To celebrate LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari is publishing a daily series of LGBT Heroes, selected by the magazine’s team of writers and special contributors.
Dudley Cave – Activist
by Wendyl Harris
One of Dudley Cave’s many claims to fame was that he was in Bridge Over the River Kwai. No, not the film, the actual World War II Japanese POW camp.
A pacifist at heart, Dudley was torn between registering as a conscientious objector and joining up to fight the atrocities of Nazism. He found himself posted to the Far East instead. Dudley told the story that in those days the establishment didn’t care who you were and what you did with whom, they needed bodies to fight; a not uncommon story as we’ve seen from the tragic fate of Alan Turing, trusted with the nation’s security in wartime, reviled and persecuted in peacetime.
Dudley was one of an estimated 250,000 LGBT people who served during the war. He said they didn’t really have any homophobia then, everyone knew he was ‘queer’ so what was the point.
But Dudley’s exploits didn’t end there. Once home he continued to live openly as a gay man despite the risk of blackmail or arrest in an era when homosexuality was a criminal offence and persecution was rife. In 1954 he was sacked from his job for being gay, though in the same year met his life long partner Bernard Williams, an RAF veteran. They were lovers and activists for forty years until Bernard’s death in 1994.
I was lucky enough to meet and get to know Dudley back in his days at London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, where he was one of the founder members in 1974.
His awareness of the struggles facing bereaved LGBT partners in a society that gave them no legal recognition – exclusion from a lover’s funeral, eviction from a joint home, denial of inheritance – led Dudley and Bernard to found the Lesbian and Gay Bereavement Project in 1980, winning the battle for charitable status when the Charity Commission had initially wanted the word ‘gay’ removed as offensive. The Bereavement Project was to become a vital community resource during the AIDS pandemic.
Dudley was also a member of the Unitarian Church and played a key role in the early ’70s in the Church’s advocacy of gay rights, securing ordination for LGBT people, and blessings of same-sex relationships. I was in the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and we had wanted to ‘saint’ Dudley, a celebratory ceremony held to honour the great and good in our community, but his role as a Unitarian made him uncomfortable agreeing to this.
Despite his own wartime experiences, Dudley’s pacifist and religious beliefs made him a leading figure in the peace and forgiveness initiative with Japan. He lectured extensively and was involved with establishing the Peace Temple near the River Kwai.
By the 1980s he had ‘unfinished business’ – the ban on Lesbians and Gays in the military. He also took on the Royal British Legion who condemned the idea of gay remembrance as ‘disgusting’ and ‘offensive’, and refused to acknowledge that LGBT people had fought and died for their country too. Dudley participated in Outrage! Queer Remembrance Day laying a pink triangle wreath.
I had some of my best days listening to his stories and learning of our heritage while on the phone lines with Dudley. He taught me so much about love and forgiveness. Sometimes, when I am tempted to despair over our petty internal squabbles and fragmentation, I always think of Dudley. Back then they didn’t have computers or as good an understanding of community diversity – the word ‘gay’ was a generic term for everybody, or as Dudley would say, “My dear, we didn’t know any better then”; but they knew what it felt like to be different, to be ostracised. There weren’t hundreds of pubs and clubs and groups but there was a sense that family, our Queer family needed to care for each other, build and value a world together. It’s a life none of us might be enjoying today but for Dudley Cave.