The gay anti-Nazi brotherhood

In recognising the threat Hitler posed and swimming against the tide of public opinion, the glamour boys defied the stereotypes


This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The concept of a “homintern,” a parody of the Comintern variously attributed to Maurice Bowra, W.H. Auden, and Cyril Connolly, was originally intended as a droll reflection on the gayness of English literary circles in the 1930s, a time when the reputation of the Communist International as a bulwark against fascism was at its peak among Western intellectuals.

The Glamour Boys: The Secret Story of the Rebels who Fought for Britain to Defeat Hitler by Chris Bryant Bloomsbury, £25

It would assume more sinister connotations in the wake of the 1951 defection to the Soviet Union of British diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, two members of the Cambridge Five spy ring whose treachery continues to fascinate. Burgess was flamboyantly gay and Maclean was alleged to have been bi-sexual. Another member of the ring, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures Anthony Blunt, was also gay, though his role was not revealed until 1979.

What was little more than an incidental factor in the men’s treachery (class, certainly more so than homosexuality, had more to do with it) nonetheless inspired influential voices on both sides of the Atlantic to seize upon sexual deviance as a surefire sign of disloyalty to King and country. “By the very nature of their vice,” declared R.G. Waldeck in a 1952 article for the conservative American magazine Human Events, homosexuals “belong to a sinister, mysterious and efficient international [that] has infiltrated into the press, the movies, and the cabinets; and it all but dominates the arts, literature, theater, music, and TV.”

In recognising the threat Hitler posed and swimming against the tide of public opinion, the glamour boys defied these stereotypes

To the linkage of treason and homosexuality so speciously and yet enduringly lodged in the public mind by the Cambridge Five some 70 years ago, the Labour MP Chris Bryant presents a long-overdue corrective in the form of The Glamour Boys, a group biography highlighting another circle of gay Britons, one which played a heroic role in defending their nation against a foreign tyranny.

While much has been written about the Tory “insurgents” who joined Churchill in opposing the appeasement policies of their party’s own gutless prime minister, completely unrecognised until now was the preponderance — “at least a third” according to Bryant — of “queer or nearly queer” men among their number. It is these 10 men whom Bryant makes the subject of his fascinating new book. (Bryant’s frequent use of a label considered a slur at the time when his subjects lived — and which hardly enjoys universal acceptance among its would-be designees today — as interchangeable with “homosexual” and “gay” is one of the few annoyances in this otherwise well-written book.)

Neville Chamberlain’s derision of the group as the “glamour boys,” Bryant writes, inferred narcissism, immaturity, and frivolousness, all codes for homosexuality. But in recognising the threat Hitler posed and swimming against the tide of public opinion, the glamour boys defied these stereotypes.

Bryant, whose distinguished career as an openly gay MP stands as humble tribute to those who silently preceded him, includes in his group of 10 Liberal National MP Robert Bernays, National Labour MP Harold Nicolson, and the Conservative MPs Bob Boothby, Ronald Cartland, Victor Cazalet, Harry Crookshank, Jack Macnamara, Ronnie Tree, Philip Sassoon and Jim Thomas.

These men, Bryant argues, were inherently better equipped to stand against popular sentiment than mere heterosexuals as they had been “schooled in courage by a society that hated homosexuality”. For some, personal encounters with Germany and Germans were also formative in shaping early opposition to Hitler.

One of the most glaring contrasts between Britain and Weimar Germany during the interwar period was the treatment of homosexuals. Threatened with public humiliation and harsh prison sentences in their homeland — where neither war heroes nor aristocrats were spared punishment, as Bryant relates in several tragic stories gathered from press accounts and courtroom records — many gay Britons escaped to Berlin, where they could experience a degree of sexual freedom unrivaled in the Western world at the time. And so when the Nazis seized power in 1933 and rushed to criminalise homosexuality, it moved a handful of these (secretly) gay observers to join Jews and leftists in raising cries of protest.

Illustrative of the uphill battle the men faced, both in terms of their private lives and political commitments, was the response of their countrymen to the 1934 Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler brutally purged his SA paramilitary and accused its leader Ernst Roehm of having organised a homosexual coup against the Nazi regime.

Far from viewing the mass, extrajudicial arrests and executions as a portent of the barbarism to come, “the Fuhrer,” cheered The Times, “has started cleaning up.” While the dangers the glamour boys faced were certainly nowhere near as grave as those confronted by their gay brethren in Germany, between 1933 and 1945 some 100,000 men were arrested on homosexual offences in Great Britain.

One of the most glaring contrasts between Britain and Weimar Germany during the interwar period was the treatment of homosexuals

A nonfiction book tracing the lives of so many individuals can be an unwieldy prospect, and Bryant mostly accomplishes the task of keeping readers engaged thanks to a keen sense of narrative pacing and deft characterisation.

He paints a particularly devious portrait of Sir Joseph Ball, the former MI5 agent who served Chamberlain as party enforcer, spin doctor and saboteur, and who surveilled and ran black propaganda operations against his boss’s critics.

Bryant makes good use of original source material, which, as is usually the case when dealing with homosexual figures from history, presents challenges in that details related to interior lives are either absent or obscured. To overcome this obstacle, he uses his intuition as a gay man to offer readers a sense of the opportunity mixed with trepidation the glamour boys surely felt, as their secret identities afforded them unique insight into Nazism’s dangers but also constituted a perilous liability.

Being homosexual, Bryant argues about his book’s subjects, “made it easier for them to differ from the rest of the public,” for as “outsiders … accustomed to the opprobrium of others”, they had thicker political skins. The logic he marshals to make the case that their status as sexual outlaws girded them to oppose Nazism, however, was cited by others to explain why homosexuals were attracted to national socialism.

“Being among civilisation’s discontents,” wrote the author of a 1943 report published by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, homosexuals “are always willing to take a chance on something new that holds any promise of improving their lot, even though their chances of success may be small and the risk great.”

Ultimately, while homosexuality may have played a role in the decisions of some men to join or resist the forces of Nazism and communism, there is no indication that gays are more or less likely to be Nazis or communists, Tories or socialists, traitors or national treasures than straights. Call them what you will, that’s anything but queer.

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