Norena Shopland celebrates a few of the remarkable people from Wales who have helped shape international LGBT history.
Pick up any book on the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people in Britain and you’ll only find a couple of index listings for Wales. One is usually Gerald of Wales with his descriptions of ‘a novel form of marriage’ between two men, and accounts of bearded women and intersex people. The other is invariably Edward II who when deposed by Queen Isabella fled to Caerphilly with his supposed lover Hugh Despenser. Edward was forced to abdicate and Hugh was executed - his coat of arms in Cardiff Castle still hangs upside-down as a sign of disgrace.
Other than that Wales rarely gets a mention which is surprising because the influence of Welsh LGBT people has been enormous. So, as February is LGBT History Month Cymru, here are just a few of the remarkable people from Wales who helped shape international LGBT history.
The 17th-century Anglo-Welsh poet Katherine Phillips was the first widely celebrated female poet in Britain and much of her poetry depicts romantic relationships between women. The most famous lesbian couple in the world are the 19th-century Ladies of Llangollen. Hot on their heels were Frances Power Cobbe, a prolific 19th-century social reformer and writer who lived with her partner Welsh artist Mary Lloyd in Dollgellau. Both the Ladies and Frances and Mary had vast social networks which included people like Gladstone and Charles Darwin.
For men it was harder to live openly. The death penalty for male homosexuality was not revoked until 1861 – gay women were never subject to the draconian laws that suppressed gay and bisexual men. It is only after 1861 that more information is available about these men – and then usually if they were rich. Evan Morgan, the 2nd Viscount of Tredegar, was flamboyantly gay in the early 20th century as was screen idol Ivor Novello. Henry Paget, the 5th Marquess of Anglesey (known as the ‘Dancing Marquess’) was also referred to as ‘most notorious aristocratic homosexual at this period’.
Others found their sexuality more of a struggle. Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, wrote many poems with homoerotic themes and Rhys Davies, the novelist and short story writer, never wrote about his sexuality. The results of discussing homosexuality were evident when bisexual poet Edward Prosser Rhys caused a storm of controversy with his 1924 Eisteddfod winning poem 'Atgof' (Memory) which openly discussed gay sex.
As society became more sexually aware in the 1950s and 60s life didn’t always improve for LGBT people. Cliff Gordon, the Welsh writer who discovered Shirley Bassey, was arrested for an ‘improper act’ and his life fell apart. He ended up in Rome as a drinking partner to Caitlin Thomas, wife of Dylan Thomas, and died at the early age of forty-four. Angus McBean was one of the most famous photographers in Britain – he photographed many celebrities of the day - yet he spent four years in prison for being gay.
In the 1950s people were beginning to ask what the point was of a law against homosexuality, and it was Desmond Donnelly, MP for Pembrokeshire, who called on the government to set up a Royal Commission. The following year Sir John Wolfenden was asked to set up this commission but it was committee member Goronwy Rees, described as the most lateral and perceptive member, to whom people turned. A straight man, he had been at Oxford where, along with Cambridge, homosexuality was more openly displayed – it was to Goronwy that Guy Burgess confessed he was a spy. The Wolfenden report recommended a partial end to homosexuality being a criminal offence but it was ignored. Five years later it was the flamboyant Welsh lawyer Leo Abse who took up the baton and pushed the recommendations into the Sexual Offences Act of 1967.
For transgender people one of their great champions is Jan Morris, a renowned Welsh travel writer who went abroad in 1972 to have sexual reassignment surgery as it was not available in the UK. She wrote her memoirs in Conundrum – now a classic work. Later, when reassignment surgery was made available in the UK, it was Welshman John Randell who established the clinic in Charing Cross where all transsexual people in Britain must still go for surgery.
The list goes on – people such as Jaci Taylor, the first open lesbian mayor of a British town; Russell T. Davies and Sarah Waters, who both write openly about sexuality; Gareth Thomas and Nigel Owens – lone voices in the homophobic world of sport; and James Wharton, the first openly out soldier in the army.
So, does Wales need Pride? Yes – we need to celebrate all those people who fight for human rights and diversity, and events such as LGBT History Month Cymru and Cardiff Mardi Gras give us that opportunity. We need to tell their stories and record that for such a small country we’ve played a huge role in the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the world.