Monday , 27 January 2020

Harry Whyte: The Gay Scot who Challenged Stalin

Whyte challenged Stalin's 1933 recriminalising male homosexuality
Whyte challenged Stalin’s 1933 law recriminalising male homosexuality

Harry Otter Whyte was a remarkable Scot who played an exception and little known role in homosexual rights in the Soviet union, challenging none other than Joseph Stalin himself.

Harry Otter Whyte (1907-1960) is a name most Scots will be unfamiliar with. Yet Whyte, the son of a house painter from Edinburgh, occupies an interesting position in the homosexual rights movement, but not in Scotland. In fact Whyte campaigned for the tolerance of same-sex desire in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Whyte was ‘the Scot who challenged Stalin’. Whyte’s activism was the result of Stalin’s decision to recriminalise male homosexuality, which had been decriminalised by Lenin during the early 1920s. This was not necessarily the result of a wave of enlightened thinking but more a desire to free Russia from the bonds of oppression associated with the previous Tsarist regimes.

Whyte had moved to the Soviet Union during the early 1930s taking up a position with the Moscow Daily News, after learning his trade in a variety of positions in Scotland and England including a spell with the Edinburgh Evening News, which he had joined straight from school. While living in Moscow he began a relationship with a Russian national, who after Stalin’s recriminalisation of homosexual acts, was arrested during a public clampdown on ‘sexual immorality’. This arrest, coupled with Whyte’s growing unease with Stalin’s increasingly vice-like grip upon Russian society, prompted the Scot to write a 4500 word letter to the Soviet leader. In this letter Whyte argued that homosexuality was conducive to Marxist-Leninist concepts of communism. Indeed, Whyte compared the conditions facing homosexuals as analogous to the condition of women and ethnic minorities oppressed by capitalism and imperialism. The Scot had also sought the opinions of Communist Party members and of two prominent psychiatrists who argued that same-sex desire was neither dangerous nor medically suspect.

Stalin, who personally read the letter, was unconvinced by Whyte’s argument, sending it to the archives with a scribbled note, ‘an idiot and a degenerate’. Stalin perceived homosexuality as a symptom of bourgeois degeneracy and a threat to the healthy male body. Stalin’s dismissal of Whyte’s please for acceptance and tolerance marked an end to both his stay in the Soviet Union and his hopes for a communist nirvana. Whyte returned to Britain unaware that he had been monitored by the British intelligence services since his twenties, an interest that would continue until his death. On his return to Britain Whyte maintained his interest in left-wing causes, working for the Spanish Medical Aid Committee during the Spanish Civil War. However, by the Spring of 1938 Whyte was again on his travels, this time to Morocco where he engaged in low-level spying on German and Italian nationals for the British Tangier Secret Intelligence Service. Whyte’s stay in North Africa was short lived, and after expulsion for his ‘discreditable behaviour’ returned once again to home shores.

In December 1941 Whyte was called up for service, occupying a position as a temporary acting leading coder on the Arctic convoys, his fluency in several languages outweighing any concerns over his communist sympathies and homosexuality. However, when the war ended the British intelligence services resumed their monitoring of Whyte, who was now working freelance for a variety of publications, including the Daily Express and Daily Herald. By the early 1950s, MI5 had noted Whyte’s homosexuality and that he had drifted away from Soviet Communism and had become an alcoholic.

Whyte’s obvious dissatisfaction with the direction of communism, and his deep frustration with the opprobrium and legal sanctions directed at homosexuality might explain his peripatetic existence; by 1950 he was working for Reuters as a freelance correspondent in Turkey. Turkey offered Whyte some stability and inner peace, and soon after his arrival in Ankara he began a relationship with a local man.

What is notable is that Whyte never felt comfortable as a gay man in Scotland, or during his time in England. Curiously, Whyte was more open about his sexuality whilst living in a nation governed by a dictator, where individual freedom was sacrificed for collective order. In Tangier and Ankara too he was much more sexually expressive, involving himself in homophile circles. Indeed, family members back home knew very little about Whyte’s life and when he died in 1960, at 53 years of age, mystery surrounded his demise. Some family members believed he had been shot for spying, others that he had taken his own life. In fact Harry died suddenly while attending a social event at a hotel in Istanbul. He left an estate of just £1 to his Turkish partner and was buried locally. Whyte is an almost unknown figure in the history of homosexual rights, but his courage in challenging Stalin’s antipathy towards homosexuality, and the great personal risk he took advocating sexual liberty under communism positions Whyte as one of Scotland’s earliest homosexual rights advocates.

About Jeff Meek

Jeff Meek
Jeff is a social scientist and social and cultural historian at Glasgow University. His research to date has examined the experiences of gay and bisexual men in post-war Scotland, as well as tracing the history of same-sex desire from the 17th century to the late 20th century in Scotland.

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One comment

  1. Homosexuals are not ‘gay’.

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