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.

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The Imitation Game gets gay life in 40s and 50s Britain spot on

This post was written by Dr Andy Harvey – a Researcher at the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre and an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. It was originally published on The Conversation.

The Imitation Game has scooped up eight Oscar nominations this year, including the coveted Best Picture. Since its release in autumn 2014 the film has attracted widespread positive critical appraisal and commercial success.

Its story of British mathematical genius Alan Turing who broke the German Enigma codes in World War II is now widely known. Equally well-known, at least in Britain, is the fact that Turing was gay, a homosexual, to use the terminology of the day, and that he reputedly committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 41 after receiving hormone therapy as a result of a conviction in 1952 for gross indecency. He was posthumously pardoned for his “offence” – in 2013.

The film has also attracted criticism in some quarters for underplaying Turing’s homosexuality, and foregrounding a (non-sexual) relationship with fellow mathematician, Joan Clarke, played by British actress Keira Knightley. But besides such personal details, the film’s more general portrayal of homosexual life in the 1940s and 1950s does stand up to critical scrutiny.

Wartime liaisons

Blackout during wartime afforded opportunities for homosexual liaisons that many wouldn’t have experienced before. Men could find each other under the cover of complete darkness and, no doubt, because the authorities had more pressing matters to hand.

However, homosexuality remained illegal under the hated “Labouchère” amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885, which outlawed “gross indecency” between men. This was the law that sent Oscar Wilde to jail for two years of hard labour – and which was used to prosecute Turing. It was widely regarded as a blackmailer’s charter. And so although the scene in which Turing is blackmailed by the Russian spy John Cairncross may not be historically correct, it is certainly a good reflection on the times. In this sense the film captures the perpetual threat that homosexual men had to live with.

The war years may have been relatively kind to homosexual men but prosecutions for sexual crimes increased in the period immediately after the war, reaching a peak in 1961. Police tactics were often rebarbative and generated genuine fear. The police pursuit of Turing in The Imitation Game provides an insight into the importance the police gave to prosecuting homosexual “crimes”.

Men often went to great lengths to cover their tracks. A groundbreaking study by Michael Schofield, published in 1960, revealed the diversity of homosexual lives in the period and the myriad ways they negotiated through the undeniable difficulties they often faced. In his autobiography, London journalist Peter Wildeblood, who was another high profile victim of homophobic laws and police tactics, claimed it was necessary for him to watch every word he spoke, every gesture that he made. Turing’s sexual discreetness in The Imitation Game is an accurate representation of how most homosexual men had to behave.

Tolerance, conviction

There has been a growing appreciation in queer academia that there was often tolerance and acceptance of men leading homosexual lives at a domestic level, not just from immediate families and local communities, but also from landlords and landladies. There was widespread public disquiet at these draconian laws. Sympathy for another famous victim caught up in a police sting saw actor John Gielgud receive a standing ovation when he returned to the stage in Liverpool after his conviction for gross indecency in 1953 secured lurid headlines in the newspapers.

But while there may have been a certain degree of tolerance toward homosexuality, especially for those men who lived “respectable” and quiet lives, criminal proceedings remained a real threat for many. Patrick Higgins’s review of court cases in Heterosexual Dictatorships (1996) shows that homosexual lives continued to be led across the breadth of the country throughout the 1950s, albeit in the shadow of the law, and involved men from all walks of life. For example, the court records show a case from Rotherham, Yorkshire, where 17 unskilled and semi-skilled men pleaded guilty to 41 charges of homosexual acts. In the same year in Barnsley, 12 men confessed to homosexual acts. Prosecution was widespread.

Despite, or rather because of the occasional high-profile trial and the number of less famous prosecutions, homosexuality was largely pushed into the dark recesses of society. Paradoxically, its very invisibility acted as a cloak for those seeking liaisons with other men. In practice no-one suspected other people of being homosexual. Again, the presumption that Turing could not possibly be gay comes across in the film if only as a minor sub-plot, but it strikes a true chord.

The Imitation Game may play fast and loose with a great deal of historical accuracy, as films are entitled to do. But the artistic portrayal speaks to a greater truth. In the light of what we know about homosexual life at the time, The Imitation Game mostly gets it right. The Conversation

Other blog posts by Dr Andy Harvey

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