A group of gay and bisexual British lawmakers were among the first to sound the alarm about Adolf Hitler’s fascist threat, but – dismissed as ‘glamour boys’ and warmongers – their warnings initially fell on deaf ears, according to a new book.
At a time when gay sex was still illegal in Britain, their decision to break ranks with then prime minister, Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler in the 1930s, was all the more courageous, said the book’s author Chris Bryant.
“Their sexuality… is part of their courage in this period,” said Bryant, an opposition Labour party member of parliament (MP).
“The government whips knew how to destroy a person if they wanted to, so going against the tide was really a difficult thing to do,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video call from his constituency in south Wales.
In “The Glamour Boys: The Secret Story of the Rebels who Fought for Britain to Defeat Hitler”, Bryant tells how the seven or eight gay and bi members of a group of rebels drew the prime minister’s ire.
It was Chamberlain who dubbed the group the ‘glamour boys’, in a dig at the sexuality of some of their members, and ordered security services to tap their phones.
But in an untold LGBT+ story of World War Two history, Bryant’s book suggests the fact that some of the rebels were gay and bisexual gave them a unique insight.
Before Hitler came to power in the early 1930s, the German capital was a haven for LGBT+ people with members of British high society – including lawmakers – making frequent trips to sample the sexually liberated nightlife.
Members of the group were also among the first to visit the Dachau concentration camp, and “must have noticed the significant number of homosexual prisoners”, Bryant writes in the book.
That connection to the country and the German people gave the MPs a deeper understanding of 1930s Germany, he argues.
But it also gave their enemies an easy means to dismiss the rebels’ concerns, at a time when homophobia was the norm.
“In a sense they put the glamour into the Glamour Boys and thereby gave their powerful political opponents a stick with which to beat the whole group,” writes Bryant, the first gay MP to hold his civil partnership in the Palace of Westminster.
In Britain, the political temperature shifted with Chamberlain’s resignation in May 1940, and the appointment of Winston Churchill as prime minister – at last vindicating the rebels.
“Without them we would have never gone to war with Hitler, Churchill would never had become prime minister and Nazism would never have been defeated,” Bryant, 58, writes in his book, which will be published on November 12.
Author of six other books, including a biography of actress and former Labour minister, Glenda Jackson, Bryant said he hoped his latest book would be adapted for TV, helping shine a spotlight on how LGBT+ people are often written out of history.
“For a bit of this story, you needed a queer eye for queer history,” Bryant said, citing a biography of one of the rebel MPs, Victor Cazalet, which “omitted any reference to his homosexuality”.
He said he hoped future historians would take greater note of the pivotal role played by the gay and bisexual MPs.
“I think it would be odd now, having revealed this bit of the story, if future historians writing about Eden and Churchill don’t include this as part of the story.”
The lessons of the past should also guide policy on contemporary LGBT+ issues, he said, pointing to a recent rise of anti-LGBT+ sentiment in Poland, Hungary, and Russia.
“Just because we’ve won these freedoms today doesn’t mean they’re there for eternity,” Bryant said.
“When you look into a nation’s past, you can see some of the ways we went wrong and avoid doing that again in the future.”
-Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh – Thomson Reuters Foundation