”History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
As a young army officer, Winston Churchill was accused of having ”participated in acts of gross immorality of the Oscar Wilde type” with fellow cadets at The Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. He successfully sued his accuser for libel, and there has never been evidence that, as an adult, he engaged in physical same-sex relationships. Yet, Churchill was anything but straightforwardly straight.
He worshipped his beautiful American mother, yet he had a lifelong aversion to women. He seems to have had a low sex drive, or maybe he was just asexual.
At 33-years-old, he married for social and dynastic reasons, just after being appointed to the H.H. Asquith (Liberal Prime Minister of the UK from 1908 to 1916) cabinet. Though he came to depend on his wife Clementine in many ways, she was often exasperated by his emotional unresponsiveness and treatment of her as a child-bearer and housekeeper, and more than once, she considered leaving him.
While he never showed much interest in women other than his wife, Churchill’s life was marked by a series of extremely close friendships with attractive young men. The most important was Edward Marsh, who served devotedly served as his private secretary 25 years. Marsh was an accomplished polymath and arts patron. He was a pal to gay poets Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon and gay actor, playwright and songwriter, Ivor Novello. Marsh was a discreet, but influential figure in Britain’s gay circles.
Then, there was Archie Sinclair, whom Churchill described as his ”friend I shall cherish and hold on to all my life”. Sinclair was a cavalry officer, whom Churchill chose as his second in command on the Western Front in 1916, as his War Secretary from 1919-22, and finally, after Sinclair had become leader of the Liberal Party, as Commander of the Royal Air Force in 1940. Plus, there was Bob Boothby, the youngest and handsomest MP, whom Churchill appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary (the go-between for PM and Parliament), despite having criticized Churchill’s conservative policies; and Brendan Bracken, a callow, beautiful young man whom Churchill, to the horror of his family, unofficially adopted in the 1920s and who served as his right-hand man in the 1930s.
Of the four men, Marsh, who had a thing for young writers and actors, and Boothby, who had a taste for rough trade, were more or less openly gay, and Bracken, who led a very private life, probably was gay too.
Churchill seemed to have had rather pervy feelings towards his son, Randolph, another thing that estranged him from his wife, though these feelings cooled when Randolph lost his looks to excessive drinking, and became a noted womanizer. Churchill was romantically drawn to men rather than women, even if his relations with them stopped short of being physical.
When the first discussions about whether to decriminalize gay sex in Britain reached the cabinet, Churchill was Prime Minister. He had helped create The Wolfenden Report, a government investigation into homosexuality in the UK. This eventually lead to the partial decriminalization of gay sex.
But, Churchill did this during an era when LGBTQ lives were totally closeted. And, while leading the Right-Wing Conservative Party. Did he simply hold more liberal views, or was he hiding a secret double-life?
After WW II, there was a significant increase in arrests and prosecutions of gay men. Churchill, who had been beaten in an election immediately after the war, was now back in power. Yet, the 1951 General Election gave him just the slimmest majority in Parliament. By the end of 1954, in England and Wales, there were 1,100 men in prison for being gay. This prompted a cabinet discussion. The meeting considered whether the best way to stop the rise in prosecutions was simply to decriminalize homosexuality.
As Prime Minister, Churchill chaired that meeting. In it, he quite bluntly states that the Tory Party would not accept responsibility for making the law more lenient towards gay men. He felt it was simply not the time.
The Wolfenden Report was published in 1957. It stated that ”homosexual behavior between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offense”.
It would take 10 years and a more liberal government, to introduce the report’s suggestion. Perhaps Churchill’s reasoning for not pursuing it at the time was not because of his own views; he probably just didn’t have the votes in Parliament.
During that cabinet meeting, he said: ”Remember that we can’t expect to put the whole world right with a majority of 18”. So, his cabinet set up the Wolfenden Committee to build reasoned argument and public support for the future.
Churchill left this world in 1965, two years before England finally made gay sex legal. So, he never saw the passage of the bill.
Was Churchill gay? We will never know. His family destroyed certain files on his private papers after his death. There are so many Churchill biographies written, so many films made about him; but there are hardly any gay or bisexual aspects his life mentioned.
There is a famous story that when Churchill was Prime Minister, he was woken one freezing February morning by a 10 Downing Street aide relating the shocking news that a male Tory MP had been caught having sex with a naked guardsman in St James’s Park. Noting that it had been the coldest night of the winter, Churchill remarked: ”Makes you proud to be British.”
Always quotable, Churchill often made quick-witted quips like this. And, his remarks from his meetings about what to do about homosexuals are known from the British National Archives.
Churchill personally blocked a knighthood for Noël Coward even though the popular playwright / actor / composer had spied for Britain during the WW II. In 1942, Churchill urged King George VI to abandon his plans to bestow the honor on Coward, who was a personal friend of the Monarch.
Churchill, openly disapproved of the Coward’s flamboyant lifestyle and used the excuse of a relatively minor court case to block the title. Two months earlier, Coward had been fined a small amount for inadvertently breaching war time currency exchange laws by spending money on a trip to the USA. Coward was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1970 and three years later he took that final bow.
Gary Oldman plays Churchill in a new biopic, Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement). In September, John Lithgow won an Emmy Award for playing Churchill in the fabulous Netflix series The Crown. If you can’t get enough Churchill, there is also Churchill (2017) with Brian Cox as the man.
By the way, Churchill was #BornThisDay in 1874.