Who’s The Victim? Homosexuality, Marriage and Family in Post-War Britian

whosethevictim

In 1961 Allied Film Makers released their controversial drama Victim. Its critical success as the first British film to centre its narrative on the theme of homosexuality depended on “…securing heterosexual audience sympathy.”[1] (See plate 1) Although the audience is directed throughout the film to express sympathy with homosexual characters, the central character’s victimhood relies not only upon the consequences of his own sexuality, but also the damage that his sexuality has inflicted upon his marriage. Melville Farr’s privileged existence is upheld by his marriage, which is shattered by his inability to escape his homosexual past due to blackmail. However his shared victimhood with his wife, Laura, is balanced owing largely to the childless nature of their matrimonial union, and by Laura’s pre-marital knowledge of his homosexual history. With acute sensitivities to “news of the day” social issues, Victim is a product of a vast field of public concerns that were discussed and debated during the post-war period.[2] These numerous social issues were often highlighted by amplified scientific spotlights upon gender roles, their responsibilities within marriage, and the direction of childhood nurture. Coinciding with an increased scientific commentary upon the childhood ‘origins’ of homosexuality and an unprecedented debate upon the legality of homosexual relations between consenting adults, homosexuality in post-war Britain was scientifically rationalised and rejected from within a hetronormative ‘nuclear’ family unit. It was this model that reformists attempted to negotiate around during the ‘50s campaigns to legalise privatized homosexual relations, but which gay liberationists specifically attempted to challenge and redefine during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Analysing the scientifically prescriptive literature for both the origins of homosexuality, and those which explored the intricacies of gender roles within marriage and parenthood, I will explore how these socially prescriptive contingencies compared but also conflicted between the homosexual and heterosexual sphere. I will then consider the broader implications that the centrality of psycho-analytical prescription played in politicizing those trapped outside of its patriarchal boundaries.

In a serialised set of BBC broadcasts in 1945 Reverend David Mace, secretary to the Marriage Guidance Council, proclaimed that the only means of controlling the ‘surge of elemental emotion’ that had been released during the war was by upholding the ‘spiritual ideal’ of marriage.[3] Post-war fears surrounding national birth rates were partly remedied by the ensuing ‘baby boom’ which followed the findings of the Royal Commission on Population in 1949.[4] With 1946 as a peak year for divorce petitions and within a more fluid financial path for divorce established in 1949 by means of wider provision of Legal Aid,[5] the pressure to maintain a stable family unit is evident from the lack of recommended changes to the law by the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce in 1955.[6] A vast field of prescriptive literature scientifically asserted the centrality of a balanced family lifestyle. The provision of security for the family unit was, at heart, the premise of Beveridge’s Welfare State, although the increased importance of motherhood was recognised only in relation to a financially stable father. Despite the realities of working mothers, chiefly within the working classes, the domestication of motherhood was increasingly prescribed. Victim’s Laura is a working woman whose maternal duties are realised in her working capacity as an assistant to a paediatrician who specialises in ‘disturbed’ children. Dyer considered children to be the ‘…structuring absence’ of the film[7], and the frequent images of childhood used throughout it suggests the maternal desire of Laura, and the precluding barriers that her marriage symbolises. The parenting of children, as constructed by Bowlby, was almost entirely measured within the female sphere, whilst the fatherly impetus was firmly concentrated into financial and ‘emotional’ support for the mother.[8] Whilst the post-war phenomenon of ‘Bowlbyism’ many not be fully laid at Bowlby’s door,[9] the essence of his psychological stance is traceable in his contemporaries publications. Considered by Richardson to be a more ‘accessible’ aid than Bowlby’s, Spock’s Baby and Childcare assumed a similarly remote role for fatherhood, with ‘occasional’ aid in the child’s upbringing.[10] The psychologically-articulated barrier that rationalized the separation of gender roles within childrearing emulated a larger discourse where psycho-analysis upheld a variety of divisions, including race and sexuality. Science became a key component in exploring homosexuality in post-war Britain, but would provide a confliction of prescription when applied within the family unit.

In 1955, Gorer’s ambivalently worded exploration of homosexual activity revealed that ‘quite a number’ of those not interested in ‘sex’ were homosexual.[11] Westwood believed that ‘…a not inconsiderable minority who are attempting to lead normal, socially approved lives have homosexual difficulties.[12] There are myriad reasons that compelled homosexual men and women to marry in the post-war era: Hallam Tennyson married his wife as all of his brothers had been killed during the war and he ‘…wanted to have a family because they hadn’t been able to’.[13]  Sharley McLean, who entered Britain as a refugee, believed that ‘…getting married not only meant an outward mobility in sexual terms, but also a belonging in a real and tangible sense in that [she] became a British citizen’.[14] Rather than wholly ruling out the acceptance of these kinds of unions, Westwood believe that a ‘conditioned’ homosexual could circumstantially do so. The reasoning of treatment as a viable path towards heterosexuality fundamental rationalised Westwood’s psycho-analytical approach, and he believed that the reformed homosexual could possess ‘…attributes that can be of value to society as a whole’.[15]  This attempted diversion of sexual preference to within a ‘socially approved’ hetronormative sphere only provided security if its boundaries were not breached. Statistics of legal records reveal that in London in 1952, sixteen of the thirty-six men arrested for importuning at urinals were married.[16] However the marital status of the men in question did in some instances work to their advantage. The case of Thomas ‘C’, a married forty-eight-year-old clerk with two children, was dismissed owing to the ‘moral lapse’ which had facilitated his homosexual ‘impulse’.[17] The leniency afforded in this case owed to the weight of financial support that Mr. ‘C’ brought to his family, but also a consideration had been made in recognition of the temporary departure from the ‘morality’ of the unit in which he was inhabiting. West’s exploration of homosexuality specifically drew on Freudian analysis to state that the ‘handicap’ of the untreated homosexual drew him to marry in an attempt to return to a ‘motherly’ environment and to ‘gain benefits from a stable home’, but reiterated that ‘the confirmed homosexual tends sooner or later to relapse into his old habits’[18] A key point of analysis for post-war investigations into homosexuality, like within the analysis of heterosexuality, was within adolescence and the stabilisation of a heterosexual path from within a child’s formative years.

The centrality of motherly care that child-development theorists exhorted conflicts with the recommended childhood care that social commentators upon homosexuality approved. Whereas ‘Bowlbyism’ suggested that delinquency and affectionless-ness derived from maternal deprivation, West and Westwood suggested the ‘felony’ of homosexual behaviour was a disease that directly correlated with an unbalanced parental upbringing.  Whilst Westwood concurred that the central figure of the mother was of vital importance in maintaining a sustainable path to emotional stability, he warned that if the father ‘…becomes unimportant and insignificant in the boys life, then the feminine influence in the boys environment may become too powerful.’[19] West saw a direct correlation between the unbalanced family unit, and homosexuality. The fathers’ role was to encourage a ‘…healthier, less tense approach to sex, and thereby forestall the development of perversion.’[20] If, by West and Westwood’s logic, homosexuality derived from a want of fatherly nurture, then the centrality of motherhood so ingrained in Bowlby and kind was surely its foundation. The vast incongruities between these scientific fields highlighted and strengthened the social disparity between those outside of the desired unit, and displaced them from the family model. West stated that should homosexuals marry, the results would ‘…obviously be disastrous.’[21] For Victim’s Laura, the maternal dependency of a child-patient in her care is articulated through her paid surveillance of his well-being. Whilst expressing his emotions via a paintbrush, Laura’s ‘maternal’ care is diverted by the aroused suspicion of her husband’s sexual past within a newspaper report of Barrett’s suicide.[22] Whilst her husband’s homosexual past invades her thought, she is unaware of the erratic facial-disfiguring paint-strokes that the child has begun in an ‘unstable’ manner. It is a subtle suggestion, but one that places doubt upon Laura’s maternal abilities in light of the lack of ‘emotional’ support that her husband can provide.  Homosexuality was considered a psychologically-recognisable aberration of an unbalanced family lifestyle, and as such was excluded from a ‘family’ identity.

The medically prescribed models of family stability provided a dominant narrative for ‘law reforming’ homosexuals to work alongside.  Moreover this framework in turn provided a model for gay liberationists to reject and politicize against. Rather than recognizing and accommodating the model that Wolfenden endowed, as exposed in Victim with pleas for secluded pity, movements such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) levered against it and prioritized the issues which identified them. Personalising their political alienation and forcing recognition of their political identity, the GLF championed anti-family stances, and modelled alternatives that catered for their needs.[23] Having ‘Come Out’ as an identifiable citizen, ‘Coming Together’ gave opportunity to replace ‘…the family unit with its rigid gender-role pattern by new organic units… where the development of children becomes the shared responsibility of a larger group of people who live together.’[24] Anti-psychiatry characterised the GLF’s detachment from the patriarchal models that Bowlby, Spock, West and Westwood negotiated: a detachment that specifically rejected the idea that homosexuality was a ‘mental disorder’ which could be treated with ‘long periods of analytical psychotherapy.’[25] Victim stands between pity and pride, maintaining patriarchal heterosexuality as a force with which to negotiate around. The patriarchal reconstruction of ‘family’ in post-war Britain, which negotiated gender divisions into separate and distinctive spheres, deferred the socially oppressed citizenship of homosexuality firmly away from considered inclusion. However the incongruities that science presented by maintaining their beliefs gave currency to homosexual men and women who were prepared to stand against its exclusionary stance.

Apendix

 Although the narrative of victim revolves around the homosexual ‘underworld’, its main characters are attempting to cohere within a heterosexual lifestyle. Although hinting at the ‘...UN-TALKED-ABOUT’ subject of homosexuality, the subject is placated for prospective film-goers by an image of the heterosexual union between Bogarde and Syms’ characters.

Although the narrative of victim revolves around the homosexual ‘underworld’, its main characters are attempting to cohere within a heterosexual lifestyle. Although hinting at the ‘…UN-TALKED-ABOUT’ subject of homosexuality, the subject is placated for prospective film-goers by an image of the heterosexual union between Bogarde and Syms’ characters.

Bibliography

Collins, M. Modern Love. 2nd ed. (Atlantic Books, 2003)

Hardyment, C. Dream Babies: Childcare from Locke to Spock. 2nd ed. (Jonathan Cape, 1983)

Houlbrook, M. Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918–1957, (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Jivani, A. It’s Not Unusual: A History of Lesbian and Gay Britain in the Twentieth Century. 1st ed. (Indiana University Press, 1997)

Medhurst, A. ‘Victim’: As Text in Context in Screen (London), July-October (1984)

Landy, M. Cinematic Uses of the Past. 1st ed. (University of Minnesota Press, 1996)

Langhamer, C. Adultery in Post-war England in History Workshop Journal Issue 62 (2006)

Lewis, J. Women in Britain since 1945. 2nd ed. (Basil Blackwell, 1992)

Peplar, M. Family Matters: A history of ideas about family since 1945. 2nd ed. (Longman, 2002)

Riley, D. War in the Nursery. 1st ed. (Viargo Press Ltd, 1983)

Robinson, L. Gay men and the Left in post-war Britain. How the personal got political. 1st ed. (Manchester University Press, 2007)

Robinson, L. Three Revolutionary Years: The Impact of the Counter Culture on the Development of the Gay Liberation  Movement in Britain in Cultural and Social History 2006; 3

Stanley, L, Sex Surveyed, 1949-1994: From Mass-Observation’s ‘Little Kinsey’ to The National Survey and the Hite Report. (Taylor & Francis, 1995)

Wilson, A.T.M. Some Reflections and Suggestions on the Prevention and Treatment of Marital Problems in Human Reflections 2, (1949) 

Primary Sources

Bowlby, J. Child Care and the Growth of Love. 2nd ed. (Penguin, 1953)

Gorer, G. Exploring English Character. 2nd ed. (London, 1955)

Lennox, G, ‘Getting a Gay Commune Together’, 7 Days, 18 March 1972.

Mace, D R. Coming Home. A Series of Five Broadcast Talks. 2nd ed. (Staple Press, 1945)

Spock, B. Baby and Childcare. 3rd ed. (The Bodley Head Ltd, 1955)

Victim (dir. Basil Dearden) 1961

Westwood, G. Society and the Homosexual. 1st ed. (Gollancz Ltd, 1952)

West, D.J. Homosexuality. 2nd ed. (Trinity Press, 1955)


[1] Medhurst, A. ‘Victim’: As Text in Context. in Screen (London), July-October (1984) p.34

[2] Landy, M. Cinematic Uses Of The Past. 1st ed. (University of Minnesota Press, 1996) p.198

[3] Mace, D R. Coming home. A Series of Five Broadcast Talks. 2nd ed. (Staple Press, 1945) p 209

[4] Peplar, M. Family Matters: A history of ideas about family since 1945. 2nd ed. (Longman, 2002) p.18

[5] Langhamer, C. Adultery in Post-war England in History Workshop Journal Issue 62 (2006) p.94

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dyer, R. Victim: hegemonic project in Dyer, R,  The Matter of Images 3rd ed. (Routledge, 1993) p. 83

[8] Bowlby, J. Child Care and the Growth of Love. 2nd ed. (Penguin, 1953)

[9] Riley, D. War In The Nursery: Theories of the Child and Mother. 1st ed. (Virago-Press, 1983) p.109

[10] Spock, B. Baby and Childcare. 3rd ed. (The Bodley Head Ltd, 1955) p.45

[11] Gorer, G. Exploring English Character. 2nd ed. (London, 1955) p.80

[12] Westwood, G. Society and the Homosexual. 1st ed. (Gollancz Ltd, London 1952) p.32

[13] Jivani, A. It’s Not Unusual: A History of Lesbian and Gay Britain in the Twentieth Century. 1st ed. (Indiana University

Press, 1997) pp.92-93

[14] Ibid. p.93

[15] Ibid, p.153

[16] Corporation of London Record Office (CLRO), MH/GH (1952,1957)

[17] CLRO, GH (22nd August, 1952)

[18] West, D.J. Homosexuality. 2nd ed. (Trinity-Press, 1955) p.120

[19] Westwood, G..p. 40

[20] West, D.J. p.128

[21] Ibid.

[22] Victim (dir. Basil Dearden) 1961 00:47:05 – 00:47:50

[23] Robinson, L. Three Revolutionary Years: The Impact of the Counter Culture on the Development of the Gay Liberation

   Movement in Britain in Cultural and Social History 2006; 3: p.466

[24] Lennox, G, ‘Getting a Gay Commune Together’, 7 Days, 18 March 1972.

[25] Westwood, G. p. 157

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