Image: Balliol, LGBT History Month 2012 (photograph Ross Brooks)
Balliol was the epicentre of an intellectual revolution in the 19th century, one that had a major impact on understandings of human eroticism. It is no overstatement to say that the spiritual origins of the British gay rights movement can be found within the intellectual, eroticised culture of Victorian Oxford. A detailed account of this fascinating period of LGBTQ history is given in Linda Dowling’s excellent book Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (1994). On this site, these important developments are outlined on Queer Oxford‘s Victorian trail Trail 1: On the Wilde Side.
Diplomat, author, and politician Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) went to Balliol. Among several posts, Nicolson served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Information in Churchill’s war-time government. He was knighted in 1953 as a reward for writing the official biography of George V. Nicolson and his wife, Vita Sackville-West, practiced an open marriage, each conducting a number of extra-marital same-sex romances. Their son, Nigel Nicolson, wrote candidly about his parents’ relationship in Portrait of a Marriage (1973).
Prolific author and composer Beverley Nichols (1898-1983) read Modern History at Balliol between 1917 and 1921. He was President of the Oxford Union for a time, an editor of Isis, and also a founder and editor of the Oxford Outlook. His is not a name that has retained its fame yet Nichols was one of the most popular personalities of his day. His good looks also made him one of the most photographed men of his generation.
Two significant gay-identified British film directors both began pursuing their interest in film-making at Balliol. After graduating in 1925 Anthony Asquith (1902-1968)—son of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith—became a founding member of the Oxford Film Society. His subsequent films include Pygmalion (1938) and screen adaptations of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Browning Version (1951).
John Schlesinger CBE (1926-2003) first became involved in acting and film-making whilst studying at Balliol. Subsequently, Schlesinger was integral in introducing homoerotic themes into cinema. His numerous credits include many queer classics such as Midnight Cowboy (1969), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), and The Next Best Thing (1999). Midnight Cowboy was internationally acclaimed and won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture.
The first British rabbi to come out publicly, Lionel Blue (1930-2016), read History at Balliol. Blue was an occasional guest speaker of the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group and a patron of Centred (formerly Kairos). He was widely known for his frequent appearances on the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot in Radio 4’s Today programme. Blue wrote of his life at Oxford in his autobiography Hitchhiking to Heaven (2004). On 19 January 2008 he appeared at the Oxford Playhouse with his one-man show An Evening With Rabbi Lionel Blue.
Labour Co-operative politician Stephen Twigg MP (b. 1966) is another Balliol graduate. He studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the College. Twigg became the youngest and first openly gay-identified President of the National Union of Students in 1990. He was subsequently elected to Parliament for Enfield Southgate in 1997, famously taking the seat from Michael Portillo. Twigg was made the Minister for School Standards in 2004, a job he held until he lost his seat in 2005. He was re-elected to Parliament for Liverpool West Derby in the 2010 general election.
© Ross Brooks, 2020