Jesus College is intimately associated with TE Lawrence (1888-1935), also known as Lawrence of Arabia.
TE Lawrence studied at Oxford High School and gained a scholarship to Jesus College in 1907. He took virtually no part in college life and attended few lectures, although he graduated with first class honours in 1910. At Oxford Lawrence was contemptuous of authority and displayed a taste for adventure—attributes that would mark his career as a spy, soldier, and explorer.
The complexities of Lawrence’s eroticism have been a matter of intense speculation and, like so many others featured in Queer Oxford, defies modern categories. They say as much about the age in which he lived as they do about Lawrence. He stated he was not attracted to women and generally seems to have shied away from sexual activity. However, his passionate relationship with Selim Ahmed (‘Dahoum’), a handsome young Arab whom Lawrence met in Syria in 1911, has subsequently made Lawrence a gay icon. Lawrence was distraught at the death of his companion from typhus in 1916.
Lawrence returned to Oxford in 1919 when he was offered a fellowship at All Souls College. It was here that the first version of Lawrence’s great work The Seven Pillars of Wisdom appeared. Eight copies were privately printed by The Oxford Times to show to friends for their opinions. The work opens with a poem dedicated to Ahmad explicitly links his love for the youth to his involvement with the Arab Revolt against the Turks in 1918: ‘I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands / and wrote my will across the sky in stars / To earn you Freedom . . .’.
Seven Pillars also includes an account of how Lawrence had been raped after capture by Turkish authorities in Deraa in 1917. He admitted to at least partially enjoying the experience (‘a delicious warmth, probably sexual’). It is known that Lawrence later paid a Scotsman to beat him violently, an episode that Lawrence’s biographers have connected to his treatment in Deraa.
David Lean’s 1962 biopic Lawrence of Arabia hints at Lawrence’s homoeroticism but it was the BBC radioplay Castle of the Star (1992) which most explicitly represented the love between Lawrence and Ahmed.
Lawrence’s childhood home at 2 Polstead Rd in North Oxford is marked with a blue plaque.
Exploring Lawrence’s life and loves is extremely rewarding. The website of the TE Lawrence Society offers further suggestions about how to go about doing this in Oxford. It highlights Lawrence’s less well known associations with Magdalen and St John’s as well as treasures associated with Lawrence at the Ashmolean, the Bodleian, and the Museum of the History of Science.
The TEL Society library is housed at the Centre for Oxfordshire Studies.
Jesus’s other LGBTQ alumni include:
Poet William Dickey (1928-1994) studied at Jesus as a Fulbright scholar from 1959-1960. In 1959 his first collection of poetry, Of the Festivity, was selected by WH Auden as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition. In a long and celebrated career Dickey subsequently authored 15 books of poetry. From 1962-1991 he was a professor of English and creative writing at San Francisco State University, living in the city with his partner Leonard Sanazaro.
Australian politician Dr Neal Blewett, AC (b. 1933) studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics as a Rhodes scholar at Jesus from 1957-1959. Blewett was an Australian Labor Party member of the House of Representatives from 1977-1994. As Minister for Health in Bob Hawke’s government, Blewett was responsible for the Australian national strategy to combat HIV/AIDS, now considered his greatest legacy. He was made an Honorary Fellow of Jesus in 1998. Blewett came out publicly in 2000. He now lives with his long-term partner Robert Brian in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales.
Image: Jesus flies the rainbow flag for LGBT History Month 2013 (photo Ross Brooks).