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All done and dusted; dispelling the myths of LGBT equality 50 years on

This post was contributed by Leslie J Moran, Professor of Law in the Birkbeck School of Law

It was a great honour and privilege to welcome Peter Tatchell back to Birkbeck to give the 2017 College Annual LGBT History Month Lecture. Peter has a long and notable reputation for his work as an activist promoting gender and sexual justice for LGBT people. The title of his lecture was, ‘All done and dusted; dispelling the myths of LGBT equality 50 years on.’

Peter Tatchell with Les Moran

Peter Tatchell with Les Moran

The ’50 years on’ refers to the fact that 2017 is an auspicious year, marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. That Act holds a key place in the history of struggles for sexual justice and sexual citizenship. Following the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee the ’67 Act decriminalised two criminal offences, buggery and gross indecency, as they applied to consensual sexual relations between men over 21 years of age in private. Acknowledging this major achievement, Peter also noted a more sinister side of this reform. In the wake of the ’67 reforms the number of convictions and cautions relating to consensual sexual acts between men increased dramatically; by as much as 400% between 1966 and 1973. And it wasn’t until the Sexual Offences Act 2003 that criminal offences associated with State sponsored homophobia were finally reformed.

Peter went on to identify key moments in what he called ‘the unsung civil rights struggle of our times’; the law reforms that transformed the status of LGBT people from dangerous outsiders who threatened the state to respectable citizens. Highlights of this major revolution include the Human Rights Act 1998, Gender Recognition Act 2004, Civil Partnership Act 2004 and the Same Sex Marriage Act 2013. But as Peter explained these major achievements also contain provisions that allow prejudice to continue. These are a part of ‘unfinished business’ of the struggle for gender and sexual justice that he then went on to catalogue.

The qualified exemptions from some of these reforms based on religion have the potential to sustain discrimination in the delivery of a wide variety of services now provided through faith based organisations. While the civil partnership and same sex marriage legislation introduced sweeping changes they did so through the creation of 2 types of marriage; one for mixed sex couples and one for same sex. Separate, Peter concluded, is not equal. He concluded with a long list of ongoing problems that effectively work against equality for LGBT people; ranging from the particular difficulties facing LGBT refugees to ongoing failure to respond to homophobic harassment and bullying in school and the blight of day to day experiences of hate crime. Change, he concluded, needs people to come together saying ‘enough is enough’, to dream of what a better future might look like and then to engage in the struggle to make it happen.

It was particularly rewarding to note how Peter’s lecture resonates with the internationally recognised research and teaching at Birkbeck. BIGS, the Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality forum has a lively programme of activities that brings together scholars working in the arts and humanities and the social sciences and encourages dialogue with practitioners in the creative industries as well as with non-academic constituencies. The College’s MA Gender Sexuality and Culture provides Birkbeck students opportunities to study sexual justice and social change across the social science, humanities divide. Birkbeck’s School of Law has a long tradition of research and teaching that explores the interface between sexual and gender justice and law. Undergraduate and postgraduate modules cover a wide variety of issues in both law and criminology/criminal justice.

The event was a wonderful opportunity to bring together and celebrate not only the work and passion for justice of Peter Tatchell but also that which is to be found in the wider Birkbeck community.

Leslie J. Moran is College Equality and Diversity Champion, Chair of the College Equalities Committee and Professor in the School of Law. His published research explores sexuality in law in a variety of contexts, from Criminal law and hate crime to debates about sexual diversity in the judiciary.

The Annual LGBT History Month Lecture is part of the College’s programme to promote knowledge and awareness of equality and diversity issues both within the College and the public.  The programme is organised by the College Equality and Diversity Leads in the Human Resources Department.  The College is a proud member of Stonewall Diversity Champions programme, an Athena SWAN Bronze Award holder, Disability Confident member and Mindful Employer.  It is committed to working towards a Race Equality Charter award.  


Iron Men

Having completed an MA Victorian Studies at Birkbeck over a decade ago, David Waller, author of the new book Iron Men, takes a look at the life and work of Henry Maudslay, linchpin of the industrial age

There were two very good reasons for launching my book Iron Men — about Victorian engineers — at Birkbeck recently.

The first wasiron-men-cover that when Birkbeck was founded in 1823, it was known as the Mechanics’ Institute, and the men who attended the evening classes in those days were the Iron Men in the title of my book. I’m sorry to say these early mechanics were all men: no Iron Women at all at this stage of the Industrial Revolution.

They were the engineers who designed and built the machinery that defined the age — powerful steam engines, railways and locomotive engines, ironclad ships, machines that made other machines (machine tools) and the complex equipment used in the textiles industry. These and other inventions helped turn the UK into the “workshop of the world,” the undoubted leader of the industrial world by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Iron Men focuses on Henry Maudslay (1771-1831), who came from a humble background as the son of a storekeeper at the Woolwich Arsenal. He shot to prominence after he worked with Marc Brunel, father of the more famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to design and build the machines used in the revolutionary Portsmouth block factory. This was the world’s first assembly line, producing more than 100,000 pulley blocks a year for the Royal Navy: a site that pointed the way to the mechanised future and became a tourist attraction.

Maudslay also built the tunnelling shield used in the construction of the Thames Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping. Completed in 1843, this was another industrial wonder of the age, attracting 100,000 foot passengers on the day it first opened and 2m over the first nine months. Queen Victoria herself visited it by barge, and narrowly avoided a fatal collision with a steamboat. Unfortunately the tunnel proved a commercial white elephant, and in the way of many modern infrastructure projects, lost lots of money for its investors before being sold off to a railway company.

With the profits from Portsmouth, Maudslay opened a factory in Lambeth, just south of Westminster Bridge near the Thames. In time, this became one of the biggest engineering concerns in the UK, employing 500 people by the middle of the century. The company became one of the world’s leading manufacturers of marine engines used to power steamships. Maudslay engines drove Brunel’s Great Western, the first scheduled passenger ship to cross the Atlantic, which had its maiden voyage in 1837.

Henry Maudslay himself was self-taught and did not attend the Mechanics’ Institute, but undoubtedly many of the men he employed did. His factory attracted the brightest and best mechanics of the age, just like Google and Apple attract the best software engineers today. Among those who trained there were Joseph Whitworth, James Nasmyth and Richard Robert, all three of whom left London for Manchester where they became the top engineers of the Victorian age.

They and their peers were hungry for knowledge, and had their own Mechanics Magazine, which complemented the evening classes with articles on maths, trigonometry, chemisty and physics as well as practical engineering.

Given Birkbeck’s roots, it felt especially appropriate to launch the book in the Keynes Library. The other reason why Birkbeck was was the perfect location is that, like the students of the 1820s, I too am a graduate of the former Mechanics’ Institute, having completed the MA in Victorian Studies more than a decade ago. That was a formative experience, fortunately with no physics, chemistry or trigonometry, awakening a passionate interest in the social history of the nineteenth century.

Iron Men is the third book I have written about the Victorians since my time at Birkbeck, the others also delving into obscure or forgotten aspects of the Victorian past. The first was The Magnificent Mrs Tennant, the life of the Victorian Grande Dame Gertrude Tennant, and the second The Perfect Man, an account of Eugen Sandow, the fin de siècle body-builder famed for having the best body in the world.

So Birkbeck can be blamed for inspiring an interest that has absorbed most of my free time for more than ten years.

I have had to combine the writing with a full-time job, but this has proved no bad thing. For example, it helped me get a job in a finance company. In the job interview, I spoke with my prospective boss for one hour about Gustave Flaubert, the great French novelist who was Mrs Tennant’s paramour. I got the job.

Thereafter, whenever there was a sticky moment, I reminded my boss that I got the job because of my knowledge of Flaubert, not my understanding of the investment management business where I worked.

This is not quite the experience of the pre-Victorian mechanics, but still proved the practical value of a Birkbeck education!


Mother and daughter who faced homelessness, dyslexia and bereavement triumph as they graduate together

Jessica, Tayah and Maria

Maria Phillips this week graduated with a degree in history while her daughter Jessica graduated with a degree in theatre and drama studies.

When Jessica finished her BTEC in Performing Arts she thought that she would go on to study an acting degree at university. However, aged 19 she found out that she was pregnant and her plans went on hold. In 2012, when her daughter was three years old, Jessica decided that the time had come to return to education, inspired by her mother, Maria, who had just completed the first year of a history degree at Birkbeck.

Being a single mother and worried about how she would find childcare for Tayah and how she could fit studying into her life, Jessica was delighted when she discovered that Birkbeck’s Theatre and Drama degree was taught in the evenings; and that, as Jessica was on a low income, she qualified for a bursary to cover the cost of Tayah’s nursery care at the nursery five doors away from where her classes were.

Maria, meanwhile, had found out about Birkbeck from a woman who worked at a historic house where she was volunteering, helping with tours for visitors, who would be shown around the building by an actress in costume. She explains: “I went to quite a few different schools and ended up leaving without any qualifications. I had my first two children when I was very young and although I did try to go back to education – studying for a GCSE and a City & Guilds qualification in 1990 – I was struggling with homelessness at the time, living in one room with my two girls, and I wasn’t able to take it any further.

“By the time I enrolled on a distance-learning degree a few years after that, I’d been out of education for so long that I struggled a lot and ended up dropping out and almost completely giving up on the idea of education. When I applied to Birkbeck, I was really surprised to get a place.”

Overcoming hurdles

“The first year was difficult,” Maria adds. “It took me that long to understand my way around the library and how to write essays. I remember going to see a tutor for advice. The tutor’s advice was helpful for managing to get my essays in on time, but I still struggled with organisation all the way through my studies and even when it came to the day I handed in my dissertation, Jessica got a taxi with me and we had to run down the corridor to get there in time!”

“Once it had been handed in and I was walking away it felt unreal – I couldn’t believe that I’d finally made it to the end of the course.”

In her second year, Jessica discovered that she had dyslexia but wasn’t going to let that stop her either and, with the help of her learning development tutor, managed to continue with her course. A major flood left Maria homeless and sleeping on Jessica’s couch for seven months at one point, and when Maria’s close friend died just as she was meant to be finishing her dissertation, it nearly all fell apart.

“We both really struggled at times, and both came really close to giving up,” Maria remembers. “I had many problems with housing, including the flood in my home, which took months of battling with my landlord to fix, including at one point getting my MP involved.”

However, her voluntary work, and her studies at Birkbeck, kept her going.  “I became a volunteer at the Shakespeare’s Globe and the Rose Playhouse in Bankside the same year I started at Birkbeck. Being able to escape to the two theatres was one of the most important reasons why I kept going with my studies and why I didn’t give up – it allowed me to step out of the reality of my situation, to step inside another world of theatre and get away from the bad things that were happening in my life.”

“But even though there were times we would weep or argue, it was a real benefit to have someone to talk to who understood what you were going through,” Maria adds. “Support from a sympathetic tutor in the School of Arts – even though my degree was in history, my voluntary work and support from Jess got me through.”

Jessica describes how her confidence in her own abilities has grown during the course: “At first I was really shy in class but as I started to speak to tutors more and get a feel for what was required for the course I found myself doing things I wouldn’t have contemplated before – I went to theatre productions on my own, in all sorts of different locations. One production was as far as Richmond. When I began studying I didn’t even like getting the tube as I never used to be able to work out the different lines.”

“I even took part in The Rose Theatre Bankside’s two Readathon events for the Rose Revealed project in 2014 and 2015. Before studying at Birkbeck I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that after a huge gap in acting on stage.”


“For my final year project I developed a solo performance piece based on my own experiences as a single mother. It was a tragicomedy about the shame of the single mother on benefits and it expressed this shame through transformation, using makeup and costume as a means to mask the self.

“I also used clowning techniques; my performance depicted the everyday life of a single mother on benefits against the stereotype of the single mother. I used a clown character to show this stereotype. Throughout my intensive research I was greatly inspired by the amazing regency actor and clown, Joseph Grimaldi, who performed in theatres such as Sadler’s Wells, Convent Garden, and Drury Lane.

“I was also inspired by an amazing kind-hearted man and contemporary clown Mattie, who I visited in Dalston at the clown gallery-museum and Archives, located at the Holy Trinity church in Hackney. I went on a few occasions for my research on clowning and on Grimaldi.

“For my solo performance in April this year, I got a first and when I finished performing it everyone was clapping loudly and I literally stood there in shock as I couldn’t believe they were clapping for me. My tutors after the performance were saying how good it was and how much content I had in the piece – one tutor hugged me. When I was collecting my daughter from the Birkbeck crèche I was crying from happiness. That feeling was just overwhelming; I had worked eight months on my own piece of theatre and it was successful, and well-received.”

“I remember when I had to rehearse my solo performance piece at The School of Arts every Monday evening, and I was lucky Tayah was allowed to be in the Birkbeck crèche for the three hours I rehearsed. Throughout those eight weeks I had to devise a performance; I had carrier bags of props and confetti and a baby doll I was carrying on the buses back and forth between Birkbeck and home.

“People on the bus were looking in bewilderment at how many empty food boxes I had – I was laughing to myself as they didn’t know I was rehearsing for my solo performance; I literally got off the bus with my Tesco bags with many props in one hand and little Tayah in the other hand.”

Jessica’s daughter Tayah, who is now seven, was really proud of her mum for getting her assignments in on time. Jessica said: “It’s made her want to do better at school herself and to make me proud. She has even said she will go to Birkbeck when she is older.”

As they prepare for their graduation ceremonies at Senate House on 8 and 9 November, Maria reflects: “I didn’t expect to get to this stage. There were so many obstacles that almost stopped me, but eventually I did it. It has increased my confidence and I will be able to apply for jobs that I couldn’t have before. I’m so proud of Jessica as well. She might not have done it straight after college like she planned to, but now she’s picking up where she left off.”

Jessica was awarded a Harold and Jean Brooks Prize from the Department of English and Humanities to celebrate her academic progress during the course of her BA Theatre and Drama Studies degree. Jessica said: “Now that I’m coming to graduate, I can’t believe it’s happening. But I got through four hard years and now I get to walk away with something huge.”

Jessica is planning to develop further her final year solo performance piece into a longer version and hopes to perform it in the future.


Black Scholars in Critical Dialogue: Confronting Racism in the Academy – Reimagining the Disciplines

This post was contributed by Dr William Ackah, lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector Studies, who is based within Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies (GEDS). He has just received a Fulbright All Disciplines Award to enable him to research at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

When I was a young man, 16 or 17, doing O-levels and then A-levels in Waltham Forest East London, my dad would allow me to come to central London with my friends to go Foyles bookshop to buy exam past papers and revision guides. He believed education was the key to success in this country, and my parents – who were factory workers and first generation migrants from West Africa – sacrificed a great deal so that we would be successful at school and go on to this mysterious place that I knew little about except that it was grand and important and called university.

So my friends and I would go to Foyles, get the papers and then go into Soho to buy cassettes and second-hand records, and we would talk and share dreams about our aspirations. Sometimes we would pass by some of the hallowed London institutions, such as University of London, London School of Economics and Kings College, and look and think: could these really be places that we could attend. Do black people and ethnic minorities even exist in these places? I think I remember seeing Stuart Hall on television and knew that he was associated with the Open University but that was the full extent of my seeing universities and black experiences associated together.

Looking back on those times, it is amazing to think that some of us actually got to study in these hallowed places and now to actually work in one of them. For Black Scholars to engage in a critical dialogue within the higher education space is in one sense therefore quite remarkable. The paths that we have trod to carve out a space for ourselves in the academy have been long and hard. I can remember that when I graduated it made my family, my church and my community very proud. My Dad, who had very few pictures in the house, always had the graduation pictures of his children hung up on the wall – perhaps they signified a vindication of the decision he took to migrate and the struggles one had to endure in a hostile and racist climate of late 60’s and 70’s Britain.

So some of us have made it into the hallowed university, but here is the rub: entrance and acceptance into the institutional space of higher education has not resulted in freedom, liberation or advancement for many in our communities. We paved the way for black and minority ethnic students to enter into the academy and now as students they are entering into these spaces in droves on a dream of acceptance of advancement. But far too often they are getting a second class experience, feel alienated and not fully accepted and end up with second class results. They look around their institutions and see that their teachers, what they were being taught and the fabric and feel of the institution was white, pale, stale and that possibly they had been deceived. As the words of Bob Marley poignantly stated in his song Babylon System: “Building Church and University, deceiving the people continually, me say them graduating thieves and murderers, look out suckin the blood of the sufferers”.

It could feel for black students, staff and community that on entering the university space their life blood is being sucked out of them. If black experiences are studied at all it is as social, economic, political, health, criminal justice, and environmental problems that need to solved and that blacks do not have the skills and talents to solve them themselves. White academics who have studied us and researched us are the ones to ‘rescue’ us. Universities operating in this vein are reminiscent of colonial spaces, where education, religion and history were flung in the faces of Africans as reminders of how Europe was advanced and other people were backward. Africans needed to come to school to unlearn their heritage and culture and learn to value that of Europe. They needed to get rid of their gods and superstitious practices and adopt the gods of Europe and they needed to understand that they had no history, no philosophy, no academic enterprise that was of any value, and that their history and knowledge production starts and ends with Europe. This was how it was in colonial times and, it might argued, that this is still being replicated in the higher education system today.

That is why Black Scholars, students and increasingly the community are coming together to challenge these notions, and to think about how our disciplines and institutional spaces can be re-imagined and re-shaped to give value and dignity to marginalised minority communities. We want to see a higher education system that gives credit and value to the experiences of people of African descent and others who have suffered mis-education in the university system. We want to move beyond acceptance and access to the colonial mis-education project to recognition, advancement and genuine liberation both within and ultimately outside the institutional space. This is a crucial enterprise, to transform the partial-versity into a truly universal education environment genuinely fit for all.

Dr William Ackah, Birkbeck, University of London organised the Black Scholars in Critical Dialogue event at Birkbeck, University of London on 13 September 2016, with Dr Althea Legal-Miller, University College London and Dr Robbie Shilliam, Queen Mary, University of London and with the support of the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research. A podcast of the event is also available.