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Not Guilty: Three tragic queer stories from a century of discrimination

Mayer Nissim July 21, 2017
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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

In the 20th century, both before and after the act gained Royal Assent, there were countless, heartbreaking stories of discrimination.

Many of these tragic tales are collected in Not Guilty, by Sue Elliott and Steve Humphries, from Biteback Publishing and available to purchase now.

Not Guilty: Three tragic queer stories from a century of discrimination

An accompanying TV programme, Convicted For Love, aired earlier this month on Channel 4, and is now available to watch via catch-up.

Below is an exclusive extract, telling just three of the stories from a tumultuous time for queer men in England and Wales.


Dudley Cave, twenty-four, had been told he was homosexual by a specialist while they’d both been prisoners of war in Singapore. Now he wanted to know what could be done about it.

“I suppose at that time I just wished somebody would wave a magic wand and I would feel the same wave of emotion for a woman as I did for a man. And I think I would have given all my savings to
have that done to me. Not because I wanted to conform, but I just wanted to have somebody I could love and be loved by.”

The psycho-medical model of homosexuality current at the time meant that many practitioners believed it to be eminently treatable and Dudley wanted to be ‘made better’. As a former POW he had a rigorous medical examination after the war.

“There was a brick-faced colonel sitting at little table. He said rather pompously, ‘You’ve been thoroughly examined; is there anything you’d like to tell us about your condition?’ And I said, ‘Yes sir, I’m homosexual.’ He looked at me with horror and a little vein throbbed in his temple and he went a deeper red, presumably at the thought of the army having nurtured to its bosom this dreadful person. So he said in a choked voice, ‘Better see a psychiatrist.’”

Convicted For Love (All4)

Dudley was referred as an in-patient to a psychiatric hospital in Surrey and spent the weekend there, expecting to be given ‘hormones or something’. He saw a psychiatrist on the Monday, told him the whole story and was surprised and rather confused at the response.

“He said, ‘The only advice I can give you is to find someone of like mind, settle down with him and stop worrying about it.’ When he said this, there was an elation, but the only thing is he didn’t give me any indication how to meet [that person] and so we were back to my pre-war situation, where my sexual contacts were all in my social circle …

The big problem for me as a gay young man was that I didn’t realise what I was; I had no role models, nobody to model my life on, and the only people I knew who were gay were the camp transvestites or semi-transvestites. So I didn’t belong to that, I couldn’t see it. And even when I did realise there were other people, I didn’t know where to find them, I couldn’t ring up a [gay] switchboard and ask where to go. There were very few clubs and pubs and those that existed were well hidden, discreet and expensive. So it was very difficult. I had no identity and I really didn’t know where I was going, or who to go with.”

Nevertheless, it was something of a turning point. A strong character, Dudley was starting to come to terms with his situation. For others the process was much more protracted and painful. After several unsatisfactory and guilt-ridden encounters on the beaches outside his Aberdeen home and lusting fruitlessly after unobtainable men, Henry Robertson, then in his early twenties, felt desperate.

Convicted for Love (Channel 4)

After a further period of falling in love with yet another straight man which ended pathetically as usual, I did actually go to see a doctor and said, ‘I’m homosexual, I want to change.’ He was the first person I ever said that to and I can remember shaking uncontrollably, crying and having a kind of nervous breakdown on the spot. And he said I should take up something of absorbing interest which might take my mind off these things. I thought of gardening or stamp-collecting or knitting but none of them seemed to have the same interest for me as sex. I was also given three sets of pills: hormone tablets, Dexedrine and sleeping tablets. I took the hormone tablets, which seemed to make me hornier than before, so I stopped taking those. I did take Dexedrine for some time and I unfortunately drank with it and this led to alcohol abuse as well. For several years I was addicted to Dexedrine and sleeping tablets, and of course I didn’t change. The cure didn’t work.

At times Henry considered suicide.

“Oh, it was a frequent thought really … I was looking for a partner, looking for Mr Right, of course. It was a basic contradiction in the sense that Mr Right would have to be heterosexual, and living with this contradiction just created all sorts of misery and futility and thoughts of suicide. You just felt that other people knew what life was about. They went to work, they courted, got married, had children, with divorce a possible option. But how was I supposed to live my life? There was nobody to tell me and most of the books of the time did treat it like a disease, a sickness rather than a very prevalent condition.”

Convicted for Love (Channel 4)

Unlike Dudley Cave, Noel Currer-Briggs did want to conform and still had no idea he was gay. After a distinguished war record as a cryptanalyst in the Intelligence Corps he had returned to Cambridge to resume his studies. There in 1947 he met his future wife Barbara.

I’m very family conscious and I obviously thought it was my duty to get married. Everybody else in my family had got married and produced children and I thought I would do the same. It never occurred to me to do differently, I mean I was a very conventional young man … We were both at Cambridge and anyway we got on like a house on fire. We had an enormous amount in common, both very musical and so on, and I thought, well, the obvious thing to do, I shall have to get married.

Now twenty-eight, Noel was a virgin, woefully ignorant about sex and still troubled by male fantasies. He confided in his doctor.

He asked me what I was reading at Cambridge and I said modern languages. He said, ‘Oh well, if you’re not an artist and you’re not effeminate, you can’t be homosexual. You’ve been to public school and been in the army and picked up bad habits. But don’t worry, she’s a damn nice girl, it will be all right on the night.’ Well, of course, we got married and it wasn’t.

After a ‘catastrophic’ honeymoon and no improvement in the early years of marriage, Noel sought medical advice.

The doctor said if I wanted to change, I could have this electro-therapy, reversion therapy. So I thought, well, it doesn’t sound like much fun but I’ll go and see what happens. So I went off to this hospital in Bristol where the chap explained to me that he would present pictures of attractive young men and if I got sexually aroused I would be given an electric shock, which would turn me off. Gradually he would substitute the handsome young men with nubile women. Well, he started off by showing me lots of brunet moustachioed Latins when I was much more attracted to blond Nords, so it didn’t work very well. I didn’t have a shock and I thought, I can’t do this, this is ridiculous.

Convicted for Love (Channel 4)

As the supposed therapy was a complete failure, he was then given rather more pragmatic advice: to organise his life in such a way as to get sexual satisfaction in his own way without upsetting anybody, but under no circumstances to tell his wife.

With the medical treatments of the time variously laughably useless or positively harmful, it was no wonder that so many men resorted to the one solution that seemed to offer the prospect of a cure at best and cover for their true nature at worst. Thousands of homosexual men entered into so-called lavender marriages with women, some of whom were lesbians. Depending on their spouse’s understanding on which these marriages of convenience were contracted, these unions could turn out to be miserable, tragic or surprisingly successful.

Not Guilty, by Sue Elliott and Steve Humphries, from Biteback Publishing is available to purchase now

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