I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with both universities in Oxford. Back in 1977 I went up to Magdalen College as a very nervous young man who had no idea how the world worked—especially not the gay world. I had the time of my life! Thirty years later I was given an Honorary Doctorate by Brookes University in recognition of the work I’ve done as a gay writer and activist.
This is a very special city, whether you’re here for a day or for three years, even if you’re growing up here, it can still surprise you. My two queer highlights for a day trip would be the hidden-away staircase in Magdalen leading up to the room where Oscar Wilde lived as an undergraduate, which never fails to make me feel like I can hear his footsteps, and the Arundel marbles in the Ashmolean Museum, which have some of the most beautiful male torsos in the county (mind you, so do the rowers down on the river . . . )
And if you’re here as a student? Well, Oxford was where I joined my first gay organisation, the Gaysoc; where I went to my first gay disco; where I endured my first real crush on another man; where I started to discover all the wonderful gay writers and artists and pioneers who have inspired me; where I came out to my parents—and where I made the lesbian and gay and straight friends who helped me do that. Thirty years later, some of them are still part of my life. So . . . get out there!
Acclaimed director, performer, author, and translator Neil Bartlett OBE (b. 1958) studied at Magdalen from 1977-1980, graduating with a First in English. He has worked with some of the world’s most prestigious theatre companies, including the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as performing solo shows, street theatre, and other highly innovative pieces often on themes of gender and sexual variance. He was Artistic Director of Lyric Hammersmith from 1994-2004. Several of his shows have been performed in Oxford. Sarrasine, a gender-bending cross between performance art and chamber opera, was performed at the Pegasus in Oct 1990. Night After Night, a gay-themed musical comedy, was performed at Oxford Playhouse in Nov 1993.
His first book, Who Was That Man? (1988) was a groundbreaking study of gay life in 80s London viewed through the portal of Bartlett’s long-standing fascination with Oscar Wilde. In Feb 2009 Bartlett read from his most recent novel, Skin Lane (2007), as part of Oxford Brookes University’s Love & Justice Month. A committed activist since his Oxford days (when he campaigned for a paper on women’s theory to be included in the Eng. Lit. exam), Bartlett was involved with London’s first International AIDS Day in 1987, campaigned against Clause 28, and has created a series of short polemic television and video pieces on gay themes.
Image: Neil Bartlett, 1980 (photo courtesy of Neil Bartlett).