In The Glamour Boys, Chris Bryant tells how gay MPs had used personal experience to warn about the Nazis
16 September, 2021 — By Dan Carrier
Anglo-German Association chairman General Sir Ian Hamilton (pictured above, centre) was ‘profoundly anti-semitic’ and it was such malignant forces in the British Establishment the Glamour Boys had to fight. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
THE Night of the Long Knives has gone down in history as a key moment in Hitler’s rise to power. It was June 30, 1934, and the Nazi leader moved with the German Army and the party’s high command to deal with the infamous Brownshirts, a paramilitary wing led by Ernst Rohm.
The murderous coup removed a perceived internal threat to his power. It also clearly spelt an end to Germany being a safe haven for gay men.
The Glamour Boys, a new book by MP Chris Bryant, recounts the story of how a group of British MPs saw the rise of Hitler with foreboding – and drew on their own experiences of persecution suffered because of their sexual orientation to warn what the Nazis really stood for.
Bryan, the Labour MP for Rhondda who became the first MP to celebrate a civil partnership in the Palace of Westminster, begins the story by asking the reader to peer at a row of shields above the Speaker’s Chair. They commemorate MPs who lost their lives on active service in the Second World War.
“At least four of the men were queer or nearly queer – that is to say gay, bisexual or somewhere in between – and that they had shown as much courage, personally and politically, before the war as they did during it, defying convention and party managers in Parliament, the whips, with remarkable sangfroid.”
Chris has investigated how a small group of his Commons predecessors were like canaries in the mine – and it is “a story of unsung bravery at a defining moment in Britain’s history”.
Germany was a sexually liberated country in the post-Great War years, and attracted gay men as a safe space to visit.
In England, the Roaring Twenties was not about “cocktails and laughter”, as Chris writes – it was also an “anxious, questioning, turbulent time. The poor struggled on while the Bright Young Things of the leisured class danced and drank and strained at the leash of sexual convention.”
Gay men in the UK were living during a period of moral panic. Not only was homosexuality illegal, it was “an almost universal view”, states Chris, that same-sex acts were a perversion of what God intended. In a society where religion was entrenched, such a feeling mattered.
It was not the case in Europe: in France, the Napoleonic Code did not mention rules over gay sex and in Paris gay men were able to live their lives with a sense of freedom.
Germany was even more relaxed. The Weimar Republic saw “an extraordinary flowering of homosexual liberation,” says Chris.
As writer Christopher Isherwood described in two of his autobiographical novels, Berlin was a place where you could be yourself.
“British men who could afford it made regular pilgrimages largely so as to enjoy sex with impunity,” he adds.
This was not lost on many MPs.
Tory back bencher Jack MacNamara was one such “Glamour Boy”.
“He had a genuine concern for those less fortunate than himself,” says Chris. “He lived in the East End, expressly to ‘study the workers’ problems’. He combined his love of boxing and body building with helping in a gym for unemployed men,” writes Chris. “Jack also knew from an early age he was sexually attracted to men and this was not just a phase.”
But it wasn’t easy. The forces of law and order felt no shame in fabricating evidence or using honey traps.
“An alleged smile, wink or look could lead to an arrest and young men were at the mercy of ‘any two detectives hunting in couples’,” adds Chris.
Names would be splashed in newspapers, blackmailers were common, and parties would be raided with arrests and beatings dished out – “the police were determined to tackle what they saw as a scourge,” writes Chris.
Not so in Berlin.
In 1927, the gay Labour MP Harold Nicholson had been appointed as chargé d’affaires at the British Embassy. His tenure coincided with the Social Democratic Prussian government telling the police to ignore a burgeoning gay scene. Nicholson noted it was a stark contrast to the atmosphere in England and his Berlin experiences were mimicked by others.
“Harold’s guests during his two-year stay read like a catalogue of Britain’s wealthy homosexuals,” writes Chris.
It was not to last: the 1934 murders of gay men in the Nazi party who were linked with Rohm gave Hitler and the army the chance to viciously condemn homosexuality as a debauched perversion that needed to be stamped out. The Glamour Boys saw their gay and Jewish friends targeted and became vocal critics at home, trying to raise the alarm.
Tory Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain called them the Glamour Boys, and sought to undermine their cause by subtly referencing their sexuality and accusing them of being war mongers.
“Their phones were tapped, they were threatened with deselection and exposure – but they repeatedly demanded Britain challenge Nazism,” writes Chris.
And when war broke out in 1939, they bore arms. “They insisted on doing their bit in the heat of the battle, with no thought to their own safety,” adds Chris.
“Two of them led units that were safe havens for other queer officers and men.”
He adds that their sexuality was part of their bravery. “They had been schooled in courage by a society that hated homosexuality,” he says.
“Thousands were ostracised, humiliated, blackmailed and imprisoned for the slightest misdemeanour and on the flimsiest of evidence.”
Their persecution steeled them for the war ahead. They had first-hand experience of the idiocy of bigotry. It created a powerful moral platform to warn about the evil philosophy of Nazism, and is a lesson that is sadly still relevant today.
• The Glamour Boys: The Secret Story of the Rebels who Fought For Britain to Defeat Hitler. By Chris Bryant, Bloomsbury, £25