How welcoming is academia to LGBT staff?

This post was contributed by Professor Matt Cook, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. This comment piece first appeared on Thursday, May 5, in the Times Higher Education. The article “How welcoming is academia to LGBT staff?” features six academic’s responses to the question.

Birkbeck values its diversity and celebrates IDAHO – International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

“Many of those engaged in these early struggles and projects have sustained strong supportive networks. I have benefited hugely from these”

Professor Matt Cook

Professor Matt Cook

As a gay academic working on queer themes in history, my feelings of comfort and belonging owe a lot to the emergence of new areas of scholarship, to my discovery of community among colleagues and students – and to good timing.

I began my postgraduate studies in the mid‑1990s, just as work on gender and sexuality had gained some credibility and was even fashionable in some places – not least at Queen Mary University of London, where I found myself. By the time I emerged with my PhD in 2000, much ground had already been laid and my specialism was not the impediment to gaining an academic post that it had been for the preceding generation. There was a growing sense that explorations of sexuality had a real significance to broader understandings of society, culture and politics – past and present.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the scholars in the UK who inspired me – Jeffrey Weeks, Lynne Segal and Sheila Rowbotham among them – wrote much of their early work outside the university sector or against the grain of the jobs they were being paid for. They were nurtured instead by political and community networks arising from women’s and gay liberation, from the Gay Left collective and also from the History Workshop movement and journal (which, from its inception, had taken gender and sexuality – and those working beyond the academy – seriously). Such scholars had to argue that women’s and gay history were not marginal or peripheral areas of study and had a place in university departments. Once hired, some of them (including those I’ve mentioned) faced overt disdain or were “benignly” expected to focus on other things seen as more significant.

There was some notable resistance to this marginalisation. At the University of Sussex in 1991, Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore established the Sexual Dissidence master’s programme, exploring history, literature, post-structural and queer theory. It felt especially urgent in the context of the Aids crisis, Clause 28 (which prevented UK local councils from “promoting homosexuality”) and a broader homophobic backlash. Unsurprisingly, it was derided as insignificant, trendy (an insult in this context) and part of a “Loony Left” agenda. But, tellingly, the programme is still running 25 years on.

Read the original Times Higher Education article here

Read the original Times Higher Education article here

Many of those engaged in these struggles and projects have sustained strong supportive networks. I have benefited hugely from these. Research and teaching projects have meanwhile allowed me to work with LGBT community groups and with archive and museum professionals – giving me sustaining anchor points outside academia.

At Birkbeck, University of London – my institutional home for the past 10 years – I have found further communities. One is a history department with a collective commitment to wide-ranging historical work (and the intersections that it fosters). Another is with colleagues brought together through the Birkbeck Interdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality research centre. A third is with students whose engagement with their studies has often been underpinned by much more direct experiences of discrimination and marginalisation than I have had to deal with. Being a white, middle-class man has made me an insider in more ways than my queerness has set me apart.

Matt Cook is professor of modern history at Birkbeck, University of London and the author, most recently, of Queer Domesticities: Homosexuality and Home Life in Twentieth-Century London (2014).

Find out more

Share
. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy, Uncategorized . Tags: , ,

Queer Studies at Birkbeck

Dominic JanesDr 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….’

Dr Janes' book 'Picturing the Closet'

Dr Janes’ book ‘Picturing the Closet’

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.

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , ,