Heritage: The long, strange struggle for LGBT rights in the UK

Romford Pride is going to be held in the town centre on July 28. Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Arch

Romford Pride is going to be held in the town centre on July 28. Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Archive/PA Images - Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Archive/PA

As Havering celebrates its first Gay Pride festival, Prof Ged Martin looks back to a strange conversation between a local MP and a gay rights campaigner

Until 1967, homosexual men could be sent to prison in England for having gay sex. Many had their lives ruined by gaol terms.

Antony Grey devoted his life to campaigning to end this persecution.

He would talk to anybody – from student groups to bigoted opponents – to argue that gay men should be allowed to live as they pleased.

Back in 1965, I was enthusiastically and ineptly interested in girls.

I assumed homosexuals were rare exotics, not knowing that some of my friends were secretly gay.

But, if homosexuals were attracted to their own sex, it seemed crazy to lock them up with hundreds of other men.

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So, aged 19, I attended a meeting about homosexual law reform. Afterwards, I chatted to the speaker – Antony Grey.

I mentioned that Hornchurch MP, Godfrey Lagden, was anti-gay. He’d made a lurid speech in parliament on 29 June 1960. You can read his remarks on the Hansard Millbank website. I’d rather not quote them.

Mr Lagden was a family friend. I should stress that he was a kind man, although his views may now seem outdated.

When he complained in parliament about traffic problems at Gallows Corner in 1956 (yes, there was congestion even then), a Labour MP joked that he was an expert on the gallows.

Smiling at my mention of Godfrey Lagden, Antony Grey told me a strange story about a discussion between them. The tale was so bizarre that, in later years, I wondered if I’d misunderstood it.

But Grey recounted the episode in his autobiography, Quest for Justice. He was a serious person, and I trust his account.

A television company in Cardiff fed a controversial weekly discussion programme into the ITV network. They decided to tackle the law against homosexuality, and invited Godfrey Lagden to argue against repeal.

Antony Grey agreed to put the other side of the case. He spoke with his back to the camera, in a shadow, to stop the Welsh police swooping on him as he left the studio.

The broadcast went well. The next morning, the two men caught the same train back to London. They decided to travel together, grabbing a table where they could sit face-to-face, read newspapers and chat.

For Antony Grey, this was an opportunity to provide “some elementary education”. A friendly conversation might prove that homosexuals weren’t all (as his companion had called them) “evil”.

Near Reading, Godfrey Lagden suddenly leaned across and dropped a bombshell. In a puzzled voice, he asked:

“Is it really true that homosexuals find the idea of going to bed with a woman distasteful?”

Astonished, Grey could only reply, “Yes, some of us actually do.”

The Hornchurch MP had assured parliament he understood homosexuality. A former police sergeant, Godfrey Lagden had probably arrested gay men.

Cynics said the police found rounding up “queers”, as they were insultingly called, easier than catching real criminals.

Gay men were dismissed as “effeminate”. Strangely, police evidence often claimed they’d violently resisted arrest. This explained why many homosexuals appeared in court badly beaten up.

Maybe Godfrey Lagden was trying to sort out the difference between gays and bisexuals. But it was a remarkable confession of ignorance.

A later Conservative politician, Robin Squire, MP for Hornchurch 1979-97, supported gay rights. Heterosexual himself, he strongly believed in fairness.

The 1967 law change involved a compromise: boys and girls could legally make love at sixteen (although it’s not usually a good idea), but sex between men remained illegal until they were 21. In 1994, Squire helped reduce this to eighteen.

The first ever Romford Pride event on Saturday, July 28, may not be your scene or my scene, but let’s give Havering’s LGBT+ community a friendly greeting, remembering all those sensitive and tormented men whose lives were wrecked by cruel and ignorant prejudice.