Intolerance, pity and hate

Heterosexual Dictatorship
April 4, 1997

This is unashamedly polemical history. It is a story of heroes (queens who "advertise their revolt against the heterosexual dictatorship") and villains (those hapless souls who dream of eradicating dissent). In the first half of this book, Patrick Higgins's persistent nagging of Home Office officials to release sensitive transcripts has provided us with fascinating insights into the process of legislative reform concerning gay rights. In contrast, the second part is extremely disappointing.

The central story told in this book concerns the 1967 decriminalisation of those homosexual acts which take place, in private, between two consenting adults (that is, over the age of 21 years). This legal reform was the direct outcome of the report in 1957 of the Home Office departmental committee on prostitution and homosexuality. Its chairman, the ambitious John Frederick Wolfenden (who pleaded with his 18-year-old gay son to wear "rather less make-up") met with a committee that included representatives of the established churches of England and Scotland, a lay Roman Catholic, a few lawyers and doctors, one Labour MP, and one Conservative MP.

Over three years, the committee gathered evidence, interviewed interested parties and drafted a report. Everything was deemed "off the record". With the exception of three self-identified gay men, all witnesses vilified homosexuality and hoped for its abolition. Many drew a distinction between inverts and perverts in which the later were much more dangerous because of the difficulty of distinguishing them from "normal" men. The disease metaphor was also common: homosexuality was a virus which could be "caught" by young men. Its cure was resocialisation, or massive doses of oestrogen aimed at killing desire for weeks at a time, or through the establishment of specialist clinics dedicated to cure and care. Higgins places great emphasis on national military service as important not only because it heightened panic over homosexuality and thus constituted a strong argument for setting the age of consent as late as 21 years, but also because it incited homosexual desires. He is superb in delineating and accounting for regional differences in gay subcultures and in the ways they were policed.

Higgins provides us with a useful summary of the main legislative changes, from the 1533 Buggery Act, to the 1861 Act (which substituted life imprisonment for the death penalty for men convicted of buggery) and finally the passage of the 1967 Act. With considerable analytical skill, he examines the responses of a huge array of groups, including policemen and prison officials, doctors, military personnel, religious leaders, women's groups, and moral reform agencies. Politicians also get their fair share of attention, particularly those like the Labour cabinet minister, Richard Crossman, who criticised the amount of time being spent investigating "the buggers at Westminster" rather than tackling poverty. Higgins is also scathing about the Homosexual Law Reform Society, established in 1958 after a particularly nasty case of persecution in Somerset. They are portrayed as patronising liberals whose obsession with "courting names" sentenced them to cautious, piecemeal action. He does not regard the 1967 Act as a great achievement. Indeed, he argues, it encouraged the greater repression of gays and silenced more radical demands.

The book strikes many wrong notes. Although he quite rightly castigates gay men who refuse to accept differences within the community, his own moralistic attack on politically liberal gays seems harsh. Most regrettably, there is little to unite the first and the second halves of Heterosexual Dictatorship. Once the act is on the statute books, the book unravels in a tiresome and unhelpful series of "case studies" and tabloid tales about Guy Burgess and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. Abruptly, the book ends. There are two books lurking between the covers of Heterosexual Dictatorship: the first one is to be highly recommended.

Joanna Bourke is senior lecturer, Birkbeck College, University of London.


Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain

Author - Patrick Higgins
ISBN - 1 85702 355 2
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Price - £18.99
Pages - 340

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