Coming Out

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Review of 'Queer London', Matt Houlbrook, University of Chicago Press £19

In this interesting and often compelling book Matt Houlbrook discovers some of the personal stories of gay men who lived in London in the early 20th century. Coming to the city for the first time, many men were simply after pleasure, sexual gratification and, hopefully, some sort of loving relationship.

But, as Houlbrook discovers, for some the experience of being gay in London was to end in tragedy. For example, he recalls the story of a 59 year old taxi driver, Edwin H, and his lover Thomas P, a bank messenger aged 44, who in December 1935 were arrested while having sex in the back of the cab. But rather than face public humiliation in the press, ostracism from friends and family, and probably the sack at work, both men decided to take their lives together and jump into the icy waters of the Thames. Edwin died, and Thomas was to survive in hospital.

Being gay in Britain prior to the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was, strictly speaking, illegal. There was an array of legislations, from the Offences Against the Persons Act (1861) that dealt with buggery and indecent assault, to the notorious section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) that defined any act of "gross indecency" between men in "public or private" as an offence. It is difficult to comprehend today how brutal, humiliating and inhumane these laws were as they sought to prohibit same-sex relationships.

Houlbrook examines police statistics and court records to show how the "strong arm of the law" tried to prevent men from enjoying themselves. Through surveillance, undercover work and outright harassment they went to extraordinary lengths to prevent sex taking place. And in this they were backed up by an ever-reliable and vitriolic right wing press. As one commentator wrote after the First World War, "We conquered the Germans and now in London there is an outbreak of this deadly perversion... which will surely rot us into ruin unless we recover our sanity and fight it to the death."

But despite the constant threats, Houlbrook shows how gay men in London sought to establish a personal life for themselves. And he shows how this, in turn, shaped the way the city developed and functioned. So he gives a very detailed account of the growth of members-only gay bars and teahouses that emerged around the areas of central London in the early 20th century.

He shows how the emergence of cinema and the music hall gave gay men an opportunity to meet in secret. And he also reveals how differences in class and income gave different opportunities for men to explore their sexuality by looking at the growth of single rooms and hostels allowing men the opportunity to be together without the fear of arrest.

By revealing personal letters and diaries, Houlbrook brings to life the daily struggle many men had in trying to forge personal relationships. But to say this is simply an account of the lives of gay Londoners would not do it justice. For it is also a fascinating account of London itself. As you walk the streets of the capital, for example, the benefits that immigration has brought to this vast city are visible and easy to recognise. But the benefits that the influx of gay men have wrought on London are far less easy to see. Fortunately this book goes some way to uncover this fascinating history.