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Thursday, 23 February 2012

LGBT History Month: A Unitarian Hero - Dudley Cave

I occasionally come across references in the media to people whom I know were Unitarians. This month it was in BBC History magazine 9, Vol 13, no 2 February 2012) in an article by Stephen Bourne on how, during a rare period of tolerance, homosexuals served with distinction during World War Two. One of those quoted was Dudley Cave, a well known Unitarian who died in 1999.

Dudley Cave was a pioneer for gay rights within the British Unitarian movement and much more widely as well as being an advocate for peace and reconciliation. I recall seeing him on television on one of the early “gay” programmes in the 1990’s. We should remember him in Gay History month.

In the article it explains he was conscripted into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, in 1941, aged 20. “He later recalled a conversation he overhead between two of his comrades. One referred to him as a “nancy boy” while the other protested that Dudley couldn’t be because he was “terribly brave in action”. Dudley understood that in their minds he could not be brave and homosexual, that the two were incompatible”.

It seems that homosexuality was unofficially tolerated in the armed forces for the duration of the war. Dudley reflected “They used us when it suited them, and them victimised us when the country was no longer in danger. I am glad I served but I am angry that military homophobia was allowed to wreck so many lives for over 50 years after we gave our all for a freedom that gay people were denied”.

Cave was posted to the Far East. During the fall of Singapore in 1942, he was captured by the Japanese. Marched north in a prisoner-of-war labour detachment, his unit was put to work on the Thai-Burma railway, 10 miles beyond the bridge on the River Kwai. He ended up in Changi Prison, Singapore where be began to accept his homosexuality. A British army medical officer gave him a copy of Havelock Ellis's "enlightened, eye-opening" 1920 book Sexual Inversion. It made him feel "much better about being gay".

In an article in The Inquirer (19 March 1994) entitled “A Gay Man in a Liberal Congregations”, based on an address to Golders Green Unitarians, he describes the reality of being gay in the 1950s; “Being gay, having a love that dare not speak its name, was disabling. I knew that I was a second-class citizen, perhaps even sub-human; my self-image was very low. I had to conceal my real feelings with every action, every word”. In 1954, Cave was dismissed as manager of the Majestic Cinema in Wembley after it was discovered he was gay. In the same year, Cave met the man who became his life partner, Bernard Williams, an RAF veteran and schoolteacher. They lived and campaigned together for 40 years.

In 1971 he decided to “have another look at the Unitarians” having been previously disappointed with their traditional worship. Things had changed and an “Integroup” was being launched as a “straight-gay integration” society at Golders Green Unitarians with Rev Keith Gilley. Within the denomination he has been described by Rev Dr Ann Peart (1.) as one of the “comparatively few people” active in promoting lesbian and gay rights and of openness and toleration in acceptance of LGBT people for ministerial training and ministry, recognition of same sex blessings in churches and support for homosexual human rights.

As secretary of Golders Green Integroup he was invited on to the launch committee of “London Gay Switchboard”. A gay bereavement support group at the church developed into the Lesbian and Gay Bereavement Project in 1980. This was the first organisation with the word “gay” in its title to win charity status, and not without a struggle. Drawing upon his bereavement skills, he was a consultant to the National Funerals College, which was important as the tide of deaths from AIDS grew. Although shy his ability as a speaker blossomed and he appeared increasingly on the media. He was also prominent as a Unitarian lay preacher and contributed to “Daring to Speak Love’s Name: a gay and lesbian prayer book”.

For 20 years, he battled against the Royal British Legion's refusal to acknowledge that lesbian and gay people served and died in wars defending Britain. He also challenged the Legion over its opposition to the participation of gay organisations in Remembrance Day ceremonies.

Dudley was a leading figure in the promotion of peace and reconciliation with Japan. "I will never forget what the Japanese did to us, but the time has come for forgiveness," he wrote to a friend. He was involved with the Buddhist Peace Temple near the River Kwai, and lectured extensively on the need for rapprochement between former adversaries.

Rev Keith Gilley summed up his life: “He embodied the Unitarian principles of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance, not only with these two issues with which he will always be associated but with so many others – equality in terms of colour, race, sex and in relation to disabled people signified almost as much with him as gay rights and peace issues” (Obituary, The Inquirer, 19 June 1999).

Peter Tatchell wrote of him as “Anti-Fascist, soldier, prisoner of war, advocate of peace and reconciliation, gay rights pioneer, Dudley Cave was above all a Humanitarian” (Obituary, The Independent, 31 May 1999).

A true Unitarian Hero in LGBT History Month

(1.) “Peart, Ann (2003) “Of warmth and love and passion: Unitarians and (homo)sexuality” in “Unitarian Perspectives on Contemporary Social Issues” (Chryssides, George D. (ed)) . Lindsey Press. Available from Unitarian Headquarters. 


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