Adapted from his brilliant first-year essay, praised heavily by the Geography department, Brendon Koh discusses the value of thinking geographically about the queer community.
‘Queer’ is inherently a term that is contested and often reconstituted (Watson 2005). For the sake of providing a working definition for this discussion, I will interpret ‘queer’ as a catch-all term for sexual and gender minorities, including those who do not adopt a specific label (Gorman-Murray and McKinnon 2015). Consequently, thinking geographically about these individuals – or Queer Geography – encompasses an examination into how place and space contribute to the construction of gender and sexual identities, queer practices, and communities (Mayhew 2009).
To progress as a discipline, there is a need to acknowledge and examine the geographical imaginations of marginalised groups that have traditionally had their voices excluded or silenced
The value of thinking geographically about queer communities can be considered through the lens of academia, where it can add to progressive discourse within the discipline of Geography and provide a more comprehensive understanding of spatial ontologies (Knopp 2007). Historically, the discipline of Geography was shaped in the West by elite, white, male scholars and the foundation of modern Geography comprises their geographical imaginations (Domosh 1991: 97). To progress as a discipline, there is a need to acknowledge and examine the geographical imaginations of marginalised groups that have traditionally had their voices excluded or silenced (Driver 2001: 7).
Thinking geographically about queer communities hence disrupts the mainstream, heteronormative narrative in geography and introduces concepts of sexuality and gender identity to the geographical agenda (Hubbard 2007: 154). In studying the spaces around us, an analysis through a queer lens adds additional layers of meaning as we explore how queers interact with and shape the spaces they inhabit. For instance, the home is typically imagined as a refuge, but studies by Andrew Gorman-Murray find that the sanctity of the home may not hold true for queer individuals as they may be equally subjected to the scrutiny and regulations faced in public places (Gorman-Murray 2012).
Ironically, public places such as bars may instead become more homelike for queer individuals (Gorman-Murray 2006). Such research serves to “uncloset spaces that are otherwise heteronormatively represented” (Brown and Knopp 2008) and pluralise the imaginations associated with them, deepening our understanding of how space is interpreted by different groups. Beyond the analysis of spaces, a queer approach helps to unpack and demystify other geographical phenomena such as labour flows, globalisation and public health (Oswin 2016). A study by Larry Knopp into “queer quests for identity” (Knopp 2004) expounds on the journey that gay men and lesbians embark on, moving from homophobic areas to more accepting places in order to safely develop and express their identities. Knowledge of these queer mobilities can then feed into our understanding of the causes behind wider labour flows and migration patterns. Therefore, thinking geographically about the queer community adds value to the discipline of geography by introducing alternative voices into academic discourse and deepening our knowledge of various geographical phenomena.
However, the value produced is often distributed unevenly among members of the queer community. Even as the narrative of the once-silenced queer community bubbles to the surface of the discipline, the geographical imaginations of minorities within the community are often excluded (Haritaworn 2007). Gavin Brown critiques the over-emphasis on homonormativity in existing literature and calls for closer attention to other queer identities such as transgendered and non-binary individuals (Brown 2007: 218).
The current value to academia is situated within homonormative grounds as the geographies of other queer identities remain relatively unexplored and their relations to space have yet to be unraveled. Existing discourse in queer geography or geography of sexualities also reinforces a Eurocentric worldview based upon the experience of white, middle-class members of the community (Hubbard 2018).
To exemplify, Western scholars attempting to study the lives of queer Muslims in Western countries have portrayed Islam as a symbol of oppression and an opposing force that holds them back from sexual expression in a liberal country, neglecting the ability of queer Muslims to actively reclaim their religion (Rouhani 2007). By pushing forth a Western ideal of queerness, the experience of non-Western queers are brushed past or misconstrued. Thus, the value in pluralising geographical imaginations may only hold true for the most privileged members. More needs to be done to fully realise the voices of non-homosexuals and people of colour.
Besides its value to academia, thinking geographically about the queer community brings value to the queer community itself by ensuring its survival. From the inception of Geography, geographical knowledge has been shaped by the information humans need for survival (Bonnett 2008); People think geographically out of necessity. Thinking geographically about the queer community entails an understanding of the spaces they inhabit and in particular, the carving of queer spaces in juxtaposition to heteronormative spaces which remains essential for survival.
To the queer community, heteronormative spaces are perceived to suppress and silence queer desires and actions (Valentine 2000) whereas queer spaces are constituted as protective spaces from violence and discrimination (Nash 2011). So far as society continues to operate under a heteronormative paradigm in which queers face prejudice.
“Queer spaces will remain something queers cannot not want”(Oswin, 2016, pp.100).
A geographical understanding of what and where queer safe spaces are can shape day-to-day movement or even larger scale migration as queers seek spaces where they are free from violence and free to express their identity or fluidity, ensuring both their physical survival as well as survival of their queerness. This resonates with our earlier discussion on “queer quests for identity” (Knopp 2004) as queer individuals move to accepting places for survival. Looking beyond the survival of individual queers, a geographical approach can contribute to the survival of the queer community’s culture. Mapping and making visible queer spaces enable the consolidation of a “collective identity, community, history, and belonging” (Brown and Knopp 2008: 55). Projects such as The Gay and Lesbian Atlas have discovered concentrations of same-sex households in rural US counties (Gates and Ost 2003), telling an inspiring story that queerness can survive even in harsh peripheries and that queerness is everywhere (Brown and Knopp 2008: 42).
More recent efforts such as Queering the Map¸ an online collaborative mapping tool, provides a platform for the sharing of diverse queer experiences in relation to space and crafts a visible queer narrative (Raffa 2020). Geographical analyses of queerness can thus solidify the queer identity and culture by recording or delivering narratives about queer experience. Hence, thinking geographically protects the survival of individual queers and facilitates the growth of a unifying queer culture.
Thinking geographically about the queer community does not always result in surplus value. It is potentially problematic as the visibility of queer spaces can instead threaten the queer community. By mapping and making sense of queer spaces, be it informally or via academic research, these spaces become more visible. In turn, this visibility has resulted in increasing consumption of queer spaces by non-queer individuals and disrupts the homogeneity in them (Rushbrook 2002). In Amsterdam, the number of exclusively lesbian clubs has declined as straight clubbers, intrigued by the exotic queer experience, visit these spaces and introduce heterosexual norms as well as the male gaze into the space, leading to feelings of displacement among lesbians (Ekenhorst and van Aalst 2019).
Rising visibility of queer spaces has also been linked to increased incitement to violence (Skeggs 1999) as they become easy targets for discriminatory attacks. A case study of Jerusalem contends that it is precisely the visibility of the Jerusalem Open House as a queer space that has made it unsafe (Hartal 2018). Thus, when queer spaces enter the geographical imaginations of the non-queer public, they run the risk of ‘de-queering’ the space and we may observe an eventual erosion of safe spaces for the queer community.
Thinking geographically about queer communities has had positive implications on the discipline of Geography, by broadening our understanding of geographical phenomena, and the queer community, by supporting the survival of individual queers and shared queer culture. Though, it would be remiss to ignore the contested and problematic aspects, namely the unequal academic treatment of minorities within the queer community and the erosion of queer spaces. Nonetheless, I believe that thinking geographically about the queer community has important implications and discourse in this area should be further developed.
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