Henry Mills

Toxic debate in Britain about transgender rights echoes the vilification of gay men in the 1950s – a historical parallel that could offer solutions to the current clash, says the country’s first professor of LGBTQ+ history.

Matt Cook, who will take up the newly created post at Oxford University’s Mansfield College in September, said shifting ideas about gender identity over the centuries show us that debate about what it means to be a man or a woman is nothing new.

“The debate in the UK about trans rights is particularly febrile … There’s been some intense fear mongering,” Cook, 53, told Openly in a video call from his north-east London home.

“(But) if you look historically, you can see that people across the centuries, have gender crossed and lived as a gender different from that assigned at birth.

“History can help us understand some of the particular fractures of our present.”

Cook, formerly professor of modern history at Birkbeck, where he led the gender and sexuality studies MA programme, said there were parallels between the treatment of trans people today and that of gay men during the middle of the last century.

“The way trans people are being talked about now is very resonant with the way in which gay men in the 1950s were talked about as a danger to children, as predatory, as treacherous, as damaging to the national fabric,” he said.

“And now we’re seeing the same mentality all over again.”

Trans rights in Britain and around the world have been under particular scrutiny in recent years.

The debate has spilled onto university campuses, too.

Cook said he did not want to become a “contemporary political commentator” on LGBTQ+ issues, instead hoping to “help foster the kind of historical debate and research which would help enable us to understand what’s happening”.

“In 15 years’ time, people will see the importance of according trans people the right to have a liveable life,” he added.

After 18 years at Birkbeck, Cook will become the first Jonathan Cooper chair of the history of sexualities, a professorship named after a barrister who advocated for LGBTQ+ rights and who died in 2021.

Cook said he recognises the high-profile nature of his appointment, paying tribute to Cooper’s work.

“I want to do him and his legacy justice, which I think relates back to what I’ve been saying about wanting to foster really rich in-depth historical scholarship.”

Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh.

GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQ+ news to a global audience.