Let’s start with the Second World War (1939-1945). Many Anglo-American commanders, except the silliest, ignored LGBT goings-on in the Armed Forces. American commanders who didn’t ignore them sent the men (for they concentrated on the men) home to the USA with discharge papers that told prospective employers the reason why they’d been removed from the War, willingly or unwillingly. ‘Blue Angels’, they called themselves, the returning servicemen, after the colour of their discharge papers.
Many stayed where the returning ships landed them, joining the old peacetime LGBT communities of the great American port cities of New York and San Francisco. This was in preference to going home to their families, who were taught in those days to consider all gay people ‘perverts’. From the numbers of ‘perverts’ who settled in the ports, and from the renewed persecution of them by post-War police, in succession to Military Police, rose the American Gay Liberation Front of the 1960s, declaring pride and self-worth – forerunner of today’s worldwide LGBT campaigning.
The Lavender Menace
Phew! I remember the Second World War. When I was four, living on Richmond Hill in Surrey, Hitler tried to kill me, sending a flying bomb from his slave-factories at Peenemunde. It went by our windows, and flew on, to kill someone further off.
Then came the Cold War (1947-1991) when communism, led worldwide by Russia, confronted capitalism, led worldwide by the USA. Politicians in Washington invented a ‘Lavender Menace’ – a fictitious conspiracy of LGBT people with American government jobs to betray ‘the free world’ to communism. Hundreds of LGBT people were sacked and their lives ruined with false charges and America asked Britain to help attack LGBT people.
The result was a ‘gay witch-hunt’ in Britain in the 1950s. The peacetime government of Sir Winston Churchill, the Second World War British Prime Minister who’d had an openly gay male Private Secretary for much of his early political life without minding a jot, allowed the gay mathematician Alan Turing, one of Britain’s greatest war heroes, to be driven to suicide in the course of the witch-hunt. The government hoped for even more legal power against LGBT people than it had already. It commissioned an enquiry, the Wolfenden Report of 1957, named for the former headmaster of Shrewsbury who chaired it. The report was supposed to advocate more jailings. Instead, Wolfenden told the government it should lay off LGBT people, and should reduce the powers the police and courts had to jail us merely for being what we are.
Campaigning for decriminalisation
Phew again! I was 16. Some LGBT people were fantastically defiant, such as the openly lesbian columnist at the Daily Mirror, Nancy Spain from Newcastle (1917-1967), who played hockey for England; and her openly gay fellow-journalist Beverley Nichols (1898-1984, ‘Cleverly Tickles’ to friends). He’d served in the war in the Arctic Convoys and after that didn’t give a damn about anyone’s opinion. Most of us were timid in the 1950s. Every immigrant community knows what that’s like. You aren’t treated for what you are, but for your skin colour, your faith, your disabilities, your sexual orientation or your identity. In America, men who had sex with men were routinely called ‘pinko Commie fags’, ‘pinko’ meaning both ‘Left-wing’ and ‘girly’ (not a term of praise). In France, despite no laws against us, we were ‘pédés’ (not a term of praise), in Spain ‘maricóns’, and in Britain ‘queers’.
Nobody in any political party in Britain did anything about the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee. So on 7 March 1958 a gay teacher, Tony Dyson, contacted endless eminent figures shocked by the treatment of individual LGBT people and got them to write to The Times calling on ‘humane men of all parties’ (‘men’ only mentioned in those days!) to see that ‘legislation to give effect to the proposed reform’ be passed ‘at an early date’.
A famous archaeologist who was bi, Jacquetta Hawkes (1910-1996), loaned her flat for meetings of a resulting LGBT pressure group – the historic Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS), that had to be fronted by generous S (for straight) people. Two others who loaned their home for meetings were the gay pacifists and Quakers Len Smith and Reiss Howard (a Canadian). They risked provoking local police but Len had already been imprisoned in the WWII as a conscientious objector so was unfazed.
A Sheffield-bred gay man called Edgar Wright (1927-2010), who’d been traumatised in his youth by the hostile atmosphere in which LGBT people had to grow up in England, had sworn at uni in the 1940s that he would ‘do whatever I could to fight the iniquitous laws which had destroyed the genius of Oscar Wilde and brought untold misery to many thousands of otherwise blameless men.’ In 1962, required by his mother to use a pseudonym and choosing Antony Grey, he took over day-to-day running of the HLRS’s dingy offices in Shaftesbury Avenue, in a building since torn down, and began campaigning up and down the country for what was to be become the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.
Others campaigning included Yorkshire woman Esme Langley (1919-1991) who with Diana Chapman quietly launched a revolution in British publishing by creating Arena Three by and for lesbian and bi women in 1964. Another key figure was a Lancashire-born gay working-man, Alan Horsfall (1927-2012), who – also in 1964 – created the LGBT organisation that was to become the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, giving social space to LGBT people in small communities and calling for an end to the then police powers over our bodies.
I met Antony Grey when I was a schoolboy with no more idea that I’d be gay than the nymph of the damselfly knows she’ll have four wings. It was at a building near Downing Street where my father worked in the steel industry and Antony was a researcher. We next met at the Gay Liberation Front.
On 27 July this year we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the day the Queen consented to the first reduction in British legal hatred of LGBT people for 106 years. Prior to that, things had always got worse. The previous improvement, in 1861, merely altered the maximum sentence for sodomy from the death-sentence to life imprisonment.
By 1967, I was 25 and getting into all sorts of trouble, like being robbed by two straight boys from Manchester. At lunchtime on Thursday 15 October 1970, the Gay Liberation Front reached London, taking, amid gales of laughter, direct nonviolent action against homophobes and transphobes.
Correction: This article was originally published with incorrect attribution to Peter Scott-Presland. Schools OUT UK and LGBT History Month apologise profusely for this mistake and republish it here in full with this correction.