Keith Wedmore talks about his student years at Cambridge (1953-55) and observations about homosexuality, including a student suicide.
from June 17, 2012 interview with Neil Fullager.
Keith W: Then the other thing that happened was that by the time we got to 1955, when I left Cambridge, I had a pretty good idea – and I felt here being a Quaker was a huge advantage – that I could see that there was a definite section of the undergraduates who regarded themselves as gay, period, a lot of whom, of course, I knew. I would meet them at these gay parties and so on. And there were two or three much older people who would [lived at] Trinity Farm I remember, yeah. There were one or two people who were connected with the university, or who were dons at it who were also gay and could be seen at parties.
But I realized that there was a problem, because nobody was admitting that these two realities, the heterosexual world, where nobody had heard of homosexuality, at least not in any acceptable sense, I began to realize that there were these two worlds which had no connection with each other. That the Saturday night gay party, in my case, could be followed by a Quaker meeting in the morning, in which one would have thought that sex didn’t exist.
So I somehow felt, because I think hypocrisy is one of the main things which Quakerism has triumphed over, that I had some kind of duty to see if I could make a bridge here. And I did it quite accidentally, because a group of us Young Friends from Cambridge went off to Woodbrooke one Christmas for a Christmas retreat. Woodbrooke is the-- [Friends’ Center at Birmingham, a kind of urban Pendle Hill].
Neil F: Yes.
Keith W: And we started a conversation. That’s right, I and another gay guy called Donald Thomas started a conversation at the top of the stairs there. There’s about three flights of stairs. And we obviously didn’t want to leave off, because it was becoming very interesting. We were each coming out to the other and discussing the problems of it. But everybody on the staircase apparently could hear this, which is not surprising, entirely. We both had clear voices, and the staircase had that sort of good acoustics. So I think a lot of people after that were onto the fact that there was something happening.
And then there was something else. I noticed that there was a tendency – we get about six suicides a year at Cambridge, or we did at that time, and I decided that a rather significant number of these were because people were gay and couldn’t deal with it. I mean, they had just reached the end.
There was one guy called Roger Walker, who was a young, somewhat effeminate and very much lacking in stability type guy, very bright, of course. I can’t remember who he pursued, and I assume he had some successes. And I didn’t find him attractive myself. But I went to find him one morning, about the spring of ‘55, and walked straight into his room, where there was a slight smell of coal gas, and there he was, pink and dead. He had put his head in the oven.
And that made me come out, in a way, because they had an inquest at which nobody seemed to know quite what he was up to. And I explained to the parents in advance that he was gay – not using that word, I expect, at the time – and that…oh, maybe I did. But anyway, and that he was extremely worried and depressed about it all, and that that’s why he had committed suicide. He didn’t leave a note. And with their permission and consent, I volunteered, in the middle of the inquest to the coroner, that I knew something about it and was willing to give evidence, which I did.
And the thing I mainly remember about it – I mean, I explained the situation to the coroner in fairly simple terms. By that time I felt able to do that. And the police were furious, because I hadn’t given them a statement about this, and so they were put out of face. And I can remember them threatening afterwards. The guy who had supplied the witnesses to the coroner and the witnesses’ statements and so on, I mean, he really was quite threatening. He said if ever you want to say this kind of thing, you must see me first, or something like that. So I realized that the police are part of the hypocritical setup.