Month: September 2015

People in History: David Maxwell Fyfe

Wikimedia Commons

Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, first Earl of Kilmuir, might seem an odd subject for today’s blog.Not only wasn’t he queer, but he worked tirelessly against any attempt to decriminalise homosexuality, and may well have been behind the “pogrom” of the 1950s that deliberately targeted gay men for persecution. It’s easy to look back with a sense of superiority, but his opposition to homosexuals was but a footnote in a life which was generally lived well.

Born in Edinburgh in 1900 to a grammar school headmaster and his second wife, Maxwell Fyfe studied at a Scottish independent school before going on to read the Greats (Literae Humaniores, a Classics course based on the history of human learning) at Oxford. He wasn’t a remarkable scholar, more interested in contemporary politics than the ancients, and achieved only a third-class degree. His education was briefly interrupted in 1918 when he took time out to spend a year with the Scots Guards at the end of the First World War. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Biography, Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: Wolfenden to Legalisation


Wikimedia Commons

Ten years passed between the publication of the Wolfenden report and the legalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. The history books usually gloss over that decade, seeming to assume that’s just how long it takes to implement major social reform. Governments aren’t known for acting quickly.

Yet glossing over that key decade is to do a disservice to the men and women who campaigned tirelessly through it, the people prepared to come out of the closet and demand equality for the first time. That the government was so slow implementing change based on the conclusions of a report they’d commissioned suggests that the Wolfenden committee was charged with looking into homosexuality, not with a view towards changing the existing laws, but upholding them. When the verdict came down in favour of decriminalising homosexuality, a lot of people in power were both surprised and dismayed. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging

People in History: Peter Wildeblood

peter wildeblood

Peter Wildeblood. Photo curtesy The Lotte Meitner-Graf Archive

Peter Wildeblood was born in Italy in 1923, the only child of Henry Wildeblood, a retired engineer from the Indian Public Works Department, and his second wife Winifred, daughter of an Argentinian sheep rancher. (He had older brothers from his father’s first marriage, but as they were already grown with families of their own when Peter was born, he was raised as an only child.) His father was sixty at the time of Peter’s birth, a circumstance which in later life he wondered was responsible for his sexuality.

Wildeblood was raised and educated in England from the age of three. He attended boarding school from seven, and at thirteen won a scholarship to Radley College, a public school near Oxford. From Radley he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, although he was forced to drop out after ten days because of ill health. It being then 1941, shortly thereafter he enlisted with the RAF and trained as a pilot in Southern Rhodesia (a British colony at the time; now Zimbabwe), but after a succession of crashes he was grounded and retrained as a meteorologist. He remained in Rhodesia for the duration of the war, where he had a number of sexual experiences with women, which only served to confirm his suspicion that he was homosexual. When he returned to Oxford after the war, he spent many of his weekends in London, where he moved in almost exclusively queer circles. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Biography, Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: The Wolfenden Report

Wikimedia Commons

In 1954, following the high-profile convictions of Lord Montagu, Michael Pitt-Rivers, and Peter Wildeblood for homosexual crimes under the infamous 1885 Labouchere Amendment, and more significantly the turn of public opinion against the prosecutors of that case, the Home Secretary ordered that a committee which had been set up in order to look into the matter of prostitution also consider the criminality of homosexuality.

The committee comprised three women and twelve men, chaired by Lord Wolfenden, for whom the report was named. The committee members came from legal, medical, educational, and religious backgrounds, although despite this and the subjects they had been charged with investigating, they were surprisingly coy — Wolfenden suggested at an early meeting that they refer to homosexuals as Huntleys and prostitutes as Palmers (after the biscuit manufacturer, Huntley & Palmers) in order to protect the delicate sensibilities of the ladies in the room. A suggestion which the ladies promptly rejected. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging

People in History: Alan Turing

Alan Turing at 16. Wikimedia Commons

Alan Turing was born in 1912, second child of Julius and Ethel. His father held a position with the India Civil Service, but his parents returned to England before Alan’s birth, keen for their sons to be raised in England. When his parents needed to return to India, they left the boys in the care of a retired army couple during their absences.

Turing’s extraordinary intelligence showed itself early, as did his enthusiasm for learning. When, at thirteen, a general strike was called on the day he was to start at a new school, he cycled sixty miles unaccompanied in order to attend on time. The school, however, placed greater emphasis on Classical learning than the sciences, and the headmaster wrote to his parents, warning: ” If he is to stay at public [private] school, he must aim at becoming educated. If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a public school.” Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Biography, Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: The Gay Pogrom


London in the 1950s. Wikimedia Commons

The 1950s was a dark decade for queer Englishmen. Between 1945 and 1955, arrests for “gross indecency” soared to over 2,500 a year, with an average of 1,000 men being incarcerated annually. It was a marked increase, seen by many as a targeted persecution, and became known as the “gay pogrom.” Those who believe that narrative trace the cause to the huge number of servicemen, freshly discharged from the war with nowhere to go, unable to find work. The big cities, and especially London, teemed with them. England was proud of its returned heroes, but didn’t know what to do with them and worried that, left without a purpose, they would fall into corruption and vice. The pogrom was, in the eyes of many, a desperate battle to preserve the innocence of men freshly returned from war. To compound matters, the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, had promised “a new drive against male vice” that would “rid England of this plague.” Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging

People in Fiction: Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh, by Van Vechten

Evelyn Waugh. Wikimedia Commons

Subtitled The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles RyderBrideshead Revisited was written in a three month period in early 1943 while Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) was on leave from the army.

On the surface, Brideshead is a simple story of friendship gone awry. Charles Ryder, while an undergraduate at Oxford, meets and becomes friends with Lord Sebastian Flyte, second son of Lord Marchmain. Brideshead is Sebastian’s family seat, inhabited by his mother, elder brother, and sister. Lord Marchmain, who converted to Catholicism in order to marry Sebastian’s mother, has renounced both his church and his marriage, and moved to Venice to be with his mistress. So abandoned, Lady Marchmain finds ever deeper solace in her faith. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Fiction, Queer Blogging

People in History: WWI Poets

Siegfried Sassoon by George Charles Beresford (1915)

Siegfried Sassoon. Wikimedia Commons

Poet’s Corner is the name given to the section of the South Transept of Westminster Abbey where some of England’s most famous writers are interred or memorialised. In 1985, a slate was added, commemorating sixteen poets of the Great War. They were Richard Aldington, Laurence Binyon, Edmund Blunden, Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Gibson, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney, David Jones, Robert Nichols, Wilfred Owen, Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley, and Edward Thomas.

What is immediately noticeable from looking at their biographies is how similar they were. All but three attended public or independent schools, followed by Oxbridge or prestigious discipline-specific universities. Most attained the rank of Lieutenant or higher: only two were privates. (Those two facts are linked: most public schools held Officers’ Training Corps as a standard class, preparing the sons of the wealthy and titled to command other men. After war was declared, men with OTC experience were drafted as officers, even without prior military experience.) Most moved in literary circles or were published prior to the outbreak of war. They all knew most of the other fifteen men with whom they’re now remembered. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Biography, Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: Romantic Friendships


via Victorian Gentlemen in Love

I’d apologise in advance for the gratuitous photo-dump in this post, but I’m not sorry. Not the slightest bit 😀

The concept of romantic friendships has been around since before the days when Plato gave his name to loving somebody without involving sex. To the Greeks (or at least the Athenian Greeks), it was a model of virtue and purity to which many aspired, and classically-educated Europeans for centuries after strove to emulate.

Today, the England of the past has a reputation for stuffiness and repression which the men and women living at the time would struggle to recognise. Partly because homosexuality as a concept and identity didn’t exist until the latter half of the nineteenth century, men in particular were much more tactile and affectionate with each other than, well, today. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging

People in Fiction: The Charioteer

Mary Renault. Wikimedia Commons

First published in 1953, Mary Renault’s lyrical novel The Charioteer is the story of Laurie “Spud” Odell’s coming-of-age, set against the backdrop of the Second World War. That Renault was informed by the works of Freud is apparent from the very first chapter, when five-year-old Laurie’s father walks out.

Laurie is in bed, but not asleep. Ten o’clock has come and gone — “Nine was the wild outpost of an unknown continent. Ten was the mountains of the moon, the burial-place of elephants: white on the map.” Understanding that he only remained awake past bedtime when he was sick, Laurie decides that he must be going to die. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Fiction, Queer Blogging

People in History: Freud

Sigmund Freud Anciano

Wikimedia Commons

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a neurologist by training, best remembered today as the father of psychoanalysis. His theories on sexuality and childhood development are probably best known, although his work spanned a much broader spectrum, including writings on the development of civilisation, the unconscious and dream-states, and religion. He also extolled the virtues of cocaine, and regularly took enough to kill a horse.

Born to Galician Jewish parents in what is now part of the Czech Republic, Sigmund was the first of eight children his father had with his third wife. In 1860 the family moved to Vienna, Austria, Freud distinguished himself at the city’s best schools, graduating with honours in 1873, already proficient in German, French, Italian, Spanish, English, Hebrew, Latin and Greek, and with a love of the works of Shakespeare which would last him a lifetime. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Biography, Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: Therapy and Cure

Havelock Ellis cph.3b08675

Havelock Ellis. Wikimedia Commons

Science is, at its heart, the pursuit of pure knowledge. The earliest sexologists were scientists, working towards an understanding of human sexuality. They were remarkable, in a period now best remembered as oppressive and puritanical, for the objectivity with which they approached their subject. Sexologists like Ellis and Symonds took pains not to cast moral judgment on the men and women they studied: indeed, as their careers progressed they often advocated for legal and medical change on behalf of their subjects. They were among the first campaigners for LGBT rights, and some of the most influential.

Not all sexologists, however, were scientists. Ellis himself trained as a physician, and most came to their studies from medicine or the exciting new field of psychology: disciplines which practically begged for a level of intervention absent from a scientific “observe and report” approach. When a doctor examines a patient, he does so intending to cure him; a mindset that, once adopted, is almost impossible to escape. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging

People in Fiction: Maurice

E. M. Forster von Dora Carrington, 1924-25

E.M. Forster. Wikimedia Commons

Following his death in 1970, a manuscript was discovered in E.M. Forster’s house with a brief note scrawled on the cover: “Publishable, but worth it?” Somebody evidently believed it was, because the following year Maurice was published.

Written in 1913 and dedicated “to a happier year”, Maurice is the tale of the protagonist’s coming of age as a queer man at a time when England criminalised same-sex relationships. Much like Laurie in the later Charioteer by Renault (written after Maurice, but published earlier), Maurice is torn between the spiritual affections of his university love, and the carnal nature of his love’s gamekeeper. And if that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Forster showed the manuscript to his close friend D.H. Lawrence, who suggested that as Maurice could never be published for the scandal it would cause, he could reinterpret the story with a heterosexual couple, and thus Lady Chatterley’s Lover was born. (That Forster didn’t object is evident in his appearance as a defence witness for the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial.) Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Fiction, Queer Blogging

People in History: Havelock Ellis

Havelock Ellis a

Wikimedia Commons

One of the earliest and most influential of the English sexologists was the unlikely figure of Havelock Ellis. Born to a family of sea captains, Ellis emigrated to Australia at sixteen, and spent the next four years working as a teacher (not very successfully: when his first employer discovered his complete lack of qualifications to do the job, he was dismissed; he ended up running the next school he worked at after the master unexpectedly died, but was swiftly replaced). Despite his failures, he reported in his autobiography that in Australia “I gained health of body, I attained peace of soul, my life task was revealed to me, I was able to decide on a professional vocation, I became an artist in literature.”

Upon returning to England in 1879, Ellis was determined to forge a career in the infant study of sexology (Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis wouldn’t be published for another seven years). In order to understand his field, he first determined he needed to understand the human body, and enrolled in  St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in order to qualify as a physician (although he never practised medicine). He supported himself in the meantime with a small inheritance and by editing reprints of Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in Biography, Queer Blogging

The History of Homosexuality: Sexology

Wikimedia Commons

Pretty much everything we know and think we understand today about human sexuality has its origins in the science of sexology, which emerged in Europe in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. While books about sex have existed through the ages, they generally took manual form — like the Kama Sutra — and were concerned only with the act of sex, and how to have it.

There was some movement towards sexology as early as the 1830s, mostly researching sex in relation to the law (the first study was on prostitution in Paris), and within thirty years the term “homosexual” had been coined and a number of scientists had turned their attention to human sexual interaction and identity, although it wasn’t until 1886 that the first major tract was published — Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, subtitled a “clinical-forensic” study of human sexual behaviour. Continue reading →

Posted by Kate Aaron in History, Queer Blogging