Queer Cultural Geographies

Michael Brown & Larry Knopp. Handbook of Cultural Geography. Editors: Kay Anderson, Mona Domosh, Steve Pile, Nigel Thrift. Sage Publications. 2003. 

During the last quarter-century, disciplinary orthodoxies in geography have been subject to devastating criticisms, leaving geography with less of a center than ever. Sexuality studies and queer theory have been an especially potent force amidst projects that challenge the exclusions of geographers’ views and explanations of the world and its places. Because sexuality is an enormously diverse and elusive set of lived experiences, as well as a social construct that defies, in immediately apparent ways, efforts to impose order on it, its consideration has led to new and specifically ‘queer’ ways of thinking about difference (and related concepts, such as identity, space and power). Neither ‘objective’ behavioral nor ‘subjective’ psychological approaches, nor structuralist theories, can do sexuality justice; nor can either strictly cultural or biological perspectives. Furthermore sexuality is intimately linked both to profoundly social exercises of power and to highly individuated experiences of desire, which themselves are interlinked and variable across time and space (Foucault, 1980).

Serious engagements with sexuality, then, necessitate a careful reconsideration of some fundamental ontological, epistemological and methodological issues. These include the relationship between nature, society and human agency; the nature of identity; problems of naming and counting; of drawing inferences and conclusions; of the roles of qualitative and quantitative methods in social science (how can we understand the social consequences of sexualities without understanding them as lived experiences?); objectivity and subjectivity (can sexualities ever be understood as strictly objective or subjective phenomena?); and more.

On at least some of these issues consensus emerged. Sexual identities are now most fruitfully seen as culturally and ideologically constructed subjectivities and significations that serve and resist dominant forms of power. Power, meanwhile, is seen as working through discourses and representations as much as through more conventional material practices (such as coercion backed by violence), such that even academic work itself becomes highly (and self-consciously) politicized. And space has been discovered by academics in a wide variety of disciplines as a concept (if not always a very well-theorized one) that helps them to understand and communicate the processes whereby various forms of difference and power are ontologically constructed, reproduced and resisted.

Yet queer theory, the strand of theorizing that has emerged from sexuality studies, ironically tends to question and problematize notions of consensus, stability or privileged argument. In this way, its aim to rethink social life from the standpoint of sexual dissidents is intertwined with a postmodernism that is deeply suspicious of metanarratives or Archimedean perspectives. This built-in contradiction means queer geography is often difficult to characterize and subject to internal debate. Nevertheless, as contributors to this volume our charge is to attempt just that. Accordingly we showcase here some of the tensions, contradictions and milestones of this emerging field within geography and signal their promise and pitfalls. Our chapter proceeds in three steps. We first offer a very brief temporal overview of work in the area. We then shift to a more in-depth consideration of the particular spaces and subjectivities that geographers have considered in this work. These range from the closet to cyberspace and from the individual to the globe. Finally, we imagine several new queer geographies that have yet to be written. We want to stress at the outset that what follows is by no means an exhaustive or definitive survey of the field. Our hope is that this chapter helps others to at least begin to find their bearings and consider ways their own interests might jive with queer geographies—because we are absolutely certain that they can and must!

Queer Geography and Its Precursors

While the publication of Mapping Desire (Bell and Valentine, 1995) is often heralded as the beginning of sexuality and space studies, even its own editors remind us that there is a longer (and courageous) legacy to appreciate. For example, a number of disparate activities began to take shape in the 1970s that put sexual minority identities and communities on the discipline’s map (at least for those who were willing to see). The simple act of arranging meetings of gay and lesbian geographers at Association of American Geographers’ meetings precipitated extraordinarily nasty public (and published) denouncements from established and secure figures in the discipline (Carter, 1977). Meanwhile, a small number of researchers, mostly in urban, cultural and economic geography and often linked to the nascent gay and lesbian rights movement, began drawing attention to gays and lesbians in other ways. Barbara Weightman (1980), for example, sought to bring into the open the significance of gay bars as social spaces. Christopher Winters (1979) and Bill Ketteringham (1979; 1983) noted the important role played by gays and lesbians in inner-city commercial and residential ‘revitalization.’ And Bob McNee (1984; 1985) examined the role of oppression in creating distinct but marginalized gay and lesbian spaces and networks in cities, at the same time as he valiantly challenged the discipline’s own homophobia and sexism both in and out of print. In this respect McNee was far ahead of his time. His contributions represented an embodied insistence that oppression of gays and lesbians was real, systematic and fully present in the discipline of geography—this at a time when critical reflection on academic practice (except perhaps in the realm of research and teaching ‘ethics’) was virtually unheard of! In his written work on the subject McNee focused on where, how and why gays and lesbians are and are not able to express our embodied difference from heterosexuals, particularly our same-sex desire and practice but also other forms of gender non-conformity (for example, drag) and affiliations (for example, with prostitution) that tend to make middle-class professionals (like geographers) ‘squeamish.’ McNee backed these assertions up with what were at the time very controversial efforts to make space at professional conferences for gays and lesbians to be homosexual (not just to network). He attended at least one session in drag himself, led an informal field trip to the gay/ lesbian and red-light entertainment district of Denver during an Association of American Geographers’ conference there, and helped to organize the first informal gay and lesbian caucus of the Association of American Geographers by posting invitations for gay and lesbian geographers to meet.

But with the possible exception of McNee, none of this ‘first wave’ of geographers dealing with sexuality consciously challenged the positivist epistemology that underlay most human geography at the time. Still, it quickly became clear that this was inevitable. Similar (and certainly not coincidental) developments were taking place in feminist geographic quarters where issues of gender-based power relations were being pushed, as well as in more traditional radical circles where political economists (mostly, but not exclusively, Marxists) were pressing issues of class. More recently, anti-racists have experienced essentially the same challenge in the context of ‘race.’ It seems dominant paradigms were ill-suited to all of these issues.

For sexuality studies, the result has been a series of efforts to deploy the theoretical tools of feminism and political economy (and anti-racism) as well as engagements with postmodern, poststructuralist and queer theories. In an early effort involving one of us (Lauria and Knopp, 1985), Larry used the combination of Marxian-inspired theories of organizations and urban land use, feminist approaches to gender and sexuality, and some early lesbian/gay social theory to understand the role of gay communities in urban redevelopment. Tim Davis (1991; 1995) similarly employed Marxian-inspired theories of social movements, augmented by feminist theory, to understand gay and lesbian political activism. British geographers Peter Jackson (1989), Gill Valentine (1993a), Gillian Rose (1993), David Bell (1995) and Jon Binnie (1993), meanwhile, brought questions of representation, desire and performance to the fore in otherwise similar discussions. Eventually the challenge represented by these latter contributions (which itself was simultaneously a major contributor to, and product of, the cultural turn in human geography as a whole) led to a proliferation of geographical sexuality studies that were theoretically anti-structuralist, anti-modernist and very self-consciously ‘queer’ (for example, Brown, 1997; 2000; Callard, 1996; Elder, 1999; Knopp, 1999; 2000; Nast, 1998). Now questions of representation (and the politics of representation), performativity (à la Butler, 1990; 1993), citizenship/belonging, culture generally, and cultural politics in sexuality and space studies have all but supplanted the more traditional subject matter of social area analysis, social movements and urban development. However, this diverse array of topics and approaches has not evolved nearly as smoothly as the foregoing suggests, and it is in this context that the contradictions we mentioned earlier have begun to manifest themselves.

Spaces, Scales, and Their Discontents

The languages (and paradoxes) of poststructuralism and queer have emerged as particularly robust in the contexts of the so-called ‘new’ cultural geography. Perhaps the archetypal construct emerging from this field is the closet, and it is a concept with which we and several others have worked extensively. As a spatial metaphor the closet conveys the sense of denial, erasure and concealment that is at the heart of sexual oppression. The humanities-based Diana Fuss (1991) and Eve Sedgwick (1990) have stressed the need to deconstruct the inside/out dualism implicit in the metaphor. What they are referencing is the liminality and non-Euclidean nature of the lived closet experience. They demonstrate that one can in fact be simultaneously inside and outside the closet (for example, in different contexts or even ontologically, in the sense that the closet itself entails an epistemology of ‘knowing by not knowing’: Sedgwick, 1990). It is also evidenced by the more material reality that in escaping one kind of oppression (that which ensues from having no words or language with which to name one’s desire) one must engage with new forms of oppression associated with a naming of desire that is always partial and to some degree marginalizing in its capacity to represent actual lived experience. This point resonates with the broader theme of this section of this book that subjectivities are never static but rather always in the process of becoming.

So it is surprising that the closet has received so little explicit (and critical) attention from geographers (but see Davis, 1991; Knopp, 1994; and most significantly Brown, 2000). Recently Michael conceptualizes the gay man’s closet as a spatial practice of power-knowledge, and not just a metaphor (Brown, 2000). He examines how the closet is constructed both materially and discursively at four spatial scales: the body, the city, the nation and the globe. At the level of the body, he looks at how the closet is often a space for the performativity of sexuality. At the level of the city, he explores the ways in which the closet allows the commodification of sexual desire through the construction of commercial spaces of sexual consumption. National-scale closeting, meanwhile, is examined through a study of the effects of the categorizations and quests for ‘validity’ and ‘reliability’ that necessarily, as features of positivist epistemology, undergird national censuses. And at the global scale, he shows that the closet is ‘not so much a lack, but a productive if occluded space’ (2000: 22). That is, it is not always a disempowered, abject artifact, but can also be the setting for creative, ingenious and transformative sexual, cultural and political resistances to heteronormativity. In another piece of our work (Knopp, 1994), Larry similarly argues that closeting is a patently contradictory collective process of privatization and alienation as well as of resistance and empowerment. It involves the socialization of certain kinds of experience as ‘private’ and their marking as ‘alien.’ It both protects queer people and makes us vulnerable, through the development of subtle codes and cues that can be deployed strategically by queers as well, potentially, as homophobes (including queer homophobes). And because it relies on queers ourselves to police our own desires, closets are often constructed as threatening to a heterosexualized dominant culture, which then justifies heterosexist campaigns of violence, harassment and intimidation as a defensive measure.

Queer subjectivities, however, do not exist in disembodied forms or only in closets. Performance artist Kate Bornstein (1998) emphasizes, by example as well as in writing, the importance of location to successful gender-bending bodily performances. Among geographers, Bell et al. (1994) very provocatively make this point by considering the capacity of bodies that defy visual and behavioral expectations to disrupt the shared meanings of public space. In particular, they demonstrate how hypermasculine gay men and hyperfeminine lesbians can ironically subvert the hegemony of the heterosexual presumption in everyday environments. Certain other geographers, however, caution that the appropriation and parodying of masculinity and femininity as constructed in/by/for heterosexuality—at least in the ways described by Bell et al.—do little or nothing, in a practical political sense, to undermine either heterosexual hegemony or the ‘tyranny’ of heterosexually-constructed gender (Kirby, 1995). Larry has further argued that the deconstruction of sexualities alone is inadequate (and indeed dangerous) as a political strategy, since it leaves unanswered crucial questions of value and ethics, such as the implications for race- and gender-based power relations when certain highly sexualized (and potentially sexist) and racialized (and potentially racist) practices are engaged in by sexual minorities (Knopp, 1995).

Lynda Johnston (1996), meanwhile, queers the spaces of the gym and the female body by demonstrating how disruptive to heterosexual norms female body-builders’ physical presence can be. The importance of physical interventions in bodily processes such as menstruation and birth control have also been analyzed and interpreted in terms of their significance to the construction of genders and sexualities (Cream, 1995). And in the context of the central London banking industry workplace, Linda McDowell (1994; 1995) explores the role that gendered and sexualized spaces can play in disciplining bodily comportment (for example, styles of dress, physical build, hairstyle, makeup, stance, manner of self-presentation). These works are synec-dochical of a spate of recent literature that focuses on bodies as a frame for examining the relationship between subjectivity and space (Duncan, 1996; Nast and Pile, 1998; Pile, 1996).

Given the coding of sex and sexuality as ‘private’ matters, it is not surprising that some geographers have begun also to queer the space of the ‘home.’ Whether it is seen as a space of capital accumulation, social reproduction, care-giving, double oppression or just a haven in a heartless world, the home is increasingly viewed also as a site of heteronormative structure by these scholars. Several examples come to mind. Valentine (1998) describes vividly how the ‘private’ space of her home was usurped and disciplined by the homophobic predations of an anonymous harasser. In the process she demonstrates convincingly how the disciplining power of heteronormativity works through home space, and in collaboration with a wide range of cultural assumptions. Valentine (1993a) and Mackenzie and Rose (1983) make the brilliant but simple point that residential architecture and design in the late twentieth century have presumed the norm of a heterosexual ‘nuclear’ family. In terms of resistance to this, the capital gains on domestic property through gentrification have been shown by a number of geographers (including Larry: see Knopp, 1990b; Peake, 1993) to be due in part to a complex interplay between market forces and resistance to oppression on the part of gay and lesbian owners. This includes an acknowledgment of the very problematic role of some gay men and lesbians in what can at times be quite predatory forms of gentrification. Michael, meanwhile, explored how incredibly complicated the home geographies associated with the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS can be (Brown, 1997), while Jay (1997) stresses that the politics of domesticity among lesbian and gay parents are not as similar to those of heterosexual parents as it might at first appear.

Spaces more traditionally constructed as ‘public’ have similarly been subject to the critical eye of queer theory and queer studies, including the sometimes highly charged spaces of teaching and research. In 1997 and again in 1999, for example, the Journal of Geography in Higher Education featured symposia dealing with the practice and politics of teaching and researching sexualities. Both of these were strongly influenced by queer theory. Special sessions at conferences have also focused on the politics of teaching and researching sexualities, again from primarily queer perspectives. Topics covered have ranged from how queer theory and experiences can be used to shed light on subjects such as borders, boundaries, nation-states and capitalism, through the ways in which racism, sexism and heterosexism can be deconstructed in the classroom, to thorny issues of curriculum, institutional and pedagogical priorities, and the evaluation of educational ‘output’ (including faculty performance).

Ironically, consensuses (of sorts) have emerged around at least three points. First, all human relations—including those in the academy—are sexualized and, in most contemporary cultural contexts, characterized by the processes associated with homophobia and heterosexism (most significantly, closeting). This means that even the most ‘private’ and mundane of spaces are sites in which dominant relations of power are reproduced and (potentially) resisted. Second, the embodied experiences of real human beings are almost always queer in at least one dimension or another. They often involve, for example, iterative performances that reveal the constructedness of taken-for-granted everyday experiences and artifacts (for example, borders, nation-states, economies). This being the case, a queer methodology that reveals the power relations and mechanisms behind these constructions is potentially very effective. Third, sexual politics (and the politics of sexuality) are particularly apposite topics in colleges and universities. Attention to these can be touchy, but is important both politically and for its ability (potentially) to provoke learning (or ‘unlearning,’ as the case may be).

Perhaps the oldest and most developed body of literature dealing with sexuality and space (and one in which both of us have been deeply involved) is that which addresses sexuality in the context of ‘the urban.’ Both within and beyond the discipline of geography, scholars and activists have written quite widely about processes of gay community development, territoriality, neighborhood change, gentrification, social movements, urban politics and the cultural politics of urban space (as these pertain to sexuality). Most but not all of this work focuses on gay, lesbian and other sexual minority identities and communities. Because it has a nearly quarter-century history, this literature, as a whole, is less dominated by queer and other forms of post-structuralist theory than some of the more contemporary literatures discussed above. Some of it is in fact quite descriptive and empiricist: for example, Ketteringham’s (1979; 1983) work on the role of gay business enterprises in revitalizing the Broadway corridor of Long Beach, CA, and Winters’ (1979) consideration of the role of gay people in the social identities of evolving neighborhoods. Other efforts address gay and lesbian territoriality from the perspectives of symbolic interaction, oppression/resistance and anarchism (Levine, 1979; McNee, 1984; 1985; Murray, 1979; Weightman, 1980). And much of the work produced in the 1980s and early 1990s proceeded from a Marxian or neo-Marxian urban political economy perspective, with focuses on gay gentrification, the roles of gay and lesbian interest groups and social movements in urban politics, and the emergence of gay and lesbian residential and commercial spaces in cities (Castells, 1983; Castells and Murphy, 1982; Davis, 1995; Knopp, 1990a; 1990b). But beginning in the early 1990s, poststructuralist and queer theories—responding in part to the rise of queer politics and AIDS activism, and in part to the demonstrated inadequacies of more structuralist paradigms—began to inform work on sexuality and space even while the empirical focus remained heavily on urban areas and experiences (for example, Bech, 1993; Bell, 1994; Bell and Valentine, 1995; Binnie, 1993; Brown, 1994; 1999; Ingram et al., 1997; Knopp, 1998; Seebohm, 1994; Valentine, 1993b; but see Kramer, 1995). Attention began to be paid to the erotic significance of urban public space, conflicts over how space is constructed, coded and used through sexualized performances (for example, in parades), and spatial strategies for both enforcing and resisting heterosexism and other forms of sexual control. ‘Sexuality,’ meanwhile, finally began to be construed much more broadly, to include various constructions of heterosexuality as well as minority sexualities (Nast, 1998). Non-geographers have also been insightful in exploring the intersection of sexuality and the city, as evinced by the work of Bill Leap (forthcoming). Indeed, his innovative work on how sexualities intersect with race, class and gender through fragments of metropolitan Washington, DC has the potential to queer classic regional geography!

Even more recently a body of work has begun to appear that focuses on non-metropolitan and rural queer sexualities (Phillips et al., 2000). Because it is so new, this work is, not surprisingly, heavily influenced by queer theory. Interestingly, it seems focused primarily on getting non-metropolitan and rural queer issues ‘on the map’ in the discipline of geography, in much the same way that the urban work that preceded it seemed interested in getting sexual minority issues addressed. What awaits future researchers is the very exciting project of exploring the links between sexuality issues in different places and at different scales (see below).

At a somewhat broader scale, a small but growing body of explicitly geographical work now addresses the mutual constitutions of sexualities and discourses of nationhood, citizenship and the state. Bell (1995) and Binnie (1997), for example, consider the significance of laws regarding minority sexual practices and their enforcement through borders and immigration policies for notions of European citizenship and individual European national identities (for example, British, Dutch). Michael, meanwhile (Brown, 1997; 2000), has yoked modes of citizenship and Foucauldian notions of governmentality by exploring challenges to state-centered discourses of citizenship implicit in much AIDS activism and the closeting effect of the positivist epistemology underlying the British and US national censuses. And Nast (1998; 1999) has explored the ways in which discourses of nationhood are not only always sexualized, but classed, gendered and racialized as well (again, in a mutually constitutive way).

One area that is as yet still underdeveloped within geography is global-scale studies of sexuality and space (but see Kidron and Segal’s 1984 The New State of the World Atlas and Seager’s 1997 The State of Women in the World Atlas). Non-geographers, such as Robert Aldrich (1993), Neil Miller (1992), Lars Ebenstein (1993) and Dennis Altman (1997) have looked at issues such as the globalization of western ‘gay’ culture, the allure of certain world regions to generations of gay and lesbian travelers, and experiencing a queer unity in diversity through traversing the globe as ‘gay.’ But clearly there is much more that could be done from a queer perspective at this scale (we offer a few modest suggestions below). Another space, whose scale (and, perhaps, subjectivity) is arguably high and low, all and none at the same time is that of cyberspace. Winckapaw (1999) has considered the important role of the internet in shaping and empowering new lesbian subjectivities and resistances, as has Bornstein (1998). This area could be fleshed out much more by considerations of such phenomena as sex cruising in chat rooms, the forging of networks and communities in and between rural areas by online queers, transnational human rights and other activism, and the role of cyberspace in reshaping gender, sexuality and sex play.

Queer Geographies and Beyond

Despite the promise evidenced by all of this engagement with queer theory and a wide variety of spaces and places, there are limits and dangers to note. These include the political and personal ennui of constantly queering each other’s work, the construction of what amount to new orthodoxies despite a self-conscious political opposition to orthodoxy, or, alternatively, an unwillingness to acknowledge any political commitments at all, which can lead to power vacuums.

In addition, work on sexuality and space in geography remains largely peripheral even within cultural geography. This is because the discipline’s traditional corpus has been largely untouched by a queer sensibility. Such subfields as cultural ecology, cultural diffusion, geographies of language, religion, travel and tourism, recreation, and even landscape interpretation (among others) still largely ignore the issue of sexuality (much less incorporate elements of a queer epistemological critique) in their approaches (but see Jackson, 1989; Mitchell, 2000).

In working to address these twin (and somewhat contradictory) problems, we would suggest beginning modestly, by opening geography’s own closet door. There is a sociology and a politics to the production of geographic knowledge that involves personal relationships, desire and power. Anyone who has participated in academic culture for any period of time knows this. As in all endeavors, who desires whom (or what), who acts on this, who doesn’t, and how these relationships and desires are negotiated make a huge difference, not just to the way in which academic work proceeds but to what gets produced and legitimized (or delegitimized) as well. For example, Smith (1987) brings to light very sensitively the link between homophobia and Cold War geopolitics in the power struggle between Isaiah Bowman and Derwent Whittlesey at Harvard in the 1940s that ultimately led to the closing of that and most other Ivy League departments of geography. Still, this piece of the puzzle clearly needs to be explored more deeply, so as to more clearly specify the ways in which sexualized threats to nationhood and ‘national security’ are constructed discursively and materially. Similarly, while Elder et al. (forthcoming) discuss in somewhat more detail the heterosexed history of Geography as a discipline, their interpretation tends towards the psychoanalytical. A more materialist analysis would complement and strengthen their argument immensely. And Gillian Rose (1993), in her deep critique of the discipline’s masculinism, also links this to its heterosexism—though it has been argued that her own perspective could also benefit from a more careful queering (Binnie, 1997).

Of course, engaging in this kind of disciplinary soul-searching and dirty laundry airing is more easily said than done, and as we have said can lead to a kind of ennui and dispiritedness. A host of ethical and political dilemmas immediately present themselves once this history starts being researched, which may then be applicable to understanding both the benefits and the limits of queering geography’s content as well as its history as a discipline. The most obvious is the issue of ‘outing’—when, to whom and how to reveal matters that may be at once profoundly personal (and potentially hurtful) and crucial to understanding the history of the discipline. Related to this is the issue of separating salacious gossip from legitimate (and important) biographical and historical detail. And of course even the asking of certain questions can be harmful to any community—including a community of scholars -whose dynamics might be done more harm than good. The point here is that queering, as an activist scholarly enterprise, is by no means unproblematic. Of course, similar ethical and political dilemmas arise whenever a project of critically examining power relations unfolds, but in the context of western cultures, where so much social power is exercised through sexually charged anxieties and hostilities, we would suggest that particular care must be taken.

In terms of more topical agendas, we would ask all cultural geographers to recognize the centrality of sexuality to all aspects of culture. Sexuality is an always present aspect of the human experience. As such it is always implicit, if not explicit, in cultural constructs. We think it crucial, therefore, that cultural geographers be open to exploring this dimension of whatever their topical concerns may be. In the context of spatial interaction, for example, very little if any attention has been paid to the sexualized aspects of communication, transportation, trade and colonial/postcolonial (and other) relations. Yet it does not require too much ‘thinking beyond the boxes’ to conclude that sexuality may be very important indeed in understanding these phenomena. For example, at the nexus of cultural and economic geography, interest in spaces of culture industries and the gendered and racialized dimensions of labor markets are a vibrant zone of research. Yet sexuality remains largely ignored here. The idea that there may be occupational segregation by sexuality in industries such as travel and tourism is almost taken for granted in both the contemporary travel industry and many gay/lesbian subcultures. Not only is there strong anecdotal evidence suggesting that customer services in many industries (not just travel and tourism) are often staffed by women and gay men, it is clear from the rise of sex tourism in places such as Thailand that the segmenting of markets by sexuality is also growing in importance. What does this rather explicit sexualizing (and, potentially, queering) of the travel and tourism industries mean for our understandings of what travel and tourism are all about? While travel and tourism have long been recognized as vehicles for acting on desire for ‘the other,’ this has rarely been explored in any kind of detail (though see del Casino and Hanna, 2000). A queer perspective in particular, with its refusal to ‘fix’ sexualities or sexual identities, would be extraordinarily useful in tackling this project. At the same time, researchers in this or similar areas should be mindful that while a relentless queering and deconstruction of identities, places, etc. may be insightful, it can also be very occluding and dangerous, particularly in the context of cross-cultural research.

Cultural turns are also bending the often-quantitative work done in population geography, especially around issues of migration. Here again, sexuality has the potential to invigorate scholarship. Mark Ellis (1996), for instance, looked at the migration patterns of HIV-positive people around access to healthcare services. Michael noted how coming out is often spatialized as migration (Brown, 2000). The potential for exploring queer migrations and perhaps even diasporas, is fascinating.

Similarly, despite the increasingly important roles played by telecommunications media in producing and feeding sexual desire there is precious little research by geographers on this issue (Winckapaw, 1999, notwithstanding). Such an endeavor would likely reveal much in the way of sexual conflicts and contradictions (witness struggles over control of sexual content on the internet). And given recent events in Europe regarding the EU’s and European Parliament’s controversial (and contradictory) attempts to influence member states’ laws regarding sexual minorities, and the broader contexts of economic unions, ‘free trade’ and globalization within which these have taken place, it is equally surprising that the whole issue of trade has not been queered. In addition to the impact of internal state policies regarding sexuality on trade, geographers could look at the ways in which divisions of labor in trade are sexualized (for example, in ports, on docks, in commodity markets and exchanges, etc.), discourses and practices of sexuality in trading institutions (for example, GATT, OPEC), and sex itself as a commodity that is traded. Once the sexual logics and practices underlying these phenomena are made clearer, the project of understanding these logics will be that much easier.

Sexualized power relations are also clearly important in both the history of colonialism and contemporary post-colonial economic and political relations (witness the global traffic in women as sex workers and the rise, again, of sex tourism in places like Thailand). A few geographers (for example, Domosh, 1991; Gregory, 1995; Nast, 1998; Phillips, 1999; Rothenberg, 1994) have recognized this and begun to explore it. But by and large this project has been the domain of postcolonial writers and theorists in the humanities (especially feminist postcolonialists). They tend to explore it in the context of either direct colonial practices of domination or diasporic subjectivities and other postcolonial cultural products. A queer geographical focus specifically on the interplay between sexualities and postcoloniality could provide some badly needed foundational knowledge for broader understandings of both colonialism and postcolonialism (so long as it does not become an end in itself). Glen Elder’s (1998; forthcoming) work on the complicated intersections of race, class and sexuality in post-apartheid South Africa provides an important path in this direction.

Despite the relative scarcity of such work, studies of diasporic postcolonial subjectivities constitute one of the very few areas of study that brings any kind of contemporary critical sensibility to the issue of spatial interaction. Most approaches to spatial interaction still employ largely positivist epistemologies and fairly narrow and mechanistic notions of culture (as, for example, a thing rather than a process). Not surprisingly, then, the way in which ‘culture’ is seen as evolving spatially in this kind of work is via distinct ‘carriers’ and along (usually hierarchical) networks. And while virtually no work explicitly addresses the diffusion of, or encounters between, sexual cultures in space, this theme is implicit (as we have argued above) in a great deal of the critical sexuality and space literature. We would suggest, then, that in addition to new focuses on communication, transportation, trade and colonialism/postcolonialism, a queered approach to the issue of spatial interaction might focus as well on the connections between queer cultures and subjectivities in different places, on the interactions between and among dominant and subordinate sexualities at different scales, and on ways in which processes of sexualization are transmuted as they evolve spatially. For example, one might look at the roles of migration and communication in shaping queer cultures and forms of resistance in different places; at how the policing of sexualities at supranational, national and subnational scales affect each other; and at how the meanings of ‘straight,’ ‘gay,’ etc. have changed as they have crossed space and encountered other ways of conceptualizing and accounting for human (sexual) experience.

Having said all this, it is important that we interject at this point some additional cautionary comments regarding the epistemology of desire and sexuality with which we are working. Clearly, our notions of these human experiences are mediated by our own social locations as middle-class white academics in the ‘west.’ While we obviously would not argue that this disqualifies us (or others like us) from looking at desire and sexuality beyond our own cultural frames of reference, we do think it important that people like us engage in careful self-criticism in the process, so as to avoid, to the extent possible, participating in the hegemonic globalization of our own notions. Even more importantly, we think that a corrective will be needed in the form of non-western geographers producing their own queer geographies (while we in the west listen).

In parallel fashion, it is important to note that our own notions of the closet (Brown, 2000; Knopp, 1994) are not the only ones worth examining from a queer perspective. Valentine’s (2000) new edited collection on lesbian geographies provides the beginnings of a badly needed corrective to the bias towards studies of gay male issues in queer geography. Indeed, Nast (forthcoming) challenges us to consider the ways in which patriarchies have historically worked in and through gay male culture. But other sexual and sexualized minorities (and, indeed, others) also have closets that urgently require unpacking. We are thinking here not only of bisexuals, sex workers, fetishists of various kinds, and others who might identify (or be identified, culturally) by their sexual ‘difference,’ but individuals and groups for whom ‘non-sexual’ pleasures or practices (for example, food, music, dance, ethnicity, language, religion) or even more culturally ascribed characteristics (for example, race, nationality) might produce unique but culturally powerful ways of knowing by not knowing (for example, closets). What of the ‘quadroons’ and other mixed-race women of antebellum Louisiana who at times ‘passed’ as white? The Jews and half-Jews who survived the holocaust by posing as non-Jews? The political dissidents who survive purges by concealing their histories of activism? Surely queer insights into the workings of closets generally will have some purchase in these contexts as well.

As we have already argued (and contrary to the assertions of some gay cultural critics—for example, Savage, 1999; 2000), once closet doors are opened, the other side can still be a very dangerous place. In some parts of the world, being a sexual dissident can still be a capital offense. Valentine’s (1998) personal exposé illustrates what the fear of the same kind of violence can do to people even in allegedly safer societies. Related to this is the growing iconographic significance of sites of violence (tragic and triumphant) to queer people. The Stonewall bar in New York City was recently designated as a National Historic Landmark, and a national gay and lesbian magazine noted that people from all over are now making pilgrimages to the remote fence in Wyoming where gay college student Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and murdered (The Advocate, 2000). These examples highlight the need for geographers to investigate in further detail the dangerous spaces of abuse, harm and bashing that threaten the queer body quite materially.

At the same time, we think it very important that queer geographies not be equated solely with geographies of queerness (or non-heterosexuality). Queerness is as much an intellectual and epistemological perspective as a set of subjectivities organized around sexuality. Accordingly, we wholeheartedly endorse calls instigated by Nast (1998) and others for queer geographies to begin taking heterosexuality and its myriad expressions (and contradictions) seriously. As a privileged set of identities and practices, heterosexuality has been taken for granted even while being constructed monolithically as nothing less than the basic value underlying ‘the family’ and, by extension, ‘civilization.’ But of course heterosexuality is in fact an enormously diverse set of practices and relations that can even include (seemingly contradictorily) same-sex activity (for example, ‘male rape’ and other forms of sexual engagement by heterosexually identified men with other men), not to mention eroticized interactions of dizzying varieties. While it would be impossible to provide an exhaustive agenda for geographers interested in heterosexualities here, a starting point might be consideration of the processes producing spaces, places and environments that are strongly coded as heterosexual. For example, while suburbanization has been analyzed in terms of capitalism, racism and patriarchy, it is clearly also a product of heterosexism (see Knopp, 1990a, for a brief acknowledgement of this). Those interested in capitalist land markets, housing policies and racist/patriarchal social relations cannot ignore the heterosexual dimensions to these phenomena. Spaces and places designed specifically to facilitate heterosexual sex, courtship and marriage might also be examined from a queer perspective. What of ‘straight’ porn shops and cinemas where heterosexually identified men, consuming heterosexually oriented pornography, have sex (ironically, at times, with each other)? Or debutante balls, prom dances, ‘lovers’ lanes,’ ‘singles bars’ and weddings where men and women learn the rituals of dating, courting and having sex? Alternatively, one might consider many of the issues we raised above (communication, colonialism/postcolonialism, trade, transportation closets) from a distinctly heterosexual (but still queer) perspective.

Given the rise in geography of perspectives like political ecology and nature-society studies, we think it important that queer perspectives on nature and environment be on cultural geographers’ agendas as well. Queer epistemological critiques generally, as well as the consideration of queer sexualities, could surely inform approaches to nature-society debates, just as feminist critiques and perspectives on gender have done in defining fields like feminist political ecology (Rocheleau et al., 1996). The key would be to look at the links between cultural/political systems as a whole (but from a perspective that foregrounds especially issues of sexuality and associated ways of knowing), social constructions of ‘nature,’ and biological systems. One might ask, for example, how heterosexism is related to masculinist and patriarchal approaches to environmental management, and how it is inscribed in landscapes and physical systems that have been transformed by ‘man.’ More generally, how might the closeting of queer desire in western societies discipline men’s and women’s constructions and uses of ‘nature’? In the context of ‘non-western’ cultures, we might ask why it is that so many people who in the west might be considered ‘queer’ are ascribed special status as spiritual naturists (for example, the berdache of some native North American cultures). These questions (and many others like them) would seem to be particularly rich avenues for inquiry by new generations of broadly trained cultural geographers interested in sexuality and queer theory.

Finally, we would call for a continuation and deepening of self-reflexivity in queer geographies of the future. Incumbent in any postmodern scholarship, queer perspectives cannot just challenge and critique others; they must also self-critique as well. After all, queer theory insists that no position is completely innocent or unproblematic. Kim England’s (1994) now-classic essay on her ‘failed’ research attempt as a straight woman investigating lesbian networks in Toronto shows the power and truths such auto-critiques can generate. Furthermore, they lead to a mutually supportive and constructive engagement with each other’s work that draws on the affinities of queer theory and feminist politics by challenging the masculinist academic politics of trenchant critique and backbiting. Cultivating such an academic culture seems especially important in a small but geometrically growing field like queer geography.


As this volume’s perspective is to see cultural geography as less a cogent scholarly object and more a critical way of approaching a wide variety of spaces and places, this chapter has focused on how topics deriving from the consideration of sexuality shape that view. We have offered a brief history of how issues of and debates surrounding sexuality have affected human geography generally, from simple mapping and decloseting linked to nascent gay-rights movements to a more critical and anti-positivist scholarship informed by Marxist and feminist perspectives. The postmodern turn in the discipline has augmented and broadened queer geography, linking scholarship on a wide variety of issues with more thoroughly critical and deconstructive questions of representation, epistemology and ontology. These developments have, admittedly, precipitated their own tensions and debates (for example, around the (im)possibility of a clear and committed politics within a thoroughly deconstructivist project of queering: see our discussion of Bell et al., 1994, above), but overall we see them as broadening and enriching activist scholarship.

We have also tried to showcase the ways in which, as a consequence of these latest developments, a variety of spaces have already begun to be queered, as well as the limits of this queering project. From the closet to the body, to the city, to the nation and to the globe, new queer cultural geographies show us that a variety of subjectivities are performed, resisted, disciplined and oppressed not simply in but throughspace. However awkward and choppy our scale-fixing may be (admittedly, queers inhabit bodies and the globe simultaneously!), our intention has been to demonstrate the truly impressive myriad locations on the globe, debates within the academy, and political issues in ‘the real world’ in which queer issues, experiences and geographies are implicated.

As a perpetual deconstructive process, the project of queering (cultural) geography will never be finished (nor should it be). In our view this openness makes it one of the most exciting and intellectually promising areas of enquiry in the entire discipline. Consequently, we closed the chapter with some of our own suggestions for queer cultural geographies we’d like to see in the future, along with some cautionary comments about potential dangers. The list is by no means complete or commanding, but rather is illustrative of where we have been, where we are and where we might go. No doubt even more fascinating geographies, whose ‘queerness’ exceeds far beyond our current imaginations, have yet to be written by current students of cultural geography!