opinion

'This is what it was like to grow up gay when homosexuality was illegal'

Tim Hughes, author of 'The Naked Tuck Shop: Growing up gay in the 1950s' recalls gay life in Britain before 1967.

2020-02-14

Born in Winchester in 1943 brought up in Egypt and Cyprus, Tim Hughes was sent home to boarding prep school in Oxfordshire then onto secondary boarding at Colchester Royal Grammar School in the 1950s.

As part of LGBT History Month, the author and former journalist reflects on the clandestine lives of those growing up gay prior to the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England in 1967.

When I walk around Manchester’s gay village, or watch the Gay Pride March take four hours to pass me by on Fifth Avenue in New York, my mind often carries me back to far-off very different times.

As a teenager growing up in the grey and dreary prejudiced post-war Britain of the 1950s to be ‘gay’ – a word not yet fully imported from the USA – was not always exactly a fun thing.

To be ‘queer’, or a ‘puff’, was definitely dangerous, as any kind of overt sexual behaviour was deemed criminal and liable to prosecution. There were draconian prison sentences of up to ten years for the act of sodomy – a word that had replaced the original term of ‘buggery’;  and heavy fines, and even prison for the offence of ‘public indecency’- if you were caught with your pants down in a public toilet, or just ‘cruising’ in a park.

The police forces in the UK routinely used cute young cadets to entrap unsuspecting ‘cottagers’ and a court appearance reported in your local paper destroyed many a career and marriage. The Sunday tabloids such as the News of the World, would crucify celebrities, or members of the establishment, with salacious front page exposure.

The most infamous case was in 1954 and concerned Lord Montagu - a peer of the realm and his two weekend guests, who were imprisoned for alleged ‘indecent activities’ with two young National Service members of the Royal Air Force at his Beaulieu Estate in Hampshire. This sensational case caused such a backlash among liberal sections of the establishment that it became the impetus for the formation of the parliamentary Wolfenden Committee Report in 1957. Its recommendations resulted ten years later in partial decriminalization for homosex.

Montagu revived his reputation by opening his world famous National Vintage Car museum at Beaulieu. He also earned an important place in LGBTQ history despite denying publicly that he was queer. And his name entered the language as a saucy synonym for anal intercourse – as in to ‘Monty’ someone.

Tim Hughes is the author of 'The Naked Tuck Shop: Growing up gay in the 1950s'

Yet despite all these dire deterrents clandestine gaiety flourished. Public toilets were ubiquitous throughout the land and unless you lived in London, or one of the other larger cities with queer-friendly pubs, or a few very private member’s drinking clubs, ‘cottaging’ was the only game in town.

Trolling (long before its unpleasant internet connotations), later overtaken by ‘cruising’ (another American gay slang import) - in parks and open spaces was the other popular way of meeting fellow travellers.

In the early 1960s, London’s Evening Standard newspaper caused hilarity in the gay community with its expose of “the twilight world of Hampstead Heath - London’s hidden problem”. This series of prurient articles ensured lasting fame for the capitol’s premier cruising area.

There was a flourishing commercial side to gay sex. The eponymous Dilly Boys plied their trade underneath the arches where Regent Street enters Piccadilly Circus, and in the pubs of enjoining Soho.

Soho, London

A rent boy apprenticeship was very often the only pathway for provincial working-class teenage lads’ entry into our secretive gay world.

With a complete absence of gay books, or any type of helpful media, it was a hit-or-miss experience for young people to find their way into any level of this underground outlaw society.

The somewhat strait-laced BBC offered us the occasional camp jester like Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howard. Beloved equally by a hetero audience alike, they never the less led unhappy private lives and were not accepted in the same way as today’s out gay celebrities and definitely not role models.

Drag queens were popular entertainers in ordinary pubs and some working men’s clubs. Danny La Rue was the rising cross-dressing cross-over star, but any inkling of the a trans experience was confined to the sensational sex change memoirs serialised in those same Sunday tabloids.

'The Naked Tuck Shop: Growing up gay in the 1950s' by Tim Hughes

I myself was extremely lucky when I stumbled into ‘the life’ via a cottage encounter as a teenager. This led to a series of non-predatory mentoring friendships with extraordinary older gay men. Some of them were celebrated in artistic circles. Several lived discreetly in relative privacy in loving partnerships without the current benefit of an undreamed civil partnership, or same sex marriage. All the more special  when it was rare for two men to share a flat without courting suspicion.

My new family showed me by example the holistic worth of a gay life, despite the then prevailing homophobia of a distinctly non-gay friendly outside world.

But, for many teens, it must have been a life of absolute misery.

'The Naked Tuck Shop: Growing up gay in the 1950s' by Tim Hughes is out now via Amazon and all good book shops.