Dr Dominic Janes, Reader in History of Art, argues that there is a resurgence of interest in LGBT/Queer Studies in the UK in the context of recent political controversies over same-sex marriage and British values and that Birkbeck is playing a leading role in debate on these issues.
Birkbeck has a strong track-record in generating new ideas in the areas of culture and society, including in relation to understandings of gender and sexuality. My own work in queer visual culture is powerfully rooted in an awareness of changes in popular attitudes over the last several decades. It has taken the best part of fifty years to move from the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967 to the introduction of same-sex marriage. The politics of visibility was of enormous importance in gay and lesbian liberation because of the understanding of closet secrecy as a structure of oppression. Some of those involved in the ensuing cultural struggles embraced radical forms of queer identity that were based on the assumption of powerfully counter-cultural attitudes to issues such as relationships, commerce and personal presentation. Visibility was a key element of the demands of gay and lesbian rights activists and battles over self-expression on the part both of artists and members of the public in general played a crucial role of the culture wars of the later twentieth century in Britain, as in the United States and elsewhere. The AIDS crisis in particular rendered the question of visible recognition as being of vast importance not merely to people’s identities but to their lives. The fight for respectful representation in the media has lived on in ongoing contestation over memories and histories of these events.
Since the year 2000 a renewed level of academic interest in queer visibility has been accompanied by wider debates in society. Successive liberalisation of laws in the constituent parts of the UK as in many other western countries have led to claims that the rights struggle is now at an end and with it the need for a distinctive and separate queer culture. The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen the rise of a powerful movement for the assimilation of those who regard themselves as gay or lesbian into the core power-structures of society in Britain and in many other countries. Associated with this has been a widely acknowledged growth in consumerism over politics in the gay community. Whether all this has resulted in a queering of mainstream society or a post-queer erasure of activism and creativity is being hotly debated. David Halperin in his book How to be Gay (2012) has argued from the perspective of the United States that ‘as homosexuality has become increasingly public and dignified, the life of queer affect and feeling has become more and more demonized, more and more impossible to express openly, to explore, to celebrate. It has become an embarrassment….’
One thing that this view implies is that there was a golden age of gay culture which is now in eclipse. That stands somewhat at odds with other views that have seen much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as dominated by prejudice and closeted self-oppression. In two books that are being published this year I have revisited the worlds of the closeted homosexual in Britain in decades past and asked whether Halperin’s nostalgic tone is justified. In Visions of Queer Martyrdom from John Henry Newman to Derek Jarman (University of Chicago Press, 2015), I examine the development within the nineteenth-century Church of England of a subject position of closeted queer servitude to Christ which allowed a certain degree of scope for the development of aspects of same-sex desire. My next research project, for which I was awarded a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship, explored the ways in which the closet has functioned as a visual metaphor, and looked at the ways in which ‘homosexuals’ were depicted and visually presented themselves before and after the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895. The key output from this project is Picturing the Closet: Male Secrecy and Homosexual Visibility in Britain (Oxford University Press, 2015). Together with my many colleagues at Birkbeck who also work in gender and sexuality studies I look forward to continuing the College’s contribution to public debate about the values of openness and tolerance in a pluralistic society.