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Going for woke

The AHRC grant that triggered right-wing commentators

Not all impact is welcome, as João Florêncio can attest. His project, titled The Europe that Gay Porn Built, 1945-2000 and funded by a standard research grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, was top of a list of projects plucked from the UK Research and Innovation awards database by journalist Charlotte Gill.

Gill was not celebrating the grant success of an up-and-coming scholar. Instead, the AHRC grant, awarded last year, was presented as part of a series on “woke waste”—awards by public funders that are allegedly illegitimate because of their subject matter.

Florêncio had to give up leading the project when he moved from the University of Exeter to a new role as professor of gender studies at Linköping University in Sweden. Here, he discusses this, the bid and the minor media furore it generated.

What is your project about?

The project is looking at the circulation of gay magazines, focusing on speciality, erotic and pornographic magazines across borders during the second half of the 20th century. 

It investigates two ideas: one is European integration after the Second World War, when the EU was formed. There was a well-documented piggybacking of gay rights movements in Europe in this time. The second is that most men were not involved in activism for homosexuality but they were buying sexy magazines. Combined, the magazines had a 500 per cent higher print rate than the number of gay activists. The project is looking at what information existed in Europe about gay politics in different countries, and how and where these magazines were circulating.

Why did you need such a sizeable grant?

Pornography is considered a trashy historical source and has only recently started being archived. So, often, when you want a full run of a magazine, you must travel to different countries. You also need to travel to access lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender archives in national libraries.

We may have to travel to conduct interviews, asking older interviewees how they imagined LGBT regimes in other countries. We will also have two postdocs on the scheme’s payroll to provide us with Polish and German linguistic skills. It’s a project requiring a lot of time and travel.

Did you consider any other schemes?

I first applied to the European Research Council, but although it got two positive peer reviews, one had a strong dislike for the project. I subsequently changed focus to the AHRC and made the project slightly less ambitious, with a smaller team, as the funding is less.

I spent a year transitioning the bid to one suitable for the AHRC. There was a clearer need to articulate the project’s impact in the AHRC bid, as well as the impact for our project partners.

In the core team, we included two artistic research fellows to meet the growing interest in creative research in social sciences. These fellows, one based in Berlin and the other in the US, were in the project from the beginning as researchers using artistic methodologies.

It helped the bid to show that members of communities were embedded in the project from the start, and that there would be different outputs every year: articles coming out on working with artists as researchers, as well as the three books required for the project. It was also vital to stress outputs looking at the national level, with a final, overarching insight looking at all the national aspects from a transnational perspective.

How did you feel about letting go of the project when you took up your new job?

It felt like being forced to give my child up for adoption—although, luckily, John Mercer, who took over as principal investigator, is someone I would consider a mentor. He assured me that it’s still, in a sense, my project, which calmed my anxiety on losing control. I also know the project is in good hands with the researchers at Exeter. In practice, I became international co-investigator and there was no change in the amount funded. There was just a slight delay in the project getting started.

What are your thoughts on the subsequent ‘woke’ furore?

Several media outlets, including GB News, the European Conservative and a right-wing podcast, picked up the project as an example of universities engaging in ‘woke’ research— whatever that means. The podcast even said I now had £800,000—the total funding—to spend on watching gay porn videos.

So a four-year research project, working from a critical perspective, is being weaponised as a ‘waste of money’. In some areas, my project is very critical of European gay histories; for example, about the historical fetishisation of non-European and North American men. Is that woke? I don’t know if it is.

There’s a wider issue around a public knowledge gap about how money for research is used, so looking at the amount alone can be used for scandal headlines for those seeking to raise their profile. I’ll mention no names. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com