Oxford’s Role in LGBT History
"In Oxford, outrage reached a peak in 2000, when the owner of Stagecoach announced he backed the idea of a similar piece of legislation to Section 28 in Scotland."
Many of the University of Oxford students that pass through the examination hall on the High Street and off into the wide world go on to make some sweeping changes in politics, arts and current events.
In effect, the history of Britain has often been channelled through Oxford first - almost every part of life in the UK has had some connection to the city, by virtue of the people who studied here and have gone on to shape the country we live in. It is inevitable, then, that Oxford has also played its part in the long and tempestuous history of the gay community.
Homosexuality was not really a ‘thing’ for many years, but the act of same-sex intercourse was certainly in the public conscious and was largely condemned as immoral. It is within this frame of reference that the first ever mention of homosexuality in the UK appears.
John Raykener was, by all accounts, a cross-dressing prostitute who often made the journey to Oxford to pick up work of all kinds. Details in an ancient document from 1395 show he came to the city dressed as his female alter-ego Eleanor and worked as an embroideress in the city as well as being employed for his other ‘services’ by local dons and men of the cloth. The act of ‘buggery’ was not yet a crime in itself, and as such, he likely received a prison sentence for the lesser crime of dressing like a woman. Nothing is known of what actually happened to John. However, many years later, legislation came in which directly affected men who were attracted to men.
The Wilde years
Arguably the city’s greatest link with gay history relates to a certain flamboyant Irish student who arrived as a talented youth and left with a double first and the Newdigate Prize. Oscar Wilde matriculated to Magdalen in 1874 and spent four years in the city. While studying here, he was influenced heavily by the aesthetic and decadent movements, both of which held physical beauty in high regard and acknowledged the edgy subject of ‘uranian’ love, a byword for love between men.
However, Wilde’s sexuality was still, by all accounts, fairly female-focused while at Oxford. It wasn’t until twenty years later that he was introduced to a current undergrad at Oxford: Lord Alfred Douglas. The two formed a romantic attachment which famously ended in a misguided lawsuit against the younger man’s father. The court case and ensuing downfall of Wilde brought the hidden underbelly of homosexuality in the realms of the educated upper-classes into full view.
But some time before his downfall, there were early efforts to unify men who loved men and to form the first community and activist group. George Ives, who was Cambridge educated, met Wilde and Douglas at the Author’s Club in London. He explained to them his idea for a secret society, the Order of Chaeronea, which would unite ‘like-minded men’ and work towards an end to oppression of homosexuals. Wilde and Douglas joined many other Oxford-based men in the society, making a massive crossover with the aesthetic movement. What became of the Order is not clear, but what is known is that it was one of the earliest established organisations campaigning for gay rights in the UK, a brave cause in the country which still routinely imprisoned those found guilty of homosexual acts, as Wilde discovered first hand.
The 1920s brought somewhat of a heyday for homosexuals in Oxford. Between the wars, there were two types of student in Oxford: the aesthetics and the sport lovers. For the aesthetics, homosexuality was not only acceptable but somewhat trendy. The centre of gay life in the city focused around The Hypocrites Club, a gathering of men who were largely known to be homosexual. For a while, at the centre of this whirlwind of avant-garde profligacy was Evelyn Waugh. He became caught up in the club and lifestyle himself and rumour has it he had three affairs with fellow male students. His experiences, and certainly some of the characters he encountered in the club, ended up being the inspiration for his most famous novel Brideshead Revisited. The Oxford influence is clear to see in his depiction of the romantic friendship between two Oxford undergraduates.
Studying at Oxford in the late 20s was also a man who would change the face of gay life in the UK more than any other. John Wolfendon won a scholarship to Oxford and afterwards became a successful educator. During the 1950s a series of famous men had been convicted of homosexual offences, including Michael Pitt-Rivers, whose personal collection formed the basis of a museum bearing his name in Oxford’s scientific quarter. Wolfendon was chosen by the government to chair a committee in a series of meetings to fully discuss the matter of homosexuality and the law. The committee he sat with included educators, religious leaders and many other ‘upstanding members of society’. But there was one thing that the many of them had in common – Oxford. Of the 14 committee members, five were either graduates of Oxford or currently worked there. Even the Canon of Christ Church and the Recorder of Oxford were committee members. Moreover, there were three brave gay men who came forward and gave frank evidence to the committee. Two of them were Oxford graduates. The Wolfendon committee could not be more dark blue!
Their discussions were often heated and although the committee was split on the issue, in the end it was resolved to definitely recommend the end of laws which criminalise homosexual acts. Certainly the Wolfendon report was a defining moment in the gay rights movement. However, it would be a further ten years before the report was acted on and an end to the criminalisation of homosexual acts finally arrived.
Things started to change in Oxford in the years following legalisation. The city itself, not just the university, started to show visual signs of a community. The Oxford Campaign for Homosexual Equality (OCHE) was founded in the early 70s and soon after the city had its own switchboard, advising the LGBT community on the best places to meet as well as offering a sympathetic ear to those struggling to come to terms with their sexuality.
There had been unofficial gathering places for LGBTs across the city for many years, especially the venues that the Hypocrites Club or OCHE frequented.
But in 1981, Oxford gained its first ever full-time gay pub – The Jolly Farmers. Based in Paradise Street, the 17th century inn soon became a safe haven for the LGBT community in the city. Today, the Jolly Farmers is still a hub for the LGBT community in the city and it is speculated to be the longest continually running gay pub in the whole of the UK.
But the community felt a larger space was needed. A group calling themselves Project October formed especially to seek out a disused hall or large space that would be suitable as an LGBT community centre. They stumbled upon the Northgate Hall in the very centre of the town, which was ideal. It had been empty for a few years but inside the old Baptist hall was perfect. The building was taken over by the community in 1991 and for many years was a base for all manner of community groups.
One such community group was formed in 1997 by the Terrence Higgins Trust with the support of the council. The WayOut youth group was initially a group of four members and a youth worker, who met once a week at the charity’s premises on Cowley Road. It offered a vital safe space for 16-21 year-olds to meet and was one of the first of these groups to be established the UK. So unique was it that in 1999, Save the Children chose the group as a basis for one of the first ever studies on gay youth in the UK and many of the founding members were quoted in the ground-breaking report. As the group grew, it needed a larger space and moved to the Northgate Hall.
But it wasn’t all fun and games after legalisation. In 1988, a group of MPs, notably mostly graduates from ‘the other’ university, pushed through a clause in the Local Government Act which effectively banned all local authorities from ‘promoting homosexual lifestyles’. Section 28, as it became known, was a disaster for the LGBT community nationwide, mostly affecting gay youth whose teachers largely misunderstood the Act and felt homosexuality should not be mentioned in any capacity at school for fear of prosecution.
In Oxford, outrage reached a peak in 2000, when the owner of Stagecoach announced he backed the idea of a similar piece of legislation to Section 28 in Scotland. The community and its supporters took to the streets and protested in Carfax, holding up several buses for many hours. Some protestors climbed on roofs while others lay down in the road to prevent Stagecoach from operating. For the city, it was the first ever visual show of anger at Section 28, and the moment gay Oxford showed its face in public for the first time.
Oxford has certainly created some notable gay heroes. But sadly, it has its villains too. Baroness Young, a British Conservative politician, was educated at the Dragon and Headington Schools and later studied at St Ann’s. Her lasting legacy is one of staunch opposition to gay rights. The age of consent for gay men remained unequal for many years, and thanks to her efforts there were hundreds of convictions of men who flouted the outwardly prejudiced laws. She fought a hard campaign in support of Section 28 and successfully defended one attempt at repeal. But in 2003, she failed in her campaign and Section 28 was struck down.
Out in the Streets
2002 saw the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Local LGBT magazine Fyne Times, along with the local pubs and community centres, closed off Paradise Street and the LGBT community came out onto the streets to celebrate. Community spirit was high and it was decided the time had come to start holding a Pride event in the city. Since then, each year the community gathered next to the Ice Rink and now in the Castle Quarter to mark Oxford Pride.
Things have changed greatly in recent years. The glory days of the Northgate Hall saw falling profits and by 2005 it was unable to remain open as a community centre. Although the financial circumstances which brought an end to the Northgate Hall gave it an air of failure, its demise simply reflected the fact that it was no longer needed. With protection from homophobic attacks and a greater acceptance of homosexuality, the community was now simply out there in the regular pubs and clubs of Oxford.
There are still places where the community gathers today, although the patronage is vastly more mixed in terms of sexuality and many local heterosexuals prefer nights out in gay spaces. Paradise Street is still flanked on both ends by gay pubs and the city now has a dedicated gay club – Plush Lounge, as well as several gay events every month.
Most importantly of all though, once a year the whole community gathers for Oxford Pride, taking over the city that over the years has proved a haven for gay men and women.
From the first mention of an arrest for ‘indecent acts’ to an annual city-centre celebration of LGBT pride, the city has changed a lot over the years. However Oxford has always played a pivotal roll in the lives of those who made gay history, both good and bad.
Oxford Pride takes place on Saturday 4th June in the Castle Quarter.
Related Articles: Appointment of new Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford