Ben Mechen and Kevin Guyan

On Tuesday 8th April 2014, thirteen speakers and twenty delegates, from PhD students to professors, gathered for a one-day symposium at University College London called ‘New Directions: Gender, Sex and Sexuality in 20th Century British History‘.

Across twelve papers and one keynote address, tackling everything from the sexual and racial anxieties of Cardiff’s dockside in the years before World War Two to the complexities of the Church of England’s attitude to homosexual law reform in the 1960s, the symposium demonstrated the continued vitality of research into gender, sex and sexuality in modern British history. It also suggested some promising methodological reorientations. In this post, we’d like to summarise what we see as some of the exciting ‘new directions’ in which scholarship might be heading.

Laura Doan opened with a challenging and theoretically-engaged keynote address entitled ‘Queer history, memory and time: the case of Alan Turing’. With her groundbreaking Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality and Women’s Experience of Modern War (Chicago, 2013) having created such a stir last year, we had long decided Laura would be a terrific ‘headline act’. We also thought she’d be a very fitting one, her work attuned equally to the history of sexuality and its historiographies. We then tried to build a programme with a similarly dual focus.

Using as an example Alan Turing – mathematician, World War Two codebreaker and the subject of renewed attention from historians, politicians and the public following his posthumous pardon for gross indecency with another man – Doan put forth her case for a rapprochement between queer scholars and historians of sexuality through the joint enterprise of a “queer critical history”. Such a history would question some of the stories we tell ourselves about some ‘heroes’ of the LGBT or queer past, and instead try to understand these figures on their own terms (a point also recently made by Matt Houlbrook). Laura has been credited with shifting the terrain upon which historians of sexuality now work; in this talk she again demonstrated why.

After Laura’s address, attention shifted to the panels. The interests and conclusions of the speakers were diverse, but some key themes nevertheless emerged. We might pick out three (with apologies to those speakers whose papers covered different ground, but were no less rewarding: Justin Bengry, Katie Hindmarch-Watson and Ben Mechen).

First of all, there was a clear desire to rethink and reconfigure two overly simplistic narratives in the history of modern Britain. Firstly, the gradual displacement of social conservatism by liberalism, at least in the period up to 1979. Secondly, the (apparently related) displacement of religiosity – in both private and public life – by secularism. Cait Beaumont’s (London South Bank) work spoke to the former. Her study of the Mothers’ Union and other conservative women’s associations, and their campaigns against the draconian policing of sex workers in the 1950s, reminded us that “conservative” positions on sexual matters have often been far more complex than assumed.

What we might call a ‘return to religion’, meanwhile, was evident in three of the papers: Laura Ramsay (Nottingham) on the Church of England’s complex attitudes towards homosexuality in the run-up to decriminalisation in 1967; Timothy Jones (La Trobe) on how the “secularisation thesis” had outlived its usefulness as an explanatory paradigm in the British history of sexuality (he suggests engagement with a “postsecular” turn visible across the humanities and social sciences); and Sean Brady (Birkbeck) on Northern Ireland’s Free Presbyterian Church and its “Save Ulster From Sodomy!” campaign of the late 1970s. Indeed, Ramsay, Jones and Brady seem part of a perceptible shift towards religious history in the history of gender and sexuality in Britain – Lucy Delap and Sue Morgan’s recent edited volume Men, Masculinities and Religious Change in 20th Century Britain (Routledge, 2013) springs to mind, as does Harry Cocks’ work on the Victorian “discovery” of Sodom and Gomorrah and Joy Dixon’s forthcoming Sexual Heresies: Religion, Science, and Sexuality in Modern Britain.

The relationship between gender, sex and sexuality and the influences of space upon their production, experience and regulation was a second theme that emerged from the day. This does not indicate a ‘new direction’ perhaps – all of these papers owed something to the pioneering work of Matt Houlbrook, Richard Hornsey, Judith Walkowitz and others – but was nonetheless proof that analysis of ‘space’ continues to be a rich methodological seam. Helen Smith (Sheffield) argued for a reconsideration of how same-sex relations were understood by many living in the north of England areas in the first half of the century, arguing for a distinctive ‘northern’ view of sexuality that challenges historians’ assumption that all men seeking same-sex relations were attracted by the “bright lights” of London. Echoing Doan’s thoughts on Turing, Smith questioned how men living in the north understood their own sexuality, with work in traditional industries a more privileged site for the securing of socially-recognised masculinities than the field of sexual relations. Likewise, Kevin Guyan (UCL) asked how planners designing new homes in the 1940s and 1950s understood the masculinities of the men who would become their occupants. This shift from spaces of work to spaces of home and its effect upon men’s lives in twentieth-century Britain showed the need to view the performance and regulation of gender, sex and sexuality as happening within spaces, and how space, whether real or imagined, possesses the power to shape the direction of historical events.

Finally, several papers demonstrated the need to disturb the notion of a coherently “British” history of gender, sex and sexuality, or a London-centric one, with papers on Scottish (Jane O’Neill), Northern Irish (Sean Brady), Welsh (Simon Jenkins) and northern English (Smith) experiences. Though exploring different aspects of history, from the regulation of prostitution to sex education, these papers all asked us to question our categories. In a similar manner, Clare Tebbutt (Manchester) argued for an attentiveness to questions of race and imperialism, even when our sources at first glance don’t seem particularly revealing. In her self-reflexive account of exploring writings on ‘sex change’ in 1930s Britain, in which she had been struck by the apparent absence of racial discourses, she reminded the audience that it is sometimes only through less conventional sources (for example, travel writing) that we are able to illuminate how bodies in Britain were understood in the past.

From start to finish the symposium was a fantastic day, and we’d like to thank all the speakers and delegates for providing such food for thought. Research into gender, sex and sexuality in modern British history has a real vibrancy right now – precisely why we organised the event in the first place. Most exciting of all, though, is that we know the papers outlined above represent just a fraction of all that’s going on – indeed, the response to our Call For Papers last year was almost overwhelming. We’ll take next year off. But maybe we’ll be back for a New Directions 2016…

We’d like to thank UCL Department of History, the UCL Graduate School, the Royal Historical Society and the Economic History Society for their generous support.


Ben Mechen is a PhD candidate at University College London. He is researching changing understandings of heterosexuality in 1970s Britain, and how “ordinary” heterosexual subjects – and “everyday” heterosexual practice – were reconstituted in the wake of the liberalisation of sexual attitudes often associated (then and now) with Sixties counterculture. Ben tweets from @benmechen



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