A new book by a Leeds author tells the shocking stories of gay men who underwent brutal medical treatment in the 1960s to ‘cure’ them of homosexuality. Chris Burn reports.
The 1960s are viewed in the popular imagination as a time of liberation and freedom but despite the immense social and cultural changes that were taking place, being a homosexual was often not just viewed with disgust in many quarters but could be actively dangerous.
But it was not just the prospect of being arrested or even jailed for homosexual acts and subsequently running the risk of losing your job and being ostracised in the community – as well as the knock-on effect that many gay men at the time were targeted by blackmailers.
Many prominent people in the medical profession believed homosexuality was an illness that could be cured and were willing to use shocking methods to prove their point.
Details of what was done to gay men at the hands of the authorities are the subject of new book Odd Men Out by Leeds author John-Pierre Joyce. The book, which is a result of more than a decade of research and interviews, is a history of gay men in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s charting the social, legal and cultural changes that took place between the appointment of the Wolfenden Committee in 1954 which examined the laws around homosexuality to the emergence of the Gay Liberation Front in 1970.
Joyce has unearthed many stories for the book which are jaw-dropping to modern sensibilities – such as the man who complained to police about being blackmailed by his former lover, only for them both to be jailed for nine months – but the most shocking chapter of his book focuses on the widespread attempts to cure homosexuality.
There was the use of female hormone treatment to supposedly dampen homosexual desire for prisoners in the 1950s – infamously prescribed for mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing – while the respected medical journal The Lancet criticised the Wolfenden Report’s assertion that homosexuality was not a disease or an illness and instead concluded that it was a “medical disorder”.
Joyce’s book explains that for many gay men, the prospect of a cure was an “appealing proposition” as they were living in a time when they were “threatened with prosecution, imprisonment, social rejection, loss of career and family break-up if their sexuality was discovered... added to this was an almost unquestioning faith in doctors and a belief that modern science and medicine could cure all ills”.
Techniques tested on gay men in the 1960s that would supposedly help turn them into heterosexuals included ‘psychotherapeutic cures’ involving giving subjects LSD and then talking through ‘conflicts’ in their life with a psychiatrist to determine what may have caused them to becoming homosexuals.
‘Chemical aversion’ – in which patients were played a taped interview of them describing their homosexual practices while being injected a vomit-inducing drug – was also tried. The practice had limited success; Joyce’s book describes how one subject who underwent the treatment left his wife and went to live with a man less than two months later.
Another person who went through the procedure at the age of 18 described how being repeatedly injected to be made to be violently sick in a small, windowless room was “like a horror movie”.
The book also recounts the case of a soldier called Gerald William Clegg-Hill who was convicted of homosexual offences in 1962 and ordered to undergo six months of treatment. He died within three days after injections resulted in stomach haemorrhages, convulsions and a coma. “To spare his family’s embarrassment, Billy’s death was quietly attributed to ‘natural causes’,” explains the book.
Electrical aversion – or shock – therapy was also used, being first tried in a hospital in Surrey in 1963 and gradually being used more extensively around the country. One man who underwent the treatment as a 19-year-old said the pain of the electric shocks could be “excruciating” and “much worse than touching a live electric cable”. Treatment was carried out at private clinics and NHS hospitals with no oversight of the voltage of electric shock being administered, which varied widely from hospital to hospital.
Even after the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexual acts in private between consenting adult men – such practices continued, both voluntarily and as medical treatment orders for those convicted of remaining homosexual offences.
But there was growing concern from some in the medical community about the use of such “painful and inhumane” treatments with deeply-questionable results.
By 1971 – in the same year that a Sunday Times article exposed the high failure rates of electric shock therapy and detailed the case of a man who suffered a heart attack during treatment – a survey of 2,000 people for an academic study found only two per cent thought homosexuals needed psychiatric or medical help. This was in stark contrast with a 1965 opinion poll in which 93 per cent of respondents had said they were in favour of medical treatment for homosexual men.
Joyce, who now lives in Italy, started researching his book over a decade ago while working as a primary school teacher in London and the Oxford history graduate says he hoped to shine a light on a neglected part of British history.
He says learning about the medical ‘cure’ treatments of the time was one of the biggest revelations for him. “It was a shock to see how many clinics and hospitals and doctors were involved in the so-called curing of homosexuality through various gruesome methods. It is surprising that has not been fully acknowledged to this day.”
But he says he does not feel anger towards those who pushed such treatments – many of whom genuinely believed they were helping patients.
“You have to understand the mentality of people at the time,” he says. “Police, doctors, judges, decision-makers – what they believed was homosexuality was irreligious, an illness and a sickness. They were prisoners of their own time to an extent and what they did was expected of them. It was expected that this needed to be controlled. So I wouldn’t feel angry with them.
“One of the things I learnt doing this book is to understand people and understand the past, you have to get inside the mentality of individuals and understand where they were coming from.”
Joyce highlights a 2008 quote from Antony Grey, the secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, as underlining his motivation for writing the book: “It’s very important that people should remember how it was and how it could be again in the future, because I think things can go backwards as well as forwards. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
Open debate ‘led to reform’
John-Pierre Joyce says one positive of the 1960s was the willingness of both sides of the debate on decriminalising homosexuality to openly discuss their views – something which led to reform.
He cites a televised debate in which Conservative MP Cyril Osborne said of homosexuality: “It’s a filthy, dirty, evil habit and I want it stopping.” Joyce says allowing people to make such remarks contributed to a more “open discussion”.
“It was good in a way because the ridiculousness of one side of the argument was openly on display. The danger now is that people self-censor themselves and don’t say what they think or believe.
“With the debate in the 1950s and 1960s, people felt able to express their feelings. Now people can’t speak their own minds as much.”