I was warned that I brought my personal life to work too much

September 18, 1998

Are British universities homophobic? Gregory Woods says his experience proves they are

When I was appointed recently to the first British professorship in gay and lesbian studies, I got crank mail from rightwing political groups and Christian fundamentalists. Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe called my work "a phenomenal waste of public money". The words "pot" and "kettle" came to mind.

However, the real assault on gay studies is more insidious: it comes from within the education system itself. The commonest response to my promotion was to dismiss what goes on in "new" universities such as Nottingham Trent as "trendy". Implicit in this sneer is the original complaint about the decision to let the polys become universities at all.

Gay academics also have to get used to the accusation of narrowness. It may be desirable to spend a whole career on Jane Austen's novels or the reflexes of the frog. That is specialisation. Yet to build a career in gay studies is to indulge a personal obsession. The faculty committee that discussed my professorship fussed over the same objection. I had just published a book dealing with 3,000 years of culture. But could this compensate for the narrowness of the queer issue?

As for the likelihood that a gay studies professor would offer gay courses, people reacted with snide amusement. Who would want to sign up for them? Well, my gay studies options have recruited up to 100 students at a time, most of them heterosexual women curious to learn whether men have to be like the ones they are going out with.

Although many have been sexually active since their early teens, young people come to university untutored in issues of sexuality. Apart from a few facts about contraception, schools are teaching them nothing useful about sex. Section 28 of the Local Government Act, banning the use of public money to "promote homosexuality", does not apply to schools but many teachers think it does. A disgraceful law thereby serves its purpose of censorship by intimidation.

Given such failures of nerve, gay academics have had to be autodidacts. We are rarely encouraged to follow the intellectual directions we choose, and they are subsequently held against us. In my case, a late 1970s PhD on gay literature was an effective barrier to employment. I accumulated a long list of those supposedly "liberal" institutions that made it clear they were not interested in fostering "that sort of thing". Some campuses are still dangerous places for obviously gay students.

Research assessment exercise fever is what now safeguards the careers of good scholars in disciplines against which such prejudices remain stacked. It does not matter a damn what you are obsessed with as long as you dignify your obsession with publications. But this improvement is one that has occurred without any significant change in hostile attitudes towards gay studies.

When I was finally given a long-term contract I was warned that I brought my "personal life" to work too much. Nobody at work knew anything about my life, but heterosexual colleagues were incessantly going public with their latest liaisons. I was also told that employing me was "a bit like having a religious fundamentalist on the staff". Tell that to the blessed Widdecombe.

Gregory Woods is professor of gay and lesbian studies at Nottingham Trent University.

* Do you think British universities are homophobic places? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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