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Ross Brooks joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in September 2017 and his thesis title is ‘Evolution’s Closet: The New Biology and Homosexuality in Britain, 1885-1967’.
My project has deep roots here at Oxford Brookes. I first pursued an interest in the history of modern sexology as an undergraduate research project whilst studying for my BA here between 2006 and 2010 (two years part-time, two years full-time). My dissertation, on the medical and scientific sources of the pioneering gay rights activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895), was published in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences in 2012. It made the case that modern medico-scientific appraisals of sex differences and sexuality steadily emerged from enlightenment natural philosophy and medicine and did not materialise quite so abruptly in the later decades of the nineteenth century as historians (following Michel Foucault) had previously maintained. The premise has been influential and continues to reshape the field.
In 2016, I was delighted to return to Brookes with the help of a scholarship from the University to study the MA in History, following the History of Medicine pathway. This has been a life-changing experience and I remain extremely grateful to the University’s donors for making such a scheme possible. Quite apart from my course, returning to Brookes has opened up a world of opportunities. For example, in September 2017 it was a great pleasure to share a platform with the Chancellor of Oxford Brookes, Dame Katherine Grainger, talking to the University’s Honorary Graduates about the scholarship scheme.
With the help of historians within the Centre for Medical Humanities, I successfully secured funding from the Wellcome Trust to continue studying at Brookes at doctoral level. I am now pursuing this supported by a team of world-class historians of science and medicine within the Centre whose work sets a high bar for me to reach.
My research project explores approaches to homosexuality, with some reference to non-heteronormative bodies and sexualities more generally, which were developed within the biological sciences in Britain in the wake of Charles Darwin’s momentous The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) through to the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s and 70s. This timeframe covers the period when ‘any act of gross indecency’ between males was illegal in Britain, outlawed by the infamous Labouchère Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 which remained in force until the Sexual Offences Act 1967.
Whilst socio-political, legal, and medical (mainly psychiatric) aspects of criminalisation, and the protracted process of decriminalisation, have previously been explored by historians, the diverse ways in which biologists and biology shaped attitudes towards the law and the wider cultural milieu relating to homosexuality in Britain through the period has received barely any attention. My thesis will rectify this. It will demonstrate that leading British biologists, and various essentialist models of sexuality, were integral to situating homosexuality as an important subject of intellectual and popular discourse in Britain through the decades following Descent and progressively so through the twentieth century. Whilst the major sexologists such as Havelock Ellis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Magnus Hirschfeld had only marginal impact on elite and popular attitudes towards variations of sex development and sexuality in Britain, British scientists from a variety of biological sciences (evolutionary biology, reproductive physiology, experimental zoology, genetics, endocrinology, agricultural science, veterinary science, and ethology) concerned themselves with developing new knowledge about sex variations and succeeded in impacting on prevailing attitudes through academic and popular publications, including Britain’s newspapers. Approaches were diverse and often contradictory and were invariably infused with fashionable eugenic ideologies and agendas. New discoveries in genetics and endocrinology generated some profoundly homophobic medico-scientific responses - including calls for negative eugenic programmes, hormone treatments, suggestions of prenatal interventions - which pathologised homosexuality, but such responses were largely marginal, undeveloped, and short-lived in Britain. For much of the twentieth century, biology was viewed by certain scientists and physicians from diverse backgrounds as potentially liberating, an alternative to homophobic psychiatric theories of sexuality and a gateway to assimilating same-sex relationships within metanarratives of evolution and nature and thereby justifying legalisation of homosexual acts. Delineating the various threads within this complex matrix of discourses is therefore important, not just for understanding changing concepts of homosexuality in Britain but for more fully appreciating the dynamics of socio-political and legal changes associated with the ‘sexual revolution.’
2021 will mark the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Descent. The occasion presents an opportune moment for historians to reassess the ways in which modern understandings of sex differences and sexuality have both shaped, and been shaped by, evolutionary biology and allied sciences. My project will therefore make a timely contribution to diverse historiographical fields - history of science and medicine, history of sexuality, gender history, and modern cultural history - thereby helping to provide greater historical context for today’s socio-political debates pertaining to designer babies, sexed brains, ‘gay genes,’ marriage equality, and same-sex parenting.
As part of my project, I will be flying to Houston, Texas to consult an archive at Rice University. This is an amazing opportunity but will involve a period of very intensive archival research. I am currently ‘in training’ by spending my days in the Bodleian Library, working hard to take my research skills up a level – a real workout for the mind!
Nothing quite prepares you for the experience of being a research student. I particularly enjoy being part of a thriving research community, learning from the historians and other research students within the School of History, Philosophy and Culture not just about their respective projects but about their experiences of learning, teaching, and academia more generally.
The training programme is both fun and challenging. I recently started teaching training and had my first experience of convening a class. This was nerve-wracking, but it went well and the students I taught were so enthusiastic and really engaged with the material.
The main challenge I find myself facing on a day-to-day basis is fitting everything in. Opportunities - training courses, conferences, workshops, networking events - crop up all the time and I hate missing anything. Still, my project requires a great deal of archival research which is time consuming and I must prioritise that above everything else.
Looking forward, I intend to become a fully-fledged academic historian. My project provides me with a broad base of subjects that I will be able to continue researching and which students increasingly want to learn about. Hopefully, I will be able to do this at Brookes, but even if this does not happen it is my intention to maintain a close association with the University which has become such an integral part of my life.