University of Oxford appoints UK’s first LGBTQ+ history professor

Collage showing Matt Cook, a white man with a grey beard and round glasses, a grand Oxford uni building and the Pride flag

The University of Oxford has appointed the UK’s first permanently endowed professorship in LGBTQ+ history, in a huge step for queer representation in academia. 

Mansfield College announced on Monday (5 June) that historian professor Matt Cook will become the first Jonathan Cooper Chair of the History of Sexualities at the university. 

Cook will leave Birkbeck, University of London after 18 years to take up the post in the history department in October. 

Speaking with PinkNews, Cook says the new post is a “culmination” of the movement of LGBTQ+ history from activism and community groups into academia.

“What this commitment from Oxford and Mansfield does is it shows that actually, [LGBTQ+ history is] central to historical inquiry,” he said.

“If we’re thinking about society and culture in the past, then we have to think about the way people felt and thought about themselves, the way they desire and the way they considered their relationships because that’s part of people’s everyday lives now, and in the past.” 

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“It is very much part of Oxford and Mansfield’s commitment to really etch out the field and to become a real hub for this kind of work in the UK, and globally.”

The appointment is the first of its kind for Oxford, and the wider UK (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Cook hopes that the creation of this role at the Oxford, a world-leading institution, will inspire other universities to invest in LGBTQ+ history.

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“The way in which LGBT and queer history has been treated over the 10 to 15 years is that this is a ‘marginal pursuit’,” he said.

“It’s on the edges of departments, peripheral to scholarly activity, it’s of interest only to a minority of people.”

The role has been named in honour of Jonathan Cooper OBE, the human rights lawyer who passed away in 2021. 

Cooper was involved in historic fights for LGBTQ+ rights around the world – he spearheaded the 2012 case that challenged Jamaica’s colonial-era “buggery” laws in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, represented a lesbian couple in their battle to legalise same-sex marriage in the Cayman Islands, fought against homophobic laws in Uganda, and pushed for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Church of England.

The role is named after Jonathan Cooper (Supplied)

After his sudden death, aged 58, Cooper was remembered by Labour leader Keir Starmer at the PinkNews Awards 2022.

Starmer said: “Johnny was the most passionate force of nature many of us have ever known, with a very deep sense of justice and injustice that couldn’t be confined to the law.”

Cook said it is a “huge honour” to take up the role in Cooper’s name. 

“I will be working hard to enhance our understanding of the LGBTQ past and to show how these histories matter now,” he said.

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“I will be championing the strong, existing vein of queer historical work at Oxford and fostering debate with LGBTQ scholars, writers, and activists from around the world.

“I’m tremendously excited to have this opportunity to help enlarge Oxford’s reputation for cutting edge work in this burgeoning field; I see it as a way of honouring and furthering Jonathan Cooper’s inspirational legacy.”

The professorship was made possible by a £4.9 million gift secured by Mansfield College from the Arcadia Fund, making it the first fully-endowed specialist post of its type in the UK. 

Oxford university’s new LGBTQ+ history professor will look to global communities

Cook hopes to bridge the gap between different sectors of LGBTQ+ study, from local history through to often-underrepresented histories from countries outside of Europe and North America. 

In his first year, the professor hopes to put together a Queer History Week which would bring academics together across the field who can have “important conversations” and “raise the profile of what will be the next generation of queer and trans historians”. 

Alongside this, Cook also plans to put together a Queer Continents Series which each year will focus on a different area of the world and elevate academics who specialise in that area. 

“In turn [this will] really open out the debate to show how both how sexual and gender expression differs across the world, how those histories are different, but also how they resonate with each other,” he said. 

Commenting on the appointment, Mansfield College principal Helen Mountfield, KC, said: “Mansfield College is delighted to welcome Professor Matt Cook as the inaugural Jonathan Cooper chair of the history of sexualities. 

“Matt will be a great fit in our proudly non-conformist college community which respects, protects and promotes a diverse range of voices and narratives.

“I know that Jonathan would have been so honoured and delighted to see his legacy commemorated by this chair, and I know he would have been fascinated by Matt’s work. 

“I am hugely grateful to Dr Lisbet Rausing and Professor Peter Baldwin and the Arcadia Foundation for endowing this post, so that it will be part of Mansfield College forever.”

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