‘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. 

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

‘Urban Homophobia:  An Issue of Space’
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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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The oddity of the stationary escalator

London Underground – Photo by Billy Haworth

When going about our daily routines in the city certain things become repetitive and mundane, and often tweaking this regularity can cause a moment of confusion in our minds. An action that is normally so automatic can become highly noticeable in an abnormal circumstance, such as stepping onto a stationary escalator. Every time this happens it baffles me. I approach the escalator, I see that it’s not in operation, and I think I have adjusted my gait accordingly to descend quite naturally what are now essentially stairs in front of me. But what actually happens feels very unnatural indeed! An awkward sort of near-trip occurs and I struggle to readjust and carry on down the motionless escalator. Something inside my body or my mind refuses to allow any amount of pre-observation and preparation to prevent this awkward moment. Even with knowledge of the escalator my body still automatically prepares for the motion of the escalator beyond my control. Why is this? Has my brain become so well-trained to it’s usual response to the visual of the escalator that it can’t operate otherwise? Is it more a muscular response, whereby some link between the eyes and the muscles is stronger than my conscious mind? How can a simple everyday object possess such psychological power over my body?

A 2009 paper addressed this exact question of action-perception linkage by asking: Does the odd sensation emerge because of the unfamiliar motor behaviour itself toward the irregular step-height of a stopped escalator or as a consequence of an automatic habitual motor program cued by the escalator itself (Takao Fukui, Toshitaka Kimura, Koji Kadota, Shinsuke Shimojo, & Hiroaki Gomi). They compared motor behaviour properties toward a stopped escalator with those toward moving escalators, and toward a wooden stairs that mimicked the stopped escalator.

“The results suggest a dissociation between conscious awareness and subconscious motor control: the former makes us perfectly aware of the current environmental situation, but the latter automatically emerges as a result of highly habituated visual input no matter how unsuitable the motor control is. This dissociation appears to yield an attribution conflict, resulting in the odd sensation.” – Fukei et al., 2009.

So it seems in this instance at least I am not as awkward as I may have thought, and there is an explanation for this strange occurrence. The way we as people become accustomed to ‘normals’ in surroundings is interesting, particularly when something ‘abnormal’ occurs. And I’m sure there are probably other examples of similar odd sensations experienced by our interactions with the places around us, such as the feeling of motion experienced whilst sitting in a stationary train and seeing another train passing by. So if you find yourself one day awkwardly approaching a motionless escalator, you can take some comfort knowing there’s an explanation for your odd behaviour.