Addressing the injustices faced by LGBTQ+ people: our research
During LGBT+ History Month, we celebrate how research conducted within the Faculty of Social Sciences is helping advance the rights of LGBTQ+ people worldwide.
The history of LGBTQ+ people in the UK has often been hidden or erased. Following the repeal of Section 28 (the British law that, ‘prohibited the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities’), UK LGBT+ History Month was founded in 2004 by Schools OUT UK and first celebrated in February 2005 to share the rich and diverse history of LGBTQ+ people.
Despite huge strides being made in the last few decades in addressing discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, there are still enormous challenges that LGBTQ+ people have to face. Research across the University of Leeds Faculty of Social Sciences is designed to address contemporary and historical injustices suffered by lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
The law and sexual orientation
Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences / Professor of Sociology Professor Paul Johnson’s research is concerned with a number of broad questions about the relationship between law, human rights and sexual orientation.
He regularly engages, in a non-party-political capacity, with the UK Parliament on many aspects of law reform relating to sexual orientation equality.
Professor Johnson played a pivotal role in landmark legislation which grants posthumous pardons to predominantly gay and bisexual men convicted, under now-abolished laws, for engaging in consensual same-sex sexual activity. This ground-breaking legislation has been called ‘Turing’s Law’, named after the Bletchley Park codebreaker Alan Turing, who took his life after being convicted of ‘gross indecency’ with a man. He was granted a posthumous royal pardon in 2013.
These provisions remove any stain from the reputations of the dead, enable the living to have convictions disregarded and, crucially, send a strong condemnatory message to those countries around the world that continue to criminalise same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults.
Most recently, following a six-year campaign, provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 made available disregards and pardons to a wider range of people convicted under now repealed homophobic laws for conduct that is no longer an offence. In 2022, Professor Johnson was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to equality, to diversity and to human rights in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
Banning conversion therapy
‘Conversion therapy' refers to a multitude of widely discredited practices and methods, which aim to change or suppress a person's sexuality or gender identity. Typically, ‘conversion therapy’ is premised on the belief that being LGBTQ+ is inherently inferior to being heterosexual and/or cisgender. Therefore, according to the United Nations, so-called ‘conversion therapy’ practices are consistently aimed at effecting a change from non-heterosexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender. According to the charity Stonewall, 'In the UK, all major counselling and psychotherapy bodies, as well as the NHS, have concluded that “conversion therapy” is dangerous and have condemned it’.
Since 2019, Professor of Human Rights Law Ilias Trispiotis has been leading a major research project on the legal responses to ‘conversion therapy’ in the UK (partially funded by Research England). His academic articles on ‘conversion therapy’ have been widely cited, including by the relevant UK Parliament’s POSTnote and by the highly influential Cooper Report. Professor Trispiotis has also written for The Conversation, and his work has been quoted in numerous news articles and blogs in the UK and overseas.
As ‘conversion therapy’ is not yet banned in the UK (nor is it banned in most European countries), Co-Director of the Centre for Law and Social Justice, Professor Trispiotis has advised UK MPs, as well as major UK and international NGOs and charities, on the scope and importance of legislative action in this area. He has given oral evidence to the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee on the UK Government's legislative plans on ‘conversion therapy’ and to the New Zealand Parliament Justice Committee on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill. His work has been shortlisted for the Socio-Legal Studies Association Annual Impact Prize 2023; and has won one of the University of Leeds Engaged for Impact Awards in 2022.
Professor Trispiotis’s edited collection (with Dr Purshouse) entitled 'Banning "Conversion Therapy"' was published in November 2023 by Hart Bloomsbury Publishing.
My ongoing research has led me to the conclusion that all forms of so-called 'conversion therapy' are in violation of the prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment under UK and International human rights law. As a result, like an increasing number of countries across the world, the UK Government must ban those practices in absolute, proactive and effective ways, leaving no room for any exemptions.
Approximately 2% of the world’s population is born with intersex variations of sex characteristics, the same frequency of twins. Despite the commonality of diversity in sex development, children with intersex traits are often medicalized and subjected to non-consensual cosmetic procedures to ‘normalize’ their sex anatomy.
Associate Professor Dr Mitchell Travis is Co-Director of the Centre for Law and Social Justice and a trustee of the Socio-Legal Studies Association. His work focuses on intersex embodiment, vulnerability and legal personhood. In 2023, he presented expert evidence to the Council of Europe's conference on 'Advancing the Human Rights of Intersex People' in Strasbourg.
Intersex people are so often misunderstood or culturally ignored that promoting visibility for them and their stories is vitally important. My work helps to contextualise those stories, to show the constraints upon legal and medical choices in this area, and to empower intersex people to challenge these constraints.
Within our faculty, the School of Law has a number of researchers working on LGBTQ+ issues, and so for LGBT+ History Month, we shine a light on some of the vital work they are doing. All of the staff featured here are also active in teaching within the school.
Regulation of gender
Dr Chris Dietz’s work focuses on the regulation of gender. His 2023 book, Self-Declaration in the Legal Recognition of Gender, brings together socio-, feminist, and trans legal scholarship on embodiment and jurisdiction. His book has been described by Routledge as ‘the first empirically based and theoretically informed analysis of self-declaration’. He was interviewed about this for the New Books Network Podcast. With School of Law academics Dr Mitchell Travis and Professor Michael Thompson he co-edited the book A Jurisprudence of the Body, as well as contributing two chapters. His articles also contribute important scholarship to trans-rights, such ‘Jurisdiction in Trans Health’, and ‘Governing Legal Embodiment: On the Limits of Self-Declaration’. In 2022 he was invited to give evidence to the Scottish Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee as part of their consultation into the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. Dr Dietz teaches within the school on Employment Law, Health Care Law, Gender and the Law, and Law and Society. He is a member of the Centre for Law and Social Justice.
“Law’s A Drag”
Alongside Dr James Greenwood-Reeves, Dr Rosie Fox runs the “Law’s A Drag” research network (more details here: Spotlight on “Law’s A Drag” for LGBT+ History Month | School of Law | University of Leeds). “Law’s a Drag” connects drag artists and academics, empowers and amplifies the voices of drag artists in drag-and-law related research, and seeks to connect meaningfully with drag artists and curate areas of research that are important to them and their experiences of law. Rosie’s other interests lie in the intersection of law and dress, the identity and wellbeing of doctoral students, and the aesthetics of law and legal experience. She teaches across a range of modules in the LLB, and employs a range of interactive methods, visual aids and encourage students to take an active part in developing their own learning materials. Dr Fox is the Deputy-Director of the Centre for Innovation and Research in Legal Education and a member of the Centre for Law and Social Justice.
Dr James Greenwood-Reeves’ work is at the intersections of criminal and public law, and wider research in queer theory, moral philosophy, politics, sociology, and law and culture. He runs the “Law’s A Drag” research network along with Dr Fox, above. His 2022 book, Justifying Violent Protest: Law and Morality in Democratic States, examined international activism in groups including the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, Black Lives Matter, and Extinction Rebellion. His research interests include surveillance and security, violent protest, Pride and queerness as protest / in protest, and drag and the law. He is a member of the Centre for Law and Social Justice.
Sexuality, health, science and social movements
In the School of Sociology and Social Policy, Associate Professor Dr Patricio Simonetto is the Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies. Dr Simonetto’s research engages with questions about how sexuality intersects with health, science, and social movements in Latin America. He explores questions around how sexuality reshaped notions of whiteness in Latin America, how the medical portrayal of LGTBQ+ and sex workers' bodies shaped notions of sex and sexuality, how LGTBQ+ movements produce social theory, and how queer and trans people create scientific knowledge and technologies.
His first project studied the radicalisation of homosexual liberation movements in Latin America and the Latinx diaspora in the US.
Dr Simonetto has also contributed to the transnational study of LGBTQ+ movements by challenging Global North literature that has emphasised Stonewall as a turning point in LGBTQ+ politics. His research shows the role of South-South connections and local political cultures in the emergence of queer revolutionary political thinking and was awarded the Carlos Monsiváis Prize by the Latin American Studies Association (2021).
His second monograph, ‘El dinero no es todo. Compra y venta de sexo en la Argentina del siglo XX’ [Money isn't Everything. The Sale and Purchase of Sex in Argentina during the Twentieth Century] addressed the commercialisation of sexuality in Argentina. In the monograph, Dr Simonetto explores how Argentina's public debates about venereal diseases, also known as ‘white slavery’, played a major role in redefining notions of whiteness, masculinity, and class. The book was awarded the Latin America in Translation (LAT) Award.
His most recent monograph, A Body of One's Own. A Trans History of Argentina (University of Texas Press, 2024) is a history of Argentina that examines how trans bodies were understood, policed, and shaped in a country that banned medically assisted gender affirmation practices and punished trans lives.
As a trans history of Argentina, a country that banned medically assisted gender affirmation practices and punished trans lives, A Body of One’s Own places the histories of trans bodies at the core of modern Argentinian history. Patricio Simonetto documents the lives of people who crossed the boundaries of gender from the early twentieth century to the present. Based on extensive archival research in public and community-based archives, this book explores the mainstream medical and media portrayals of trans or travesti people, the state policing of gender embodiment, the experiences of those transgressing the boundaries of gender, and the development of homemade technologies from prosthetics to the self-injection of silicone.
LGBTQ+ and the menopause
The School of Sociology and Social Policy has a number of other researchers working on LGBTQ+ issues including Rebecca Ann Simmons, a PhD candidate conducting empirical research into LGBTQ+ experiences of menopause. This research uses a combination of qualitative methods including interviews and body mapping, alongside elements of creative and reflexive analysis, to help amplify the voices of the participants and to create multi-dimensional and rich data.
Although there are decades of research into menopause, much of this research has been through a medical lens and has focussed on the ‘symptoms’ and experiences of cisgender heterosexual middle class white women. This research project aims to reconfigure our knowledge of menopause by centring marginalised voices and bringing these to the forefront. Crucially, the research strives to uncover the multiplicity of menopause experiences – to understand that it is not simply a (sometimes unpleasant) biological experience, but a biopsychosocial transition which can be positive or negative, or a site of ambivalence.
For more information on the project follow @LgbtqMenoProj on X (formerly Twitter) or contact Rebecca at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Digital platforms and gender expression
Research by School of Sociology and Social Policy PhD candidate Georgina Trace focuses on the experiences of women and non-binary people who sell sexual content on digital platforms. The research looks at the material conditions of online sex work, but also considers the discourse people ascribe to their work, in particular discourses on entrepreneurialism, labour, queer theory and feminist discourse. The research findings have also brought to light the ways in which these workers brand and present their bodies on platforms, and how this impacts their experiences of embodiment. A significant finding within the research is the productive possibility that digital platforms have for shaping new sexualities and forms of gender expression, particularly for gender non-conforming people who have found community support in kink and queer sex work spaces.
Two members of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, Professor Ruth Holiday and Dr Jessica Martin have written an essay for the Exhibition Catalogue for Contested Bodies ‒ an exhibition of amazing art from around the world by women identified and gender-variant artists. The Exhibition in the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery in the Parkinson Building at the University of Leeds runs until April 2024 (more details here: Contested Bodies | Galleries | University of Leeds. Read the essay here: (65) Contested Bodies Essay | Ruth Holliday - Academia.edu).
Professor Holliday and Dr Martin have also been busy working on the re-design of the School of Sociology and Social Policy Gender Studies MA Programme, which includes Ruth’s module, Contested Bodies, and a new optional module on Gender, Sexuality and Popular Culture.
The rise of anti-gender discourses
Associate Professor in the Politics of Global Development Dr Lata Narayanaswamy is a researcher, consultant and lecturer in gender and development.
Dr Narayanaswamy’s paper (co-authored with Dr Haley McEwen (University of Gothenburg) ‘The International Anti-Gender Movement: Understanding the Rise of Anti-Gender Discourses in the Context of Development, Human Rights and Social Protection’, was commissioned by the UNRISD Gender Justice and Development programme as part of an ongoing inquiry into the growing backlash against progress in gender equality and rights.
The paper, (which was top 3 of United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) publications for downloads/reads for 2023) interrogates the ways anti-gender, or “pro-family”, actors and organizations are using the frameworks and language of “development” to advance arguments and policies that restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ people and seek to limit how sexual and reproductive health and rights are understood.
The breadth of research undertaken within the Faculty demonstrates how central universities are in bringing about the cultural, political and social change required to end discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.