Edward James on homosexuality

Edward James is rightly celebrated for many things, not least his artistic patronage, the fantastical constructions of ‘Las Pozas’ in Mexico, and the founding of West Dean College in 1971. Less well known is the time he spent in Los Angeles, at various points between the 1940s and 1960s, when his social circle included Aldous Huxley, Igor Stravinsky, Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood. Archival records reveal that during this period, James was more open about his bisexuality than he had felt able to be in England. Same sex relationships were illegal in California until 1976 and, as James himself observed, “It is one thing to have a great many people know – off the record – that one is ‘queer’: It is quite another thing to announce it publicly and have this inscribed in the official papers of one’s dossier”. 

To mark Pride 2021, we are sharing a brief excerpt from an unpublished text by Edward James, thought to date from the mid-1960s, focusing on his reflections on homosexuality. The text, found amongst miscellaneous papers in the West Dean College Archives, contains James’ observations on a variety of subjects, including religion and homophobia, as well as engagements with writing by C. G. Jung, Alfred Kingsley, and Margaret Mead. The following section outlines James’ view on the persecution of gay men in mid-20th Century America. His views on discriminatory laws and entrapment policies are ahead of their time and reveal a little known aspect of James’ life and his literary output.

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I have indulged in this digression with the aim of letting you see that existing laws are often neither rational nor deserving of respect solely because they are the law. In the past there existed laws to enforce certain codes of sexual morality which today seem to us grotesque and barbarous. I am convinced that if our civilisation is to become more decent, more sane and more wholesome than it is today there are existing laws - in particular certain State laws - which must be changed if we are to live in a state where all decent people can respect the law - instead of living a lie, in a society where the great mass of people only pay lip service to the law, but manage to exist by evading it.

I was brought up in a Christian family in which from early childhood I was taught that the Law would be my protector and not my persecutor. I was taught not only to respect it but to trust the Law. I would like to see a world in which the laws could once again be respected by every good and decent citizen; but when certain laws - and above all the perverse and unscrupulous enforcement of them - cause one to doubt the justice of the land at every turn, this becomes impossible. The worse thing that I have noticed in this respect is that certain persons, who lack an inward directed sense of what is right and wrong, grow up to discover that their irredeemable sexual impulses oblige them to become law-breakers - then such persons, from lack of any stable idealism that might keep them straight in other ways, say to themselves: “If in the eye of the law I would be considered a felon for sexual instincts that are humanly beyond my control, then why should I not break it in other ways? If ever it were to be known that I am a homosexual by nature then I would be cruelly punished; then why not be hung for a sheep instead of for a lamb?” So such young men, often in adolescence think: “Why not steal too, why not take dope if I can get narcotics? Is it not all the same thing? If people knew about me, I should be beyond the pale anyway!”.

Fortunately, in spite of the way the Law classifies them as felons, most homosexuals are really decent people - and keep a private code of ethics which prevents them from theft and fraud. But the Law does not encourage them to go straight - when the only maxim to which all their experience points, seems to be: “THOU SHALT NOT BE FOUND OUT”.

portrait of Edward James in Los Angeles, c.1940.
Portrait of Edward James in Los Angeles, c.1940. From the Edward James Archives. © West Dean College of Arts and Conservation

The American Civil Liberties Union is still working to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people can live openly without discrimination and enjoy equal rights, personal autonomy, and freedom of expression and association. https://www.aclu.org

For information on UK-based organisations that provide support to the LGBTQIA+ community: https://www.stonewall.org.uk/about-us/news/lgbtq-inclusive-organisations-you-should-know-about