Author interview – Louise Waite speaks about ‘Negotiating difference through everyday encounters: The case of sexual orientation and religion and belief’

The March 2012 issue of Antipode is out now. We have an editorial, ‘Announcing the Antipode Foundation’, a book review symposium exploring Ananya Roy’s excellent Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development, and a bumper crop of papers: everything from an ethnography of ‘illegal’ migrant labour; through an analysis of higher education student volunteering; to some reflections on emotion and the performance of politics.

We also have a great paper by Leeds geographers Gill Valentine and Louise Waite, ‘Negotiating difference through everyday encounters: The case of sexual orientation and religion and belief‘, which argues for critical geographers “to be more attentive to the potentially competing values, interests, and rights of the equality strands (race, gender, disability, religion and belief, sexual orientation, age)”. Back in October 2011 we caught up with Louise to hear more about the paper and its production…

  • Hi Louise, and thanks for talking to us about your paper, ‘Negotiating difference through everyday encounters’. Why did you and Gill decide to write the piece?

Gill and I had been commissioned by Stonewall to do some research that explored what people of faith ‘really’ think about homosexuality. We conducted a series of focus groups with heterosexual Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus and lesbian and gay people of faith. We felt our findings connected in important ways with the recent single Equality Act that came into force in the UK in October 2010, designed to level up and standardise legal protection for all minority groups. For the first time, this Act incorporated responsibility for sexual orientation, religion/belief and age. It seems to be often presumed in the public arena that tensions may be particularly experienced between religion/belief and sexual orientation. Our research spoke to these perceived tensions, so we decided to publish our work to a more academic audience through Antipode.

  • What’s the central concern of the paper, and why is it important?

Many commentators muse that questions of how to ‘live with difference’ are of pivotal importance in the 21st century in the UK. We arguably live in times of ‘super-diversity’ where many different people with different beliefs/values live side by side and rub along together more, or less, harmoniously. Some are concerned that such different orientations may be incompatible with the growth of ‘good relations’ between individuals and groups in communities. We wanted to explore the perceptions of people in the two equality strands that at first glance might appear to be on a pre-determined collision course in terms of belief systems – sexual orientation and religion/belief. We wanted to learn about how people with ostensibly opposed viewpoints actually manage their encounters with each other in public space.

  • What is it that draws you, personally, intellectually and/or politically, to this topic?

Throughout my academic training and career I have had a deep interest in social identities and how they shape and mould people’s experiences, and particularly how these experiences may lead to exclusion/discrimination/social injustice. Over the last few years I have become increasingly interested in how people in ‘multicultural’ societies do, or do not, manage to live alongside each other in ways that approximate the ‘good relations’ of government parlance. I was particularly motivated to undertake this research as I believe it highlights how there is a need for geographers to be more attentive to potential tensions between the values, interests, and rights of equality groups in everyday encounters.

  • How does your paper relate to current affairs and matters of concern?

Much of the thinking behind the Equality Act development implies that different groups share common agendas and that their interests coincide because of their common experiences of exclusion and discrimination. Yet, competing rights claims including several high-profile public events and legal cases in the UK and other European countries between different equality strands suggest that this is not always the case. For example, in 2008 a Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages in London refused to conduct civil partnership services for lesbians and gay men on the grounds that it contravened her orthodox Christian beliefs. Such high profile cases demonstrate the policy and current affairs relevance of our paper.

  • What are your paper’s implications for praxis? How can the knowledge you have generated help change or shape the world in progressive ways?

This paper is broadly aimed at prejudice reduction; how people with very different value and belief systems can co-exist. Our findings suggest that given the incompatibility of the values of some heterosexual people of faith/belief and LGBT people, tensions should therefore be emerging between some individuals of religion and belief and lesbians and gay men in their everyday encounters in public spaces. Yet, the evidence of our research is that such everyday encounters are not producing these anticipated tensions between individuals because of belief/conduct distinctions. The findings suggest that while conflicts may be evident in debates about group rights in the public sphere (for example, in the law courts, media and political/policy debates) they are less likely to be seen between individuals in everyday public spaces. We feel the paper is progressive therefore, in that it demonstrates how the ‘what is’, i.e. everyday personal experiences, is prioritised over religious perspectives of ‘what ought to be’. This enables us to understand a little more about how individuals can in practice live with difference.

  • What sort of reaction do you hope your paper will get, both within and beyond the academy?

Within the academy – hopefully geographers will see the usefulness of extending the geography of encounters literature field in the way we outline. Beyond the academy – we hope it might influence policy makers/practitioners who are involved in policy thinking around community cohesion, integration, the promotion of ‘good relations’ and so on.

  • What’s your current project? What’s next?

I am currently running an Economic and Social Research Council project exploring encounters in the least prestigious parts of the UK’s labourscape: asylum seekers and refugees’ experiences of unfreedom (see more at Gill currently runs an European Research Council project that explores the making of communities out of strangers in an era of super mobility and super diversity (see more at