Wednesday 23 September 2015

Lord Montagu - The Modest Pioneer

When I was young one of the highlights of UK television every autumn was coverage of the annual London to Brighton vintage car rally. The sight of those old cars chugging along the British roads beside modern cars was something which appealed to me. One of the characters who always appeared was Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. He was famous as the creator and owner of the National Motor Museum at his stately home. He appeared on lots of programmes throughout the years, sometimes popping up on chat shows and quiz shows as a celebrity guest. Lord Montagu died last month at the age of 88.

What I didn’t know as a child was that this famous “old car man” was famous for something else, and it was something which was successfully “ignored” by the scandal-seeking media of the 1970s. In 1953 Lord Montagu was one of the main protagonists in a landmark court case that paved the way for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the UK (homosexuality itself was not illegal).

The trial was labelled The Montagu Case because Lord Montagu was the only high profile member of the three men who were accused of conspiring to “commit unnatural offences” against two RAF pilots who had been invited to join them on Lord Montagu’s estate. The trial was front page material.

Lord Montagu had opened his motor museum three years earlier and he was one of the bright young stars of the heritage industry (he was 27 when he was arrested, and many years later he was to become Chairman of English Heritage). His arrest sent many closeted gay men into their secret stores of love letters and diaries and many stories of the hidden history of lgbt Britain were destroyed in fear of a possible “witch hunt”.

In March 1954 the all-male jury found Lord Montagu and his two companions guilty and they were given prison sentences. All through the trial Lord Montagu protested his innocence, whether through fear or belief that homosexual acts were nothing to be criminalised isn’t clear.

What the trial highlighted to all levels of society that even those in the highest echelons were not immune to imprisonment. Mostly significant it gave liberal-thinking politicians the impetus to have the whole legal position of homosexual men discussed and addressed properly. Parliament created an inquiry into the possible reform of the law, not only for gay men but also sex-workers and prostitutes. Heading the inquiry was John Wolfenden, whose own son was gay, and even today the Wolfenden Report is one of the well-known reform commissions in the UK. It recommended the decriminalisation of homosexual acts and the age of consent. However, it took Parliament another ten years before there was any change in the law. For his contribution to the inquiry John Wolfenden was knighted and later he was created a life peer.

By 1967 when homosexual acts were decriminalised Lord Montagu was back on his stately home running his famous motor museum. He was beginning to become a media celebrity and his role in the landmark Montagu Case was never mentioned.

While the others convicted with him in 1954 became more prominent campaigners Lord Montagu chose not to become an activist. Not every lgbt person wants to become an activist, which other lgbt activists sometimes unjustifiably demand of them. Montagu wanted an ordinary life where his sexuality was not an issue. In that respect he was not unlike most of us today who wish for a society where our sexuality isn’t an issue and we are treated the same as everyone else.

For many years Lord Montagu refused to speak about his sexuality or even deny his bisexuality, which is why I’ve written this tribute to Lord Montagu today, Celebrate Bisexuality Day.

Many in the lgbt community accused him of bi-phobia for not admitting his sexuality publicly. He always came across on the television screen as a modest man, never one to shout about himself, and I can’t imagine he would ever have been comfortable discussing any sexuality. It wasn’t until he was persuaded to write his autobiography in 2000 that Lord Montagu spoke about his bisexuality. He acknowledged that the Montagu Case was instrumental in the reform of lgbt legislation in the UK.

On this Celebrate Bisexuality Day let’s raise a glass and drink a toast to the late Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the modest pioneer.

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