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! 🙌🏽

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.

Pride: Get to Grips With Some Bona Gay Slang

It’s the third and final article on our Pride series (don’t worry there’ll still be plenty more on LGBTQ history to come!!!!)

Now being gay used to be illegal so a secret language developed that helped all the queers identify each other in a public space without fear of being arrested or having the shite beaten out of you by police.

That secret language was called Polari….lets dive straight in

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Get excited bitches! Via Giphy

Polaris origins are a mish mash of Italian, Cockney rhyming slang, Romany and Yiddish. It started developed within the fairground, seafaring and theatrical communities in the 30s and 40s before being adopted by gay men in the 50s and 60s as a way of socially identifying each other.

If you saw a sexy geezer in your local drinking hole all you had to do was slide over to him and drop a bit of Polari to see if he was also a ‘friend of Dorothy’ For example:

‘Ello dish, nice basket you’ve got for me.’

This translates as: ‘Hello sexy, I like the bulge in your trousers!’

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She knows… Via Giphy

If he was into it he’d probably ask if you were looking for trade… ie THE SEX!

It sounds gloriously camp and theatrical (because it was) and was very much a part of the working class gay haunts in London.

Gay men embraced and played up to the theatricality of the language, both protecting themselves and expressing themselves with a way of communicating that was just for them.

It was popularised in mainstream culture by two comic characters Julian And Sandy in the popular radio sketch show Round The Horne.

Played by Kenneth Williams (him off all the Carry Ons) on and Hugh Paddick. They’d revel in salacious gossiping with the straight man host Kenneth Horne.

SANDY: “Don’t mention Málaga to Julian, he got very badly stung.”

HORNE: “Portuguese man o’ war?”

JULIAN: “Well I never saw him in uniform…”

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Ba-dum tish! Via Giphy

It died out in the 70’s after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Also gay men had to remind everyone else that not all of them were theatrical and camp queens. It is not ONE SIZE FITS ALL or rather one stereotype fits all, so Polari fell out of favour.

So many gay slang terms still used (not always in a good way) come from Polari, like camp, mince, drag, butch (applied to masculine lesbians) and cottaging.

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Yes we are!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Via Giphy

Want to have a go? Here’s some choice words for you to try out. Give us your best Polari!

Basket – The bulge in a dudes trousers.

Bold – Daring

Bona – Good

Buns – Bum

Butch – masculine

Camp – Effeminate

Chicken – A Young Man

Dolly – Pretty

Dish – A sexy man

Eek – Face

Fantabulosa – Wonderful

Fruit – An older gay gentleman

Naff – Not available for fucking

Omi – Man

Omipolone – A camp gay man

Polone – a lady

Riah – Hair

Slap – Makeup

Trade – SEX

Troll – Walking

Vada – To look at

So to use a classic Julian & Sandy line:

‘How nice to vada your dolly old eek’

would basically be ‘Nice to see your pretty face!’

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🏳️‍🌈 Via Giphy

This was interesting, where can I find out more? 

This brilliant short film, set in the 1960’s shows us two men having a conversation in Polari https://youtu.be/Y8yEH8TZUsk

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.

The Baddest Bitch of Stonewall

Marsha P Johnson was a fucking badass. A badass with a big heart, a creative sense of style and a fearless attitude. She was a veteran of the Stonewall riots in the late 60’s, she campaigned for Queer rights and set up a charity to help disadvantaged Queer youth.

The influence Marsha and other trans women of colour had on bringing Queer rights into the mainstream as well as the creation of Pride, protests and change in laws is often ignored or whitewashed by mainstream culture.

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Marsha never missed a protest 💪🏿

Marsha was a child of poverty, she grew up in a rough neighbourhood and moved to New York City from New Jersey when she was 18. Once in New York she legally changed her name to Marsha and started getting the reputation as being the Queen with a big heart.

She was often homeless, hustled to make money (as many trans women had to) and was always getting picked up by police.

The thing I love most about Marsha is her creativity. She was a street queen who could turn any junk into treasure, she was known to put christmas tree lights in her hair and use bits and pieces she found in the trash to make her outfits.

If someone complimented her outfit she was inclined to give it to them. That’s just how she was.

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Our babe Marsha 🙌🏿 Via Giphy

Marsha was at the Stonewall Inn Celebrating her birthday with friends when police raided the bar at 1.40am. The police treated the Queer community like shit and were constantly raiding and arresting people in some of the only available safe spaces they had. So tensions were already high.

Marsha fought back against the police that night and threw a shot glass into a mirror stating she knew her rights thus instigating the riots and protests against their treatment by police that lasted THREE FUCKING DAYS! This became known as the:

‘Shotglass heard around the world’

You don’t come to fuck up Marsha’s party and leave without an ass kicking.

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Damn right bitch! Via Giphy

After the riots Marsha and her friend Sylvia Rivera (another trans activist) founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and they used every penny they had to set up a halfway house for runaway LGBT youth.

Seriously EVERYTHING they made went on clothing and food for the ‘children’ they supported. They were utterly selfless.

They were still often homeless and went without themselves to help their kids. Marsha became known as the ‘Queen Mother’ of the house.

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My kinda Queen Mother 👑

Marsha and Sylvia are heroes and should be lauded as such right? But during one of the first gay pride marches in New York, Sylvia took to the stage to make a speech AND THE AUDIENCE TRIED TO BOO HER OFF THE STAGE!

No, I don’t see the logic her either… but Sylvia wasn’t going to just walk off stage. Bitch turned that crowd around and by the end was leading a mammoth chant of

 ‘GAY POWER!’

Marsha was also often dismissed by other gay rights activists at the time because of her appearance and ‘kooky’ demeanor. She struggled with mental health issues and was in and out of prisons and mental health facilities throughout her life.

Once when she was in court a judge asked her what the P stood for and she replied

‘Pay it no mind.’

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Same. Via Giphy

LEGEND! The judge totally let her off.

Marsha had a varied and incredible life despite her shitty living conditions.

In 1975 Marsha was photographed by Andy Warhol for his Ladies and Gentlemen series. He painted a beautiful picture of Marsha that captured her essence perfectly, our girl looks fucking radiant!

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Marsha and her Warhol portrait.

As if that wasn’t cool enough she started performing in the mid 70’s with Hot Peaches an experimental queer cabaret group.

She was super popular with the audiences and loved being on the stage. She played up to being tone deaf so screamed rather than sang her numbers, AND EVERYONE LOVED IT!

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Marsha scream/singing. Via Giphy

Now, guys I’m really sorry but… Marsha’s story has a really shitty ending.

She was found dead in the Hudson River not long after the 1992 New York Pride march. The death was dismissed as a suicide by the police, but her friends were adamant that there had been foul play.

There’d been sightings of Marsha being harassed in the street the night she went missing. But hey, she was black, gay and trans so they didn’t give a toss.

Marsha’s case was finally reopened in 2012 which was 20 WHOLE YEARS after her death thanks to a campaign by transgender activist Mariah Lopez (another total badass, who opened the first transgender housing unit for Rikers Island, the largest American Prison in 2014.)

Marsha’s funeral had hundreds of mourners and they threw her ashes in the river along with bunches of bright flowers. She was known for having flowers in her hair, so this gesture gets us right in the feels.

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😭 Via Giphy

Her friend Sylvia was bereft without Marsha, but this bitch was tough. She carried on campaigning and helping disadvantaged LGBT youth until her death from liver cancer in 2002.

We love Marsha, she was an incredible woman who was full of life and love for everyone. We could all do with being a bit more like her tbh.

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Beautiful Marsha. Via Giphy

This was really interesting! Where can I find out more? The documentary Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P Johnson is on Youtube and it is much watch stuff!!

But please, we beg you… DO NOT USE THE HOLLYWOOD FILM, AS A REFERENCE! The film, Stonewall, is a whitewashed steaming turd of a mess (obvs our opinion, but…)

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.

The Baddest Queer Bitches in History

It’s Pride Season and we’ve already started planning our outfit for London & Brighton Pride (hint… RAINBOW-LEOPARD PRINT-GLITTER) SO lets celebrate everything LGBTQ+! To kick things off here are some of our favourite queer ladies.

Sappho

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Sappho with Erena – Simeon Solomon

You cannot start a list about history’s greatest queers without mentioning Sappho. She was a Greek poet who lived on the Island of Lesbos (sign me up) around 615 B.C. Sappho wrote about her love for many a woman and was one of the highest regarded poets of her lifetime.

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Sorry,…Mrs Fancy Pants         Via Giphy

Plato called her ‘The Tenth Muse’ which was a massive compliment at the time. The other nine muses were the Greek Goddesses of Art & Science; so he thought Sappho was a pretty big deal.

There’s an argument between historian’s as to if Sappho did have relationships with women or if her poetry was just about her dearest ‘gal pals’. Only fragments of her poems survive and since she lived a really fecking long time ago we can’t ask her.

Personally I think her poems evoke a deep sense of love and sexual longing for her female subjects that goes way beyond the ‘female admiration’ lots of male historians like to think Sappho had for platonic pals.

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Presented without comment… Via Giphy

See what you think for yourself. Here’s an extract from Sappho 94 translated by Julia Dubnoff:

“For by my side you put on

many wreaths of roses

and garlands of flowers

around your soft neck.

And with precious and royal perfume

you anointed yourself.

On soft beds you satisfied your passion.”

……HELLA GAY!

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So so so gay.

Later history mocked and destroyed her work. It was denounced by the church and was ridiculed by poets and playwrights who wrote her off as a sexual deviant or a tragic character. But finally our girl is getting her rep back!

Sappho is the mother of lesbians and her influence cannot be argued with.

Mabel Hampton

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Mabel was a staunch activist and LGBT+ historian, she was instrumental in recording and preserving queer history, especially the experience of living as a gay, black woman in America during periods of huge upheaval.

Hell… Mabel IS the reason we know so much now. The Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York are full to the brim thanks to Mabel. She was a bit of a hoarder.

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Yikes! Via Giphy

She had a pretty tragic upbringing, her Mum died not long after giving birth to her and her Grandmother followed a few years later. She was raised by an abusive Aunt & Uncle before deciding ‘Fuck this, I’ve had enough’

She moved to Harlem and worked as a dancer during the Harlem Renaissance (see our blog post on this INCREDIBLE movement.) And she was a regular at Harlem drag balls; an early celebration of queer black identities during the roaring 20’s.

She left showbiz and started work as a cleaning lady. When asked why she left behind the glitz and glamour she famously answered

‘Because I like to eat.’

I have never related to a statement this hard.

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Fo realzies. Via Giphy

Mabel publicly declared herself as a lesbian during a time when being black alone made you heavily persecuted, but gay too?! THE LADY WAS BRAVE!

She met her partner Lillian Foster at a bus stop in 1932 describing her as: dressed like a duchess’. They were together until Foster’s death in 1978. Serious relationship goals.

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Mabel and Lillian spent their lives documenting their experiences as a lesbian couple. They helped set up the Lesbian Herstory Archives and Mabel & Lillian donated hundreds of newspaper clippings, gay books, photographs and other paraphernalia to the archives.

Mabel gave a speech at the New York Pride Parade in 1984 stating to the crowds

‘I, Mabel Hampton, have been a lesbian all my life, for 82 years, and I am proud of my people. I would like all my people to be free in this country and all over the world, my gay people and my black people.’

She was incredible. We were lucky to have her.

Anne Lister

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Possibly our fave on this list, Anne (born in 1791) was seriously rich…like MTV Cribs level minted. Her family owned a bunch of land in Halifax, West Yorkshire and they were desperate to marry her off to some rich oik to keep that money rolling in. ANNE WAS HAVING NONE OF IT!

She inherited fancy country house Shibden Hall from her uncle, immediately built herself a posh new library and decided to live openly with another super rich babe Ann Walker. She’s lucky Ann came along when she did because the money was running out at that point.

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Via Giphy

She was known locally as ‘Gentleman Jack’ for the way she dressed in male clothing. She tended to wear sensible black jakets, with no frilly business. Our girl was a Georgian butch. She kept coded diaries which tell us pretty plainly that Anne was very definitely a lesbian.

‘I love & only love the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.’

Her diaries were coded, she thought we’d never crack it, but thank feck we did because these diaries are SO JUICY! Anne had mad game and went through a lot of high societies ladies.

Here are some of our fave snippets

‘But I mean to amend at five & thirty & retire with credit. I shall have a good fling before then. Four years. And in the meantime I shall make my avenae communes, my wild oats common. I shall domiciliate then.’

So she wanted life to be like a big gay 18-30 holiday. Can’t argue with that.

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Same. Via Giphy

‘I begin to despair that M- & I will ever get together. Besides I sometimes fancy she will be worn out in the don’s service & perhaps I may do better.’

M was Mariana Lawton, who was the love of Anne’s life. She married a rich old dude, which devastated Anne as she wanted to live with M as her partner. Their affair carried on for a while after the marriage, but it fizzled out a few years later.

Much of the info we have on Anne’s diaries is from Helena Whitbread, another incredible woman working to preserve lesbian history. THANK YOU HELENA!

Marlene Dietrich

Dietrich!!

Marlene is one of my favourite old Hollywood starlets. This German had a mind like a razor and cheekbones to match, plus she looked fucking amazing in a suit.

She made androgynous dress sexy and alluring. Up till this time most women dressing as drag kings was done very much for laughs or in the sanctity of queer spaces underground. Marlene brought it to the mainstream.

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YASSSSSSSS BISSSSSSSSH!         Via Giphy

Dietrich was a German silent film actor in the 20’s before moving into talkies and raking it in with her ‘exotic’ looks and fabulous accent. During this time period the gay scene in Berlin was happening, hip, where it’s at etc.

Marlene bloody loved a drag ball, as she was openly bisexual, and could frolic with all the young ladies she could get her hands on. At these parties she learnt how to rock the fuck out of a three piece suit.

In the late 20’s/early 30’s she got her big break in Hollywood films where she usually played a sexy cabaret singer of some kind. In one of her most famous films, Morocco, (where she plays a sexy cabaret singer) Marlene dresses in a fancy very masculine top hat and tails suit (PHWOR!) during one of her numbers and at the end sneaks in a kiss with a young lady! SCANDAL!

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She kissed a girl AND she liked it. Via Giphy

She just about got away with it because American’s assume us Europeans are a passionate and sexually charged lot.

This theme of taking on masculine traits was something she embraced with gusto, training as a boxer in a sweaty gym in Berlin owned by a Turkish prizefighter. She enjoyed boxing and followed the sport throughout her life.

Marlene was known to have a network of Hollywood starlets she had affairs with, she referenced this overlapping group as Marlene’s Sewing Circle. I’m going to sew this onto my biker jacket right now.

Later in life she said some stupid shit (women’s lib was ‘penis envy’…) so she’s a pretty problematic favourite. But she was a real pioneer. Drag Kings and androgens owe her a debt of thanks.

Billie Holiday

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The Lady of the Blues is one of the most recognisable voices in the world. Billie had a tragic and abusive upbringing after which she then spent most of her adult life battling a serious addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Billie had relationships with many women but her most well known was with actress Tallulah Bankhead. It was a volatile relationship which was always on again, then off again, THEN ON. We’ve all been there.

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PREACH! Via Giphy

While Tallulah was starring in Noel Coward’s Private Lives on Broadway Billie had a contract singing in New York’s Strand Theatre. Tallulah would sneak in and watch Billie performing after her show finished. That’s sweet innit?

However the breakup went bad. Billie was arrested for opium possession and Bankhurst bailed her out, then got her into therapy. They parted ways soon afterwards, but things did not stay civil.

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Stay down bitch! Via Giphy

Billie was working on her memoirs, which included mentioning her friendship with Bankhead, but Talullah maintained she’d never even met Holiday (despite lots of evidence to the contrary) and she sent a letter to Billie’s publishers threatening to sue unless she was taken out of it.

Billie sent back an amazingly shitty letter to Bankhead reminding her that she had people around who could back up her story and she wrote-

‘And if you want to get shitty, we can make it a big shitty party. We can all get funky together!’

Mic drop. Holiday out.

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BOOOOOOOOM! Via Giphy

So that’s some of our fave historical queer ladies.

We’ll be doing more posts on LGBTQ+ history during Pride season, we’ve got Marsha P Johnson & the Stonewall riots up next week!

Who do you want us to write about?!

Answers on a post card…or in the comments.

Alternatively gives us a shout on the F Yeah History Twitter and Facebook 


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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