Book Review: The Official History of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and its times; Volume 1: A Space to Breathe, 1954–1973

A review of Amiable Warriors: The Official History of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and its times; Volume 1: A Space to Breathe, 1954–1973 by Peter Scott-Presland
(Published by the Paradise Press, London, 2015) (£35.00 hardback, 640pp, illustrated)

Peter Scott-Presland is our amiable guide to this compelling, entertaining, informative and inspirational history of the formative years of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. This “history of small things” is extraordinarily well-told, and engrosses our interest from start to finish despite its length. Extensive use of primary sources and numerous interviews bring the events alive and help us understand how a large social movement can grow from small local initiatives and individuals’ personal interests. A central theme of this history is the “bravery in small things”, as thousands of CHE members write letters to local newspapers, organise social events and discussion groups, come out to their families and their local communities, with their demands for equality slowly causing a sea-change in attitudes: both society’s attitudes to gays and gays’ attitudes to themselves.
CHE of course did not arise from nothing. Scott-Presland begins with a short review of the “homophile” movements in Germany and the Netherlands and the United States, as well as the early British sex-reformers such as Edward Carpenter. Many early figures from the 1950s also played their roles in the early reforming development of the movement: Peter Wildeblood, Rupert Croft-Cooke, and the setting-up of the Wolfenden Committee which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of sex between consenting men over 21 in private, which was to become law in 1967. Hence the overriding focus of the early history of the gay movement was upon law reform, public education, and counselling; the vaguer concept of “equality” and an end to “discrimination” were still inchoate concepts in the 1950s and 1960s.
The two great figures of this early history are Allan Horsfall and Antony Grey. The two men typify the split that was to bedevil the gay movement: the North West Homosexual Law Reform Committee in Manchester, run by Horsfall, and the Homosexual Law Reform Society in London (run by Grey). It was essentially a class divide: working-class Northerners versus middle-class Southerners. The HLRS in particular was obsessed by “respectability” and was constrained by the feeling that it should not advocate anything that would be perceived to be too radical by the honorary members listed on its letterhead. This often meant that it could not focus specifically upon homosexuality, but had to be inclusive of all sexualities. The force behind all this was the Albany Trust, run by Antony Grey, with prominent heterosexual sexologists on its board. The Trust had to maintain the fiction that it was broadly concerned with all sexualities in order to receive funding from institutional donors and prominent individuals, even though in fact it was almost exclusively directed towards gays. One might say that Antony Grey was rather canny in thus achieving the main purpose, but the fact that “Antony Grey” never used his real name – Edgar Wright – in the public forum is symbolic of his “behind the scenes” approach to reform. Allan Horsfall, in contrast, was a working-class son of a publican and a prospective Labour Party candidate, and always used his real name and even published his home address. Nevertheless, the membership of the NWHLRC was also predominantly heterosexual at the beginning.
Both organisations, early on, were especially focused on counselling, dealing with the problems of self-loathing homosexuals in the closet, who had no way to meet others. This lack of meeting places – especially social and not just sexual sites – was a central concern for the gay movement for many years.
This is a history of people rather than a history of ideas. Although Scott-Presland gives individual spotlight biographies to all the major players in the movement – including Leo Abse, Glenys Parry, Griffith Vaughan-Williams, Peter Norman, Ray Gosley – it is difficult not to form the view that this early history consists of the working out of the tensions between just two men, Horsfall and Grey, as they struggle for the control or independence of their two organisations. At times the documentation of this early history consists simply of incestuous letters between Horsfall and Grey congratulating themselves on how many letters they have written to the press and on how many speaking engagements they had performed, and swapping newspaper cuttings documenting their achievements. There is hardly any sense that other people were involved in their campaigns. Horsfall was sometimes naively idealistic but a powerehouse for action, while Grey was more politically astute but over-cautious. The early campaigning efforts were regularly dampened by people like Antony Grey and Leo Abse (the MP who had pushed the 1976 Sexual Offences Act through Parliament) urging Allan Horsfall not to rock the boat. Even while the heterosexual membership of the Homosexual Law Reform Society dwindled and it became a modern gay campaigning group, nevertheless it became just the Sexual Law Reform Society in 1970, with a solitary secretary: Antony Grey.
Ironically it was the passing of the law in 1967 that led to organisational chaos in both the NWHLRC and the HLRS (and Albany Trust), for neither knew quite what to aim for once the law reform had been achieved. A “gay space” became a major focus, and many years would be spent in trying – and failing – to set up CHE-owned social clubs as a more healthy alternative to the commercial gay pub and club scene. These were to be called Esquire Clubs, and to be organised along the lines of the COQ clubs in Denmark, but CHE never quite succeeded in getting a brewery on board, and never raised enough money to fund physical premises. There was also the problem that Leo Abse and the Home Office specifically objected to the emergence of gay social clubs, which they felt would be an unwanted result of legalisation – the ideal result in their view would be for homsoexuals to lead discreet private lives rather than be publicly visible and associating with others. This, they felt, would result in separation rather than integration. Antony Grey, who always felt that VIPs and leaders of Society were necessary for the success of any campaign, came down opposed to social clubs; as a result the NWHLRC severed its relations with the Albany Trust, and the power and influence of the Albany Trust gradually declined.
By 1969 the NWHLRC had become CHE – the Committee for Homosexual Equality – a significant change from “law reform” to the wider issue of “equality”. (Though it wasn’t until 1971 that “Committee” was changed to “Campaign”.) The great mover behind this phase was Paul Temperton, whose social political background was typical of early CHE members: he worked for the British Humanist Association, the Manchester Non-Violent Action Group, the National Council for Civil Liberties, and the Anti-Apartheid movement. Social activism came to the fore while the counselling focus of the old school receded. For this period from 1968 to 1973 Scott-Presland gives a very detailed study of press campaigns, newspaper advertisements for membership, complaints to the Press Council, and meetings with local councils and institutions.
The proliferation of local CHE organisations becomes almost overwhelming. Each regional group is given its proper focus, because each region was autonomous, and there were always very weak links between the regional groups and the national CHE executive. This was perhaps its main failure as a campaigning organisation, but also its strength at encouraging social solidarity. The origins of each group are carefully documented; they were almost always started by an individual person who became the convenor (or a pair of lovers who became joint convenors) and who worked to get together a critical mass of about twenty members. While there were very formal links between each region and the national executive, there were virtually no links at all between one local group and another local group. Every would-be member of a group was vetted by a representative appointed by national headquarters – usually the talented journalist Roger Baker. Liverpool and Manchester remained strong regional powerhouses, but gradually the working-class membership was superseded by a middle-class membership, for reasons not fully explained, perhaps not even explainable. Advertising in newspapers and journals reached mainly a middle-class audience, hence recruited more middle-class members, and as CHE became more professional, it also became more middle-class. Also, women’s issues did not much occupy CHE, and it increasingly lost its lesbian membership.
A lengthy chapter on London systematically goes through each of its thirteen groups, often with extracts from interviews with its first convenors – notably Roger Baker, Brian Sewell, Peter Robins, Peter Norman, and Jackie Forster. Because of geographical concentration, the London groups all associated with one another (unlike groups scattered across the country outside London), and from April 1971 all the London groups held “mass meetings” at which larger goals and strategies were proposed, and work towards shared aims was distributed among groups. However, everything was still highly bureaucratic and hence cumbersome. Rules of debate dissipated too much energy.
One important product of these pan-London activities was the formation of the counselling group FRIEND. Individual convenors had lacked the professional skill and funds necessary for really effective counselling, hence the use of formally trained volunteers was a great advance. Money was raised for training and for staffing a telephone service, and maintaining offices. By the end of 1972 they had 50 befrienders, plus 12 professional therapists, a Centre in London, with branches in Manchester, Liverpool, and several other cities. During all of FRIEND’s activities, there was the inevitable power struggle between Antony Grey and the leaders of FRIEND regarding the future of homosexual counselling services. The Albany Trust refused to accept the structure proposed by FRIEND and stopped supporting it financially. FRIEND became independent and grew, while the Albany Trust became marginalised. (However, FRIEND would formally split from CHE in 1975–6 in order to obtain charitable status and government money, which was not possible while it remained allied with a campaigning organisation – a problem the Albany Trust had faced earlier.)
CHE continued essentially as a social support provider rather than a campaigning organisation. Each group was in effect a discussion group rather than a campaign group; a number of speakers regularly went around the circuit giving their talks, e.g. Roger Baker talking on drag (on which he had written a book). In addition to the regular Discussion meetings, there were regular Winter Fairs, Winter Talks, Jumble Sales, Summer Balls, coach trips, Christmas parties, bingo and lotteries, and a host of events very similar to those organised by the ladies of the Women’s Institutes. As the London groups expanded, some became special interest groups for those interested in music, writing, film, sports, rambling, bird-watching, and so on. These were hardly political action groups. The long-lived London Monday Group met at the Chepstow Arms in Notting Hill for over 15 years, with a regular programme of well-known speakers and lively disccussions, followed by drinks and socilising. Many long-term friendships were formed there, but it might be hard to document any specific “social change” it might have achieved. Scott-Presland argues (not very convincingly in my view) that these special interest groups were an important factor in the development of gay identity, specifically the notion of “being gay” while engaged in non-gay activities. By mid-1973 London CHE had some 20 local groups plus 15 special groups, with 1,000 members; CHE across the country had a total of some 70 local groups with 3,500 members.
So by late 1973, although the Campaign for Homosexual Equality did not create a coherent national campaigning movement with a coherent ideology, it nevertheless had succeeded in its main objective: the creation of “a gay space” in which people with a shared sexual orientation could come together in a broadly social space rather than a narrow subculture whose main aim was sex. This is not to say that sex was not important to the development of the friendship networks formed within CHE, but the real aim was a modus vivendi, a way of life, for homosexuals within society rather than a separate twilight world on the margins of society. The community it had helped forge was an astonishing achievement and deserves the full and careful treatment it receives here. The development of an effective campaigning organisation after 1973 will be the subject of the next volume in this projected three-volume official history.

 

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