Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 1997

Heterosexual Dictatorship, by Patrick Higgins

reviewed by Antony Grey

Patrick Higgins is, he claims, the first historian to have been granted access to all the papers of the 1954-57 Government-appointed Wolfenden Committee on homosexual offences and prostitution. His account of these reveals a dismaying degree of ignorance and prejudice displayed by a succession of supposedly ‘expert’ witnesses.

Higgins has also done an extensive trawl through 1950s newspaper reports of trials, and these provide riveting evidence that the title he has chosen is spot-on. In pre-Wolfenden days, and throughout the law reform campaign of the 1960s, the police, the courts, and large sections of the press regarded homosexuality with extreme abhorrence as an abominable depravity and a menace to the youth of Britain. It is indeed fascinating to compare the lurid language employed about us then with the remarkably similar way in which paedophiles are being demonised today.

In this climate, it was in my view extremely courageous of the Wolfenden Committee to propose even a limited relaxation of the law – and positively foolhardy of those few of us who stuck our necks out to campaign publicly for their recommendation that the private consenting activities of men aged over 21 should no longer be criminal.

One might have expected that after such painstaking research, Higgins would offer us some intelligent analysis of the phenomenon of homophobia, and an historian’s explanation of its persistent stranglehold on many otherwise sensible people. However, he has a more exciting agenda – to practise Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “the one duty we owe to history is to re-write it”, which he does by heaping scorn upon the “infamous” and “extremely amateur” Wolfenden Committee, and also on the “patronising and paternalistic” Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS) for playing an “extremely marginal role” in getting the law changed.

Sir John (later Lord) Wolfenden, far from being a liberal saint who emancipated British homosexuals, was, we discover, a “very ambitious man”, “desperate for official employment”, with an “extraordinary lust for glittering prizes”, who “crawled shamelessly” to eminent witnesses.

Peter Wildeblood – one of the defendants in the 1954 Montagu case and one of the Committee’s three openly homosexual witnesses – is castigated for his presentation of himself as a “respectable homosexual” and for his “venomous” criticism of “pathetically flamboyant pansies” and the irresponsibility of the gay underworld.

I find that (according to Higgins) I am “condemned to be depicted as an Uncle Tom, a collaborator”, running a virtually useless outfit (the HLRS) which gave no help to men charged with homosexual offences, which never publicised the police abuse of civil rights revealed in many court cases, which “rarely popped its head above the parapet”, and which bears the primary blame for the shortcomings of the 1967 Act.

It is extremely galling (to say the least) to have a decade of intensive, sometimes dangerous, often lonely, and ultimately successful work superciliously rubbished by a person who was 11 years old when the law was changed in 1967, and of whom I had never heard until I saw his book in print. Higgins made no attempt to contact me whilst he was writing it – yet surely it is an elementary duty for a conscientious historian to consult all available sources. Without giving me any opportunity to correct his misunderstandings or to rebut his sneers, he has pilloried me for not running the law reform campaign in a way which was simply not an option at the time.

Contrary to Higgins’ assertions, the facts are that throughout its existence the HLRS worked closely with the National Council for Civil Liberties and with solicitors around the country to help defend men charged with homosexual offences. The case summaries which we periodically circulated to members of both houses of parliament made a significant impact, and secured us several active allies – some from unexpected quarters. We repeatedly pressed our parliamentary sympathisers to improve the draft of the 1967 Act, but to no avail. There is a limit to what pressure groups can persuade MPs to do. But like some HLRS supporters at the time, Higgins has a mystical view of their power which I call the “hot knife through butter” fantasy.

As for his groundless statement that “there was no place for effeminate men or queens in HLRS”, I have vivid memories of several distinctly regal queens and pre-operative transsexuals who enthusiastically helped out in our hectically busy Shaftesbury Avenue office (wearing full drag), and who, if they knew of his remarks, would probably tell Higgins in most unladylike terms where to get off.

It is a pity that Higgins, who has a better book in him than this one, has preferred, after doing so much plodding research, to lay about indiscriminately with his tomahawk, rather than endeavouring to get inside the skin of the 1950s and ’60s so as to understand how it actually felt to be a gay man during the scary years of the witchhunts and the battle for Wolfenden. He believes that HLRS’ main failure was not mobilising the phantom army of militant activists (the Queens’ Own?) who he believes only awaited (like King Arthur’s sleeping knights) a clarion call to sweep all before them at Whitehall and Westminster. As the Iron Duke said, “If you believe that, you’ll believe anything”.

Sprinkle Heterosexual Dictatorship with a liberal pinch of salt if you want to read it to find out why there’s no need to be nostalgic for the 1950s and ’60s.

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