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"I have traditional views on being gay, in a sense."

“I have traditional views on being gay, in a sense.”


Chris Bryant has been a Member of Parliament for Labour representing the Rhondda constituency since 2001. He currently serves as the shadow minister for creative industries and digital, and previously held the position of chair for the Commons committee on standards and privileges. Bryant has authored eight books, with his most recent, “James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder” being released last month. The book delves into the lives and deaths of James Pratt and John Smith, who were convicted of homosexuality in 1835, making them the last men to be executed for this crime in Britain.

James and John both narrate a story about a great injustice and emphasize the widespread persecution of homosexual men in their country. In total, 404 British individuals were condemned to death for committing the same “crime”. What led you to focus on this specific case?

In 2020, I authored a book titled “The Glamour Boys” which focused on the lives of gay Conservative Members of Parliament during the 1930s who were tragically killed during the war. Researching for this book required delving into the laws of the 1920s and earlier. During this process, I came across a particular case involving James and John, two individuals from a working-class background. The commonness of their names, especially John Smith, made it seem unlikely that I would gather much information about them. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only did Charles Dickens visit them while they were imprisoned in Newgate, but also that the government had recently appointed the first prison inspectors. Their very first visit was to Newgate, where James and John were confined, and they extensively detailed their observations in a report to parliament.

Throughout the decades, did you feel like you were able to form a strong understanding and familiarity with them?

I had the opportunity to become familiar with them in the shadows. For instance, I am unable to determine John Smith’s exact age at the time of his death due to conflicting reports in newspapers. However, in the case of William Bonell, who offered them a meeting place and was later sent to Van Diemen’s Land, there is abundant information from the prison ship, including his height, overall health, and whether or not he had a tattoo.

It was surprising to me that we executed individuals for being homosexuals, especially since our country was one of the few that had such laws in place…

It will likely come as a surprise to many individuals that we engaged in such actions. Furthermore, the fact that we persisted in these actions until 1835 is even more astounding, as most countries chose not to do so.

Were you also surprised by that information from the past?
Not really. I think I’m quite an old-fashioned gay, in a way. I’m 62. I went to university when the age of consent was 21 and when people were still arrested for importuning, under the Vagrancy Act of 1824. That’s partly why I hope a younger generation of people will read this book. Not least because there are plenty of places in the world where these things still go on. The president of Burundi is now saying that homosexuals should be taken out and stoned.

You may be constantly frustrated and upset by the fact that the Anglican communion appears to contribute to the problem instead of helping to resolve it.

I have great admiration for the church in various aspects, having been a priest myself. However, I find it disheartening that the Church of England has not yet made progress when it comes to acknowledging and supporting gay relationships. It seems as though even the pope may beat them to it. In time, I believe that future generations will wonder why the church was so hesitant to accept and celebrate love between individuals.

Did those mindsets contribute to your decision to leave the priesthood and pursue politics instead?

It was an integral component. Absolutely.

As the chief of the parliamentary standards committee, you have undoubtedly been occupied with numerous tasks. Do you consider yourself to be a highly ethical individual?

I do not like to pass judgement on others, as I dislike the thought of being judged for my sexual orientation. I believe in a society built on respect and mutual acceptance, rather than someone looking down on me and merely tolerating me.

Can you clarify what you meant by feeling less secure as a homosexual male in Britain over the last five years?

I did not mean to imply that going outside would result in me being physically attacked, even though there has been a noticeable increase in hate crimes against those who identify as queer. It’s more concerning when I hear politicians from the Conservative party speak, it seems like they want to reverse certain laws. We still do not have a law banning conversion therapy. And then you have individuals like Kemi Badenoch using terms like “trans epidemic”. It makes me wonder what kind of thoughts are going through these people’s minds.

How are you able to balance writing with your day job?

I wake up early in the morning and do not have children. Instead of going to church on Sundays, which I used to do years ago, I now spend that time writing in my study. This book also feels like a responsibility that comes with being an MP. I do not understand why we have not granted posthumous pardons to individuals like James and John. At the very least, there should be a memorial to remember those who were executed for their sexual orientation in our country.

Which books have had the greatest impact on you as a reader?

I often turn to the novel The Red and the Black by Stendhal. Its portrayal of moral ambiguity is particularly appealing to me. I am also a frequent reader of Dickens. Additionally, I find the use of parables in the Bible, rather than strict rules, to be quite fascinating.

Which books are currently on your bedside table?

Currently, I am consuming A Nasty Little War by Anna Reid which delves into the west’s efforts to subvert the communist revolution in Russia. Following that, I plan to read Judi Dench’s publication on Shakespeare.

Source: theguardian.com