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: Stormé 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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Stormè working security outside The Cubby Hole

Stormé 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 Stormé 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 Stormé. 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

Stormé 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 Stormé called Stormé: 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.

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 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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