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Thursday, 31 May 2018

World-Class Pride

This Oxford Pride, School of Philosophy, History & Culture doctoral student Ross Brooks highlights Oxford’s place in British queer history and heritage.

‘I never knew there was so much in it!’ This was how Dr Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon at the time, began his foreword to the first edition of my LGBTQ+ city guide Queer Oxford which I produced as an extra-curricular project when I was a History undergraduate at Brookes back in 2006. As it happened, nobody involved with the project back then knew just how much there was ‘in it’. Since that time, I have unearthed a considerable amount of additional material relating to the local LGBTQ+ experience stretching back to the fourteenth century. For example, for five weeks in the late summer of 1394, a transvestite prostitute named John Rykener worked in Oxford as an embroideress under the name of Eleanor. Later, Rykener confessed to police interrogators that during his stay here he had often ‘practiced the abominable vice’ with three scholars.

Since returning to Brookes for the MA in History (History of Medicine) in 2016, and now studying at doctoral level, I have been able to explore further the local queer experience and utilise opportunities to communicate just how much Oxford has to offer to our understanding and appreciation of LGBTQ+ history and heritage.

It is a very exciting time to revisit Oxford’s rich queer history. Whilst some may be aware that Oscar Wilde studied at Magdalen College from 1874 to 1878, or that Evelyn Waugh’s classic 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited was largely based on his experiences at Hertford College between 1922 and 1924, the depth and breadth of the local LGBTQ+ experience is really only now finding its place in broader narratives of British queer history and beyond. Significant in this regard were last year’s commemorative events marking 60 years since the 1957 Wolfenden Report which recommended partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts, and 50 years since the recommendation was enacted by the Sexual Offences Act 1967. High-profile events such as the National Trust’s momentous ‘Prejudice & Pride’ project and Historic England’s equally momentous ‘Pride of Place’ project broadened perceptions of British queer history beyond the major UK cities to an unprecedented extent. Also contributing to this important work is a major AHRC-funded project entitled ‘Queer beyond London’, a collaboration between Birkbeck College, University of London and Leeds Beckett University. Although the project focuses on four UK localities—Brighton, Leeds, Manchester, and Plymouth—an international conference entitled ‘Queer Localities’ at Birkbeck last autumn explored many and varied intersections between sexuality and locality on a global scale.

© Images & Voices, Oxfordshire County Council
Cyril Arapoff’s gloriously homoerotic images of nude and semi-nude young men are unique in British queer history. They offer unprecedented insights into the queer dynamics of 1930s Oxford.
Notably, Oxford was the only locality to be the subject of a whole panel. Beth Asbury discussed the development of her ground-breaking ‘Out in Oxford’ trail of Oxford’s gardens, libraries, and museums. George Townsend discussed his research on the infamous Parson’s Pleasure, a secluded spot in central Oxford on the banks of the Cherwell which was, until 1992, set aside for male nudism. My paper discussed a set of gloriously homoerotic photographs taken by the Russian émigré photographer Cyril Arapoff (1898-1976) who was resident in Oxford (Headington) during the 1930s. These beguiling nude and semi-nude images of handsome young men present a unique opportunity to glimpse the otherwise hidden homoerotics that were facilitated by the (still predominantly male) university culture of Oxford at this time but which are otherwise poorly documented. An investigation of Arapoff’s homoerotic images reveals much about his young male subjects, including the spaces they inhabited, the networks they created, and their interconnections to London’s vibrantly queer dance and theatre scene.

© Images & Voices, Oxfordshire County Council
In February I again presented Arapoff’s photographs at the sparkling Party at the Pitt: An LGBT History Month Celebrationat Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, to great effect. As with Oxford’s queer history more generally, the audiences for this fascinating material transcend dogmatic academic / non-academic boundaries. Embracing this, key moments in Oxford’s LGBTQ+ history will soon form the substance of a new, updated edition of Queer Oxford. Produced to accompany the forthcoming ‘No Offence’ exhibition at the Ashmolean, the new project will constitute an interactive city trail which will highlight some of the most significant people, places, and objects that have long since established Oxford as one of the world’s queerest localities. The trail will be available both in printed form as a part of a new mobile app that is being developed by TORCH, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Web and the Mobile Applications Team at Oxford University and funded by the IT Innovation Fund and which will provide a platform for sharing Oxford’s diverse voices, stories, research, and collections with members of both Oxford’s universities, locals, and visitors.

LGBTQ+ history is coming of age. Local voices and local stories, past and present, from many localities across the country are contributing to a transformation in perceptions of British queer history and heritage which both enhance and challenge those better-established historical narratives that have been pieced together from studies of the major British cities. Queer Oxford will continue to help capture and promote those voices and stories from the city that that Wilde called ‘the capital of romance’ and help find their place in the national, and international, picture.

Ross Brooks pursued his BA (Hons) degree at Brookes between 2006 and 2010. He returned to Brookes to study the Masters in History (History of Medicine) in 2016 and is now in the first year of his doctoral thesis which he is pursuing within the Centre for Medical Humanities. Entitled Evolution’s Closet: The New Biology and Homosexuality in Britain, 1885-1967, Ross’s project is fully funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Follow Ross on Twitter @rossb_oxford and, for more on Oxford’s LGBTQ+ history, @Queer_Oxford.


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