Queer Quickie: Chavela Vargas

Chavela (born Isabela Vargas Lizano) was a famed Costa Rican singer, she was a HUGE influence on Latin American music from the 1950s onwards.

She was known for her soulful & INTENSE gravelly voice, her ability to hold her drink, her reputation with women and her incredible artistic output.

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Seriously… HOW HAWT IS SHE?!?!?! 😍

She was born in Costa Rica in 1919 and never really knew her parents, being raised by relatives in the countryside. Chavela wanted more, she bided her time until she could move to a big city. So as soon as she hit her teens she packed up all her shiz and moved to Mexico!

The Ranchera Queen

Now Chavela knew she was a talented singer so she started off busking and singing in the streets before going professional when she hit 30.

She was known in Mexico for singing ranchera style, which was typically male dominated and focused on songs about love and loss. So she dressed as a man, carried a pistol and sang traditional songs WITHOUT CHANGING THE LYRICS – SO SHE WAS SINGING LOVE SONGS TO AND ABOUT WOMEN!

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Get it grrrl! đŸ™ŒđŸœ

She was a darling of the arts scene in Mexico and was obviously a HUGE hit with the ladies. Vargas slept with a lot of women, openly having a string of affairs. In fact, it was rumoured she bedded Hollywood starlet Ava Gardener after singing at Liz Taylor’s wedding!!!

In 1961 Chavela recorded her first album, Noche de Bohemia (Bohemian Night) and just kept on rolling. She recorded over 80 albums (that’s right 80!) in her lifetime! Always keeping it traditional and staying true to her ranchera roots with a mariachi band sound.

In the 70’s Chavela retired from music after a decades long battle with battling alcoholism. She was taken in by a Native American family (who btw had no idea who she was, they were just super nice) and they nursed her back to health.

Don’t Call It a Comeback

Chavela’s music had a resurgence in the 1990’s thanks to famed filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who was a massive fan and put her and her music in load of his films.

Most notably she appeared in his 2002 film Frida, based on the life of artist Frida Kahlo, who incidentally Chavela had an affair with (we told you she had a lot of lovers!) 

Chavela described Pedro as her artistic soulmate and she credited him with making her more accepted in Mexico, where she had struggled with opposition to her homosexuality.

Though it was considered common knowledge Chavela liked the ladies, she only officially came out at the grand old age of 81!!! Her fans all reacted with a ‘Yeah, we know, and we love you!’

This revelation came out of her autobiography And If You Want to Know about My Past.

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The LEGEND who lives on through her music. 

She left a helluva legacy when she passed away at 93, her last words were said to be

‘I leave with Mexico in my heart’

She showed it doesn’t matter when you come out, you can still live as your authentic self and embrace queerness at ANY age.

That was interesting, where can I find out more: Listen to her albums! Seriously, her voice is GORGEOUS. And read her autobiography, it’s fascinating and JUICY. There’s also a wonderful documentary on her by Catherine Grund & Daresha Kyi simply entitled Chavela.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

Queer Quickie: Christopher Isherwood

Christopher Isherwood was an Anglo-American writer famed for his semi-autobiographical novels The Berlin Stories that recounted his experiences living in The Wiemar Republic (aka Germany).

These novels gave birth to the most fabulous of stage shows CABARET! Made famous by the faboosh 1970’s Liza Minnelli film.

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Isherwood in 1976

I’m Coming Out

Christopher was born on August 26th 1904 in the North of England on his family estate near Manchester. Now by the fact he lived on his families estate, you’ve probably ready guessed that Christopher’s family were minted. And though this meant he was lucky enough have a very privileged upbringing, it was also incredibly suffocating!

His family had his entire life planned out for him, so little Chris was packed off to boarding school and then sent to Cambridge university, to chase his mothers dreams of him becoming a university Don.

This wasn’t what Christopher wanted 

And it wasn’t just his career plans that we’re different. Isherwood knew from an early age he was a homosexual and had dalliances during his boarding school and university days; worried about his families reaction, he kept his sexuality secret from his family.

Then in 1925 Christopher managed to get himself kicked out of Cambridge by writing joke answers to his exams.

A huge disappointment to his parents, he worked a series of odd jobs as a private tutor, before starting work on his first novel All the Conspirators.

Weimar Berlin

In 1929 Isherwood moved to Berlin. The Weimar Republic was a hot pot of culture and sexuality, so you know that Christopher threw himself straight in and started embracing his queerness.

He finally openly pursued romantic entaglements with men and fell in love with a beautiful young man named Heinz.

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He Man knows…

Isherwood’s most famous works came from this Berlin Period.

Of these, Mr Norris Changes Trains came first in 1935, which follows a narrator’s friendship with a mysterious man who has all manner of unsavoury entanglements during their time in Berlin. The second novel Goodbye to Berlin was published in 1939.

But the most famous of his stories around this time was about a cabaret singer called, Sally Bowles.

That name sounds familiar right? Well that’s because the character of Sally Bowles was adapted for the stage, first as a play called I am a Camera (1951) and then into a musical ‘Cabaret!’ (1966), which was immortalised in the 1971 Liza Minnelli flick. 

However, Isherwood distanced himself from Cabaret, claiming he recognised little of his work in it, but it opened his work to a new audience! Meaning…

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Money money MONEY!

Heinz and Christopher left Berlin in 1933 and floated around Europe while Christopher kept writing.

However, their happiness was short lived as Heinz returned to Nazi ruled Germany in 1937, where he was arrested as a draft dodger.

The relationship broke up, though the pair did maintain contact after the war up until 1976.

America Calling

In 1939 Christopher moved to the United States permanently, entranced by it’s promise of freedom and prosperity for all.

He was an instant hit with Californian literary circles and quickly settled into the Hollywood lifestyle.

Then on Valentine’s Day 1953 Christopher went on a trip to Santa Monica beach where he was introduced to 18-year-old artist, Don Bachardy. Christopher was 48 at the time, but he fell madly in love with Dan.

Still, there was no getting around that creepy age gap, it was weird, and people were scandalised.

Not to mention that, the relationship was tempestuous to start.

Christopher encouraged Don to explore his sexuality and his art, but was also prone to intense jealousy; meanwhile Don felt his artwork was overshadowed by his relationship with Christopher.

Yet, this turmoil created another magnificent work from Christopher; his next novel A Single Man, about a lecturer who is mourning the death of his partner.

The book follows the man around for a day noting his interactions and connections with all manner of people. The university is a multi-ethnic campus and despite the language being very dated, the book argues for a progressive multicultural society.

Thankfully after this, Christopher and Bachardy’s relationship became more stable and they both encouraged each other in all their artistic endeavours, whilst maintaing the importance of having time away to themselves.

They had a problem though – they wanted to get married and have all the legal rights that come with being a spouse.

However, it wasn’t legal. Meaning, Christopher couldn’t set up Don with his estate, to look after him when Chris inevitably died earlier (hi again age gap!)

So they got around that legal-ish by…

CHRISTOPHER ADOPTING DON!

Yup. They did that.

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That’s one way to get around it…

Post adoption/marriage gate, Christopher returned to Berlin in his works one more time with Christopher and His Kind in 1976.

In it he details his time in Weimar Germany and his affair with Heinz. He considered it his contribution to gay liberation as he was SO candid and open about his sexuality.

BUT Heinz was so shocked by the book he never spoke to Christopher again!

Shortly after this last major work was published, Christopher passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1981 at aged 81.

His legacy lives on, through his novels which focus on periods of gay history that were tempestuous and full of changing attitudes.

That was Interesting. Where can I find out more? His novels are still in print and The Berlin Stories is a great place to start. It looks at a fascinating time in history. There’s also a brilliant documentary called Chris & Don: A Love Story that looks at the relationship between Isherwood and Bachardy.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

Queer Quickie: StormĂ© DeLarverie

Happy Pride month to all our LGBTQIA+ readers! Last year we celebrated Marsha P Johnson and this year we want to celebrate Pride even more, so all this month we’ll be bringing  you some of the most incredible players in the fight for LGBQTIA+ rights!

Lets kick things off with the story of stone cold butch babe Stormé DeLarverie.

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StormĂš working security outside The Cubby Hole

StormĂ© was known in LGBT circles as the ‘Lesbian Rosa Parks’ she fought against ‘ugly’ (her term for bigotry and hatred) for her entire life and always looked out for others.

There’s a StormĂ© coming

She was born in New Orleans in 1920 to her mother, an African American servant and her father, who was head of the white family her mother worked for. Her parents eventually married and moved to California.

In her teens Stormé realised 2 major things:

A) that she was a lesbian

B) she had a talent for singing and keeping a captive audience.

During the 1940s Stormé toured with a jazz trio as the singer. Stormé started performing in drag around this time and made quite a name for herself as an accomplished Drag King in queer cabaret circles.

She also performed as part of the Jewel Box Review, a drag cabaret, which featured predominantly drag queens and one drag king; our gal Stormé.

Stormé spent the rest of the 1950s and 60s crooning jazz numbers to enthusiastic queer crowds

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In full King mode – Doesn’t she look dreamy?

Stormé and Stonewall

Things started to get real rough for StormĂ©. You see, in the late 60’s there was a relentless campaign against Queer hot spots in New York City by the police and tensions were at an all time high.

On June 29th 1969 Stormé was hanging out near the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, having recently come back from touring with the Jewel Box. She was having a wonderful time, drinking and socialising with her mates.

Suddenly police descended on the Stonewall Inn. They forced their way into the bar at around 1.20am and started forcefully dragging patrons outside. The police molested lesbians, beat up young men who resisted arrest and refused to show identification (cross dressing was ILLEGAL then)

Stormé saw one of her friends being assaulted by police. She was not having it. She fought back and threw a punch at one of the policemen, after he assaulted her.

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No comment needed

Stormé was then handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police van, but she kept escaping amidst the chaos. She complained her handcuffs were too tight and she was beaten about the head with a baton.

Bleeding and being dragged back to the police van again Stormé addressed the growing crowd directly.

‘WHY DON’T YOU DO SOMETHING?’

The crowds outside started to fight back against the police AND SHIT KICKED OFF!

Speaking later about the Stonewall Uprising she said

“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience–it wasn’t no damn riot.”

Don’t forget she was nearly 50 when she fought back against the police. She was known for being lovely, but tough as fucking nails.

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Truly Stormé is the baddest of all bad bitches.

Stormé: The Later Years

After Stonewall Stormé was an important member of the SVA, The Stonewall Veterans Association, she was a key figure in NY Pride often appearing with her car, which was well known for being parked outside the gay bars in Greenwich Village and was actually outside Stonewall Inn the night of the riots!

She settled in Brooklyn, New York in her later years, giving up touring and promptly appointed herself protector of lesbians within Greenwich village in NYC. 

Stormé would patrol round the local LGBT hot spots checking everyone was ok. She did this well into her 80s.

She was a much loved and familiar face as a bouncer to local gay clubs. She greeted everyone with ‘Hey babies’, or ‘Hey love’ and always encouraged everyone to get home safe.

Stormé was full of love for her community.

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She is the best

StormĂ© passed away in 2014 at the grand old age of 93, and was an inspiration to so many people, myself very much included, showing us that displaying kindness didn’t mean you couldn’t be tough and fight for what you believed in.

That was interesting where can I find out more? Well there’s a short documentary on StormĂ© called StormĂ©: Lady of the Jewel Box and you can find it here on YouTube! It’s about her time working on the Jewel Box Revue and shows her working as a bouncer in the 80’s.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

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