A bit less make-up, Jeremy: Books

HETEROSEXUAL DICTATORSHIP: Male Homosexuality in Post-War Britain by Patrick Higgins, 4th Estate pounds 18.99
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The Independent Culture
Most people know that the chief recommendation of the Wolfenden parliamentary committee of 1954 led to a change in the law in 1967: male homosexuality between consenting adults was decriminalised, and an age of consent of 21 introduced. The popular perception is that the committee was an exemplary group of liberal persuaders: that the legislative implementation of its arguments marked a triumph of intellectual vigour over shallow bigotry. Indeed, by the time John Wolfenden, the Chairman of the committee, died in 1985, he was seen not only as the emancipator of the British homosexual but as a sort of liberal saint.

In this book, Patrick Higgins sets out to challenge these assumptions. Having had access to committee documents which will not be publicly released until 2008, he has produced the most wide-ranging, informative and accessible study of homosexuality in post-war Britain now available. Not that he makes it very easy for one to sing his praises: the opening chapter, on the technical aspects of the committee, is so mind-numbing that one is reluctant to read on. However, the book becomes more inspiring as it gets more subjective. Beginning with an examination of the personalities that shaped the committee, it moves on to the individuals who gave evidence, then concludes with the court hearings and press reports which recorded the real world that the committee was supposed to be examining.

Wolfenden himself fares particularly badly: a cold career-oriented establishment figure, always mindful of conservative pressures, he rarely allowed any positive material about homosexuality that came his way to be presented to his fellow members, consistently referred to discussion of homosexuality as "distasteful", and personally dismissed a proposal for a magazine advertisement asking homosexuals to come forward.

Patrick Trevor-Roper was the most eloquent and intelligent homosexual who informed the committee about how rewarding gay life could actually be. He also proved the wittiest contributor. When he was nine years of age he had, he said, seduced his gardener "against his will", adding that "it must be very difficult for certain people ... to be attacked by a persistent young boy." What Wolfenden thought of this sort of anecdote is indicated in the chapter which draws on Sebastian Faulks' The Fatal Englishman, and the complicating story of Wolfenden's son, Jeremy. He courageously came out as a homosexual to his father some years before the latter was asked to chair the committee. In his written response Wolfenden made two requests: that "we stay out of each other's way" and "that you wear rather less make-up".

If Heterosexual Dictatorship demonstrate that the Fifties was a terrible decade in which to be homosexual in Britain - legally speaking - it also proves how little has changed since then. Many summaries of court hearings, as well as Higgins's discussion of the press coverage, largely justify his most revolutionary claim - that there was no Establishment"witch hunt", as most gay commentators claim, but rather a series of unrelated scandals that came to light because of Fleet Street's new eagerness to report such material.

Those who found themselves in the dock were recognisable types: scout masters, youth leaders and teachers, for the most part, who had been discovered with a hand down some lad's shorts and usually asked for another 328 offences to be taken into account. These cases have been included, one assumes, because they are representative, and as such they offer, in this context, a radical challenge to our cosy attitudes about the law and homosexuality during this period.

The average age of the younger partner was about 12, and the accompanying press comments about "evil men" and "the corruption of young minds" would not seem out of place in today's tabloids. The consensus remains that such prosecutions are necessary and just - so we have no right to complain about the majority of cases brought before the courts in the post-war period. Those of us who think that there was a witch hunt and mass persecution can only conclude that the situation is even more hysterical today. What Higgins himself thinks is not clear, though his remark that one case involved "17 boys and young men between the ages of 13 and 15" might suggest, in its redefinition of the period of male adolescence, that he has some fairly radical ideas.