Marc West seeks out an alternative history of the city on the Out In Oxford trail

This year is the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales.

To celebrate this landmark moment in our society, Out In Oxford has launched a specially commissioned cross-collections trail offering for the very first time an alternative insight into not just queer heritage, but the diversity of human cultures and the natural world.

Born from a demand for more explicit, not implicit, representation within the University’s collections, it provides a platform for people who identify as LGBTQ+ to speak out and takes visitors on an alternative journey – delving deeper into the archives to discover the fascinating, important and often overlooked histories that exist in our city. With objects ranging from antiquity to present day, it provides fresh and personal perspectives on some of the iconic and also lesser-known items cared for by this historic institution.

Starting at the Ashmolean Museum, I’m enchanted by the seated figure of the Bodhisattva Guanyin’s bright presence in its dimly lit gallery. This 13th century Chinese wooden carving is distinctly androgynous and such an earthly manifestation of Buddha was said to be able to appear in 33 different physical forms – seven of these as a woman.

The Beaumont Street cultural treasure trove also houses a neoclassical bust by sculptor Anne Damer – praised by 18th century contemporaries for her simplicity and purity of work, but plagued by high society gossip regarding her open relationships with other women. Anne was deeply pained by the libels against her, but never chose to live safely out of the limelight and continued to assert her identity.

Over in Parks Road, trail-goers young and old are encouraged to once again consider the fluidity of gender – as materialised in the vibrant masks of Japan’s Noh Theatre housed at (my favourite) Pitt Rivers Museum.

Dating from the Middle Edo period, these sacred objects allow the actor to become one with the character, regardless of being male or female. This ancient art shares with modern theorists the view that gender is not the same as biological sex, but something that is performed through stylised actions.

Continuing my journey, I come face-to-face with John Clark’s statue of King James VI & I in the Bodleian Library’s Old School Quadrangle. The King of Scotland and England enjoyed a happy marriage producing five children, but from his teens the monarch also entertained a succession of male 'favourites'. Although the boundaries between political influence, male intimacy and sexual relations are difficult to untangle in this period, it is notable that concealed passages linking the King’s bedchamber with others were common.

Finally, I’m drawn down The High to the Botanic Garden, where I discover the 'transgender tree'. Planted in 1645, this ancient yew has twice displayed both sexes – producing not just male pollen, but bright red female berries too. Not uncommon in other conifers, this behaviour is yet another example of non-binary intersex in nature and just goes to prove that such things are not always black and white, but many shades of gay.

If you too are incurably curious, find your own way around Oxford’s gardens, libraries and museums – a positively perfect way to expand your mind. For all details visit