queer history

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.

The Case of the Sultry Mountie, or, We Need to Talk about Cecil

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?

Continue reading at NOTCHES…

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.

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.

Re-teaching Gender and Sexuality

December, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

Issues related to homosexuality are currently at the forefront of public discourse. Globally, but particularly in the United States, marriage equity, military service, queer youth and bullying are not just matters of policy debate, but have engaged popular concern and action as well. Seattle columnist Dan Savage’s recent ‘It Gets Better Project’, for instance, has captured an extraordinary degree of public interest, using short video clips of ordinary people, celebrities and global figures to help draw attention to bullying and suicides among queer youth.

But it is another short online video, titled ‘{THIS} is Reteaching Gender and Sexuality’, which is in part a criticism of the ‘It Gets Better Project’, that challenges us to reconsider our understandings of sexuality while drawing attention to the plight of queer youth. In the ‘Reteaching’ video, queer youth appear in their own right, speaking for themselves, demanding immediate social and cultural change, not just the promise of something better somewhere down the road. But far more than draw attention to bullying and structures of oppression, they want us instead to recalibrate how we define sexuality and sexual identities. As two speakers put it, ‘I can like boys and girls. … I can be none of the above’.

So how does this relate to history? Well, we can be part of the re-teaching project, in fact, we already are.  In our case, it’s not re-teaching, it’s simply telling the histories of our subjects in the context of their own worlds, rather than through the limitations or needs of our own.

I recently reviewed Barry Reay’s New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern AmericaReay’s main argument is that the world of hustlers (male prostitutes) and trade (men who had sex with other men without identifying as gay) illuminates how  sexual practices and identities   throughout much of  the twentieth century challenge rigid heterosexual-homosexual binarisms. Reay positions himself against scholars who overlook this rich sexual fluidity and flexibility of the mid twentieth century in favour of narratives that lead only to the creation of a recognizably modern gay identity.

Other scholars have identified sexual flexibility among working-class men and military men across the twentieth century in Britain and America. But such studies still tend to be couched in terms of understanding how we got to modern understandings of gay identity, an identity defined as wholly different and separate from heterosexuality. Reay instead follows the lives of men who fail to neatly fit these categories. Nor do they conveniently remain consistent in their sexual practices over a lifetime. The fluidity of their sexual object choices, in fact, sound remarkably similar to the queer youth described above.

Reviewing this book made me think about how we can teach (or re-teach) gender and sexuality. Reay’s study need not be confined to gender, sexuality or queer history courses. His work offers insights into urban history, twentieth-century America, histories of crime, migration and ethnicity.

Gender and sexuality should, and must, appear in courses other than those devoted wholly to gender and sexuality. But so too should religion and faith, military and war, economics and commerce, ethnic and minority groups, and the list goes on. Of course we can’t do the fullest justice to each of these in every course, but we can create a culture of inclusivity in the classroom. And inclusivity applies to students as well as historical actors. Ultimately, including one can create a place for the other.

Clearly categories which organize our world are changing, but categories that organize our teaching need to change too.

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


Out in the Academy: Why Teach Queer History?

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:

here and


For other responses to the AHA and the Hyatt boycott see:




This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
28 January 2010.