Speaking Out: Writings on Sex. Law, Politics and Society 1954 – 1995, by Antony Grey, Cassell UK, 1997
Published in The Freethinker, journal of the National Secular Society
In the early days of the deliberations of the Wolfenden Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution its name in internal memos was bowdlerised to ‘Huntley and Palmers’ (Grey p242). It is a mark of how much has changed that this absurdity was ironically celebrated by Julian Clary in his high camp TV show. ‘Judge’ Julian has two cute bondage-attired aides, who are named … Huntley and Palmer !
For those of us who cannot remember – and find it hard to imagine – what life was like for gay men pre-67 many of these essays are a valuable resource. It now comes as a shock to read an account of a visit in 1960 to an Amsterdam gay club, in which Grey writes of his astonishment at the normality of same-sex dancing. For many, it is now astonishing that this could have caused surprise.
Antony Grey began his long and heroic campaigning career for commonsense about sexuality in 1954 with a letter to The Sunday Times, the first national newspaper to urge reform of the oppressive laws against male homosexuality. He was secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society during the 60s, and later director of The Albany trust. Speaking Out is a collection of his speeches, articles and letters over 40 years. Several of them first appeared in The Freethinker and The New Humanist.
As someone who by temperament and tradition is for ‘all or nothing’ I found his essays a salutary reminder of how important the ‘fabian’ pragmatic, persuasive approach was in the 1967 decriminalisation of (most) male homosexuality. It is hard to think of any other single enactment which has so profoundly and for the better affected the lives of so many people in the UK.
As part of the strategy for gaining acceptance and respectability Antony Grey initially went along with the ‘homosexuality is a problem’ approach and went out of his way to argue that the idea of gay male promiscuity was a myth. He insisted that gays wanted committed, loving, principled relationships. This was all very well as a campaigning strategy, but it ignored something which every sane person knows, but not all will say: Sex (homo- or het-) is not always about commitment – it is frequently about having a good shag. This is not incompatible with care and respect. The appreciation of this fact in the response of gay culture to the AIDS danger will, perhaps, someday be seen as the great gift of gay men to heterosexuals. To his credit, Grey now rejects his earlier ‘mealy-mouthed .. priggish’ defenses of gaysex (p3).
I would like to know how Antony now feels about the aggressive ‘In Your Face’ sex-politics of many younger gay men and women. How does he feel about the recuperation of the once pejorative terms ‘dyke’ and ‘queer’ by confident young gays? Or about the recuperation of ‘perve’ as a self-label by ‘out’ fetishists and SMers?
Reflection on the wider civil liberties’ implications of gay emancipation led the author, originally a member of the Conservative Party, to consider and campaign on other issues. The chapter ‘Law and Morality’ deals with Lord Devlin’s response in The Enforcement of Morals to the Wolfenden recommendations. It is a valuable warning of that ferocious cultural and moral Leviathan which lurks in the dark heart of Conservatism. As Grey puts it:
He [Devlin] .. denies any theoretical limits to the power of the State to legislate against immorality, maintaining that the ‘suppression of vice is as much the law’s business as the suppression of subversive activities’.
With the exception of such as Roger Scruton, we hear little of this nowadays. But it hasn’t gone away. One wonders how long those of this sensibility can remain in the ‘inclusive’ Conservative Party which is always been built but somehow never quite standing up.
Grey discusses these issues in the interesting essay ‘Ungay Tories’ (publ. 1987). This provides a useful reminder that Leo Abse’s Sexual Offences Bill was opposed by a number of Labour MPs who ‘quaintly regarded sodomy as the vice of the idle, degenerate rich’ (We must not forget that this nonsense was once current on the Stalinist and Trotskyist Left, until considerations of membership forced an about-turn!). Grey argues that the intolerance of the modern Conservative Party is an aberration from the essence of Conservatism which is ‘the historic British commitment to individual liberty’ (p106). He does not consider that it may have been the ‘consensus’ Party of the 40s and 50s which was aberrant.
What was unclear in Devlin’s book, and is not elucidated by Grey’s rationalist approach to sexual politics is: What is all the fuss about? Devlin was at one with the ‘counter-culture’ sexual radicals of the late 60s and early 70s in believing that sexual liberation was politically subversive. It would now be hard to argue for this. Brave New World depicted a dystopia which used sexual libertarianism in the interests of maintaining a hierarchy. In contrast, the dystopia of Nineteen Eighty Four presented sexual repression as a central mechanism for enforcing class dictatorship. It would now seem that Huxley’s view was the more prescient. But perhaps ultimately not – it’s too early to tell.
Grey’s expansion of his libertarian concerns leads him to argue that ‘The need for gay rights campaigners to be active citizens in fighting prejudice, bigotry, and intolerance on a broader front than the single issue of our sexuality is obvious’ (p231). Abstractly, this is correct. However it has led him into the uncritical promotion of a medley of ‘liberal’ positions whose connections with each other are far from obvious. He takes it for granted that support for gay emancipation goes along with opposition to the death penalty. For many campaigners these do go together, but there is no necessary connection between these positions. Again, what does Grey’s liberalism entail for the civil rights of those who enjoy hunting vermin? Or how about the civil rights – some would go so far as to say the human rights – of those decent citizens whose handguns have been legally stolen by the British state?
In terms of gay politics this ‘knee-jerk liberalism’ (in the apt phrase of American conservatives) leads Grey to support the campaign for legalising gaysex in the military. This campaign promotes a dangerous illusion about the military, namely that it is an institution of the same kind as the school system, the police, the media, the civil service etc. It is not. Its purpose is to defeat in combat the military of other states and, in extremis, to subdue the rebellious populace of its own state. Why do liberals concern themselves with the internal goings-on of such an institution ! ?
But these criticisms aside: Should the time come when ‘Children of the future age’ wish to ‘Know that in a former time love! sweet love! was thought a crime’ then these ‘indignant pages’ will be indispensable reading.