John Maguire reports on an insightful lecture on an often-overlooked piece of recent history.
A surge of creative electricity charged up the University of Liverpool last week.
To conclude LGBT History Month for 2013, the academic institution invited celebrated author John Sam Jones to deliver a lecture as part of their Flagship series. The talks are created by LGBT staff and the postgraduate student network, designed to facilitate dialogue with the local LGBT community and advocates. To provide enjoyable yet thought-provoking activities that engage people with LGBT issues.
The discourse titled, ‘Don’t compromise yourself, you are all you’ve got’, saw the author read from his autobiographical/fiction novel describing the therapy in use in one North Wales asylum in 1975, to help cure him and unlock his heterosexual potential.
John Sam Jones opened with abstracts taken from newspaper articles and journals from the Sixties discussing the contagion of homosexuality. A blatant derogatory rhetoric embedded deeply in the social-scape. Themes of moral corruption, mental illness, abnormality, destruction to morals and public health, echoed around the theatre and seemed almost antiquated. The not so complimentary extracts were from diverse sources ranging from The Church Times, psychiatric periodicals and even The Guardian.
Aversion therapy and behavioural disorder was to cure and assist to ‘repress the deviance’. In the 1930’s this type of ‘help’ started to be used to treat and cure male homosexuals with chemical and electrical treatments. Jones highlighted how in the nature of experimentation the Nazi’s kindly assisted with surgical castrations and injecting individuals with female hormones. The depiction of a penis transducer sounded like something out of a sadistic sci-fi movie, straight out of the stills from a darker version of the flick, Barbarella. This nifty device was used to measure penile erections, to gain so-called objective data, patients would receive painful electric shocks in fifty-second blocks, with a maximum of five shots given to assist with the cure.
The novel Crawling Through Thorns, describes his personal testimony with a very graphic, yet not sensationalist approach; literature that shocks the reader with its raw honesty, making it at times an uncomfortable read. The descriptions could have been catapulted from the pages of a gothic horror or trickling straight out of the medieval history books detailing barbaric torture. Behaviour not expected in a democratic society. The doctor’s insistence that ‘We need to see your responses’, sends a shudder down the spine and the details of the sessions depict an almost sexual ballet with the learned medical monsters in the role of sadomasochistic voyeurs, probing and observing the patient. The irony is that the therapy requires the individual to be ‘turned on’ to be ‘turned off’, to execute the homosexual identity.
John Sam Jones started his writing career with a series of short stories, Welsh Boys Too and has published Fisherboys of Vernazza and a novel, Of Angels and Furies. His gay characters are presented in a non-stereotypical way. They are gay, yes, but this is not the principle factor that defines them, they are quintessentially all journeying through life, experiencing what it means to be a homosapien, not just a homosexual.
His tales flow with a passion for nature that enriches the reader’s mind’s eye. He paints a canvas of rural Wales illustrating a sheer beauty, his palette of literary paints cramming with adoration. His subtle, yet evocative sentences employ brush strokes that reveal a storytelling genius. Where Armistead Maupin uses his to pen tales from the city, John Sam Jones’ could be dubbed tales from the country.
It took Jones time to heal before he could face penning Crawling Through Thorns. He wanted to write HIS story to preserve history and act as a stark reminder to this black period of pink history that is somewhat hazy. Many people have not had the courage to discuss the humiliation of this form of therapy. We have advances in equality, fostering and adoption and soon marriage, but we must not forget the lollapalooza of trying to find an elusive antidote to not being you.
Nor should we forget that even in a world now populated with LGBT role models who are out and proud, Gareth Thomas and Clare Balding to name just two, there are still many parts of the world where a lack of deeper understanding is blazingly obvious.
In Barbados same-sex relations can land an individual a lifetime in prison and in the United Arab Emirates in some cases it can bring the death penalty. Closer to home, problems still arise, such as the cases of Michael Causer and Justin Fashanu. The day before the lecture, Cardinal Keith O’Brien was forced to quit the Church amidst allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards priests. The same chap who claimed that same-sex marriage was the ‘thin end of the wedge’ and would lead to the ‘further degeneration of society into immorality’.
John Sam Jones’ brave and revealing novel will serve to fit a piece in the LGBT History jigsaw and ensure we do not obnubilate the past.
We must be proud of who we are and we cannot be proud if we hide.
Photographs courtesy of Sam Heath