Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th June, 2015
“Closet queen” was a somewhat derogatory term much in vogue in Britain after the Second World War to describe homosexuals who kept their sexual orientation secret, not least politicians and other men in public life. The need for secrecy was obvious, as until 1967 male homosexuality was illegal (unlike lesbianism) but many politicians, in particular, remained in the closet long after that, fearing that revealing their true nature would jeopardise their careers. Some, such as the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, nonetheless continued to satisfy their instincts, even recklessly. According to Thorpe’s biographer Michael Bloch, who has now published a new book, Closet Queens (Little Brown, £25), the danger of illicit encounters explained much of their attraction, even though exposure sometimes led to men’s downfall, blackmail or even suicide. Inevitably, a book that involves a romp through more than a century of British political history means that some of the characters who appear in it get cursory coverage, while others get their due. Though stories about outrageous figures such as Tom Driberg will be familiar to many, other elements, such as the intense friendship between Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland will not. The thing that really holds the book together is the thread of changing public attitudes (fortified by legislation) which led to a situation in which the current House of Commons has over 30 “out” gay and lesbian MPs. However, one shortcoming for me is that the book brings together a motley cast, many of whom I would not consider to have been closet queens at all, either because they were open about their sexuality (like the pioneering Chris Smith) or because they were genuinely bisexual. Though the book is an enjoyable and often amusing read, largely avoiding prurience, Bloch never really comes to terms with the reality and complexities of bisexuality, which in my opinion is our age’s “love that dare not speak its name”.