Bray, Alan 1948-2001
BRAY, Alan 1948-2001
PERSONAL: Born October 13, 1948, in Hunslet, Leeds, England; died of heart failure, November 25, 2001. Education: Bangor University, B.A.
CAREER: Inland Revenue, civil servant, 1970-97; historian, author.
MEMBER: Gay Liberation Front, Gay Christian Movement (founding member), Gay History Group (founding member), Gay News Defense Committee, Gay Activists Alliance.
AWARDS, HONORS: Honorary fellow, Birkbeck College, London, 1997; History Workshop Journal, member of editorial collective, 1994-97.
Also author of "The Friend."
SIDELIGHTS: Alan Bray, as stated in his London Times obituary, "was a remarkable historian, whose work was characterised by great clarity of thought and language, a quiet iconoclasm and a delight in paradox." His one published book, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, has never been out of print, and due to its popularity was reprinted in 1995. His book, again as stated in his Times obituary, "revolutionised the study of sexuality by challenging the then almost universal orthodoxy in which homosexuality was seen as a timeless human condition." Through his book Bray was able to demonstrate the contradictions in the social/sexual practices of Renaissance society that, on one hand, allowed homosexuality but, on the other hand, condemned those who performed homosexual acts if and when there was a need to find scapegoats for disruptions in social standards. Bray was not only interested in homosexual issues in the early modern era of England, but was also very active—sometimes even referred to as a radical—in fighting for gay rights in his own time.
Bray was born in Hunslet, Leeds, located in the heart of Yorkshire, Britain. His family was very poor, and his mother died when Bray was only twelve. Both the poverty and his mother's death were said to influence Bray for the rest of his life. While attending college at Bangor University (in Wales), Bray became intrigued by the Anglican Catholic religion, and upon graduation he trained to become a priest. His studies at the seminary lasted only one year, however, after which he joined the Inland Revenue, the Department of the Treasury Ministry, Britain's government agency that is responsible for taxes and national insurance matters.
During his employment at the Inland Revenue, Bray quickly developed a reputation for his ability to grasp complex issues and for his shrewd management skills. He was responsible for the case involving the giant insurance company Lloyd's of London, which almost everyone predicted would end in failure. Bray beat the odds and, according to the Times obituary "brilliantly reached a satisfactory settlement that many had thought impossible." Bray stayed with the Inland Revenue until his early retirement in 1997.
While working at the Inland Revenue during the day, Bray spent many of his evening hours researching and writing what would become the book reviewer Jean E. Howard, writing for Shakespeare Studies, called Bray's "discussion of the gap between the almost hysterical condemnation of sodomy in some polemical and religious writings and evidence that sexual acts between men were, in some social circumstances, quite widespread." Bray's work would also become "the first powerful expression," according to Howard, of the contemporary idea that "at least for men, while homoerotic activity appears to have been significant and not necessarily incompatible with marriage, it was also always dangerously shadowed by the potential charge of sodomy." In other words, while the practice of homosexuality has been widespread and quite common throughout history, the social aspects of homosexuality have fluctuated from being accepted, or at least tolerated, to being conceived as something so horrific that even Satan was unable to think of it.
Bray begins his book, explained Anne Barton for the London Review of Books "by trying to understand how homosexuality fitted into the mental university of the 16th and 17th centuries, approaching the past as nearly as possible in its own terms." It was during these two centuries that homosexuality was often associated with sorcery and werewolves; and as a crime, it was linked with incest, adultery, heresy, and treason. However, Bray then questions, according to Barton, "if the case against homosexuality in the Renaissance was so cataclysmically black, and the penalties so dire, how did it manage to flourish as it did, quietly but often openly, among all social classes, and not just in the wicked metropolis of London, but in rural communities and small towns?"
Bray points out that the practice of homosexuality was common between teachers and students, masters and apprentices, as well as between King James I and his favored companions. It appeared to Bray that there were seemingly two ways of looking at homosexuality. One was the practice of it, the other was the crime of it. King James himself, quoting from Barton's review, "assured his son . . . that homosexuality was one of those 'horrible crimes' that a king was 'bound in all conscience never to forgive.'" Bray points out that the king was not really a hypocrite but rather had made some "extraordinary psychological separation between sodomy," (which was unlawful) and what he himself practiced.
Howard stated, "It is hard to overestimate the importance of Bray's work. It has been crucial in establishing the difference between the hysterical discourse concerning sodomy . . . and the evidence of widespread homoerotic practice."
Bray died of heart failure at the age of fifty-three. At that time, he was living in the Notting Hill section of London with his life-long friend Graham Wilson. Before his death, he completed a manuscript on friendship, tentatively titled "The Friend."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Choice, April, 1983, review of Homosexuality in Renaissance England, p. 1206.
London Review of Books, August 18, 1983, Anne Barton, "That Night at Farnham," p. 18.
New Statesman, December 16, 1983, Christopher Hill, review of Homosexuality in Renaissance England, p. 39.
Shakespeare Studies, 1998, Jean E. Howard, "The Early Modern and the Homocrotic Turn in Political Criticism," p. 105.
Times Literary Supplement, October 29, 1982, Imre Salusinsky, "Disorderly Behaviour," p. 1187.
Times (London, England), November 30, 2001, "Alan Bray, Historian of Homosexuality," p. 25.*