis is the only member of his family who was entitled to use any of the other devices you can see.

What can we see that tells us that this is the specific coat of arms of Sir Francis Bacon and not anyone else in his family? We need to follow his political career to decode the design. With each new appointment the paraphernalia surrounding the shield changed. Originally Sir Francis would have used a shield, including his cadency mark, with a simple helmet like the one is shown in Michelle Dumaresq’s achievement. In 1603 Francis was knighted, which meant he changed his helmet for one with an open visor, as used by other knights such as Sir Elton John.

In 1617 Sir Francis was appointed Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. This high office of state would have enabled him to show a representation of the Privy Purse which contained the Great Seal below his shield. I’ve tried to find a good quality image of the Privy Purse he would have used to no avail, so I haven’t show it.

Sir Francis was appointed Lord High Chancellor of England and was created a peer of the realm with the title Baron Verulam. This was the highest position in the state that any member o f the lgbt community had held since Sir Piers Gaveston, King Edward II’s lover, was appointed Guardian of the Realm in 1307.

The Lord High Chancellor is still one of the highest offices of state. If you have ever watched coverage of the State Opening of Parliament you would have seen the Chancellor of the day hand the speech to the Queen from the steps of the throne in the House of Lords. You would also have seen an Usher carrying the ceremonial mace which is placed in front of the Queen. Sir Francis was entitled to show this mace, 2 of them, behind his shield.

On being created a Baron Verulam Sir Francis would have changed his helmet again. As a peer he used the more elaborate helmet with a gold barred visor you see here. Modern peers are entitled to place a coronet sitting on top their shield to show their rank of nobility. During his lifetime there was no coronet for a baron. But in 1621 he was promoted to a viscount with them title Viscount St. Albans. His boss, King James I, authorised the use of a coronet for viscounts, and this is the one I show.

Right at the top of the painting, on top of the helmet, is the crest. You may think that the boar is a pun on the family name of Bacon, bit it isn’t. The boar crest was actually that of the Quaplode family and in the grant to Sir Nicholas’s father in 1568 replaced the original Bacon crest which was a griffin. The family motto at the bottom translates as “Mediocrity is Stable”.

Sir Francis resigned as Lord High Chancellor in 1621 over a bribery scandal and the use of the maces behind his shield was stopped. However, I like the look of the maces and it reminds me that members of the lgbt community have been involved in the government of England for centuries.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Olympic Alphabet : G is for ...


At first it might seem that there’s very little that lgbt gymnasts have contributed to the Olympic Games. After all, there’s only 4 known lgbt Olympic gymnasts (Karin Büttner-Janz, Kris Burley, Laís Souza and Rose Cossar), nowhere near the size of the figure skaters or equestrian riders that I’ve covered in the two previous Olympic Alphabet article.

But if you go back a hundred years to include the Danish gymnast Niels Bukh we see a different picture. I’ve written about Niels Bukh several times before, most recently in my “Around the World in 80 Gays” series. He formed the modern style of gymnastics and would have been the first known lgbt Olympian if he hadn’t been dropped from the Danish team at the 1908 London Olympics because he looked too butch! His influence is still felt today in modern gymnastics.

Karin Büttner-Janz is one of those lesser-known lgbt Olympians who actually holds some significant records. She holds the joint record for the most medals won by an individual lgbt Olympian at one games. At the 1972 Munich games Karin won 2 golds, 2 silvers and 1 bronze. She shares this record with Ian Thorpe, who won 3 golds and 2 silvers at Sydney 2000. Karin’s medal haul was the highest in the gymnastics events, though the great Olga Korbut won more gold medals (but not on her favourite apparatus, the asymmetric bars, which Karin won – see video below).

In the 1970s the Eastern bloc behind the “Iron Curtain” dominated world gymnastics. Karin represented her native East Germany from the age of 16 and took part in 2 Olympics, Mexico City 1968 and Munich 1972. She won medals at both. She even has a gymnastic move named after her, the janz salto. Here’s a video of Karin performing her signature move in her gold-medal-winning routine at the Munich Olympics. It’s near the end when she leaps up from the lower bar and does a backwards somersault before grabbing the upper bar. Blink and you’ll miss it!

There wasn’t to be another lgbt gymnast at the Olympics for another 22 years. In fact, NONE of the remaining lgbt gymnasts were even born when Karin Büttner-Janz was competing (she retied in 1972).

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics the first and, so far, the only male gay gymnast competed. He was Kris Burley of Canada, though he wasn’t out publicly at the time. Kris didn’t make it past the qualifying rounds in the various apparatus in Atlanta but 3 years later at the 1999 Pan-American Games he won 2 bronze medals.

After his competitive career Kris worked in the entertainment and event management industry behind the cameras. He also did what quite a few gymnasts did – he joined Cirque du Soleil. More recently he curated a photographic exhibition called “Heroic Authenticity”.

Kris’s involvement in the Olympics continued during the 2010 Vancouver Winter games. His experience in event management landed him the job as Senior Manager at the receptions held by the Premier of Ontario. During the next games, the Sochi 2014 Olympics, he expressed his opposition to the boycott that many people called for (mostly from those who it wouldn’t have affected, and who showed blatant hypocrisy in not calling for boycotts of several other international sporting events that were held in Russia both before and after the Sochi Olympics).

Also competing for Canada is British-born Rose Cossar. She competed at the London 2012 games in rhythmic gymnastics and was the gymnastics team captain. This was her only Olympic appearance and she retired shortly afterwards. Since then she has come out and has become a leading voice for lgbt inclusion and acceptance in sport. To this end Rose supported the Pride House at last year’s Pan-American Games in Toronto, an event for which Kris Burley played a key role in securing as a member of the Toronto 2015 bid team.

Sometimes athletes retire from one sport to take up another. This is the case with our next lgbt gymnast. Laís Souza had won 3 bronze and 1 silver medals at the Pan-American Games of 2003 and 2007. She competed for Brazil at 2 Olympic Games. Her first was Athens 2004. In the team all-round competition at Beijing 2008 she was won an 8th place Olympic Diploma. In 2012 Laís was again placed on Brazil’s gymnastics team. Unfortunately in the month between being selected and the start of the London games she injured herself in training and was forced to withdraw.

After retiring from gymnastics Laís turned to a totally different sport – aerial skiing. She was selected for the Brazilian skiing team in 2013. Sadly, as with London 2012, she was injured in training a month before competing at the Olympics. Her injuries prior to Sochi 2014 were severe and she was left paralysed from the neck down. Several months later she regained some sensation in her lower body and her slow recovery began. The Rio 2016 Olympic organising committee paid for Laís to receive English lesson while being treated in the USA, and the Brazilian government even granted her a lifetime pension. Laís’s recovery may never be complete, but she had become active in speaking to sports groups, as well as coming out, and when I last checked (December 2015) she was beginning to learn how to walk again. Laís’s competitive career may be over, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she was given a place in the Olympic torch relay.

Although it is too early to say for sure, there’s likely to be more lgbt gymnasts at the Rio Olympics this summers, and we may even had 2 male gymnasts competing. Among the hopefuls are Jeffrey Wammes of the Netherlands, who just missed out on a place at London 2012, and America’s Josh Dixon. Both of these gymnasts are openly gay and they will be the first gymnasts to be so at the Olympics.

Before I sign off, there’s one more athlete to mention just briefly. One event included in the Olympic gymnastic programme is trampolining. Only one known lgbt trampolinist has competed at the Olympics, Australia’s Ji Wallace. The reason I haven’t included him fully today is because I intend to include him in my article for the letter J. I won’t reveal what subject will be covered by that letter, but the fact that it’ll be published on February 29th – Leap Day – may be a hint!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Believe It Or Not : World Religion Day

It came as a surprise to me to discover that there was a World Religion Day. I was even more surprised to find out that it began over 50 years ago. And there’s also a World Philosophy Day in November and a National Day of Reason (held in the USA) in May, and I’ll cover those celebrations at those times.
We have to go way back to 1950 to encounter the first ever World Religion Day, and held on the 3rd Sunday in January ever since – that’s today. It began in the USA and, believe it or not, wasn’t the brainchild of some evangelical Christian but of the leaders of one of the world’s lesser known major faiths (if that’s not a contradiction), the Baha’i faith.
In 1949 the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’i faith in the US, probably having the horrors of World War II and the world’s slow readjustment to life post-Holocaust in mind, recognised that most religions had common spiritual goals even if they differed doctrinally. The Assembly came up with World Religion Day as a way of encouraging understanding of each religions’ differences and of working together to held shape a better world. (I’ll write more about Baha’i and some of its lgbt adherents in March.)

One of the illustrations which gives an idea of how much the world’s religions and beliefs are connected through history is the one shown below, designed by Simon E. Davies for the Human Odyssey Facebook page. It charts the origin and evolution of many world faiths. But an even more impressive illustration is one you can find here. I won’t even attempt to explain it – the work put into it must have been phenomenal.

My home county of Nottinghamshire became the centre of much attention last year because of religion and lgbt issues. The focus was on a gay Anglican priest who was refused a license to officiate as a hospital chaplain. He can still work elsewhere but the fact that he was gay and married was what made it headline news.

Also last year the UK’s Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement moved its HQ from London to Newark, a quaint market town just down the River Trent from Nottingham.

Many of my article over the past years can be included in the “religion” label. The myths and legends of Ancient Greece is littered with references to same-sex activity between the gods and mortals, and all the athletes and solider had same sex partners. In fact, you could argue that the Olympic Games were created solely for religious purposes.

Various historical characters have declared themselves to be gods. Most of the Roman Emperors did so, and one, Elegabalus, belonged to a hereditary priesthood to an ancient sun god called El-Gabal.

Last year I wrote a little about the Caribbean faith of Santeria which had it’s origins in the Yoruba culture and religion of west Africa as well as Catholicism. That article also touched on the subject of faith adopting and adapting the deities of older religions into their own pantheons. The debate on the acceptance of homosexuality in African Christian churches is very prominent at the moment with the world Anglican churches discussing the subject in Canterbury at this very moment.

I also mentioned several Roman Catholic Cardinals in that same series, “Around the World in 80 Gays”. While it may be politically correct to condemn the homophobic stance of the Catholic Church and the hypocrisy of some of its clergy, it should also be noted that there are many lgbt people of religious belief at work in the community today helping to change attitudes. There are many lgbt-orientated churches of many faiths, and many thriving lgbt groups within established faiths. So, Believe it or Not, the lgbt community has a vital place in religious life today.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Believe It Or Not : Sodom Revealed?

The theme for the UK’s LGBT History Month in February is “Religion, Belief and Philosophy”. The subject may not appeal to many people but throughout this year, as in previous years, I’ll base a lot of articles on it. I hope to show that the subject is as interesting, diverse and important as any other I’ve covered, and I’ll do that is a new series called “Believe It Or Not”.

Popular perceptions of religion in particular are often negative. One of the biggest negative influences religion has had on the lgbt community is its attitude towards gay sex (not to be confused with gay love, a concept accepted as honourable by many religions for centuries).

Nothing sums up this attitude to gay sex more than the name given to it by the early Christian church – sodomy. This word comes from the well-known Biblical story of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Surely there could be no better place to start this series than Sodom.

Just like Indiana Jones going in search of sacred artefacts historians and archaeologists have been hunting around for the actual site of Sodom. That’s not as pointless as it might seem at first. After all, Troy was regarded as a fictional city until it was uncovered, as was the palace of King Minos of Crete.

Sodom’s location has aroused interest for almost 150 years and still does. Several archaeologists have claimed to have found the ancient city. None of these claims have received as universal acceptance as the location of Troy has done, but they all reveal more about the ancient Middle East. Last November a new book was published looking at the geological evidence to locate Sodom.

I’m going to choose three sites which have been claimed as being the remains of Sodom. The first location is the traditional one, known to ancient writers such as Strabo, who lived at the same time of Christ, which probably means that Christ himself knew of it as well. A large hill composed almost entirely of salt at the southern end of the Dead Sea in what is now part of the Judean Desert Nature Reserve has had the Hebrew name Har Sedom since before Strabo’s time. He recorded that the hill was the location of Sodom. There’s even a pillar of salt called “Lot’s Wife” after the unfortunate woman who ignored the advice not to turn back and look at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as told in the Bible. There’s no archaeological evidence to show that Har Sedom, or Jabel Usdu in Arabic and Mount Sodom in English, is the site of the destroyed city.

The Dead Sea is renowned for its buoyancy properties. Its high salt content led the ancients to call it the Sea of Salt. To digress briefly, the Dead Sea features in an amusing story from the time of the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The bisexual future Emperor Titus, serving as an army captain, condemned a group of slaves to death. The slaves were taken in chains and thrown into the Sea of Salt. Titus probably didn’t know of the sea’s buoyancy properties and was startled when the slaves came bobbing back onto the shoreline like corks. Titus threw them back in several times and each time they came bobbing back. In the end he pardoned them all and set them free.

In the 1970s another candidate for Sodom was identified using archaeological means. Using location details In the Bible which places Sodom as one of the Cities of the Plain in the Valley of Siddim south of the Dead Sea archaeologists discovered several ancient destroyed settlements which hit the bill.

One of these sites, Bab edh-Dhra, was claimed as the site of Sodom, and another site, Numeira, as Gomorrah. Several pieces of evidence were brought forward in support of the claim. First is their location on the edge of the “the Plain” which geologists day was present in Biblical times. Secondly, botanical specimens indicate cultivation on irrigated land, as described in the Bible. The remains of fortifications indicate both Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira were important cities, as were Sodom and Gomorrah. Finally, both sites showed signs of being destroyed or abandoned in ancient times.

Not all historians agree that the evidence proves the sites are actually Sodom and Gomorrah. Specifically, they say that the archaeological evidence doesn’t indicate that the cities were destroyed at the same time as the Bible states.

Having searched south of the Dead Sea it came as a surprise last year when it was suggested Tall el-Hammam, north of the Dead Sea, was Sodom. There is a layer of ash containing fragments of human bones, and the area produces large amounts of desert glass, sand fused together by temperatures so high that they couldn’t have been made by any man-made process. The archaeologists go further as to suggest Tall el-Hammam was destroyed by a meteor airburst.

A meteor airburst isn’t as far-fetched as is sounds. You may remember that spectacular meteor crash in the Russian countryside a couple of years ago. That was a mere damp squib compared to what the archaeologists say caused the destruction of Tall el-Hammam, indicating it could have been the historical Sodom. An ancient clay tablet records such an event occurring in around the year 3123 BC. However, a meteor burst of that power would have destroyed many other cities as well as Sodom, and the Bible indicates that they weren’t.

Perhaps we’ll never know where the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah really are. Undoubtedly other theories will emerge in the coming years. For the time being, we must decide for ourselves whether to Believe It Or Not.
Just as modern film-makers delight in showing off their computer skills by filling their films with spectacular cgi effects, traditional artist and painters delighted in showing their own interpretation of death and destruction. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was a particularly suitable topic for them to display their skills with a paint brush. This painting, by John Martin (1789-1854), is one of hundreds depicting the famous disaster.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Olympic Alphabet : F is for ...


Figure skaters make up the largest group of lgbt Winter Olympians with a total of 18 skater plus another 2 reserves team members. As with the equestrians from the previous Olympic Alphabet article all the figure skaters in this group are male.

I’ve written quite a bit about lgbt figure skaters in the past, that’s because it’s my favourite Winter Olympic sport. I’ll just refer you back to some articles before I proceed. The sport of figure skating was popularised, if not invented, by Capt. Robert Jones. For a history of lgbt figure skating at the Olympics I refer you back to my 2012 “Olympic Countdown” series (click on “Olympics” in the label list). That gives a history up to Vancouver 2010. Several figure skaters have come out since then, as well as the Sochi 2014 games coming and going, and also additional research has been done. For the most part that previous history is still accurate.

Here are some facts and figures to compliment my “Olympic Countdown” series. Most of the figure skaters compete in the single’s competitions, and 6 compete in the pairs (these 6 are Luc Bradet, Randy Gardner, Lyndon Johnston, Rob McCall, Ryan O’Meara and Eric Radford).

The earliest participation in Olympic figure skating is as given in that earlier series, the American Ronnie Robertson (1937-2000), making his one and only Olympic appearance in Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1956. He is also the first lgbt figure skater to win a medal, a silver.

The next identified skater is one of the greatest unknown athletes in history, the Czech skater Ondrej Nepela (19951-1989). More information is given here. To summarise, Ondrej holds several records in lgbt Olympianism. At his first games in Innsbruck 1964 he was only one week past his 13th birthday, the youngest ever lgbt Olympian.

Ondrej ties with Brian Boitano for the record for the most competitive appearances, both having been in 3 Olympics. At Ondrej’s last appearance in Sapporo he became the first lgbt Winter Olympic champion. Brian Boitano also became Olympic champion in Calgary 1988.

The only other lgbt Olympic figure skating champion is the great John Curry. I have often mentioned that he is the first Olympian to be openly gay at the Olympics. Some people have queried this, mainly because he was outed by the media after his final Olympic competition in Innsbruck 1976. He accepted that his sexuality was common knowledge, he never denied it, though he deliberately down-played his customary flamboyance in his performance at the closing ceremony in case it caused any homophobic criticism. By any definition, John Curry was openly gay before the Innsbruck games closed. While it is certainly true that he never competed as an openly gay Olympian he remains the first out Olympic champion – he was the openly gay reigning Olympic champion until the following games in 1980 in which he didn’t compete.

Of the 20 competing and reserve skaters Ondrej Nepela was the only one not to be English-speaking. Paul Bonifacio Parkinson competed for Italy at Sochi 2014. His mother is Italian, which qualified him for the Italian team. He is Canadian by birth. Out of the 20 John Curry and Ondrej Nepela are not North American by birth. Canada pips the USA with 10 skaters to 8.

The games with the most competing skaters was Turin 2006 with 5. Only one of them, Jeff Buttle, won a medal (bronze).

The most medals won at a single games by lgbt figure skaters was in Calgary 1988 with one of each colour being won. Brian Boitano won gold and Brian Orser won silver in the infamous Battle of the Brians, and Rob McCall won bronze.

Calgary 1988 also had the most non-competing lgbt figure skaters. Angelo D’Agostino was a reserve for the American team. Toller Cranston performed in the closing ceremony, of which Brian Pockar was the Artistic Director and Choreographer. John Curry and Jeff Buttle were reserve skaters who went on to represent their nations fully and compete in later games. A reserve skater at Vancouver 2010, the American Adam Rippon, has yet to reach the main Olympic team.

Sochi 2014 almost saw the first openly lgbt figure skater compete (as mentioned above John Curry was outed after his final competition). Out Australian skater Bradley McLachlan just failed to make the reserve list, but you never know, he could still make it to the Pyeong Chang Olympics in 2018.

One name that is often overlooked when listing medal winners is that of the coach, trainer and choreographer. In figure skating there is a large number of lgbt coaches, etc., who have been equally responsible for producing Olympic champions (both lgbt and non-lgbt).

Top of the coaching list is Brian Orser, 2-times silver medallist himself, who has successfully coached 2 singles figure skaters to Olympic gold – Yu-Na Kim in Vancouver 2010, and Yuzuru Hanyu in Sochi 2014.

Whereas Brian Orser tops the lgbt Olympic figure skating coach list he doesn’t top the choreographer list. That honour goes to David Wilson. With Orser he shares the honour of helping Yu-Na Kim to the women’s singles gold medal in 2010. Wilson has choreographed many Olympic routines, including those that won Jeff Buttle his bronze medal in Turin 2006 and the silver medal he won at the 2005 World Championships.

The sport of figure skating lost many top athletes to HIV and AIDS. As I mentioned in my “Olympic Countdown” series in 2012 there was a lot of denial within the sport regarding the presence of HIV. It wasn’t until the death of Rob McCall in 1991 that it began to be discussed openly. Several national and international champions and leading skaters lost their battles with AIDS and Rob was in the process of organising an ice gala to raise funds for AIDS research when he too succumbed to the disease. His gala became his memorial.

One of the leading voices in the education of HIV and sexual health in the figure skating community belonged to Brian Wright (1959-2003), considered to be one of the best choreographers of his time. He didn’t choreograph any Olympic routines but he did come up with routines by future Olympic champions. He came out as gay in 1986 after he was diagnosed with HIV. In 1994 he was named Choreographer of the Year by the US Figure Skating Association.

I’m rapidly overrunning today’s article, so I’ll end with one more lgbt skater.

Out American skater Rohene Ward hoped to qualify for the Salt Lake City 2002 and Turin 2006 games but his dream of becoming an Olympic skater came to nothing. However, he turned to choreography in 2007 and choreographed young Jason Brown to Junior Grand Prix gold and bronze in the Junior World Championships. Rohene choreographed all of Jason’s routines for the Sochi 2014 Olympics in which he won the bronze medal in the new team event.

Before I go I want to pay tribute to one of the greats of Olympic figure skating, Toller Cranston. His death last January at the age of 65 was a sad loss, and his passing was particularly felt in his native Canada. Here is a video from the Canadian lgbt media outlet Daily Xtra.