One of the 20th century’s most popular dramatists, Terence Rattigan (1911-1977), studied History at Trinity from 1930 to 1933 although, as an act of defiance against his father, he never took his final exams. Rattigan initially occupied room 18 on the second floor of staircase 6 on the Front Quad at Trinity (he subsequently moved into digs in Canterbury House, King Edward Street). At Oxford Rattigan embraced the aesthetic tradition in all its queer glory, and had a string of love affairs with men. Notwithstanding, whilst acknowledging that Rattigan freely engaged in homosexual affairs throughout his time as a student, Michael Darlow (Rattigan’s most recent biographer) has rightly cautioned that the parameters within which Rattigan could engage in such relationships were heavily circumscribed. Like so many of his generation, Rattigan was torn to pieces about his sexuality; only his most intimate circle of friends at Oxford knew he slept with other men.
Terence Rattigan in Radcliffe Square, c.1930. Photograph V&A Images, Victoria and Albert Museum. Reproduced with permission. Photographer unknown.
Rattigan also became a film and theatre critic for The Cherwell and became deeply involved with OUDS. In February 1932 he appeared in a minor role in a production (directed by John Gielgud whom Rattigan idolised) of Romeo and Juliet at the New Theatre but he was better known for his performances at ‘Smokers’, annual in-house revues, notoriously camp and risqué, performed for Society members and their guests. His alto ego, Lady Diana Cootigan (a play on the phrase ‘as queer as a coot’) aped the famous drag act of Douglas Byng (whom Rattigan knew) and was the butt of jokes in the undergraduate press.
It was at Oxford that Rattigan worked on his first significant play, Episode, first staged at Kew in London in September 1933 and then at the Comedy Theatre, as First Episode, in the West End the following year. Rattigan’s career was set and subsequent plays such as The Winslow Boy (1946), The Browning Version (1948), The Deep Blue Sea (1952), and Separate Tables (1954) are now standards in the British theatre canon. At one point Rattigan was also the highest paid screenwriter in the world, writing screenplays for popular movies such as The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964). Autobiographical nuances, including coded references to his homoeroticism, have been detected in many of Rattigan’s works.
For more on Rattigan, see Michael Darlow (2000) Terence Rattigan: The Man and His Work (London: Quartet Books); Sean O’Connor (1998) Straight Acting: Popular Gay Drama from Wilde to Rattigan (London: Cassell); and Geoffrey Wansell (1995) Terence Rattigan (London: Fourth Estate).
Journalist, writer, and campaigner Peter Wildeblood (1923-1999) attended Trinity after attending Radley, a public school near Oxford. Through his involvement in a notorious court case (during which he was imprisoned for 12 months), Wildeblood became one of the first men in the country to publicly declare that he was gay. This defining episode was explored in the Channel Four drama-documentary A Very British Sex Scandal (2007). After his release from jail, he addressed the Wolfenden Committee and the House of Lords, proceedings which eventually led to the decriminalisation of consensual same-sex acts between men in Britain. Wildeblood’s autobiographical account of gay life in mid-20th-century Britain, Against the Law (1955), is an important document in LGBTQ+ history.
Former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe (1929-2014) studied Law at Trinity. Whilst at Oxford he was Chairman of the Liberal Club and the Law Society as well as a President of the Oxford Union. Thorpe was leader of the Liberal Party from 1967-1976. He lost his post and his seat in Parliament as a result of charges brought against him of incitement and conspiracy to murder an alleged former male lover—charges of which he was subsequently acquitted. Controversy surrounding this shadowy episode still rages today. Thorpe never made any public statements regarding his sexuality.