WORKING WITH PLACE
We term sexuality refers to the social identities that are built around different forms of sexual desire. Sexualities, in other words, are not just signifiers of different kinds of sexual practice but forms of complicated social and cultural relations. At first glance many people do not see a link between sexuality and place. But like any other form of social relation ~class, gender, race, etc. it is constituted, in part, geographically. It is fairly common-place for instance, to hear people suggest that gay sexuality is fine just so long as it does not occur in public places. To back up this argument it might be claimed that heterosexuality belongs ‘at home’ or ‘in the bedroom’ so homosexuality does too.
Much of the work on sexuality in geography has sought to show how such claims are absurd. Heterosexuality occurs everywhere (Duncan 1996). Straight people feel free to kiss in public or walk down the street hand in hand. Public spaces such as law courts and government offices formally institutionalise hetero-relations while making gay relationships illegal. Everywhere we look straight sexuality is accepted as normal and is thus invisible to straight people. Gay people, on the other hand, see heterosexuality everywhere and through this experience their own sexuality as radically ‘out-of-place’. All it takes is for a gay couple to kiss in a public place for hetero-outrage to come to the fore. The geographer Michael Brown has studied the spatiality of gay sexuality at length. His book Closet Space examines the ways in which gay sexuality is marginalised and made invisible at all scales Brown (2000). He describes a scene on a bus in which these tensions and expectations are made dramatically clear.
The Seattle Metro bus no. 7 stopped abruptly to pick up two very wet people just at the crest of Capital Hill on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. The sudden braking caught everyone’s attention, and broke the passionate soul
Kissing of a man and woman sitting just across from me. Since I was sitting towards the rear of the dingy bus, I had a long view of a slender, trendy woman making her way purposefully down the aisle. Behind her, I heard her companion before I could see him. We all could, because he was speaking so loudly. With a mixture of aplomb and hubris our new rider proclaimed, ‘That’s right, people, I’m swinging my hips as I walk on by. And if you don’t like it, you can kiss my beautiful queer ass!’ With regal camp he sashayed down the aisle, past my seat, never once breaking his stare forward. On the other side of the aisle, the young heterosexual couple ‘tsked’, huffed and ‘Oh, Gawwwwd’-ed this young gay man audibly enough to make their revulsion clear to those of us in the back of the bus. ‘Who said that?’ the gay man demanded loudly.
Everyone on the bus began to grow visibly uncomfortable. After all, this was Seattle. ‘I did,’ the woman stated loud and dear, but without turning to face him. Then she whispered something inaudible to her boyfriend and they both laughed. ‘Well if you don’t like it, girlfriend what the hell you doin’ up on Capitol Hill in the first place!’ (Brown 2000, 27)
As Brown observes there is a complicated set of interactions between the performance of sexuality and expectations about place in this event. To the heterosexual couple all space is straight space. Places such as the city and the bus sustained heteronormativity- the idea that heterosexuality is normal, natural and appropriate. They felt that they could kiss passionately in public. The gay man, to them, was acting out-of-place – disturbing the unspoken rules of sexuality. To the gay man, however, this was Capitol Hill, a gay area in Seattle. To him the straight couple were ‘out-of-place’ and should consider keeping their sexuality, and certainly their homophobia -‘in the closet’. The idea of the closet is a complicated one which acts at act scales ‘from the body to the globe’ The subtitle of Brown’s books. This metaphorical closet is a certain kind of place that is both a place of secrecy and a place of autonomy and safety. The closet is a place where a person can keep their sexuality entirely to themselves or it can, more literally, become a building or an area of the city where it is safe to be gay. It can also be a confining prison.
This issue of the closet and heteronormative space has become central to the geographical analysis of sexuality. Geographers have asked why some places seem to be safe places for certain sexualities to be performed while other places pressure gays, lesbians and bisexuals to keep their sexualities to themselves. The work of Gill Valentine has been central to this line of thinking. She has shown how lesbians have had to consistently conceal their sexuality in certain kinds of places – particularly home and work- in order to avoid discrimination and hatred. The women she has interviewed reveal incredibly complicated
daily lives of concealment in some places and being ‘out’ in others. Some of them had to travel miles to feel comfortable away from both family (parents and siblings) and workmates (Valentine 1993).
There are many different identities gay, lesbian and bisexual people can choose to perform, just as there are many identities straight people can perform (hell’s angel, ‘new man’, power-dresser, etc.). David Bed, John Binnie, Julia Cream and Gill Valentine explore two of these identities the ‘gay skinheads and the ‘lipstick lesbian’s in their paper ‘All hyped up and no place to go’.
Through the deployment of the ‘gay skinhead’ and ‘lipstick lesbian’ and the places they produce and occupy, we hope to illuminate the ‘unnaturalness’ of both heterosexual everyday space and masculine and feminine heterosexual identities associated with them. The exposure of the fabrication of both seamless heterosexual identities and the straight spaces they occupy should shatter the illusion of their just being, of simply naturally occurimg. Bell et al. 1994, 32 emphasis in original)
A ‘lipstick lesbian’ is a lesbian who dresses in a hyper-feminine way thus challenging the popular conception of lesbian women as masculine figures. The figure of the lipstick lesbian, to some people, mocks heterosexual expressions of femininity in a way that is more subtle than the hutch drag of other lesbians. Their appearance, it is claimed, ‘undermines a heterosexuals ability to determine whether feminine women in everyday spaces are lesbian or heterosexual’ (Bell et al. 1994, 42). This uncertainty, created by images of femininity in heterosexual places, means that straight people can no longer assume the accepted codes of everyday life and thus heterosexual places are undermined. In a twist to the tale, though, the authors acknowledge that this subversion depends on straight people being aware of the existence of lipstick lesbians in the first place. Since most straight people assume the normal and natural condition of heteronormativity it seems likely that most of them are unaware of the subversions going on around them. To wake them out of their slumber they are more likely to be provoked by the gay man on Brown’s bus in Seattle.
A transgressive act that was definitely noticed was the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the early 198Os. Women camped outside the US Air Force base from 1981 onwards to protest the cruise missiles that were being based there. In their view the cruise missiles, armed with nuclear warheads, were ‘out-of-pace’ in the United Kingdom. Soon local residents of nearby Newbury, Berkshire began to object to the peace camp. Government figures and the media, for a period of several years, used every metaphor they could think of to
describe the women as ‘out-of-pace’. These included obligatory references to dirt, disease, madness and, of-course, sexuality (Cresswell 1994).
The Sun (19 November 1983) claimed that the women ‘are not people – they’re all burly lesbians’. News reports frequently suggested that the fact that this was an all women’s camp automatically meant that the vast majority of the protesters were lesbians. The fact that they dressed in ‘masculine’ clothes and were frequently dirty only seemed to confirm this impression. The Daily Mail (13 January 1983) paints a picture of multiple transgression:
And there’s Eve breastfeeding by the fire, a vague, arguable, ever smiling lesbian mother from Islington who’s camping here with her two children, aged eight and six months by different fathers, one of them West Indian.(quoted in Cresswell 1994, 49)
Eve is clearly a figure ‘out-of-place’ here. She is breastfeeding in a public place, she is a lesbian and she has children oath multiple fathers including one (we must assume) who is black.
[H]alf the women I lived among at Greenham were lesbians, striding the camp with their hutch haircuts, boots and boilersuits. They flaunt their sexuality, boast about it, joke about it. And some take delight in proclaiming their loathing of men … I was shocked on my first day when two peace women suddenly went into passionate embrace in full view of everyone … And gradually I became annoyed at the way doting couples sat around the camp fire kissing and caressing . . . A lot of women ‘go gay’ after arriving at We camp. With no men around they have to turn to each other for comfort
(quoted in Cresswell 1994, 50)
Here, the Daily Express’s undercover investigator, Sarah Bond, acts in same way as the woman on the bus described by Brown. She sees women kissing in a place she considers inappropriate and is disgusted – she described it as flaunting. Do straight people ‘flaunt’ their sexuality when they kiss in a public place? Bond is arguing that this kind of activity should be put back in to the closet – should be replaced. To Bond, lesbian sexuality is ‘out-of-place’ at Greenham Common. The reference to the absence of men at the end of the extract implies that women only turn to each other in places without men. Behind this lies the missing place of ‘home’ where husbands would undoubtedly be available for ‘comfort’.
The understanding of sexualities-out-of-place should not be restricted to supposedly marginal sexualities. Ignoring heterosexuality only serves to reinforce the notion that heterosexuality IS normal and
thus invisible (Hubbard 2000). For the most part heterosexual activity and the wider sense of identity that surrounds it remains the norm by which other forms of sexuality are implicitly and explicitly judged. The idea of ‘home’ for instance – the ideal place – is quite clearly heteronormative. Recent research has shown how the idea of home and actual homes themselves are constructed as places for traditional families. Homeliness does not properly arrive until the children arrive (Valentine 1993). It is this heterosexual home that lies behind many of the descriptions of the Greenham Women as ‘out-of-pace’.
Some of the most interesting work on sexuality and place has been on heterosexual prostitution. Research has shown how prostitution is seen as ‘out-of-pace’ in some places while it is almost acceptable in others Hubbard 1998~. Philip Hubbard has outlined a number of arguments about the ‘place’ of prostitution in England. He notes that there is a generally recognised distinction between ‘high class’ prostitutes who work in ‘private’ spaces and ‘lower class’ prostitutes who work on the street and in public space. While the former is usually ignored due to the assumption that sexuality gets expressed in private spaces (an illusion shown to be false by queer theorists in particular) the latter has been the object of considerable moral panics in British cities such as Birmingham and Bradford where local residents’ groups have enacted pickets of prostitutes in order to kerb what they see as a public nuisance.
The law in Britain seeks to make prostitution in public places less visible but, as Hubbard argues, ‘dominant moral geographies appear to dictate this visibility is more acceptable in some spaces than others’ (Hubbard 1997, 133~. These spaces where prostitution is deemed to be ‘in-place’ are commonly known as red-light districts. These places are typically in economically marginal spaces of the city and can, in Hubbard’s terms be seen as ‘a part of a continuing (but contested process involving the exclusion of disorderly prostitution from orderly sexuality for “bad girls” from “good girls”, removing prostitutes from areas where they would stand out as unnatural or deviant, potentially “polluting” civilised society’ (Hubbard 1997, 135). Hubbard reveals how policing strategies often overlook prostitution in designated areas or ‘toleration zones’ in order that they might better exclude prostitutes from elsewhere. Thus places of abjection are created and tolerated on the margins of city centres.
In work on the geography of sexuality the word ‘place’ is often used interchangeably with the word ‘space’. It is important to bear in mind, therefore, the specific analytical qualities of place that make it important in these studies. the idea of being ‘out-of-place’ or ‘in place’ is admittedly a simple one, but one that nonetheless conveys a
sense of the way segments of the geographical world are meaningful and how those meanings both produce and are reproduced by people and their practices. A saying from Sri Lanka states; ‘The fish don’t talc about the water’. What this means is that we rarely explicitly become aware of and tank about that which we take for granted. To a fish the water is their taken-for-granted world. People have environments too – environments made up of meaningful places. What the geographers of sexuality have shown us is that these places more often than not contribute to the invisible and unstated normalisation and naturalisation of particular kinds of sexuality. Other kinds of sexuality – gay, lesbian, bisexual, commercial – threaten the links between space, meaning and practice that make up ‘place’ and suggest other ways of being- other possible meaning; – new kinds of place.
In a way this discussion of compulsory heterosexuality is very much like an argument that I heard recently that androgynous people are typically gendered male due to a the fact that in society, male implies a lack of social gender.
What I took from this point of view (and how they seemed to explain it in passing) was that male is the norm that all other genders are compared to and as such it is default to the point of invisibilisation – male being defined as not female or not not male whereas female can be defined by other means. Male is the gender to which all others are compared. It is not to say that biologically or socially males do not have gender, but rather to say that they are the yard stick against which ‘deviant/other gender’ is compared. You do not measure a ruler, you use it to measure ‘other things’.
In the same way that masculinity is assumed for all but specifically gendered roles eg. nurse (though there are male nurses) or seamstress – A police officer for instance is assumed to be male unless designated police woman – it is the female that it marked and the male assumed. So too heterosexuality is the assumed norm that society uses as a yardstick to measure ‘deviant sexualities’ – In fact ‘Male Sexuality’ is the norm, for female sexuality is also frowned upon – as shown by the cultural stereotypes about ‘loose women’ or ‘sluts’. Women are not (traditionally) meant to have sexuality beyond that ‘actively engaged’ unto them by men.
This overwhelming presence of the condition of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ is a self perpetuating paradigm, Because it is expected, it is seen, and something is expected, it will proliferate. The persistence in history of placing ‘those/other’ outside of the framework of ‘normal’ society has let to a paradigm where ghettoized communities are also considered normal (or as normal as the unsullied ‘central’ community).
This abjection of alternate identities creates a situation where objectification and exotification, both positive and negative can flourish unchallenged – this has been seen again and again in history, the most obvious examples being the treatment of ethnic minorities in times of upheaval (such as WW11), this process is very much still with us in the manner that society operates now, people such as ‘queer’ or transgendered people are often forced into small social circles which provide mutual protection, but from which they cannot challenge commonly (societal) held views about them.
The concept that sexuality other than hetero male sexuality ‘belongs placed’ hence is self perpetuating, if all other societal viewpoints than those considered ‘center’ are placed away from center where they do not have ‘write access to the archive’ then the ‘centered center’ will remain centered and unchallenged.