12/12/2013 Peter Durantine

F&M Student Researcher to Document British Gay Rights Movement

On June 28, 1969, New York City's gay community erupted in protests when police raided Greenwich Village's Stonewall Inn, a bar and restaurant in lower Manhattan that welcomed gays.

Historians cite the "Stonewall riots," which went on for days, as the beginning of the gay rights movement in the United States and also a leading factor in the emergence of European campaigns for homosexual equality.

A Franklin & Marshall College senior now is researching the history of the British gay rights movement and its connection to the Stonewall events.   

"My research so far spans mostly the 1950s and '60s," said Trey Williams, a double major in history and government. By 1967, he said, Great Britain already was changing its attitudes, having lifted the ban on homosexuality in the privacy of the home for consenting adults over 21.

  • Franklin & Marshall College senior Trey Williams, working on an independent study project with Professor of History Maria Mitchell, is researching the history of the British gay rights movement and its connection to the 1969 Stonewall events in New York City. Williams travels for a week of archival research in London in January. (Photo by Melissa Hess) 

Williams has received a Nissley Grant through F&M for his independent study project. The grant, which is awarded for outstanding research in the arts, humanities, or social sciences, will support Williams's travels and a week of archival research in London in January.

"I'll be studying the change (toward gay rights) before Stonewall and how Stonewall affected further change," Williams said. "Stonewall was the defining moment for gay rights in the world."

The Hall-Carpenter Archives at the London School of Economics have the biggest holdings on Britain's gay rights movement, said Professor of History Maria Mitchell, who is advising Williams in his independent study. "The question is to what degree their [Britain's] movement was indigenous, and to what degree it was shaped by transnational influences," she said.

Many European countries decriminalized homosexuality long before Britain did, but that was only the first step, Williams said. The gay rights movement would play a pivotal role in challenging British cultural views of homosexuality.

"There had to be a massive cultural change after decriminalization," Williams said.

It was critical for society to understand that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are normal and healthy people in order to bring about the political change to secure basic rights and, ultimately, in March 2013, Britain's legalization of same-sex marriage.

Change happened slowly, Williams noted. Britain's conservative Tory Party, which in the 1980s opposed the recognition of gay rights, championed the 2013 law that allowed gays to marry.

Williams has done considerable research at F&M's Shadek-Fackenthal Library to prepare his approximately 60-page honors thesis, which he will defend in the spring. The research included several hours examining the British parliament's 1957 Wolfenden Committee Report.

"They [the committee] gave an opinion to parliament that homosexuality shouldn't be criminalized," Williams said. "The law in '57 made it criminal even in the home."

Through his independent study, Williams has developed new approaches and strategies that have improved his writing skills and enhanced his interest in civil rights and the law, he said.

"I'm going to law school in the fall," he said. "I will be pursing a legal career in health law and policy, because I believe it is our next great civil rights battle." 

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