The Relationship Between Homosexuality and Censorship

What story are we telling? I think we are engaging with the relationship that homosexuality has had with censorship.

Kerry Allen and Chris Bell, ‘Chinese broadcaster censors Rami Malek Oscars speech’, BBC News, 26 February 2019 <> [accessed 27 February 2019]

This is an ongoing story. As opposed to the UK today, censorship was politically sustained by the government. We could possibly look at the institutional changes that has occurred in the UK between the 1980s and today. Which UK institutions: centralised politics, media and art.

But why the 1980s is a question which we are still thinking about, in addition to why we’ve used ‘homosexuality’ rather than ‘LGBTQ+’ (or any anagrammatic variant thereof).

Mapplethrope was possibly able to contribute to the UK homosexual cultural and political movements which were different than in the US. Alan Hollinghurst and David Hockney—two successful gay UK artists—are who largely affected how his works were framed and received by public audiences in the UK. What does the reception of Mapplethorpe reveal about cultural movements in the UK 1980s.

How does this fit into the historical context of AIDS, and how does that informs responses to homosexual cultural objects?

Our new research question might rather then concern the impact of Mapplethorpe’s documentation of homosexuality in 1980s UK culture—ie an age of censorship in which homosexuality was represented as subversive.

Possible structure:

Introduction:  censorship as the antithesis of documentation, censorship as suppression.

Part I:

Establishing in what ways 1980s UK agents censorship homosexuality and presented it as subversive. Document’s meaning is two-fold: 1) Mapplethorpe his artistic works are documenting homosexual experience 2) how Mapplethorpe’s works themselves were documented

a) Politics: the laws (ie section n ). Jeremy Thorpe: merging homosexuality and subversive actions (ie same-sex, extra-marital affair plus murder)

b) Culture: Music Frankie ‘Relax’. Gays the Word raided by the government. 

With the desire to suppress ‘subversive’ documents, it is easy to see what work agents of censorship had cut out for themselves.

Part II: Mapplethorpe intro

a) photography as a utilitarian medium. Using it to document homosexuality.

b) analysing his works themselves

Part III:

What Mapplethrope reveals about this culture

a) his reception in the UK

i) Alan Hollinghurst and David Hockney

Homosexuality and its historical aspect

Last week we spoke about censorship and documentation of homosexuality in the 1980s. However, to understand the position of homosexuality in the twentieth century, one needs to go back in time and see how the attitudes towards same-sex relationships changed from acceptance and normality, to repression and penalisation.

My first point of reference was Craig Williams’s Roman Homosexuality where he says that in the Ancient Roman Empire no differentiation between ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’ existed. This is mirrored in Latin which does not contain any words specifically expressing these concepts.

From this I moved on to a Renaissance text Dialogue on the Beauty of Women written by a Florentine intellectual – Agnolo Firenzuola. Generally his treatise focuses on beauty and the features desired in a woman. However, he also dedicates a few pages for a summary of an ancient myth on Jupiter’s creation of women and men.

When Jove created the first men and the first women ha gave them twice the number of parts they now have, that is to say, four arms and four legs and two heads; and hence. Having double parts, they had double powers; and they were of three sexes: some male in both halves, other female; but these were few; and the rest, who were the greater number, were one half male and the other female. (…) They took thought together to overthrow Jove (Jupiter) from heaven. And he, being warned of the matter (…) determined to divide them all into two, and so to secure his estate. (…) And thus, everyone thenceforth was male or female, save a certain small number who escaped, but who by too much running wasted themselves away and were of no more use. These were named Hermaphrodities, which signifies fugitives from Hermes that is Mercury. Some which were, or had descended from, males in both halves, desiring to return to their former state, seek their other half and contemplate each other’s beauty. (…) Those which had been female in both halves, or are descended from such, love each other’s beauty. (…) These by nature scorn marriage and flee from converse with men. (…) The third kind, who were both female and male, and the most in number, were those who have husbands and hold them dear (…).

This fragment shows how the ancients understood and explained different sexual orientations. However, what does this reference signal about the Renaissance? During this period, it was a common practice to seek information and inspiration in the texts of the ancients who were viewed as the ultimate possessors of wisdom and knowledge. By this reference, Firenzuola might have expressed his opinion on the matter, in this way accepting homosexuality of Renaissance geniuses such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio or Leonardo da Vinci. Nevertheless, one needs to be aware of tension between homosexuals and the officials who at the time were fining a large part of this population.

Despite this, “at the beginning of the seventeenth century, a certain frankness” about sexual expression and orientation  “was still common, it would seem”, says Michel Foucault in The Will to Knowledge. “Sexual practices had little need of secrecy (…), one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit.” But this changed in the Victorian times when “silence became a rule” in any disputes relating to sex. “Sexuality was carefully confined; it moved into the house”. This repression of homosexuality, in legal terms in Britain ended in 1967 with the introduction of Sexual Offences Act 1966. This act while marking the end of the repression, created a beginning for gay rights campaigns.



Agnolo Firenzuola, Dialogue on the Beauty of Women, p. 38-41
Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality (Oxford University Press, 1999, 2010), p. 304
Michel Foucault in The Will to KnowledgeThe History of Sexuality, volume 1 (1976), p. 3


Control of Expression

Control of expression that is regarded as outside of and a threat to the religious, political, and social orthodoxy of the time.


This is one definition of censorship offered by Barbara Hoffman (2003). Furthermore, Hoffman stipulates that ‘Manifestations of the control of artistic expression are historically and culturally specific’ (Hoffman 2003). The theoretical framework illustrated here provides a considerably sound foundation for building on how homosexuality was documented in the 1980s—specifically the suppression of efforts to document a specific facet of the human experience in a specific time and place constituting a definition of censorship.

This approach to documentation is particularly interesting in light of the BBC’s broadcasting history. Lord Reith, first Director-General of the BBC when the post was formed in 1927 by Royal Charter and to whom Reithianism refers, set an agenda of widening what content was broadcast to be universal, representing all points of view. He famously said, ‘All that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement […] The preservation of a high moral tone is obviously of paramount importance.’ (Mowat 1955, p. 242). And yet, despite the moralistically egalitarian sentiment, the ‘high moral tone’ characterises the institution as one which would no surprisingly take issue with explicitly sexual and, in Hoffman’s words, ‘outside of […] religious, political and social orthodoxy at the time’. This hypocrisy might be useful to consider in light of further research for this project in light of the perception of homosexuality as subversive in the 1980s UK and US.


Hoffman, Barbara, ‘Censorship’, Grove Art Online, 1 January January 2003 <> [accessed 29 January 2019]

Mowat, Charles Loch, Britain Between the Wars (London: Metheun, 1955)

Scannell, Paddy and David Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, Vol. I: 1922–1939 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Press, 1990)


One theme I thought of which could tie together a wide range of disciplines while still relating to our theme of ‘Document’ was censorship.

My initial question was in what way does censorship obstruct the process of documentation.

The first example that came to mind was Allegri’s 17th-century setting to Psalm 51 Miserere Mei, Deus.

King’s College Choir, Allegri’s Miserere Mei [YouTube video], King’s College Choir, Cambridge, 20 February 2015 <> [accessed 23 January 2019]

The composition which has been played in the Sistine Chapel since its creation was not allowed to be transcribed and was thus limited to only the Vatican. As the apocryphal story goes, Mozart upon visiting the Sistine Chapel with his father was able to later transcribe the piece my memory thus leading to the propagation of the now standard liturgical piece (Emily Anderson, The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1985)).

The main point I think I got from this is that despite efforts of censorship, it can be very difficult to contain a cultural artefact from organic means of distribution.

This links to the other example in music which came to mind. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1983 record ‘Relax’ is often received today as a staple of 80s pop music. It appears in the soundtracks of many films such as the recent Johnny English Strikes Again (2018) and had featured as a contestant song in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ in 2014 – though a possibly more critical use of the song comes from 2014’s Pride.

Electrify001, Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Relax (Original 7″ Version) ((P) 1983) [YouTube video], 21 August 2014 <> [accessed 23 January 2019]

What is not so well-known about this song is that it was banned by the BBC in 1984 following Mike Reeds refusals to air it due to its ‘overtly obscene’ lyrics. (BBC News, ‘Banned Frankie Tops Charts’, BBC, 6 October 2000 <> [accessed 23 January 2019]). The song’s music video was also banned as it depicts an erotic orgy. Yet, the banning of the song only increased its popularity.

How was homosexuality documented in the 1980s?

  • Riddled with censorship/debates on censorship
  • Anglo-American context, AIDS
  • Honing the idea that censorship has been a prevalent force throughout history to this specific cultural moment
  • We’ve decided to look at this in popular culture/prominent examples in music and visual art and how they have entertained interest in the topic in politically and in news media.
  • Censorship often has the opposite effect which is why it is important to look at pop culture.
  • How are these cultural artefacts received today? Was their censorship effective? What did the censorship affect them/change them?



To feel citizen of a national political community there is a need for “markers”, “symbols” both in time and space.

— So said Michel Foucher, geographer, geopolitics specialist and diplomat, in an interview on the subject of borders, security and identity.

From the announcement by Dr. Victor Fan this week that there are both many films and no films that deal with the political situation surrounding the 1967 riots in Hong Kong (due to colonial censorship no film will deal with the 1967 problem up front*), to the lack of reliable historical writing on Hong Kong, it has become apparent that we are attempting to approach a topic that is full of lacunae. This fits in with Fan’s work on Extraterritoriality, in which he constructs his argument precisely around an unstable Hong Kongese identity. To return to the above quotation from Michel Foucher, physical borders have great significance to the people of Hong Kong on a political, juridical and an imaginative level, however these territorial borders do not allow the straightforward identification of “citizen” that Foucher suggests.

When Chai and I visited Dr. Fan in his office hours this week he explained that, as someone born and raised in Hong Kong and who left in the 1990s to come to the UK, he always dodges the identity labels that people apply to him. Asked if he is Chinese, and he will answer “not Chinese; a Hong Konger” but if asked if he is a Hong Konger, he will also “erase” this label with a qualification. Fan explained this in terms of the negotiation of identity in relation to colonisation. He went so far as to say that the ego — sum — does not exist for such an individual. This is a process of ‘desubjectivisation’, in which a boundary is implicit in conversations with others on the subject of Hong Kong identity. I wanted to get to the bottom of this, and so I asked him how representative this sort of positioning was. Victor answered that people feel differently, but ultimately that if you probe and question long enough, you will find that people’s sense of affiliation is unstable and negative (negative in the sense of being to compelled to erase the labels that are imposed upon them; a reaction to colonisation).

To return to history for a moment: I want to emphasise the pertinence and timeliness of our project, with the British National Archives on Hong Kong opened only last year — an important source of primary evidence and the location of government documents concerning the period of British colonisation and handover to the Chinese. The colonial history of Hong Kong is a very young subject of study — existing in Hong Kong only since 1997 — and it is still considered a forbidden subject (both by the Chinese and the British government). This explains the scarcity in the historiography. Frank Welsh wrote a highly problematic but influential history of HK from a colonial conservative perspective, claiming for example that the 1967 riots could be reduced to an economic explanation (nothing to do with colonisation). Don’t read accounts from mainland China, advised Fan, as these show strongly nationalistic positions. Focus on the few books on the subject that have been published by the University of Hong Kong Press… These will be part of the bibliography that we are compiling.

Fan’s argument in Extraterritoriality extends to the cinema as a space in which HK identity may be expressed and negotiated. It seems to me that where the ability to achieve a political or historical overview of the situation developing over the course of the c20th in HK is significantly limited, it makes sense that scholars like Fan (Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at KCL) have located their studies within the cultural field, with art as a place in which individual experience is subjectively articulated. That is not to say that there is freedom of expression in art — particularly when we have so recently been considering the Cultural Revolution — but indeed, that it is fruitful to consider the silencing of directors (such as Shu Shuen, director of China Behind, a film which did was banned from public screening until 1981) and the barriers faced within the film industry, on which Lau Shing-hon has commented in ‘Shu Shuen: The Lone-Rider in Hong Kong Cinema in the 1970s’. It would be interesting to see if literature fulfills a similar role. Cue: Francesca!

In our meeting last Friday we reexamined the spatial significance of borders as a subject, and the relevance of methods from Geography for its academic treatment. A suggestion was made that we could connect our disciplines by reference to an overarching idea or approach relating to borders from geography, that we could all use as a starting point or combine with our own discipline in our individual research. We spent the meeting attempting to narrow our focus, setting the parameters in time (Classics stretching back to the Roman Empire in comparative study of the appropriation and return of provinces and History to the c15th and c16th definition by the Catholic Church of extraterritorial spaces: land that lay beyond European jurisdiction and therefore could be freely acquired as colonies) and space (HK, with a broader study by Lewis, who discussed his confinement within the discipline of Classics to the boundaries of the Roman empire but mentioned that he might possibly don his Ancient Civilizations hat if he wanted to branch out further into Asia).

We discussed a possible structure for our presentation, to show how history repeats itself, and George urged us to consider more recent developments in HK. Our Politics major would be best placed to address the Umbrella Movement of 2014. A reform was instigated by the Chinese government in 1997 promising voters the right to elect their Chief Executive by popular vote. However, the government would choose the candidates for which the electorate could vote. The first wave of reaction in the Umbrella Movement came from high school students, who occupied the Central Banking District and the Admiralty. They were later joined by close to a million people. When Dr. Fan discussed these protests with us he commented that the constitutional system put in place by the Chinese was nonetheless far more democratic and comprehensive than that laid down by the British colonial government. This might be a point worth investigating in order to problematise an East/West Orientalist divide, with the West typically waving their banners of democracy and declaring superiority on such grounds. Methods from Anuthira’s study of the riots by migrant workers in Little India, Singapore, may prove useful in application to the Umbrella Movement protests.

Our Comparative Literature student has already provided us with a detailed bibliography, both from a module taken in Hong Kong entitled ‘Hong Kong Culture: Representations of Identity in Literature and Film’ and from the works cited in her Translations Across Disciplines essay. It is interesting to note the structure of the HK course, which begins with ‘Unlearning Hong Kong’, explores ways of writing Hong Kong and the city, and in a third part revisits HK through China. I wonder if she could tell us a bit about the functions of literature for these purposes of resituation. Particular reference was made to the following part of the syllabus:

Rethinking the city as home: stories of migration and homecoming

Required readings:
Aihwa Ong, “Introduction”, Flexible Citizenship
Sara Ahmed, “Home and away: narratives of migration and estrangement”
Required literary text:
Wong Bik-­‐‑wan, “Losing the City” 黃碧雲〈失城〉
Paul White, “Geography, Literature and Migration”
Lawrence Lam, “Searching for a Safe Haven”
Philip Mar, “Unsettling Potentialities: Topographies of Hope in Transnational Migration”
王德威〈香港: 一座城市的故事〉(An article by David Der-­‐‑wei Wang on Hong Kong literature: in Chinese only) Peter Chan, The Age of Miracles 陳可辛 《嫲嫲帆帆》(film)

To wrap it up before our next meeting: we agreed to do some individual research and to prepare a list of the books/articles/films etc specific to our own disciplines for compilation into a group bibliography. We also all agreed to watch the relevant scenes of China Behind (from 75 mins approx., to the end of the film).


*According to Fan, the film which most closely deals with the subject is The Home at Hong Kong by King Hoi Lam. He also recommended Ann Hui’s Boat People, though this shows a post-socialist situation, and the later 1980s comedies: Chinese-Hong Kong collaborations.