Former student opens up about electro-shock therapy to ‘cure’ the ‘bad habit’ of being gay
Prior to the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales back in 1967, many gay men had their identity medicalised, with doomed attempts to “cure” them.
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 extract, telling the tragic story of a young man forced into a failed marriage before suffering electric shocks in a failed bid to turn him straight.
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.
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“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.”
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.