Firstly, I really want to apologize for the lack of articles this month (Pride month of all months!), my job has been insanely busy lately and, unfortunately — I’m sure you’ve all noticed and are probably upset by this too — queer people still have to work in June. So, while I was really trying to get this post up three weeks ago….I’m doing the best I can right now. (And honestly, this could have — maybe should have — been a lot longer but…life is getting in my way.)
Anyways, you all probably noticed earlier this month a lot of attention being paid to the 40th anniversary of the official beginning of the AIDS crisis in the United States. And while its certainly true that June 5th was when the CDC published its first report, it wasn’t the first time the growing epidemic had been publicly written about. Dr. Lawrence D. Mass had covered it nearly a month earlier.
Lawrence D. Mass was born in Macon, Georgia on June 11, 1946. I can’t really find anything about his childhood, so I assume it was pretty uneventful — which is pretty good considering he was growing up gay and Jewish in Georgia in the late 1940’s and 50’s. He graduated from the University of California at Berkley in 1969 with a B.A. and then attended the Abraham Lincoln School of Medicine at the University of Illinois, graduating with his M.D. in 1973. Following that, in association with Harvard Medical School, he completed a residency in anesthesiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
In 1973, the American Psychiatry Association changed its classification of homosexuality, so it was no longer considered a mental illness. Unfortunately, that didn’t change the homophobia of many of the people practicing psychiatry at the time. Mass went up for a residency in psychiatry in Chicago, but mentioned in the interview that he was gay — and the response was, well, not good. It was the first of multiple interviews over several years where this happened. So Mass changed his whole career trajectory — he moved into activism and journalism. (And, not to be grateful for a bunch of homophobic jerks in Chicago or anything, but that turns out to have been a good thing for all of us.)
With homosexuality’s declassification as a mental illness, that did mean that gay practitioners could come out of the closet. Before long, the Gay Caucus of Members of the American Psychiatric Association was formed (now called the Caucus of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Questioning/Queer Psychiatrists.) Lawrence Mass became the editor of their newsletter. He was not afraid to feature politically charged articles in that newsletter — the first issue featured the article “Psychoanalytic Statute Prevents Legal Entry of Gay Aliens,” which exposed public policies that relied on out of date theories for justification. At the same time, he began contributing to a number of newspapers and magazines catering to the LGBTQIA+ community — using his expertise in medical fields to better inform his writing. His first piece was published in Boston’s Gay Community News.
Using his medical background and his insight into the American Psychiatric Association (through the caucus), Mass became — as he would put it — “a chronicler of a critical shift in scientific thinking about sexuality.” But he wasn’t just looking at how psychiatry was viewing homosexuality, he was watching shifts in a whole bunch of fields — not just medical science, but social science and political science. He interviewed a lot of leaders in the shift occurring across numerous fields of research, including Judd Marmor, Mary Calderone, John Boswell, Martin Duberman, and many others. Most of these interviews would go on to be compiled in his Dialogues of the Sexual Revolution collections. They provide important insight into the major cultural shift that was taking place in the USA in the decade following the Stonewall Uprising.
Mass also brought his medical background to discussions about sexual health in the gay community during the 1970’s in these same publications, covering the spread of STDs and even topics concerning fetish and kink — like 1979’s “Coming to Grips With Sado-Masochism” in The Advocate.
After a few years of that, it’s little wonder that rumors about an unusual illness afflicting gay men were brought to him. His best efforts to investigate met with little success — he’d talked to a friend who worked in a New York City emergency room, and learned of eleven cases (albeit only five or six of the patients were gay men). While that was promising, both the New York State Health Department and the Center for Disease Control assured him the rumors he was pursuing were baseless. Though he didn’t have all the information he was looking for, Mass went to print — hoping that laying out the facts as he had learned them would help keep his community informed and keep the rumors from starting any kind of panic. On May 18, 1981 his article “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded” appeared in the pages of The New York Native which was, at the time, the most influential gay newspaper in the country. Although no one knew it at the time, it was the first published document about AIDS (at least in the US — though I haven’t found anything published earlier anywhere else either). The story would get picked up by the L.A. Times in June, with hardly any more answers that Mass had already gotten (as the L.A. Times article was published the same day as the CDC’s report.)
Mass’ article stressed that there was no reason to believe that whatever was (or was not happening) was linked to the gay community. One theory put forth in his research was that it was a new virulent strain of a fairly common microscopic organism, and such a thing obviously wouldn’t be tied to just one community. As Mass continued to publish articles as the epidemic unfolded, he stood by this — it was not a gay illness. While it certainly had a profound impact on the gay community, it’s true that we were not the only ones afflicted. Diseases don’t discriminate, and Mass was well aware of that.
By 1982, it was becoming increasingly clear as HIV/AIDS was found in more people than just gay men. Nevertheless, he joined Larry Kramer, Edmund White, Paul Rapoport, Paul Popham, and Nathan Fain in formally founding Gay Men’s Health Crisis (or GMHC) he was the last hold out on the organization’s name — insisting it was not a gay disease. He was overruled, something for which he later said he was grateful because the name works for the organization, even if it isn’t just a gay man’s disease. To this day GMHC remains one of the biggest and most important AIDS organizations in the world. Mass wrote all four editions of GMHC’s Medical Answers About AIDS.
Mass committed himself to providing up to date and accurate information about the AIDS epidemic and combatting AIDS denialism, but early in his research he was confronted with an incident of overt anti-Semitism — the first he’d experienced as an adult. The event was traumatic, and led him to realize that he’d been surrounded by anti-Semitism his whole life, and even internalized a lot of it. Ultimately, this led to his publishing an autobiographical collection of essays in 1994, entitled Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite. (“Wagnerite” because Mass was a big fan of Wilhelm Richard Wagner, the German composer. As Mass began to broach more subjects in his writing during the 90’s, his love of music became one of his chosen topics.)
The years of research into anti-Semitism helped give Mass a unique insight into the subject of his next major publication: We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacy of Larry Kramer, published in 1997. Mass was an editor for the book, taking contributions from notables like Anthony Fauci and Tony Kushner, but his own contribution — at the beginning of the book and entitled “Larry vs. Larry” — details a tumultuous friendship, but also recalls how inspiring Mass found Kramer’s personal voice in his writing was.
About that time, the late 90’s, Mass also found himself writing regular articles for gay publications about public health issues facing the gay community other than HIV/AIDS — crystal meth addiction, anal cancer. As the decade came to a close, he began writing specifically regarding bear subculture, publishing articles in American Bear Magazine and in A Bear’s Life Magazine.
Much of Lawrence Mass’ work has been collected and archived by the New York Public Library. That said, Mass is still listed as a contributor on the Huffington Post, but all of his most recent writings have been on Medium. He is presently living in New York City with his partner, activist Arnie Kantrowitz. Sounds like a happy ending, and after everything he (and Arnie, but that’s another story) have done for our community, I think that’s very well deserved.
Imagine, for a moment, if you will, that you’re watching the (fantastic) animated film Anastasia, right? And at the end of the movie, the credits roll, and then you see the disclaimer that tells you that it was fictional and none of the characters were intended to be like real people. You probably roll your eyes and chuckle a little — obviously Rasputin didn’t have a talking bat sidekick, right? But what you probably didn’t know is that that disclaimer is actually kind of a piece of queer history at play, and that it’s partially due to Rasputin that it’s there at all. But mostly it’s because of Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov, Count Sumarokov-Elston.
Felix was born on March 23, 1887 in the Moika Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia. His mother Zinaida Yusupova was last of the incredibly wealthy Yusupov family, and his father was Count Felix Felixovich Sumarokov-Elston. The Yusupovs had more money than the Romanovs who, y’know, ran all of Russia. They had four palaces in Saint Petersburg along, three palaces in Moscow and 37 estates elsewhere in Russia. Not just old money sitting around gathering dust either — they were raking it in with coal mines, iron mines, oil fields….all kinds of industries that were booming at the time. So, the point I’m trying to drive home here is….he was born into money. He just had to inherit it.
Standing in the way of that inheritance was his older brother Nicholas Felixovich Yusupov. Nicholas was a lady’s man and a womanizer, but someone Felix looked up to as a child — but was also deeply jealous of him. According to Felix’s memoirs Lost Splendour, Felix lost his virginity while abroad with his family in Contrexeville, France in a chance encounter with an Argentinian man, who’s name never came up, and his girlfriend when he was still pretty young. He confided the experience to Nicholas, but — to Felix’s frustration — his elder brother ignored him, convincing Felix to keep such stories to himself in the future. (I think it’s relevant to note that, whenever this encounter comes up in his memoirs it is always the Argentinian man he talks about and the woman is just “his girlfriend.”)
Felix also soon discovered a penchant for dressing in women’s clothes for parties — he discovered he enjoyed the clothes, and the attention he received from men. Nicholas encouraged this, and brought Felix — in dresses — out to debaucherous parties with him. He began performing in drag at a cafe in Saint Petersburg called The Aquarium — until his mother recognized him during one of his shows that she happened to attend. Although the scandal was kept secret, it ended Felix’s performance career. He continued to dress in drag for parties, however, until his father learned of these “pranks” and furiously threatened to send him to a Siberian convict settlement.
Nicholas was killed in a duel at 26 years old on June 22, 1908. The duel, which was over the affections of a married woman, was something of a surprise to most of the family — Felix, however, had been warned about it (by the woman in question) well in advance and made no moves whatsoever to prevent it from happening. As a result, Felix no longer had to split the family fortune. And before you say I’m being cynical, I present to you this excerpt from Felix’s own memoirs, immediately following his brother’s death: “The thought of becoming one of the richest people in Russia intoxicated me.”
Although Felix clearly came out ahead, there were a lot of people who lost in that duel. Nicholas died. The married woman left her husband and joined a convent, so he still lost his wife. Felix’s mother battled severe depression for the rest of her life, brought on by the death of her eldest son. And then there’s Maria Golovina, a woman who had been in madly love with Nicholas and mostly ignored by him. She latched onto Felix as, essentially, her new best friend to help her through grieving. Her family, however, decided she needed “professional help” from self-proclaimed holy man Grigori Rasputin. When they met, Felix was not impressed by Rasputin, and immediately believed him to be a depraved con artist, writing “The young woman was too pure to understand the baseness of the ‘holy man.'”
From 1909 to 1912, Felix attended University College at Oxford, studying forestry and English. He was essentially forced there by his family, who believed it would help ground him. Not so much. While there, he did found the Oxford Russian Club, which was something I suppose, but Felix was still living extravagantly. He was a member of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club — which was basically a dining club for rich boys — and employed a full staff at his residence, including a chef, a valet, a housekeeper, as well as housing numerous pets including a bulldog, three horses, a bear cub, and a macaw. According to the University College Oxford website, he spent more money while attending the school than almost any other student. He spent most of his free time partying with friends like Oswald Rayner (remember that name!), and ultimately became very good friends with pianist Luigi Franchetti and Jacques de Beistegui. I’m hesitant to say that there was anything physical or romantic about his relationship with either, because I can’t find any information about who they were outside of what I’ve just said, but they did both move into his English home at 14 King Edward Street. I’m not saying anything definitive but there’s an awful lot of people (and animals) in what is, by all outside appearances anyways, not a particularly large residence. Little bit crowded in there even if people are sharing beds, that’s all I’m saying.
Anyways, in 1912 Felix returned to Russia without graduating, writing that he was too busy in Russia to return to school. He developed a relationship with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich — something heavily implied in his own memoirs to be more than a friendship, but less than a romance. There’s no evidence that Dmitri felt the same way about Felix. Felix rejected the advances of one of Dmitri’s friends, and Dmitri was sent elsewhere — effectively ending whatever their relationship may have been for the time being. Felix was pretty quickly married off to Princess Irina Alexandrovna, the only neice of Tsar Nicholas II. Their wedding was on February 22, 1913 and although the wedding was described as modest, don’t worry, it’s not a “real people” version of a modest wedding — Irina was wearing a veil that had once belonged to Marie Antoinette. You know, nothing like getting “something borrowed” and “something old” out of the way at the same time. For their honeymoon they went to Jerusalem, London, and Bad Kissingen in Germany.
They were both still in Germany when World War I began in August of 1914. They were detained in Berlin. Because European royalty is pretty much all one really weird family tree, Irina reached out to her relative the Crown Princess of Prussia to try to help them get back to Russia, but Kaiser Wilhelm II was not about it, and instead offered them their choice of one of three German estates to reside in for the duration of the war. However, Felix’s father intervened by way of the Spanish ambassador to Germany, and the newlyweds were allowed to return to Russia as long as they went there by traveling through Denmark and Finland.
On March 12, 1915 Irina gave birth to their first and only child — a daughter named Irina Felixovna Yusupova — nicknamed Bébé. Irina and Felix found they were both utterly incapable of actually taking care of a child, and so Felix’s parents did most of the parenting. Nevertheless, Bébé was very close with her father and quite distant from her mother. This was probably because Felix and his parents spoiled her rotten. There’s also a distinct possibility that Irina wasn’t thrilled with Felix’s, in his words, “love affairs of a special kind” which were, y’know, with men. He once wrote “One may censure those relationships but not the creatures for whom normal relationships against their nature are impossible.”
Around this time, Felix decided to use some of his vast fortune to help out with the war, converting part of Liteyny Palace into a hospital for soldiers. Felix did not have to actually serve as a soldier because there was a law that stated only sons did not have to serve — nevertheless in February 1916 (after a scathing letter from the Grand Duchess Olga to Tsar Nicholas II called him a “downright civilian” and “a man idling in such times”) Felix began attending the Page Corps military academy.
Meanwhile, concern began to grow that Russia would concede to Germany in the war. Part of this was due to Russia’s economic decline, which many people — particularly those loyal to the monarchy — blamed, at least in part, on Grigori Rasputin and his undue influence with the tsar’s wife Alexandra Feodorovna. Felix, for his part, remained convinced that Rasputin was drugging the tsar in order to slowly weaken him and eventually make the tsarina the regent even at the time of writing his memoir.
What actually transpired is a bit of a mystery. While the official accounts, as told by Felix and his cohorts, match up with each other reasonably well albeit not perfectly, the autopsy reports tell a drastically different story. And further evidence from British Intelligence indicates yet a third different story. But since this is an article about Felix, I am going to focus on his version of events as explained in his memoirs.
It was little wonder that when he received a letter from Vladimir Purishkevich proposing that Felix join him and the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich (whom Felix still pined for) in assassinating the Rasputin, that Felix joined in eagerly — although he insisted on being involved in mapping out the scheme itself. Purishkevich also recruited Doctor Stanislaus de Lazobert and contacted Samuel Hoare at the British Intelligence Service, which is perhaps why MI6 operative and Felix’s college-friend Oswald Rayner visited with Felix a number of times the week that the plot unfolded. Meanwhile, Felix recruited lawyer Vasily Maklakov and an army officer named Sergei Mikhailovich Sukhotin, who was recuperating from an injury sustained in the war.
Felix worked through his friend Maria Golovina, who had introduced him to Rasputin years before, to ingratiate himself to the tsarina’s advisor. It was quite successful and easy — particularly laying the trap. Felix lured Rasputin in with an invitation to the Moika Palace, with a promised invitation to meet his wife Irina, who was actually in Crimea at the time. Dr. Lazovert prepared cyanide crystals, sprinkling them over the tops of cakes and leaving some to be poured into Rasputin’s drink. Lazovert was convinced that it was enough cyanide to instantly kill several men.
Felix brought Rasputin to his home, all of his other cohorts hiding upstairs from the dining room. encouraged Rasputin to partake of the cakes and poured him three poisoned glasses of wine. The cyanide, however, had no effect discernible effect (though the wine slurred his speech.) Excusing himself, Felix went upstairs to discuss this surprising lack of a turn of events with his friends, and they ultimately determined the next course of action had to be to shoot Rasputin. Upon returning to the room, Felix shot Rasputin in the chest. Dr. Lazovert rushed in and, after a brief examination, determined he was in fact dead.
The last part of the plan involved Sukhotin bringing Rasputin back to home, so as to avoid arousing suspicion. However, as they prepared to do so, Rasputin leapt to his feet and charged at Felix — who was forced to hit Rasputin with a rubber club to escape his grasp. Rasputin began crawling out the door into the courtyard, and disappeared into the night. Purichkevich fired two shots into the dark after him. They pursued Rasputin into the courtyard, and Purichkevich shot him two more times.
The gunshots, of course, aroused police suspicion. Felix tried to convince the investigating police officer that it was just a drunken friend firing a gun — but Purichkevich proclaimed that he had killed Rasputin. The police officer agreed not to turn them in. After all of this excitement, Felix passed out and his servants put him to bed. He was later told that Dmitri, Sukhotin, and Lazovert took Rasputin’s body, wrapped it in linen, placed it in a car, drove it to a bridge, and dumped it in the water (breaking the ice as they did).
Although that police officer did not report Purichkevich’s confession, the police investigating Rasputin’s disappearance found the unusual gunshots happening at the same night, at the home of someone acquainted with the missing person to be suspicious. Felix was questioned the next day. The police let Felix go, as he repeated the story about a drunk friend, but rumors flooded Saint Petersburg that Felix had killed Rasputin at the Moika. The tsarina ordered the police to search the Moika — but, because Irina was a Romanov, such a search could only be ordered by the tsar himself. A lucky break, as it gave Felix and his servants time to clean up all of the blood. After that task was completed, the conspirators met for lunch to decide on a story. They all agreed to stick to the story Felix had already told the police.
Though they stayed with this story, and were questioned without arrest a handful more times, Felix and Dmitri were forbidden from leaving Saint Petersburg. The tsarina was already calling for their execution, despite no evidence linking them to a crime. The body took days longer to recover, but it was eventually found. Police were sent to protect Dmitri and Felix, who had made things easy on both their protectors and the multitude of people who wanted to kill them by taking up residence in the same palace. As much as that must’ve been nice for Felix, as I said before, there’s no evidence Dmitri returned his feelings and at this point they were both pretty focused on the aftermath of the assassination they’d committed.
Now, the autopsy of the body revealed a lot that doesn’t add up to Felix’s version of events. They found Rasputin had been shot by three different guns — one of which was the standard issue for British Intelligence operatives. The same type of gun, in fact, carried by Oswald Rayner. (Although the memoirs note that Oswald was aware of the plot to kill Rasputin, it only mentions him checking in on Felix the day after the murder.) The examination of the body also indicated that Rasputin had been severely beaten, and that someone had tried to castrate him. Tried, and failed — not sure how that works but okay. None of that was mentioned in Felix’s story and that lends some credence to the theories that he wasn’t actually involved at all.
Anyways, unable to find evidence proving anyone else killed Rasputin, and unable to find enough evidence they had killed Rasputin, Dmitri and Felix were exiled from Saint Petersburg. Dmitri was sent to Persia, ordered to remain there under the supervision of the military general commanding troops there. Felix was sent to his family’s estate in Rakitnoye. (It helps to have like forty residences, right?) Felix was really heartbroken to be separated from Dmitri. I guess he thought after they assassinated one of the most influential people in Russia, he and Dmitri would live together forever?
This was January of 1917, however. So anyone who knows Russian history at all knows what’s about to happen to the tsar who ordered that exile. The February Revolution began on March 8, by March 12 buildings in the capital were ablaze and by March 15, Tsar Nicholas II had given up the throne of Russia. This ended Felix’s exile from Saint Petersburg but overall made things very complicated for him. His wife was a Romanov, but most of the population thought Felix was a revolutionary because he’d murdered Rasputin. He spent some time kind of playing both sides, clearing out valuable possessions from his family estates, trying to keep below the radar of the new provisional government (who were very much trying to keep an eye on him) and trying to help the imprisoned Romanovs with whatever influence he still had. When the Bolshevik government fully came into power, Felix and Irina headed to Yalta to stay even further below the radar — but be closer to one of the places where some of the Romanovs were being kept in the hopes of somehow improving their situation.
However, when that proved impossible, Felix and Irina went into permanent exile from Russia. They traveled to Italy, but ultimately settled in Paris, France. They began a couture fashion house called IRFE, and Felix became known for his charitable giving towards France’s Russian immigrant community. He published his memoirs, Lost Splendour: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin in 1928. Rasputin’s daughter promptly sued him, but the case was dismissed as the French courts had no interest in dealing with a political assassination that had occurred in Russia in any capacity whatsoever. The stock market crash of 1929 (and some poor financial decisions Felix had made) led to IRFE being closed.
In 1932, Felix and Irina sued MGM for invasion of privacy and libel for their portrayal of Irina (as “Princess Natasha”) in the film Rasputin and the Empress. In the film, Princess Natasha is seduced by Rasputin. The English courts sided with the Yusupovs and awarded them $127,373 in damages (over $2 million when adjusted to today’s values!) The court specifically mentioned that text appearing at the beginning of the movie made it seem like it was intended to be a retelling of actual events and worked against MGM’s arguments. As a result, MGM began attaching a disclaimer to each of their films, declaring it as a work of fiction with no intended similarity to any person living or deceased. Numerous other studios followed suit — and to this day, that boilerplate disclaimer shows up on almost every American movie. He was involved in a handful of other, less consequential lawsuits over the next few decades and Felix passed away on September 27, 1967.
Felix remains somewhat of a controversial figure — not because it’s his fault that movies have to explain that they’re fictional in a disclaimer, and not just because he may have murdered Rasputin. Also because, I’m sure you guessed this, his sexuality is often called into question. Per usual, a lot of historians claim he could not have been bisexual. His Wikipedia page even falsely claims that he outright denied being bisexual in his memoirs. I just read his memoirs for this article, they’re available online for free right here. The closest I found to any such denial is this quote: “I have often been accused of disliking women. Nothing is further from the truth. I like women when they are nice.” Nothing about that is a denial of bisexuality especially since right before it is this statement: “I thought it quite natural to take my pleasure wherever I found it, without worrying about what others might think.”
So there you have it, the story of Russia’s bisexual, drag-performing, accidental revolutionary, clumsy assassin prince and how he changed both Russian history and cinematic history forever.
Okay, so, this one isn’t ancient like I’ve been doing but it’s pretty old. More importantly, I believe I’m venturing into a part of the world I haven’t talked about before, so that’s kind of exciting.
Sarmad Kashani, often called just Sarmad (in the same way that Cher is just Cher — you know you’re famous when you just need one name), was born around the year 1590 in Armenia. He was born into a family of Jewish merchants and, as such, he became fluent in Persian early on in his life because, well, you needed that language to sell things in Armenia back then. (His family was also pretty clear fluent in Persian before his birth, because Sarmad is a Persian name.) Before leaving his family to travel, he produced a Persian translation of the Torah.
It is believed that Sarmad converted to Islam, probably while he was studying under Mulla Sadra and Mir Findriski. He studied mysticism and philosophy and poetry with them. In 1634, Sarmad moved to present-day India which was, at the time, part of the Mughal Empire. He was still working as a merchant and had learned that art was being sold at high prices there — he brought his wares and set up shop.
Sarmad also continued to practice mysticism and began to gather disciples. One of his early disciples was a Hindu boy named Abhay Chand. Very little is actually known about Abhay. Most sources don’t even describe how they met at all, but I did find a story in the gay magazine DNA India that describes it. Abhay and Sarmad met at a Sufi shrine, where Abhay was performing as a singer. Sarmad would return to the shrine every evening to hear Abhay sing. Sarmad began teaching Abhay different languages — Hebrew and Persian specifically. Then he was hired by Sarmad to create translations of the Torah and of the Old and New Testaments. There is some evidence Abhay converted to Islam. The exact nature of the relationship between Abhay and Sarmad is pretty hotly debated, but the biography of Sarmad that was published by caretakers of his shrine outright states that Sarmad had fallen in love with him, and that, despite initially opposing their relationship, Abhay’s father eventually permitted them to have a relationship. Frankly, I think that should pretty much settle the debate, but whatever.
At some point — probably after this — Sarmad abandoned religion altogether, favoring spirituality instead, and also gave up all his material possessions — including clothing — stopped cutting his hair or nails, and began wandering the city streets naked. (I should probably note that mystics wandering around naked wasn’t actually that uncommon in India at this time. There’s at least two active sects where this was practically a basic tenet.) He was in a state called mazjub, which is apparently a state of “divine intoxication” in which one has no control over their own senses. From all accounts, Abhay Chand was still with him throughout this. There’s no actual records from the time indicating this, but its generally agreed that Sarmad traveled from Thatta to Lahore, then to Hyderabad, and then finally to Delhi.
It was during these travels that the crown prince of the Mughal Empire Dara Shikoh heard about Sarmad, and decided to invite him to appear in his father’s court. There, Sarmad impressed Dara Shikoh and he decided to become a disciple of the mystic — while still being the chosen heir to the throne of the empire.
So, fun fact about the Mughal Empire, they did not have the sort of tradition for line of succession where the eldest son (which was Dara Shikoh) was guaranteed to take the throne. Instead, they had the sort of tradition for line of succession where sons would overthrow their dads, kill their brothers, and take the throne for themselves. But, barring that, the empire’s ruler — Shah Jahan in this case — could always pick his favorite (which was Dara Shikoh). Now, Shah Jahan had four sons. They did not love that they were not picked. So, I’m sure you can guess, this led to thesort of transition where the sons went to war. When the dust settled in 1661, Dara Shikoh was not the last one standing. Instead, his brother Aurangzeb was victorious.
And for Sarmad, this was very bad news — for two reasons. The first of which was that Dara Shikoh was a prominent, and loud, disciple of Sarmad. Everyone knew he was a disciple of Sarmad. That meant Sarmad was sort of a rallying point for the population that still wanted Dara Shikoh to be the shah of the empire. The other was that Sarmad had prophesied Dara Shikoh’s victory….which means, his credibility as a mystic was ruined. He tried to salvage it by claiming that he meant Dara Shikoh would be a king in the afterlife, but you can only do so much damage control, right? So, Aurangzeb put Sarmad on trial. Aurangzeb wanted to prove that Sarmad was a heretic and, to that end, demanded that he affirm his Islamic faith by reciting the kalima (an Islamic creed). But Sarmad stated that he could not, that he was “drowned in negation” and would be lying if he said the entire kalima. That was enough for his conviction and an execution. A huge crowd gathered to watch his beheading.
Legend goes on to say that his severed head recited the full kalima, and that then his body got up and danced with his head. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that did not actually happen. Pretty sure that would have been a much bigger deal in the history books.
Sarmad was buried in a simple grave, which has now been painted red — to represent that he is a martyr of love — and turned into a somewhat more elaborate dargah (or saint’s tomb). Sarmad’s writings, the Rubaiyat-e-Sarmad (Quatrains of Sarmad) have gone on to be translated many times, but never more famously than by Maulana Azad. Azad was a leader in the movement for Indian independence from Britain, and considered Sarmad to be a hero, an example of freedom of thought and expression at work. Not only did he translate Sarmad’s writings, he also wrote a length essay on the mystic that has been very insightful for both historians interested in Sarmad and historians interested in Azad.
As for Abhay Chand? I have no idea. The last thing I can find about him is that he was still with Sarmad when he came to Delhi. Much like the whole beginning of his life, the end of it is a mystery.
We’ve talked before about how the ancient Chinese story about the bitten peach became a euphemism for homosexual love, but it isn’t the only ancient Chinese story about an emperor and another guy falling in love that has essentially been trimmed down to a short coded phrase — in this case “the passion of the cut sleeve.” I know, I know, it sounds like it’s about an enthusiastic but inept tailor. It’s not — it’s about Emperor Ai of Han.
Born as Liu Xin in 27 BCE, his father was Prince Liu Kang of Dingtao and the brother of the childless Emperor Cheng. Xin was never raised by his parents, however, but was instead put in the care of his grandmother Consort Fu. Kang died in 23 BCE with only one heir — the four year old Xin, who became the Prince of Dingtao. For several years, he seemed to be just flying under the radar until 9 BCE when he visited his dear old uncle Emperor Cheng. Typically, a prince would bring an escort of teachers along for such a visit — Xin, however, brought his teacher, the prime minister of his principality, and a military commander. When asked, Xin quoted the exact regulations that not only permitted this but — in Xin’s opinion — required it. Cheng was impressed, and became even more impressed when Xin began discussing Shi Jing, a one of the Confucian classics.
The following year, Cheng gathered together his advisors to settle on who Cheng could adopt to be his heir. It was pretty quickly decided that it should be Xin. This was not without it’s problems however — Cheng was determined that Xin should act as though Cheng was his only parent. He banned Consort Fu and Consort Ding (Xin’s mother) from the capital Chang’an, so they could not see the Crown Prince Xin. He did eventually relent (after much coaxing from his own mother) and allow Consort Fu to visit, under the rationale that she had served as a wet nurse.
Although this caused some tension, it was short lived because Cheng died in 7 BCE either from a stroke or from overdosing of unnamed aphrodisiacs given to him by his favorite Consort Zhao Hede. At 20 years old, Crown Prince Xin became the Emperor Ai of Han and his reign started very well. He immediately took a much more hands on approach to ruling than his predecessor, cut government spending, and took efforts to reduce involuntary servitude by limiting the number of servants members of the nobilty could have and freeing all servants over the age of 50.
However, Ai’s reign was soon rocked by controversy. Ai was still caught between loyalty to Cheng’s family, into which he had been adopted in order to become emperor, and the family that bore and raised him. In order to soothe the emperor, his step-grandmother Grand Empress Dowager Wang created titles for some of his relatives including Consort Fu who became Empress Dowager Gong of Dingtao. While this did help Ai, it created a rivalry between the Fu clan and the Wang clan — many members of the Wang clan were mad at the creation of titles for these relatives of the emperor, whereas Fu herself believed that her title was subpar and was really determined to hold onto a grudge. Although Ai attempted to stay out of it, ultimately he accepted the resignation of Wang Mang — the highest ranking Wang (outside of the Grand Empress Dowager herself) in his administration and the whole family soon lost most of their political influence.
Fu’s ability to hold a grudge would create even further controversies for Ai in 6 BCE. Long story short, she ordered an investigation into the family of a former romantic rival of her — the investigation was brutal and ultimately led to seventeen deaths including the death of her former rival. Meanwhile, Ai himself was frequently ill with some kind of chronic illness — an effort seems to have been made to keep this quiet, so there’s very little information. Ai was also developing a reputation for harshly punishing people in his administration and then changing his mind about it a short time later and conversely, promoting people into his administration and then abruptly firing them for little or no apparent reason.
And then came Dong Xian. It is generally agreed that most emperors of the Han dynasty, although married to women, took on male lovers and it is generally agreed that the relationship between Emperor Ai and Dong Xian was one of these kinds of relationships. Their relationship began in 4 BCE, at which point Dong Xian was a very minor court official. Dong was 19 years old and was also married to a woman. Emperor Ai started throwing all kinds of promotions and honors at Dong — at a rapid rate that unnerved everyone else. However, anyone who opposed this was severely punished. A palace secretary general named Zheng Chong, for instance, was arrested and died in prison. Sun Bao — who had not objected to Dong Xian’s rewards but had attempted to free Zheng Chong from prison, was removed from his station.
Dong and his wife moved into the imperial palace pretty quickly in the relationship, but soon Ai ordered a lavish residence — as lavish as the imperial palace — be constructed for Dong and his wife. He gave Dong the most expensive jewelry in the imperial treasure and the best weapons in the armory. (The security chief for the capital city, Wujiang Long, tried to block the weapons from being given and was subsequently demoted to be security chief to a little area on the outskirts of the empire.) Emperor Ai even ordered that a tomb be constructed for Dong right beside his own tomb.
By 3 BCE — oh, right, all of that was in the first year of their relationship — Emperor Ai was intent on promoting Dong Xian to the rank of marquess. Now, the year prior a eunuch name Song Hong had reported that a prince was using witchcraft — the prince was demoted to the rank of a commoner and ultimately killed himself. To justify promoting his lover, Emperor Ai gave Dong the credit for reporting this crime. The following year, the prime minister Wang Jia — who had already tried to block the promotion — wrote a carefully worded letter saying he was concerned about what might befall Dong Xian if Emperor Ai should die first. It, predictably, didn’t go over well and Wang Jia was imprisoned under false charges, and then he killed himself. Anyone in the administration who grieved for him after his death was removed from their offices — including the emperor’s own uncle Ding Ming who was commander of all of the empire’s military forces.
Ding Ming was replaced by a man named Wing Shei — however, Wing Shei died from an illness within the year. And So Emperor Ai made Dong Xian the commander of the empire’s military. In doing so, Ai issued an edict which said “Heaven gave you to be the helper for the Han Dynasty. I know your faithfulness, and I hope that you can guide the great affairs of the empire and follow what is good.” This alarmed a lot of members of the court, because it echoed famous words used by Emperor Yao when he passed his throne to Emperor Shun.
Despite his new position, however, Dong Xian remained with the emperor in the palace at all times and did not do any actual commanding of the military. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of Dong Xian’s relatives were given important positions in the government — some of them even replacing members of the emperor’s own family.
It was some time around this period — when Dong Xian was the head honcho general — when the famous story that would make its way into the romantic hearts and minds of China’s imagination was said to take place. According to the story, Emperor Ai and Dong Xian fell asleep together on a straw mat. When the emperor awoke, Dong Xian’s head was on his sleeve. In order to allow him to continue sleeping (after a hard day of not actually commanding the military), the emperor cut off his sleeve and left it under Dong Xian’s head. It is a really sweet story, if you ignore the absolute havoc their relationship was causing in Emperor Ai’s administration.
The next year, 1 BCE, Emperor Ai’s chronic illness — whatever it was — got the best of him. On his death bed, he decreed that his heir was Dong Xian. When he passed away a short time later, everyone — and I mean everyone, including Dong Xian — ignored this decree. Dong Xian, for his part, may not have been totally ignoring it but he was in so much shock he failed to do anything. The Grand Empress Dowager Wang, however, was not so shocked — she immediately grabbed the imperial seal to prevent Dong Xian from getting the throne. Then, she reinstated her relative Wang Mang (remember him?) and transferred command of the military to him.
Wang Mang used his newfound power to accuse Dong Xian of failing to attend to the emperor while he was dying and banned him from the palace. The next day, Dong Xian was stripped of his titles. He and his wife committed suicide that night. Although they were buried quickly, Wang Mang had Dong disinterred and reburied in a prison. Not in the fancy tomb that got built in the first year of their relationship together, in a prison. (This is why you should always wait to build a tomb for your new boyfriend!) The entire Dong family was banished and all of their assets were taken by the imperial treasury. This, by the way, was pretty much exactly the sort of thing that Prime Minister Wang Jia had been warning about in his letter. Oops.
Anyways, much like the previously mentioned bitten peach thing, the story of Dong Xian and Emperor Ai and the cut sleeve was passed down for centuries, and was often used to describe homosexuality. In fact, “Cut Sleeve” is even the title of a short story by Pu Songling in the third edition of Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, about a homosexual romance. It was first published in 1740 CE which is one thousand seven hundred forty-one years after Dong Xian’s death. As much as this was not a charming love story for the Chinese empire at the time it was happening, and as much as they moved way too fast, there’s not a lot of love stories that have endured so long.
I’ve been on an ancient history kick lately so, if I were you, I’d expect the next few posts here to be about ancient queer people. To that end, I’m starting us off by bringing us back to ancient Rome. And also ancient Egypt. And all over the place, actually. I am, of course, talking about the story of Emperor Hadrian and Antinous.
So Hadrian was born on January 24, 76 CE in present-day Spain, where his family had moved from present-day Italy. His father was first-cousin to soon-to-be-emperor Trajan. Hadrian entered a career in politics and public service. At the encouragement of Trajan’s wife, and a few other politically influential people in Rome, Hadrian married Trajan’s grand-niece (and therefore, his own second cousin once removed) Vibia Sabina early in his career (around 100 or 101 CE). The marriage was purely political and is almost universally described as being an unhappy one. Around the time of the wedding, he was serving as essentially the liaison between the emperor and the Senate. Afterwards, he had posts in numerous places around the Empire — he was archon of Athens for many years, and even held Athenian citizenship, and also served as governor of Syria.
Meanwhile, in Turkey sometime around 111 CE, Antinous was born. Virtually no solid facts are known about his childhood, but its guessed he was born in November — possibly November 27. Some time in the Renaissance it began to be claimed by historians that Antinous was born into slavery, but modern historians are pretty agreed that that’s unlikely because contemporary Roman historians would almost certainly have mentioned that, given how the rest of his life turned out and how much more of a controversial figure Antinous would have become.
In the year 117 CE, Trajan died from a stroke, leaving no heirs. Adoption papers “proving” Hadrian was his adopted son, and therefore heir, appeared shortly thereafter — signed by Trajan’s wife, and dated the day after Trajan’s death. Making this even more hard to swallow was the fact that she was in Rome and Hadrian was still in Syria. This was a huge irregularity, as a Roman adoption required all three parties to be present — both parents and the adoptee. Nevertheless, the Roman legion quickly claimed him the legitimate emperor, so as to avoid a power vacuum. Hadrian thanked them with a monetary bonus, which may sound like a bribe but was apparently the custom of the time. (I guess that doesn’t really mean it wasn’t a bribe…) With the legion on board, the Senate didn’t take too long to confirm that Hadrian was emperor.
At the start of his reign, Hadrian remained in Syria — as there was a Jewish revolt in Judea and other parts of the Middle East that he needed to attend to. And by attend to I mean, historians now refer to it as the Kitos War and that sort of undersells the violence. In his defense, Hadrian was trying to find a more peaceful solution to the problem — but the war had begun under Trajan’s rule and the combatants were not willing to let go of the fight. Hadrian gave up a lot of the area Trajan had conquered to the east in order to stabilize the region. Then he quietly stripped Lusius Quietus — the commander of the Roman forces in Judea — of his rank. Lusius Quietus died the following year under suspicious circumstances. It’s likely that Hadrian quietly stripped him of his life too.
With that behind him, Hadrian embarked on a tour of the empire. Perhaps the most significant stop, and one of the earliest, on this tour was the province of Britannia — Great Britain. Major conflicts were common in the region, and the Roman military was not doing well. In 122 CE, Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall to separate the Roman territory from the unclaimed parts of the island. An enormous 73 mile long wall, as it turns out, was cheaper than an enormous border army. It wasn’t the Great Wall of China or anything, but Hadrian’s Wall was still kind of a big deal. Part of the wall still stands.
In June of 123 CE, he reached the city of Claudiopolis (now Bolu) in present day Turkey — where Antinous lived. It is believed by many historians that they met at this point and, while they did not become lovers now, it certainly had an impact on Antinous. It was probably a big part of why Antinous decided to go to pursue his education in Rome.
Hadrian returned to Rome in September 125 CE. Over the next three years, a relationship formed between Antinous and Hadrian. Antinous became the emperor’s “personal favorite” and was seen in Hadrian’s company more than his wife. Historians actually note that there is no evidence whatsoever that Hadrian ever expressed romantic or sexual interest in any women — which is kind of remarkable since usually historians are quick to “straightwash” gay people in history. Hadrian was too gay even for that. Contemporary records indicate that Hadrian and Antinous’ relationship was clearly sexual, and Hadrian wrote erotic poetry about him, though none of it survives today. There was significantly more to the relationship though. Hadrian had several “favorites” but he particularly described Antinous as being incredibly wise, and they enjoyed hunting together and — as you’ll see shortly — traveling together. Antinous, for his part, also seems to have truly loved Hadrian despite their significant age difference. There is no evidence he ever tried to use the relationship for any kind of personal gain.
Hadrian, unlike previous emperors, did not choose to stay in Rome and rely heavily on reports from abroad. Hadrian spent more than half of his reign traveling the empire. When he left Rome again in 127 CE, he took Antinous with him as a part of his personal retinue. This may have been partially because Hadrian fell ill during this year, with a mysterious chronic illness that baffled the doctors of the time. They traveled through parts of Italy, North Africa, and even made their way to Athens for a time. At a certain point they were initiated, together, into the Eleusinian Mysteries. Afterwards, they traveled to the Middle East, visiting Antioch, Judea, Syria, and Arabia. Hadrian grew concerned that the Jewish population was failing to “Romanize” so he built a Temple of Jupiter on the site of former Jewish temple and made circumcision illegal.
From there they headed to Egypt. In Alexandria, Hadrian made some unpopular decisions about appointing people to certain positions. Rumors began to spread about his sex life, particularly when it came to Antinous. Unperturbed by the pettiness, Hadrian and Antinous went to hunt a lion that was causing trouble in Libya. During the hunt, Hadrian saved Antinous’ life — he was so proud of this event that he made certain it was recorded in multiple histories, had it depicted on bronze medallions, had a poem commissioned, and even had a tondo (or circular artwork) made of it. Various tondos depicting Antinous and Hadrian together, including the one of the lion hunt, eventually ended up on the Arch of Constantine, where they still remain to this day. This tondo is considered particularly significant as it is the first place that Antinous is no longer shown as a thin youth but a muscular, hairy truly full grown man — leading historians to suspect that his relationship with Hadrian was probably changing.
A month or so later, Hadrian and his retinue sailed up the Nile as part of a flotilla. Antinous was with him, as was Lucius Ceionius Commodus who some historians say Antinous viewed as competition for Hadrian’s affections (but who never seems to have actually had a romantic relationship with the emperor). During this sort of Nile parade, Antinous fell into the river and died. The death is viewed as highly suspicious particularly because in all of the surviving documents there is not one place where the death is described as an accident. And there’s quite a bit of documentation that has survived. It is, of course, still possible the death was an accident, but here’s some of the other theories that are out there.
Some theorize that Antinous killed himself, possibly over losing Hadrian’s affections. The trouble with this theory is that Hadrian’s reaction to the death doesn’t seem like his affection was waning.
Some have suggested he was murdered as part of a conspiracy. There’s actually no evidence for this, and Antinous’ lack of political influence over Hadrian also kinds of makes this one a “meh” theory. But it’s very dramatic, so that’s fun at least.
It’s also been suggested that it was a human sacrifice, that Antinous might have volunteered to sacrifice his own life as a means of helping finally cure Hadrian of the illness he’d been suffering for three years. However, Hadrian was opposed to human sacrifice and had strengthened laws against it throughout the empire. This theory also was never even presented until 80 years later, despite the fact that rumors spread like wildfire when the death occurred.
Another theory is that Antinous died in a botched castration, that he may have volunteered for to keep his youth. However, again, Hadrian was very much opposed to castration and Antinous was too old (since he’s only somewhere around 19 years old at this point) to get much effect from it anyways.
As you can see, all of the theories leave something to be desired and whatever the case may be, Hadrian was absolutely beside himself with grief (and possibly also with guilt, depending on what actually happened). Egyptian priests immediately identified Antinous with the Egyptian god Osiris — dying in the Nile helped with that — and set about embalming and mummifying his corpse in the Egyptian tradition. Hadrian remained in Egypt until the following year, probably not willing to leave until his lover had been finally laid to rest.
Royston Lambert wrote a biography of Hadrian in 1984, where he described Hadrian’s feelings for Antinous as a “a mystical-religious need for his companionship.” And that’s, perhaps, underselling it. Hadrian formally declared Antinous a deity, and ordered a city be constructed at the site of his death. The city, called Antinoöpolis, was built over the city of Hir-we and all of the buildings from that city except the Temple of Ramses II were destroyed so the new city could be built. Aside from being an over-the-top memorial, the city was also a move to help integrate Greek and Egyptian cultures — Hadrian permitted Greek and Egyptian inhabitants of the city to marry, and gave incentives for Greeks to move there. Games were held there annually for several hundred years in an event called the Antinoeia. Hadrian allowed the primary god of Hir-we to continue to be worshipped — the Egyptian god Bes — alongside worship of the Osiris-Antinous deity.
It was not unheard for a person to be declared a god but it was super rare for it to be someone who wasn’t, y’know, an emperor or someone otherwise incredibly important to the world at large. It’s not clear what became of Antinous’ body, but it is hinted by an obelisk was buried at Hadrian’s country estate in Italy. Hadrian continued to surround himself with sculptures and depictions of Antinous for years to come. Over the following years, an innumerable number of sculptures of Antinous were found through the empire (in no small part because of his status as a god). 115 of those sculptures still exist — 22 of those were found in Hadrian’s country estate. Although there are various styles of these sculptures, they all clearly depict the same person so it is believed that Hadrian released an official version of what Antinous was supposed to look like, that sculptors could replicate.
Because of the identification with Osiris, the cult of Antinous had little trouble spreading in Egypt. But Hadrian wanted Antinous to be worshipped through the entire empire. To that end, he turned to Greece. In 131 CE, he traveled there and integrated Antinous with the god Hermes — in much the same way that the Egyptians had joined him to Osiris. He founded a temple in Trapezus to Hermes-Antinous. Despite Hadrian’s best efforts, however, the Greeks associated Antinous with the god Dionysus instead and worship of Dionysus-Antinous could be found throughout much of the empire within just a few years. Although in some cases people worshipped Antinous just to make their emperor happy, archaeologists have found a significant amount of evidence suggesting Antinous was also worshipped in the privacy of people’s homes. That means people actually, genuinely liked worshipping Antinous. The cult appears to have been most prolific in Egypt, the Middle East, and Greece but evidence of the cult has been found in 70 cities and some of that is even as far away as Britain where Antinous appears to have been conflated with the Celtic sun god Belenos.
Six years later, 136 CE, Hadrian adopted Lucius Ceionius Commodus and made him his heir (as Hadrian and his wife never had kids.) However, Lucius died two years later while Hadrian was still alive so he never actually got the crown. Later that year, on July 10 138 CE, Hadrian passed away in his villa — finally losing the battle with his own health but managing to name an heir in Antinous shortly before his death. Hadrian had ruled the Roman Empire for 21 years.
Antinous’ cult would continue even longer, but would receive harsh criticisms from other pagan cults. The philosopher Celsus, for instance, criticized it — saying that its worshipers were debaucherous and immoral. That’s also how he viewed Christians, as it turns out. Christians, meanwhile, viewed the cult of Antinous as a rival religion and they vocally condemned it — insisting that it was immoral to worship a mortal human, and pointing out that he was only in that position because of his sexual activities with Hadrian. (That part at least is kind of valid.) In the 4th century, as conflicts between Christians and pagans deepened, pagans in general began to champion Antinous. Not in the sense that they worshiped him necessarily, though his cult was clearly still active, but in that he became something of a symbol against Christianity. New images and depictions of him began to be made, including a set of seven bronze medallions. Statues were broken, rebuilt, moved, damaged, repaired…..and the struggle continued until 391 CE when Emperor Theodosius officially banned paganism, and all images of Antinous were removed from public places.
Antinous, understandably, became something of an icon for the homosexual subculture of later centuries. During the Renaissance, queer art was generally focused on the mythological figure of Ganymede but — especially by the 18th century — that fascination had been turned onto Antinous. Who was, y’know, at least real. That fascination grew into the 19th century. In 1865, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs wrote about Antinous in one of his pamphlets, and Oscar Wilde spoke of Antinous in The Young King, The Sphinx, and in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The homophile newspaper The Artist began selling cast statues of Antinous about this time as well. Even straight authors were catching on — in the novel of Les Miserables, author Victor Hugo describes the character of Enjolras as “an untamed Antinous” who seemed “not to be aware of the existence of a creature called woman.”
And while Antinous may not still have quite that level of ubiquitous popularity in queer culture, he has not exactly been forgotten either. Sarah Waters included a costume ball in her novel Tipping the Velvet where the lesbian protagonist dressed as Antinous. Rufus Wainwright‘s 2018 opera Hadrian is about the emperor’s response to Antinous’ death. Even in sports they’re still remembered — the Hadrian Cup, an LGBTQ+ inclusive rugby tournament, introduced the Antinous Plate just this year in March 2020 and awarded it to the Aberdeen Taexali Rugby Club. (But, to be honest, I don’t know anything about rugby so I can’t tell you exactly what the Antinous Plate is awarded for.)
I’m not saying Hadrian set the bar too high for the rest of us, but would your lover declare you a god after you died in a river under suspicious circumstances — making you a relevant historical figure for thousands of years to come?
Arr, me hearties! Let me spin ye a yarn about some high seas homosexuality! Okay, I’m giving up on talking like a pirate. Too much of a land lubber, I guess! But we’re still going to talk about pirates. I’ll admit, I’ve been on a little bit of a “Golden Age of Piracy” kick and why not? Pirates are fantastic — swashbuckling adventurers, sailing across the ocean! And the thing is….they’re also pretty queer. Like, queer coded in movies and such, I mean.
But it turns out, pirates were actually pretty queer. A lot of it can certainly be chalked up to “situational homosexuality” — so much so that in 1645 the governor of Tortuga imported 1,650 prostitutes so that he could get the pirate men to sleep with women — but that certainly doesn’t explain all of it. For example, pirates also had something called “matelotage” which was essentially same-sex marriage. Now, there’s a lot of debate about whether or not matelots were sexual but its generally agreed that at least some of them definitely were. And even those that weren’t were very much like marriage, in terms of legal rights. If you died, your matelot got all of your share of the plunder, and any death benefits a captain might have offered to his crew. If you moved to a different ship, your matelot went with you. And matelots were frequently symbolized by gold rings worn by both parties. I mean, I know married couples that don’t sound this married.
Many pirate captains kept excellent records. Unfortunately, that’s excellent records of their plunder and not so much of crew relationships. Nevertheless, we do know something about a relationship between two pirates: that of Captains Robert Culliford and John Swann.
Culliford was born in England sometime around the year 1666. By 1689, he had found himself a member of the crew of the French privateer crew of the Sainte Rose. He was one of seven British people aboard — including William Kidd and Samuel Burgess. After they heard word that there was a war going on (the Nine Years War or — as it was called then the War of the Grand Alliance), the crew staged a mutiny and wrested control of the ship from its captain, Jean Fantin. Kidd was elected captain and the ship was renamed the Blessed William. If that less-than-subtle name change made you a little irritated, try living on the ship. It must not have been particularly awesome (despite making a whole lot money in privateering) because a year later, in 1690, Culliford led another mutiny against Kidd. Afterwards, William Mason was elected captain.
Mason and his crew (Culliford included) did some fairly standard piracy in the Caribbean — you know, attacking towns and ships and stealing booty. Then they scooted up the coast of North America to sell their ill-gotten gains in New York. While they were there, Mason procured a letter of marque from the acting governor Jacob Leisler — basically, giving them official permission to engage in piracy. (Which made them “privateers” not pirates.) So they sailed up to ransack two French-Canadian towns…but like, officially, on behalf of New York, and then they captured a French ship called L’Esperance.
Mason gave L’Esperance to Culliford, officially making him a pirate — I’m sorry, privateer — captain. He renamed the ship the Horne Frigate because nothing says “this is my first boat” like putting the type of ship it is in the name of the ship. The ship didn’t stay in his command long, and the two ketches that were carrying most of Mason and Culliford’s loot ended up getting attacked and stolen by French privateers. Mason and Culliford ended up having to return pretty much empty-handed to New York aboard a different French ship they managed to steal, the Jacob. In December of 1690, Mason and his crew — with Culliford now serving as quartermaster — left New York aboard the Jacob once more.
By 1692, the Jacob had made its way to India. They robbed the people of Mangrol in the state of Gujarati, but the authorities were not putting up with this at all. Culliford and seventeen of his crewmates were captured and held in a Gujarati prison. Culliford was held there for four years before he made his escape, with a handful of his comrades. They made it to Bombay, and signed onto the crew of an East India Company ship called the Josiah. The ship made it as far as Madras (still in India — not far at all!) before Culliford led his crewmates in hijacking the ship. They sailed for the Bay of Bengal, and began engaging in piracy again.
Unfortunately for Culliford, most of the crew of the East India Company ship liked, y’know, not being pirates. So they retook the ship and left him stranded on an island near the Nicobar Islands. Ralph Stout, captaining the Mocha, found Culliford and rescued him. He was dead within the year and Culliford became captain of his ship. (Half the reports on his death say he was killed by natives of the Laccadive Islands, and half of them say he was killed by his crew when he said he wanted to retire from piracy. I’m not saying I’m suspicious, but I am going to point out that Culliford had mutinied before. Draw your own conclusions.) After this point, the ship is sometimes still called the Mocha and sometimes is called the Resolution so Culliford may have changed the name, but I can’t tell you for sure when that happened. I think the reason for the inconsistent use of the name Resolution is because there was another pirate ship sailing around in other parts of the world with the same name — but that ship is also totally inconsequential in regards to this article, so I’m going to take to calling the ship by its new name that doesn’t make me want a coffee.
Culliford sailed alongside the Charming Mary for a time, but ultimately Culliford broke off the partnership to go ransack ships on his own. That was going fine, until he set out to loot the British ship the Dorill. The Dorill, however, was not some defenseless ship and instead opened fire and broke off the Resolution‘s main mast. Culliford turned tail and headed for Île Sainte-Marie off the coast of Madagascar to lick his wounds — on the way, he still managed to plunder a French ship for a cargo worth £2,000 (which, according to my sources, would be over 400,000 American dollars today) despite his ship being fairly crippled and only having a crew of about twenty people.
Anyways, by this point Captain Kidd had turned from piracy into pirate hunting. And he also headed to Île Sainte-Marie, knowing it sometimes served as a refuge for pirates. He found Culliford there — and I’m sure he was delighted, given their history. There’s two differing accounts of what happened next: in one account, Kidd made peaceful overtures towards Culliford — acting as though he still considered him a brother, trying to lull him into a false sense of security. In the other account, Kidd thought that Culliford had a full crew and hid from him until two more ships full of reinforcements arrived. Kidd’s crew jumped ship (literally) to join Culliford’s crew. (The score is now Culliford: 2; Kidd: 0.)
This new, large crew set off in June of 1698 to leave Kidd, his thirteen remaining crewmen, and his ship (which had been ransacked of anything worth value) abandoned on Île Sainte-Marie. Culliford joined forces with Captains Dirk Chivers and Joseph Wheeler and in September they took down the ship the Great Mohammed in the Red Sea — taking for themselves treasure worth £130,000 (which is the equivalent of over 23 and a half million US dollars today.) Captain Nathaniel North of the Pelican also claimed to take part in this, but the other three captains refused to share the plunder stating that he and his crew hadn’t actually participated. Afterwards, Culliford and his allies parted ways, with the Resolution heading back to Île Sainte-Marie (and taking down another ship on the way).
Either because of his now pretty incredible wealth, or because he was seriously wanted at this point, Culliford decided to lay low and settle down on Île Sainte-Marie. Living with him, as his consort, was the little-known, pretty much inconsequential pirate captainJohn Swann. (See, we got to him eventually!)
Now, okay, here’s the thing. So John Swann was — in my opinion — undoubtedly Culliford’s lover. But that is — of course, as always — a matter of some debate. Swann is referred to as a “great consort” of Culliford’s in the deposition of a pirate named Theophilus Turner. Now, “consort” was also used to refer to pirate captains or crew that sailed together on separate ships, so lots of historians insist that no, this was just a platonic relationship. I don’t think that’s what “consort” means in this context for a few reasons — first of all, in that definition of consort, Culliford’s “great consorts” would be Chivers and Wheeler who helped him against the Great Mohammed. A score for which Swann was not present. Secondly, Swann and Culliford weren’t sailing together, they were literally settling down on land together. And, in fact, Swann was retiring from piracy altogether. So, while I agree that in piracy terms, “consort” doesn’t always mean lovers, I just don’t see the other use of the term applying here.
A number of Culliford’s crew left Île Sainte-Marie to go settle in Nassau. Swann may have been among them, traveling under the alias “Paul Swan.” Which is, frankly, a pretty terrible alias. Other testimonies, which I’m more inclined to believe, claim that Swann was still on the island when four British warships arrived, offering royal pardons to all of the pirates there. Swann and Culliford both accepted, and then made their way to Barbados where they parted ways. At that point, Culliford decided to return to the open sea and headed back to the Indian Ocean. He was arrested shortly thereafter, and sent to Marshalsea Prison in London. His royal pardon was promptly thrown out because the ransacking of the Great Mohammed was, apparently, not actually included in the pardon he’d received (tricky legal loopholes, I guess) and he was all set to be hanged from the neck until dead….until Captain Samuel Burgess — former crewmember of Captain William Kidd — was arrested. Culliford testified against Burgess in exchange for a pardon, and then completely disappeared. Rumors indicate he may have settled in Boston, Massachusetts, though that has never been confirmed.
With both Swann and Culliford dropping off the grid, this story leaves us with more questions than it answers. But I think the best question we can ask is….why isn’t this a movie yet?
You’ve seen 2017’s Call Me by Your Name, right? Or at least read the book that came out in 2007? Okay, even if you haven’t I’m sure you’ve heard about the peach scene — it’s famous. Or infamous, I guess. So, if you haven’t, basically the gist is that Elio (played by Timothée Chalamet) masturbates into a peach, and then his like brand-spanking new lover Oliver (played by Armie Hammer) goes to eat it, and then they fight, and then they cry and…anyways, it’s emotional and sexy and kind of silly, and a lot of things all at once but it is for sure very gay. I don’t know if André Aciman, who wrote the original book, even knew exactly how gay. I can’t tell you if he knew that “pleasure of the bitten peach” was a euphemism for gay love in ancient China….but I can tell you that it was. And, of course, I can tell you how that came to be.
Our story starts with a young man named Yuan who was the son of Wei Xiang Gong — or Duke Xiang of Wey — and a low-ranking concubine. So low-ranking I can’t find any trace of his mother’s name. Anyways, Xiang dies without saying which of his kids from which of his concubines is his heir apparent. One of the lords, Kong Zhengchi, conferred with oracles of I Ching and with a spirit, and determined that the next reigning duke (or gong) should be Yuan. So, Yuan rose to power and took the name Wei Ling Gong or Duke Ling of Wey in 535 BCE. (Like I said, literally ancient.)
The only real major event I can find during his reign was a rebellion in 522 CE, caused by his brother Gongmen Zhi being awful and abusing his power. The rebellion was led by some members of his court named Qi Bao, Beigong Xi, and Chu Shipu and was successful enough that Ling fled to Siniao. While he was in this exile, Ling admitted to not being a very good ruler. Guess that’s kind of a fair assessment of things.
Now, Ling appears in Chapter 15 of the Analects of Confucius, asking Confucius for military tactics. Presumably that was because of this admission. (Of course, Confucius doesn’t know about battlefield strategy, and like, why would he? Of all the people to ask….) Anyways, Ling got to go home and continue being a not very good ruler because one of Beigong Xi’s people accidentally assassinated Qi Bao and ended the rebellion. Oops. Ling continued ruling as duke of the state of Wei until his death in 493 BCE.
Over the course of this 42 year reign, Ling married a woman named Nanzi and they had a few sons together. Ling also, reportedly, had a male lover named Mizi Xia. Unlike Ling, who we have actual historical records of, Mizi Xia’s existence is first recorded in Han Feizi by the philosopher Han Fei — so take this story with a grain of salt. Especially since Han Fei wasn’t even born until a little over 200 years later — about 280 BCE.
Mizi Xia had to have been very attractive. Like, I guess the kind of attractive where nothing they do matters, they’re perfect, you’ll never say anything bad about them. Because they shut off your brain. We’ve all seen people like that — at least on Instagram, right? So, when Mizi Xia found out his mother was sick, he forged permission from Ling to take the duke’s carriage so he could get to her quickly. Totally understandable but also totally, y’know, illegal. But Ling was just delighted about it, praised Mizi Xia for his loyalty to his mom, and then — in some versions — gave him blanket permission to take the carriage whenever.
On another occasion — and pay attention here because this part is like the actual main focus of this whole post — Mizi Xia was eating a peach that was apparently just super super delicious and decided to give half of it to Ling. And the duke thought this was the sweetest thing. Which I kinda get, like that’s cute right? Sharing your food? Adorable.
Anyways, time went by and Mizi Xia did the unthinkable — he started to age. As his looks went, Ling suddenly found all of this was not so cute after all. He accused Mizi Xia of stealing the carriage, and claimed that he had insulted the duke by giving him a half-eaten peach. Which are both, y’know, kind of valid ways of looking at the situation if that’s how you’d looked at them at first. Kinda late to change your mind, right? Well, not if you’re the duke. (It’s good to be the duke.)
Anyways, Han Fei wrote this story as a warning about how fickle nobility could be, and how you should be wary about getting too close to your rulers. I can also see it being a story about how you shouldn’t rely too heavily on your looks to get what you want. But that is not how it got interpreted by…..well, pretty much anyone else. Everyone pretty much just focused on the part where they shared the peach and Mizi Xia’s name, along with the “bitten peach” became a poetic turn of phrase for homosexuality — showing up in the works of Ruan Ji, and later Liu Zun. Liu Zun’s poem even states “Love of the half eaten peach never dies” which makes it pretty clear that they did not finish reading the story.
Mizi Xia is even cited as a famous homosexual in the document “Poetical Essay on the Supreme Joy” by Bai Xingjian. (I’ll give you a hint what the “Supreme Joy” is — it’s sex. Like all kinds of sex. Every kind of sex, everywhere.) In the part of this document focusing on gay sex, Bai Xingjian cites a bunch of other ancient Chinese homosexual relationships from legends and historical documents from all over China. This was written some time shortly after the year 700 CE but the references make it clear that all of these names and stories would have been at least recognizable to his readers, if not well known.
Even as late as the 12th century, Mizi Xia’s name was used as a symbol of homosexuality — however, negative attitudes towards male prostitution and the “passive role” (bottoms) in gay sex were beginning to become pervasive — it’s believed that was the result of backlash to male prostitutes becoming increasingly common in China at the time. Mizi Xia was referred to in a pretty derogatory manner by author Zhu Yu — who believed Mizi Xia was a prominent example a male prostitute, that he’d sold his body to Ling for influence in the court and material possessions. And, of course, everyone assumes that Mizi Xia was the bottom. (Which makes a certain amount of sense if you consider what we all use that peach emoji for.)
These negative connotations only increased as Western attitudes about homosexuality and gender roles infiltrated China, and when the Qing dynasty rose to prominence gender roles became quite strict. The name Mizi Xia all but vanished from China until the 20th century, and even then it only appeared in obscure literature and literature about China written by Westerners (such as Sexual Life in Ancient China by Robert van Gulik). Meanwhile, the phrase “the pleasures of the bitten peach” became something of a code word, a euphemism, known primarily to a queer community that was being driven underground.
These days, the Bitten Peach is probably best known as a queer pan-Asian cabaret based in the United Kingdom. You can find them on Instagram and you really should. So, the next time you’re dropping that peach emoji on Grindr….just remember you’re continuing a grand tradition that goes back a lot further than Call Me by Your Name. And if you happen to be sending that emoji to a duke….try to stay pretty.
Okay, I’m going to admit that I just learned about this one this week and I’m pretty excited about it. Almost all of the information available comes from two — Channing Gerard Joseph, who is writing a book The House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens about this topic but the book isn’t out yet, and Netisha Currie — who dipped into some archives to verify the story. What I’m saying is, I’m not going to pretend to have one hundred percent of the information. Just wanted to throw that disclaimer out there first. I was really going to wait for the book to come out but, like, I’m kinda too excited to wait until it comes out next year and then I read it to tell you about this.
So, today we’re talking about William Dorsey Swann. Swann was born somewhere in Maryland sometime around 1858. He was a slave in Hancock, Maryland for the first several years of his life — because Maryland was not part of the Confederacy, their slaves weren’t freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and Maryland didn’t free its own slaves until 1864, only a couple of months before the 13th Amendment was ratified. Swann was thankfully freed before then — thanks to the intervention of Union soldiers. Swann is known to have developed friendships with other queer former slaves, including Pierce Lafayette and Felix Hall, two formers slaves who are documented to have been in a relationship.
By the 1880s, Swann had moved to Washington D.C. In 1882, he was arrested for stealing books from the Washington Library Company and from Henry and Sara Spencer — who employed Swann at the Spencerian Business College. Swann pled guilty and was sentenced to six months in jail. In October, having served only one month of his sentence, Henry and Sara Spencer petitioned President Chester A. Arthur to pardon Swann. Both the judge who had sentenced him and the assistant US District Attorney even supported the petition — pointing out that the theft of books was only an effort to educate himself. It’s unknown if the pardon was granted.
At some point in the 1880s — before or after his previous arrest we’ll never know — he began hosting what we would now call drag balls, of the sort that had begun in Harlem in 1867 with the Annual Odd Fellows Ball. Of course, those balls — while not, perhaps “acceptable” were charity events hosted by relatively wealthy, elite African Americans who could get away with things that poor freed slaves could not. Swann himself was regularly dressing in fabulous gowns, which his brother made, and calling himself “the queen of drag” — well before the term “drag” was being used much outside of theaters and certainly before the term “drag queen” was coined (which doesn’t become popular until the 1920’s). Swann was arrested at one of these balls in January of 1887 — which had both black and white guests in drag. Even so, Swann wasn’t exactly breaking new, unheard of ground, but was definitely pushing at its edges.
Until April 12, 1888. One of Swann’s balls was held in a two-story home near the corner of 12th St and F St. And it was raided by police. The guests made a mad dash for the exits — but Swann made a charge for the police themselves. He was supposedly a large, imposing man who — that night — is described as having worn a cream-color satin gown. Swann physically fought the police to prevent them from entering — with no success. This was, however, one of the first times queer people fought back against police oppression.
13 black men, including Swann, were arrested, charged with “being suspicious characters” and made to pay fines or spend 30 days in jail. Their names were published in various papers – although those lists of names weren’t the same in every paper so that’s a fun mystery for someone else to solve. The list of names that were the same in every paper were: William Dorsey, John Smith, Jacob Byard, Charles Myers, Samuel Jackson, James Waters, James Howard or Laura Howard, James Taylor, and Benjamin Moore. Some papers also listed Jacob Lewis, Samuel Lewis, Lewis Jackson and Albert Lee. Nearly all of those arrested made bail — Swann was bailed out by his employer. This was reported in both The Washington Post, The Washington Critic, and The Evening Star on April 13. The Washington Critic, notably, called the event a “drag party” which may have been one of the earliest uses of that phrase.
Swann managed to avoid having any of his balls raided again until New Years Eve of 1895. That ball was barely starting when police came in — they arrested Swann and three of his black guests — letting his three white guests go, although they were later summoned as witnesses. The three black guests were charged with vangrancy but Swann was charged with “running a disorderly house” — that’s a term I’ve talked about before, but essentially it means they were accusing him of running a brothel. The witnesses testified that they had danced and drank alcohol — hardly damning, I don’t think, but it also didn’t exactly help. Swann was sentenced to ten months imprisonment — the judge didn’t think that was enough and stated: “I would like to send you where you would never again see a man’s face, and would then like to rid the city of all other disreputable persons of the same kind.”
The trial went by very quickly — Swann was convicted three days after being arrested. Three months into serving his sentence, he decided (correctly) this whole thing was unjust and that there was something that could be done about it. He filed a petition for pardon with President Grover Cleveland. He stated that he would never engage in the crime again, that he was a hard worker and an upstanding member of the community. Thirty of his friends signed the petition. However, the US District Attorney, A.A. Birney, was not on board this time, writing: “This petition is wholly without merit. While the charge of keeping a disorderly house does not on its face differ from other cases in which milder sentences have been imposed, the prisoner was in fact convicted of the most horrible and disgusting offences known to the law; an offence so disgusting that it is unnamed. This is not the first time that the prisoner has been convicted of this crime, and his evil example in the community must have been most corrupting.”
In July, Swann’s friends began pushing harder — stating that conditions in jail were bad for his health. I don’t know if these claims were true, but a doctor who had examined Swann in March and said he was healthy diagnosed him with a heart condition in July, claiming that being held in prison could potentially be deadly. Now, knowing who Grover Cleveland’s sister was, one might imagine he would be somewhat sympathetic to the plight of queer people in the US. One would be very wrong. Grover officially denied the pardon on July 29, 1896 — proclaiming that the concerns for Swann’s health did not outweigh the “character of the offense.”
Although the petition was unsuccessful, this does mark the first time in the history of the United States that anyone attempted to take legal action to defend the rights of LGBTQ+ people to assemble. Swann did survive the prison sentence, but retired from drag (unsurprisingly, I would say). His brother continued making dresses for men who wanted to participate in drag balls, which were a tradition that continues even today.
Sadly, there’s no actual images of Swann — he often gets paired up with pictures of this incredible drag performers but this is actually Mr. Brown from the Vaudeville duo Gregory and Brown, who introduced the “cake walk” dance to the world. That’s no small thing either but it is a story for another day.
Before we begin, I do want to take a moment to apologize for my lengthy hiatus — life just got really busy around the holidays and — I’m sure you’ve all noticed — a lot has been going on since then just in the world. Anyways, craziness aside, it’s Pride month now and festivals or no, I was not about to let this month go by without writing out some queer history for you! So, we’re back! I was writing a post about Harvey Milk, but then something happened that called for me to change courses: we lost a legend. Not to spoil the end of this post or anything, but Larry Kramer passed away last week. And as he was someone who had a profound impact on our community…I couldn’t just not write about him.
Laurence “Larry” David Kramer was born in Bridgeport, CT on June 25, 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression. He was the second child of a struggling Jewish family, who had really not wanted another mouth to feed as they struggled to find work. His father George Kramer was a government attorney, his mother Rea worked variously as a shoe store employee, a teacher, and a social worker with the Red Cross.
Eventually — after the Depression — the family moved to Maryland — I’m guessing because of his dad’s job — but they were in a much lower income bracket than the family’s of Larry’s fellow students at his school. Larry had his first sexual relationship with another boy during junior high school. It was, from what I can gather, purely sexual and not romantic at all.
As he grew up, he had mounting pressure from his family. His father wanted him to marry a wealthy Jewish woman, and go to Yale, and become a member of the Pi Tau Pi fraternity. Although Larry enrolled at Yale….the rest of that is not exactly how things were going to go down. When Larry got to Yale, he found himself very isolated, feeling like the only gay guy on campus. This is 1953, so there’s not like a Gay/Straight Alliance he can just join up with — he’s pretty much stuck on his own with no way of connecting with other queer students. So, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on aspirin.
Fortunately, the attempt failed. I don’t know the details, but I’m hoping he just like…got a cramp for ten minutes and then was fine. Probably not, because he was very much changed after that. He became loud, proud, determined to fight for gay people and determined to explore his own sexuality. And determined not to marry a rich Jewish woman. The following semester, he began a romantic relationship with his German professor. He joined the Varsity Glee Club, and was an active member there until he graduated in 1957 with a degree in English. As far as I know, he never joined Pi Tau Pi.
At the age of 23, Larry became involved in movie productions, taking a job at Columbia Pictures as a Teletype operator — a job where the office happened to be across the hall from the president’s office. This led pretty directly to his first writing credit, a dialogue writer for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. He followed this by adapting the novel Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence into a screenplay. The movie was nominated for an Oscar in 1969. Larry’s third major project was a musical adaption of Frank Capra’s movie Lost Horizon, which debuted in 1973. Though Larry later was embarrassed by the project, it made him a substantial amount of money that, due to some wise investments made by Larry’s older brother Arthur, gave him enough money to not worry about money for the better part of the 80s and 90s. Doesn’t sound all that embarrassing when you look at it like that, huh?
Having established himself, Larry began taking some risks. He started writing plays and — much riskier — he started adding homosexual elements to his work. The first of these plays was 1973’s Sissies’ Scrapbook (which would later become the play Four Friends — I gather the play is better but the title’s pretty forgettable now.) Larry found he loved writing for the stage — until the producer canceled the show despite a favorable review in The New York Times. At that point, Larry promised never to write for the stage again.
In 1978, following a break up with his boyfriend David Webster, he wrote and published the novel Faggots. The book was based around a character who was looking for love, but was caught up in drugs and partying in bars and clubs on Fire Island and in Manhattan. To say that the book was not well received is an understatement. Heterosexual readers found it appalling, and could not believe that it reflected an accurate representation of a gay man’s life. The queer community had an even harsher reaction to the book — the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, the only gay bookstore in New York at the time, refused to sell the book at all. Larry was banned from the local grocery store where he lived on Fire Island. The book was universally trashed by mainstream and queer media alike.
Despite that, Faggots is one of the best-selling gay novels of all time and has not been out of publication at all since its debut. The book is often taught in LGBTQ+ studies. It’s been noted that the themes of Faggots are still relevant to the gay community to this day — the negative reaction to the book, as pointed out by many who’ve studied the book since it was first published, such as Reynolds Price and Andrew Sullivan, is largely because it touched a nerve and was more honest than people were comfortable with.
Despite the reaction to the novel, Larry still managed to have a lot of friends on Fire Island, so when a number of them began to fall ill in 1980, he was concerned. The next year, after reading an article in the New York Times about “gay cancer”, he decided something had to be done. He invited about 80 affluent gay men to his home in New York City, where they listened to a doctor explain what little they knew about the related illnesses afflicting gay men. By the next year, this group had officially formed into the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) which quickly became the primary organization raising funds and helping to provide services for those afflicted with AIDS in and around New York. GMHC is still providing support for people who are impacted by HIV and AIDS and has been expanding every year.
Kramer led the GMHC in a fight to get funding from the city to help them provide much-needed services to those fighting the disease. He made NYC mayor Ed Koch a principle target for this fight. When doctors began to suggest that, to curb the spread of the disease, gay men stop having sex, Larry brought this to the GMHC and suggested they spread the word. His colleagues refused.
Larry was not deterred. He wrote a fiery piece called “1,112 and Counting” which was published in the gay newspaper the New York Native. The essay attacked basically everyone. Healthcare workers, the CDC, politicians — and it also went after the apathy of the gay community. The piece did something important than no one else had managed: it caught the attention of the rest of New York’s media. It finally had people talking about the AIDS epidemic. According to Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, “With that one piece, Larry changed my world. He changed the world for all of us.”
Unfortunately, it also contributed to Larry’s growing reputation as a confrontational crazy person. He had gone toe-to-toe with an NIH agency of not devoting more resources to the AIDS crisis because he was deeply in the closet. Similarly, Larry had it out quite publicly with conservative fundraiser Terry Dolan, even throwing a drink in his face, for secretly having sex with men while using homophobia as a political tool to his advantage. He argued with his brother, whose law firm Kramer Levin refused to represent GMHC. He called Ed Koch his cohorts in city government “equal to murderers.” He even attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the scientist who was leading the government’s response (once there was one.) Ultimately, this behavior led to the dissolution of Larry’s long-term relationship with a fellow member of the board of GMHC and — perhaps even more devastating — it led to GMHC removing Larry from the organization he’d essentially started in 1983.
After his removal from the group, Larry traveled to Europe. While he was there, he visited the Dachau concentration camp where he was horrified to learn that it had begun operating in 1933 and no one, in or out of Germany, had seen fit to stop it. He felt this paralleled the US government’s response to AIDS. Despite having sworn never to write for the stage again, Larry churned out a script for the play The Normal Heart — a somewhat autobiographical look at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I’m not going to talk too much about its contents, other than to say that you should absolutely watch it — you can see the 2014 film version on Hulu or Amazon Prime, starring Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer. The play itself was groundbreaking — one of, if not the, script to actually talk about AIDS. The play premiered in 1985, a full year before President Ronald Reagan would publicly mention the disease. It was produced by the Public Theater — running for over a year and becoming the Public Theater’s longest running production. It’s been produced over 600 times since then, in countries all over the world. (That’s not even counting the movie!)
Two years later, Larry was invited to speak at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in NYC. His speech was well-attended and focused on fighting AIDS. He started the speech by having two-thirds of the people in the room stand up — and then he informed them that they would be dead within five years. For the most part, the rest of his speech was rehashing his points from “1,112 And Counting.” At the end of the speech, he asked the attendees if they wanted to start a new organization devoted to political action. The audience agreed that they did, and two days later about 300 of them met again to form the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) — an direct action organization primarily focused on advocating on behalf of issues relating AIDS and HIV, such as medical research and improving public policies.
Initially, their primary method was civil disobedience. They sought to get attention for their cause by getting their members arrested. Larry himself was arrested over a dozen times. ACT UP did manage to capture a lot of attention — with new chapters forming rapidly across the United States and even into Europe. (And, if you’ve seen or heard RENT or watched the second season of Pose you already knew about them. And if you haven’t watched Pose, fix your life. After you finish reading this.)
In 1988, Larry wrote his next script — Just Say No, A Play About a Farce. Despite the title, the play is not a farce, it’s a dramatic piece that is almost entirely a commentary on the indifference the Reagan administration showed towards the AIDS epidemic. The play received a terrible review from the New York Times which kept most audiences away. However, those who did attend reportedly loved the show. After seeing it, activist and writer Susan Sontag wrote, “Larry Kramer is one of America’s most valuable troublemakers. I hope he never lowers his voice.”
The stress of the opening of the show caused Larry to suffer a hernia, which sent Larry to the a few weeks after the show opened. While there, they discovered he had experienced liver damage from Hepatitis B and, subsequently, they found that he was HIV positive. Nevertheless, Larry was not deterred, and he was not about to lower his voice.
He published a non-fiction book called Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist in 1989. The book documents his career as an activist, particularly his time at GMHC but also his work with ACT UP and a lot of letters to editors and speeches he wrote. The book encouraged gay men to take responsibility for their own health, and urged survivors to help strengthen their community by giving back to it and advocating for it. The book also, quite intentionally but definitely controversially, declares the AIDS epidemic a holocaust, stating the government ignored it because it was primarily wiping out minorities and poor people.
His next piece was a sequel to The Normal Heart called The Destiny of Me in 1992, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, won two Obie Awards, and the Lortel Award for Outstanding Play of the Year. To be honest, I haven’t seen it or read it (yet!) so I’m not going to tell you too much else about it.
In 1995, Larry reunited with his ex-boyfriend David Webster. The two were together for the rest of Larry’s life.
In 1997, Larry tried to give several million dollars to Yale to establish a continuous, permanent gay studies class, and to possibly construct a gay and lesbian student center. The proposal was incredibly narrow — something which Larry would later himself comment on the flaw of — and stated “Yale is to use this money solely for 1) the study of and/or instruction in gay male literature, by which I mean courses to study gay male writers throughout history or the teaching to gay male students of writing about their heritage and their experience. To ensure for the continuity of courses in either or both of these areas tenured positions should be established; and/or 2) the establishment of a gay student center at Yale.” The provost declined, stating it was too narrow a field of study. By 2001, however, Larry and Yale reached an agreement. Arthur Kramer gave Yale 1 million dollars to have a five year trial of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies — a program focused on gay and lesbian history.
2001 was also the year that Larry needed a liver transplant. He was rejected by Mount Sinai Hospital’s organ transplant list because of his HIV. At the time, HIV positive patients were routinely rejected because of a belief that they were more likely to have complications. I don’t know if that was true or not at the time, I’m not a doctor and I don’t really follow advances in organ transplants. Larry certainly considered it discrimination, and — as we could predict by now — he was not quiet about it. In May — with the help of Dr. Fauci, who he had actually become very good friends with over the years — he was added to the transplant list at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. It was too late to stop the media though — on June 11, Newsweek published an article titled “The Angry Prophet is Dying”. He received his transplant on December 21 and was moved out of the intensive care unit on December 26. There was some miscommunication about that, which led the Associated Press to release an article erroneously announcing that he had died. In actuality, he was in a regular hospital room and was released to his home the following week.
Larry managed to stay out of trouble for a couple of years after that — until George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. Larry believed Bush’s re-election was mostly due to opposition to marriage equality, so he gave a speech entitled “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays” on November 21 of that year. The speech was published in a book the following year. In the speech, he laid out the framework for an intentional plan by the wealthy and conservative elite to destroy the lives of racial minorities, non-Christians, the poor, and gays and lesbians that went back as far as 1971 with the “Powell Manifesto”. He described the AIDS epidemic as a dream come true for this behind this — a genocide that the undesirables spread among themselves. It was mostly hailed as a passionate and truthful call to arms. Others, however, accused Larry of homophobia — pointing to his history of being anti-sex in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and Faggots to establish a pattern. I’d like to point out, though, that much of what he was warning us about is proving true right now.
The next decade was a fairly quiet one, although the Broadway revival of The Normal Heart won a Tony Award in 2011, and he married David Webster in 2013. The following year, of course, The Normal Heart was made into a movie.
In 2015 he published the novel The American People: Volume 1, Search for my Heart, a passion project he’d been working on since 1981. In it, he asserted that a number of important American historical figures were gay: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Herman Melville, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Richard Nixon…. while the novel is a work of fiction, apparently he put a great deal of research into it, but I am still really skeptical about most of those names. (But I’m definitely doing some of my own research just to be sure!)
Anyways, this year — 2020 — he released the second volume of The American People: Volume 2, The Brutality of Fact. The combined work is called The American People: A History. I haven’t read it yet. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Larry began writing a new play called An Army of Lovers Must Not Die. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish it before he came down with pneumonia and passed away on May 27.
Larry Kramer had a remarkable ability to force a spotlight to shine on issues. He probably garnered more attention for the AIDS crisis than anyone outside of Rock Hudson. He certainly reshaped the way that the government, and scientists — particularly those working with the government — respond to activists. He had a profound impact on medicine in general — it is because of him that part of the process the FDA uses to approve new drugs involves consulting with representatives from groups who will use the medicine. He will likely go down as one of the most aggressive activists in queer history, but he’ll have that reputation because when he did it…it worked.
Oscar Wildeis arguably one of the most famous and lasting playwrights since William Shakespeare — and his work was popular to boot. He was a celebrity in his time, known even then for being an extremely quotable master of one-liners.
He was born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland. His parents, Sir William and Jane Wilde, gave him the most Irish name they could: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. Just try yelling out that entire thing when you’re mad at your kid. That’s a chore. Anyways, he was the second child of three — his older brother Willie and younger sister Isola. His parents were part of Dublin’s intellectual elite — Sir William was a doctor notable for taking care of the city’s poor and who had also written and published numerous works regarding medicine, archaeology and folklore while Jane was an Irish nationalist publishing revolutionary poetry for the Young Islanders under the pen name Speranza. They instilled a love of poetry and folklore in all of their children.
Until age of nine, Wilde was educated at home by his mother, a French nursemaid, and a German governess. As such, he became fluent in French and German very early. Then he was enrolled at the Portora Royal School — a free school. While he was there, Isola Wilde died of meningitis in 1867.
Wilde graduated from the Portora Royal School in 1871 and began attending Trinity College in Dublin. There he studied classic literature and Greek alongside his older brother Willie and joined the University Philosophical Society. Through this society, he became an enthusiastic member of the Aesthetic Movement — an intellectual movement prioritizing the appreciation of beauty over social and political themes in literature, fine art, music, and other arts.
While at Trinity, he also befriended Edward Carson — a name you’re going to want to remember for later. They stayed very close friends throughout their college years, but drifted apart in adulthood. Wilde proved to be a gifted student — coming in at the top of his class in his first year of studies and eventually winning Trinity College’s highest academic award, the Berkeley Gold Medal. In 1874, having out-nerded everyone in Ireland (and with encouragement from his teachers who were probably tired of being shown up by him), he applied for and obviously received a scholarship to Magdalen College in Oxford.
At Magdalen College, Wilde reinvented himself. He explored several organizations, religions and philosophies. He toyed with joining Roman Catholicism — despite threats that his father would cut him off financially if he was baptized into that faith. Wilde ultimately decided, at the last minute, not to do it, and sent flowers to the ceremony in his place. He said he liked their aesthetic, rather than their beliefs. Wilde also replaced his Irish accent with an upper class British accent, began to dress in formal wear literally all of the time and lavishly decorated his room with peacock feathers. It was about this time — no surprise — that he became involved in the Decadent Movement.
As anyone who’s ever been to school knows, standing out isn’t always a popular thing. People attempted to beat up or bully Wilde on more than one occasion — but Wilde was 6’3″ and really strong — especially for someone who pretty much hated sports. He once beat up an entire group of students who attacked him, then invited onlookers to go to the room of one of his assailants where they drank all that student’s liquor. He did, at some point (before or after this, I’m unclear), take up boxing — probably not so much as a sport but as a means of self-defense.
The lifestyle he’d adopted was not conducive to studying, and Wilde did not remain the star pupil he had been at Trinity. After returning late from a trip to Greece with a professor, Wilde was even temporarily expelled. Despite this, when he graduated in November of 1878, he received double first (the highest possible honor) for his Bachelor degree in Classical Moderations and Literae Humaniores (basically, literature, just made to sound fancier.) In the same year his poem “Ravenna” won the Newdigate Prize, a high honor for students at Oxford.
Wilde settled in London after graduating, though he spent a good amount of time in Paris. In 1881, a collection of his poems (now having been published in various places since roughly 1871) was published. The first print run of Poems was 750 copies — it sold out and had to have a second run printed in 1882. Despite the book’s undeniable popularity, reviews were mixed — the British magazine Punch was notably unenthusiastic. Their review stated: “The poet is Wilde, but his poetry’s tame.” (Don’t you sometimes wonder if people write intentionally bad reviews just so they throw in some solid gold zingers like that one?)
Because the aesthetic movement was becoming popular in the United States thanks to Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience (which features a character satirizing Wilde), talent agent Richard D’Oyly Carte booked Wilde for a lecture tour in America coinciding with the tour of Patience. The press in the United States was even more critical of Wilde than it was in Britain. T.W. Higginson wrote that Wilde’s “only distinction is that he has written a thin volume of very mediocre verse” and expressed concerns about the influence Wilde might have on people’s behavior.
Wilde was also subjected to some incredibly bigoted anti-Irish attacks in the press — on January 22, 1882 (just twenty days after he landed in the country!) the Washington Post published a drawing of Wilde next to the Wild Man of Borneo (one of P.T. Barnum’s “freak show” performers) and asked “How far is it from this to this?” Despite the press, Wilde’s actual lectures were very popular and his tour was extended from the original four months to almost a year long.
Wilde interacted a lot with Irish-Americans during this tour. They were, perhaps, the most critical of him out of everyone in America for abandoning his Irish accent. As a result, he actually did reconnect with his Irish roots (though not his accent) and began to get more involved in politics. He was a staunch supporter of Irish independence (despite not going back to Ireland much). He also spoke out on behalf of socialism, although his actual beliefs — which he described as anarchy — were probably closer to communism than anything. (Apparently, for all his studying, Wilde never read the Communist Manifesto.)
Between the tour and publishing The Duchess of Padua, Wilde was making a good amount of money by 1883. In that same year his first play, Vera, was produced in New York City. As his celebrity grew so — of course — did rumors that he might be a sodomite — probably more because of his entire lack of romantic attachments and his super flamboyant clothes. Some historians suggest, therefore, that it is not a coincidence that he started seeing Constance Lloyd — a woman and fellow Decadent writer who he met at a lecture in Dublin. They married on May 29, 1884. Because of the philosophical and literary values they both represented, they spent tons and tons of money on having an incredibly stylish house in London. Like, even though they were both well-off, they ended up having basically no money.
Lloyd and Wilde had two sons — Cyril (born in 1885) and Vyvyan (born in 1886) — proving beyond any doubt that celebrities have always given their kids bizarre names. During the second pregnancy, their marriage began to fall apart. According to the biography written by Daniel Mendelsohn, Wilde became “physically repelled” by his wife. It was also about this time that Wilde met Robert “Robbie” Ross — a seventeen year old university student who was pretty much openly and unashamedly gay. That was a really big deal at the time. Robbie was determined to seduce Wilde — he had recognized allusions to “Greek love” (that’s a classy way of saying gay sex) in Wilde’s work and had decided to introduce Wilde to it. And he was very successful at that. While Ross and Wilde had a fairly short-lived romantic affair, they remained very close lifelong friends. Wilde’s marriage continued to devolve, although they never divorced.
Wilde’s star as a writer continued to rise after this. Over the next several years, he published a number of short stories — most of which alluded to “Greek love” more openly than his works had before. In 1890, Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray — a novel that catapulted him to an even higher degree of fame. (Incidentally, Dorian Gray was likely inspired — at least in name, if nothing else — by Wilde’s next ex-lover, John Gray. Gray did his best to deny this rumor.) It was publicly trashed by critics, particularly for the hedonism depicted in the novel — and the rather obvious references to homosexuality. It was heavily edited, some of the more transparent homo eroticism taken out and six new chapters added, and re-released in 1891. It was in this year, Wilde was introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas (aka “Bosie” to his friends), a student at Oxford at the time but with a great interest in literature — and the two struck up a friendship. This friendship would ultimately change the trajectory of Wilde’s life — and impact the entire underground queer community of Europe.