Sometimes you can estimate the popularity of a thing by its illegality. Illegal drugs, for example are extremely popular, even with Cabinet Ministers. In the 18th Century when starvation was rather more common than it is now, stealing bread was punishable by death. And before July 1967 all forms of sexual contact between males whether in private or public were completely illegal.
But contrary to the current depiction of that time as one of total persecution and horror of man-lurve, there may have been even more of it around than there is now. Something which may be difficult to believe possible, especially if you live in Brighton.
Joe Orton’s and Tom Driberg’s diaries offer a glimpse of a pre ’67 world where homosexual encounters were as available and convenient as public lavatories used to be. Matt Houlbrook’s recent history ‘Queer London’ shone a Bobby’s torch behind the pre-Wolfenden bushes, illuminating an illicit (homo)sexual economy that involved queers, queans and rather a lot of sailors, soldiers, young workingmen – and sailors again – most of whom who were not themselves queer.
Just a few years ago it emerged that the Royal Navy hastily abandoned a witch-hunt into sodomy in its ranks in the 1960s when it became apparent that ‘at least 50% have sinned homosexually.’ When ‘Dr Sex’ alias Alfred Kinsey visited the UK in the ‘repressed’ 1950s he found that one in five men admitted an adult same-sex experience – only a slightly lower figure than those admitting visiting a female prostitute.
Male homosexuality and female prostitution may seem odd bedfellows today, but it wasn’t always so: they were once the mainstays of recreational sex. Ironically, the word ‘gay’, today’s preferred carefree term for ‘homosexual’, was in the England of Oscar Wilde a euphemism for ‘whore’. The Wolfenden Committee set up to investigate possible reform of the impressive array of laws against male-on-male sex after the Montagu Scandal of 1953 – and which ultimately led to the 1967 reform – was also an enquiry into prostitution (and actually stiffened the laws against it). Wolfenden was effectively an enquiry into better ways of regulating the ‘problem’ of sex outside marriage.
And in pre-Pill, pre-Beatles, pre-feminist, pre-alcopop England where good girls didn’t put out, the problem with homosex was that it was free sex. Quentin Crisp and the Dilly queans excepted, queers generally didn’t expect to be paid, nor, back then, given a white wedding. What’s more, in the 1950s they were likely the only enthusiastic players of the hairy oboe in town. No wonder they were so popular at closing time.
Wolfenden didn’t dispute the ‘immorality’ of homosex but argued that the Law should not criminalise ‘congenital inverts’ – homosexuals who couldn’t help their homosexuality – so long as they conducted themselves with domesticated discretion. Instead the Law should focus its attentions more usefully on the ‘real perverts’ – the ‘otherwise normal men’ who took part in the semi-public homo demi-monde for cheap thrills, and no-apron-strings sex.
This philosophy was etched into law. When decriminalisation came in 1967, the ‘over 21′ stipulation, the exemption of the Armed Forces, the hygienic insistence on ‘in private’ – not in a locked public toilet cubicle, not in a park at night, not in a hotel or boarding room, not in a prison cell, not in your own house if someone else was present (even if downstairs watching Songs of Praise) saw to it that most of the non gay men involved in gay sex would remain outlaws (including ‘at least half’ of the randy Royal Navy). Gay sex seems to have been considered such an irresistible, inflammatory temptation that it still had to be generally proscribed.
Even the Montagu scandal that originally sparked the reform would still have been a scandal after 1967 as it involved Airmen and was not in private. Cottaging convictions also doubled in the decade after ‘decriminalisation’. In a sense, the Wolfenden reforms decriminalised being homosexual, but not homosexuality.
Forty years on these proscriptions have been dropped, and the law has lost interest in trying to quarantine homosexuality. But then, apparently, so have straight men lost interest in having sex with other men. Hardly surprising though, since today even receiving a drunken blow job from another male means you have to move to Soho and have your own float at Pride.
Nevertheless, ‘gay sex’ is now clearly even more popular with non-gays than it was in the illicit 1950s. In a development that would have horrified Wolfenden, women have entered the public houses and, with gusto, the sexual fray. Sex outside marriage and Biblically-sanctified orifices has become almost compulsory. Men can now have ‘gay’ – no baby, no strings, no fee, no gag-reflex – sex with women. Often in nightclub toilets.
In this metrosexual world of straight gayness, dogging has replaced cottaging, swinging parties and ‘roastings’ have replaced a quiet night in the Dog and Duck, and fashionable female bisexuality has replaced synchronised swimming.
The ‘real perverts’ of the 1950s, far from being beaten down, have taken over.
Once upon a time the streets of the capital heaved with jolly sailors and guardsmen looking for gentlemen to have fun with. Then gay liberation came along and ruined it for everyone, moans Mark Simpson
(Independent on Sunday, 11 September, 2005)
I consider myself something of a traditionalist. I enjoy traditional activities, such as cruising the Dilly, picking up guardsmen, sailors, dockers and young working men.
I am, in other words, a hopeless romantic. For “trade”, the masculine erotic economy which girded the loins of the greatest city in the world, lubricated the pistons of the greatest Empire, and made saucy sense of the British class system is gone forever. The docks have gone, the sailors and guardsmen are all but gone – and, criminally, don’t wear their uniforms on the street any more, making them very difficult to spot. And as for the working men, well, they all live so far out of town these days and drive so fast in their white vans that it’s almost impossible to collar any.
All that’s left is a gay disco in the East End called, mockingly, “Trade” where you can find shirtless gay lawyers on horse-tranquilizers eyeing one another up while dancing frantically at 5am. If you really want to.
Gone too are the painted queans, such as Quentin Crisp, and the respectable gentlemen in evening dress who pursued trade – trade who, for sex, for violence, for love, for money, for a few beers, for something to tell their mates about, frequently allowed themselves to be caught. Gone are the jostling, smoke-filled “known” (not “gay”) pubs. Gone is the whole vibrant and complex pre-gay bachelor world of male-male intimate relations that meant that perhaps most sexual activity between men before the 1967 decriminalisation involved men who were not queer. What we now call “homosexuality” or “the gay scene” was a much, much bigger business before so-called liberalisation.
Contrary to received wisdom, today’s out-and-proud gay world is in some ways a marginalised, airless, incestuous one compared to what went before in the “bad old days”. It’s only in the last 30 years or so, in other words, the period corresponding to the rise of “gay liberation”, that we have begun to believe that to have sex with another male you have to belong to a separate species. That, regardless of your interest in the ladies, if you wake up in bed with another male you have to move to Old Compton Street or the Castro, pronto.
As Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis 1918-1957 makes remarkably clear, just a few decades ago, significant numbers of (working-class) young men were not only moving freely between male and female partners but were happy to brag about it. So long as they were “butch” and active – or claimed they were – it would merely enhance their reputation with the lads. It certainly didn’t mean that they were “confused about their sexuality”.
Though you, dear reader, may be about theirs. It is, after all, a world that is almost unintelligible to us today. Even my nostalgia for “traditional” activities is precisely that: nostalgia. A slightly perverse, contemporary projection onto the past – a past that is now too “queer” and unfamiliar to grasp fully, possibly even by those who are still alive to remember it. As Houlbrook puts it:
“Working class encounters with the queer transcended contemporary understandings of ‘homosexuality’ or ‘homophobia’. Intimacy, sex, blackmail, theft, and assault constituted a continuum…”
A rather more exciting continuum than most homos today can handle – or would want to.
Perhaps this is why many gays today simply refuse to believe such a world existed, except as some failed prototype for the wonderful, self-contained, self-centred gay world they now live in: “God, all those sad, oppressed, self-hating homos chasing after straight men – why didn’t they get themselves down to the gym and buy some camouflage trousers?”
Thankfully, Houlbrook isn’t one of those gays. He’s a historian. “The world mapped out in this book is not a ‘gay’ world as we would currently understand it,” he writes. “The places are different. Soho has retained its importance, but today it seems almost impossible that Waterloo Road or Edgware Road could have been the site of equally important, diverse, extensive, and vital queer enclaves between the wars.”
Edgware Road was the site of a large barracks; Waterloo Road the home of the Union Jack Club, a hotel for hundreds of randy young sailors on leave. As one contemporary put it: “The Waterloo Road was awash with seamen, most of whose bodies… were not only able but willing.”
Queer London, with chapters on “Geographies of Public Sex” and “Piccadilly Palare: the world of the West End poof” (spot the Moz reference) goes out of its way to present a map of London’s queer past that doesn’t merely see it as a world that was struggling to turn into Soho during Pride Week: “In exploring the history of queer London in the first half of the 20th century, we should lament possibilities long lost as we celebrate opportunities newly acquired.”
Obviously, it is the lost possibility of sex – and loving relationships – with sailors, soldiers and young working men men that I most lament. So does Houlbrook; or, at least, he sees this as the crucial difference between London’s contemporary gay world and its queer past. Unlike many other recent urban gay histories, this book gives equal attention to those who considered themselves “normal” but nonetheless socialised with, had sex with, and often loved other men. In other words: trade. The men who were at the very centre of the queer erotic economy and without whom Saturday nights in 1930s Soho would have been very dull indeed.
So we learn that “the most distinctive venues” were either military pick-up joints like the Grenadier (Wilton Place), Tattershalls Tavern (Knightsbridge Green), the Alexandra Hotel (Hyde Park Corner), and the Packenham and Swan (I’ll be visiting them all very soon, just to make sure they’re no longer “in business”); or those in working-class neighbourhoods in east and south London: dockside pubs like the Prospect of Whitby (Wapping Stairs), or Charlie Brown’s (West India Dock Road). In these venues, dock labourers, sailors from across the world, and families “mingled freely with flamboyant local queans and slumming gentlemen in a protean milieu where queer men and casual homosexual encounters were an accepted part of everyday life”. Perhaps Houlbrook is a little nostalgic too, after all.
To regard London’s trading scene as merely “prostitution” or “exploitation”, as many are inclined, is again to impose modern, patronising values on transactions: “Working men’s desires were more complex than the term ‘prostitution’ allows.” Money was not always exchanged (especially with sailors), but even when it was, most of the “normal” men trading themselves had jobs. For the most part, trade was an enjoyable and rewarding pastime activity that could also become a lasting emotional attachment.
Guardsman were notoriously rough renters (very capable of blackmail and violence, which was perhaps part of their appeal), but as one interviewed in 1960 admitted:
“Some of us get quite fond of the blokes we see regularly… they’re nice fellows… and interesting to listen to. As for the sex… some of the younger ones aren’t bad looking…”
Or like the newly married Jim writing rather sweetly to his gentleman friend, John Lehmann:
“I wish I was still seeing you Jack as you were the best friend I ever had… you were always such a good friend to me we had good times together Jack and I hope I shall see you some time.”
Trade was a young man’s game, which usually lasted only for the period between adolescence and marriage. Once married, working-class men and their unruly erections would “move on”.
Why did the world of trade end? In part, because, like Jim, it got married. The post-war years saw a rise in prosperity which not only undermined the economic rationale for trade, it also made marriage possible much sooner. Rather than getting married in their late twenties and early thirties, young men were marrying in their late teens and early twenties. The rough and tumble world of “raucous male homosociality” was disappearing. Young men were socialising much more with women, who were now entering public life with money to spend themselves (and today, if the tabloid stories are to be believed, are lining up to be smuggled into Knightsbridge Barracks). Trade ended because the bachelor-culture of pre-war London ended.
Ironically, the final blow to trade and the public world of queer sex was delivered by Wolfenden Report of 1957, and the Act which decriminalised sex between consenting adult males in private 10 years later.
Key Wolfenden witnesses, Patrick Trevor-Roper (a Harley Street consultant) and Peter Wildeblood (diplomatic correspondent for The Daily Mail) pleaded for homosexual respectability in the language of the private middle-class home (sounding uncannily like gay marriage lobbyists today). Wildeblood claimed:
“I seek only to apply to my life the rules which govern the lives of all good men; freedom to choose a partner and… to live with him discreetly and faithfully… the right to choose the person whom I love.”
However, as Houlbrook points out, both witnesses glossed over the queer spaces in which they were going to meet that partner. Wildeblood famously met the airman McNally in a Piccadilly Circus subway; Trevor-Roper was cautioned by a policeman in St James’s Park, a veritable bazaar for strapping Guardsman during the war.
To which I might add that for Wolfenden the “real perverts” were not the “congenital inverts”, but the “otherwise normal men” who took part in these aberrant activities, often in public. This is why prosecutions for indecency actually trebled in the 10 years following “decriminalisation” in 1967 (many of those convicted were married). Wolfenden, which was also a report into street prostitution, encouraged the law to go after the “real perverts”. All male sexual contact involving those under 21, those staying in hostels or hotels, rooming houses or prison, meeting in parks and public toilets (they were not “in private”), or while serving in the Armed Forces and Merchant Navy, remained illegal. In other words, probably the vast majority of homosex in the earlier part of the 20th century.
Even the consensual activities that led to the Montagu Scandal and public backlash which prompted the Wolfenden Report and eventually the 1967 reform itself would still have been illicit after “decriminalisation” as they involved members of the RAF and were not conducted “in private” – and would remain so for much of the next 40 years.
It’s probably just more sour grapes on my part, but it’s tempting to conclude that the law reforms of the last few years, such as the equalisation of the age of consent, ending the ban in the Armed Forces and Merchant Navy, and relaxation of the laws on “soliciting” and “indecency” in public, happened not so much because of the tireless campaigns by gay equality reformers, or even the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights, but simply because, one or two cruisy parks aside, most “traditional activities” in London had already come to an end.
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