By Antonio Capurro
Egypt has always been a very interesting country for people around the world not only because the amazing archeology with the pyramids if not all those fascinating stories about pharaons and princess and of course myths and legends. A couple of months navigating on YouTube I found a history documentary about sex in the old Egypt and a person right there got my attention, the visible gay professor Richard Parkinson, an egyptologist who wrote a book called “A little gay history”. Let’s meet him.
Let’s start from the beginning, where in the UK did you born? How was it growing up as a gay man in Great Britain during the seventies and eighties? Was it easy to come out of the closet and be a visible gay man?
I was born in the north of England, and grew up in a small market town in the dales, Barnard Castle. When I was growing up, media stereotypes on TV were the only sign of LGBTQ existence: gay men were either urban, disco loving and promiscuous, or camp caricatures. I couldn’t recognise myself in these stereotypes, and it took quite a long time for me to understand what I was feeling. But I think realising you’re gay is a hugely informative experience. If someone has never thought ‘till this moment I never knew myself’, I think they’re not very self-aware! I think coming out to yourself is the hardest thing. Before university, I only came out to one friend and some family, and there was no hostility at all; I was out to all my close friends when a student. In 1995, I published an article on same-sex desire in ancient Egypt, and I’ve continued to publish and lecture on the topic; professionally I’m visibly gay simply because I work on topics where sexuality can be relevant.
Did you like Egypt History since a little boy?
My father was an artist and art teacher who’d been keen on Egypt when young, so there were books on Egyptian art in the house, and as a boy I was fascinated by the pictorial hieroglyphic writing system and by Ancient Egyptian texts. I later became very interested in English literature, and Egyptology combined both of these enthusiasms for me.
You graduated in 1985 with a first class Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree, which it means you were such a good student and then you got your doctoral thesis with a commentary on The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant submitted in 1988…
I was undecided whether to read English or Egyptology at university, and I’ve often suspected that I made the wrong choice. I’m really not very bright, and I work instinctively. I’m interested in the way literature can impact on its readers’ lives, and that was how I came out to myself: when I was about to start university, there was a TV version of an Iris Murdoch novel which showed a sympathetic (and un-stereotyped) gay man who ended up kissing an undergraduate. He was politely turned down, but I knew – suddenly, instantly – that if I’d been the student and he’d kissed me, the narrative would have ended very differently. That was the moment I finally understood my own heart, and I think that’s why I work on literature and its sense of alternative possibilities. Egyptian poems are usually regarded as merely exotic and primitive texts, but I try to read them as emotional works of art , so I work with actors as well as philologists (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpxVxa0ex-Y). The Eloquent Peasant has been described as a source for lexicography, but it is a very passionate and poetic appeal for justice.
During 22 years you worked in the British Museum, as a curator of Ancient Egyptian pharaonic culture with responsibility for the Rosetta Stone, papyri, and archival material. What do you remember from those years with special affection? Do you miss your work?
I value the public responsibility that the Museum embodies; academics can be very inward looking unless they have that sense of public duty or an enthusiasm for teaching. As a curator I enjoyed working with designers, editors, conservators and case-builders, who all have skill-sets very different to (and more broad ranging than) academics. The Museum had a great sense of a community working together which I miss very much. If you work day–to-day with ancient objects it allows you to understand them more intensely and intimately: when you hold a loaf of bread from 1350 BC and can still see the fingerprints of the baker on it, you realise that you are dealing with people who were human like us, even if very different. And it is a huge privilege to be in the museum alone with the artefacts, to live beside them day-by-day; once after an evening reception with too much wine I’m afraid almost I kissed the statue of the (rather muscular and rugged) Senwosret III. It’s a granodiorite statue so I wouldn’t have damaged it at all …. I don’t think I was a very good curator.
You didn’t kiss the statue but you wanted?
He was very muscular and attractive – but it was more a feeling of love and comradeship, than anything sexual. Sometimes one can feel very close to the ancient people.
Was it one of your goals to be a professor in the university you studied?
Not really – I’ve always felt far too stupid to get an academic job or to have any career goals, but I think that might be partly a result of having grown up gay in 1970s and 80s. My career has been a bit of an accident. I enjoy teaching immensely – it is a great privilege to teach intelligent and hard-working young people; its students are one of Oxford’s greatest glories. I lecture on a range of Ancient Egyptian culture and history, on Egyptian art and architecture, and I teach classes on museum artefacts, and classes on Egyptian texts. My favourite part of the job is to read texts with students, trying to understand what emotions the ancient poet wanted his readers to feel.
How is it to be a visible gay professor on campus in Oxford? In the web page of Out in Oxford you wrote. I Quote: “we still think twice before holding hands elsewhere in the University and the legacy of hetero-normative history can still seem oppressively persistent”
Although it is very old, I think Oxford is a wonderfully inclusive place. There is a very effective and proactive Equality and Diversity Unit, and many university buildings fly the rainbow flag during LGBTQ History month (although I don’t think my Faculty, the Oriental Institute ever has). My college treats my husband like anybody else’s spouse, and we feel entirely at home. I don’t like making a point of coming out to people: since my student days being gay has felt like a normal part of my life, and I simply talk about my husband. When I took some of the students on a field trip to Egypt, he came too to look after my health (I’m diabetic) and helped organise things. I don’t think I’m more visibly gay than my straight colleagues are visibly heterosexual – it just that, given the heteronormative nature of British society, one stands out a bit more! And I think visibility is politically, socially and culturally very important. Oxford is a safe space, but nowhere is entirely free for homophobia. Any old institution is built on the legacy of male capitalism, and in many university rooms, all the portraits tend to be of men – but the university is actively changing that by commissioning new portraits. The fact that I and many people don’t feel entirely comfortable holding hands in the street anywhere is a sign of how much we still need change in this country; it should feel entirely natural, but we’re not quite there yet. Occasionally, you bump into two male students holding hands in the street, and they almost always look a bit self-conscious: I want to walk up to them and say ‘Well done’, because I think it’s really quite heroic and very sweet to see.
Have you ever feel some kind of discrimination against you in your country?
Nothing personal, but the government has been much less supportive than it should be, as has the state church. Equality is still not full. Even supportive straight allies often forget the issues and inequalities LGBTQ Q can face in every-day life. There is significant cultural discrimination still – I think many LGBTQ people feel a sense of cultural isolation, which can undermine one’s self-confidence, exhaustingly so, and especially when you’re young. There are so many films about romance, but most of them are so unremittingly heterosexual! Not, of course, that there is anything wrong with heterosexuals (I’m sure they can’t help it), but having to watch them all the time is very tedious.
What is it the contribution of the Egypt culture to the LGBTQ history?
Perhaps the earliest known chat up line in human history is from ancient Egypt and it’s one between two males, where the god Seth says to the god Horus ‘what a lovely backside you have’. There are other fictional works which involve same-sex desire, but we know of no ancient historical individuals who could be labelled ‘homosexuals’. In general, I think being LGBTQ is a great advantage for an academic, especially for a historian. You don’t accept the supposed ‘norms’ of society and culture, or nationalistic grand narratives; you inherently question assumptions and see the world from a queer, subaltern perspective.
How long did it take you to write A little gay history? Did you have to search very much?
The book had to be written in six months – but it was based on the work people had done for an earlier trail in the museum. Many kind colleagues both from inside and outside the Museum helped suggest objects and bibliography. I remember one afternoon in the British Library I had to read up about (1) lesbian ceramics from the 1920s, (2) Captain Cook’s voyages, and (3) the building of the Homomonument in Amsterdam. That felt like quite a range of material! The book caught a moment when things were changing: Babs Guthrie of ‘Untold London’ has said that the book’s ‘popularity … proved to the wider world of Museum professionals that the time was ripe to recognise LGBTQ histories all year round’.
Is there still a lot to discover about our history?
Yes of course. You just have to look. People like us are, and always have been, everywhere in human history, though the evidence may have been lost. If you can’t see any trace of us, you’re probably not looking hard enough.
In 2016 you gave the Oxford University annual LGBTQ History Month lecture.
The lecture was about how the Little Gay History developed and what I thought I’d learnt from the experience (https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/great-unrecorded-history-lgbt-heritage-and-world-cultures). The lecture was introduced by the Vice-Chancellor the University, which shows how important diversity is to Oxford. I hope it was useful to people – it seems to have been influential and to have encouraged other LGBTQ projects. For me the best thing was it made me some new close friends.
From your own experience how you would recommend to work the LGBTQ Q+ histories in museums?
As public institutions, museums have an immense responsibility to display such histories and to help uphold human rights. I think special exhibitions on LGBTQ themes are very good, and there have been a lot in the UK this year, since it is the 50th anniversary of partial decriminalisation. But I’d also prioritise embedding our histories into permanent displays over special temporary exhibitions – because LGBTQ people are not special, nor are they temporary. Many of this year’s special exhibitions will have a legacy of trails around the permanent galleries, which is ideal. One day, hopefully, every museum will have at least one LGBTQ item openly identified as such on permanent display, so that visitors of any sexuality can feel empowered by their human heritage. I also think it’s important for such projects to be aimed not only at LGBTQ communities but at the general public, of any age, gender and background. LGBTQ people should be inclusive, just like everyone else should.
How did the ‘Out in Oxford’ start project? Were you involved since the beginning?
It was organised by Beth Ashbury from the Pitt Rivers Museum; she heard the Oxford History Month lecture about how museums should include LGBTQ stories, she thought ‘Why not? Why don’t we do that?’, and so she did: I simply gave some practical advice and encouragement. She has been very generous in thanking me for the inspiration, but really she did it all. I’m very proud to have been involved in it, but I did nothing.
Do you consider an activist? Have you ever been in gay parade celebrating the pride?
I don’t think of myself as an activist (for one thing I’m too self-conscious), and I have huge admiration for someone like Peter Tatchell or Stonewall. But I do feel that everyone who is in any way out is in a sense an activist. Marching with a banner is one form of activism; so is bringing your husband to a work dinner. Simply loving someone is activism. These individual acts help humanity’s fight for equal rights. Each of us has a responsibility to do whatever we feel we can in whatever way we can. Most years I watch or walk in London Pride. I think it’s invaluable in showing to the world that we are here, and showing LGBTQ people that there’s a community that they can belong to. Sometimes I wonder if it’s now a bit too commercial and not political enough, but perhaps I only say that because I’m basically not a party animal and don’t like big crowds. I think the most important thing is simply to be oneself without any self-censoring – whether you are diffident, flamboyant, whatever.
How do you see LGBTQ rights in Europe? Is out there less stereotypes or prejudices?
I hope prejudice is growing less, but there is still a long way to go! The British media has advanced wonderfully since I was a student: in the UK there are now radio comedies like ‘In and Out of the Kitchen’ which creates sympathetic comedy out of gay lives as well as straight ones. But I think that across the world governments are becoming more right-wing and religious intolerance is on the rise. I sometimes worry that some of my students are too young to realise what struggles it has taken to get us where we are in Europe: their idea of being an LGBTQ activist is simply to go clubbing.
How did you meet your husband? How long you been together?
We met on the 13th Nov 1990 at a graduate LGBTQ meeting in a pub in Oxford when the organiser (a mutual friend) introduced us. It was a rather English moment and not wild passionate love at first sight or a coup de foudre: Tim kept fiddling with his cycle helmet, and I didn’t say much. But I still remember the exact moment I first saw him. We entered a civil partnership in 2005, the day after it was legally possible; it was a very small ceremony in Highgate woods, without any fuss or party, because we felt that it was only the law that was changing and not our relationship. That civil partnership was retrospectively converted to marriage in 2014. When we got together, adoption by a gay couple was not very easy: if we were younger, yes, I think we’d like to have children. But we have a godson who is now 18, and being part of his growing up has been one of the great pleasures and privileges of our lives.
Do you have a gay icon you admire?
Among the dead, the English novelist E. M. Forster; among the living, the American director James Ivory. Two very great artists.
Which ones are your favourite books?
I think of myself as working on Egyptian literature and not Egyptology, so I read a lot away from Egyptology. I admire E. M. Forster’s novels and also Marguerite Yourcenar’s – above all The Memoirs of Hadrian. I like Forster for his quiet, heroic, subversive wit and self-awareness, his dissection of all English hypocrisy, imperialism and snobbery; I admire Yourcenar for her sublime determination to recreate the ancient world from within and her refusal to be marginalised. Both see personal relationships as the centre of life. Among poets, I am very fond of W. H. Auden.
Any particular gay movie you like?
A great favourite is James Ivory’s Maurice (which has just been restored for its 30th anniversary); I’m fond of the American romcom Big Eden, and I’m looking forward to seeing the new British film Gods Own Country as it’s set in the north of England, not so far away from where I grew up.
What do you do when you are not working?
I sleep. We try to walk in the countryside every Sunday: it is the best time we spend together, as I’m in Oxford away from our London home during the week. Forster imagined male lovers escaping society and living in the Greenwood, and I think that is partly why I like walking so much: nature is not homophobic and you can feel natural holding hands without thinking twice.
What did you hear about Peru, my country?
At school I was very interested in the Incas, and I love the look of your high mountain countryside. I certainly know about Macchu Pichu and would love to visit it one day.