Conservative ‘Gay Pardon’ for the dead is a strategic distraction that harms the living

November, 2016 · By Justin Bengry

On 21 October, Conservative Justice Minister Sam Gyimah was instrumental in the failed second reading of the Sexual Offences (Pardons Etc.) Bill. The private members bill sought to clear the names of men convicted for historic homosexual offences that are no longer crimes. Introduced by Scottish National Party MP John Nicolson, who is openly gay, the bill would have expanded the number of offences for which pardons—and more importantly, ‘disregards’, which effectively erase convictions—could be extended to living men as well as to the dead.

Speaking for some 25 minutes in the House of Commons, Gyimah ‘talked out’ the time allowed for debate, a parliamentary strategy that effectively killed the bill. Gyimah accused that the bill could lead to pardons being claimed by men convicted of offences that remain crimes, ‘including sex with a minor and non-consensual sexual activity’. But these are scare tactics. Nicolson’s bill unambiguously excluded non-consensual offences or those committed with anyone under the age of 16. To be clear, Gyimah’s justification for killing the bill was not that it would actually grant pardons to men convicted of non-consensual or underage sex offences, but that such men might claim to have been pardoned.

The previous day Gyimah had announced the government’s own strategy for pardoning men convicted for homosexual offences. Rather than righting the wrongs of the past, the government’s preferred approach to pardons exploits LGBTQ issues and people for political gain, a perverse outcome of the Conservative government’s ongoing attempt to appear progressive, inclusive, and LGBTQ-friendly.

Continue reading at History Workshop … 

This post was originally published at History Workshop on 23 October 2016. It was subsequently published at the Policy and Politics blog at the London School of Economics and as ‘In Britain, the Conservative Party’s “Gay Pardon” for the Dead Harms the Living‘ at Slate for US audiences.


Why I Oppose a General Pardon for Historical Convictions for Homosexual Offences

August, 2015 · By Justin Bengry

UK Labour Party leadership contender Andy Burnham recently proposed automatic pardons for all men convicted of historical homosexual offences that are no longer crimes. This has been an ongoing conversation in the UK, which in 2013 granted WWII Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing a posthumous royal pardon. The issue reappeared in the lead up to this year’s May 7 general election, when Labour’s then-leader Ed Miliband came out in favour of case-by-case pardons for living individuals and also posthumous cases. David Cameron and the Conservatives soon followed suit, likewise promising that if were they to form the next government, men convicted of historical offences would be pardoned. Burnham’s announcement has reinvigorated this question of whether all men should have similar convictions deemed spent, pardoned or erased.

A well-publicised petition supported by Turing’s family, activists like Peter Tatchell, and celebrities like Benedict Cumberbatch and Stephen Fry demands that a royal pardon be extended to all men convicted under ‘anti-gay’ laws. More than 600,000 people have signed the petition demanding the state ‘Pardon all of the estimated 49,000 men who, like Alan Turing, were convicted of consenting same-sex relations under the British “gross indecency” law (only repealed in 2003), and also all the other men convicted under other UK anti-gay laws’. As a historian of Britain’s LGBTQ past I cannot sign this petition nor support anything more than pardons for living individuals.

Continue reading at Pink News…

This post was originally published at “NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality” on 4 August 2015 and subsequently republished at The Huffington Post and Pink News.

Interview: Paul Deslandes on the History of Male Beauty

February, 2011 · By Justin Bengry

Paul Deslandes, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Vermont, is a scholar of modern Britain and the history of gender and sexuality. He has published widely on the history of masculinity, male sexuality and British education. Deslandes is the author of Oxbridge Men: British Masculinity and the Undergraduate Experience, 1850-1920. His current research explores the history of male beauty in modern Britain.

In his recent History Compass article “The Male Body, Beauty and Aesthetics in Modern British Culture,” Deslandes explored the historical significance of male beauty. Across studies of sport and physical culture, disability and WWI disfigurement, and queer history, he argues, awareness and understanding of beauty and aesthetics offer insights not only to histories of masculinity but histories of British society as a whole. For this reason, Deslandes argues, historians must pay greater attention to physical appearance, value placed on male beauty, and the adornment and manipulation of the male body to better understand the British past.

I had the opportunity to interview Professor Deslandes about the arguments in his History Compass piece, its broader implications, and place within his current research.

In your History Compass piece you exhort historians to pay closer attention to questions of aesthetics, appearance and body adornment. What do these issues offer to historians of gender generally and masculinity specifically?

On a basic level, paying attention to the aesthetics of the attractive man, masculine physical appearance, and male body adornment (the focus of my History Compass article) reminds us that obsessions with beauty affected men and women equally in the past. Of greater concern to me, of course, is the way in which a focus on the physicality of gender expression might allow us to think more systematically not only about Judith Butler’s, now well-known, concepts of performativity but also about the ways in which gender and beauty ideals were literally inscribed on the face and the body. For historians of masculinity, who in recent years have turned their attention to reconstructing the ‘lived experience’ of male gender identities, the study of physical appearance and the personal experience of beauty and ugliness might help us to understand how militarism, athleticism, and imperialism (three areas that historians of masculinity have explored in great detail) influenced standards of attractiveness and personal gender expression. Finally, examining languages of beauty and ugliness (and, by extension, the dynamics of personal attraction) might allow historians of gender to examine more fully how our subjects expressed desire, even in source material that might, on the surface, appear to be wholly unrelated to sexuality.

What can fuller understandings of male aesthetics and beauty contribute to other historians who explore the “history of science, race and war, and … British society as a whole”?

I see great potential in these areas of study. Explicit and implicit references to beauty permeate the writings of nineteenth and early twentieth century biologists, physiognomists, phrenologists, and ‘racial scientists’. While some scholars have published innovative and nuanced studies of these fields (I am thinking here, most notably, about Sharonna Pearl’s recent book About Faces: Physiognomy in NIneteenth-Century Britain), relatively few have paid significant attention to the language of physical attractiveness (and the aesthetic comparisons that were made between ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ peoples) in the massive volume of books, pamphlets, and articles that Victorian and Edwardian scientists produced. Similarly, while historians of eugenics have touched on some of these themes in recent studies, new histories of the eugenics movement will, in the future, need to pay much closer attention to aesthetics and beauty. Finally, historians of war stand to gain much by paying greater attention to beauty, in a similar manner to how Ana Carden-Coyne has explored these subjects in her recent book, Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism, and the First World War. Histories of wartime propaganda, injury and disability, military medicine, post-war memorials, and, even, the battle experience would all be enriched in substantial ways by paying closer attention to the aesthetic languages and experiences of combat, death, and disfigurement.

In your History Compass article you refer to youth, particularly in regard to men’s magazines. How might agedness also inflect our understandings of and research into the history of masculinity?

The vision of masculine beauty that dominated in the period under consideration in my article was one in which youth was valorized and celebrated–in advertisements, beauty manuals, magazines, photographs, and, later, film–as the ideal of physical attractiveness. This does not, of course, mean that physical appearance was not of concern to middle-aged and elderly men. In fact, an entire industry of beauty products for men, intended to eradicate baldness, correct poor posture, and hide or eliminate belly fat, were directed at male consumers over the age of forty. Historians of masculinity must, in my opinion, take seriously the aging process and the impact that it has had on male understandings of the self and impressions of physical appearance. While some historians of old-age have deliberated on these issues, I see great potential in the study of the middle-aged. Men in this age group were (and still are) often the most reflective historical subjects, precisely because they were forced to confront graying hair and growing paunches, and the sense of displacement that these physical experiences produced. In thinking about masculinity, it is also necessary to take very seriously intergenerational relations and tensions, as I attempted to do in my book Oxbridge Men: British Masculinity and the Undergraduate Experience, 1850-1920. Relations between men of different age groups allow us to understand how concepts of masculinity were contingent not only on class, racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual identities but also on one’s stage of life.

The history of masculinity is now a valid subfield among an established cohort of scholars. Where do you see it going in the future?

I have been extremely heartened by the growth of scholarship in this area of study, much of it very good. Historians working in the field have tackled a broad range of new subjects in recent years. Homosocial institutions continue to garner considerable attention but in ways that reveal not only the relational nature of gender but also the rituals, symbols, and everyday experiences of members. Some of this work has produced new insights about the relationship between men and domesticity (here I am thinking about Amy Milne-Smith’s work on gentlemen’s clubs) or encouraged scholars to rethink exemplars of British masculinity (most notably the Royal Air Force flyer during the Second World War-the subject of Martin Francis’s new book The Flyer: British Culture and the Royal Air Force, 1939-1945). I am also encouraged by the number of historians of British politics who have chosen to focus on masculinity in their considerations of governing styles and campaign rhetoric. The field continues to be enriched by practitioners of what some have called the ‘New Queer History’. The emphasis, in much of this work, on the connections between sexual desire and fantasy (as well as actual sexual practices) and certain masculine types, styles, or poses (I am thinking here about the ubiquitous guardsman) has yielded a number of very important insights.

In the future, I hope to see more studies that mine personal diaries, letters, and memoirs for evidence of the ‘lived experience’ of masculinity. As this sort of deep research is completed, our picture of masculinity is bound to become both more complete and more complex. Particularly important will be efforts to reconstruct the experiences of men with non-normative sexual desires and also those who were neither white nor middle-class. I would also like to see historians do much more on male/female relationships (both romantic and non-romantic) and pursue more detailed examinations of the history of heterosexuality. One area that I am particularly excited about (and which has taken off more fully in the United States than it has elsewhere) is the field of transgender history. We stand to learn much about masculinity as social construct, lived experience, and cultural practice by examining the lives of subjects whose gender identity and/or expression was different from their biological or birth sex. As is only fitting for a historian of male beauty, I see great potential in the future for those who are interested in studying masculinity as an aesthetic expression. A corollary to this, of course, is an emerging field that deserves further consideration–the material culture of gender. By examining the accoutrements of gender that were required by men to shave, dress their hair, bath, and prepare their bodies to be clothed, we stand to learn much more about the relationship between often nebulous concepts of identity or subjectivity and the very tangible world of products and objects.

How does this piece on the significance of male beauty fit in with your current research?

Writing this piece provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the state of the field, historiographically speaking. I am in the process of writing a book that examines the culture of male beauty in Britain from the 1840s to the present. This project begins with the rise of photography as a cultural practice and ends with a consideration of the impact of the internet on both conceptions of masculine beauty and the material culture of attractiveness and physical fitness in twenty-first century Britain. While preoccupations with physical fitness figure into this book, this is not principally a study of the physical culture movement or athleticism (areas that have been ably covered in studies by Michael Anton Budd and Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska). My study departs from this approach, in part, by focusing much more directly on the male face. It also, however, attempts to provide more comprehensive coverage (and, hence, an overarching narrative) of masculine attractiveness by exploring topics ranging from the Victorian beauty industry to the rise of the teenage fan magazine in the 1950s and 1960s to gay pornography in the 1970s and 1980s. Along the way, the book I am writing will narrate individual stories about figures like the late nineteenth- century beauty entrepreneur Alexander Ross, the First World War poet Rupert Brooke, facially-disfigured soldiers, the plastic surgeon Harold Gillies, the twentieth-century artist Keith Vaughan, and David Beckham. The focus in this book is on showing how the study of male beauty can illuminate larger themes in British history while also establishing how standards of facial and bodily attractiveness changed or remained the same over a one-hundred and sixty year period.

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
17 February 2011.

Head of the (middle) class?

September, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

The Guardian reported today on the fear that the humanities were becoming increasingly gentrified. Reports in Britain show students from lower-income backgrounds avoiding programs like history and philosophy in favour of career-oriented studies. Why?

The study shows a fascinating, and terrifying, situation. Not only are low-income students systemically barred from higher education and advanced degrees on account of their economic resources. But we are simultaneously creating a culture around the humanities where the lowest income students are unable to take same the risk as their more affluent colleagues to pursue degrees in history and other humanities disciplines.

The study upon which the article was based spoke to enrollments and class issues in the UK, but it felt familiar even to me despite having been raised and educated to MA level in Canada and then to the PhD in the United States. The article’s discussion of working-class students’ fear of studies that might not lead in any obvious direction spoke to my own educational history.

I loved the humanities, and excelled in them throughout secondary school. But what could I do with an English degree or a History degree? With that in mind I found a compromise: I would study languages (German) and business for an international management degree. This worked for a time. I enjoyed studying German, and learning to communicate in another language opened up conceptual worlds to me I hadn’t imagined. But it was a still a compromise. The enjoyment I derived from studying German balanced against the loathing I felt for most of my business courses.

In the end I dropped out of business school to undertake studies in History. But even then, after two further years of study, I still feared I’d never find employment with the material I enjoyed, and so I left the humanities and returned to business. After many more flip flops and combined degrees I ended up completing degree requirements in all three areas: German, History, and Management. But History won as I soon went on to an MA. But some of the same concerns and struggles followed me there, as they have with other working-class colleagues who went on to graduate studies in History.

In Britain, the Guardian reports, the question of class and education is particularly significant because tuition rates are widely expected to be increased dramatically over the next few years. Increased tuition rates will, naturally, be felt strongest by those least able to pay them. And even if student funding sources are expanded, this does little to overcome what appears to be a mental obstacle preventing non-elite students from seeing the humanities as a viable option.

But what about North America where tuition rates are already on the rise? What about my former institution, the University of California, where tuition rates are growing astronomically to help offset the system-wide financial disaster? Under these kinds of circumstances, how do we maintain access for all to humanities studies?

But it’s not really about access. Grants, scholarships, and loans can be expanded for the lowest income students, after all. How do we actually convince them that the humanities are in fact a viable option, that they offer career paths, that they contribute more than ideals. And then, how do we create an academy where we can mean it, and believe it ourselves?

This post originally appeared at History Compass Exchanges on
27 September 2010.


Out in the Academy: Researching Queer Histories

February, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

February is LGBT History Month here in the UK, which focuses attention on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans issues in the present, and also the experiences of queer Britons in the past. This yearly program to promote diversity and LGBT histories reminds us just how rich queer history actually is. But it is still taken as a truism by many that the lives of gay men and lesbians remain absent in the archive, that their stories are “hidden from history.” While it is true that the stories of many gay men and lesbians cannot be found in the traditional archive, we are nonetheless discovering their footprints across the historical record.

Traditional archives have, in fact, been at the forefront of this work in the UK. The National Archives has actively participated in identifying LGBT sources across its collection. Together with the London Metropolitan Archives it is also creating guides to better access these histories in other collections. A number of specialist archives also record the histories of political action, legal reform, and campaigningwomen’s and lesbian histories; as well as newspaper and media coverage of homosexuality in the twentieth century. But, even beyond these, researchers of queer history have at their disposal so much more.

As Jean Smith recently reminded us in another Compass posting, we need to look outside the traditional archive for fuller and richer histories of the past. Scholars of queer history in Britain are fortunate to have access to an enormous range of oral history collectionsnational survey testimony, and other repositories of gay and lesbian history. And in my own research, I have discovered film archives, theater collections, local archives, and personal collections teeming with possibilities after a little digging.

I write this post because I was almost dissuaded from undertaking dissertation research in queer history. This was not because of homophobia or reduced funding on account of my subject. I began graduate school believing, like many, that queer histories were largely marginal, inaccessible, and poorly recorded in the archive.  But after arriving in the UK, exploring the archives, and jettisoning the entire PhD project I had initially proposed and the prospectus my committee had authorized (after many sleepless nights), I was able to embark upon the project I was passionate about and which became my dissertation. I had thought that an LGBT history project was not viable as a dissertation. I was wrong. And I hope that programs like LGBT History Month will remind other junior scholars of the range of research possibilities that are available to us, and also of the innumerable histories remaining in the archive but still untold.

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
11 February 2010.