Contributions of volunteered geographic information (VGI) to community disaster resilience: The good, the bad, and the uncertain. (#GISRUK2018 conference poster)

Below is a poster I prepared on some work following my PhD research into volunteered geographic information and disaster risk reduction. The work is co-authored by Eleanor Bruce and Josh Whittaker. It was displayed at the 26th GIScience Research UK Conference, University of Leicester, April 2018.
Download the PDF version here: Haworth et al_GISRUK2018_poster

Haworth et al_GISRUK2018_poster

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Views on challenges for disaster management research, policy and practice: a call for new perspectives

Dr Billy Tusker Haworth, Lecturer and Programme Director MSc International Disaster Management, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester.
E: billy.haworth@manchester.ac.uk, Twitter: @BillyTusker
This post originally appeared on the HCRI blog.

Disaster management, in theory and in practice, is complex to say the least. While there are many things that are done well and are well-understood, many challenges remain for researchers, policy makers, and emergency practitioners. Even as a Lecturer in Disaster Management and Programme Director for a Masters programme specifically focused on International Disaster Management, I do not purport to be an expert on most aspects of the field. Drawing from my own research and wider reading, teaching, observations made at academic and industry conferences, and experiences with emergency organisations, my aim for this post is to reflect on four aspects of disaster management that I think are problematic, challenging for the field, or in need of improvement for more effective disaster management. These words are merely one academic’s musings on where further research and/or policy attention may be warranted, and I welcome any comments or discussions from others.

  1. Can we bounce past resilience yet?
    The concept of resilience has come into vogue in disaster research and practice over the past decade and now dominates policy agendas throughout the world (e.g. Sendai framework). Resilience has great merit in application to disaster management in theory.  It is not difficult to see how either of the most popular conceptualisations of resilience can be useful in aiding understanding of disasters; resilience as the ability of a system (or community, or individual) to either absorb stress and resist significant disruption (social-ecological perspective), or to ‘bounce back’ to normal functioning following a shock (engineering perspective). However, the application of these concepts to disaster management, both in policy interpretations and in practical measures to ‘build’ resilience, remains a challenge.There are numerous extant critiques of resilience in the disaster literature, many of which I agree with. These include, among others, a lack of consensus over what resilience actually is, that resilience definitions routinely combine elements of both ecological and engineering resilience (such as the definition adopted by UNISDR) but these are actually somewhat contradictory ideas, that measuring resilience is too difficult, and the question of whether it is appropriate for people to ‘bounce back’ to their pre-disaster conditions, which for many may be a highly vulnerable and undesirable state. The counter to this last critique has been proposals of revised interpretations of resilience as ‘building back better’ or ‘bouncing forward’.

    For me the central problem with resilience lies in a series of disconnects. I perceive a disconnect between what resilience refers to in academic conceptualisations and how these are interpreted and applied in disaster policies, and I see a further disconnect between resilience in policy and what it looks like, or how it is implemented and/or achieved in practice. I have heard numerous emergency practitioners in Australia and the UK say in public forums that they do not know what resilience is, or that the field is struggling to comprehend resilience approaches, yet these are the people responsible for implementing (and often devising) policies centred around resilience. I myself often find it difficult to see concrete connections between the theoretical understandings of resilience in academic literature and ‘resilience building activities’ in practice, which often appear to be increasingly about shifting the responsibility of emergency agencies over to the public. It is often unclear in resilience policies how one should go about actually implementing ‘resilience building’ at all. This, I argue, causes confusion, and without clear means for achieving the goals of resilience policies, they remain ineffective and draw attention away from developing more meaningful approaches.

    Whether resilience is just a buzzword, or whether or not policy interpretations and implementations align with academic theory may or may not be important, if whatever the strategies are in practice achieve their aims of decreasing disaster impacts for communities. But in terms of the amount of attention given to the concept in research and in practice versus the measurable benefits for reducing disaster impacts, perhaps it is time we moved the debate on and bounced right on past resilience (in theory, at least).

  1. Can we more meaningfully include the public in disaster risk reduction?
    Coupled with the growing resilience agenda has been a push to increase community engagement in disaster risk reduction, with research demonstrating that information dissemination alone is insufficient for meaningful risk reduction and disaster preparedness action. Approaches centred on community engagement are becoming increasingly present in emergency organisations, likely with varying success (the Tasmania Fire Service’s Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods programme appears to me to be one of the better ones).

mapping Bushfire Ready Neighbourhoods community engagement activities: participatory mapping (image credit: Billy Haworth).

In Australia and elsewhere, the push for increased community engagement presents in concert with broader policy agendas of shared responsibility. As a policy shared responsibility emphasises that the burden of emergency management and risk reduction should be shouldered by all parties involved, including national, state, and local government, as well as other stakeholders, businesses, communities, households and individuals, while recognising that the weight of responsibility and expected tasks looks different for these different groups. Similar to my thoughts on resilience, I argue there are differences between shared responsibility and community engagement in theory and policy and how they appear in practice. Scholars have critiqued shared responsibility as being more akin to the public ‘doing what agencies want them to’ (like creating their own emergency plans in order to better-help themselves), rather than sharing of much at all, and state that in order to share responsibility for disaster resilience, control over risk management decisions, actions and processes also needs to be shared. In disaster management at present, this largely doesn’t occur.

When citizens are engaged in disaster management and have been involved by their own volition, they are often seen as problematic or disruptive by authorities, as has been the case with some instances of spontaneous volunteering or the public’s use of social media during crises. While a policy shift has occurred from response to disaster risk reduction and resilience building (community engagement) over the last decade or so, I believe considerable cultural change in emergency organisations is still required to more meaningfully value and incorporate citizens and their knowledge into disaster risk reduction.

The field of citizen science offers important lessons learnt of relevance to disaster management. Citizen science refers to the practice of engaging members of the public in scientific research. Thanks to citizens observing, collecting, sharing and analysing data, a vast range of high-quality scientific research has been completed, much of which would not have been possible otherwise. If disaster management valued community knowledge like citizen science does, protocols and systems could be established to promote and encourage the most useful citizen practices and allow for improved harnessing of citizen action and community-supplied information.

  1. Can we better-incorporate and appreciate gender and sexual diversity in disaster management (policies, organisations, and research)?
    Here, there are three areas I believe need further attention: 1) considerations of gender and sexual minorities in responding to and managing disasters, 2) diversity of personnel in emergency organisations, and 3) diversity in research and teaching.Sexual and gender minorities are commonly recognised as a vulnerable group in disaster policies. Yet, research into LGBTIQ experiences in disasters highlights significant policy and practice failings (such as the lack of planning and provision for the safety of transgender people when using bathrooms in evacuation or refuge centres). These failings are often due to hetero-normative assumptions around things like what a ‘family’ looks like (e.g. a family with two mums may not be recognised in the same way as a family with male and female parents in policies in some jurisdictions). Heterogeneity within groups such as ‘gender and sexual minorities’, and that disaster risk is also experienced unequally within vulnerable populations, also needs further recognition in disaster policy (and in research!). Lesbians, bisexual women and queers of colour, for instance, were more vulnerable during Hurricane Katrina than white middle-class gay men due to lower incomes and the neighbourhoods where they lived being subject to increased flooding. Lastly here, and quite simply, failure to recognise people as anything other than male or female in disaster policy terminology highlights the shortfall between operational disaster management and the actual needs and makeup of contemporary societies.

blue diamond.jpg The LGBT+ rights group Blue Diamond Society in Nepal established a camp for LGBT+ people following earthquakes in 2015, as neither the UN nor the government delivered non-binary aid, despite Nepal legally recognising transgender people (image credit: Blue Diamond Society).

Emergency organisations have made concerted efforts in recent years to increase diversity in their ranks, particularly related to gender. But these efforts have largely been flawed (or at least limited) from the beginning in that they frequently consider gender diversity as an issue concerned only with increasing the proportions of women in organisations. While this is certainly needed, there is no question (in many societies at least, and especially in the West), that there are people who do not align with or identify as either of these binary terms. So, why is the discussion around gender diversity so often limited to male or female? I have witnessed a number of disaster management conference sessions and panels on “Diversity” that have not only focused almost solely on gender in the absence of other diversity challenges, such as increasing representation of sexual minorities, racial and ethnic groups, indigenous peoples, religious affiliations, or people living with disabilities, but have based diversity discussions on quotas for number of women in organisations. Such a narrow framing of diversity has a range of negative implications.

For issues of trust, risk communication, and the heeding of warnings, it is important that the people serving a community ‘look like’ the community, and thus in increasingly diverse societies, there needs to be greater representation of diversity in all forms in emergency organisations. In Australia at least, it is no secret that disaster management in practice is dominated by older straight white males, which may be difficult for many in communities to relate to. A lack of diversity also impacts the amount of and types of people who volunteer in disaster organisations. Volunteers are vital to many organisations, but again, if organisations don’t represent them, community members may not be inclined to join. Significantly, if the people designing and implementing disaster policies do not represent or at least appreciate the diversity of populations they are working for, disaster management in policy and practice will remain limited in its ability to adequately deliver its aims of decreasing disaster impacts for communities (as per my first point in this section).

In academia, I believe we can do better here too. Emergency organisations are not unique in their often narrow binary framings of gender. In terms of further work, we need more research into experiences of gender and sexual minorities in disaster management in general, and into more nuanced and specific questions in a variety of contexts, such as exploration of differences between groups under the LGBTIQ umbrella, and further, between individuals within each of those sub-categories. In teaching on disaster management we could look to include perspectives from a more diverse range of scholars from various backgrounds. While I haven’t surveyed the suggested readings for my courses, my feeling is the author list is likely dominated by cisgender males, probably Caucasian and heterosexual too.

  1. Can we encourage more comprehensive and better-informed media reporting of disasters beyond crisis response?
    Mainstream media reporting on disaster management largely focuses on immediate response to emergencies. I appreciate this may make for a more exciting news story, but this presents a limited view of disaster management, which is complex and involves so much more than emergency response. Promotion of activities like disaster preparedness in news stories may be helpful for achieving some of the policy objectives mentioned above, such as disaster risk reduction and community resilience. Further, disaster impacts do not stop when the journalists move on, and the effects of disasters extend into the future, often for years. Yet, disaster recovery stories are rarely told (there are exceptions of course, e.g. Al Jazeera produced a number of follow-up stories in the years after the Haiti earthquake in 2010).Media tend to over-report the experiences of ‘home citizens’ in disaster areas, for example the stories of British citizens impacted by Hurricane Irma in the United States, or Australian and British tourists in areas impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. My colleague, Gemma Sou, has written on these and related topics, and calls for greater recognition of the impacts to local people in disaster regions. Further to this, I argue that increased emphasis on home citizens in the media discourages people at ‘home’ from relating risk to themselves (by ‘home’, I mean the country the media outlet is largely reporting to, e.g. BBC to Britain). Reporting on tourists in disasters contributes to a mentality that disasters happen ‘over there’ and people who go ‘over there’ are at risk, but they are safe at home, which is not an accurate narrative.

    Finally, western media could present a more global picture of disasters (particularly those claiming to deliver ‘world news’). During Hurricane Irma in the US, for instance, there were several ongoing disasters with impacts on populations comparable to Irma that received substantially less coverage (e.g. cholera outbreak in Yemen, floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, a mudslide in Sierra Leone). Alluding to my points in section 3, media could also present stories on and from more diverse perspectives in delivering more global pictures of disasters (Research has shown LGBTIQ narratives are rarely told in mainstream disaster reporting, for instance, and news media influences both public understandings and disaster policies). Of course, I recognise the commercial impetus that influences what and how journalists and media outlets report on disasters, and the reality of providing content that will satisfy readers (paying customers). I would question, however, the role of national, largely government (or tax payer) funded news broadcasters. Are national broadcasters like the BBC or ABC (Australia) presenting the kind of balanced coverage of disasters we (I, at least) might hope for from a non-commercial service?

These are just some of the current research, policy, and practice challenges I perceive for disaster management, and of course there are many more. While we continue to conduct our work and engage in this field, whether it be through policy and practice, academic research, or studies at HCRI and elsewhere, I encourage us to be aware: aware of our relative positions and perspectives, and to increasingly consider the perspectives of others. I started this post by saying that disaster management is complex, and I will finish in recognition of that by calling for greater integration between individuals and sectors involved in disaster management, including academia, government and disaster organisations, the private sector, and, significantly, citizens from all walks of life, because complex problems are rarely solved with simple solutions.

Australian Marriage Equality: Why I cried today, and then cried some more.

The Australian parliament passed marriage equality into law today. As I walked to work on a cold, grey morning in Manchester, UK, I cried. I’ve shed the odd tear in public many times before imagining this day. But today I cried, and I cried, and then I cried some more. I sobbed in my office until I was physically exhausted.

I cried because I and everybody else in my country who has lived a life of being ‘different’, ‘less’ or ‘not worthy’ due to no choice of our own, purely for who we might love, are now, by law, the same, equal, and as worthy as anybody else to marry who we choose.

I cried because the years I have struggled and campaigned for this, the years my friends have struggled and campaigned for this, and the many years before us that many others have fought for this equality, many without seeing the reward, have not been for nothing.

I cried because of the efforts of so many around the country to make this happen. I cried for the little boy in Sydney who wanted to use a sky-writer to tell people to vote yes, and I cried for the teenager in Bega who distributed rainbow socks to anybody he could get to wear them in support – both far too young to actually vote themselves.

I cried for the children and teens now and in the future, queer or otherwise, who won’t grow up in the Australian society I did.

I cried because all those people who called me names, spat at me, threatened me, excluded me, and even probably hated me, just because of my perceived sexuality, cannot put me down anymore; I am now part of the majority.

I cried because the woman who lived next door to me and who, when as a teenager my soccer ball hit the fence, screeched at me “poofter” and “faggot”, her words cutting me like knives as I ran and hid in my bedroom, may one day watch over that same fence as I marry a man in the back garden. I may be a poofter or I may not be; whatever I am, I am proud of it, and I will not hide anymore.

I cried because I am happy. I cried because I am proud.

I cried because I am relieved, and so, so exhausted.

I cried because some people still said no.

I cried because everything still hurts.

I cried because many of the people who I love and care about so much will never fully understand how this feels, nor can they fully understand how I have felt all these years. Today we can celebrate together, but it doesn’t erase how lonely I have been, not yet at least.

I cried because I. Am. Okay.

I cried because things will be better.

I cried because, at least for a moment in this crazy and often hurtful world, love wins.

Contributions of digital volunteering to community disaster resilience (BNHCRC Showcase, and AFAC/BNHCRC 2017 conference poster)

Below is a poster I prepared on some aspects of my PhD research into volunteered geographic information and disaster risk reduction. The research in the poster is co-authored by Eleanor Bruce and Josh Whittaker. It was displayed as part of the Bushfire & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC) Research Showcase event in Adelaide, July 2017, and will also be presented at the AFAC/BNHCRC 2017 annual Fire & Emergency Management conference in Sydney, September 2017.
Download the full high-res version here (7MB): 79._billy_haworth

HAWORTH_bnhcrc-poster-2017

Research summary: DIGITAL VOLUNTEERING IN DISASTER RISK REDUCTION: AN OPPORTUNITY OR A CHALLENGE?

Recently I undertook the useful but challenging task of summarizing my ~70,000 word PhD thesis into a few hundred words for the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC Hazard Notes publication (Download pdf).

It was a useful task because science communication and research dissemination are important to me, particularly to areas outside the world of academic journals, and a 2-page research summary can be more effective for reaching emergency management practices, policy makers, or even the general public. It can also be easily shared and re-shared on social media to even wider audiences.

It was also a challenging task though, as my PhD research is still relatively fresh, it was difficult to choose just a few *key* findings to share. “But it’s all such excellent work! Why wouldn’t everybody want to read every word!?” Hardly :p 😉
That’s not entirely true. I did (and do) have a pretty clear idea of what my key major findings are, and so I should having only recently completed the work and distilled it into presentations and journal articles. Nevertheless, it was a challenge to summarize large volumes of diverse content into very, very tight word limits. Its a challenge I highly recommend others take up, not only to increase the accessibility of your work, but it also helped me further clarify for myself what exactly are the important messages from my broader research, and, importantly, why. For me, these vary depending on context and audience, and they may for others too.

Hazard Note 28 covers my PhD research findings into the role of volunteered geographic information in fostering community engagement in disaster risk reduction. In recent years, information from community members contributed online has proved highly useful in emergencies. Information sharing activities by private citizens using social media, smartphones, and web mapping tools have been termed volunteered geographic information (VGI), or digital volunteering. This research examined the potential role of VGI in fostering community engagement in bushfire preparation.

There are many opportunities, challenges and implications of VGI in emergency management, much broader than just bushfire. Findings show that VGI is more than just technology – it is about people sharing their knowledge and mapping collaboratively as a social practice. It presents opportunities for citizen empowerment in line with shared responsibility, but also challenges with power moving away from the traditional command and control of emergency services.

This research provides a clearer path for emergency service agencies to best-utilise these technologies for and with communities, helping to increase volunteering sustainability, community engagement and disaster resilience.

Gratitude: my thesis acknowledgements

There are people I sincerely wanted to thank for their support in various capacities during my PhD. I included some (not all, unfortunately) in the Acknowledgements section of my thesis, but I’m aware only a very tiny number of people in the world will actually read that (basically me plus or minus 1). So, here I paste my acknowledgements, as they appeared in the thesis.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Version one:

First I wish to acknowledge and pay respect to Aboriginal people past and present as the traditional owners of the land on which I conducted this research, namely the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, whose ancestral lands the University of Sydney is built upon. I also wish to acknowledge the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community as the traditional and original owners, and continuing custodians of the land on which I conducted my fieldwork. As Aboriginal people continue their struggle for equality and justice in a land that was taken from them, I acknowledge many of the central themes of this thesis, including the value of local knowledge, community, sense of place, land management, and geography have been important for and practised by Aboriginal people on this land for some 60,000 years before I began thinking and writing about them.

I wish to sincerely thank Dr Eleanor Bruce as my PhD supervisor, mentor and friend. More than assisting with the practical, technical and theoretical aspects of my research, which has been instrumental, she encourages me, challenges me, treats me with respect and as an equal, provides opportunities, promotes me and my work, and has fostered enormous growth in me as an early career academic. It is immeasurable how much I have learnt from Eleanor and I am extremely grateful for having worked with her during these formative years.

I also thank my associate supervisors, Dr Joshua Whittaker, Associate Professor Kurt Iveson, and Professor Matt Duckham, whose expertise, guidance and encouragement have been beyond valuable for both the work of this thesis and my professional development. I also acknowledge the broader ‘Out of Uniform’ research team for their support.

I acknowledge the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC for providing me with scholarship funding, and I thank them for providing various learning, enriching, networking, and professional and personal development experiences. Lyndsey Wright, Michael Rumsewicz, Nathan Maddock and David Bruce have been especially helpful.

I give sincere thanks to Peter Middleton, the entire Bushfire-Ready Neighbourhoods (BRN) team, and the Tasmania Fire Service for their many forms of support and collaboration in this research. Special mention is given to Lesley King, Suzette Harrison, David Cleaver and Sandra Barber. Working collaboratively with the BRN has shaped my work to be something more meaningful and shaped me to be a more skilled and knowledgeable researcher with a better understanding of the professional and societal context in which my research sits.

There are others not associated with this thesis in an official capacity, but who have contributed significantly nonetheless. Here I wish to thank my officemate (soon to be Dr) Stephanie Duce for her companionship, empathy and encouragement. She is the smartest person I know and I hope she remembers me as her career flourishes. I also thank Dr Caren Cooper, Dr Eloise Biggs and Associate Professor Dale Dominey-Howes for their mentoring and helpful advice.

Perhaps the biggest thank you belongs to the Tasmanian community members and Australian emergency management professionals who participated in my research, either by completing a survey, an interview, or participating in a workshop. If I could name them all without compromising university research ethics, I would, because I am tremendously grateful for their time, patience, and valuable inputs to the research. The worth of local knowledge and the willingness of people to give time to others should never be undervalued.

I thank my friends and especially my housemates for remaining interested and supportive, and for giving me many, many things to enjoy outside of the PhD.

Finally, I give thanks to my family for their love, support and inspiration: Kobe, Latrell, Joe, Tara, Shannon and Jim. I give particular thanks to Dave for his unwavering interest and insightful conversations. And for my Mum, if I am proud of this work and my achievements, that doesn’t compare to how proud I am to be her son. I thank her for allowing me to be everything I am capable of.

To any marginalized individual or group who has ever been underrepresented on a map, or any citizen who has ever had their knowledge undervalued, at any time, in any context, as well as anybody who has never had anything dedicated to them, I dedicate this thesis to you.

Version two:

Cheers, thanks a lot.

‘Urban Homophobia: An Issue of Space’ – a 10-year old geography essay by yours truly.

Today while searching through some of my old undergrad uni material for a GIS map of sea-grass beds I thought I once made, I found this completely unrelated other thing I did: an essay I wrote as a 19-year old on sexuality and urban geography circa 2007/8.

Now, I have a number of criticisms of my own work. Here is a small list: I hope if I were to write this now I wouldn’t rely on so few references for my arguments; had I not heard of paragraph structure and the value of topic sentences?; an essay really should engage more critically in the ‘why?’ and ‘so what?’ of the observations described; the title is crap; stop using ‘supposedly’; never ever use the term ‘hets’ (for heterosexuals) – lol; if I were to write this again I would more confidently position myself at the centre of the arguments, perhaps drawing on personal experience (call this my ‘coming out’ if you like, we’ll have the party later – though, y’all who know me well know that I could write another whole essay on my issues with THAT concept!), rather than writing in the style of a 1950s, terrified, conservative Woman’s Weekly author.

However, despite those criticisms, I actually find most of these arguments still relevant today. When I first started reading the essay I laughed at myself. But, considering the “huge improvements” (said, ‘everyone’) that have occurred regarding the rights and experiences of homosexual people in societies in the last decade, I actually find it quite sad that I feel much of the points in the essay still hold relevance (at least in my experience/opinion). If anything, now, as a 29-year old man, rather than feeling liberated, I simply have more personal experience of ‘urban homophobia’. In fact, I sometimes feel more excluded than ever through being more aware of what is around me and the freedoms I don’t have ‘access’ to, what is implied by the things people say (“I didn’t mean it like that,” they say), and the persisting negative societal views (of some) towards ‘people like me’ that are made explicitly clear through things like the continuing same-sex marriage debate in my country – my ‘home’ (Australia). Let’s just think about that for a moment…

I’ve also included after the essay some powerpoint slides for a related presentation I gave in the same module. Take particular note of my incredible mapping prowess – the stuff of legends. Queue the lols. 

_________________________________________________________________
University of Sydney School of Geosciences
GEOS 2122 – Urban Geography
Billy Haworth 

‘Urban Homophobia:  An Issue of Space’
_________________________________________________________________

Historically, the city has been regarded as a space of social and sexual liberation because the urban is perceived to offer acceptance or at least an escape or anominity (Valentine et al., 2003).  However, it is often asserted that homosexuality should be confined to the supposedly private space of the home, and should not be displayed in public spaces (Kirby et al., 1997).  Why is there such clear distinction between what is appropriate for those that identify themselves as heterosexual and those that identify themselves as homosexual?  Many gay individuals perceive and experience their everyday lives with an undercurrent of gay suppression, from the work place, to social settings, or their own private homes.  Yet, in contrast heterosexuality is flaunted and celebrated in almost every situation.  Common spaces such as home, neighbourhood, work and public spaces are perceived and experienced by gay men as homophobic (Kirby et al., 1997).  So what constitutes a safe place for gay men to be themselves, and express their sexual identities openly without the fear of violence, verbal abuse, or isolation?  This paper aims to explore some of the contrasts between, and experiences related to, the issue of public versus private space for homosexual men in the city.

In certain areas of the city, it is evident that the ‘out’ life carries with it the threat of prejudice, persecution and physical attack, as well as the fear of isolation (Kirby et al., 1997).   For this reason, many gay men see their private homes as the only place they can be comfortable as their true selves.  One would assume that in one’s private home a homosexual man could feel safe enough to express his sexual identity openly.  However, even in their own homes, some gay men find that heteropatriarchy intrudes, for sexual identities at home are not only performed, they also come under surveillance (Johnston et al., 1995).  For the youth age-group going through puberty can be hard enough without the added confusion of understanding one’s sexual identity, and for some who perhaps haven’t ‘outed’ themselves to their family, life can be full of secrecy, fear, and isolation.  Constant questions from parents and family such as ‘so have you got a girlfriend yet?’ may seem trivial, but can add immense amounts of pressure to an individual, especially while discovering their perhaps non-heterosexual identities.  And even those who are ‘out’ can still be made to feel ashamed or isolated.  Those who choose to disclose their sexual identity risk rejection, abuse, and even exclusion from the family home (Kirby et al., 1997).  This is particularly the case with certain religious and ethnic identities.  Furthermore, even in the case of an accepting family it is not uncommon to find a homosexual couple let go hands when someone enters the room, for example.  So then why is it acceptable for a heterosexual couple to openly express themselves in front of friends and family, or indeed the general public?  For young people beginning to identify as lesbian or gay, the wider heterosexual family cannot necessarily provide appropriate support (Valentine et al,. 2003).  This confusion during youth is also compounded by the ignorance and uncertainty associated with the lack of acknowledgement of sexual identities and lifestyles within school education programs (Valentine et al., 2003).

These issues do not end in the family home however, even people living alone or with a partner ‘de-gay’ their homes to some extent for visitors who do not know they are gay, or those who would not be accepting, including tradespeople and the like (Kirby et al., 1997).  Regardless of whether openly gay or not, often gay magazines or movies are hidden away, certain photographs taken down and so on, just to create a particular ‘non-gay’  representation to visitors.  In extreme cases, some couples have a spare room set up to mislead certain visitors into believing that they do not in fact share a bed.  Some people can only imagine how dreadful a position to be in it is to have to hide part of yourself, or who you are, or what you do in your own supposed private space, just to feel safe or conform to a heterosexually-dominated societal attitude.  There is a heterosexual freedom in the home that in many cases is far from reciprocated in the gay man’s home. 

The same contrast between heterosexual freedom and the lack of homosexual freedom extends to the workplace, where it can become increasingly uncomfortable for a gay man to simply do his job based on how he feels homosexuality is perceived.  Sexuality is expressed strongly in places of employment and disclosure of homosexuality may hinder promotion prospects or lead, in some instances, to dismissal (Kirby et al., 1997).   But even before starting a job, one always questions whether it is necessary to disclose sexuality in a job interview, for example.  It is certainly not acceptable to acknowledge this, but not many people would deny that in certain cases people have been denied a position based on the disapproval of their sexuality.  Once in the workplace, if one is not open about his sexuality, he can then be subject to an uncomfortable situation, having to hide parts of himself, and perhaps not being able to actively participate in healthy activities such as workplace banter or certain colleague discussions.  Even for those who are ‘out’ at work, socializing within the workplace is often restricted because work colleagues generally do not offer the same support as they would offer other heterosexuals (Kirby et al., 1997).  Furthermore, it is extremely rare to see photos on an office desk of a same-sex couple.  This figure appears even more infrequent when compared to the celebration of the heterosexual family that is evident.  It is not to say that this heterosexual freedom is not welcomed, only that it should be extended to homosexuals, as these restrictions and suppressions are not healthy for the well-being of the gay man in the workplace.  Homosexual-friendly polices could even increase morale and productivity for a company.  Whilst certain perceptions and actions can severely impact the homosexual in the workplace, the effects do not end with that person, and numerous other employees can be affected in different ways, including feeling uncomfortable themselves.  For example fear of the consequences of being labelled homosexual by homophobic colleagues can prevent some ‘straight’ men from actively supporting homosexual issues and developing friendly relationships with gay men (Kirby et al., 1997). 

The same issues are prominent in public space.  Heterosexuals have the freedom to express their emotions physically in public space, and in contrast some gay men feel the need to modify and monitor behaviour in order to conceal their sexual identity and so to avoid antigay abuse (Kirby et al., 1997).  Gay spaces in major cities have become clearly defined districts that are successful at attracting gay clientele, but which have also become popular as venues for heterosexual clubbers and tourists (Valentine et al., 2003).  This is even the case with Sydney’s prominent ‘gay ghetto,’ Oxford Street.  While there are still some obviously gay establishments, many of the places have become, or are becoming more and more heterosexual space as well.  There is no problem with ‘hets’ and ‘gays’ mixing, however these kinds of places have traditionally been somewhere many gay people go to escape the confines and pressures of hiding their sexual identity, and a place where they can feel comfortable with people in a similar situation and frame of mind.  When in ‘gay space’ many people feel less inclined to suppress parts of the gay culture, and feel comfortable expressing themselves in public, as heterosexual couples would.  Lees said in 1994, that over 80% of gays in Sydney go to gay bars, with the most popular on Oxford Street and in Newtown.  An important part of gay men’s lives could be lost or altered with the intrusion of heterosexuality into what many regard as ‘their space’.  Many gay men alter their appearance and behaviour to fit into public space, and places like Oxford Street can provide more freedom to be oneself away from the confines of their often heterosexually dominated lives.   However, in these apparent ‘safe-gay’ areas, discrimination and abuse still occurs.  There have been instances of people being removed from clubs in Newtown for their homosexual behaviour, verbal ‘drive-by’ abuse from cars on Oxford street, and even stories of physical abuse in back-alleys during the (in)famous Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which is supposed to be a celebration of alternative sexual lifestyles.  This highlights another issue related to the comparison between homosexual and heterosexual freedom, which is championed by Jackson (1989) when he states that territorial concentration leaves gay people vulnerable to harassment and other forms of repression.  Lees also said in 1994 that 15% of Australians use illegal substances, while 35% of gays do regularly.  Gay men often do not feel they ‘fit’ in the heterosexual environments, and drugs such as Ecstasy help to further the distance between the realities of the heteronormative everyday world and the (gay) ‘scene’ (Valentine et al., 2003).  Partying and drug taking in gay spaces is used as an escape for many gay men. 

Perhaps a daylight equivalent to the gay space of the nightclub could be seen as the beach, with 69% of gay men in Sydney in 1994 claiming to be regular attendees (Lees, 1994).  The beach has the same element of public expression of sexuality as the gay bar, with gay people less likely to hide things or feel uncomfortable if they are out and surrounded by other gays in a popular public space, like certain ‘gay friendly’ beaches in Sydney such as Bondi.  This ‘freedom’ is far from equal to that of heterosexuals however, as it is only limited to comparatively small spaces, and is not reciprocated in every social setting.  The places where gay men can meet others and express themselves freely are increasingly restricted.  Further to this, it should not be the case that some gay men feel it necessary to alter or conceal their identity, just to live a normal public life, free of fear, in the same way most heterosexuals can.  Having to act straight to ensure one’s personal safety clearly restricts gay men’s freedoms to use public space (Kirby et al., 1997). 

In all these settings, whether it be the home, work, or public space, there is an underlying discourse that heterosexuality is acceptable in public space, while homosexuality should be confined to private space, where even then it is not safe from surveillance or attack.  Heterosexuals are free to express themselves at work, and at home, and even have their lifestyle celebrated in public space with events such as weddings and christenings.  In contrast, gay men often alter their own ‘private’ homes to portray a different image of themselves than the reality due to fear of disapproving people.  They often have their values suppressed in the workplace, and are not open to interact and actively express ideas, again due to fear of others attitudes which could alter their well-being at work, or even hinder their career prospects.  Homosexuality is rarely accepted in public space in the way that heterosexuality is, and often as a result ‘gay spaces’ develop to accommodate their need for free expression and escapism, yet these spaces are too prone to heterosexual invasion and even violent abuse.  The point here is not that heterosexuals should not have this freedom.  In fact it is far from it.  The question is why such an exaggerated difference between what is acceptable in public space for heterosexuals and homosexuals?  If heterosexuals are in any way discomforted by seeing homosexual behaviour in public, do they not think that perhaps homosexuals feel discomfort not only associated with the heterosexual flooding of their lives, but also by the suppression of their own lifestyle, and having to alter or hide parts of themselves simply to feel safe in public?  Homosexuality is not a new thing.  It is not going to hurt anyone.  Its presence in public space will not alter or impede others lives.  It is a normal and very real part of modern urban life, and yet it is still not accepted in so many public and even private spaces.  The question remains, why not?

References

Jackson, P. (1989) Maps of Meaning, London, Unwin Hyman (Chapter 5).

Johnston, L., and G. Valentine. 1995. Wherever I lay my girlfriend, that’s my home. The performance and surveillance of lesbian identities in domestic environments. In Mapping Desire, ed. D. Bell and G. Valentine, 99–113. London: Routledge.

Kirby, S and Hay, I (1997) “(Hetero) sexing Space: Gay Men and ‘Straight’ Space in Adelaide, South Australia”, Professional Geographer, 49, 295-305.

Leese, A. (1994) “We’re everywhere but where?” Sydney Star Observer, 28 January, 15-16.

Valentine, G. and Skelton, T. (2003) “Finding oneself, losing oneself: the lesbian and gay ‘scene’ as a paradoxical space” in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(4): 849-866.

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