Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2002

A. E. Dyson (1928 – 2002)

by Antony Grey

Tony Dyson, who died at the end of July aged 73, single-handedly took the initiative in forming the Homosexual Law Reform Society (HLRS) early in 1958, only a few months after the 1957 Wolfenden Report had recommended that homosexual behaviour in private between consenting male adults over 21 should no longer be a criminal offence.

Dyson was then a young university lecturer in English at Bangor. A deeply humane and compassionate man who believed that the law as it then stood was an insult to human dignity and democratic freedom, he wrote hundreds of letters, and dug deeply into his own slender pocket, to assemble an impressive collection of distinguished names who opened their campaign with a letter (which Tony drafted) published in The Times on 7 March 1958, and then went on to form the HLRS, of which Tony acted as (unpaid) secretary.

In response to its advertisements, I met Tony for the first time (at Baker Street Station, I remember) and he invited me to join the small working party of volunteers who gave up at least one evening a week to the society’s business until enough money and support had been assembled to set up an office in Shaftesbury Avenue, close to Piccadilly Circus. I did not then realise that I was destined to be the society’s full-time secretary from 1962 until 1970, throughout the busiest years of the law reform campaign, which culminated in the partial enactment of the Wolfenden proposals in 1967.

Those early days were by no means plain sailing for the HLRS. Difficult negotiations had to be conducted with potential backers, some of whom sought to impose their (not always very well-thought-out) ideas in return for their support and money; and there were also some inevitable disagreements among the volunteers, and between the working party and the (mostly heterosexual) executive committee. Things sometimes became fraught, but Tony Dyson always remained unruffled and kept the trust and respect of everyone, even when they disagreed with him.

Having established the HLRS as a lobby that was increasingly heeded (though its funding was always precarious), Tony Dyson transferred his promotional skills to his chosen sphere of literary criticism, joining with Brian Cox in 1959 to found the Critical Quarterly – still an internationally respected voice after nearly half a century. A decade later, Cox and Dyson co-edited the “Black Papers”, which strongly criticised the fashionable educational dogmas of the time and caused Cox and Dyson to be fiercely attacked as “reactionaries”.

In the 1960s Dyson became Reader in English Literature at the University of East Anglia, where he remained until he took early retirement in the 1980s. By then his health was impaired by a non-malignant tumour in the jaw, which led to several major operations and much suffering. He lived in Hampstead with his long-term partner, Cliff Tucker, a Labour alderman in Camden, and Tony remained in their house after Cliff’s death several years ago until his own.

Unlike myself, Tony was a confirmed “God-botherer”, and moved in and out of the Church of England at various times, being deeply interested in theology and publishing his own religious testament, The Fifth Dimension, in 1996. His spiritual concerns were never narrow or sanctimonious, but always thoughtful and deeply humane: he detested the narrow bigotry that led so many Christians to single out sexual “sins”, and especially same-sex ones, for intemperate condemnation. In 1978 he again assembled a distinguished band of signatories, including many leading humanists, for a declaration on homosexual rights in which he (as draftsman) typically asserted that “we are rapidly approaching a situation in which homosexuals are the only natural minority who are still regarded, by some, as intrinsically evil, and who are still liable to be mocked and persecuted by people claiming to represent ordinary social opinion, or the Christian church”.

Tony Dyson was one of the gentlest, most compassionate and cultured men I have known, but beneath his quiet demeanour there was a will of steel. He had little time for what he regarded as the too-raucous razzmatazz of gay liberation, and once wrote to me: “The whole ‘gay world’ thing was calculated to harm us as humans, and to stoke up the reaction, now there in the climate of dogma and superstition and reductionism that replaces civility.” His concern was always for individual and collective human dignity. The world is a poorer place without his fine intelligence, and I have lost a valued friend.

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Created : Sunday, 2002-11-03 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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