Heterosexual Dictatorship by Patrick Higgins

INDEPENDENT                                   14 December 1996

Heterosexual Dictatorship
by Patrick Higgins
(Fourth Estate £18.99)

Anyone who has ever heard the dread words ‘I shall now read the minutes of the last meeting’ will have good reason to fear Patrick Higgins’  blow-by-blow account of the workings of the Wolfendon Committee.  Fortunately, these fears are soon dispelled by Higgins’ provocative account of a key if, largely symbolic, moment in the liberalisation of British sexual mores.

Higgins  is  concerned to challenge many myths  about the committee and, in particular, about its chairman who, since his death, has been elevated to the pantheon of secular saints.  Hot on the heels of Sebastian Faulkes’ revisionist portrait in The Fatal Englishman, Higgins paints a picture of a craven careerist, toadying to official witnesses, while barely courteous to the ‘criminal’ Peter Wildeblood.  Although in a minority, he refused to recommend a gay age of consent of eighteen.

Those  looking  for  a  working definition  of  the  British Establishment could do worse than take the lawyers,  doctors, churchmen, MPs, academics and one peer who made up the committee.  Even the most ‘liberal’ member, Goronwy Rees, wrote a series of articles in The People about his friend. Guy Burgess, in which he described him as a Jekyll and Hyde with ‘depraved tastes’.   In fact, it was Rees himself who exhibited the split personality, a lone voice of tolerance in committee, while demanding a witch-hunt in the tabloid press.

Some of the committee’s antics resemble a Whitehall farce. To safeguard their female clerical workers, they decided on the euphemisms Huntleys (homosexuals) and Palmers (prostitutes) – no doubt the cause of considerable mirth when they handed out tea and  biscuits.   Wolfendon opposed hearing evidence from homosexuals themselves for fear of attracting exhibitionists.  He had no idea of the numbers of men involved and refused to accept the American Kinsey Report.   Indeed, one of the most striking features of the testimony is its recurring anti-Americanism.  The police were particularly hostile, one constable describing Americans as performing ‘sexual acts in doorways at night’.

Higgins documents the virulent homophobia of the period. True to its nineteenth century model, homosexuality was regarded as a disease by both liberals and reactionaries alike.  The distinction lay between reformers who saw it as a mental disorder that needed treatment and opponents who considered it an infection that would corrupt society.  The Church maintained its traditional antagonism, the leading evangelical of the day, the Bishop  of  Rochester,  even declaring that he found himself ‘personally feeling more sympathy with a curate or scoutmaster who has offended with a boy than with two grown men misbehaving together’.

Press coverage, with a few exceptions, notably David Astor’s Observer, was grossly indecent.   The rush for advertisers and attendant circulation battle led to a coarsening of sensibilities in both journalists and readers alike.  Parliamentary prejudice ran rife;   although, remarkably, the young Margaret Thatcher proved to be a constant supporter of reform (it is ironic that the MPs clamouring most loudly for a cure for homosexuality should sound so similar to those currently denouncing the resources spent on a cure for AIDS).  In the Lords, Archbishop Ramsay’s admission that he knew the difference between oral and anal sex led one peer to claim that he had ‘turned Hansard into a piece of pornography’.

In the second part of the book, Higgins provides extensive documentation of fifties homophobia.  This section is  less analytical – and less effective – than the first, consisting largely of short reports of court cases, which come to resemble a relentless diet of the seamier Sunday newspapers.   There are endless, sad tales of blackmail and extortion, evidence of the lengths to which lonely men would go to obtain a little love… the behaviour of one Gloucester Cathedral curate reads like a Le Carré spy.  We learn of a vicar who asked an eighteen year old to view his model railway and a farmer whose teenage boyfriends slept over because they were ‘crazy about milking’.  They, like so many others, were found guilty, having no resource to the Michael Jackson defence of a lot of money and a large dose of salt.

Reading this material demonstrates how radically society has changed in the last forty years, and yet the fifties distinction between the good homosexual (heterosexual in all but sex) and the bad homosexual (challenging, promiscuous) remains.  Higgins’ own preference is plain;  he clearly belongs to the activist, street-theatre rather than tea-with-John-Major tendency.  Nevertheless, anyone who considers the title unwarranted in a liberal democracy will have thought again by the end of the book.