Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Sam Harris

Sam Harris (b. 1961) grew up in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, a town of fewer than 8,000 people at the time. Possessed of a major, seemingly untamable talent for singing, acting and dancing, his overt “gayness” as a misfit youth led to bullying and a failed suicide attempt (small town Oklahoma was not exactly an embracing environment for a singing/dancing gay boy). However, he went on to gain national recognition in 1983 when he won the grand prize on the first season of Star Search, a television talent competition. His rendition of “Over the Rainbow” has to be seen/heard to be believed. Harris has since enjoyed a career as a recording artist, author, script writer and actor on television, stage and in films.

This week saw the release of “Ham: Slices of a Life” (Simon and Schuster) a collection of sixteen biographical essays and stories. I first learned of this last weekend when Harris was interviewed on NPR about his new book (available in e-reader formats; in the audio book format, Harris himself reads the book). The chapters are variously tragic, triumphant and hilarious, sometimes all at the same time. There are already ten YouTube videos of Harris reading from his book (click on link below).

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLlnSQpV6P9yeR8RgG_5A1lifeRIDjQpc2
   
The chapter on Liza Minelli’s surreal wedding to David Gest is destined to become a cult classic (Sam and Liza have been best friends for decades). Not to be missed is his recounting of a concert in Cleveland, at which he was the opening act for his idol, Aretha Franklin. The crowd cheered Sam and booed Aretha; the Queen of Soul was not amused.

Sam and his partner Danny Jacobsen, a director, presentation coach and film producer, have been together for twenty years. They adopted a son, Cooper, in April, 2008, and married seven months later. The chapters dedicated to Cooper’s birth and his son's alpha-male bonding with partner Danny are so honest and tender that they will bring a tear to your eye and a belly laugh, simultaneously.

I admit that, while I recognize Harris’s tremendous talent, I am not a fan of his over-the-top vocal performances in which he bleeds all over the floor and needs oxygen to recover, but when he reigns it in a bit, he’s in a class by himself (I can recommend the slow ballads on his album “Standard Time”). Here’s a television performance of the classic revenge ballad, “Cry Me a River”:


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Gay Saints Sergius and Bacchus



Third-century Saints Sergius and Bacchus were openly gay, but secretly Christian – the opposite of the way most of today’s closeted gay Christians deal with their situation. The couple were high-ranking Roman soldiers who were described in historical accounts as erastai, Greek for “lovers”.  Modern scholars report that they were united in the rite of adelphopoiesis, a kind of early Christian same-sex marriage. The saints' story is told in the Greek text known as The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus, which dates from the fifth century, when their veneration began. During the Byzantine Empire, they were venerated as protectors of the army.

According to Kitt Cherry*, in the year 303 in present-day Syria “They were tortured to death after they refused to attend sacrifices to Zeus, thus revealing their secret Christianity. The pair were arrested and paraded through the streets in women’s clothing in an unsuccessful effort to humiliate them... Then Sergius and Bacchus were separated and beaten so severely that Bacchus died. According to the early manuscripts, Bacchus appeared to Sergius that night with a face as radiant as an angel’s, dressed once again as a soldier. He urged Sergius not to give up (by renouncing his faith), because they would be reunited in heaven as lovers. His statement is unique in the history of martyrs. Usually the promised reward is union with God, not with a lover. Over the next days Sergius was tortured and eventually beheaded...

Note: Some scholars swear by this account; others doubt its veracity.

...Sergius’ tomb became a famous shrine, and for nearly 1,000 years the couple was revered as the official patrons of the Byzantine army. Many early churches were named after Sergius, sometimes (paired) with Bacchus. They are recognized as martyrs by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches. The pair was venerated through the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Latin America and among the Slavs. Sergius and Bacchus continue to be popular saints with Christian Arabs...”

I have just returned from a trip to Istanbul, where there is a famous church dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus, just down the hill from the city’s storied Hippodrome from Roman times. Located just a few yards from the shores of the Sea of Marmara, the church, built in 527, is so old that the interior frieze is in Greek, not Latin (Istanbul was a Greek-speaking city before the arrival of Roman emperors Constantine and Justinian). The church, like most in Istanbul, was converted to a mosque in the 15th century, but it existed as a church dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus for nearly a thousand years. The church is commonly known as “Little Hagia Sophia” (Küçük Ayasofia), although it predates its landmark namesake by a few years.

Noted British photographer Anthony Gayton does stylized homoerotic photos based on the history of gay culture. At right he shows Sergius and Bacchus stripped and bound as prisoners in two separate photos. The images are intended to be shown together, but by design they can also be separated. Appropriate Bible quotes are on banners above them. For Bacchus: “But I will not take my love from him, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness.” (Psalm 89:33). For Sergius: “All thy commandments are faithful, they persecute me wrongly; help thou me.” (Psalm 119: 86)

*Kittredge Cherry is a lesbian Christian author and art historian. She founded Jesus In Love in 2005 to support LGBT spirituality and the arts. She was ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches, an LGBT-affirming Christian denomination, and has served as its National Ecumenical Officer. Her blog can be found at:
jesusinlove.blogspot.com

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Klaus Wowereit

Berlin's current mayor, openly gay politician Klaus Wowereit (born 1953), has served as governing mayor of Germany’s capital city since 2001. In coming out publicly prior to the 2001 mayoral elections, he coined the now famous German phrase "Ich bin schwul, und das ist auch gut so" (I'm gay, and that’s a good thing). With his coming out, Wowereit wanted to beat the tabloids to exposing his sexual orientation and prevent them from writing sensational and fabricated stories about his private life. Wowereit said those now famous words during a convention of the Berlin SPD (Germany’s Social Democratic Party). At the end of his speech, there was spontaneous cheering and applause. Wowereit’s civil partner, Jörn Kubicki, is a neurosurgeon, and the pair have been in a relationship since 1993.

Wowereit, who was born in Berlin, has served as President of the Bundesrat (the fourth highest office in Germany), and his SPD-led coalition was re-elected in 2006.  In the 2011 elections he and his party were again victorious. Wowereit’s election as mayor made Berlin one of three major European cities that saw openly gay mayors take office in 2001, along with Paris’s Bertrand Delanoë and Hamburg’s Ole von Beust. Berlin and Hamburg, being the two largest cities in Germany, are also German states in their own right, which meant that both Wowereit and von Beust became state premiers.

Wowereit also served in the Berlin House of Representatives from 1995-2011, and since 2009 has been Vice Chairman of his party, the SPD.

Wowereit with partner Jörn Kubicki (at left):

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Frederick the Great (1712-1786)


Frederick II (in German: Friedrich II), the Hohenzollern King of Prussia, went on to become known as Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Große). His governess and mother spoke French around him, and they reminded Frederick that French was the language of culture, while German was used by inferior people. They included his father in that category. So Frederick spoke French as his mother tongue and spoke German with difficulty all his life, in spite of the fact that he eventually ruled over a German-speaking realm.

Interested primarily in music and philosophy during his youth, Frederick unsuccessfully attempted to flee from his authoritarian father. He and his gay lover, Hans Hermann von Katte (portrait at right), were caught and imprisoned, and Frederick was then forced to watch his lover's decapitation. This was his father’s way of teaching him a lesson about his “unmanly, lascivious, female pursuits highly unsuitable for a man.” Frederick’s father whipped and caned him to humiliate him in front of servants and officers in an attempt to break his will. Frederick held out, refusing his father’s desire that he give up his right to succession in favor of his younger brother. As is turned out, the father was no match for his exceptionally intelligent and able son.

Later forced to enter into a marriage arranged by his father, Frederick mostly ignored his wife (they had no children), preferring the company of his sister on the rare occasions when female company was desired. Frederick had told his sister that he found his fiancé “repugnant; we have neither friendship nor compatibility, and she dances like a goose.” He gave his wife her own palace, refusing her entry to his other residences, and visited her only a few days a year at Christmas.

The conversation of the inner court circle around him was peppered with homoerotic banter. Voltaire, whom Frederick had invited to come live with him at Sans-Souci, a rococo summer palace he built in Potsdam, was accused of anonymously publishing “The Private Life of the King of Prussia”, exposing Frederick's homosexuality and parade of male lovers. After Voltaire had left Prussia, Frederick neither admitted nor denied the contents of the book. Regardless, Frederick was a gay man surrounded by an all-male society at Sans-Souci in which he judged people on their intelligence and skills, not royal or noble privilege. He wrote poetry, played a mean flute (see painting below), entertained by throwing lavish balls, and staged plays, avoiding the hunting, drinking, gambling and womanizing as practiced by his father. Frederick wrote and performed music and had his own personal orchestra. When his father died, Frederick was 28, and Prussia found itself with a gay king.



Frederick concentrated on becoming the best monarch possible. He soon managed to transform Prussia from a European backwater to an economically strong and politically reformed state. Although he loathed his father’s militarism, he went on to conquer neighboring lands to unify his scattered holdings, each time improving the economy, infrastructure, government, education, agriculture and industry of his acquisitions. He abolished torture and corporal punishment. The icing on the cake was his long-held policy of religious tolerance of both Catholics and Protestants, thus becoming one of the great reformers of Europe. He encouraged Jews along the border with Poland to perform trade, affording them all protections and support given to other Prussian citizens in an effort to integrate them into his realm. 

Frederick frequently led his military forces personally and had six horses shot from under him during battle. Frederick is often admired as one of the greatest military tactical geniuses of all time, especially for his usage of the oblique order of battle. Even more important were his operational successes, especially preventing the unification of numerically superior opposing armies and being at the right place at the right time to keep enemy armies out of Prussian core territory.

An example of the place that Frederick holds in history as a ruler was evidenced in Napoleon Bonaparte*, who regarded the Prussian king as a great military strategist. After Napoleon's victory of the Fourth Coalition in 1807, he visited Frederick's tomb in Potsdam and remarked to his officers, "Gentlemen, if this man were still alive, I would not be here." Frederick and Napoleon are perhaps the most admiringly quoted military leaders in history. Frederick is praised particularly for the quick and skillful movement of his troops.

*Napoleon Bonaparte also had a sexual taste for men, especially his own soldiers. See entry in sidebar.

Upon his death in 1786 (peacefully at age 74 in an armchair in his library at Sans-Souci) Frederick had wished to be buried next to his beloved 11 greyhounds on the vineyard terrace on the side of the palace’s court of honor. It took more than 200 years to grant his request, since his brother had him buried next to their father. Hitler had his coffin moved to an underground bunker, then to a salt mine to protect it from destruction. US Army soldiers subsequently discovered it and relocated it twice. After German reunification in 1989, Frederick’s casket, covered by a Prussian flag, lay in state at Sans-Souci on August 17, 1991, the 205th anniversary of his death. After nightfall, Frederick’s body was at last laid to rest according to his request in his 1757 will: “without pomp and at night” (“ohne Prunk, ohne Pomp und bei Nacht”).

Sources: Wikipedia, N.  Mitford's Frederick the Great, J. D. Steakley's Sodomy in Enlightened Prussia, Susan Henderson's Frederick the Great of Prussia

Friday, January 17, 2014

Charles Wuorinen

Annie Proulx, the author of the short story “Brokeback Mountain,” wrote the libretto for the opera of the same title that has been set to music by Pulitzer Prize winning American serialist composer Charles Wuorinen (photo at right). Wuorinen is a New York City based gay classical composer who is married to his manager, Howard Stokar.

The opera version of "Brokeback Mountain," completed in 2012, was originally commissioned by the New York City Opera and Gerard Mortier, but the project was postponed when General Manager Mortier resigned. When he became head of the Teatro Real (Madrid, Spain), Mortier decided to take up the work again and present it there.  

Canadian bass/baritone Daniel Okulitch has the role of Ennis del Mar, and American tenor Tom Randle is cast as Jack Twist. The opera premieres at the Teatro Real (Madrid) on January 28 and runs through February 11.

Proulx’s short story “Brokeback Mountain" was originally published in The New Yorker on October 13, 1997, and was made into an Academy Award winning film in 2005 with Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack and Heath Ledger as Ennis in the lead roles. The story, set in Wyoming, reveals a complex romantic/sexual relationship between two cowboys, in which homophobia stands in the way of their being able to be partners. Ennis is a confused ranch hand who finds himself in a homosexual situation he did not foresee, nor can understand. He is reluctant to show affection towards Jack, and when Jack brings up suggestions about their living together, Ennis declines in a harsh way. Both men marry, but their heterosexual relationships falter. The men meet for infrequent fishing trips, which rekindle their frustrating sexual desires. Both the story and the film have become gay classics.

Baritone Daniel Okulitch, in The Fly (2008):


Tattooed tenor Tom Randle in Wozzeck:


To your blogger's way of thinking, choosing serialist composer Charles Wuorinen to write the score for this opera is appropriate, because the short story's style was powerfully emotional without being overly romanticized. I think that a 19th-century tonal musical setting would not do this story justice.

Wuorinen's catalog of more than 260 compositions emphasizes chamber music and solo instrumental and vocal works, but his most recent commissions tend toward large scale symphonic, operatic and choral compositions.

At age 16 Wuorinen was awarded the New York Philharmonic's Young Composer’s Award, and early in his career he was active as a singer, pianist and organist. In 1962 Wuorinen and fellow composer-performer Harvey Sollberger formed The Group for Contemporary Music, an ensemble that raised the standard of new music performance in New York City. He has taught at Columbia University and the Manhattan School of Music. The premiere of his opera "Brokeback Mountain" will likely garner world-wide attention.

Monday, January 13, 2014

H. H. Munro – “Saki”

A master of the short story, H. H. Munro (1870-1916), known by the pen name Saki, was a British writer whose witty, mischievous and sometimes macabre stories satirized Edwardian society and culture. At their best, they were the highest of high camp. He was born in Burma, when it was still part of the British Empire, but at age two, upon the death of his mother, was sent by his father to England to be raised by his spinster aunts and grandmother.

Munro was homosexual, but at that time in the United Kingdom, sexual activity between men was a crime. Especially after the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde (1895), that side of Munro's life had to be kept secret. His pen name, however, was a strong hint: Saki was a term for a cupbearer, a beautiful boy, an object of male desire. Munro kept a houseboy (hint) throughout most of his life, and many of his stories included coded references to homosexuality. In a series of stories, the suspiciously close characters, dandies Reginald and Clovis, engage in dialogue and activity that allow the more astute reader to read between the lines.

According to biographer A.J. Langguth, regarding Saki’s same-sex activity: “(His) average in his best months was an encounter every second day; when he was busy or traveling, every third day.” Maybe that’s why his stories were so short.

Most of Saki’s short stories were first published in newspapers, then collected and later published in anthologies. He also worked as a journalist and served as an enlisted man in WW I. He was killed by a German sniper’s bullet in the Battle of the Somme on November 13, 1916, at age 45, and after his death, his sister destroyed most of his papers. It was widely reported that his last words were, “Put out that bloody cigarette.”

A sampling of Saki’s epigrams:

“To have reached thirty is to have failed in life.”

“Being too tasteless or too poor, which may very well be the same thing, is no excuse for wearing a cravat that does not match your frock coat.”

“I'm living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart.”

“I always say beauty is only sin deep.”

“Think how many blameless lives are brightened by the blazing indiscretions of other people.”

Sources:

Queers in History (2009), Keith Stern

Wikipedia

Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (1990), ed. Wayne Dynes

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Umberto II of Savoy

Last King of Italy

The only son of Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, King Umberto II (1904-1983) is found on many lists of the shortest-reigning monarchs in history. He was regent of Italy from May 9 to June 12, 1945. Thus known as the “May King”, he was Italy’s last king before the monarchy was abolished and the nation became a Republic. After a dubious 1945 plebiscite, Umberto of Savoy was forced into exile in Cascais, Portugal, to avoid a civil war. His family ties to Musolini did not favor his fate.

Umberto had earlier entered into an arranged marriage to a Belgian Princess, carrying out a tradition common to European royalty, but he largely lived apart from his wife except for public appearances. It is confirmed that he spent his wedding night and entire honeymoon apart from his wife, instead enjoying the company of male “friends” to whom Umberto gave diamond-studded fleur-de-lis shaped mementos and jewels in the shape of the letter “U” (the fleur-de-lis was the symbol of the Savoy dynasty). Those young men flaunted the gifts in public. When Umberto later called on his wife, he was always in the company of someone else and had himself formally announced. Their first child was not born until after four years of marriage, and rumors persisted that they were born by artificial insemination or were fathered by men other than Umberto. Umberto and his wife kept separate apartments, separate beds and had separate circles of friends. Hmm...

He also engaged in relations with many homosexuals of both high and low born pedigree. Many of them were military officers, such as Enrico Montanari, who recounted that in the city of Turin during 1927, as a lieutenant he was persistently courted by Prince Umberto. Montanari wrote that Umberto gave him a silver cigarette lighter inscribed with "Dimmi di sì!" (Say yes to me!). Further, a biography of film-director Luchino Visconti revealed explicit details about the director’s sexual relationship with the Prince. Others have come forward with evidence that Umberto’s lovers included French actor Jean Marais and boxer Primo Carnera.

Various actresses have been forthcoming with details of how Umberto (1944 photo at right) surrounded himself with glamorous women to give the impression that he was a gallant playboy, but all of them said their relationships with Umberto were platonic, and that these “romances” were merely staged to deflect rumors of his homosexual activity.

When Umberto became ill in his late seventies, he was not allowed to return to Italy to die. His death occurred in 1983 in Geneva, Switzerland, but he remains buried on French soil in the Savoy family tomb in Haute-Combe. No representative of the Italian government attended his funeral.

Source:
Giovanni Dall’Orto in “Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History” (Vol. I, 2001), edited by Aldrich and Wotherspoon.