Tag Archives: LGBT

Matthew Flinders – hello, sailor!

SPECULATION about the sexual orientation of iconic English seaman Matthew Flinders rose like a colourful maritime flag over a decade ago when previously unknown letters surfaced, including emotionally charged passages written by Flinders to fellow explorer George Bass.

In his 2007 Meanjin article “Exploring love: did they or didn’t they?” historian Garry Wotherspoon asserted: “If the excerpts from Flinders’ letter to Bass had been written to a person of the opposite sex, we would be in little doubt as to what sort of relationship it was or what kinds of hope and expectation it had once contained”.

“It’s time to shift perspective and explore the homophobia Matthew Flinders encountered.”

“We would probably even confidently presume a sexual component in it, a basis in physical feelings if not actions. The possibility of a physical side to or a sexual element in Bass and Flinders’ relationship should therefore be acknowledged and considered.”

In the years since, little acknowledgement or consideration has been given to the sexuality of either man.

NAVIGATING HOMOPHOBIA Matthew Flinders (1774-1814).

Historians are invariably baffled by Flinders in particular. Many of his extraordinary reactions lead them to describe such moments as out-of-character; but for anyone genuinely wanting to understand him, it’s time to shift perspective and explore the homophobia Matthew Flinders encountered.

Both Lincolnshire-born, Bass and Flinders met on a voyage to Australia in 1795 onboard the HMS Reliance. Once in the new colony, the two made a series of expeditions together. First it was short trips along waterways close to Port Jackson. Eventually, onboard the Norfolk, they circumnavigated Tasmania.

It’s tempting to paint all kinds of Brokeback Mountain-style possibilities for two unmarried men isolated on vessels in far-flung locations.

“There was a time, when I was so completely wrapped up in you, that no conversation but yours could give me any degree of pleasure …” Flinders wrote to Bass towards the end of this period, “And yet it is not clear to me that I love you entirely …”

Both men returned to England on separate ships in 1800 – the year of Flinders’ ‘love’ letter – and were married within six months of one another.

Bass soon left on a trading mission to the southern hemisphere in January 1801, leaving Flinders’ letter at home, where Mrs Bass – Elizabeth – had plenty of time to consider its contents and form the response she penned onto the letter itself.

“This, George, is written by a man who bears a bad character … no one has seen this letter but I could tell you many things that makes me dislike him,” she wrote.

Her warning was given during a major turning point in Flinders’ life.

He shocked his friends and family by responding to a suggestion of marriage from a friend, Ann Chapelle, who he’d discouraged in previous letters.

HMS sloop Investigator in 1802.
MARRIAGE VESSEL HMS sloop Investigator.

Then he went so far as to invite her to return to Australia with him, keeping the reality of the Admiralty’s strict rules on wives from her until she was forced to get her things off the HMS Investigator and let him embark.

What the speed and the controversy of the marriage achieved was widespread gossip within the Admiralty and his circle that painted Flinders as a fervently married man.

Any Brokeback-style expeditions were off the cards in the following years for Bass and Flinders, whose paths did not cross again. Bass captained the Venus on trading jobs to New Zealand and Tahiti, while Flinders completed the first circumnavigation of Australia.

By the time the Investigator docked in Sydney in 1803, Bass had departed on the Venus bound for Tahiti and South America on a voyage for which there remains no known end – the ship and her crew all disappeared completely.

Flinders also had problems returning to his wife, when, in December 1803, he was arrested on the island of Mauritius, a French-held colony.

Much has been made of Flinders’ seven-year imprisonment at the order of Mauritian Governor Charles Decaen. The records revolve around spying accusations against Flinders and his incorrect passport, understandable concerns considering the English and the French were at war.

But what if homophobic whispers had pursued Flinders to the southern hemisphere? 

By the time Flinders limped into Mauritius in his damaged schooner the Cumberland, Decaen had heard of Monsieur “Flandaire”, probably from French captain Nicolas Baudin.

French captain Nicolas Baudin.
CORDIAL CAPTAIN?  Nicolas Baudin.

Baudin and Flinders had two previous encounters onboard Baudin’s ship, the Géographe, off the coast of southern Australia in early 1802.

After much flag-raising and shouting, when Flinders pulled the Investigator next to Baudin’s vessel and boarded, the men had the stilted, competitive discussion about charts and landmarks that has become folklore in the maritime history of both nations.

Researchers Jean Fornasiero and John West-Sooby had another look at the accounts of the Flinders-Baudin meetings in their 2005 essay A Cordial Encounter?

“Certain discrepancies between the accounts of the two captains are difficult to explain,” they wrote. “These have generally been attributed to communication difficulties between the French navigator and his English-speaking counterpart”.

“This assumption, however, is far from self-evident. We have thus chosen to canvass the full range of possible explanations for the conflicting accounts of that meeting, including the hypothesis that Flinders, who is generally considered a reliable witness, may indeed have misrepresented his encounter with Baudin.”

But the one possibility they neglected was that Nicolas Baudin knew a homosexual when he saw one.

“Flinders ‘spat chips’ at Decaen for keeping him against his will.”

Eleven years prior to this encounter, the French Revolution recognised the existence of homosexuality when it left consensual, private sexual relations between two men out of the French Penal Code of 1791 (and again in 1810).

Before this, gay men could be burned at the stake if caught in sexual acts. As a consequence of the change, they were generally free to be themselves in public.

Compare that with Flinders’ place of birth, where, at the time of his meeting with Baudin, Henry VIII’s Buggery Act of 1533 still listed sodomy as a hanging crime. Consequently, writing love letters would only have been for the extremely courageous.

Baudin arrived in Mauritius, and died there of tuberculosis, just months before Flinders’ incarceration. Its doesn’t require a great leap to imagine him describing Flinders to Decaen as “pédéraste pétulant” instead of “un navigateur qualifiés”.

We do know Flinders ‘spat chips’ at Decaen for keeping him against his will, from letters the French Governor received from the explorer.

Decaen requested Flinders dine with he and his wife on the second day of Flinder’s detention. Flinders, who’d refused to remove his hat when he met the Governor, declined the olive branch and kept to his prison room dusting-off more missives.

His responses were so stinging that the Governor never repeated his invitation and kept this bird in a cage for a further seven years. 

The cage wasn’t entirely austere for Flinders – trips to the theatre and stays with local aristocrats, and parole for extended periods, took place in a civilised French colonial society which tolerated any gay rumours and allowed him to pass the time writing.

But Decaen maintained his personal control over Flinders’ detention, even contravening Napoleon’s 1806 directive to free the Englishman. The Governor’s excuse was the kind of blanket term used to beleaguer Oscar Wilde: Flinders was dangerous.

After his release and return to England in 1810, where he continued writing on his many groundbreaking explorations, Flinders’ ill health brought about his untimely death at the age of forty.

Yet his remarkable achievements resulted in inexplicable omission from the ranks of the Royal Society, the Admiralty’s old boys’ club that may, like Baudin, Decaen and Mrs Bass before them, have suspected the truth.

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.

Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords

A small town boy’s Hollywood secrets: Orry-Kelly

CLAIM TO FAME Kiama Blowhole.
CLAIM TO FAME Kiama Blowhole

JUST about everyone I knew as a kid went to Kiama for the school holidays.Apart from its famous blow-hole, through which the ocean mysteriously forces a geyser-like spray to the delight of tourists, there is nothing extraordinary about this sleepy town which has all the caravan parks, bait shops and holiday rentals of every town on the south coast of NSW.

At the back of my mind on a nostalgic return trip a decade ago was Kiama’s most famous son, the three-time Oscar-winning costume designer, Orry-Kelly.

I half expected to see a worn plaque on an old civic building, or perhaps a statue. After all, it’s not every day an Australian from a small town wins three Academy Awards.

But there was nothing. I joked about the oversight with a lady at the well-stocked charity shop at the town centre, and she looked at me as though I was slightly unhinged.

Remembering Orry-Kelly comes with a pretty big Hollywood revelation.

The facts about Orry-Kelly (1897-1964) are undeniable.

In his lifetime he became, like Adrian, a one-name icon of movie couture. Barely a leading lady worth her salt would grace the screen without passing through his Hollywood fitting room from the 1930s until the 1960s.

KING ORRY Orry 'Jack' Kelly (1897-1964).
KING ORRY Orry ‘Jack’ Kelly (1897-1964).

Bette Davis reportedly would not make a film without him. Responsible for some indelible movie outfits, like the fringed black number Marilyn Monroe’s shimmied so effectively in with her ukulele in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, Orry-Kelly was Hollywood royalty.

In that era, a result of sodomy laws that were not repealed in California until 1962, Orry, or ‘Jack’ Kelly, as he was known to his friends, sat on one of the worst kept secrets in movies.

He was, like many a ladies’ costumier before and since, gay.

Although Kiama, and Australia, did not forgot Orry-Kelly for that reason alone.

HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot (1959) sporting an Orry-Kelly original.
HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot (1959) sporting an Orry-Kelly original.

Since Australian Lizzy Gardiner won an Oscar for her costumes for The Adventures  of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Catherine Martin broke Orry-Kelly’s fifty-year reign as our Oscar record-holder for her work on The Great Gatsby, in film and design industry circles, Kelly has been well-remembered.

But remembering Orry-Kelly comes with a pretty big Hollywood revelation, one which has undoubtedly contributed to his relative anonymity in the country of his birth, because Kiama’s forgotten son knew another Hollywood icon, loved and lived with him, long before they both made it big on the silver screen.

The young fellow was a British born vaudeville performer called Archie Leach, whom Kelly met after leaving Kiama and heading for New York, when Jack was 24 and Archie was just 17.

The two shared an apartment with Charlie Phelps (a “hermaphrodite performer” under the stage name ‘Charlie Spangles’, according to writer W.J. Mann) and lived a rather romantic-sounding existence in the gay subculture of Greenwich Village.

Tall and handsome, Archie quickly got work in Broadway musicals. Jack wanted an acting career too, although his design skills were quickly employed on everything from movie titles to bathroom.

The two were lovers, until Archie eventually headed for the west coast and changed his name, on the way to becoming one of Hollywood’s most enduring leading men: Cary Grant.

LEADING MAN Cary Grant (1904-1986).
LEADING MAN Cary Grant (1904-1986).

Jack followed, and reinvented himself as the hyphenated Orry-Kelly, costumier on over 200 movies, winning Oscars for An American in Paris, Les Girls and Some Like it Hot in the 1950s. Amongst his truly iconic films was one of cinema’s greats – Casablanca.

The public difference between the two men’s careers remains Grant’s five marriages.

Nevertheless, their friendship remained deep enough for Grant to serve as one of Kelly’s pallbearers after his 1964 cancer-related death, alongside actor Tony Curtis and directors George Cukor and Billy Wilder.

His eulogy was delivered by movie mogul and friend, Jack Warner.

This was admiration indeed, but was it also simply necessary for friends to step-up in the absence of family half a world away in the southern hemisphere?

Despite the distance he put between himself and his home town, connections to Kiama ran deep for Orry-Kelly. Outfitting was in his blood – his father, William Kelly, a tailor from the Isle of Man, was a clothier in the coastal town.

After his father’s death, Orry-Kelly returned to Kiama briefly to his family home, which was above his father’s shop.

And his name was no Hollywood fake – ‘Orry’ was to remember the great Manx King Orry, a name which William Kelly, and Orry’s mother, Sydney-born Florence Purdue, gave not only their son, but also a hybridised Carnation flower.

Orry-Kelly’s life story is on the brink of taking its rightful place in our consciousness with the release of Director Gillian Armstrong’s documentary Women He’s Undressed, and the much-anticipated publication of Kelly’s ‘unpublishable’ autobiography.

Although the story of the making of the doco, to be released by Umbrella Entertainment, might prove to be as interesting as the documentary itself.

FITTING TRIBUTE Tony Curtis and Orry-Kelly in a costume fitting for Some Like it Hot (1959).
FITTING TRIBUTE Tony Curtis and Orry-Kelly in a costume fitting for Some Like it Hot (1959).

Telling Orry-Kelly’s story would have been a hollow exercise without his memoir to fill in the gaps between the many myths about his life, but access to it was a slow process for the filmmakers.

Lying uncatalogued in the Warner Brothers’ research library for five decades, the manuscript possibly came into that company’s hands after Kelly’s death, when certain of his personal items – including his three Oscars – were granted to Jack Warner’s wife, Ann.

But due to reported legal concerns expressed by the estate of Cary Grant, who died in 1986, the manuscript languished because it apparently detailed Kelly’s relationship with the screen idol.

Warner Brothers now owns some of Cary Grant’s most famous films, including The Philadelphia Story, one of his breakthrough ‘leading man’ roles.

Only one other copy of Kelly’s memoir came to light, after a long search within his remaining family in NSW, secreted in a pillowcase in Kelly’s great niece’s home in the Hawkesbury region north-west of Sydney

Gillian Armstrong made light of the coincidental nature of both copies coming to her attention in the same week, during the period when financing the film that will  out both Cary Grant and address a lingering omission in Australian history, was looking far from certain.

In Archie Leach’s birthplace, the English city of Bristol, a statue was unveiled in 2001 for the vaudeville performer who became Cary Grant, one of Hollywood’s most beloved idols who regularly features in the top 5 of ‘favourite movie stars of all time’ lists. His widow, Barbara James, performed the unveiling.

Since my visit to Kiama, an art gallery remembering Orry-Kelly has opened it’s doors, but Kiama never had anything to worry about – their most famous son didn’t pretend to be anything he wasn’t.

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.

Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords

A nation up to speed on HIV/AIDS

WORLD STAGE The International AIDS Conference came to Melbourne this week.
WORLD STAGE The International AIDS Conference came to Melbourne this week.

By Michael Burge 

THE world has been watching Melbourne this week as the city hosts the 20th International AIDS Conference. Despite initial reports from the event focusing understandably on the delegates killed by the missile attack on their flight over eastern Ukraine, the conference agenda hit the airwaves visibly on this week’s episode of QandA.

As a result a range of new and unfamiliar language has been presented to mainstream and social media audiences. From ‘Sero-Discordant Relationship’, ‘PEP’, ‘PrEP’, ‘TasP’, ‘ART’ and ‘PMTCT’ to phrases like ‘heteronormative’ and ‘men who have sex with men’, Australians have been getting a higher-than-average dose of HIV/AIDS-related vocabulary.

There are many other new elements to HIV/AIDS.

Unfortunately the word use is not coming with enough interpretation. ‘Conference-style’ or ‘industry-speak’ acronyms and sound bites occur in every sector, but with its ‘Stepping Up The Pace’ mission statement, this particular conference and its media delegates could have done with more plain talking and less weasel words to get the important messages about HIV/AIDS through to the communities they are seeking to engage.

With new HIV infection levels in Australia at a 20-year high, one of those communities is surely ours.

The international conference has a focus on tackling new infections and raised questions about the direction new HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns should take, considering the scare-factor of the Grim Reaper ad campaign of the late 1980s, and new data which reveals the 96 per cent protection rate for sero-discordant sexual encounters if one of the partners is being treated with ARV.

If you’re confused it’s no wonder. I thought I knew plenty about HIV/AIDS, but, like writer and HIV activist Nic Holas who was on the QandA panel, I am torn about whether this should be an opinion piece or a community service announcement.

One of the terms the conference has chosen to focus on is ‘Men who have Sex with Men’ (MSM), although the focus is mainly on this HIV/AIDS risk group overseas.

“It is a key objective of the 20th International AIDS Conference to shine a light on those men who have sex with men, sex workers, transgender people and people who use drugs who do not have the same access to treatment, care and prevention as their western colleagues may do,” UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé said at the start of the conference.

Ever since the phrase was coined in the 1990s as a means of de-stigmatising HIV infections which were the result of heterosexual men who engaged in sex with other men, it has sat rather uninterpreted outside the HIV/AIDS community.

But is it effective when addressing Australians in the media?

To answer that it’s important to underline that MSM does not mean ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’, in fact the term was invented to shield MSMs from any hint of ‘gay’.

Many in the gay community have sexual encounters with MSMs in sex-on-premises businesses (read: ‘saunas’ and/or ‘bathhouses’) or at beats (read: ‘public toilets’, although beats are also located at road-stops, sports fields, and can often crop-up right in the high street at bookshops or other businesses).

It doesn’t take long at a gathering of gay men for the stories about baby seats in the backs of cars at beats, or wives dropping husbands at saunas, to enter the conversation with an awkward mixture of laughter and understanding. MSM do not identify as ‘gay’ and they (and therefore their heterosexual sexual partners) remain at very high risk of HIV infection, in part because they tend not to get tested regularly.

Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) is a mouthful, but it’s also something the Australian community could develop a greater understanding of. Available at most hospital emergency departments, and essential to start before 72 hours have passed since exposure to the HIV virus, PEP is a four-week course of anti-HIV medication with a decent success rate.

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) is similar, but it’s engaged as a means of preventing HIV infection. Sero-discordant couples (when one partner is HIV positive and the other is HIV negative) are in the demographic which can benefit from PrEP, including couples who are trying conceive a child while protecting the uninfected partner from contracting HIV.

Treatment as Prevention (TasP) is an approach to HIV prevention which acknowledges that a sexual partner taking antiretroviral (ARV) medication has a greatly-reduced viral load (the amount of HIV virus in body fluids). It’s important to acknowledge that ARV’s side-effects means this form of treatment program is not for everyone.

TasP has made a significant difference in Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) of HIV during breastfeeding.

Heteronormative’ is a term that has often cropped-up in HIV/AIDS debates, generally at the queer theory end of the spectrum, and it’s used to tackle the assumption that gender and sexual orientation fall into fixed categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ according to abstract ‘laws of nature’ that have led to the shaming of same-sex attracted people.

DIY TEST HIV self-testing kit.
DIY TEST HIV self-testing kit.

Such stigmatising only increases the conditions in which higher rates of HIV infection occur, no matter which country you live in.

There are many other new elements to HIV/AIDS, from home testing and rapid testing at clinics (which have the potential to ensure a higher rate of MSM testing), to new measures for assisting the ongoing health of long-infected PLWHA (‘People Living With HIV/AIDS’).

It’s a veritable alphabet of acronyms which many LGBTQI (there we go again) remain grateful for because this kind of language aims to avoid assumptions of ‘victims’ and blame.

While it’s tempting for Australians to believe that HIV/AIDS in a third-world issue, that we have tackled the problem, and there is plenty of good news to get our heads around, the issue of how to communicate that message without an increase in new HIV infections is now one of the main HIV/AIDS challenges facing Australia. I believe unlocking the acronyms will help.

Further information about HIV/AIDS and rural communities.

This article first appeared in No Fibs.

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.

Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords