This is a companion piece to Naked Civil Servant: Queer Sex, Catholicism and Conformism in the Post-War London Diaries of George Lucas recently published in History Workshop Journal 96.
It used to be commonplace in the media to use the word ‘outrageous’ as code to indicate that a man in showbusiness was homosexual. Over-the-top costumes and mannerisms−think Liberace as depicted in Stephen Soderbergh’s film Behind the Candelabra (2013)−were, in fact, not outraging anyone much, so long as they remained firmly on-stage. During the 1950s and 1960s, male homosexuality remained criminalised in the United States and most of Europe. The sight of allegedly ‘effeminate’ men in everyday life was a subject for laughter and disgust, but there was panic about those individuals who were sufficiently virile to pass as heterosexual. This meant that queer lives were typically lived in secret, and most gay people were very careful not to write down incriminating accounts of their personal lives: Most, but not all. Every so often, a researcher has the pleasure of encountering something exceptional, in this case, a mostly complete set of diaries covering the years from 1949 to 2009 in which an otherwise ordinary, unflamboyant British civil servant described his everyday life in thousands of detailed pages. Not only that, but he illustrated the volumes with photographs of friends and lovers.
It is from these diaries that we learn how this man, Mr George Lucas, then aged 32 and working for the Board of Trade, spent a decidedly queer Christmas Day in 1957. He allowed himself a lie-in until 11.30am before a breakfast of ‘coffee, bread, butter, cheese, cherry cake, a hot mince pie and a tiny glass of ginger wine – over the electric fire while reading the Christmas number of “ONE”’ (a pioneering gay-rights magazine that was published in America from 1953 to 1967). His day continued with visits to cruise (look for sex) in Chadwell Heath and Becontree Parks near where he then lived in London’s eastern suburbs. He then journeyed into a surprisingly busy Trafalgar Square in the centre of town, which was, like the parks, a place for homosexual assignations. Being a Catholic with Irish parents, he attended Mass at the Roman Catholic chapel in nearby Warwick Street before having an omelette (five shillings and sixpence) at a Lyons café. He chatted with another man who was eating out on his own rather than at home with his family. He went for a drink in a pub, The Standard, which attracted a queer clientele. He then visited a local public toilet where another man picked up the soldier that he was interested in before his luck finally turned when he encountered a former Scots Guard in the doorway of a shoe shop who, for £1, was happy to go home with him.
There are some, but not many, queer diaries that provide us with such an intimate contemporary snap-shot of sexual lives before the partial decriminalisation of gay sex in England and Wales in 1967. Perhaps the most famous British example is that of the queer playwright Joe Orton, whose diaries include descriptions of the cottaging (public toilet sex) scene in London. These have been hailed as providing ‘the most explicit depiction of ’60s gay sex’. Yet even these are far less detailed than those of George Lucas and have only survived as typescript copies of the originals. Whilst Orton became (in)famous for his daring plays, Lucas remained firmly in obscurity. But that is part of his charm and importance. His life tells us a great deal, by implication, about the lives of countless other queer men who lived outside the spotlight of celebrity. One thing that Lucas did share with Orton was a distinctive and entertaining literary style. This was brought out in the selection from the diaries that was read out on BBC Radio 4 by the actor Mart Gatiss in 2022.
One of my research interests has been the complex overlap between religion and sexuality, which I have pursued through studies of and the connections between Christianity and same-sex love more generally. Part of the importance of the Lucas diaries is the way they show us how a ‘practising’ homosexual − using the terminology of the period to refer to a sexually active gay man − combined this aspect of his life with sincere religious faith. Traditional religion was often taken by the lesbian and gay liberation movement of the 1970s as antithetical to their own aims, but Christianity is increasingly recognised as having played an important role in the process of homosexual law reform in Britain. Yet, even today, conservative interpretations of same-sex relationships have prevented the full acceptance of queer people in the Church of England. As that institution’s website explains, even in 2023, ‘the law prevents ministers of the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages. And although there are no authorised services for blessing a same-sex civil marriage, your local church can still support you with prayer.’
The Lucas diaries only emerged to public view in 1994. ‘In Capital Gay on Saturday,’ wrote Lucas in his diary, ‘I noticed a brief reference to a research study on male prostitution whose researchers ask “sex workers and their clients” to get in touch with them. I wrote saying I’d be glad to assist’. He was interviewed by the journalist Hugo Greenhalgh for a TV programme about male sex workers but said that he did not wish to appear on screen. However, the encounter between the two began a friendship that led Lucas to bequeath his diaries to Greenhalgh. I have had access to these materials courtesy of their new owner, Greenhalgh, who has also written his introduction to Mr Lucas’s life and to the diaries.
None of this would have been a surprise to George Lucas, who wrote in 1963 that the Church was a “stony-hearted step-mother … but behind her stands another; and in Him we trust, for He, like us, was arrested at night, frogmarched to the police, given a beating-up in the cells, browbeaten before the magistrates, condemned by the judges, sentenced and executed, and His punishment gravely approved by the clergy… but we can look back to John [the Apostle] who followed his lover to the cross”. He believed that the Church would eventually accept homosexuality and that people would recognize the similarities between the full acceptance of homosexuals and the emancipation of British Catholics, who, for centuries after the Reformation, were denied full legal rights in the United Kingdom. The criminal law in Britain, and in many other countries, has been changed and we may yet see that other significant shift that would have allowed men such as George Lucas to live and love without fear. Pope Francis has recently suggested that the Roman Catholic Church could bless same-sex couples. No persecution lasts forever.