To mark the 50th Anniversary Changes in the law……
a recent little piece written for the British Sociological Association Web site at:
50 Years of Decriminalization? Still Queer After All These Years
On 27th 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 our 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, can 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 still 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 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 1995, 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 any one 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.
I have just published a new short article.
This is an extract of an article published in QED: A Journal in GLBTQWorldmaking 4.1 (2017) p189-197.
Tony Adams and Derek Bolen eds
‘Queer Auto/ethnographies” Forum for
QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking.
A Story of My Stories
Over the years I have told many sexual stories. It started with having to grapple with these issues at a young age as I dealt with my own (now very traditional) coming out story, back in the late 50s and 60s: a time when being queer was shrouded in stigma, secrecy, shame and sickness. Not to mention illegality. A little later, as I went to graduate college, I turned to asking the more research-oriented questions of how to get others to tell their sexual stories. I interviewed other gay people initially – on their relationships, their communities and their coming out as the law was changing in England. As I became more politically aware through the early GLF movement, I was challenged to think about the conditions under which people get a voice and how are they silenced. What can be said and what cannot be said? By the late 1970s I had taken an academic life route into a much wider funded program of research into sexual diversities, which eventually broadened into an even wider concern: what are the social conditions under which different kinds of stories can be negotiated and get told? And all the time I had a nagging doubt: about the complexities, multiplicities, contingencies of what people say about their lives, as I moved into the even grander questions of epistemology and ontology. What indeed is a life, can it indeed ever be told, what is the status of what someone says about their life? In all this, I was never alone: I joined a vast conversation on all such matters and the chorus grew almost deafening. And now, as I enter the later stages of an ageing – and ultimately dying – life, the autobiographical puzzles of generation and time, illness and death are becoming ever more prominent and pervasive. The questions for life story tellings keep rolling on.
As I became more involved with these stories, so I was also becoming increasingly aware of their problems: of the fragility of storytelling. I have known, almost from the start, way back in the 1970s, that there can never ever be any simple or straight telling. Call this queer if you like. This has also raised a serious doubt about the entire nature of a social science enterprise that seems to rely, overwhelmingly, on people giving information about their lives to interviewers: material which is always and inextricably, indelibly, inevitably problematic. There simply are no ‘pure’ stories to be told. I balk at the current trend for Big Data that bypasses even the most elementary problems of humanistic story telling data.
I learnt all this in my earliest work as I followed the well-known research rules for interviewing people and gathering data. I wrote a few early papers based on the stories told to me. But I was not really satisfied with this, even from the start. And so my thesis became more theoretical, cutting a lot of the basic data out. Then, following the usual career path, I needed to get a grant and do ‘real post doc research’. And this I also duly did; gathering a great deal of data on a wide range of the sexually different. I did this side by side with settling into my new university, which was to be my home for the next thirty years. But the research was messy, chaotic, and served as an apprenticeship in doubting. It led me to find the data I had gathered as deeply worrying. What kind of truth was I getting at here? Audiences were certainly more interested in the stories I had than any abstractions, but all the time I was wondering about just what was the status of these stories, including my own. I started to talk more and more about the methods of research, leading me to the writing of Documents of Life 1 in the late 1970s. Ethics and reflexivity became key issues.
Moving on and looking back I can see I have always been writing on the edge of the autobiographical. Involvement in social research always impinges on your life…..
to continue CLICK HERE
This is a great summer for the musical revivals in London: An American in Paris, 42nd Street, Carousel, On the Town. They have all been wonderful productions. And Oklahoma still to come in August in the Proms.
But off centre a bit, a marvellous new production of Working has opened at the Southwark Playhouse ( till July 2nd). It is outstanding and a must see. Based on Studs Terkel’s masterpiece oral history WORKING – published in 1974, this is the revised and updated version.
It has new songs along with some classic songs from the original – every one is a dramatic delight with a on the ball young and older cast. Dynamic dance abounds. Really is something special..
A new article was published in November last year. I have just put a working version on line.
Everyday, for the past ten years, I have quietly celebrated the joy of a human life.
When, on February 18th 2007, I was wheeled into the operating room at King’s Hospital for a liver transplant, my life was saved. Two years earlier I had been diagnosed with liver cirrhosis and had increasingly come to live at life’s edge, with nine months on the waiting list and growing numbers of worrying attacks of encephalopathy where I lost memory and mind. But on that day, with the magnificent skill of doctors; the care, craft and kindness of nurses and co-ordinators; the tragic generosity of a donor; and the love of dear friends and family, my life was saved. I am perpetually grateful for this.
After four days in intensive care, three and a half weeks on the liver ward, and three months in a kind of recovery quarantine, my bile duct bag was removed and symbolized the end of my illness. Gradually a full life was restored. I was ‘born again’; and I breathed a quiet but very deep thank you. Every day since then has been that wonderful extra day of life that I would never have had if I had been born at any other time in history. The world of transplantation is always tinged with great sadness and great joy; and I have been fortunate for the joy.
I function on a low immune system but my health has been good. I gave up alcohol on the day of my diagnosis, and post transplant, I have continued completely without it. It is now over twelve years since I (or my partner) had any drink. I take my medications daily and go to King’s for regular checks. For a long while this has meant a visit every six months; nowadays it is a yearly visit in January. The only complication has been diabetes induced by medications; but I see a diabetic nurse every six months and follow the health guidelines. I am told I am doing very well.
I have made contact with the donor’s family indirectly through the hospital transplant coordinators; and have written to them annually to express my continuing gratitude. But confidentiality has been maintained; and there has been no face to face to contact.
Facing life threatening illness and recovering gave me cause for a lot of reflection. Indeed, in the first four months of my recovery I would write about it every day and finally produced an autobiography of my illness. It speaks of how my life was completely changed by illness; of how I struggled to make sense of it all, and especially the problems of being on a waiting list, experiencing hallucinations after the surgery, my potential dying, the challenge of living with another’s body organ, as well as the joys, almost manic, of recovery. I found this period of reflection very valuable: it gave me a record of what I had been through (much of which I would hardly be able to recall without it) and it enabled me to bring a closure to my illness. I do still think about it daily but without any sense of pain or trauma.
Since my surgery, I have lived a quiet but rich and full life. I was 60 when I had the transplant, and the illness led me to early sickness retirement from the University where I had worked for thirty years. I decided not to set my self any grand new tasks – no travelling the world or becoming a world athlete! Instead I continued with ordinary life enjoying each day as it comes.
Writing is my passion: so I write a little every day, usually in the early hours of the day. Since my recovery in 2007 I have written four books and some twenty little articles along with a range of not very good poems. I have decided I am no poet! I have also enjoyed reading more and more widely; and have continued with a little teaching and lecturing, some of which has taken me overseas to Brescia, Pisa, Kassel, Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Madrid.
I support a very large number of wide ranging charities (over 40) from the British Liver Trust, Terrence Higgins. the Alzheimer’s Foundation and Help Musicians to Victims of Torture, Amnesty International, Global Justice and a local emergency Night Shelter – as well as the donor’s favourite: the Chestnut Tree House Children’s Hospital.
I also started to learn to play the piano, badly but enjoyably, which has also made me listen to music more carefully. I have developed some digital skills (running my own web site); and taken up daily exercise (gentle walking every day along a river that constantly fills me with delight). I also enjoy a little traveling: one highlight being a trip to Costa Rica. Nowadays I have the time to go the theatre a lot: usually to see musicals, especially fringe musicals. I enjoy friends and cooking; and spend very good time just enjoying living with my partner (We moved house in 2012 and now look forward to our 40th anniversary together).
I keep cheery despite all the dreadful troubles of a world that fills me with fear for the coming generations. Thinking of my transplant and all the altruism, care, knowledge, skill, kindness, generosity and love that surrounded it helps to sustain me in a very positive and ultimately hopeful view of the world. We must always look beyond the dark times.
When I started teaching at Essex in 1975, one of my main courses was Social Psychology. This year I am returning ti give four lectures on this course. 40 years on! And the subject has moved on
LECTURE AND CLASS THEMES
Lecture 12 – An Introduction to Symbolic Interactionism and the Self – Key Themes (week 17 Jan 23rd)
Lecture 13 – Making the Narrative Self and the Embodied Self: Telling stories about sickness bodies (week 18 Jan 30th)
Lecture 14 – The Intersectional Self: The Politics of Self (Week 19 Feb 6th)
Lecture 15 – The Generational Self/ The Digital Self: Historical Changes of the Self (week 20 Feb 13th
(Week 21 – Reading Week – no lecture)
This year I start a new monthly series of quotes I like from my little humanist dictionary!
What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other? George Eliot, “Middlemarch”
Progress is not an illusion; it happens but it is slow and invariably disappointing.
George Orwell “Inside the Whale – Charles Dickens”
Life is for living.
Noel Coward. “In a bar on the Picollina Marina”
A poor life this, if full of care,
We have not time to stand and stare.
William Henry Davies “Leisure”
Happiness comes in on tip toe… it’s a quiet thing.
Kander and Ebb