When a NEO-NAZI Comes Out as BISEXUAL AND JEWISH
In 1983, Kevin Wilshaw visited Dachau with three fellow neo-Nazis. He had traveled to Germany from England, his home country, and visited Hitler’s house and the Nuremberg Stadium in Munich with his German hosts. He asked them to take him to the nearby concentration camp.
They took him, and the group stayed for about 45 minutes. “They didn’t really say much,” he said of the others. “I found it rather eerie, visiting a place where there’d been so much violence and death.”
What they didn’t know — and what no one else in his far-right community knew — was that Wilshaw has a Jewish heritage. For 44 years, he lived at least two lives. Openly, he was a neo-Nazi; in the closet, a part-Jewish bisexual.
The strain of keeping so many secrets weighed more and more heavily on Wilshaw, 58, until last autumn, he went public and renounced the far right. Now he is trying to fight the movement he once avidly supported.
Wilshaw joined the far right in the 1970s as a teenager. That affiliation became his main source of identity and purpose, even as he kept key parts of himself hidden.
“I feel as if I’ve wasted my life,” he said, chuckling. Wilshaw currently resides in southeast England, but for safety reasons, he has asked the Forward not to disclose the exact city or county.
Wilshaw grew up in an environment where violence and suppression were commonplace. He was born in 1958 in the picturesque seaside village of Whitehaven, a former coalmining area that had become an industrial zone.
He was close to his mother, Patricia Wilshaw. Her maiden name was Benja-
THEN AND NOW: Kevin Wilshaw with a friend in 1985, and in a more dignified pose today. min, and her Jewish grandfather came from northern England. Wilshaw’s relationship with his father was tense. A local policeman, Jack Wilshaw was routinely violent and addicted to alcohol. When he worked as a horse guard, outside Buckingham Palace, he would sometimes drink on the job and urinate into his boots. At home, he would hit his three children with a horsewhip. One time he broke down the bathroom door to get at his son, who had locked himself in. But he left his wife alone “’cause he was scared of her,” Kevin Wilshaw said.
By the time Wilshaw became drawn to the far right, at age 15, he knew he had a Jewish grandparent. He also knew he was bisexual, but after coming out to a couple of friends, he got bullied at school. The violence stopped only when he changed schools, at 16, to prepare for university entrance exams. Though he didn’t go to univer-
Wilshaw joined the far right as a teenager.
sity, he did three years of vocational training as a nurse. But when it came to telling his family about his sexuality, Wilshaw said, “I kept it from them.”
When he joined the British Movement, an openly neo-Nazi organization, his family didn’t talk about that either. His parents were both Conservative Party supporters — his father spouted racist and anti-immigrant views and his mother distrusted foreigners — but they considered the far right too radical. For Wilshaw, becoming an extremist was one way to rebel against his father. When Jack Wilshaw tried to stop him from getting involved, he said, “I just ignored him.”
In the end, his parents gave up.
KEEPING THREE LIVES APART
Wilshaw first saw Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, “Triumph of the Will,” at age 14 on the BBC. “I was sort of hooked on it,” he said.
When he contacted the British Movement, a year later, he was seeking a sense of belonging and purpose. He was introverted, had few friends, and didn’t see other options for finding community or identity in his rural surroundings. The other activity he participated in was cross-country running — “a solitary sport.”
“I thought [the far right] was the only way of actually busying myself and having something to fill my life with, which was obviously a wrong decision,” he said.
As he became more active in the far right — putting up posters and stickers, going to meetings and marches, writing letters to the press — he continued to hide parts of himself, but now with a new kind of family.
“I basically kept the three lives apart,” he said of his extremism, bisexuality and Jewish heritage. “One was in one compartment, one was in another, one was in another.”
But when he came to London for farright activities, he would visit gay clubs in secret, living moments of freedom and openness amid the repression.
“It was very liberating,” he said, “’cause you could actually let yourself go and be yourself, and not live a lie for a change.”
Wilshaw knew other extremists who, like him, were living contradictions: One of the bouncers at the gay clubs was a neo-Nazi, and two London members of the National Front, a fascist political party, were Jews.
In the 1990s, Wilshaw married a woman he met while he was working as a mental health nurse at a hospital. Over the years, he has also worked in factories, most recently as a supervisor. The couple stayed married for three years, divorcing in 1995; they had a son together. Neither his wife nor their son ever approved of his extremism. He is still in touch with his ex-wife and sees his son regularly.
Around the same time, he was arrested and jailed for vandalizing a mosque in Aylesbury, 45 miles northwest of London. Aside from that incident, he said, he engaged in only “reciprocal violence” and never targeted anyone for his or her ethnicity, including Jews. He has not vandalized a synagogue.
But he continued selling papers, going on marches and demonstrations, leafleting and writing letters to the press. He became a regional organizer for the National Front in Cumbria, and even ran as a parliamentary candidate for the party in 1989. He was involved with another fascist political party, the British National Party (which grew out of the NF), for 17 years.
Along the way he has engaged in violence with several anti-fascist groups. He says he once smashed a chair over a man’s head at a local election in northern England, and in 1982 he was hospitalized after an altercation with the radical socialist group Red Action.
HOPE NOT HATE?
The end of Wilshaw’s extremism began in 2015, when his mother died of dementia. He called her death “a monumental event.” (His father had died five years earlier, of an alcohol-related illness, but Wilshaw said his parents had been estranged and it didn’t affect him much.)
The anti-fascist advocacy group Hope Not Hate noticed his behavior on social media grow more extreme. The organization, which is active in the United Kingdom and the United States, does community-based anti-extremism campaigns,; monitors, and reports on, the far right, and helps people leave the movement. Some of its staff are former extremists themselves.
Its head of research, Matthew Collins — an ex-extremist who has known Wilshaw from the far right since 1987 — said that in 2016, Wilshaw started posting about him “extensively” on Facebook. Collins felt that Wilshaw might be having a crisis. “I said, ‘Something’s not right with Kevin,’” he said.
Wilshaw agreed: “I just got more bitter and more extreme, and I thought, ‘I’ll take it out on the internet.’”
Police monitor social media heavily, Collins said, so he wasn’t surprised when Wilshaw got arrested in March under the Malicious Communications Act, which makes it illegal to send or deliver communications designed to cause “distress or anxiety.” Since Wilshaw hasn’t been charged yet, it isn’t clear which communications he was arrested for specifically. He is on bail and, at press time, was still awaiting a court hearing.
Police referred Wilshaw to Prevent, Britain’s deradicalization program. He asked to connect with Hope Not Hate, which he knew of from his decades in the far right.
Collins said, “I literally just waited for his phone call to come, and it came.” He asked Wilshaw what he wanted to do. One of the things Wilshaw suggested was to become an informant for Hope Not Hate, passing on information from within the far right.
Wilshaw had already been an informant, providing information about the British Movement to the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight on one occasion in the 1990s.
But after working for Hope Not Hate for four months, he told Collins in July that he couldn’t continue. He found it too difficult to lie.
“I said, ‘I want to sever this now and I want to go public with this,’” Wilshaw said.
Since leaving the far right and revealing his sexuality and heritage, most reactions have been supportive and congratulatory. He is in touch with a half-sister born to his father, who reached out recently.
He has had negative responses from the far left — some don’t believe he’s finished with extremism — and the far right. He says he has cut ties with those connections but has read critical and abusive posts about himself
He recently visited Highgate Synagogue, in London, and met a rabbi for the first time. He initially felt nervous and appreciated Rabbi Nicky Liss’s sense of humor. They toured the synagogue; Wilshaw said a prayer in English for his mother, and they had “a cup of tea and a chat.” Wilshaw said he’d like to learn more about Judaism.
Wilshaw said his life is “more positive now, more optimistic.” He plans to retire soon from his job as a factory supervisor and move back to Cumbria.
But looking back on his decades of extremism, he said, “I could have done a lot more with my life than what I have done.”
BREAKING FROM A RECENT PAST: Wilshaw was still marching in 2015.
EX- EXTREMIST: Matthew Collins heads up research for Hope Not Hate.