Tag Archives: sexuality

Researching non-heterosexual lives

In this blog post, I wish to address the following question: should only non-heterosexuals do non-heterosexual geography? As ridiculous as this question may sound initially, I am regressing here to consider Kim England’s (1994) piece published in the The Professional Geographer where she discussed her own sympathy for the argument that ‘lesbian geographers should do lesbian geography’. 21 years on, I intend here to further comment on this particular argument; one which has since been primarily silent throughout the geographical discipline since England’s initial consideration.

Kim England’s (1994) piece was written during an epoch when the entire process of the making of geography utilizing traditional neopositivist methodologies by social scientists was subjected to considerable scrutiny. Acknowledging the intersubjective realities of social life had resulted in an academic environment where – to use England’s own words – the ‘socially constructed and situated nature of knowledge [was] increasingly commonplace’. At the heart of this realisation was feminism, which critiqued the orderly, binaric and qualitative thinking inherent to the social sciences. England’s piece describes this academic scene in more depth, before then drawing on her own research experiences regarding the lesbian communities of Toronto for further exemplification. Initially conceiving of Toronto’s lesbian communities as mostly self-contained, she employed a lesbian research assistant who she conceived would be able for her to ‘gain entry into the lesbian world’. Regardless of this, this research project is described by England from the outset as having ‘failed’. She notes how one of the reasons for this was that she could not fully understand what it is like for another women to live her life as a lesbian when she herself was straight. Whilst I do not believe she needed to worry that she was ‘colonizing lesbians in some kind of academic neoimperialism’ as she described, her portrayal of her ‘failed’ project does fundamentally speak to the question I posed at the beginning of this post. In inscribing this particular question regarding whether non-heterosexuals should do non-heterosexual geography onto the academic map, in my opinion her supposedly ‘failed’ project was not such a failure! It is here that I return to this question many years on, and its potential resonance given the current state of the discipline of the geographies of sexualities.

21 years on, the discipline has progressed immeasurably. Academics have considered the geographies of non-heterosexual lives in a plethora of public spaces and private spaces: homes, hostels, hotels, parks, landscapes, moorlands, mountains and the outback, to name but a few. To consider England’s ideas in more depth, we can look to the methodologies being used most recently to research the geographies of sexualities. The new methodological turn within this discipline within the last 10 years revolves around either the completion of an ethnography of non-heterosexual life by a non-heterosexual researcher (e.g. Cattan and Vonolo, 2014), or instead the use of an autoethnographically oriented methodology whereby the non-heterosexual researcher becomes both researcher and researched as their own lived experiences become the primary data (e.g. Eichler, 2012). Indeed, arguably one may conceive of this to be a validation of England’s experiences, as in both these cases a non-heterosexual is doing non-heterosexual geography, and incredibly convincingly in both cases! When recording my own experiences autoethnographically as a gay man of rural public spaces for my undergraduate dissertation, I found myself further sympathetic to this argument. I questioned how would someone else be able to conceive of the spatially intricate construction and contestation of my sexual identity throughout the landscape without having experienced a similar sexuality-based marginalization? But then in querying this in such a way, am I arguing that there is some shared sense of spatial experience between all non-heterosexuals?

Ultimately, I hold no specific answer to the initial question regarding whether only non-heterosexuals should do non-heterosexual geography. It seems to pose more questions than it answers in my above reflection. I do however believe this debate should be one more openly discussed in literature regarding the geographies of sexualities. It may seem at times like it becomes a non-academic debate, or one replete with essentialisms, yet I believe we must be open to such a dialogue for the further progression of this research area. As far as I am concerned, a comprehension of reflexivity as a researcher is fundamental to any research project. After all, ‘a researcher is positioned by her/his gender, age, “race”/ethnicity’, sexual identity, all of which may inhibit or enable certain research method insights in the field’ (England, 1994).

Oliver Knight (MA Cultural Geography Student).

 References

Cattan, N. and Vanolo, A. (2014) ‘Gay and lesbian emotional geographies of clubbing: reflections from Paris and Turin’, Gender, Place & Culture, 21(9), pp.1158-1175.

Eichler, M. (2012) Consuming My Way Gay: An Autoethnographic Account of Coming Out as Consumptive Pedagogy’, Sage Open, 2(3).

England, K.V.L. (1994) ‘Getting Personal: Reflexivity, Positionality, and Feminist Research’, The Professional Geographer, 46(1), pp.80-89.

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Conference Presentation: Excited or Petrified?

Embarking on utilizing autoethnography to research sexuality for my undergraduate dissertation at Royal Holloway was a tough decision. Nevertheless, it seemed like an interesting and potentially transformative methodological avenue to adopt to research the construction and contestation of homosexual identities in rural Essex as I was endeavouring to accomplish. Indeed this case has proven true as 18 months since the completion of the original empirical research, I am preparing a paper composed from this empirical research. When my dissertation supervisor initially suggested I submit a paper for submission for a conference, I never thought it would be accepted. It seemed to me to be an experience I would only be successful in procuring in latter years of academic study, not as a Masters student as I currently am. Therefore receiving the email in the first week of the New Year that I had been accepted secured me a disconcerting ensemble of anxiety, excitement, worry and self-doubt. I must report in the four weeks hence, since the news has had more time to percolate, I still feel the same way.

On the 16th of May, I will be presenting my paper entitled “(Re)defining Rural Geographies of Sexualities through Autoethnography: Picturesque and Idyllic Fields and Farmlands as Masculine Sanctuaries within Landscape” at the Masculinities in the British Landscape conference held at Harlaxton College. Here is the abstract for the paper:

“This paper adopts autoethnography in order to explore the hidden, intricate and interwoven nature of the construction and contestation of male homosexual identities within the landscapes of public spaces in rural Essex. Specifically, it analyses the co-constitutive relationship between homosexual male identities and the rural landscapes, citing the importance of analysing emotional responses to the landscape in understanding the intricate webs of spatialities of male homosexual identity. Challenging normative notions of the hegemony of heterosexual identity within rural areas, analysis of thirty-four days of consecutive analytic autoethnography demonstrates how fields and farmland evoke a unique emotional experience. The nuances of this experience are discussed in relation to three themes: sanctuary, wilderness and nostalgia. Overarching these three themes is a broad recognition of how the mediation of homosexual male identities by rural landscapes is fundamentally therapeutic against a background of hegemonic heteronormativity embedded into rural society. In concluding, this paper emphasises the potential utility of formulating such emotional self-cartographies for comprehending the symbiotic relationship between sexual identity and landscapes, and more broadly underscores the need to consider emotion when researching rural geographies of sexualities.”

With sessions entitled ‘Bloodied Landscapes’, ‘Imagined Landscapes’ and ‘Emotional Landscapes’, it is shaping up to be a fascinating opportunity to see the interdisciplinary interaction and scholarship currently happening within landscape studies from different arenas around the academy. This is evident in the ‘Emotional Landscapes’ session that I will be presenting in, whereby my paper regarding the geographies of sexualities sits besides a discussion of romance, grief and masculinity in Moreland as well as a presentation on the literary portrayals of the Clerical Rambler. I feel honoured to have the opportunity to partake in such interdisciplinary discussion.

One nagging question however remains rather prominent for me, something dominating my thoughts of late whenever thinking of this particular opportunity. How do I feel about having to intimately portray my sexuality and its everyday spatial and temporal idiosyncrasies to the world? This concurrent concern I knew all along was going to be an inherent part of adopting an autoethnographically-oriented methodological attack, yet its evident significance and meaning is only just becoming realized to me 18 months down the line. However I reason that in invoking such self-display I will hopefully be following in the fascinating footsteps of some other socio-cultural geographers who I would argue have advanced geographies of sexualities scholarship considerably through invoking their own experiences, emotions, feelings, behaviours and cognitive sensations as their core empirical material. Through chatting with other members of this academic community, I have gathered that this concern is very much characteristic of the requisite nerves synonymous with your first conference presentation. My mind is therefore (momentarily) eased. Nonetheless, I cannot wait to grab this opportunity and see where it takes me.

Oliver Knight, MA Cultural Geography (Research).

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