Sexual Politics in the Era of Reagan and Thatcher: An interview with Jeffrey Weeks

Historians in the News
tags: LGBT

In May 1988, when I was working as the coordinating editor of Gay Community News in Boston, Massachusetts, I interviewed Jeffrey Weeks, the influential British sociologist and historian who had written Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (1977), Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800 (1981), and Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meanings, Myths, and Modern Sexualities (1985). The interview took place in Boston and edited excerpts were published in the 30 October 1988 issue of Gay Community News (pages 8-9). What follows is the complete transcript, with minor changes recommended by Weeks in 1988 and 2014 (the latter indicated with brackets) and minor editorial corrections. Weeks later published many more books and articles on the history and sociology of sexuality. He is now Emeritus Professor of Sociology  at London South Bank University. His most recent books are  The Languages of Sexuality (2011) and a fully revised 3rd edition of Sex, Politics and Society (2012). He is currently working on a book entitled What Is Sexual History? to be published by Polity Press in 2015/16.

Marc Stein: I thought we would first talk about the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), then talk about your views on the differences and similarities between the U.S. and the British lesbian/gay movement, then talk about your role in the emergence hypothesis, and then finish up with AIDS. My first question is about the Gay Liberation Front, which I understand formally existed in Britain from 1970 to 1972. In Coming Out, you describe yourself as a participant in the GLF and as a historian of the movement.

Jeffrey Weeks: Yes, I got involved in British gay liberation in 1970, a coincidence of several events really. One was a sense of personal crisis in my own life, in my emotional involvements. Although I had been actively gay for about five years, it was very much a sort of individualized gay life, with one or two gay friends. No involvement in a subculture or anything like that. I had just had a relationship which came to an end and was feeling rather isolated. Another element was that in 1970 I started work at the London School of Economics (LSE) at the very moment when the GLF started meeting there in October 1970. Two students who had been over here and had been inspired by the American GLF came back and just called a meeting. So I missed the first couple of meetings but went to the third and fourth. The third factor was that for some time I had been on the left politically but felt acutely displaced from mainstream leftism. This is not just retrospective; it is what I felt at the time. I felt that because I was a gay person there was no way that I could integrate into that sort of politics.

What gay liberation offered at the beginning was a sense of the bringing together of the various strands of my life: the personal need, the fact that I was working there, and a wider political framework. The three came together very explosively in my own life and in the life of many other people. And it also transformed my personal life immediately. Within the first couple of weeks I met the person who was to become my lover for the next ten years and I met most of the close friends I am still close to. It brought together the political, personal, social, and career in an immediately explosive culmination. And there’s been no looking back since then. In one way or another, I’ve been involved in lesbian and gay politics ever since, in the beginning working in activist groups and then increasingly in gay journalism and subsequently in gay history and then broadening out into the history of sexuality more generally. I’ve been marked by that experience. It’s still in many ways the mainspring of my social and political activity....

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