This essay will focus on the multiple geographies of sexuality. It is important that we use the term ‘geographies’ rather than ‘geography as there are differences to the way in which gay men and lesbian women negotiate their sexuality within society. The first part of my essay will examine the fact that everyday space is heterosexualised. We tend to think of everyday space as just that, space. Many of us may not consider the fact that everyday spaces are sexualised, or see spaces as asexual. However everyday space is implicitly heterosexualised.
I will explain this in relation to gender roles and identities and give examples of how heterosexuality is continuously being promoted in everyday life as the ‘norm’ or right way to be. I will then discuss the emergence of gay communities through gay gentrification, focussing on: The Castro, San Francisco. I aim to examine how and why communities such as the Castro have emerged, how gay men may feel in these openly gay spaces and how they may alter their behaviour when in these areas compared to when in ‘non gay’ areas. The third part of my essay will focus on the geographies of lesbianism.
There has not been the emergence of lesbian communities on the scale of gay communities and I intend to show the geography of lesbians and how they respond to the heterosexualisation of everyday space in more subtle ways creating multiple sexual identities. Until recently, sexuality was ignored in geography. This is because it was seen as a private issue. However, everyday space is implicitly heterosexual. It is impossible to think of sexuality today as a ‘private issue’ as we are exposed to people’s sexuality (mainly heterosexuality) everyday.
For a heterosexual individual, the notion that all space is ‘heterosexually dominated’ (Myslick, 1996, 159) may be invisible to them however ‘engagement announcements… , wedding ceremonies and rings… , casual references to a husband or wife in conversation, photos of spouses at desks at work, holding hands in the park and even divorces are all public announcements and affirmations of ones heterosexuality’ (Myslick, 1996, 159). For a gay men or lesbian women these displays of heterosexuality may be more visible and apparent and thus make them feel marginalised or excluded from society.
The small gestures such as holding hands or kissing in public that heterosexual couples might take for granted can be seen as ‘weird’ if practiced by a same sex couple. Homosexuals may fear showing affection in public as they may become victims of harassment or be seen as deviating from the norm and not be seen as part of ‘normal’ society. It is not just in public spaces that are sexualised. Semi private spaces such as ones office and even the space thought of as most private; the home, are also sexualised. It is not uncommon for people to have photos of spouses and children on their desks at work or talk about their weekends with colleagues.
One lesbian woman stated ‘In the job I’m in they all talk about their men and husbands and they’ve had a nice weekend and done this and done that’ (Valentine, 1993, 403, het). At home we also have photos of our loved ones, certain book titles and record collections can also be indicators of ones sexuality. Therefore gay men and lesbian women constantly have to decide whether or not to disclose their sexuality whether in public areas such as pubs or shopping centres, at work when talking to colleagues or even in the most private space the home when visitors such as workmates or parents may be invited over.
Feminist geographer Gill Valentine has also argued that even buildings such as houses or hotels cater exclusively for heterosexuals and heavily reinforce the norm of family life. For example ‘common features such as ‘master’ bedroom and smaller bedrooms for children physically represent and reinforce the cultural norm of the reproductive monogamous family unit. ”(Valentine, 1993, 395, het). Heterosexuality is promoted everywhere. From out on the street to television. There are numerous examples on television that reinforce the fact that we live in a heterosexually dominated society.
For example, adverts for domestic items such as washing up liquid or food such as gravy are always based on families, father and son watching football while mum moans about the washing up or mum dad and the two children sitting down to a nice family meal topped off with the tastiest gravy. Not only are adverts such as these promoting heterosexual families but also reinforcing gender roles. Adverts for beer or the new sports computer game always star men while adverts for cleaning products or shampoo are generally advertised using women.
Men and women are constantly being reminded of how they are expected to act in society and what roles they should undertake. We have ‘shared beliefs and meanings attributed to what it means to be a man or a woman (masculinity and femininity)’ (Valentine, 1993, 395, het). Therefore, to be gay ‘is not only to violate norms about sexual behaviour but also to deviate from the norms of ‘natural’ masculine or feminine behaviour’ (Valentine, 1993, 396 het,). We live in a society in which heterosexuality is the dominant and ‘normal’ sexuality.
This is reinforced in a number of ways in our society from expectations of gender roles to public displays of affection. Much of the early work on geographies of sexuality has focussed on the experiences of gay men and the emergence of gay communities (or gay ‘ghettos’). This may be because the formation of these communities has been the most visible way homosexuals have sought to negotiate their sexuality. One of the most famous gay communities in the world is the Castro in San Francisco, North America. Sociologists such as Manuel Castells have done a lot of research in this area.
The Castro, San Francisco has become a ‘mecca for gay men and women throughout the world’ (Jackson, 1989, 123). San Francisco has always been a place of ‘easy moral standards’. It is located on the west coast of North America and even back in the 19th Century gold rush, sailors would come and go from San Francisco and ‘indulge in personal fantasies’ (Jackson, 1989, 124). During the 1960s, San Francisco was thriving and was the ‘centre of hippie subculture and associated with the drug scene’ (Jackson,1989 124).
It was during this period that the area started to develop a gay identity ‘with a visible spatial expression in such neighbourhoods as the Castro’. However, the formation of this particular neighbourhood does not only rely on cultural factors but also political and economic factors. In 1951, the California Supreme Court made it illegal to close a bar simply because it was gay. This new law resulted in the number of gay bars increasing from 58 in 1969 to 234 in 1980 (Jackson, 1989). District 5 which included the Castro was also the first district in San Francisco to appoint an openly gay man, Harvey Milk into public office in 1977.
Harvey Milk was assassinated 1968 by another supervisor Dan White. After his trial, White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and only given a seven year sentence. This provoked riots in the gay community as the verdict was thought to be homophobic. Harvey Milk’s legacy lives on in San Francisco today. One neighbourhood guide states that after Milk’s assassination ‘the Castro became not just open but celebratory about its thriving gay population. ‘ (Retrieved from: www. sfgate. com, 04/01/08, 12. 05pm). The Castro is just one example of gay ‘ghettoisation’.
There are a number of certain areas in cities that are being gentrified with a prominent gay population such as West Hollywood, North America or Canal Street in Manchester, England. Within a gay neighbourhood gay men don’t have to feel like outsiders or worry about not ‘fitting in’. ‘Many gay men in particular have found it easier to make the symbolic public statement of their private sexual preference in the context of a gay neighbourhood which offers both practical and moral support’ (Jackson, 1989, 121).
People feel comfortable when they are around their own. It can give you a sense of belonging when you are around people who are like you. Immigrants into the UK often migrate to areas where people have settled from their own country already e. g. – Bengalis into Tower Hamlets, East London. Gay men tend to feel safer in gay neighbourhoods. ‘Many gay men explain that they feel safe in queer spaces because of a sense of safety in numbers. Safety that comes from being in an area in which one has some sense of belonging or social control. ‘(Myslick, 1996, 168).
Although gay men may feel safe emotionally, gay spaces are often easy places to target gay people and gay men can often come under attack from ‘gay bashers’ within their neighbourhoods. ‘Safe spaces in turn become hunting grounds. ‘ (Myslick, 1996, 168). This raises the question of whether or not gay neighbourhoods are really showing societies tolerance towards homosexuals or do they simply display how intolerant society is? ‘The gay territory has failed in its mission of creating a liberated zone and become a ‘gay ghetto’ a symbol of isolation and oppression. ‘ (Myslick, 1996, 167).
Although being in a gay spaces often gives gay men a ‘sense of empowerment’ (Myslick, 1996, 169), the fact that many gay men often feel uncomfortable in non gay spaces highlights the fact that far from society becoming more tolerant to homosexual relationships we are in fact becoming more segregated and as more and more gay men are moving to known gay area we are in danger of becoming even more segregated in the future. The geography of homosexuality that emerged in the eighties has largely been focussed on gay residential communities and the experiences of gay men, however more recent work has began to explore the geography of lesbianism.
In this part of the essay I aim to look at the more subtle ways in which lesbians negotiate their sexuality on a day to day basis. Although there have been some formations of certain lesbian neighbourhoods such as Andersonville in Chicago, North America, the emergence of these neighbourhoods has been nowhere near on the scale than that of the gay neighbourhood. One of the reasons for this is the fact that on average, women earn less than men and therefore have lower purchasing power. The apparent reluctance of lesbians to form gay neighbourhoods ’emphasises the overlap between gender and sexuality as bases of women’s oppression…
Lesbians are no less subject to patriarchal forms of exploitation than heterosexual women, including their access to private property. ‘ (Jackson, 1989, 129-30). Much of the research done on the geographies of lesbianism has focussed on the notion of multiple geographies of sexuality. This is when somebody adopts various sexual identities at different times or places in their lives. ‘Coming out is often seen as a duality: a gay person is either ‘out’ and open about their sexuality or completely secretive and ‘in the closet’.
However, lesbians often perceive that ‘different people and organisations will react differently and therefore they negotiate different and contradictory sexual identities in different time/space frameworks. ‘ (Valentine, 1993, 240). For example, a lesbian woman might feel totally comfortable with disclosing their homosexuality in specific lesbian bar, yet feel unable to tell her co-workers or even her parents that she is gay. Lesbians are often able to pass as straight. Society has an idea of what a lesbian might look like.
We might stereotype that a lesbian would have short hair, wear no make up or be ‘butch’. Therefore it is easy for lesbian to ‘perform their sexual identity to others, either by consciously playing a heterosexual role or by unconsciously ‘fitting in” (Valentine, 1993, 241). This could be the way they present themselves physically i. e. – the clothes they wear, whether or not they wear make up or by simply not admitting they are gay and therefore ‘projecting a heterosexual identity’ (Valentine,1993, 242). Private and publics areas of our lives often overlap.
People often socialise with work friends outside of work, whether it’s at the office party or simply out for drinks after work. Lesbians who adopt multiple sexual identities and are not open about being gay at work may withdraw from socialising with people from work as they are not comfortable ‘performing’ and don’t feel that they can be themselves around work mates. They can therefore be in danger of becoming isolated at work or being seen as loners. Lesbians may adopt multiple sexual identities over time. For example, be in the ‘closet’ when living at home but then feel able to ‘come out’ when they go to university.
If they then start a new job where they are not comfortable with being open about their sexuality they may then perform a heterosexual sexual identity. They may then get another job where they feel able to be ‘out’, and so during their life time lesbians can go in and out of the closet many times over. Multiple sexual identities can also be adopted ‘in different spaces and in one space but at different times. ‘ (Valentine, 1993, 246). For instance, a lesbian might feel either comfortable or not about being open about her sexuality at one of her friends houses depending who was there.