An interview with Mr Chad Simpson, Graduate Contingency Planning Officer at Westminster City Council, London, and former MSc International Disaster Management student at HCRI.

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Westminster, London. Photo credit: Billy Haworth

Billy: What does your role at Westminster City Council involve?

Chad: I’m a Graduate Contingency Planning Officer and my main duty is to support the Contingency Planning team with the delivery of emergency planning and business continuity work.

Contingency planning falls under the CONTEST team, which is the government’s counter-terrorist strategy. Contingency Planning represents the ‘Prepare’ portion (preparing for an attack), and at the council I work alongside ‘Prevent’ (attempting to prevent attacks from occurring). Externally we work with ‘Pursue’ and ‘Protect’, who are various parts of the police, intelligence services and central government.

Aside from that we have general day-to-day tasks, which have an overall aim of increasing/maintaining/ensuring resilient standards across the borough and the city. They include arranging and attending training and exercises for local authority staff and our partners. We maintain the records, plans, databases, equipment and rotas, which are used during an emergency response. We also write new and update existing emergency and business continuity plans. Whenever we are alerted to an incident within the borough, we coordinate the local authority response to it. There’s a fair bit of freedom for us to introduce and implement our own ‘resilience enhancing’ ideas, so soon I’ll be involved with a new community resilience project with some other areas of the council.

My role was created specifically to help implement ‘EP 2020’, which is a standardisation project among all 33 London local authorities. The project was in part driven by the events of 2017 (Grenfell and numerous terror attacks). The idea is that each will have a common way of operating during an emergency response. For that I help with updating our current emergency and business continuity plans, and I help create and deliver new training packages for the changing staff requirements.

What are the main disasters/emergencies that require planning for in London?

The majority of incidents are fires, power cuts, gas leaks and water leaks. They technically aren’t emergencies, but they still need a local authority response as it’s possible some sort of humanitarian response is required. At the very least these incidents will need input from other parts of the council, such as the cleansing team to clear up debris from a fire, or the highways team to close roads and repair street furniture. These things are common in all parts of London, but slightly more so in Westminster because of the population density.

Westminster is fairly unique among the London local authorities. We have a very socially and economically diverse borough which includes really deprived areas all the way up to the Royal Family. The residential population is 250,000, and 1 million people pass through the borough each working day. 98% of the UK’s annual tourist population visit the borough. We’re home to the UK government and numerous foreign political entities. We have the greatest concentration of theatres, cinemas, restaurants, bars and clubs in the country, and a major portion of the businesses in London. All of these factors mean that there’s a bit more to do here compared to some of the other boroughs. Aside from the incidents mentioned above, Westminster has a lot of protests and demonstrations – even more so now in the run up to Brexit. These require constant monitoring by us and our security partners.

There are a set of more serious hazards and threats which affect Westminster and the wider city. These can be found in the London Risk Register. This is derived from a National Risk Register and a National Risk Assessment, which is classified. There’s a Westminster specific version which is also classified. The biggest risks are from pandemic influenza, space weather, power failure, flooding and malicious attacks. My personal favourite is severe space weather, which has the potential to disable Global Navigation Satellite Systems (like GPS). This could potentially have an immeasurable list of quite bad cascading impacts… (if you want to know more look here https://www.nap.edu/catalog/12643/severe-space-weather-events-understanding-societal-and-economic-impacts-a and https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/services/public-sector/emergencies/space-weather/impacts)

There is a generic plan to deal with most of the things you find in the risk register, but we also have a few specific plans for things which need extra attention. They include a pandemic flu, some specific exotic diseases, flooding and a few other things. I can’t go into much detail on these.

How important is it for societies to be prepared for disaster?

I think it’s essential for societies to prepare as best as possible for disaster. At the very least, societies must recognise and fully appreciate the risks and threats they face. There needs to be the ability to continue to deliver basic/essential functions during stressful times. If this doesn’t happen, it is incredibly hard to recover to a pre-disaster state, let alone progress to a more resilient state.

From your perspective, what is contingency planning and why is it important for disaster risk reduction?

Contingency planning is about recognising and assessing the risks posed by hazards and threats, and creating and implementing plans designed to minimise the impact of those events on day-to-day life, should they ever occur. We have a legal requirement for emergency planning under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.

Contingency planning has its place, but I think disaster risk reduction is about much more. My job focuses on preparation and response, after hazards and threats have already struck. This reflects the fact that the whole ‘London resilience system’ is based on the disaster cycle. Disaster risk reduction should be about managing risks rather than managing hazards. In my opinion, there needs to be a holistic approach to disaster risk reduction. I think we could benefit by looking more closely at the underlying pressures and causes of the issues we face, something more like the pressure and release model. Those tasked with managing resilience need to pay more attention to tackling underlying societal issues. Take the Grenfell Tower fire for example. We were well-prepared to deal with fires and we do so very successfully every day. However, there were other things which increased the risk of the disaster occurring, like the lack of good quality affordable housing. The condition of the block was a direct contributor to the disaster. Housing quality isn’t an emergency planning issue, but it does affect overall resilience. Would the fire have been so significant if housing was up to standard? Probably not. I sense that things are gradually going towards this holistic way of thinking. London is one of the members of 100 Resilient Cities, which is all about increasing resilience by looking at ‘acute shocks and chronic stresses’ together.

What does the planning process look like at Westminster City Council – what steps are involved in creating a contingency plan?

Once a risk/threat has been identified, a working group will be set up which will involve industry and academic experts on the subject matter. This is usually done at a national or a pan-London level. They will analyse the issue and then the planners will work backward from there. Take ‘space weather’ for example (check it out in the London risk register for more info). The group will identify the possible impacts of an episode of severe space weather. Just as an example, electricity could be out for up to two months, GPS could be out for days, we’d have severe disruption to aviation and we’d lose mobile phones and internet for some time. Planners would look at the consequences of these things; no clean water, no money, no public transport, no fuel… From that, they would take essential parts of existing plans – we already have plans for water shortages, travel disruption and fuel shortages. This part of the process is quite long and involves all the relevant category 1 and 2 responders. Once you have a decent draft ready, you can begin a more formal emergency planning process. The official emergency planning guidance from the Cabinet Office is what all category 1 and 2 responders should be adhering to. There’s a ‘planning cycle’ – similar to the disaster cycle, which is a good way of organising the planning process.

What challenges do you face in preparing disaster plans?

Convincing people/organisations that contingency planning and business continuity is important – contingency planning is my primary job so it’s my priority, but for most others it’s just another task in addition to the long list of things they have to do in order for their organisation to function.

How do you test whether a plan will be effective?

To test plans we run table-top or live exercises. With a table-top we cram in a load of different scenarios in a short space of time. We get the opportunity to brainstorm scenarios and think of all the possible consequences in an informal setting. Live exercises are great once we have a better idea of what we’re doing. They give us a bit of experience with carrying out our roles, and we can sort out any practical issues we hadn’t thought of at a table-top. It’s better to sort out issues in a run-through where we can make mistakes, rather than a real emergency.

There are a number of regular exercises we take part in, such as Project Argus and Project Griffin (to do with terrorism), and Safer City (an annual London-wide exercise). We might also run a table-top before a specific planned event. I was involved in a table-top exercise for London’s New Year’s Eve celebrations (my first big event), and it gave me a lot of insight into where I fit within the whole operation and the practicalities of implementing certain plans.

A good example of why this is important is the Manchester Arena bombing. A few months before the attack there was a terror training exercise based on a marauding gunman attack. The actual method of attack was different to the real thing, but the mechanisms of response were tested. Any issues they found could be ironed out and it was an opportunity for response personnel to practice things they’d learnt in a realistic scenario.

At what point is a plan put into action? Is there a particular trigger?

We could announce a major incident if we felt it was necessary to do so, as could any of the category 1 responders. There are some specific events, like terrorism, which automatically trigger plans.

However, it isn’t really that common for us to activate plans. The majority of things we deal with are planned events like Winter Wonderland and British Summertime in Hyde Park, protests and demonstrations, or incidents like gas leaks and burst water mains which aren’t severe enough for plan activation. Since I’ve joined there hasn’t been an emergency severe enough to activate plans.

How often are plans reviewed and/or updated?

We review them constantly. A lot of them contain things like contact details and addresses which change all the time so we need to stay on top of those. Road layouts and maps are often involved, and they also change quite a lot. If we receive new intelligence or advice from our partners, we need to update plans to include that. The major plans like JESIP and LESLP are reviewed every 4 years by the London Resilience Team, and we react to whatever changes they make with those.

You studied at HCRI, completing the MSc International Disaster Management in 2018. How did your studies at HCRI prepare you for your current role at Westminster City Council?

Overall, I think my dissertation project best prepared me for my job because I hadn’t really done much to do with emergency planning in the UK before that. I taught myself about how disaster management works here, and I tailored it to be as relevant as possible to the area I wanted to work in. It was also brilliant for networking and I gained a lot of industry contacts who helped me get to where I am now. I’m still in contact with many of them and a few are my colleagues now. Aside from that, the Emergency Humanitarianism Assistance module gave me the best practical experience. From that I gained experience of working with partners and of contributing to multiple simultaneous workstreams, both of those are very relevant for me now. It also gave me a bit of a taste of the fluidity of disaster situations and the need to be able to rapidly adapt to that. Disaster Governance introduced me to a lot of politics and socio-economics which is really useful for working in local government. Both Disaster Management: Theory and Application and Cultures and Disasters were incredibly useful, as they introduced me to a few new ideas about alternative ways of operating. Thanks to those I’m definitely able to think more critically about current practices and policies than I otherwise would be. I’m more aware of the humanitarian side of emergency planning thanks to those modules. I think I’m probably more aware of the challenges and issues certain demographics could face in disaster scenarios.

For your dissertation you examined the impacts of austerity on disaster resilience in London. Can you explain a bit more about the project: the context and importance of the topic, what you did, and what you found?

The aim was to see how cuts to local government budgets had impacted resilience in London. Since the start of the austerity period in 2010 there have been numerous claims that resilience has been severely degraded by cuts. The Grenfell Tower fire was a pivotal moment in all of that, as the scale of the disaster as well as the poor response to it, seems to be quite closely related to the way austerity was implemented. I used the Pressure and Release model to understand the context in which austerity sits. I used Grenfell as an example of a disaster created by root causes (austerity), dynamic pressures (reduced budgets for the fire brigade and local authority, building control and general health and safety) and unsafe conditions (flammable building materials, inadequate fire prevention measures and inadequate disaster response).

The results showed that London remained a resilient city in spite of austerity, even though the level of resilience had decreased. There was also a lot of uncertainty around how much longer the city would remain resilient in the face of further funding reductions. I also uncovered a few issues with disaster management in general. The biggest is to do with ‘resilience’. Nobody seems to have a shared understanding of what the word means, or what resilience actually is. It forms a massive part of disaster risk reduction policy all over the world, but there is no consensus surrounding resilience as a concept. Is it a state, a process or an outcome? How can we quantify and measure it? Is there any real way of knowing that a particular action will increase resilience by a specific amount?

Lastly, can you briefly describe how you acquired your job and what the job search process involved? Do you have any tips for other students wanting a career in the emergency management sector?

I was sent links to the job advertisement by a few of the people I interviewed for my dissertation. I hadn’t really started properly job searching because I wanted a break after my dissertation. It was the first job I applied for and luckily I got an interview. I certainly wasn’t close to being the most qualified person interviewed, so don’t rule yourself out just because your degree/experiences aren’t exactly the same as the role you’re applying for. You will have gained a lot of transferable skills.

Make your dissertation as relevant as possible to the area you want to work in. Lots of organisations are really keen to conduct research but they usually don’t have the time or resources to actually do it. Approach them and ask them if there is anything you could research for them – at the very least they might have a chat with you and give you some ideas. They might even provide funding for you to research a topic on their behalf. It’s also a great way to network and form relationships with professionals already in the industry.

I’m more than happy to talk to anyone about applying for jobs or anything else I’ve mentioned. Ask Billy for my contact details.

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Geographic information and communication technologies for supporting smallholder agriculture. (#AGILE2018 conference poster)

Below is a poster I prepared on some work following my postdoc research in 2017, presenting lessons learned from review of information and communication technology initiatives for disseminating agricultural geographic information (AGI) direct to smallholder farmers, who increasingly face short and long term climate shocks and stresses. The poster was displayed at the 21st AGILE conference on Geo-information science, University of Lund, June 2018.
Download the PDF version here: AGILE_poster_Final_June2018

AGILE_poster_Final_June2018

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

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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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