Homosexuality: The Testimony Of Roy Strong

If I had been born ten years later, I might’ve lived my life as a gay man.
—Roy Strong

Is homosexuality innate? Is there a gene for it? If not a complete molecular unit, then perhaps some partial genetic link? And if a link, would this sectional fragment prove a determinant to sexual preference? Or would it hover in our DNA with all the other unfinished suggestions that move each of us past the many roads not taken?

Roy Strong, dressed for a 2010 photo shoot. Courtesy of The Daily Mail, UK.
Roy Strong, dressed for a 2010 photo shoot. Courtesy of The Daily Mail, UK.

The findings of Dean Hamer, the American geneticist who claimed to have discovered a “gay gene” in the Nineties, has never been replicated. Hamer himself was homosexual and, with his partner, founded the film company Qwaves to promote sympathy for “the voices of those on the outside.”

Now the outside is In, very In. The myth of a gay gene persists together with other teasers from the corridors of higher superstition. It is not my place to argue whether there is a natural standard for human happiness or ground in nature for definitive statements about homosexuality and genetics. Others are better equipped for that debate than I am. But let me offer the testimony of Roy Strong, eminent art historian, landscape designer, and flamboyant director emeritus of London’s National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In March, 2013, London’s The Daily Mail included an excerpt from Strong’s autobiography Self Portrait as a Young Man:

Roy Strong and wife Julia in the 1970s. Photo by Paul Lewis
Roy Strong and wife Julia in the 1970s. Photo by Paul Lewis

I was not only cripplingly shy but aware that sexually I was ambiguous. Prosecution of homosexuals as criminals reached a peak with the famous cases of Sir John Gielgud in 1953 and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu the following year.

It is difficult to communicate to a generation where everything can be – and is – said and done what it was like to come to sexual maturity in the middle of the Fifties. If I had been born in 1945 and not in 1935, I should probably have lived the life of a gay man in a society which by 1980 accepted such orientation.

An old friend of mine, Brian Sewell, took a very different path in life from the one I chose. For that I respect him, for he too could, he admits, have married. In the Fifties, any mention of such a tendency was then unthinkable and even if I had faced up to it, I would not have known what to do about it. At 20 I was bottled up and inhibited.

There was a homosexual side to me, that much I knew; but whenever, later, I had glimpses into that world I knew that I did not wish to enter it.

There was another side to me: emotionally and intellectually I was also hugely attracted to women and I knew that, if I found the right person, I would like the stability of an old-fashioned Christian marriage. I was 24 when I entered the National Portrait Gallery, an age by which many men are not only married, but fathers.

Twice I seriously considered asking two very different women to marry me, but I fell back on contemplating the social gulf between their families and my own. But in the long run I was to be a very lucky man when, in 1971, I eloped with the designer Julia Trevelyan Oman – an elopement arranged by my friend and confessor, Father Gerard Irvine. Our marriage that same year precipitated the break with my mother who, rejecting Julia, created a slow death in our relationship. . . .

The attraction between us was instant but totally divorced from what one thinks of as London of that time, the world of David Bailey and Blow-Up. Both of us, beneath it all, were shy people born out of context and there followed a gentle, old-fashioned courtship until, at last, I plucked up courage and proposed to her in St James’s Park.

She died, to my anguish, in 2003.

Roy Strong and his “precious and private friend” designer Gianni Versace.
Roy Strong and his “precious and private friend” designer Gianni Versace.