By Noel Halifax
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2391

How authorities swept away wartime sexual freedoms

This article is over 7 years, 11 months old
After a period of sexual liberalism during the Second World War, the establishment cracked down, writes Noel Halifax
Issue 2391

Scientist Alan Turing was granted a posthumous royal pardon on 24 December last year. He had been convicted of gross indecency in 1952 after an affair with a 19 year old man. 

Instead of going to prison he had agreed to be “chemically castrated” to “cure” him. He committed suicide in 1954. 

This attack was part of a wider homophobic tide not only in Britain but in the US and across much of the West.

In Britain the charge was led by Sir Maxwell Fyfe, Tory home secretary from 1951 to 1953, and then by Sir John Nott-Bower, Metropolitan Police commissioner from 1953 to 1958. 

Fyfe stood out as a homophobe even by the standards of the time. His reaction to the Wolfenden Committee’s report in 1957 recommending limited legalisation of homosexuality was to say, “I am not going down in history as the man who made sodomy legal”. 

Nott-Bower was even worse. He had come from policing the British Empire in India and swore with the help of the newly formed Special Branch to “rip the cover off all London’s filth spots”. 

He was determined to “sweep all homosexuals out of government office”. So began “the great purge”. The state prosecuted more than 50,000 men during the 1950s and many more lost their jobs. 

No open homosexual could hope to hold any public post or any respectable private one either. These were the days when gays who could afford it fled from the oppression to the more liberal and tolerant North Africa or Middle East.

This persecution was not unique to Britain.


Maxwell Fyfe had also been one of the leading judges setting up the new West Germany. Through the 1950s the ruling Christian Democrats prosecuted and persecuted gays using the same law, words, and in many cases the same judges as the Nazis had. 

The experience in the US was even more extreme.

This was the age of senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthyism was a right wing attack on “pinkos” and “deviants” as well. It has been estimated that more people lost their jobs for being homosexuals than did for being Communists. 

The civil service was purged and everyone was expected to weed out “perverts”. The FBI organised special entrapment teams for the police. 

The FBI also trained the British police on the techniques it used. Officers then raided clubs with a general attack on anyone deemed deviant or strange. 

But why did the backlash happen?

Wartime diaries suggest it was a time of relative sexual freedom. In Britain and the US the gay scene blossomed as never before. 

The authorities turned a blind eye. There were no moral panics about goings on in the blackout or the sexual experiments of conscripts tasting life outside of family and social control. 

It was also a time when masses of women were drafted into industry, public canteens set up, nurseries established and many of the roles of the family were supplemented by the state.

After the war it was all put in reverse. The welfare state at its birth was never about people having the freedom of choice in their personal lives. 

There was a conscious effort to reconstruct the nuclear family. The norm of a mother at home and a father at work was enforced in law and custom. 

It was a dark time for Alan Turing and for many, many others who have never been given any pardon.


Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance