Out on Trent

July 10, 1998

Chris Johnston hears the outspoken views of the first professor of gay studies (left)

Two events of recent weeks will go down in the history of gay and lesbian Britain. The vote in the House of Commons to reduce the age of consent from 18 to 16 is one. The appointment at Nottingham Trent University of Gregory Woods as the United Kingdom's first professor of gay and lesbian studies is the other.

Woods's appointment is an explicit acknowledgement that gay and lesbian activities are a legitimate subject for study - even if it was condemned last week by Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe as "a phenomenal waste of public money". Woods regards his promotion as the culmination of a slow but logical process. He believes he is typical of those who did doctorates on gay topics in the 1970s and then found it difficult to find academic jobs. "I went through a succession of temporary or part-time contracts and so ended up in my permanent job here at a lower level than I should have been."

That job, which came in 1990, was as a junior lecturer in Nottingham Trent's English and media studies department. A promotion to reader in gay and lesbian studies three years ago recognised not only the quality of his research, but also the need to catch up with his career history. Woods's recent elevation to a chair follows on from his well-received book, A History of Gay Literature: the Male Tradition, published this year by Yale University Press. In it he argues that gay writing has always existed, despite attempts by homophobic critics to prove otherwise.

Although some might contend that the appointment is an example of new universities jumping on the bandwagon of fashionable disciplines, Woods points out that there are plenty of academics working in gay studies in older universities. "But they tend to be in more conventional appointments - professors of English or sociology," he says. "Probably some of the older universities police gay studies labels; the new universities are more adventurous in that respect."

Woods, 45, will continue to teach English and cultural studies and rejects the idea the time has come for an undergraduate programme focusing exclusively on gay studies. Before one could be created, he says, the situation in schools would have to change. "You would not get students applying to do a gay studies course because hardly any schools acknowledge that pupils might be gay."

Most gay academics have found a better approach is to introduce some gay content into options within mainstream degrees. One of the most popular modules Woods has taught concerned the impact of the Aids epidemic. Degrees in gay studies are viable only at postgraduate level, he says.

UK universities lag behind those in the United States in this field. Minnesota University has used a Pounds 300,000 endowment to set up a centre for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender studies. Yale, however, last year turned down a multi-million dollar donation from gay playwright (and alumnus) Larry Kramer to establish a tenured professorship in gay and lesbian studies. The university said the subject was "too narrow" for a permanent chair.

Although Yale's decision could hardly be called homophobic, Woods agrees that prejudice exists, particularly when research funding applications are considered. "I think a lot of these bodies are run by spivs and lickspittles. It is a common attitude that gay studies are a side issue." Nonetheless he is certain other British universities will appoint more professors of gay and lesbian studies. "I don't suppose there is an indefinitely expanding market, but there is more of a market for gay studies than there is for medieval literature."

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