The following is the text of the keynote speech for the second ‘What is and How to Do LGBT History’ Conference, delivered by Peter Scott-Presland on 14 February 2015, as part of the Festival of LGBT History in Manchester.
Addressing historical silences: CHE, the first ‘out’ and popular homosexual rights group
Friends, colleagues, I stand before you naked. Not in the literal sense, you’ll be glad to hear, because I think that would appeal to only the most specialised tastes, but in the sense that I am very conscious of my academic deficiencies. I am not a trained historian; I know little about queer theory. All that I know about the subject I am going to talk to you about is what I’ve learnt in doing my researches, and my reactions to the work that I’ve had to read for background to the book, some of which has left me scratching my head in bewilderment: ‘What on earth is he – or she – on about?’ So I have no great unifying theories to offer, only a few observations which are not necessarily joined up. I leave you to make any connections there may be.
The composer Malcolm Arnold was once asked why he started writing music, and he said that he did so because he wasn’t hearing what he wanted to hear when he went to a concert. So he started writing music that he himself would like to listen to. In the same way, in Amiable Warriors, I’ve written the kind of gay history that I would like to read. This of course reflects my own interests and history. I am an activist with a lot of experience of organising demos and discos, promoting plays and festivals. This means that I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of how things happen. I know how difficult it used to be simply to find a venue. When someone writes, ‘In 1953, so-and-so held a conference…’ I want to know, how come? Where was it? How did they advertise it? Who objected? Who came? What did the fact of coming together mean? I’m also interested in good stories, and in obscure facts which I find interesting for their own sake. When I was about nine years old, someone gave me a children’s encyclopedia called something like The Bumper Book of Facts, and a lifetime of pub quizzes beckoned. I take great pleasure in trivia. It pleases me to know, for example, that in 1962 the Blue Peter presenter Valerie Singleton, whose reputed lesbianism caused much gossip in our community, provided the narration for a film called Nudes of the World. Does it add anything to the sum total of LGBT history? Not a bit! But it adds to what Arthur Marshall might have called Gay Life’s Rich Pageant. And we neglect the importance of pleasure in our reading at our peril.
The peg that I am hanging these thoughts onto is the title of the whole conference: ‘What is and How to Do LGBT History.’ This seems to cast a glance towards David Halperin’s sane and witty How to do the history of homosexuality, which taught me a lot, particularly about what kind of inferences we can draw from the past, and the dangers of imposing contemporary ideas and patterns of sexuality on figures whose mental landscape is very different from our own – a phenomenon I’ve christened ‘retrosexuality’.
To me, LGBT history is something which faces both inwards and outwards. Outwards, it has to address the non-gay, the non-queer world about the importance of our experience of participating in the major events and social histories of the world. This representation is not only important for us, but also for straight society, because it insists on the variety of the world and the multiplicity of experience; it leavens monolithic notions of masculinity and femininity.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. We are in the middle of a four-year-long commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the First World War. This is beginning to make me deeply uncomfortable, as it turns into a kind of death cult. The more we learn of the horrors and discomforts in the media, the more it sanctifies Our Glorious Dead. Suffering, especially pointless suffering, is never ennobling. We may pay lip service to the fact that this occurred on all sides in the War, but actually almost by default, we are imperceptibly casting the Germans as villains all over again. Not for nothing does the slew of necrophilia pouring from our screens coincide with the rise of UKIP and Nigel Farrage.
What I am longing to hear, in the mainstream, is that the reason Rupert Brooke rose so fast to become the national poet of romantic sacrifice in 1914 was that he was the toy boy of Sir Edward Marsh, Winston Churchill’s private secretary. That the reason Wilfred Owen’s poetry has such resonances, where that of an equally accomplished poet Isaac Rosenberg does not, is because of his attraction to and love for the doomed youth that is going to die like cattle, that Strange Meeting is a love poem to an enemy soldier.
That we do not hear these sentiments, that we are not publishing the stories of love relationships between solders, or of the men who went over the top in the trenches in drag, in order to feel less defiled by their masculinity, I account a collective failure of the LGBT historical community. Although I draw comfort from the fact that twenty, even ten years ago, nobody knew anything about the involvement of the Indian and African troops in the Great War and it took dedicated work by historians of colour to dig it out and hold it to the light. It took twenty years to get proper acknowledgement of our LGBT presence in the concentration camps in the second war. Our turn will come – if you make it come.
LGBT history also has an inward purpose, for ourselves and our communities. The concept of ancestors is potent. Many societies worshipped them, even more societies talk of dying as not ‘meeting your maker’ but ‘going to join your ancestors’. Partly because of the First World War, there has never been so much interest in our ancestors. The website ancestry.com has three million subscribers and holds 12 billion records. The TV series Who do you think you are? sends minor celebrities in search of their ancestors, and every programme has to unearth someone who had a particularly unpleasant time, or did something spectacularly heroic, in order to allow the celeb to burst into tears. While the actual crying is palpably staged, it does illuminate the way that we feel reinforced as people by knowing that we are part of a chain of DNA which stretches back down the time tunnel till it disappears into darkness.
LGBT people have a more aslant relationship with their biological families. Our families tend more to be families of choice. And equally LGBT history gives us our ancestry of choice. When we see tintypes of Confederate soldiers arm in arm for the camera, we have no way of knowing if they had sex together, whether they would have thought of themselves as deviant in any way, but we know that they cared for each other, they went or were going to go through hell together, that they experienced a particularly intense kind of friendship. And it stirs our hearts. They are kin.
I have spent some time researching all those heartbreaking trials of gay men of the 1940s and 50s, with their ruined lives, their shamed families, their suicides. It is depressing reading. But beacons shine through. Most famously there was William Brown way back in 1728: ‘I think there is no crime in making what use I please of mine own body.’ But in 1967 in Sale in Cheshire, Stephen Harding, a sales rep, burst out. When he refused to be quiet after shouting ‘This is a tissue of lies’ and ‘I am not going to listen to this claptrap,’ Harding was hustled from a seat behind his solicitor into the dock. He pleaded not guilty – and was found not guilty. Courts in nearby Altrincham thirty years earlier had been in chaos when 29 men were brought up all for committal at the same time, with thirteen different defence counsel, all trying to cram into the tiny court house. There was no evidence against any of them, except the confessions which cross-referenced each other, which the police had browbeaten out of them. The defence barrister of one of them said, ‘However much you may admire the Cheshire police, it is impossible for your worships to believe that one after the other these men, against whom the police had no evidence, immediately volunteered statements which convicted themselves.’ And all the defendants, all 29 of them, broke into wild cheering and applause, which must have rattled the magistrates used to people meekly pleading guilty.
Again in Nottingham, in 1963, 19-year-old John Clarkson in a relationship since he was 16 with Billy Rae, ten years older. His statement reads –
‘By now we were in love with each other and frequently showed it by holding hands and kissing each other on his mouth, shoulders, legs and backside or any other place we could. … At this stage we both fully understood what we were doing was by the antiquarian moral British Code illegal, although in our own minds we both knew to ourselves that we were doing right. And to date our views about each other and what we were doing have never changed. Our affection for each other strengthened to the thought of separation being unbearable. … We have both been blissfully happy.’
These are our ancestors, these foster our sense of belonging and self-esteem, and we can only pray that we would show the same courage in similar circumstances. But LGBT history can only serve its purpose, both internal and external, if it is accessible. So much of my background reading has driven me to despair, when it wasn’t sending me to sleep. So much impenetrable jargon, so much leaden prose, so much a sense of a small exclusive coterie of academics addressing each other and incestuously quoting the same texts, perpetuating the same factual errors because no-one has bothered to check the original sources.
The original CHE sources have been there in abundance at the Hall Carpenter Archive since 1980, when CHE itself set up the HCA and deposited the first eight years’ worth of its papers. 149 boxes, stuffed with minutes and papers, and agendas, and personal letters and bulletins, and campaign newsletters and annual reports and conference reports. Nobody wanted to know. Why?
This academic incestuousness I’ve referred to partly explains the neglect of the history of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. When in 1998 the BBC ran a three-part, 3 hour documentary on LGBT history in the 20th century, CHE did not get a single mention. The biggest LGBT campaigning and social organisation that this country had ever seen might never have existed. Because much of that history was written by people who had been involved with GLF. GLF was a strongly intellectual movement with a preponderance of students and academics in its leading figures – Jeffrey Weeks, Mary McIntosh, Elizabeth Wilson, Aubrey Walters, David Fernbach, Simon Watney. Its long-term influence is in its writings – the GLF Manifesto; With Downcast Gays. In contrast. CHE at least in origin was working-class and its concerns were practical – ending isolation, providing counselling and a social life. It produced no credo, no unifying theory. It was also Northern, and British cultural concerns remain inescapably, irredeemably, London-centric. So the history got to be written by GLF, after GLF had itself gone into decline, and when CHE was at its height. Perhaps the most important contribution was one of the first, Jeffrey Weeks’s Coming Out (1977). CHE, according to Weeks, was middle-aged, middle-class, cautious and incapable of effective campaigning, unlike the rapid response units of GLF. What he missed, seeing only the central committee and London, was the multiplicity of activities on the ground, in small groups in small towns, which were on one level social, but on another were political. Imagine when the members of Chilterns CHE went to Thame Fair in 1972, a large group of adult males going on the roundabouts, several of them screamers – do you think that the good folk of Thame couldn’t see what was going on? And suddenly here, and in other small towns all over the country, homosexuals became visible, doing ordinary things, and not a dirty mac or a lollipop for a small child in sight. These ordinary unpoliticised gays were political almost without realising it.
One reason for the neglect, and something I came to realise very quickly, was that in order to appreciate what CHE did and meant, you have to bring a very different mindset to bear compared with what you might use to judge other campaigns or organisations. The history of CHE is the history of small things, and its courage, and the courage of its members, is the courage of small things. Its important campaigns are small campaigns. Just trying to find a meeting place for a local group involved going along to see the vicar or the publican. ‘It’s for a meeting of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.’ Pause. Brace yourself internally for a reaction – prejudice or embarrassment, an insult or some sort of diplomatic brush-off. The group convenor or secretary who did this was effectively coming out to a complete stranger. And you might go through this half a dozen or more times. Derek Brookfield in Crouch End went through six churches, three pubs, the local Theatre Club and the Council, and in the end went to the local paper, the Hornsey Journal for a full-page article with photo, exposing the bigotry.
Then when you’ve got your venue, you have to get your adverts for meetings in the local papers. For every paper that took an advert, one refused. ‘This is a family newspaper’; as if homosexuals sprang fully armed like Pallas Athene from Jupiter’s forehead, and not from families. Sometimes a paper might accept the word ‘homosexual’, but not ‘lesbian’; or ‘meeting’ but not ‘social’. Groups could be fighting for years for the right to communicate. It’s difficult now to remember before the age of the Internet how dependent we were on physical newspapers and posters to be able to communicate with each other, and how important the local paper was to the life of a community. Every insertion in the Personal Columns was another political victory.
This was not what interested the historians, who liked bright and shiny things. GLF’s 14-foot cucumber delivered to Pan Books, the mice released by drag nuns at the Festival of Light Rally in Westminster Hall. These were instantly and inherently dramatic, and no-one looked too closely at whether they actually achieved anything in the long term apart from enhancing the self-confidence of the participants and those other homosexuals who read about them.
A petition delivered to Downing Street or a meeting with the Home Secretary didn’t change anything either, but it was comparatively dull and it lacked a clear narrative. In its national campaigning CHE was on a hiding to nothing; first there was complacency after the passage of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised male homosexual sexual acts. ‘Parliament’s not going to revisit this for twenty years,’ MPs told campaigners. In the 1970s a Labour government operated on a knife-edge, with a majority of, at most, five, and sick MPs being brought in on stretchers from St Thomas’s hospital on the other side of the Thames to vote in Parliament. MPs believed that support for gay issues would be electoral suicide, so nobody was prepared to stick their neck out.
Then it was Thatcher and the triumph of monetarism with a return to family values and morality; and it was AIDS, although is has to be said that the creation of a large number of gay activists in towns and cities across the country, by CHE and others but mainly by CHE, enabled a mobilisation of the gay community in response to the epidemic which considerably reduced its impact and prevented the government from doing anything more foolish.
And all this time, the 149 boxes sat gathering dust. When I started work, there were two rules I discovered which I would pass on to anyone with an ambition to tell our story to our community, and to others. The first is, be alert to detail, and awareness of potential. While I was reading the Bulletin for the North West Committee for October 1966, I came across this:
‘Meg Elizabeth Atkins, who is a member of our executive committee, has for many months been ploughing a lonely and courageous furrow around the large industrial firms in Trafford Park seeking interviews with Personnel Officers.’
I was intrigued. It was the only mention of a woman in the organisation. What exactly was she doing and why? The item mentioned that she was the author of a novel, The Gemini. So I looked it up in the British Library. The publisher had been Alison and Busby. I got in touch with them. Was Ms Atkins alive and if so, could we be put in touch with each other? A few days later I got an email: ‘Thank you for your tactful enquiry. You will be delighted to know that I am still alive and I am not gaga yet…’ And I had a delightful lunch at the Harvester in Stamford in Lincolnshire with this impeccable tall slim high-cheekboned stunner of a woman with an aristocratic drawl:
The Trafford Estate was enormous. Every kind of manufacturing, every heavy industry. One of the most famous was Metrovicks. I didn’t go there. I felt it was too big to take on. I did the more hand-knitted stuff. Smaller ones I thought were friendlier. I had to psych myself up to do it. ‘Right, I’m going to do it today.’ And I’d do it.
I’d always be very well dressed and presentable. Hat and gloves. I would go in and say, ‘May I see your welfare officer, please?’ So they thought, ‘Well, she’s not selling something.’ They said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m from the Law Reform Society. If I’d said ‘homosexual’, I wouldn’t have got in. But that was the attitude of the time. Once I was in, of course I came clean immediately. But I felt people should talk – nowadays we call it raising awareness.
It was mainly men, though if there was a woman welfare officer, she was very sympathetic and understanding. The man would take me into his office. Sit me down. ‘So you’re from the Law Reform Society.’ ‘Well – actually, I’m from the Homosexual....’ ‘Oh.’ Pause. A big pause. And then I just had to say that there is a great deal of pressure now for change in the law. ‘You’re probably aware of that.’ ‘Is there?’ Or ‘Yes.’ Or ‘About bloody time.’ Or ‘There shouldn’t be’. The whole gamut of possible reactions. There was one guy who was very leering, very crude. Which was the kind of thing you would meet then. And another man tried to make a date with me. It was terribly funny. I wouldn’t have been seen dead with him!
I would have to play it by ear to take it from there. If I had a totally unsympathetic person to speak to, I knew I wasn’t going to get very far, so I’d just say, ‘Perhaps you would be interested in this literature’ and get out. Or ‘Obviously I’m in the wrong place.’ ‘Yes you bloody well are.’ Or I’d say ‘Thank you for listening, thank you for your time.’
But sometimes people were relieved to talk. Quite a lot of people did say to me, ‘Well, we have had difficulties. Of course it was illegal then, so they couldn’t show support. I never had any tangible evidence of what effect it had, but it was just building contacts. It contributed to a climate of opinion. You’ve got to start somewhere. Mine was a tiny contribution to it.
When my mother found I’d joined this society, she was speechless with horror. We didn’t talk about it. And the boyfriend I had at the time that I joined, he said, ‘You mustn’t tell anybody.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? If I want to talk about it, I’ll talk about it.’ He said, ‘You don’t realise it would damage your reputation.’ ‘You mean as a writer? I’ve only just started, I haven’t got a reputation yet, but I will have.’ He said, ‘Yes, it’ll damage it.’ The amount of prejudice was awful. It was hurtful. It used to hurt me.
It’s the hat and gloves that does it for me. Whenever I close my eyes and think of the scene I see Audrey Hepburn or maybe Kay Kendal in elbow length gloves and a wide brimmed picture hat, clutching a white Hermès shoulder bag amid the grimy arches of the Trafford estate. It brings the whole scene alive.
Curiosity can take you to interesting corners, where you can view things from a different angle. I was suddenly struck by a strange anomaly; CHE groups all over the country had fearsome difficulties finding premises, and yet GLF after it was thrown out of Middle Earth in Covent Garden in 1971 almost fell into the church hall of a very high Anglican church, All Saints in Notting Hill. The whole thing was probably arranged by Stuart Feather and Bette Bourne, two of the draggiest, most outré members of the radical fairy commune in Colville Terrace just round the corner. What on earth did the vicar at the time think? Why did he let his church be used by two of three hundred dope-smoking screamers every Wednesday night? Did he get in trouble with his bishop? I did the obvious thing; I asked him. When in doubt, ask. I sent an email to the current incumbent, and he in turn gave me the email of Father Peter Hall, who was the vicar at the time. And Father Hall told me that his church had a record of offering a home to radical groups – to Irish republicans and to a Galician separatist group. He told me, ‘the church congregation were supportive of our “open” policy, especially towards minority groups, since they were largely West Indians who well appreciated what it meant to be marginalised by the rest of society.’ And straight away the stereotype of a black community which is violently homophobic is blown out of the water; in fact a rainbow alliance is made concrete.
Further, I discovered that the hall where these rowdy, violently argumentative meetings were held was used by a children’s playgroup during the day, and after many a screaming match, all these queens would quietly clear up all their mess for the kids next day. In fact, GLF organised a party for these kids, and got denounced by the News of the World for their pains.
I mentioned Altrincham, and the 29 men put on trial there. The only evidence apart from confessions which the prosecution produced was a stick of lipstick which belonged to one who was in an Amateur Dramatic Society, and a book called Twilight Men by André Tellier. What would you do? Of course, I had to find the book, which remained a piece of gay pulp fiction in print into the late 1950s. You can still buy copies on Abe Books. It is a grim piece of reading. There are three suicides, alcoholism and drug addiction, the gay hero murders his father under the influence of ‘hop’, as they called it. To be reading all this negativity about yourself is the kind of desperate resort of men trying to make sense of who they are and how to behave in the world. And yet, on page 111, we find:
Yet – this was love. He could have cried aloud in his sudden, hot rebellion against society and its prohibitions. What right had they to dictate, ‘This is love but that isn’t.’? How could men be so stupid as wilfully to persecute this strange, ungovernable thing that had existed as long as the race, dateless, primeval?
The twilight world of the homosexual illuminated by some flash of comfort, some crumb of consolation.
One place which I was repeatedly led to was the letters page of local papers, where, more than anywhere else, the battle for hearts and minds was played out over and over again. Here you can see the gradual inching forward, the gaining of ground, reader by reader. In 1971 the best you could hope for was ‘they can’t help themselves, poor things.’ More likely you would get this:
Thank you for your leader article which quite properly and bluntly criticised those in Parliament who are wasting Parliament’s time over dirty and perverted issues such as legalising perverted acts between males.
That’s the Manchester Evening News, 7th July 1966, the paper being virulently opposed to the implementation of Wolfenden. But eight years later, when Tunbridge Wells Council banned a piano recital by Peter Katin on the grounds it was being promoted by CHE, the letters page of the Kent and Sussex Courier was full of highly supportive letters from heterosexuals, often gleefully satirical at the council’s expense. M. B. Harwood alerted them to the dangers of Tchaikovsky and Oscar Wilde plays, and suggested they ought to keep a close eye on Handel, Chopin and Shakespeare; while Chris Mankelow wrote:
Concert-goers are notoriously indiscriminate in choosing their entertainment and it is therefore quite seemly that they should be denied the opportunity to attend a concert of this seedy nature. Also, one shudders to imagine the type of person who may be attracted to a concert promoted by such an organisation. We do not want these persons mincing in our magnificent Assembly Hall and soiling the seat cushions with their effeminate clothing. … I am sure that all respectably minded gentlefolk of Tunbridge Wells will heave a sigh of relief as the Entertainments Committee ushers in a new era of clean, decent, heterosexual entertainment (such as Bingo, Wrestling etc).
And so we progress, as straight society not only gradually accepts homosexuals, it becomes relaxed about them.
One of purposes of LGBT history is to reclaim the names of long forgotten people who showed bravery, who advanced the cause of equality when there was considerably personal disadvantage in the way they did so. Are there any Dr Who fans here? Whovians? Can you tell me the significance of the four-episode serial, Spearhead from Space?
Well, It was the first Dr Who serial which featured the Third Doctor, John Pertwee, and it was the first in colour. In fact the colour film was so expensive there was no budget for anything else, and the whole thing seemed to be filmed in someone’s back garden in Twickenham. It finished on 24th January 1970, and if any of the 8.1 million viewers opened their copy of The People two weeks later, they would have read on Page 16 that one of the actors, who played Captain Monroe, the army commander leading the fight against the aliens, admitted that he was queer.
The only way we can change things is by famous actors openly confessing they are homosexual, names that mean a lot to families who sit at home every night watching television.’ Breslin believes that if one manly-looking woman’s idol would come forward, the public attitude would change. ‘Every night you watch television you see at least one homosexual,’ he says. ‘I can scarcely recall a successful comedy series that didn’t include one. And many of the great screen lovers – the rugged handsome types – are homosexual.
This is nearly a year before GLF came along and discovered Coming Out for themselves, be it noted. John Breslin was extraordinarily handsome, with his cleft chin a bit like Kirk Douglas. His friends called him Dorian Gray. He appeared with James Cagney in a film about the IRA, and in pretty much every UK TV series from Robin Hood in 1953, when he played Alan a Dale to Patrick Troughton’s Robin, to Doctors in 2006. He was a voice and dialogue coach to some very big names in the 1960s – Gregory Peck, Peter O’Toole - and also had the distinction of dubbing the voice of Steve Reeves in his Hercules beefcake movies.
Of course, there was no mass coming out. The likes of Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi were never going to come out until it was safe to do so, Dirk Bogarde and Wilfred Brambell were never going to come out at all. Breslin was on his own, and though he had some contact with CHE, never became the public figurehead which it so obviously needed. And though it didn’t exactly kill his career, it would be another 20 years before he got any substantial part again.
Names to remember: Albert Goldstraw. ‘The road will be red with monstrous martyrdoms, but we shall win,’ wrote Oscar Wilde after serving his sentence. And the most monstrous martyrdom was Albert Goldstraw’s. In 1936 in Altrincham aged 31 he was sentenced to seven years penal servitude and eighteen months hard labour, for ‘corrupting’ those younger than himself, including several married men. Twenty-three years later, his name recurs in Chester Assizes. ‘Was he one of the Altrincham gang?’ asks the Judge, Mr Justice Davies. The sergeant replies, ‘It was before my time but I think so.’ ‘Well, it was not before my time,’ says the judge. ‘The public and the courts take a somewhat different view than they did twenty years ago. But no one regards them with benevolence. The overwhelming number of decent people in this country think them absolutely disgusting, as they are.’ And this time Albert Goldstraw, night watchman, now 54, got five years. Just imagine losing twelve years of your life for something so harmless, yet so central to your existence that you risk arrest again, even after seven years in prison.
In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman’s wife, Linda, says: ‘I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.’
Some of our people – our ancestors – had terrible things happen to them; others have slipped into total obscurity. We as historians have a duty to discover and acknowledge our ancestors, and to share that knowledge with others so that they too can feel the pride, the pleasure and the anger, the excitement and the fear that we feel if we are doing what I take to be our job properly; if we are entering imaginatively into the skins of these shadows, so they become more than names; if we are not trying to force them into abstract conceptual boxes. I hope that in Amiable Warriors, Volume One A Space to Breathe, attention has been paid, and it will continue to be paid in Volume Two, Fifty Grades of CHE. May you pay attention, exercise and follow your curiosity, and share your passionate interest with as many people as you can make listen. Because we are worth it.
 Metropolitan Vickers made diesel locomotives for British Rail in Manchester.