Roger Casement

sir_roger_casement_28618826461029In a lot of these articles, we’ve talked about how governments tried their best to sweep people’s queerness under the rug. That’s not exactly the case with Sir Roger David Casement.

Casement was born in Sandycove, Ireland on September 1, 1864 (why, yes, the timing of this article is intentional, thank you very much!) His father, Captain Roger Casement, was active in the military and fought in various regions — including present-day Afghanistan. The family moved to England around 1867, where Casement’s mother secretly had him baptized as a Roman Catholic (although there’s some dispute over the exact details of this baptism.) Casement’s mother died six years later, and they returned to live in Ireland. Four years after that, his father died. Casement and his brother (Thomas Casement, who helped establish the Irish Coastguard Service) were forced to live on the generosity of relatives. By 16 years old, he had abandoned a formal education and taken a job with a shipping company in Liverpool.

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Roger Casement and sculptor Herbert Ward, friends in the Congo

By 1884, Casement had taken a job working for Henry Morton Stanley and the African International Association — which was basically a front to allow Belgium to take over the Congo. Casement was employed to conduct a survey to improve communication within the region. As part of this, he recruited laborers and supervised them as they built a railroad to help traders bypass the Congo River. When he arrived in the Congo, Casement believed that colonization would help bring moral and social progress to the continent of Africa — something he still believed in 1890 when he met Joseph Conrad. Over the course of the next nine years, both became disillusioned with the supposed benefits of colonization on the African people — Conrad expressed this by writing Heart of Darkness. Casement would write something else entirely.

In 1901, Casement began serving the British consul in French Congo. It was in this position that he was commissioned, in 1903, to investigate the human rights situation in the colony under King Leopold II of Belgium’s leadership. Casement spent weeks traveling throughout the Congo, interviewing everyone from workers to mercenaries. And then he wrote the Casement Report. The document painted a picture of Leopold exploiting the Congolese and using the natural resources of the land — primarily rubber — for his own personal profit, as an entrepreneur and not as the king of Belgium. Furthermore, his private military force the Force Publique were terrorizing and murdering the Congolese to increase profits and productivity. The report was incredibly controversial, and many doubted its veracity. However, the report became public in 1904 — which made the Belgian Parliament force Leopold to set up an inquiry, which confirmed the report’s findings. As a reward for his efforts, Casement received a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG). Ultimately, this all resulted in Leopold’s reign over the Congo being usurped by the Belgian Parliament, and the Belgian Congo being formally established. 

By that point, however, the British consul had reassigned Casement — in 1906, they sent him to Brazil. In 1909, a journalist named Sidney Paternoster wrote an article in a British magazine called Truth that accused the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC) of abusing their rubber-harvesting laborers, and destroying and stealing rubber from their Colombian competitors. As most of the economy of the British-controlled parts of that region depended heavily on PAC, the consul took the article very seriously and assigned Casement — at that point the consul-general — to investigate. Casement made his way to the Putumayo District, which was technically outside the jurisdiction of the national government and was near the border of Colombia but was also where a lot of PAC’s rubber was harvested.

cf2e391ac839be0b728a628f30607355Casement found the conditions at least as bad as those in Congo, and his subsequent report has been called a “brilliant piece of journalism.” Using first person accounts from both the victims of abuse and from their abusers, he painted a clear and undeniable picture. Much of PAC’s labor came from unpaid indigenous people, who were kept nearly starving and sometimes branded with hot irons. The indigenous women and girls were frequently raped. Any indigenous person was liable to be casually murdered and forgotten.

Casement’s first report about this was made public in Great Britain in 1910. The British people were outraged. The heads of PAC and the Peruvian government vowed to make changes and improve conditions, and to that end the Peruvian government attempted to prosecute the men Casement had exposed to be murderers — most of them managed to escape arrest and were never seen again. In 1911, the British government asked Casement to return to the region to see if conditions had improved. Though some things had improved, Casement’s scathing report explained of terrible and sometimes fatal punishments inflicted on entire families — having parents and their children held in pillories, sometimes for months. He described parents, held in the pillories, being flogged to death while their children were forced to watch.

The scandal cost PAC huge business losses, and ultimately the company collapsed. The head of PAC, Julio Cesar Arana, was never prosecuted and ultimately went on to have a successful political career in Peru. Casement, meanwhile, returned to England where he was knighted. In 1913, Casement retired from the British consul and began to focus on politics. Or rather, on his political view that Great Britain should just rule over Britain — which meant that Ireland should be independent. Casement had joined some groups that wanted an independent Ireland years earlier, while on leave from the Congo. Several of his Irish nationalist friends and he formed a new group, called the Irish Volunteers.

Casement traveled to the United States to raise money for the new organization, and to reconnect with some exiled Irish nationalists such as those of Clan na Gael. Clan na Gael initially believed Casement to be too moderate, though he eventually won them over — partly by helping organize and get funding for things like the Howth gun-running, where 1500 rifles were delivered to the Irish Volunteers on July 26, 1914. In this event, the guns were delivered on a yacht to Howth harbor, unloaded in broad daylight in front of a huge crowd, and yet the Irish Volunteers were able to completely avoid law enforcement.

In August of 1914, World War I broke out. Casement traveled to New York to meet with John DeVoy (of Clan na Gael) and the German diplomat Count Johann Berstorff. Together, they cooked up a plan — if Germany would supply weapons to the Irish, they would revolt against the British, forcing Britain to divert military forces from fighting the Germans. To secure this plan, Casement donned a disguise and traveled to Germany. Along the way, the British government offered his traveling companion Adler Christensen a great deal of money to betray Casement — and the diplomat Mansfeldt Findlay also subtly implied that Casement was involved in homosexual relationships, and that this could be used as leverage. (I know you’re all like “finally some gay stuff!” Not really, but we’ll get there, I promise!) Christensen did not take the bait, and Casement successfully made it to Germany.

In Germany, he spent most of his time negotiating. He managed to secure a written promise from Germany to never invade Ireland, no matter the outcome of the war. Meanwhile, Casement also attempted to negotiate the release of 2,000 Irish prisoners-of-war, on the condition that those POWs fight for Irish independence. 52 of the prisoners committed to the cause and were freed on December 27, 1914. Around that time, he was also helping connect some of his American contacts with the people behind the Hindu-German Conspiracy — which was a similar cause, Indians hoping to use the war to their advantage and secure independence for India.

In April 1916, Germany offered 2,000 rifles to the Irish revolutionaries, and ten machine guns. However, Casement could not secure any German officers to help train the Irish in the use of the machine guns. Casement came to believe the Germans were toying with him — giving just enough support to lead to a rebellion that would distract the British, but that was still doomed to fail. (He was pretty smart, y’know?) With the promise of these weapons, the other leaders of the Irish rebellion — home in Ireland — planned out the Easter Rising. The plan was completed by the time Casement learned it was happening — and, when he heard about it, he realized it could not succeed without more support from the Germans. On April 9, he set off for Ireland in the submarine SM U-19 determined to stop or, at least, delay the plan.

However, the plan started going badly pretty much right away. The men Devoy sent to the docks to collect the weapons drove off the pier and drowned. The weapons themselves never arrived — the British had been tipped off that weapons might be smuggled into Ireland, and were able to stop and intercept the ship carrying them even though it was disguised as a Norwegian freighter. The ship was scuttled, and the German crew were taken as prisoners of war.

Casement was dropped off in Ireland on April 21 — three days before the Easter Rising was planned. He was suffering from a bout of recurring malaria (a condition he’d suffered from periodically since his days in the Congo), and was too weak to travel any further. As a result, he was rather quickly discovered at McKenna Fort (which is now, as a result, known as Casement’s Fort) and arrested on the charges of high treason, sabotage, and espionage. The Irish Volunteers were ordered not to try to rescue Casement, so as not to use any of the precious ammunition they’d managed to acquire for the Easter Rising (which was still scheduled to take place. I mean, literally everything was going wrong, so why not?) The rebellion did take place, lasted six days, and was ultimately a failure with tons of people being imprisoned and executed.

Casement was brought to Brixton Prison and placed under suicide watch. This seems to have been primarily because they wanted to make absolutely sure he was still alive for his trial, which was very public and very publicized. Prior to this trial, Treason Act 1351 had only applied to crimes committed on British soil, but Casement’s crimes had been committed in Germany. The courts adopted a new interpretation of the law, basically just so they could try Casement for his actions. This whole interpretation was basically legitimized by the court saying that a certain comma wouldn’t have been included in the original Norman-French text. Casement later wrote that he was “to be hanged on a comma” — which is where that saying originates.

Apparently, during the search for evidence, the prosecution came into possession of what is now referred to as “the Black Diaries” which described various sexual experiences that Casement had had with other men throughout his life — mostly sex that he paid to have with other men. The prosecutor, F.E. Smith, suggested to the defense that they release these and that, with those in evidence, Casement might be found guilty but insane and thereby escape the death penalty. Casement rejected the idea. So, instead, the government surreptitiously leaked the diaries to the public in an effort to turn opinion against him — as Casement was still fairly popular for his work in the Congo and Peru.

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Roger Casement escorted to Pentonville Prison

Casement was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. He appealed both the conviction and the death penalty. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, and W.B. Yeats all petitioned for leniency, for Casement to avoid the death penalty. Yeats, specifically, was convinced that the diaries were fake and that Casement was the victim of a conspiracy meant to defame and destroy him. The United States Senate also sent an appeal against using the death penalty for Casement, which the British cabinet soundly rejected at the behest of F.E. Smith — proving that his idea to have Casement’s defense release the diaries was never actually intended to save his life. Unfortunately, partly because Casement was now being painted as a sexual degenerate and partly because a lot of British people were so offended at the idea of an independent Ireland, many of his other friends and family had abandoned him — including his old friend from Africa, Joseph Conrad. A few relatives covertly donated to his defense fund, but none of them publicly spoke out on his behalf. As such, Casement’s appeals were denied. His knighthood was stripped from him on June 29, 1916 and he was hanged at Pentonville Prison on August 3, 1916.

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Roger Casement’s grave in Dublin, the inscription translates to “Roger Casement, who died for the sake of Ireland, 3rd August 1916”

Initially Casement’s body was buried at the prison cemetery. The British government rejected requests to repatriate the body to Ireland for years. They finally relented in 1965 and — despite Casement’s knighthood having been rescinded — the paperwork for the body calls him “Sir Roger Casement.” Although Casement’s last wish was to be buried on Murlough Bay, the only condition of the repatriation was that Casement could not be buried in Northern Ireland — as they feared what stirring up the Catholics might cause. Casement was given a state funeral with military honors, and buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. His funeral was attended by 30,000 people including the President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera — the last surviving participant in the Easter Rising.

You may have noticed that Casement’s sexuality only seems to appear in his biography when it’s being used as blackmail. Casement was very good at keeping his private life private, as one would need to do in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and really doesn’t seem to have had any substantial or impactful romantic or sexual relationships with other men. This has led to some seriously heated debates about whether or not Casement was, in fact, queer at all. Were the Black Diaries fake? There’s been some pretty convincing arguments that they were. I’ve taken the opinion that they were not — or at least not entirely. I’ve been convinced by two things: firstly, Casement’s friend John Harris viewed the diaries in 1916, and was himself skeptical of them. Harris wrote: “I was so firmly convinced, that the diary was not Roger Casement’s handiwork. Alas, when it was put before me and I had examined certain parts, my confidence was shaken. Then I came upon two or three facts only known in Europe to Casement and myself, and then my hopes were scattered…” The second thing that convinced me was a handwriting analysis done in 2002 that compared the diaries to things Casement wrote while in the Congo, and matched them. So its pretty convincing at this point that Casement was — as Jeffrey Dudgeon put it when he published a compilation of the Black Diaries in 2016 — a “busy homosexual.” I can only hope that 100 years after my death, someone will describe me that way too.

Heroes of Stonewall: Marsha P. Johnson

marshapjohnsonAlthough she regularly said her middle initial stood for “Pay it no mind”, Marsha P. Johnson proved to be a difficult person not to notice. Though Johnson is commonly referred to using female pronouns (she/her/hers) — and I’ll be doing that here — her actual gender identity is a bit of a mystery. She variously described herself as gay, a transvestite, and as a (drag) queen — though words like “transgender” really weren’t being widely used yet during her lifetime. My personal opinion is that she would probably identify as gender non-conforming or non-binary, but make your own judgments.

Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey on August 24, 1945 — one of seven children — and was named Malcolm Michaels Jr by her parents, Malcolm Michaels Sr and Alberta Claiborne. They were not, from all accounts, a particularly open-minded family and Claiborne was said to believe that being a homosexual was like being “lower than dog.” Johnson was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and remained a devout, practicing Christian for her entire life.

At the age of five, Johnson began to wear dresses — but stopped because she was harassed and teased by neighborhood boys. Some time during this period, Johnson was sexually assaulted by a boy who was roughly the age of 13. In 1963, Johnson graduated from Edison High School and promptly moved to New York City with $15 and a bag of clothing. By 1966, she was waiting tables, engaging in sex work, and living on the streets of the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan.

a_photo_of_marsha_p._johnsonShe also began to perform as a drag queen — initially going by the name “Black Marsha” before settling on Marsha P. Johnson. She was often recognizable for having flowers in her hair — something she began doing after sleeping under flower sorting tables in Manhattan’s Flower District. She usually had on bright colored wigs, shiny dresses, and long flowing robes. Marsha was known to be peaceful and fun, but there was a violent and short-tempered side to her personality (which her friends commonly called “Malcolm”) — leading some to suspect that she suffered from schizophrenia. Between her sex work and her occasional violent outbursts, Johnson claimed to have been arrested more than a hundred times.

When the Stonewall Inn began to permit women and drag queens inside, Johnson was one of the first to begin regularly visiting the bar. Some witnesses have even credited her with starting off the riots in 1969. Although this claim has certainly gained traction and become the popular version of events, she likely was not the woman who sparked off the Stonewall Riots by throwing the legendary “first brick” — this was also rumored, and was perhaps more likely to be Jackie Hormona or Zazu Nova by eyewitnesses — Johnson did have one particularly iconic, though unconfirmed, moment in the riots. She is said to have shouted “I got my civil rights!” and thrown a shot glass at a mirror. ( Some said this — the “shot glass heard round the world” — was the moment that started the riots, but Johnson herself disputed this. According to Johnson, word of the riots reached her and she immediately went to collect her friend Sylvia Rivera so they could join in — but Rivera was sleeping on a bench. According to Johnson, she arrived at about 2:00 am, forty minutes after the riots began. (I guess word traveled fast!) There are many reports that on the second night of rioting, Johnson climbed up a street lamp with a purse that was loaded down with a brick — which she dropped through the windshield of a police car. Though there’s a lot of stories about those riots, and a lot of confusion about the details it is very clear that Johnson was there and made a noticeable impact.

Although she’d been an activist before, Johnson became a real leader in the LGBT movements that followed the riots. In 1970, she and Sylvia Rivera founded the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR) — an organization that provided community support for transgender youth. She also joined the Gay Liberation Front and participated in the Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally that commemorated the first anniversary of Stonewall (and was, essentially, the creation of the Pride festivals we celebrate.) At one rally in the early 70’s, Johnson was asked by a member of the press what they were protesting for –Johnson shouted into the reporter’s microphone “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”

Johnson once said, “I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world.” In 1972, she began to perform periodically with the international drag troupe Hot Peaches. She was also continuing to work as a sex worker, taking the money she (and Rivera) earned from that business to help pay the rent for the housing for transgender youth that STAR had established that year. Johnson also took on an active role mentoring all of the youth in their care, becoming a “drag mother” even to those who were not performers. Although STAR declined and closed in 1973, it was a groundbreaking organization and the shelter that it provided queer youth was truly revolutionary.

marshapjohnsonIn 1973, Johnson also performed with the Angels of Light drag troupe — taking on the role of “The Gypsy Queen” in their production of “The Enchanted Miracle”. That same year both Johnson and Rivera were banned from participating in New York’s gay pride parade — the committee organizing the parade felt that drag queens and transvestites brought negative attention and gave the cause “a bad name.” In response, Rivera and Johnson marched ahead of the beginning of the parade.

7_ladies_and_gentlemen_marsha_p_johnson.nocrop.w710.h2147483647.2xIn 1975, Andy Warhol took pictures of Johnson for his “Ladies and Gentlemen” series. Johnson’s success as an activist and a performer, as well as her regular appearances throughout the decade, earned her the nickname “Mayor of Christopher Street.”

By 1979, Johnson’s mental health was beginning to decline quite severely. Her aggressive side was coming out more often, and a Village Voice article called “The Drag of Politics” listed all of the Manhattan gay bars from which Johnson had been banned. In 1980, a friend named Randy Wicker invited Johnson to stay with him for a particularly cold night and the two remained roommates for the rest of Johnson’s life. This was — as far as I can tell — the first time Johnson had a permanent address since moving to New York in 1963.

In the 1980’s, Johnson began to work with ACT UP as an organizer and marshal, and was a prolific AIDS activist. She made this her primary focus for the last few years of her life. On July 6, 1992 — just after that years New York Pride festivities — she was found dead in the Hudson River with a large wound in the back of her head. The police ruled her death a suicide — despite pressure from the community and the fact that she had a wound in the back of her head. One witness had spoken of Johnson’s fragile mental health to the police — which was all the police, who had no interest in investigating a black queer person’s death, needed despite witness testimonies also describing Johnson being harassed by a gang. Another witness claimed to have heard a man brag about killing a drag queen named Marsha. The police did allow Seventh Avenue to be closed so that Johnson’s friends could spread her ashes out over the river.

In 2012, an activist named Mariah Lopez was finally successful in convincing the police to re-open Johnson’s case and investigate it as a homicide. That was also the year that the first documentary about Johnson was released: Pay It No Mind — The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson. This documentary included footage from an interview that had been filmed only ten days before Johnson’s death. Fictionalized versions of Johnson also appeared in the films Stonewall (released in 2015) and Happy Birthday Marsha! (released in 2016.) In 2017, another documentary was released — The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson — which followed the Anti-Violence Project’s Victoria Cruz investigating Johnson’s death on her own. Despite all of these tributes, it wasn’t until 2018 that the New York Times published an obituary for her.

Johnson — with her friend Sylvia Rivera — will be honored with a monument in Greenwich Village, near Stonewall. This is perhaps most fitting for Johnson, since she was quite insistent about moving the Stonewall monument from Ohio to Christopher Street in New York City in 1992 — famously saying “How many people have died for these two little statues to be put in the park to recognize gay people? How many years does it take for people to see that we’re all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take for people to see that we’re all in this rat race together?”

Johnson may not have “thrown the first brick” at Stonewall, but she led the fight for LGBTQ+ equality in every other way. Randy Wicker said of Johnson that she “rose above being a man or a woman, rose above being black or white, rose above being straight or gay”, while Rupaul described her as “the true Drag Mother.”

So, while we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, let’s all pay plenty of mind to Marsha P. Johnson — and to the other heroes who stood up that day and said “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”

Jackie Shane

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Jackie Shane was an R&B singer who was a sensation in the music scene of Toronto, and was a nationally charting artist in Canada — and broke new ground as an openly queer performer.

Jackie Shane was born in Nashville, Tennessee on May 15, 1940. She would later explain that she began dressing as a girl when she was 5, and that she identified herself as a woman in a man’s body by age 13 — but openly she described herself as gay. Her mother supported her, and Shane would later say she never had any problems in school — at least, not because of her sexuality or gender identity.

As a teenager, she played the drums and was a regular sessions player for gospel and R&B record labels in Nashville. Through this, she met various famous musicians including Jackie Wilson.

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Nevertheless, she was a black queer kid living in the south during the Jim Crow era. In 1959 or 1960, she moved to Montreal — still fully presenting as a man. She was brought by a local saxophonist to see Frank Motley and the Motley Crew perform. Frank Motley invited Shane on stage — and quickly became the band’s lead vocalist. She traveled with them, recording with them in Boston and performing in Los Angeles and Nashville.

Shane moved to Toronto in 1962, where an R&B scene was emerging on Yonge Street, and went solo. Shane’s arrival in Toronto has been described as a “revelation” — her sound was unlike anything else in the city. The way it’s described, she appeared on the scene and instantly became a legend. She was still presenting as a man, though she clothes were becoming more androgynous, and she typically dodged the question of gender altogether when asked. Canada may not have been as oppressive as Tennessee, but they wouldn’t decriminalize homosexuality until 1969 and were decades away from acknowledging transgender identities at all. Her performances had a profound impact on the Toronto Sound and on the queer community and culture that would develop in the city over the next decades.

16jackie-shane1-superjumboFor live performances, Shane was a performer through and through. She would tour with around 20 trunks of outfits, and insert monologues and comedy bits into her songs.

In 1962, Shane released her first solo recording — a cover of the song “Money (That’s What I Want)” with a B-side recording of “I’ve Really Got the Blues.” “Money (That’s What I Want)” was later re-released as the B-side on a recording of “Have You Ever Had the Blues?” The same year, she released her second single — “Any Other Way”, which almost instantly became the #2 hit on Toronto’s CHUM Chart of the top 30 songs being played on local radio stations. It is probably her most famous song.

During live performances of “Any Other Way”, she would add quips that were usually used to underline the subversive subtext of the lyrics “Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay.” (Her live album is available on Spotify and on iTunes, so you don’t even have to take my word for it, you can hear it for yourself.)

“Any Other Way” was followed by releasing the single “In my Tenement”, which did not do nearly as well and only charted in upstate New York. She began to focus on performing and touring, and did not make any new recordings for several years.

In 1965, Jackie Shane returned to Nashville, where she performed “Walking the Dog” on Night Train. I don’t know that this was a particularly huge moment in her life, but there’s video that I thought I’d share.

Two years later, “Any Other Way” was re-released and this time it rose to #68 on Canada’s national RPM chart. This seems to have encouraged Shane to return to recording new music, as she released “Standing Up Straight and Tall” later that year. This was followed by a live album. In 1969, she released “Cruel Cruel World” — this would prove to be her last recording. (Although, some tracks from the live album would later be re-released on the Motley Crew album “Honkin’ at Midnight.”)

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Her prominence began to fade in 1970, and in 1971 she moved to Los Angeles to take care of her mother. She turned down an offer to be part of the band Funkadelic and all but disappeared from public consciousness. Her mother passed away around 1996, and Shane moved back to Nashville.

At this point she literally disappeared for years. Rumors persisted that she had committed suicide or been stabbed to death — in truth, she was just living a quiet life at home. Frank Motley managed to connect with her, and relayed the news that she was alive. Some of her musician friends attempted to reconnect, there were discussions about a reunion tour — and then her phone number was reassigned and she disappeared again.

But she was not forgotten. In 2010 CBC Radio released a documentary about her called I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane. The producers had sent a letter to Shane asking if she would participate — but she never responded, leaving question as to whether or not she was even alive. A 2011 documentary called Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories included Shane. These documentaries were very well received, and the media began attempting to contact Shane for interviews but to no avail.

In 2014, a scout for the reissue record label Numero Group finally managed to reach Jackie Shane by phone, very much alive — although none of her staff had ever even see her face. The scout, Douglas Mcgowan, built a friendship with her over the phone and convinced her to allow his label to re-release her recordings. Though Shane was able to retain her privacy, she was no longer hidden from the world.

Her live album was reissued and shortlisted for a Polaris Award in 2015 (and again in 2016 and 2017). In 2017, her influence on Toronto was remembered in an anthology of essays entitled Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer. That same year, a compilation album of many of Shane’s recordings was released and called Any Other Way. The album was nominated for “Best Historical Album” at the 2019 Grammy Awards.

In 2019, Jackie Shane finally granted an interview to Elaine Banks. The interview was aired on the CBC Radio program Q on February 8. This would be the first publicly broadcast interview Shane had given in decades — and it would also be her last. In February of 2019, Jackie Shane passed away in her sleep. She was found in her home on February 21. She was 78 years old.

You can listen to that interview here.

Ma Rainey

MaRaineyIt’s been a really great month for queer music — we’ve got a new album from country’s first openly gay singer Steve Grand; a new album from British synthpop band Years & Years, led by the openly gay Olly Alexander; and Panic! at the Disco’s lead singer Brendon Urie came out as pansexual. With all this new news, I — of course — wanted to check out some old queer music history. It’s no surprise that led me to the incomparable Mother of Blues herself: Ma Rainey.

Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Georgia or possibly in September of 1882 in Alabama (depending on if you believe Gertrude or the U.S. census — researchers seem generally not to believe her). She was the second of five kids (the other four were pretty definitely born in Alabama — and her parents lived in Alabama. I’m just saying.) At 12 or 14 years old, Gertrude performed at a talent show in Columbus, Georgia and then began performing in black minstrel shows. According to Gertrude, she first heard blues music in 1902. The story goes that she heard a performer singing a blues song at another minstrel show — Gertrude was entranced, committed the song to memory that day, and immediately began using it as an encore to her own performances. Of course, she also claimed to have invented the name of the blues genre (she didn’t) so she’s not always the most reliable source of information. Just sayin’.

Two years later she married William “Pa” Rainey — a traveling comedian and vaudeville performer. Some time shortly after that, she and her husband formed a company called the Alabama Fun Makers Company. The troupe was short-lived, and in 1906 they both joined Pat Chappelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Company where they both performed and became quite popular.

In 1912, the Rabbit’s Foot Company was taken over by F.S. Wolcott. The Raineys stuck with the company for two more years before joining Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza — which billed the duo as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues”. The name stuck, and the two were soon using it on their own without being part of a troupe of performers. Soon after that, Gertrude was getting bookings all on her own — using the name Madam Gertrude Rainey, or “Ma”.

When Ma took the stage, she was a sight to behold — adorned in a diamond tiara, a necklace made out of $20 pieces, rings on each finger, wearing a golden gown with gold-capped teeth. She carried a gun and an ostrich plume. Audiences were enthralled. In fact, even though she was in the deep south, her shows were peacefully integrated between black people and white people. She was sometimes hired by wealthy white people to play private parties, but after every single one of these she would go out dancing and socializing at the local black café.

The Raineys spent winter in New Orleans, where they met a large number of blues performers — including Louis Armstrong, Pops Foster, and another queer blues singer Bessie Smith. (A story later came about that Ma had kidnapped Bessie, forced her to join the Rabbit’s Foot Company, and made her sing the blues but even Bessie’s family denied the story.) In 1916, Ma separated from her husband, ending both their working and romantic relationships.

Her star continued to rise, and in 1923 Paramount Records asked her to record songs for them. With Paramount, over the next several years, she released more than 100 singles and sold so many of them that she has been credited with saving the company single-handedly. The recordings were very popular — but, you know how some performers are better live than if you’re just listening to them? Ma Rainey was universally considered one of those — and audiences became even more eager to see her, and even more excited at her shows.

Ma was not as open about her sexuality as some of the women of early blues — Gladys Bentley for instance — however, she wasn’t in the closet either. In 1925, neighbors called the police when one of her parties became too raucous. The officers arrived just as things were beginning to get shall we say intimate with the all-female group. Ma Rainey was arrested for “running an indecent party” but was bailed out by Bessie Smith the next day. This may have been one reason Rainey’s guitarist Sam Chatmon thought the two were romantically linked.

This incident may have been part of the inspiration for “Prove It On Me Blues”, which Rainey recorded in 1928. The lyrics are a fairly explicitly about lesbianism and of breaking gender norms. As far as I can tell, this was the first recorded piece of music to celebrate a queer sexuality.

“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
It’s true I wear a collar and tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while.”

ma-rainey-prove-it-on-meParamount ran an ad for the song — a drawing of Ma Rainey in a three-piece suit (albeit, with a skirt and heels) and a fedora, talking to a group of women with a policeman watching from across the street. The ad said “What’s all this? Scandal? … Don’t fail to get this record from your dealer!”

1928 was Ma Rainey’s last year as a recording artist. Popular music styles were changing, so her contract with Paramount ended. She toured a little bit longer, before settling down back in Columbus, Georgia. It was about this time (1932) that Sterling A. Brown wrote a poem about her called “Ma Rainey”, describing how powerful her performances were. In her later years, she opened a handful of movie theaters — the Lyric, the Airdome, and the Liberty Theatre. On December 22, 1939, she had a heart attack and died but her legacy continues to this day.

Six months after Ma’s death, Memphis Minnie wrote a tribute song called “Ma Rainey”. It was the first such song, but it would not be the last. In 1965, Bob Dylan paired Ma Rainey with Beethoven in his song “Tombstone Blues”. In 1982, August Wilson published a play about her called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In 1983, Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office released a commemorative stamp in her honor. Ten years later, her song “See See Rider Blues” (recorded in 1924 — you can hear it below) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and was also added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. In 2015, a film about Bessie Smith was released (Bessie) in which Mo’Nique played Ma Rainey, and one year later the First Annual Ma Rainey International Blues Festival was held in Columbus, Georgia. Last year, in the same city, the Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts opened — named after Ma Rainey and Carson McCullers.

In 1952, Langston Hughes released a poem called “Shadow of the Blues”, in which one character proclaims of Ma Rainey: “To tell the truth, if I stop and listen, I can still hear her!” I think we still hear a bit of Ma every time an artist releases a song about queerness — and if that’s the case, I hope we never stop hearing her.

Pulse Shooting

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Pulse with a memorial wall. (Photo credit: Michael Rivera by way of Wikipedia)

I know we all remember it, it’s only been a year, but we have to talk about it. It’s part of our history as much as any of the other tragedies that came before it.  We have to talk about the Pulse shooting in Orlando.

I’m not going to talk about the man who did this — this isn’t about him, this isn’t about giving him attention. While this tragedy needs to live on in our hearts and our minds and has to inform our work as we move our community forward — that monster does not.

It was June 12, 2016 and it was Latin night at Pulse, a weekly event there. And that’s pretty integral to this event. This wasn’t an attack on the entire LGBT+ community. That was an attack on the Latinx members of our community. That intersectionality between two marginalized groups cannot be stressed enough. We’ve all said, since this happened, “It could have been any of us. It could have been me.” I’ve said it, but truthfully, I probably would not have been there even if I was in Orlando at the time. This was an attack on my brothers and my sisters in this wonderful LGBT+ family, and it was a violation of a place I consider sacred and safe, but it was not really an attack on me. That doesn’t make me hurt less, it doesn’t invalidate the fifteen or so times I cried that day or the countless times I cried through the following week, or the tears I cried while I wrote this. It doesn’t take away my grief or my anger or the fear that I felt following the attack — and still feel now.

Last call was at 2 am. It’s estimated 320 people were still inside, music still played. At 2:02 am, Adam Gruler — an off-duty police officer working security at Pulse for extra money — engaged the perpetrator of this attack, but was unable to stop him from entering the club. The perpetrator opened fire inside the club, firing into the unsuspecting crowd. People inside tried to flee the club, or hide in bathrooms or behind bars. A Marine veteran named Imran Yousuf, who was working at Pulse as a bouncer, managed to open a latched door — an act which is credited with saving as many as 70 lives.

The authorities that initially arrived exchanged gunfire with the perpetrator, until they realized he had hostages — roughly 30 people. At that point, SWAT took over and began to negotiate. The negotiations lasted until about 5:02 am, when the perpetrator announced he was affixing explosives to his hostages and intended to detonate them in different corners of the building in fifteen minutes. Authorities breached the building and shot and killed the perpetrator. He was reported dead at 5:17 am.

58 people were wounded. 38 victims were declared dead on the scene, another 11 were declared dead at hospitals in the aftermath. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in U.S. history — although it has since been surpassed.orlando+victims1

I will be writing a little bit about each of the 49 victims — each one of them should be remembered and each of them has a place on this site. Until I’ve done that, here is a really nice memorial to each of the victims from the Orlando Sentinel. I’d also like to leave you with the song “Pulse” by Eli Lieb and Brandon Skeie that is dedicated to the victims and their families:

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)