Antony Grey: The tireless reformer

Publish Date: 21/02/2012

Around five years ago Mike Newman began to produce a short history of freedom for gay men in Britain since the 1950’s after reading an article about the lack of awareness of early gay liberation campaigners. Over the last few years Mike has interviewed five such campaigners and here he takes a look at Antony Grey.

Any consideration of the legal reforms of 1967 has to take into account the work of Antony Grey, who began campaigning for gay equality in 1958.He joined the Homosexual Law Reform Society and later became secretary of the Albany Trust to help gay men who had developed psychological problems after being persecuted.

Contrary to the idea that involving openly gay people in law reform would doom the endeavor of law reform for gay men. That it did not fail is due in no small measure to the work of Antony Grey. Grey’s name was a pseudonym in those restricted times when he began to publish articles advocating reform of the law, about 1960, of Anthony Edgar Gartside Wright. The Gay Monitor website describes him at that time as ‘gay - but very quietly so’.

In his period of growing up, he became aware of the stigma of homosexuality and its illegality, which eventually had the positive effect of making him wish to devote time and effort to removing the ‘unjust stigma’ and ‘the stain of shamefulness and worry’ for others.

What this meant in practice was endless meetings, talks, lobbying, long hours swimming sometimes against the tide, often not appreciated by those who he worked to benefit, very little reward, financial or otherwise. For this persistence, as Abse put it (without intending it as a compliment), we should be very grateful to Antony Grey, whose name, amazingly, remains unknown to many gay men. Such is the fate of reformers prepared to devote themselves to the unromantic donkey work of improving the lot of social groups, and as time moves on; to be part of history can mean being part also of obscurity.

It was later, after the 1967 Act was passed, and later still, when the tide of public opinion turned against greater social liberalisation, and after he had left the Albany Trust, that Grey experienced the greatest strain and much greater frustration from the meanness of the Thatcher and Mary Whitehouse era. For his part, Grey fully committed himself to the cause by becoming full time secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society at the end of 1963, in offices above the Lyons Corner House in Shaftesbury Avenue. For weeks which typically took up fifty hours or more, his reward was considerably less than would have been the case had he pursued an earlier wish to train for the Bar.

Where did Grey (a pseudonym adopted because he thought that life was neither black nor white) get the energy? He had later, in a life bedeviled by ill health and a sense of living on borrowed time, cause to marvel at the years of prolonged effort he put in, notably in the reforming decade 1957-67.

Clearly, his own early realisation of his sexual orientation was a motivating force, but the great majority who realised that they were what we would now refer to as gay did not take part in all the campaigning. If it is a factor, he is a fine example of his class in English society, educated to have a sense of duty to others and with the skills and self belief to believe they could do something to improve the lot of those for whom they campaigned.

He was secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society /Albany Trust from December 1962 to 1970, with the help of three staff, and again from 1971 to 1977, after a brief interlude in which he was able to enjoy the antics of the Gay Liberation Front.

He was acknowledged by Stonewall on his 80th birthday as ‘Hero of the Year’. On this occasion he recalled Viscount Montgomery proposing that legalisation have an age of consent of eighty, as by that age it didn’t matter, and confirmed that, having reached it, it still mattered very much!

A remaining footnote to history concerns the roles of Leo Abse and Antony Grey. Who was the more influential? This is a particularly poignant issue following Abse’s death. Grey felt strongly about Abse’s role years later. Abse was a multiple issue campaigner, the 1967 ‘gay’ one being the only one of his ten private member’s bills concerned solely with homosexuality; he moved on, whereas Grey stuck to the broadly single issue task, though the emphasis changed.

Grey found Abse hard to work with although he acknowledged that Abse was ‘a deft, at times brilliant, parliamentary tactician, and while I would hesitate to claim that no-one else could have succeeded in steering a homosexual law reform bill though the commons, it was he who actually did so, and he deserves the plaudits for this which were heaped upon him when he died in 2008.

With hindsight of over forty years, one can see that both men were necessary. Grey was not a member of parliament, and only those sympathetic to the cause in both houses could introduce bills and steer them through debates and votes, which Arran and Abse did.

It fell to Antony Grey, as well as numerous other less prominent men and women, to do much of the donkey work, attending meandering committee meetings, addressing endless public meetings the length and breadth of the land, communicating the campaign down to the level of addressing envelopes in those pre-computer days, which was equally vital.

To find out more come along to Pioneers and Progress – A short British history of gay men’s freedom. 23rd February 7pm at the Lesbian & Gay Foundation. To reserve your place please e-mail: andrew.gilliver@lgf.org.uk