How Gay is my Valley

Wales and homosexuality are hilariously incongruent. That was the received wisdom turned on its head to elicit sniggers in the BBC sketch show Little Britain. The supposedly subversive ‘joke’ was summed up by the catchphrase “I’m the only gay in the village,” liltingly lisped by a podgy fairy in skin-tight rubber hot pants while all around same-sex couples canoodled without a qualm. Since, in English/British paradigms, homosexuality is automatically modish and sophisticated while Wales is automatically backward and provincial, the two identities must be mutually exclusive – ipso facto, how amusing: gays in Wales!

Actually, the joke is on writers/performers Matt Lucas and David Walliams for getting both phenomena so very wrong. Homosexuality is no more a signifier of anything than heterosexuality, or shoe size for that matter; and Wales is now, and always has been, an advanced and liberal society – and in fact a very gay place indeed. You want proof? OK then; here, in chronological order, is a list of the gays who made Wales, and the Welsh who made gayness. *

BUDDUG (c20-c60) The 1st century Celtic queen of the Iceni (aka Boudicca/Boadicea) is still the ultimate example of the strong, brave, independent woman who can do just fine without a man.

●ST DAVID (c500-589) The relics of the patron saint of Wales are intermingled with those of his close friend and confidant Justinian. David regularly visited Justinian at his Ramsey Island men-only enclave where they would stand around together in ice-cold water to subdue their sexual urges. Like you do.

DAFYDD ap GWILYM (c1320-c1370)  A master of complex stresses, rhymes and metres, Europe’s greatest medieval poet was wielding lucid idioms and juicy vocabulary with an almost modern poetic sensibility when English was still merely a few monosyllabic croaks. The bisexual innovator patented the examination of male sexuality with autoerotic odes like Cywydd y gal (In praise of the penis).

MARGED ferch IFAN (1696-c1788)  From Dyffryn Nantlle in the mountains of Gwynedd, 6ft tall Marged was a champion wrestler and weightlifter (plus boatbuilder, carpenter, harpist, blacksmith, hunter, innkeeper, ferry operator, musical instrument-maker, bridge-builder and cobbler!) who could still out-wrestle any man when in her 70s – conclusively proving that the icky-wicky, pinky-winky, girlie-wirlie “femininity” foisted on women today is nothing more than cultural conditioning.  

THE TWO LADIES OF LLANGOLLEN  Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1832) scandalised and titillated when they eloped together to  Wales in 1778, where they cohabited openly in beautiful Plas Newydd near Llangollen for nearly 50 years and virtually set the template for self-improving, self-sufficient rural lesbianism. Easy-going locals had no problem with this pioneering civil partnership more than 200 years before the British State could bring itself to condone such things.

THE REBECCA RIOTERS  Between 1839 and 1844 the oppressed farm labourers of southern Wales frocked up before going out at night and tearing down the toll gates of the English landowners, thus becoming the first to conflate radicalism with drag.

GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS (1844-1889) What does a sensitive, obsessive-compulsive, uptight Catholic boy from London do when he’s tormented by his illicit same-sex longings? Why, he retreats deep into the Clwyd countryside, goes native, learns Welsh and invents a new poetic language that synthesises Anglo Saxon rhythms and Welsh sound effects. And lo, those sinful thoughts are suppressed and contemporary poetry is born.

HENRY PAGET (1875-1905)  There has never been a more profligate man than the 5th Marquis of Anglesey. He wrote the manual. Compared to him Elton John (£250,000 a year on cut flowers) behaves like a Trappist monk. I am spoiled for examples of his off-the-scale silliness: he had his cars modified so the exhaust pipes expelled L’eau d’Espagne perfume; he owned 260 pairs of kidskin gloves; he had the biggest collection of precious stones and jewels in the world; he never went anywhere without his pack of toy poodles, chows and pugs dressed in pink ribbons; he converted the chapel at the family’s country seat, Plas Newydd near Llanfairpwll, into his own personal theatre modelled on the Dresden Opera House called ‘The Gaiety’…I could go on – suffice to say, from inheritance at age 23 to bankruptcy six years later he managed to blow an income (at today’s values) of £55 million per year plus a remortgage windfall of £150 million on sheer frippery. He died alone, of pneumonia, in the Hotel Royale, Monte Carlo, reduced to cheap scent and bling but queening it to the very end.         

GWEN JOHN (1876-1939)  The Tenby-born painter created the prototype of the ascetic, incorruptible woman’s woman who lives for her art, not to mention her cats.

●MARGARET MACKWORTH (1883-1958) The Newport-born daughter of coal baron David Thomas (1856-1918), owner of the lucrative Cambrian Collieries at Clydach Vale, was born not so much with a silver spoon in her mouth – more like a whole box of cutlery. That wealth afforded her a freedom she certainly made the most of in an adventurous life advancing attitudes as a first-wave feminist. Following a lavender marriage to Sir Humphrey Mackworth (1871-1948), which soon ended in divorce, she became renowned as a radical suffragette and did time on hunger strike in Usk prison after attempting to blow up a  Newport post-box (still there in Risca Road). During WW1 she was on board the Lusitania with her father (by then Lloyd George had made Merthyr’s long-time Liberal MP Viscount Rhondda) when it was torpedoed in 1915 crossing the Atlantic – 1,198 lost their lives, but Margaret and dad survived. After he died, as Viscountess Rhondda, she campaigned long and hard to win the right for women to enter the House of Lords (she never won that battle, but her determination paved the way for the unelected second chamber to eventually admit women just a month after her death). Meanwhile she founded the highly influential leftwing feminist Time and Tide magazine, ran over 30 companies inherited from her father and became the first woman president of the Institute of Directors – and throughout she lived openly in a lesbian relationship, firstly with Helen Archdale (1876-1949) until they split over Mackworth’s ever-rightward political trajectory (just like her father), and subsequently with her partner to the end Theodora Bosanquet (1887-1961).

●KATE ROBERTS (1891-1985) From the embattled slate-quarrying community of Rhosgadfan in Gwynedd, Kate Roberts rose to the highest echelons of European literature with elegant, profound prose exploring humanity in extremis, most powerfully in her 1936 masterpiece Traed Mewn Cyffion (Feet In Chains). She originated both the industrial and the domestic novel in Welsh and decades after her death is still the pre-eminent figure of modern Welsh fiction. Roberts was also a vital component in the formative years of Plaid Cymru and, with her gay husband Morris Williams (1900-1946), founded the Gwasg Gee printing press in Denbigh, integral to the creation of a Welsh publishing sector. She was equally influential in her private life, a pioneering bisexual whose fluid, flexible domestic arrangements were years ahead of their time, anticipating the live-and-let-live freedoms of today.

WILFRED OWEN (1893-1918)  From the border town of Oswestry, and very conscious of his Welsh roots, Owen defined the doomed generation of WW1 with some of the most powerful anti-war poetry ever written, a stream of work uncorked following his relationship with fellow-poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967).

EVAN MORGAN (1893-1949)  The Morgans could trace their venerable lineage back to Rhys ap Gruffydd (1132-1197), lord of Deheubarth famed for his successful 40-year fight against the Norman invaders. They survived all the vicissitudes of the centuries to scale the British peerage and hang on as a powerful dynasty with vast land holdings and commercial interests – but they couldn’t survive Evan, the 2nd Viscount Tredegar. The bitchy, high-handed, petulant narcissist splashed the lot on attention-seeking extravagances and crackpot, proto-fascist occultism. After he died the Tredegar line came to a shuddering halt and the estate had to be broken up. His hedonism, superficiality, irresponsibility and disengagement from wider society put him years ahead of his time; marking out a path followed by many a gay man since.     

IVOR NOVELLO (1893-1951)  Cardiff’s most famous son was gladly gay long before there was any such thing as “coming out”. Composer, film and stage actor, playwright and idol of millions worldwide for over 35 years, Ivor was at the hub of the era-defining circle (Coward, Sassoon, Maugham, Gielgud, Beaton et al) that constructed the pre-liberation public image of gay men (posturing in silk dressing-gowns while exchanging clipped bon-mots and toying with absurdly long mother-of-pearl cigarette holders). It’s down to Ivor that the association of gay men with glamour and glitz was embedded in public consciousness – a thoroughly mistaken stereotype gays are still saddled with – but how perfect that the very rallying-cry of chest-beating heterosexuality, “Me Tarzan, you Jane”, came from his queer pen!

RHYS DAVIES (1901-1978) Prolific writer (over 100 short stories and 18 novels) who fled the “heavily masculine” world of Blaenclydach as soon as he could for the comparative freedoms of inter-War London. There, in the smoky bohemian Soho underworld, he elegantly distilled the Welsh valleys experience for an English readership while helping lay the foundations of a gay urban aesthetic: the adventure of fleeting encounters and ricocheting ideas out of which all subsequent notions of gay consciousness have developed.       

EMLYN WILLIAMS (1905-1987)  Gifted actor and dramatist from Mostyn who explored territory where no-one else had dared to go by outing himself with relish in his 1961 autobiography, making life a little easier for a whole generation of gays under the impression they were “the only one”, and paving the way for every subsequent celeb confessional.

BINKIE BEAUMONT (1908-1973)  Never forgetting a slight, or a favour, scabrously witty, puckishly charming, impossibly snobbish and utterly self-assured, Binkie Beaumont (real name Hughes Griffiths Morgan from Cardiff) was the quintessential theatrical impresario. He dominated London’s West End for 40 years, having no fewer than 14 productions running simultaneously in his heyday.  You didn’t work in the West End if you fell out with Binkie, the original, never-surpassed, precious Luvvie.  

GEORGE THOMAS (1909-1997)  Despicable, scheming, fawning, cruel mother’s boy who manoeuvred his way into the heart of the British State to become House of Commons Speaker. The sanctimonious, lily-livered hypocrite kept a veritable harem of rough trade one-night-stands on his payroll to buy their silence, while simultaneously bible-bashing as a Methodist lay preacher. A textbook example of the corrupting, corrosive consequences of both Cymruphobia and the closet, Lord ToryPansy made it his life’s work to deny Wales any morsel of devolution and died a broken man just a few days after the ‘yes’ vote in the 1997 devolution referendum. There is a God!   

DYLAN THOMAS (1914-1953)  Only Wales, poetry’s Ground Zero, could have produced such a figure. No other English-language poet since Shakespeare has inspired such a vast posthumous industry, and no other bohemian’s blueprint for life has been as enduringly influential. He would sleep with anyone for a drink or a square meal: contradictory drives that were at the heart of his epic alcoholism.

DOROTHY SQUIRES (1915-1998)  She was born with nothing in a Carmarthenshire field and she died a penniless recluse in a Rhondda rooming-house. In between, the barking mad torch singer clawed her way up the showbiz ladder and then threw it all away magnificently in a frenzy of ostentatious spending, self-indulgent vendettas and ill-advised litigation, thus securing her permanent place at Camp’s top table.    

LEO ABSE (1917-2008)  Dynamic, dapper, quirky Pontypool MP Abse painstakingly piloted the landmark 1967 Sexual Offences Act through Westminster and thus set in train the decriminalising of male homosexuality first outlawed in the British Isles by the Buggery Act of 1533. It took a secular Welsh Jew to do it. 

RICHARD BURTON (1925-1984)  Richard Jenkins took the name of his gay teacher and mentor Philip Burton (1904-1995) and went on to become box-office gold and the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, his sonorous, lyrical voice personifying Wales to the world and permanently associating the Welsh accent with the essence of theatricality. His distress at his gay impulses fed his alcoholism and drove him to seek out abusive relationships with women, none more high profile than serial lavender bride and doyenne of fag-hags everywhere Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011), with whom he founded the cult of celebrity coupledom and invented the custom of very public personality disintegrations.

JAN MORRIS (1926-)  Passionate Welsh republican and superb travel writer, historian and essayist who underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1972, changing from James to Jan with the minimum of fuss and more or less singlehandedly drawing up the transgender rulebook. 

CARWYN JAMES (1929-1983)  A visionary rugby union coach for Llanelli and the British & Irish Lions, revered for the creative, attacking play he fostered, as well as a poet, lecturer and Plaid Cymru activist, the brilliant polymath was as out as it was possible to be in the stifling straightjacket of his era. He died alone in an Amsterdam hotel room before he had a chance to tackle the issues.

●VICTOR SPINETTI (1929-2012)
Exuberant, witty, multi-talented Spinetti from Cwm first made his name at the influential Theatre Workshop of Joan Littlewood (1914-2002) in Stratford, east London. In the 1960s he appeared in all the Beatles films and went on to forge a long, eclectic career on stage and screen. Another brave gay pioneer, he unapologetically lived openly with his partner, bit-part actor Graham Curnow (1930-1997), for over 40 years.

SHIRLEY BASSEY (1937-)  It says a lot about Cardiff, capital of Wales, that the single most famous person it has spawned in 2,000 years is the girl from Tiger Bay, the undisputed, matchless icon of knowing Camp. There’s not a drag queen on Earth who didn’t cut her teeth to a Burly Chassis rendition of Big Spender.    

JOHN DAVIES (1938-2015)  Responsible for the greatest book of Welsh history ever written (Hanes Cymru, 1990; A History of Wales, 1993), so, of course, he was gay.

BRUCE CHATWIN (1940-1989)  Restless, randy, English travel writer who became emotionally attached to Wales by making the connection between the shared outsider status of Welshness and gayness. This identification inspired his masterpieces In Patagonia and On the Black Hill before he became one of the earliest high-profile men to contract AIDS.

TOM JONES (1940-)  Ponty’s finest has taken his knicker-collecting, hairy-chested, medallioned sex-beast persona to such extremes of self-parody that he’s managed to fatally undermine machismo and reposition it squarely where it always truly belonged, in the Camp camp.

TERRENCE HIGGINS (1945-1982) Europe’s biggest HIV/AIDS charity is named after Haverfordwest’s Higgins, whose friends set it up after he was one of the first to die of an AIDS-related illness.  A Welshman is thus the very symbol of the inspiring collective activism that, while governments did nothing, transformed HIV from the tabloids’ ‘gay plague’ to today’s treatable condition.        

JEFFREY WEEKS (1945-) Rhondda’s Professor Weeks’ searingly intelligent academic analyses of gay history make him the most significant intellectual working on sexuality and the founding father of Queer Studies.        

RON DAVIES (1946-)  As Welsh Secretary in the Blair government he was the architect and driving force behind Wales’ first crumbs of autonomy for 500 years, but sadly he was symptomatic of that generation who would do anything rather than admit to their sexuality and was forced from office after a legendary “moment of madness” on Clapham Common in 1998. Ron’s phrase went into the lexicon of implausible explanations and, after a subsequent episode at another cruising ground, so too did “looking for badgers”.   

SIMON HUGHES (1951-)  In 2006 the senior LibDem provided us with the definitive guide to How Not To Come Out: unwillingly, via shrieking headlines in The Sun a few days after categorically denying it, and 25 years after winning the notorious Bermondsey by-election by whipping up virulent homophobia against Labour candidate and gay rights activist Peter Tatchell. Cheshire-born Hughes identifies as Welsh through ancestry; most likely a subconscious displacement strategy, siding with the underdog to compensate for living a lie for so long.

JEFFREY JOHN (1953-)  Who better to split England’s established church asunder than a Welshman from Tonyrefail? In 2003 the Dean of St Albans was the first person in an open same-sex relationship to be nominated for a Bishopric (not a typo). The predictable furore prompted the vacillating Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (the first Welshman to be Primate of All England) to block the appointment – and the Anglicans’ kinky obsession with gay sex has preoccupied them ever since. Let there be light refreshments.     

SEAN MATHIAS (1956-)  Theatre and film director from Swansea best known for directing Bent, Martin Sherman’s harrowing landmark 1979 play about the Nazi persecution of gays (an estimated 50,000 died in the concentration camps). Mathias’s then boyfriend, Ian McKellen, starred as hero Max, a role that would embolden him on his personal journey out of the closet, via publicly outing himself in 1988 to oppose the Tories’ viciously homophobic ‘Section 28’, and all the way to Sir Gay, today’s Much-Loved-National-Institution. Mathias and McKellen are still pals and co-own a groovy pub in Limehouse.

NIGEL EVANS (1957-)  This archetypal gay Tory from Swansea, the MP for Ribble Valley in England since 1992 after repeated rejections by Welsh voters, perfectly embodies Conservative thinking: live a double-life in the closet, support every anti-gay measure, feather your nest, climb the greasy pole, happily reap the gains won for you by other gays over decades of struggle and then, when it’s risk-free, come out. There’s a word for this: cowardice. What Evans fails to grasp is that everyone knew he was gay all along – the quiff was the giveaway.    

STEVE STRANGE (1959-2015)  Up in London at the start of the punk era, Steven Harrington from Newbridge insisted on being that bit more shocking than anyone else, singing Free Myra Hindley with his dreadful band Moors Murderers before acting as the New Romantics’ figurehead with synthesizer project Visage, taking cross-dressing and black mascara to new levels of tackiness and repackaging timeless teenage sullenness for a fresh batch of dysfunctional kids. In Ibiza in the 1980s he oversaw the sea-change as clubbing replaced disco and was midwife to the trance and rave movements. Heroin addiction, nervous breakdowns, obscurity back with his poor old mam in Porthcawl, a bust in Bridgend for shoplifting a Tellytubby (of all things!) and finally an early death from a heart attack dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s to complete a career arc of flawless rock’n’roll disrepute.

CHRIS BRYANT (1962-)  They don’t count the Labour vote in the Rhondda; they weigh it. Bryant’s been MP since 2001, but his impregnable majority is gradually being whittled away by Plaid: not because of his habit of posing in his off-white y-fronts touting for action on Gaydar, nor due to him being the first to get married in a civil partnership ceremony at Westminster – it’s simply that he’s a Blairite in Corbyn clothing.  

RUSSELL T DAVIES (1963-)  Über-gay from Swansea whose drama series Queer as Folk was the first to present contemporary gay men in a realistic way. His revival of Dr Who brought two rarities, a queer sensibility and Welsh locations, to prime-time UK telly, underlined by spin-off Torchwood with its bi hero and fetishised Cardiff setting.

PAUL BURSTON (1965-)  Card-carrying Supergay from Bridgend who has entirely immersed himself on Planet Gay as journalist, author and organiser of Polari, “London’s gay literary salon”. Burston largely set the parameters that limit so many modern gay men; vacuous gym bunnies tattooed to within an inch of their life and spectacularly missing the point that the whole aim of gay lib was to render your sexuality irrelevant not make it every waking moment’s only imperative.     

MARC REES (1966-)  In the vanguard of contemporary dance, Rees weaves sound and video into his often naked performances, howls of protest against depoliticised stag’n’hen conformity and the continuing repression of gays. In so doing, he triggers a breakthrough perception: gay men are the ‘natural’ men; it is the manufactured ‘masculinity’ of straight men that is the aberration.

SARAH WATERS (1966-)   Her exuberant 1998 novel Tipping the Velvet shook lesbian fiction out of the clichés of heaving bosoms and thwarted desires, while also reviving an evocative Victorian metaphor for cunnilingus. She’s Welsh too, from Neyland.

ADAM PRICE (1968-)  Highly effective, openly gay Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East & Dinefwr between 2001 and 2010 who led the campaign to impeach Blair for war crimes before leaving the discredited Westminster circus for a research fellowship at Harvard University. In Massachusetts he produced forensic reports showing how being part of the UK actively impoverishes Wales and then he returned to Welsh politics as the AM for the same constituency in 2016. The Senedd is all the better for his passionate intelligence, which daily exposes the mediocrity and mendacity of the intellectual pygmies on the Labour, Tory and UKIP benches.

BERWYN ROWLANDS (1968-) Anglesey’s Rowlands founded the Iris Prize in 2007, the world’s largest gay and lesbian short film-making competition, held annually in Cardiff in a fab 4-day festival of LGBT creativity. Prior to that, as chief executive of Sgrîn Cymru, the dynamic internationalist patriot had established student moving image event Ffresh, the Wales Screen Commission and the National Screen & Sound Archive of Wales.   

RODNEY BERMAN (1969-)  The Glaswegian LibDem was leader of Cardiff Council, Wales’ biggest employer, between 2004 and 2012 and was instrumental in it becoming a beacon of equal-ops excellence. On the Pollyanna wing of his party (All’s well with the world and God is in His heaven), his civil partner is ex-ITV Wales reporter Nick Speed.  

JULIEN MacDONALD (1971-)  If it’s High Camp you’re after, nobody does it like the Welsh. You expect screaming queenery in the fashion industry but Merthyr’s MacDonald, whose haute couture frocks hang on the likes of Naomi Campbell and Paris Hilton, has ratcheted it up to new altitudes.   

NIGEL OWENS (1971-)  As the only openly gay rugby union referee, indeed the only openly gay referee operating internationally in any sport, Llanelli lad Owens inspires and emboldens unsure young gays globally.     

GARETH THOMAS (1974-)  Scratch a macho man and you often find a gay underneath – when you’re trying to keep the lid on, trad manliness consoles and justifies. What better smokescreen than brutal contact sport rugby union: you can stick your head up another bloke’s arse with impunity! So when the ex-captain of Wales, with 100 caps and 41 tries, came out in 2009 the reaction in Wales was a universal “I could have told you that years ago” followed by a “so what?” As the first openly gay professional male athlete in a team sport ‘Alfie’ then went from the deepest recesses of the closet to Pink Hero at the head of the Gay Pride march in no time at all. With those calves he should have no problem finding a boyfriend – especially when he takes his dentures out…

RUTH HUNT (1980-) In 2014 Cardiff Catholic Hunt became Chief Executive of Stonewall, Europe’s largest LGBT rights organisation. She was rated the 3rd most influential gay person in the UK in the 2015 ‘Rainbow List’.

And I haven’t even mentioned that bloke off the telly who does the weather. Of course, as most gays are not hampered by that foe of creativity, sapper of energy and drainer of resources, in the memorable phrase of Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) “the pram in the hallway”, any country’s list of influential individuals will include many gays. But only Wales can claim to have had such a disproportionate influence on the nature of gayness itself. Why? I have a theory. For centuries both Welshness and homosexuality were mercilessly penalised and systematically discouraged by statute. It took a conscious effort of will to embrace such identities and run counter to the rewarded and encouraged default identities: British and heterosexual. Only those with the necessary courage, stamina, imagination and brains risked it rather than opt for the easy life by anglicising or “straight-acting”. Hence, when Wales and gay overlap very special people emerge – to the benefit of Wales, and the benefit of the world.    

 

*Non-inclusion on this list should not be taken to presume heterosexuality; inclusion should not be taken to imply homosexuality