Review: ‘A Great Unrecorded History: LGBT History and World Cultures’

For a university that manages to excel in just about everything, Oxford has had a poor track record on diversity. In a recent Stonewall diversity index, the University came only 244th out of 415 institutions rated. Instead of being disheartened however, the University’s response has been to do some soul searching, rolling up of sleeves, and finding innovative ways in which to tackle this challenge head on. And this looks set to continue. Introducing Professor Richard Parkinson’s talk ‘A Great Unrecorded History: LGBT History & World Cultures’, Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson stated clearly: “Oxford can do better.”

As well as the rainbow flags that have been seen flying across colleges, one of the approaches that is being taken seriously is how Oxford is represented, to show the diversity that already exists, and has existed, within it. Images from “Diversifying Portraiture at Oxford”, an exhibition currently being curated in Oxford, were on display before the talk. It showed portraits of exceptional people at Oxford through the lens of the diversity (across a spectrum of gender, race, and sexuality) that they brought to the institution, for example Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to practice law in India after reading law at Oxford. It was a fitting opening to a talk that was all about re-presenting history to include those who have previously been excluded, sometimes unconsciously, others more deliberately, and sometimes with deadly consequences.

Miss Cornelia SorabjiLectures as part of LGBT History month are part of the overall strategy of inclusion and ‘A Great Unrecorded History: LGBT Heritage and World Cultures‘ was the 7th since the series began in 2010. It was clear from the fact that the lecture was fully booked and as equally well attended that there is a high demand for these types of events. The audience itself was a mix of the LGBT community and ‘straight allies’ though perhaps the most powerful presence (especially given the content of the talk) was from the older LGBT community. One woman in her sixties, voice quavering, said at the end ‘I never thought that we would be in the British Museum.’ Her thoughts echoed a story that Professor Richard Parkinson, who gave the talk, shared about an old man who had been jailed for homosexual acts. Upon his release, he discovered that his lover had committed suicide. This man openly wept in the shop at The British Museum when buying a copy of Professor Parkinson’s book A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World.

It is this book, and the different works that lead to its creation, that the majority of the talk was based on. Professor Parkinson was unapologetic for the anecdotes that littered both his professional writing and lecture — and some of these stories were hilarious. His qualification was that in something as personal as the history of love and same sex desire, his position as a gay man could not be ignored. Whilst it was important to apply academic rigour — he went to great lengths to have his work supported by a team of experts drawn from both universities and museums — it was often his personal drive to dig deeper into the previously unacknowledged that yielded the most results, given the heteronormative structures of his workplace. Previous research, stretching as far back as classical times and historians such as Plutarch, into the history of same sex desire has been at best indifferent and at worst institutionally homophobic. It was unlikely that a straight researcher would unpick the trail of clues in the same way. This is precisely the problem that Parker J. Palmer addresses in his book The Courage to Teach, speaking about both the need for broad representation and the humanizing effect of personal experience on academic research. He proposes that as objectivity is impossible, frank subjectivity may be more effective in engaging students in academic institutions and at large.

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The Warren Cup. Image: public domain, Marie-Lan Nguyen

This trail began with Professor Parkinson’s study of same-sex desire in Egyptian poetry that lead him to examine afresh 40 objects (previously ignored or misinterpreted) that clearly formed part of a historical construction of love, gender, and desire through archaeological findings. His talk, highlighting the objects he found most interesting, was equally punctuated by dry humour and helpful slides of the object’s images. He showed both the obvious examples of LGBT history such as the Warren Cup (with scenes of two male Roman couples making love), to the more obscure, colourfully patterned fabrics sewn by members of a Hijra (transsexual) community in Pakistan.

But it was one of his slides with a world map, showing the places in the world that his research covered, that was perhaps the most affecting. It made apparent the large gaps that still exist in this growing body of knowledge. Professor Parkinson openly admitted that there was much less evidence featuring women, and the dots on the map connected to form an invisible fragmented line that traversed only selected areas of Europe. It skimmed across North Africa, leaving large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and Asia untouched.

That was perhaps the only weak link in an engaging talk that was received with rapturous applause from an appreciative audience. Indeed the lively Q&A that followed lead to questions about the frontiers still to be crossed, and the future of histories that aim to tell untold stories. In an age where great strides have been made in some places allowing for the legitimization of same-sex relationships, there have been even more devastating reversals in human rights leading in some cases to loss of life. Work that has the backing of national institutions like the British Museum is a critical part of the struggle for equality and diversity, and can help open the door to changing attitudes and structures. Surely, a place to start might be the reappraisal of school curriculum content, to be expanded for the benefit of all.

The strength of Professor Parkinson’s groundbreaking work is its commitment to the truth, even when it involves re-appraising historical evidence that seems to support his arguments. A popular historical image of two Egyptian men, previously used as evidence for same-sex desire since the times of the Pharaohs, was debunked as more likely to be a portrait of twin brothers. Professor Parkinson was adamant that if he indeed was going to respond to E.M. Forster’s lament of the “great unrecorded history” from which he took the title of his lecture, then not only was he going to make his contribution accessible, he would also ensure that the ‘truth does count.’

JC Niala

More information about the University’s Equality Policy can be found here. For future events hosted by TORCH, please visit their website.

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