Alan Bray

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Alan Julian Michael Bray, historian and civil servant: born Hunslet, Yorkshire 13 October 1948; died London 25 November 2001.

Alan Bray was a groundbreaking historian, whose classic book Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1982) created a new field for an entire generation of literary critics, historians and gay activists. A second book, entitled The Friend, completed just before his death, seems likely to do the same 20 years on.

Homosexuality in Renaissance England, published by the independent Gay Men's Press in 1982, was a slim, elegantly written volume, whose modest form belied its impact: republished by Columbia University Press in 1995, it remains in print today. Challenging the prevailing wisdom that homosexuality was a timeless, universal condition, Bray demonstrated compellingly how the Renaissance notion of sodomy was not tied to an individual, but instead was part of the gamut of debauchery to which all men were prone. It was only in the late 17th century, with the development of the urban "molly house" subculture, that a recognisably modern gay identity might be seen in its infancy.

Drawing on literary sources, court archives and legal records, Bray's work was inflected by the novel approaches of the French philosopher Michel Foucault and recent advances in British social sciences, and stood alone in its theoretical sophistication and meticulous scholarship. The book was enthusiastically taken up by the burgeoning gay studies field, in which it remains a founding text.

Bray was embraced by the academy, becoming part of the editorial collective of History Workshop Journal from 1994 to 1997, and a prized lecturer in the UK, Europe and North America. In recognition of his contribution to scholarship, Birkbeck, University of London, appointed him as an Honorary Research Fellow in 1997.

Alan Bray was born in Hunslet, on the outskirts of Leeds, in 1948. His childhood saw financial hardship and the early death of his mother, both factors that influenced his later life and political convictions. Educated at Central High School, Leeds, where he met his lifelong friend Graham Wilson, Bray studied History and English at University College North Wales at Bangor, paving the way for his later interdisciplinary work.

His primary career was in the Inland Revenue, where he worked under Derek (now Lord) Rayner, Margaret Thatcher's personal adviser on improving efficiency in the Civil Service. A sabbatical year at Nuffield College, Oxford, led to a study entitled The Clandestine Reformer: a study of the Rayner scrutinies (1988). Bray later specialised in the taxation of insurance business, and in his final years as a civil servant was responsible for the taxation of Lloyd's of London, seeing through the fiscal implications of its reconstruction in the mid-1990s. After an illness in 1996, he took early retirement, and devoted the remainder of his life to his academic and political interests.

Notoriously fastidious in dress, manner and scholarly diligence – many a cautious Bray footnote was a essay in its own right – Alan Bray was at heart a passionate man driven by two great personal causes. The first was the Gay Liberation movement, in which he contributed to the Gay History Group and the Gay News Defence Committee, set up in 1977 to fight Mary Whitehouse's libel case against Gay News. The second, to the surprise of many, was his religious faith. An ardent Anglo-Catholic during his undergraduate years, Bray was first moved to train for the Anglican priesthood, a plan dropped after a year. In 1985 he converted to the Roman Catholic Church, and became the principal point of contact between Cardinal Basil Hume and Quest, the support group for homosexual Catholics in England.

His final work, The Friend, delivered to the University of Chicago Press in the last weeks of his life, combines these two passions. Stemming from a seminal History Workshop Journal essay on "Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England", The Friend explores intense friendships between men in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with the explicit agenda of recovering the Catholic Church's previous endorsement of such friendships as quasi-marriages.

Bray relished the controversy he knew his book would spark: speaking at a conference at Newman House in Dublin last July, he took advantage of the venue to cause an uproar in the Irish press with his revelation of the joint burial of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman and his friend Rev Ambrose St John.

Alan Bray was a generous and committed scholar and, above all (and a rarity today), a man committed to the idea of collaborative intellectual endeavour, who saw himself as part of a communal effort to understand the past so that we might live better lives in the present.

Alan Stewart