The Queer/ Gay/ Sexualities Research Tradition at Essex

 

The cover of the 1981 book

The cover of the 1981 book

One of the many fields of research in the Essex Sociology Department has been ‘sexualities’. In the 1990’s it established the journal Sexualities and in the 00’s it set up the Centre for Intimate and Sexual Citizenship run by Róisín Ryan Flood. To celebrate the 50th anniversary, a seminar was held in March 2015 to look at some of its earliest work that helped to create a new field of study – lesbian and gay studies, queer studies and critical sexualities studies – and to consider just how far it has advanced.

 In the 1970’s there was almost no research in these areas and Essex was one of the pioneers.   Mary McIntosh’s The Homosexual Role – which argued that homosexuality was not a universal condition but a variable social role- is often seen as a foundational text. The seminar was held in her memory, discussed her work and highlighted the earliest collective work produced in the department during the 1970’s and published in 1981 as The Making of the Modern Homosexual. This book brought together students and staff, and suggested new directions for research. Most notably it developed a historical sense of same-sex relations; linked it firmly to power, gender and identity; and developed the debate over constructionism and essentialism. While they were innovative then, many now would take these early paradigm shifts for granted as a new vibrant field of ‘sexualities studies’ has emerged over the past twenty years, moved on and developed new concerns.

The book The Making of the Modern Homosexual was organized into three parts. The first part reprinted the McIntosh article and Mary then discussed its value in an interview with Jeffrey Weeks and Ken Plummer. It suggested key features of new emerging frameworks. The second part took up three key themes: Ken Plummer suggested the fruitfulness of applying stigma theory, labeling theory and ideas of ‘oppression’ to homosexuality; Jeffrey Weeks puzzled the historiography of homosexuality and its latent essentialism; while Annabel Faraday critiqued the apparent males bias of existing ‘male’ ‘gay’ research and suggested new radical feminist baselines. The third part then provided three empirical studies being conducted by graduate students – a first (John Marshall) traced the emergence of the category from the late 19th century to the 50’s; a second (Dave King) looked at the making of ‘trans’ categories; and a third (Gregg Blachford) looked at the growing significance of ‘masculinity’ in the gay culture. Some of these contributors will be returning for the seminar and meeting again for the first time in over thirty years!

 The session was very lively. Gregg Blachford had flown in from Canada to chair the session and John Marshall – who left to become editor of Gay News and gay Times for much of the 1980’a – returned to Essex for the first time in over thirty years. Annabel Faraday sent a message saying she had left academia for the world of ceramics and wished the seminar well. Dave King has now retired to a Welsh village where he participates in the local community shop.

The world has moved on. When Essex was established ‘homosexuality’ was still a crime and firmly defined as sickness. The Gay, Lesbian and Women’s movement had not happened and AIDS had not arrived. Over the years there have been major changes and now the university has strong policies on supporting gay, gender and transgender equality rights. The seminar ended by asking just how much has things really changed? Not as much as it looks on the surface – especially if the global stage is considered.

Here are a few photos taken at a seminar in 1980 as the authors discussed their papers.

ModernHMary&Annabel ModernHKen&Jeff ModernHGregg&John ModernHMgroup1 ModernHMgroup2 ModernHM tea ModernHgroup ModernHMannab&mary2 ModernHgroup5

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