By Ken Plummer, University of Esssex
On 27 July 1967, the Sexual Offences Act, ‘an act to amend the law of England and Wales relating to homosexual acts’, was passed - starting the long journey to decriminalize homosexuality, foster equality, become liberated. Just one year before that I had ‘come out’ as gay to self, friends, family and the gay world. And one year after that I embarked on a PhD on gay life, and became an ‘out’ sociology lecturer. Then, in 1970, at the London School of Economics, I sat in an inspiring room with 12 others at the start of the Gay Liberation Front, coming out politically. These were intoxicating times.
The 1970s brought exhilarating changes as new gay scenes, activisms, and ideas emerged along with tremendous possibilities for studying gay life. (A BSA homosexuality study group was set up). The 1980s brought darker times with the ubiquitous fear of HIV and AIDS everywhere, as well as in Thatcher’s nasty Clause 28. Yet both of these events did help in mobilization, and a challenging industry of research on AIDS emerged. By the 1990s, a real take off point had happened – theoretically with queer theory, and practically with the development of stronger mainstream movements like Stonewall. The controversial assimilationist battle over queer marriage dominated the politics of this next period, along with growing global concerns for gay rights. And here we are now, celebrating progress and the 50th anniversary of the changes in the law. It is good to do so: in dark times, the successes of the past fifty years are real markers of advance. And yet…
Changes have been slow, piecemeal and often grudging. Indeed, as Peter Tatchell has shown on his website, “Gay sex ceased to be a crime in the UK only four years ago. Unbelievable but true!”. It has indeed taken many years to remove all the cautionary restrictive clauses. And despite many positive trends, we must be careful about this cheerful cheering. Stonewall has kept documenting problems in schools (with bullying, for example), in the workplace and more generally in their 2013 study they could, notoriously, still document “one in six lesbian, gay and bisexual people experiencing a homophobic hate crime or incident over the last three years”. And world wide, there are some 72 countries that still criminalise same-sex relationships (I see an image of a world map with two thirds of the world hostile.).
But let’s come a little closer to home. As a gay sociologist, for fifty years I have rarely experienced the discriminations and hostilities that I have written about; and have found sociology, and my department at Essex, to be a welcoming discipline in which to be gay. But that said I have not found the discipline that hospitable in taking seriously the intellectual issues of queer or LGBT in its overall project. I have been allowed my own little space, but work in this field is not encouraged and does not flow into mainstream sociology at all.
I could give many examples but here are two, merely illustrative. First, back in 1994, the BSA organized its pivotal conference around ‘Sexualities in Social Context’ and several of is organizers were certainly gay and lesbian. Yet, in the three volumes of papers finally published in 1996 (some 34 articles selected from 250), only two were gay linked, and they were about HIV! Jump forward twenty years to John Holmwood and John Scott’s important recent Palgrave Handbook of Sociology in Britain (2014): over 600 pages there is no significant mention anywhere of homosexuality! How is this possible in an age of so called intersectionality? There may be a liberal acceptability of LGBT today, as indeed there was in my circles in the 1970s, but it happens in a tiny controlled space on its own: it is absolutely not allowed to enter the mainstream of anything. Look at key sociological works on class, power, ethnicity, social movements, digitalism, human rights, gender, the body etc: it is queer indeed that LGBT/Queer issues will rarely, if ever, be found – you have to look a little outside of sociology to find them, but rarely within sociology! The same, of course, wickedly applies to theory: queer theory is still, unbelievably after 30 years, noticeably absent from most books on social theory (I looked at twenty texts to hand, and found queer theory briefly mentioned in only two.).
This is not really good news. Why is this? I suspect a deep disciplinary and institutional bias: as anyone who studies racism and sexism will know, these processes have deep and complex historical roots. We may now be legal, but I am reminded of Sumner’s pithy clichéd dictum: legislation cannot make the mores. Despite legal changes, there is still a very long way to go.
Ken Plummer’s first books were Sexual Stigma (1975) and The Making of the Modern Homosexual (1981). His most recent writings include: ‘Afterword: Liberating Generations: Continuities And Change in The Radical Queer Western Era’ in David Paternotte and Manon Tremblay, eds (2015)Ashgate Companion to Lesbian and Gay Activism; ‘On the Infinitude of Life Stories: Still Puzzling Queer Tales After All These Years’ QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 4.1 (2017) p189-197; and Cosmopolitan Sexualities: Hope and the Humanist Imagination (2015). Ken is Emeritus Professor in Sociology at the University of Essex.