Covert Affairs... Homosexuality and Spying

June 30, 2016


This guest post was originally published on 7th June 2016 on


The world of espionage has been associated with gay men for as long as there have been covert agents, and most of us have read accounts of the activities of honey-trap spies. For those who are unaware, a honey-trap is defined as a strategy whereby an attractive person coerces another person into revealing some kind of pertinent information, by means of deception. These missions can be deep cover and involve long term emotional manipulations, occasionally a long relationship, or even marriage. Enemy agents, politicians, business moguls, and celebrities have all been victims of this strategy.

In the ‘good old days’ of British spying when, to the general public spy agencies did not exist, gays and lesbians were officially explicitly barred from working for the intelligence and diplomatic services. They were deemed a ‘blackmail risk’ from honey trap spies — not that straight male or female agents could ever fall for that rouse!

However, from 1909, the beginning of what was then known as the ‘SIS’ – the British Secret Intelligence Service, the main recruitment ground for intelligence operatives in the UK was at Oxbridge — the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Universities were primarily a male domain until the 1920s. The young men who were accepted at these universities were always upper class and connected. If a student appeared to have the looks, tenacity, and derring –do to spy for “Blighty”, they would be approached discreetly by the SIS, and later MI6, and then vetted to see if they fitted into the mould.

The British secret service denied they purposely recruited gay agents; however, a series of spy scandals in the early 1950s featuring gay men was discovered, and proved that the security services had always employed homosexual officers for honey trapping missions.


To counteract the fact that there were so many gay intelligence officers in the British and US security services, the Russian’s also began purposely recruiting gay agents to compromise and blackmail their British and American counterparts. During the Cold War, as long as they ‘remained discreet’, being a spy enabled men to love in the shadows. However, if discovered and publicly outed, the law offered them no protection.


One of the most notorious gay spy scandals centered on a man named Guy Burgess. Burgess was one of a group of five gay double agents who became known as the ‘Cambridge spies’. His story was the subject of the iconic film “Another Country” (1984) The movie explores the effect of public school life in the 1930s on Guy, as his homosexuality and unwillingness to go along with school ‘traditions’ turns him towards the open arms of communism. It stars Rupert Everett as Guy, Cary Elwes as his younger lover James Harcourt, and Colin Firth as Guy’s best friend and Marxist, Tommy Judd.



After university, Burgess was ‘officially’ employed in the entertainment industry – working for BBC as a producer of political radio programmes. His gay affairs were widely known in intelligence circles; however, it became a national scandal when he was discovered to be a member of a larger KGB spy ring known as “The Homintern”, a term also used to describe a group of gay men in positions of power within the areas of arts, entertainment, and politics.

The “Cambridge spies” scandal became a national obsession and led to acute public anxiety in the United Kingdom about homosexual entrapment of spies by Soviet agents. In turn homosexuality was demonized further, and automatically linked to espionage and betrayal.


The horrific treatment of code breaker and founder of computer science, Alan Turing, was one of the turning points for gay men in the intelligence sector. Turing was arrested for ‘homosexual acts’, and when found guilty, he chose chemical castration over prison as his punishment. Turing was never accused of espionage, however, the media frenzy about homosexuality and the distrust it whipped up meant gays and lesbians were unfairly automatically linked to all kinds of wrongdoing. Turing later committed suicide and it wasn’t until an internet campaign was started in 2009 that his appalling treatment became public knowledge. Eventually, he received a posthumous pardon by the Queen in 2013.

My fascination with duplicity, the spy game, and what drives those who work in the intelligence services has filtered into my own writing, and I have found myself with two characters Samuel Aiken and Declan Ramsay — the protagonists in my contemporary M/M Romance “Shatterproof Bond” series.

Sam is the twenty-three year old son of Sir James Aiken, a public school educated millionaire, ex MI5 operative, who, on leaving the secret service, set up his own covert operation under the guise of a property agency. Thirty –two year old Scotsman Declan Ramsay is bisexual and works for James’s agency, that unbeknown to him, has a covert remit. He only finds out the truth after falling in love with his boss’s son.


 Sir James Aiken Portrait by Isobel Starling


Sir James Aiken is deeply homophobic, and as bad guys go, he was a challenge to write. However, when it came to the romance aspect of the story, I was conscious that I didn’t want the love between Sam and Declan to follow the traditional arc as being seen as ‘wrong’ and used as leverage to blackmail the lovers. What I have written is a thriller romance where the protagonists are openly with each other. I love plotting how Sam and Declan overcome the obstacles they face, living life in the shadows while trying to have a ‘normal’ relationship and deal with Sam’s duplicitous father.

In the next book in the series, “Return to Zero” (Shatterproof Bond#2) the lovers find themselves on their first assignment together as agents in a partnership, and have to thrash out their working dynamics.

Two of James’s agents are missing — presumed dead, while on a reconnaissance mission at an outdoor adventure centre in the Scottish Highlands. He sends his son and Declan to follow the trail, and discover the fate of the agents.  James enjoys power play and when it comes to his agents he sees nothing wrong with setting seeds of doubt in Sam and Declan’s minds.  Working through the layers of lies, Sam and Declan will have to dig deep to understand the real reasons for their mission, and decide what is more important — the agency or their commitment to each other.

The British Security Services didn’t actually relax their ‘official’ ban on homosexuality until the early 1990s in a bid to attract ‘a broader selection of the population’. At the time this was met with puzzling consternation, as history had already proven that even though they were treated poorly, gay men and women were always employed by the secret service. Surprisingly, in January 2016, MI5 were name by Stonewall as Britain’s ‘most gay friendly employer’.

How times have changed!

©Isobel Starling 2016


Please reload

Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square

© 2016 Isobel Starling. Proudly created with

  • w-facebook
  • Twitter Clean
  • w-youtube
This site was designed with the
website builder. Create your website today.
Start Now