Author John-Pierre Joyce wants to track down Yorkshire men who underwent brutal aversion therapy in the 60s to ‘cure’ them of being homosexual. Chris Burn reports.
During his extensive decade-long period of research for his book Odd Men Out which examining the struggle for gay rights in the 1950s and 1960s, Leeds author John-Pierre Joyce found his home city and Yorkshire featured frequently in the efforts to decriminalise criminal behaviour.
Now, ahead of a talk in the city next month to tie with LGBT History Month, he hopes to trace some of those whose stories featured in his book and lived through a vital time in modern British history – including the people who were subjected to highly-controversial aversion therapy treatments designed to ‘cure’ them of homosexuality.
Joyce is particularly interested in meeting former patients or colleagues of Basil James, who was senior registrar at the psychiatric unit of St James’s Hospital in Leeds in the early 1960s.
James had previously worked at Glenside Hospital in Bristol, where he pioneered chemical aversion therapy techniques. Patients were given injections of a nausea-inducing drug and then given alcohol to drink. This chemical combination caused vomiting, and, while they were being sick, patients were shown pictures of naked men.
This, it was believed, would condition them to become disgusted by homosexual attraction.
Odd Men Out includes an account by James published in the British Medical Journal of his treatment of a 40-year-old businessman who was played a tape describing his attraction to his homosexual partner as ‘sickening’, and ‘nauseating’ as part of the treatment process.
Joyce also hopes to speak to ‘Kevin’, who was 19 when he was interviewed by student paper Union News and then The People in 1968 at the Hope and Anchor pub (now the New Penny) on Call Lane and talked about receiving electrical aversion therapy, which involved being given repeated electric shocks as part of the ‘cure’ attempts.
The author also hopes to get in contact with two men he wrote about in his book, Terence Spencer and I. Suckell, who attempted to set up a gay social club in Leeds in the late 1960s.
Joyce says: “History is made by the people who lived it, and it’s important to better understand the past by talking to those who were actually there. I also want to continue researching the gay history of Leeds, and I’d very much like to find out more from the people whose names came up in the archives while I was writing the book.”
Joyce, who now lives in Italy, says his talk next month will focus on about the pleasures, challenges and risks of being a gay man in the 1950s and 1960s.
It will particularly examine the Leeds experience, including stories and information about the city’s underground scene, Leeds’s role in the law reform process and the attitudes of the police, the Press and the public to homosexuality. Two prominent local MPs – Denis Healey (the Labour member for Leeds East, and Defence Secretary in Harold Wilson’s 1964-70 cabinet) and Sir Keith Joseph (the Conservative member for Leeds North-East, and Social Services Secretary in Edward Heath’s 1970-74 government) – were consistent supporters of homosexual law reform in parliament during the 1960s, while Leeds University students were also early campaigners for what would later be called ‘gay rights’.
Yorkshire also hosted the first ever conference in Britain on the social needs of gay men at York University 50 years ago – an event whose organisers were based in Leeds. Now those who were at the forefront of efforts to move things forward for gay men have a chance to share their stories again.
Joyce’s talk will be at 6pm on Wednesday February 26 at Leeds Central Library. The event is free. Tickets from www.ticketsource.co.uk/leedslibraryevents. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07787622898.