Obituary Mary McIntosh (1936-2013) by Jeffrey Weeks


The latest issue of the Journal Sexualities ( September 2013) has just been published. For those interested, I reprint  here an obituary for Mary McIntosh by Jeffrey  Weeks so it can be more widely accessible.


‘Obituary: Mary McIntosh 1936-2013’


Weeks, Jeffrey (2013) 



 16(5/6) 743-746

I first met Mary McIntosh, who has died at the age of 76, at a Gay Liberation Front (GLF) meeting in London in November 1970. I was immediately impressed by her calm authority and political incisiveness. Later, we worked closely together for a while at the University of Essex in the late 1970s. We kept in touch over the years, and I last saw her when we both attended a conference in honour of our mutual friend Ken Plummer in late 2011. Those 40 years have seen dramatic changes in the ways we live and think sexuality, relationships and politics. Intellectual fashions, like many friendships, have come and gone. But I still have a vivid memory of the first impact that reading her most famous publication, ‘The homosexual role’ had on me in the early 1970s, and continue to marvel at how much she was able to say in some 6000 words published in a relatively obscure American academic journal, Social Problems, in 1968.

Mary McIntosh was a highly respected sociologist, an influential socialist fem- inist, a pioneering gay liberationist and an engaged and committed teacher. A famously reluctant writer, the publications she did painfully eke out were enor- mously influential. Her work contributed to radical new perspectives on crime, prostitution, the family and homosexuality. ‘The homosexual role’ is rightly seen as a key influence on the development of a new historical and sociological under- standing of homosexuality, and a founding document of social constructionist approaches towards sexuality. It helped shape my own intellectual life in unex- pected ways.

The core argument is perhaps unexceptionable today, but was incendiary in the 1960s. It was so potentially controversial that she deliberately sought a quiet, academic publication rather than launch it in the context of fraught debates about decriminalising homosexuality in Britain where her arguments might be used against the reform cause she supported. Supporters of reform had favoured arguments based on the idea that homosexuality was an unfortunate condition that some people had and others didn’t. You wouldn’t lock up an alcoholic in a brew- ery, the argument went, so why lock up queer men in prison with other men. It’s doubtful that leading reformers really believed such arguments, but they seemed pragmatically sensible for advancing cautious reform in a still morally conservative country. Mary asked a radically different question: not why this unfortunate con- dition exists, and what causes it, but why we persist in believing that homosexuality is a specific condition that has causes. She suggested instead that homosexuality could best be conceptualised as a social role, that some societies had and others didn’t. Deploying Kinsey, anthropological data, and evidence about homosexual subcultures in England from the 18th century onwards, she suggested that a homo- sexual role in Britain was of relatively recent invention, which had the aim of keeping the majority of the population pure by creating a stigmatised minority of what eventually came to be known as inverts, intermediates, third-sexers or homosexuals.

The language of social roles and the functionalist sociology that underpinned the article have long fallen out of favour, and queer critiques have tended to focus less on how modern categories and identities emerged as on what they obscured about the diversity of sexual life in history. At the time, these insights were revela- tory and central to rethinking homosexuality (and sexuality more generally) as a historical and sociological rather than a biologically or psychologically fixed phe- nomenon. It forced those of us who were beginning to research same-sex experi- ences in history to ask when did recognisably modern categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality emerge, and when did they become part of the general culture? How were they related to identities and subjectivities? What role did the concep- tualisation of homosexuality in this way play in the regulation and stigmatisation of same-sex practices? Almost 10 years after the article was published, Michel Foucault was posing similar questions in the introductory volume of The History of Sexuality. That work has often been seen as the starting point for social con- structionist arguments, but the reality is that much historical work was already going on, stimulated or inspired by ‘The homosexual role’.

Mary’s heart always beat strongly on the left and her academic work was suffused with her political beliefs. Her parents were committed communists, and she herself later joined the Communist Party. The Parsonian structural function- alism of her early sociological career morphed eventually into a Marxist feminism that shaped her later work. Her radical commitments inevitably marked her career from an early stage. Educated at High Wycombe School and St Anne’s College, Oxford University, she became a graduate student in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. This elite start was abruptly cut short when she was expelled from the USA in 1960 after participating in a demonstration against the House Un- American Activities Committee. On retuning home, she paradoxically joined the Research Unit of the famously stuffy and conservative Home Office, 1961–1963, as an Assistant Research Officer. This was to offer her useful contacts later when she became a member of the Policy Advisory Committee (PAC) to the Criminal Law Revision Committee, 1976–1985, concerned with reviewing sexual offences. At the same time as she was becoming well known as a lesbian activist and feminist, she managed to persuade a minority of the PAC (all women) to support her in advo- cating reducing the age of consent for male homosexuals to 18, after failing to get support for an equal age of consent of 16. It was to take another 15 years before the first age was realised in law reform, and a further 10 for the second. But this episode confirmed the ease with which Mary was able to combine her activism with effective committee work with at least parts of the liberal establishment.

There was no doubt, however, about her primary commitments. With her then partner, Elizabeth Wilson, she was a leading member of the Gay Liberation Front in the early 1970s. She played a significant part in helping to give strategic direction to the new movement – she was on the group that put together the GLF Manifesto – and in critiquing then dominant psychiatric concepts of homosexual- ity. But she was also an activist on the streets, prominent in demonstrations and organising. When women later left GLF, she never broke her own friendships or work with gay men – she was no separatist – but her energies were increasingly deployed in the women’s movement. She was, for example, active in the Fifth Demand Group, which campaigned for the financial and legal independence of married and cohabiting women, and Rights of Women, concerned with legal equal- ity, and in the late 1980s Feminists Against Censorship, placing herself clearly with the pro-sex movement amongst feminists.

Mary taught at the University of Leicester, 1963–1968, and Borough Polytechnic (now London South Bank University), 1968–1972. After three years as a research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, she moved to Essex University in 1975 where she remained until her retirement in 1996, becoming the first female head of department. She never, however, was given the full professorship she deserved, and which many of her colleagues and students achieved: undoubtedly her writing hesitations told against her in a higher education culture more and more wedded to measurable, quantifiable achievements and research ‘outputs’. Instead she put enormous effort into her teaching, and into a host of political- academic activities. She was an active member of the National Deviancy Conference, 1968–1975, which sought to break with the stifling and positivistic orthodoxies of criminology; a member of the editorial board and first editor of Economy and Society, 1972–1978; and founding member of the editorial collective of Feminist Review, 1978–1994. Her publications, though relatively few, were always memorable. Her book The Antisocial Family (1982) co-written with her then partner, Miche`le Barrett, was a subversive challenge to the normative family. It grew out of Women’s Liberation and gay critiques, and proved very influential on developing theories of the family, amongst feminists, and more widely. Other notable publications included: The Organisation of Crime (1975), her only sole-authored book, and two co-edited volumes, Deviance and Social Control (1974) and Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate (1992). In addition to ‘The homosexual role’, several other articles were to prove influen- tial, notably on prostitution and the myth of ‘male sexual needs’.

But Mary was much more than the sum of her career. She was a warm and supportive friend, much loved by large numbers of people, and an inspiring tea- cher. Despite a slight air of diffidence, she was a powerful and passionate speaker, lucid, and above all supremely rational in her arguments. In private she was witty and enjoyed life to the full. She is sorely mourned. Her funeral took place in a London engulfed in a sudden snow blizzard. The funeral chapel was jam-packed nevertheless, to celebrate her life. As we left into the snow Ella Fitzgerald was singing Our Love is here to Stay. It was a moving evocation of a life well lived. Mary is survived by former partners, with whom she remained on good terms, Duncan Barrett, whom she co-parented with Miche` le Barrett, and her partner of over 20 years, Angela Stewart-Park.

Mary McIntosh, scholar and activist, born 13 March 1936, died of a stroke in London, 5 January 2013.


Foucault M (1976) La Volunte ́ de Savoir (The Will to Knowledge) Vol 1 of Histoire de la Sexualite ́ (The History of Sexuality). Paris: E ́ ditions Gallimard.
McIntosh M (1968) The homosexual role. Social Problems 16(2): 182–192.

McIntosh M (1975) The Organisation of Crime. London: Macmillan.

Barrett M and McIntosh M (1982) The Antisocial Family. London: NLB.

Rock P and McIntosh M (eds) (1974) Deviance and Social Control. British Sociological Association. Annual Conference, London, 1971. London: Tavistock.

Segal L and McIntosh M (eds) (1992) Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate. London: Virago.

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