Skip to main content

The Homosexual as a Social Being in Britain, 1945–1968

  • Chris Waters
Hide All

1 It will be argued that the homosexual was temporally rendered a “social problem” before subsequently being cast in more value-neutral terms as a member of a minority, enjoying a distinctive way of life, to borrow from the title of Peter Wildeblood’s study of “the underworld in our midst” (A Way of Life [London, 1956], quote on dust jacket).

2 Many questions addressed in this article are crystallized in Tom Ford’s 2009 film version of Christopher Isherwood’s 1962 novel, A Single Man (New York, 1978 [1964]). In the film there is a scene in which the protagonist, George Falconer, a university professor who has recently experienced the death of his same-sex partner, Jim, enjoys a drunken evening with his good friend, Charley. What is most striking about this scene is Charley’s wholesale inability to understand that George could have shared such a meaningful existence with another man; while she could accept him sympathetically as an individual homosexual, she remained unable to imagine him as part of a larger, social world, sharing a life with another man—indeed, with other men. It was, in short, George’s social world that remained off-limits and unintelligible to her, as it still was to many outsiders in the early 1960s on both sides of the Atlantic. This particular scene is played out rather differently in the novel (23–24). There it is George’s neighbors, the Strunks, who fear “the unspeakable that insists, despite all their shushing, on speaking its name.” There it is Mrs. Strunk, in particular, who, armed with “her psychology book,” sympathetically appreciates George, albeit merely as a solitary individual, a case of “arrested development,” a “misfit, debarred forever from the best things of life, to be pitied, not blamed.” Her own narrow understanding of George’s psychological selfhood would have been shared widely at the time in a society that understood homosexuality primarily as a psychological aberration and not as a social fact.

3 Good histories of sociological practice in Britain are still surprisingly rare, but see the essays in Bulmer, Martin, ed., Essays on the History of British Sociological Research (Cambridge, 1985), and especially in the context of this article, the first chapter, “The Development of Sociology and of Empirical Social Research in Britain.”

4 Savage, Mike, Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: The Politics of Method (Oxford, 2010), vii. Savage focuses on the broad practices of social observation in general, as does this article, rather than more narrowly on the formal discipline of sociology.

5 Halsey, A. H., A History of Sociology in Britain: Science, Literature and Society (Oxford, 2004), vi.

6 Brady, Sean, Masculinity and Male Homosexuality in Britain, 1861–1913 (Basingstoke, 2005); Cocks, H. G., Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century (London, 2003); Cook, Matt, London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885–1914 (Cambridge, 2003); Houlbrook, Matt, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918–1957 (Chicago, 2005); Kaplan, Morris B., Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times (Ithaca, NY, 2005); Upchurch, Charles, Class Acts: Understandings of Sex between Men in Early Nineteenth-Century London (Berkeley, 2009). For an assessment of the recent literature, see Waters, Chris, “Distance and Desire in the New British Queer History,GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14, no. 1 (2008): 139–55.

7 Upchurch, Charles, “Forgetting the Unthinkable: Cross-Dressers and British Society in the Case of the Queen vs. Boulton and Others,Gender and History 12, no. 1 (April 2000): 127–57.

8 Ellis, Havelock and Symonds, John Addington, Sexual Inversion: A Critical Edition, ed. Crozier, Ivan (Basingstoke, 2008).

9 Croft, Taylor, The Cloven Hoof: A Study in Contemporary London Vices (London, 1932), 12. Croft, Taylor was an interwar pen name of the novelist and travel writer Rupert Croft-Cooke (1903–79), himself arrested on charges of gross indecency in 1952, about which he wrote in The Verdict of You All (London, 1955). The full title of Iwan Bloch’s book is The Sexual Life of Our Time in Its Relations to Modern Civilization; it was first published in 1906 and was translated into English in 1908 (New York: Allied). My thanks to Matt Houlbrook for this reference; there is no better champion of the importance of the interwar years than he.

10 Sagarin, Edward, “Sex Research and Sociology: Retrospective and Prospective,” in Studies in the Sociology of Sex, ed. Henslin, J. M. (New York, 1971), 377408. For more recent histories of sociological investigations of sexuality, some of which dispute Sagarin’s claims and map a much more dynamic set of investigative practices in the United States, see the articles in “Sex and Sociology: Sociological Studies of Sexuality, 1910–1978,” a special issue of Qualitative Sociology 26, no. 4 (December 2003): 429–555. Writing under the pseudonym Cory, Donald Webster, Sagarin had himself published a hugely important work that in part offered a pioneering study of the social dimensions of homosexuality, The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach (New York, 1951). See below for Cory’s work in Britain.

11 See Waters, Chris, “Disorders of the Mind, Disorders of the Body Social: Peter Wildeblood and the Making of the Modern Homosexual,” in Moments of Modernity: Reconstructing Britain, 1945–1964, ed. Conekin, Becky, Mort, Frank, and Waters, Chris (London, 1999), 134–51.

12 Houlbrook, Queer London. For the languages of sexual danger, see also Mort, Frank, Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England since 1830, 2nd ed. (London, 2000).

13 Some of this work is discussed below. Bingham, Adrian, “‘The K-Bomb’: Social Surveys, the Popular Press, and British Sexual Culture in the 1940s and 1950s,Journal of British Studies 50, no. 1 (January 2011): 2, 6. See also Bingham, Adrian, Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life and the British Popular Press, 1918–1978 (Oxford, 2009).

14 “Anomaly” [Baldwin, Harry], The Invert and His Social Adjustment (London, 1927). The book was reprinted with a sequel in 1948.

15 Hope Malik Survey on Psychosexual Treatment. General Reports and Correspondence. Notes for a Meeting with Mr. Douglas Houghton, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, 4 August 1965. Albany Trust Papers (Papers of the Homosexual Law Reform Society), Hall-Carpenter Archives, London School of Economics.

16 Dyer, Richard, “Coming Out as Going In: The Image of the Homosexual as a Sad Young Man,” in his The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation (London, 1993), 7392.

17 See Thomson, Mathew, Psychological Subjects: Identity, Culture and Health in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford, 2006), esp. 234.

18 Bowlby, John, “Psychology and Democracy,Political Quarterly 17, no. 1 (1946): 76.

19 Hornsey, Richard, The Spiv and the Architect: Unruly Life in Postwar London (Minneapolis, 2010), 26.

20 See Mort, Frank, Capital Affairs: London and the Making of the Permissive Society (New Haven, CT, 2010), 4148.

21 Mackenzie, Fraser, Social Health and Morals: An Analysis and a Plan (London, 1947), 13, 15.

22 Dr.Bennett, E. A., in “Discussion on the Social Aspects of Homosexuality,Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 40, no. 10 (August 1947): 585. The meeting took place in London on 8 April 1947. See also the editorial, “The Social Problem of Homosexuality” and the reproduced conference papers, in Medical Press 218 (1947): 207–23.

23 Bennett, , “Discussion on the Social Aspects of Homosexuality,” 586–87, 589. For similar comments, see D. Stanley-Jones, “Sexual Inversion and the English Law,Medical Practitioner 215 (1946): 391–96, Sexual Inversion: An Ethical Study,Lancet 252, no. 6447 (March 1947): 366–69, and “Homosexuality,” British Medical Journal 4439 (2 February 1946): 179. See also the series of contemporary reflections, The Sociological Aspects of Homosexuality,Medico-Legal Journal 15, no. 1 (January–March 1947): 1123.

24 Hailsham, Viscount, Q. C., “Homosexuality and Society,” in They Stand Apart: A Critical Survey of the Problems of Homosexuality, ed. Rees, J. Tudor and Usill, Harley V. (London, 1955), 21, 24.

25 Ibid., 31.

26 This was the general understanding of the term in the essays collected in Social Problems in Wales, ed. United School of Social Service for Wales (London, 1913).

27 Blacker, C. P., ed., A Social Problem Group? (London, 1937), 4. For a discussion, see Jones, Greta, Social Hygiene in Twentieth-Century Britain (London, 1986), chap. 5.

28 Sybil Neville Rolfe, “Biological Aspects of Prostitution,” in Blacker, A Social Problem Group? 120.

29 Swanson, Gillian, “Serenity, Self-Regard and the Genetic Sequence: Social Psychiatry and Preventive Eugenics in Britain, 1930s–1950s,New Formations 60 (Spring 2007): 5065, quotation at 50–51.

30 Burgess, Ernest W., “The Aims of the Society for the Study of Social Problems,Social Problems 1, no. 1 (June 1953): 23. The journal would publish a number of crucial studies of homosexual social life in the 1950s and 1960s, including, as described further in note 100 below, the British sociologist Mary McIntosh’s influential article, “The Homosexual Role” (1968).

31 See Schwartz, Hillel, “On the Origin of the Phrase ‘Social Problems,’Social Problems 44, no. 2 (May 1997): 276–96, esp. 281–82.

32 Spector, Malcolm and Kitsuse, John I., Constructing Social Problems (1977; repr., New Brunswick, NJ, 2001), xi. For the context and analysis of their work, see Schneider, Joseph W., “Social Problems Theory: The Constructionist View,Annual Review of Sociology 11 (August 1985): 208–29; Abbott, Andrew, Chaos of Disciplines (Chicago, 2001), esp. 7376.

33 Hill, John, Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema, 1956–1963 (London, 1986), esp. chaps. 4 and 5.

34 Soddy, Kenneth, “Homosexuality,Lancet 264, no. 6837 (11 September 1954):541.

35 British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, Policy and Principles: General Aims, publication no. 1 (London, 1914), 1.

36 British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, The Social Problem of Sexual Inversion, publication no. 2 (London, ca. 1914).

37 “Anomaly,” The Invert and His Social Adjustment, 138–39.

38 Bennett, “Discussion on the Social Aspects of Homosexuality,” 585.

39 Ibid., 587.

40 Editorial, Observer, 8 November 1953, 6. For a discussion of the battle between the tabloids and the experts over the “ownership” of the “social problem of homosexuality” in the 1950s, see Waters, “Disorders of the Mind, Disorders of the Body Social,” esp. 136–40. For the impact of the Kinsey reports in Britain, see Bingham, “‘The K-Bomb’,” esp. 160–63, 171–76.

41 “A Social Problem,” The Sunday Times, 1 November 1953, 6.

42 For examples, see Calder, W., “The Sexual Offender: A Prison Medical Officer’s Viewpoint,British Journal of Criminology 6, no. 1 (July 1955): 2640; Anon., , “Prison and After: The Experiences of a Former Homosexual,Howard Journal 9, no. 2 (1955): 118–24; Spencer, S. J., “Homosexuality among Oxford Undergraduates,Journal of Mental Science 105 (April 1959): 393405.

43 “Mothers and Sons,” The Sunday Times, 6 December 1953, 6; letter, The Sunday Times, 13 December 1953, 6.

44 Walker, Kenneth and Fletcher, Peter, Sex and Society: A Psychological Study of Sexual Behaviour in a Competitive Culture (London, 1955), 173, 177.

45 John Charlsley Mackwood, “Male Homosexuality,” in “The Sociological Aspects of Homosexuality,” Medico-Legal Journal 15, no. 1 (January–March 1947): 14.

46 The classic American statement about the role of mothers in contributing to the social problem of homosexuality in the 1950s—and thus to the moral breakdown of society—is the study by Kardiner, Abram, Sex and Morality (Indianapolis, 1954).

47 Glover, Edward, The Problem of Homosexuality (London, 1957).

48 Stafford-Clark, David, “Homosexuality,Medico-Legal Journal 25, no. 2 (1957): 73.

49 Kempe, G. Th., “The Homosexual in Society,British Journal of Delinquency 5, no. 1 (July 1954): 420, The Homophiles in Society,International Journal of Sexology 7, no. 5 (May 1954): 217–19, and The Homophile in Society,One 3, no. 3 (March 1955): 815. For Kempe, see the entry in the Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland, available at (accessed 11 August 2008).

50 Grey, Antony, Quest for Justice: Towards Homosexual Emancipation (London, 1992), 3, 288.

51 Leznoff, >Maurice and Westley, William A., “The Homosexual Community,Social Problems 3, no. 4 (April 1956): 257–63, quotations at 257. To this point in the 1950s in Britain, only two works broached the social investigation of homosexual groups: Michael Schofield’s Society and the Homosexual (London, 1952) and Mass-Observation’s so-called “Little Kinsey” report (1949), both discussed later.

52 Kempe, “Homophiles in Society,” 217.

53 For a discussion of the “race relations” paradigm in Britain in the 1950s, see Waters, Chris, “‘Dark Strangers’ in Our Midst: Discourses of Race and Nation in Britain, 1947–1963,Journal of British Studies 36, no. 2 (April 1997): 207–38. Michael Schofield admitted his own debts to that paradigm in A Minority: A Report on the Life of the Male Homosexual in Great Britain (London, 1960), esp. 189–91. For the Chicago School and American sociological investigations into homosexuality, see Heap, Chad, “The City as a Sexual Laboratory: The Queer Heritage of the Chicago School,Qualitative Sociology 26, no. 4 (December 2003): 457–87. For a comprehensive set of foundational texts in the sociology of homosexuality, see Plummer, Ken, ed., Sexualities: Critical Concepts in Sociology, vol. 1, Making a Sociology of Sexualities (London, 2002), esp. chap. 7, E. W. Burgess, “The Sociologic Theory of Psychosexual Behavior.” Burgess was also the author of the opening statement of principles in the inaugural issue of Social Problems, quoted above.

54 Kempe, “Homophiles in Society,” 219.

55 Antony Grey, letter to The Sunday Times, 2 April 1954; reprinted in Grey, Quest for Justice, 279–82.

56 Chesser, Eustace, “Society and the Homosexual,International Journal of Sexology 7, no. 4 (May 1954): 214. Later in the decade, in response to the publication of the Wolfenden Report, Chesser would develop these ideas in Live and Let Live: The Moral of the Wolfenden Report (London, 1958). During the Second World War, Chesser had published his classic study, Love without Fear: A Plain Guide to Sex Technique for Every Married Man (London, 1940).

57 Weeks, Jeffrey, Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800 (London, 1981), 242.

58 Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution(London, 1957). On the Wolfenden Committee and the discovery of the social world of homosexuality, see Mort, Frank, “Mapping Sexual London: The Wolfenden Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution,New Formations 37 (Spring 1999): 92113, and Capital Affairs, 151–72. See also Houlbrook, Queer London, 254–61.

59 Bingham, “‘The K-Bomb’,” 158; see also 165.

60 Stanley, Liz, Sex Surveyed, 1949–1994: From Mass-Observation’s “Little Kinsey” to the National Survey and the Hite Reports (London, 1995), 70; see also Stanley, Liz, “Mass Observation’s ‘Little Kinsey’ and the British Sex Survey Tradition,” in Sexual Cultures: Communities, Values and Intimacy, ed. Weeks, Jeffrey and Holland, Janet (New York, 1996), 97113.

61 Stanley, Sex Surveyed, 200.

62 Ibid., 203.

63 Ibid., 200. For a contemporary commentary and summary, see England, Leonard, “A British Sex Survey,International Journal of Sexology 3, no. 3 (February 1950): 148–54.

64 Savage, Identities and Social Change, 19–20, 94; in general, see chap. 4.

65 Stanley, “Mass Observation’s ‘Little Kinsey,’” 124.

66 Author’s interview with Michael Schofield, 21 August 2000.

67 Gordon Westwood [Schofield, Michael], Society and the Homosexual (London, 1952), 68.

68 Interview with Schofield, 21 August 2000.

69 Westwood [Schofield], Society and the Homosexual, 4.

70 Ibid., 2.

71 Ibid., 181.

72 West, D. J., Homosexuality (London, 1955), 2830. West’s book was reissued as a best-selling Pelican paperback in 1960.

73 Ibid., ix.

74 British Journal of Sociology 7, no. 2 (June 1956): 164. Birnbaum’s was one of the few brief discussions of homosexuality in the journal, which devoted no research article to the topic in the 1950s or 1960s.

75 Westwood [Schofield], Society and the Homosexual, 136.

76 See Mort, Capital Affairs, 172–87, on homosexuals’ testimony before the Wolfenden Committee.

77 Hornsey, The Spiv and the Architect, 28; see also 117–19, 131–35. Harry Oosterhuis has also demonstrated the complex ways in which Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s psychology of the individual homosexual in the late nineteenth century was itself shaped in dialogue with his subjects: Ooosterhuis, , Stepchildren of Nature: Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identity (Chicago, 2000).

78 Hornsey, The Spiv and the Architect, 134.

79 Walker, Kenneth, Sexual Behaviour Creative and Destructive (London, 1966), 11. For the funding of Schofield’s work, see also 225–27. Schofield later wrote that he was more apt to receive funding for his work when he said he was undertaking a British Kinsey report; see his comments in Nardi, Peter M. and Schneider, Beth E., eds., “Kinsey: A 50th Anniversary Symposium,Sexualities 1, no. 1 (February 1998): 83106.

80 Westwood [Schofield], A Minority, xi.

81 Ibid., 1; see also 197.

82 Savage, , Identities and Social Change, 236. Schofield himself also wrote about the new practices, and how to undertake them, in his Social Research (London, 1969).

83 Grey, Quest for Justice, 50.

84 Hauser, Richard, The Homosexual Society (London, 1962), 23.

85 Ibid., 95.

86 Kenneth Plummer found “dubious value” in Hauser’s classifications, roundly condemning his book: Plummer, , Sexual Stigma: An Interactionist Account (London, 1975), 97. At the time, D. J. West both condemned his sampling methods and his classifications but praised him for his reproduction of the candid views expressed by the men he interviewed: West, , “Which Homosexual Society?Man and Society 2, no. 1 (1962): 32.

87 Schofield, Social Research, 119.

88 Schofield, Michael, Sociological Aspects of Homosexuality: A Comparative Study of Three Types of Homosexuals (London, 1965), 147. For a slightly earlier discussion of the problems faced by the social sciences in the study of homosexuality in Britain, see Westwood, Gordon [Schofield, Michael], “Problems of Research into Sexual Deviations,Man and Society 1, no. 1 (Spring 1961): 2932.

89 Savage, Identities and Social Change, 97.

90 Westwood [Schofield], A Minority, 195.

91 Schofield, Sociological Aspects, 188.

92 Ibid., 211.

93 Grey, Antony, “Doctors’ Dilemmas,Man and Society 7 (1964): 29.

94 Irving Bieber, review of Sociological Aspects of Homosexuality by Schofield, Michael, Archives of General Psychiatry 15, no. 2 (August 1966): 214–15.

95 “Interim Statement of the Counter Psychiatry Group of the Gay Liberation Front” (London, 1972), mimeographed leaflet in the Chesterman Papers, Hall-Carpenter Archives, London School of Economics.

96 Wolff, Charlotte, Love between Women (London, 1971), esp. chap. 8. For the ways in which the Minorities Research Group, the 1960s lesbian organization in Britain, sought to open a dialogue between its members and researchers like Wolff, see Jennings, Rebecca, Tomboys and Bachelor Girls: A Lesbian History of Post-War Britain (Manchester, 2007), esp. chap. 5.

97 Hyde, H. Montgomery, The Other Love: An Historical and Contemporary Survey of Homosexuality in Britain (London, 1970). Chapter 1 relies heavily on Schofield’s work.

98 Escoffier, Jeffrey, American Homo: Community and Perversity (Berkeley, 1998), 82. For the shifts taking place with respect to the study of sexuality in the American academic community, see Stein, Arlene, “Three Models of Sexuality: Drives, Identities and Practices,Sociological Theory 7, no. 1 (1989): 113; reproduced in Plummer, Sexualities, vol. 1.

99 Weeks, Jeffrey, Sexuality and Its Discontents (London, 1985), 194.

100 Weeks, Jeffrey, “Mary McIntosh and the ‘Homosexual Role,’” in his Making Sexual History (Cambridge, 2000), 54. For her influence on his early work as a historian, see Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, rev. ed. (London, 1990 [1977]), xi. McIntosh’s article “The Homosexual Role” first appeared in Social Problems 16, no. 2 (Autumn 1968): 182–92. For the article and her subsequent reflections on it, see Plummer, Kenneth, ed., The Making of the Modern Homosexual (London, 1981), 3049.

101 Jeffrey Weeks and Janet Holland, “Introduction,” in Weeks and Holland, Sexual Cultures, 4.

102 Steven Epstein, “An Incitement to Discourse: Sociology and The History of Sexuality,” Sociological Forum 18, no. 3 (September 2003): 499; see also Epstein, Steven, “A Queer Encounter: Sociology and the Study of Sexuality,Sociological Theory 12, no. 2 (July 1994): 188202.

103 Plummer, Sexual Stigma, 199; see also 3 and vii where, despite his criticisms, he thanked Schofield for kindling his interest in sex research.

104 McIntosh, “Homosexual Role,” 190 n. 30; Plummer, Making of the Modern Homosexual, 18.

105 For his recent reflections on the transformative ambitions of the more radical 1970s moment, see Weeks, Jeffrey, “Making the Human Gesture: History, Sexuality and Social Justice,History Workshop Journal 70 (Autumn 2010): 520.

106 For the significance of parallel practices in the United States, see Meyerowitz, Joanne, “‘How Common Culture Shapes the Separate Lives’: Sexuality, Race, and Mid-Twentieth-Century Social Constructionist Thought,Journal of American History (March 2010): 1057–84.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of British Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-9371
  • EISSN: 1545-6986
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-british-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 12
Total number of PDF views: 272 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 711 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 26th May 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.