'The norms have changed'

July 13, 2007


One of the best-known catchphrases from the television comedy Little Britain is the character Daffyd's chippy insistence that he is "the only gay in the village". The gag is that he is surrounded by lesbians and gay men: even in a remote, rural and conservative town such as Llanddewi Brefi, homosexuality is completely accepted.

It was very different when Jeffrey Weeks was growing up in the Rhondda in the 1940s and 1950s, although his research has since been instrumental in transforming thinking on homosexuality.

Professor Weeks, executive dean of arts and human sciences at London South Bank Univer-sity has been a pioneering researcher and gay activist for 30 years. But at school he was simply aware of being different without the language to describe it. He came from a working-class background but was admitted to the top tier of a grammar school and, to echo Neil Kinnock, became "the first Weeks in a thousand generations" to go to university.

"I became aware that I was probably gay from my mid-teens. It was a macho culture. The term used then was 'queer', and you definitely felt there was something queer about you. You did feel an outsider," he says.

He studied history at University College London, but the turning point was getting a research assistantship in the London School of Economics in 1970, just as the Gay Liberation Front held its first LSE meeting. He shifted the focus of his research to examining the development of ideas of sexuality. And he began his first long-term relationship, with artist Angus Suttie, who remained a close friend until his death in 1993.

"It was the first day of the rest of my life, really. It was immensely exciting, a heady mix of a new political identity, more egalitarian relationships and intellectual transformation."

Professor Weeks records the transformation in British attitudes to sexual and intimate life in his latest book, The World We Have Won . It begins by exploring what things were like in South Wales in the mid-1940s and how much has changed.

Three milestones have their anniversaries this year. In 1957, the Wolfenden Report (whose chair, Sir John Wolfenden, was vice-chancellor of Reading University) suggested that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offence. In 1967, the Sexual Offences Act finally ended the ban on sex between men, which had existed since 1885. And in 1987 came Section 28, an amendment to a local government bill that sought to prevent local authorities from "promoting homosexuality".

Professor Weeks argues that in the 1940s and 1950s the UK had some of Europe's most draconian legislation on sexuality, alongside taboos about single parenthood and unmarried couples living together. Now it is one of the most liberal countries. Thatcherism's social conservatism was undermined by its emphasis on economic individualism, he says. By the time Tony Blair became Prime Minister, there was a growing toleration of non-traditional relationships and a thriving openly gay culture. Moreover, sexuality is now a key topic in a vast range of disciplines, from law to geography.

Professor Weeks won critical acclaim for his first two solo books, 1977's Coming Out: Homosexual Politics from the 19th Century to Gay Liberation and 1981's Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800 , which have never gone out of print. But after a period of unemployment and a series of temporary posts, he left frontline academic life.

He became assistant registrar for the Council for National Academic Awards, which validated non-university courses, and continued to write and publish. By the end of the 1980s, as the crisis over Aids was growing, he found that his experience made him sought after for senior posts. He was appointed to a chair at Bristol Polytechnic and moved to LSBU in 1994, becoming a head of school in 1995.

"I've never experienced overt prejudice - of course not - but most of us who are openly gay have experienced what Christopher Isherwood called 'annihilation by blandness'. There's an unwillingness to talk about it. People ask about married spouses, but never your partner."

When he came out, his parents were loving and supportive but they had mixed feelings and were simultaneously proud of and embarrassed by his research. "I remember my father saying to me in the early 1970s that he didn't mind what I did, but he'd rather I didn't do it in South Wales," he says.

"But it has changed for the younger generation in my family. My nephews and nieces are completely unfazed by the fact that I'm in a civil partnership. Homophobia has not disappeared, but it's no longer acceptable - just as smoking still goes on, but it's socially unacceptable. The norms have changed."

The World We Have Won by Jeffrey Weeks. Published by Routledge, £70.00 hardback, £21.99 paperback.

I graduated from

University College London in 1967 with a BA in history. I subsequently did an MPhil in the history of political ideas at UCL in 1973, and a PhD in sociology in 1983

My first job

was as a teacher of history in a South London grammar school. I soon fled that to take up a research assistantship at the London School of Economics

My main challenge

is currently co-ordinating the research assessment exercise at LSBU

What i hate most

are closed minds

In ten years

I shall be retired from academic life, but hopefully still writing

My favourite joke

Less a joke, more a wry comment: I am better at forecasting the past than foretelling the future

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