Pride month: Sexualities in Society

Posted on: 14 June 2021 by Dr Mike Homfray in Blog

Image of the rainbow Pride flags

Dr Mike Homfray is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology (SSPC). Dr Homfray is also an SSPC alumnus, studying both his MA and PhD in the department. In this blog, Dr Homfray discusses his second-year module 'Sexualities in Society' (SOCI218).

Back in 1995, I decided to take the plunge and registered for a full-time MA at the University, within what was then the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work. I had always had an idea that I would like to return to University, and study for a doctorate, and after (much to my surprise) achieving a distinction, I registered for a PhD in the same department. I wanted to research into an area which reflected my own interests and experiences, and two of them came together by looking at gay and lesbian equality and the idea of ‘community’ which had become a dominant discourse of the government at the time. I wanted to explore whether the theory of ‘communitarianism’ made any sense when related to a minority community of interest or identity, rather than a geographically defined community. Lack of funds meant the PhD was studied part-time but eventually I was successful in gaining a doctorate and also a publication, with the book being issued under the title “Provincial Queens: the gay and lesbian community in the North of England”.

I had been involved in a range of activities, notably setting up a local helpline, being chair of a police Liaison group, and a local ‘community forum’ to engage with local service providers. Now, at 59, and having seen many of the things we worked for so hard become reality, I am less active, though do help to run an LGBT supporters group for Everton fans, the Rainbow Toffees. Workwise, I spent time at a variety of institutions on part-time sessional contracts, and in 2018 was approached by the University to cover some specific modules and teaching following the departure of a member of staff. Towards the end of that year I was successful in gaining a position as University Teacher in the same department – Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology.

Image of Dr Homfray with 'Rainbow Toffees' flag at Everton Football Club's home stadium, Goodison Park

Dr Mike Homfray (right) helps to run an LGBT supporters group for Everton fans called 'The Rainbow Toffees'.

In that first year, I was asked to cover a module which looked at Gender and Sexuality in Everyday Life, and my first thought was that the module was very orientated towards gender, with sexuality almost treated as an afterthought. I changed the emphasis to make it more balanced and equal with the two social divisions given equal consideration. However, observing that the department already offered two modules based on gender, my intention was to revamp the module, so that there would be a module available to students which would be explicitly focused on sexuality – Sexualities in Society (SOCI218). That module ran for the first time in the second semester of the 2020-21 academic year.

It is certainly an interesting time to be looking at this issue. With many of the legal and social questions related to discrimination on the grounds of sexuality resolved, the current priority is to ensure that the legislation is implemented. At the same time, the position of transgender people is far from resolved, and the clear boundaries in terms of different identities have blurred and dissipated – with people identifying themselves in ways which do not clearly differentiate between gender and sexuality. The change since I did my research has been considerable. At the same time, the reality of being part of a minority, non-heterosexual sexuality has not necessarily changed, and the improvement in the legal position has not necessarily meant that society has shifted its assumptions about heterosexuality being normative.

The module is organised into three broad areas.

Firstly, consideration of sociological theories and concepts related to sexualities. What sorts of theories have emerged to make sense of sexuality as a social phenomenon? How do we classify and order our concepts of what sexuality is? What sorts of social movements for change developed to challenge the discrimination and prejudices people experienced on the grounds of their sexuality? How do we relate other sociological concepts such as citizenship, community, and identity to the emergence of sexuality as a sociological issue – particularly given that it was almost completely ignored by the discipline of sociology until a relatively late stage? How important is legal change and reform in transforming society to become less heteronormative and homophobic? To what extent should we be thinking of studying sexualities in terms of its intersection with other aspects of identity? Gender is sometimes considered the obvious area where intersectional patters are easy to spot, but are there other categories where the intersection of a range of factors can impact upon people’s lives?

This will lead on to the second section, which is a continuation of the emphasis of the original module, in keeping an applied, policy-focused aspect of the course intact. Legal change related to sexual orientation focused on areas such as relationships and domestic life, employment and work, education, and health, are considered, linking into some of the theories studied in the first part of the course.

Finally, the module looks at current controversies and debates related to the topic of sexuality. In its first run, this included the presence of “global homophobia” – there remain 69 countries where same sex relationships remain illegal, and many others where the everyday experience of people who are not heterosexual is far from easy. The introduction of comprehensive equalities legislation in the UK saw challenges from religious organisations who disagreed with a range of changes related to equality based on sexual orientation as a protected characteristic and more recently, proposed changes to the law related to gender assignment have also been challenged from groups including radical feminist organisations. Here we can see the way that agendas and theories related to other groups also covered by equalities legislation may clash, and the arguments should prove to be interesting to study, analyse and evaluate. For the next year I am looking to keep the module fresh by incorporating a couple of new themes – current front-runners are the sociology of sport and sexuality, given my interest in LGBT participation in football, the relationship between disability and sexuality, or the study of BDSM (bondage, domination, and sado-masochism) and the sociological and political analysis of this phenomena. One student, in the feedback relating to the course, stated that  “This module provides a critical insight into numerous hot topics and taboo subjects which is invaluable … Increasing awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and gaining insight into various perspectives and discourse on the issues allow people to become more attuned to current events”.

56 students studied the module, and I am hoping that future intakes  will consider it something which they will find both challenging and interesting and be able to respond to ongoing events. I intend to continue to add my own experience, perspective, and standpoint, and to encourage students to utilise theirs.

Headshot of Dr Homfray

Dr Mike Homfray is a Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology.

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