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.
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.
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.
July, 2015 · By Justin Bengry
I never knew my great uncle Cecil Bengry. Affectionately known as Cic’, this bachelor uncle seems to have lived in the background of other people’s lives. Even the pictures of Cic’ in old age that I found among my own grandfather’s (his brother) papers are faded and overexposed, their physical condition seemingly recreating the fog that surrounds Cic’s life. We know that he spent most of his life caring for others: animals on the ranch, his mother in her old age, and his brother’s grandchildren in his own later years. They remembered Cic giving them treats of ‘sugar sandwiches’, and knew him as well as anyone could, yet they didn’t know if he had an education, if he had friends, even what he did during the day. He is remembered simply as ‘always there. Good to us.’ Though always around, Cic’ somehow remained unknown. When he died, Cic’ left only one record behind: a small cigarette tin of photos. Inside, along with a child’s glass marble and a few family pictures, were snapshots of numerous men, including one of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer I call the ‘sultry Mountie’.
Unlike every other photo in the tin box, the picture of the Mountie included no information: no caption, no name, no date. He simply stands there, anonymous, leaning casually against a wooden rail with hips thrust forward, looking confidently and directly at the camera. Posing for effect, he invites observation and perhaps objectification. I struggled to understand this image and the homosocial collection of photos with which it came. The tin of photos inspired me to organize, with Amy Tooth Murphy, workshops on what we called ‘Queer Inheritances’ at the London Metropolitan Archives in December 2014. We wondered: How do we discern a queer life from incomplete personal effects whose existence and content are often mediated by other family members? How do we, as queer inheritors, navigate lives lived before many could proclaim to be ‘out and proud’? Ultimately, I wondered, was Cecil queer?
This post was originally published at “NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality” on 26 May 2015 and subsequently as ‘The Case of the Sultry Mountie: Doing Family History Queerly‘ on the Huffington Post on 24 June 2015.
October, 2014 · By Justin Bengry
In June 1967, opposition Conservative UK parliamentarians encountered a new and threatening queer danger. They feared that the Sexual Offences Bill then before them — a measure that would partially decriminalize male homosexual acts — might appear to sanction, and even promote, homosexual activity. Conservative MP Sir Cyril Osborne therefore proposed an amendment that would make publicizing and publishing lists of homosexuals, in other words printing “gay bachelor” or queer personal ads, a new “serious punishable offence.”
Even if the government was on the verge of partially decriminalizing male homosexual acts, Osborne’s proposed amendment would nonetheless criminalize what he saw as the commercial promotion of homosexuality.It demanded that,
Anyone who indulges in activities tending to promote acts of homosexuality between consenting adults through the publication of lists of names and addresses of known homosexuals or otherwise, shall be guilty of a criminal offence and shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of five years or a fine of £5,000.
In other words, were the act to pass, anyone who “promoted” entirely legal acts of consensual homosexuality would themselves be committing a criminal offence. Punishment for this new commercial crime would in fact be even more stringent than existing laws for most homosexual offences; acts of gross indecency were then punishable by up to two years imprisonment.
This post was originally published at “NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality” on 7 October 2014.
June, 2014 · By Justin Bengry
I’ve never come out to my students. I’ve never stood at the front of a classroom and told my students that I’m gay, and I’ve never told them witty anecdotes about my husband. That isn’t to say that I’m not completely out both professionally and personally (as google will immediately tell anyone). All of my academic bio pages highlight my work in queer history, and when introducing myself to new classes I describe my research on homosexuality and capitalism. Few students would be surprised to know I’m gay.
Still, I’ve wondered what impact explicitly identifying my sexuality would have on teaching, learning, discussions and the overall atmosphere of the classroom. That being said, my teaching so far has mostly included broad surveys of traditional European political history, courses whose structure and content was largely already determined for me. While I had the freedom to reorganize some lectures to explore topics in gender and sexuality, my own sexual identity has had little overlap with what I teach, at least so far. But looking ahead, I wanted to know how others navigate this potentially challenging terrain. So, I put the word out to friends, colleagues and mentors whose sexual identities are various and not always static. Each has chosen either to come out or withhold identifying their sexuality in the classroom for a variety of reasons, personal, pedagogical and political.
This post was originally published at “NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality” on 10 June 2014.
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 campaigning; women’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 collections, national 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.
January, 2010 · By Justin Bengry
Recent events at the American Historical Association’s annual conference in San Diego have raised questions about how we as historians consider homosexuality and LGBTQ issues, both in our own research and teaching as well as the professional as a whole. At the AHA, queer scholars, scholars of sexuality, allies, and other supporters expressed concerns about events taking place at the Manchester Grand Hyatt because of its association with Douglas Manchester, a prominent supporter of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. Many observed a boycott of the hotel, finding accommodation elsewhere and avoiding panels at the Hyatt. Others participated in mini-conference sessions specifically addressing LGBTQ issues and histories.
This interest in contemporary gay and lesbian issues at our national conference also forces us to consider how we, as historians, address gay and lesbian histories on a smaller scale in our own work. After all, it is in the university with our students where many of us will have the greatest impact. This is not to say that we as historians should make it our mission to teach a particular politics in the classroom. Our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, faiths, and political positions. We can respect these perspectives, and the positions of our students, even as we seek to explore questions of contemporary relevance that might be fraught with personal passions and politics.
At one AHA mini-conference session on Proposition 8, Jennifer Manion (Connecticut College) evaluated historians’ engagement with LGBTQ lives and histories. Even as queer history has grown as a subfield in the last two decades, and an increasing number of dissertations explore gay and lesbian questions, too often professors’ treatment of LGBTQ history is little more than neglect. Few textbooks incorporate more than a couple paragraphs on gay and lesbian lives. Arguably, for many professors, fitting queer topics into already full syllabi means dropping another subject in favor of what many colleagues, chairs, and tenure committees might see as only a relatively small, marginalized group. But, argues Manion, even ongoing interest in a few important or successful books like George Chauncey’s Gay New York has amounted to little more than tokenism, rather than a genuine reconceptualization of what and how we teach.
Which brings us back to the first question: Why teach queer history? Very often, history is in fact the study of the present. Our research and publications can inform heated questions that society must still deal with. Is this not also the case with same-sex marriage? And is it not incumbent upon us to include gay and lesbian histories in our courses, syllabi, and overall department catalogues? Opposition to issues like gay marriage might be based on personal values, faith, and other perspectives. It is not our job to “correct” these positions. But, opposition can also be based on false histories, lack of knowledge, and ahistorical arguments that deny the past. A reconceptualization of our teaching strategies that incorporates gay and lesbian histories into courses as part of the diversity of our nations and communities, rather than as a theme week or small graduate seminar, necessarily promotes understanding and sensitivity to difference in the past, and perhaps the present too.
For the AHA’s response see:
For other responses to the AHA and the Hyatt boycott see:
This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
28 January 2010.