When the first discussions about whether to decriminalize gay sex in the UK reached the cabinet, Winston Churchill was Prime Minister.
His words at that meeting set in motion the creation of the Wolfenden Report – a government sanctioned investigation into homosexuality. This would eventually lead to the partial decriminalization of gay sex.
But the Prime Minister did this at a time when LGBTI lives were totally closeted. And while leading the right-wing Conservative party.
So did he simply hold liberal views, or was he leading a secret double life?
Churchill’s first recorded brush with homosexuality happened when he was 21.
In 1895, as a young cavalry officer, he faced accusations of committing ‘acts of gross immorality of the Oscar Wilde type’ with fellow cadets at Sandhurst.
Sandhurst was as much a British institution then as it is today. It was the training ground for British Army officers who controlled the empire. More recently, modern day Princes William and Harry both trained at Sandhurst.
Churchill successfully sued the accuser for defamation being awarded £400 in damages.
But this story leads historian Micheal Bloch to describe him as ‘far from being straightforwardly heterosexual.’
‘Makes you proud to be British’
Bloch’s book Closet Queens explores a history of sex and secrecy in the UK’s corridors of power. In it, he details many examples of Churchill’s liberal views.
‘There is a famous story that when Winston Churchill was Prime Minister, he was woken one freezing February morning by a Downing Street aide bearing the shocking news that a male Tory MP had been caught having sex with a naked guardsman in St James’s Park.
‘Noting that it had been the coldest night of the winter, Churchill is said to have remarked: “Makes you proud to be British.”‘
The Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn went on to say about this story that ‘even if this wonderful anecdote isn’t true, it ought to be.’
Churchill often made quick-witted one-liners like this. But even if we can’t be sure this story is true, we do know from the National Archives about his remarks at that all-important cabinet meeting.
How Churchill changed gay rights in the UK forever
After World War II there was an increase in arrests and prosecutions of gay men. Churchill, who had been beaten in an election immediately after the war, was now back in power. But the General Election of 1951 gave him only the slimmest of majorities in parliament.
By the end of 1954, in England and Wales, there were 1,069 men in prison for homosexual acts.
This prompted a UK cabinet discussion of the matter. The meeting considered whether the best way to stop the rise in prosecutions was simply to decriminalize homosexuality.
As Prime Minister, Churchill chaired that meeting. And in it he quite bluntly states, the Tory party would not accept responsibility for making the law more lenient towards gay men. He felt it was simply not the time.
However, that same cabinet meeting set in motion the commissioning of the Wolfenden Report.
The report, published in 1957, stated that ‘homosexual behavior between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offense.’
It would take 10 years and a Labour government, to introduce the report’s suggestion. But perhaps Winston’s reasoning for not pursuing it at the time was not his personal views. He simply didn’t have the votes in parliament.
During that cabinet meeting, he also says,’remember that we can’t expect to put the whole world right with a majority of 18.’
And so cabinet set up the Wolfenden committee, to build reasoned argument and public support.
Was Churchill secretly gay?
There is little evidence to suggest Churchill was gay, Bloch says in the Guardian.
However, he also says Britain’s most famous Prime Minister never showed much interest in women other than his wife.
Bloch describes how Churchill had a series of close – platonic – relationships with attractive young men.
His friendship with the ‘wispy falsetto-voiced’ Eddie Marsh was one of the more famous examples.
The International Churchill Society describes the ‘strikingly handsome’ Marsh as ‘attracted to other young men’ in a ‘necessarily platonic way’.
Officially, he was Churchill’s Private Secretary. But they had a close friendship. When Marsh died, he received a posthumous knighthood.
No evidence exists that the PM ever concerned himself with Marsh’s ‘private life.’
And yet, Bloch concludes that ultimately Churchill, ‘was romantically drawn to men rather than women, even if his relations with them stopped short of the physical.’
Actually, Marsh’s biographer describes Marsh in similar words.
By modern labels, perhaps we’d be reaching for a homo-romantic label for this description.
But Churchill’s death came in 1965, two years before England and Wales finally made gay sex legal. So he never saw the passage of the bill that would make even a discussion about this remotely possible.
So did Churchill have a secret double life?
We may never know. Bloch also writes about ‘Closet Queens’ and how they protected their reputation:
‘They often destroy their papers or arrange for them to be destroyed after their deaths. If their biographies are written; their families usually ensure that homo or bisexual aspects of their lives are barely mentioned.’