Organised by Jack Gieseking and Erin Clancy, University of Kentucky
Since the 1980s, the geographies of sexualities literature has become a key component of geographic literature, contributing primarily to human geography and critical GIS. The sub-field grew alongside scholarship in what is now billed lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) studies that began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well as the project of queer theory which formally took shape in the 1990s. Given both LGBTQ studies scholars’ and queer theorists’ proclivity for writing humanistic monographs and geography’s inclination for writing social science articles, geography has been less absorbed into mainstream LGBTQ studies than fields like anthropology, performance studies, English literature, history, and American studies. Further, LGBTQ studies has largely been the project of historians and sociologists, and queer theory largely developed from and contributes to the humanities and anthropology. At the same time, appropriations of queer theory in geography have remained the project of a handful of geographers of sexualities rather than the field’s larger scale adoption of feminist theory and, more recently and finally, critical race theory.
How then can we articulate the study of queer geographies today? As a collective project/assignment in our Queer Geographies seminar at the University of Kentucky, we had the great pleasure of each selecting academic texts that draw on queer theory and take up the study of space and place at varying scales. We sought to articulate the project of queer geographies across fields not only for geographers of sexualities, but for the field of geography as a whole in order to grasp the breadth and importance of this work. We chose these academic texts because they spoke to our research, methodological, and/or theoretical interests. In the end, they articulated rural and urban concerns, rethought the concept of the region, argued for new and innovative readings of digital spaces, addressed the role of the nation-state in articulating genders and sexualities, and deeply attended to the experience of embodiment and the everyday.
The distinctions and commonalities among our texts in regard to theory particularly stood out to us. Certainly, all of the authors created projects from and speaking to queer theory. In fact, we could trace a topographic line across these manuscripts to some of the “major” queer theorists: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, José Esteban Muñoz, Jack Halberstam, Michel Foucault, Donna Haraway, and, of course, Judith Butler. In these citation practices, it was striking to us that as much as queer theory aims to upset normativities, there is still a form of “major” theory at work that can sideline the work of “minor” theorists (Katz 1995). We found that the approach of queer subjectless critique continues to grow, as in David Seitz’s A House of Prayer for All People, where he explores citizenship outside the parameters of the nation-state. (After much discussion, we understand queer subjectless critique to be the application of queer theory on subjects and subjectivities who need not identify as queer in order to articulate deviance, desire, and non-normativites [cf. Berlant 2011, 2016; Puar 2007; Seitz 2015].) Yet, we also found ourselves wondering throughout the course of the semester – and as one of our reviewers articulates in his review of Gayatri Gopinath’s Unruly Visions – what are the limits of this queer subjectless critique when its use could potentially render queer everything outside of the white, cisgender, heteropatriarchal ordinary? At the same time, one of our reviewers found that using this approach to analyze the coding and playing of video games as taken up in Bonnie Ruberg’s Video Games Have Always Been Queer to help unsettle the often assumed “straight” and masculinist digital spaces, if only one looks past representation alone. Similarly, Toby Beauchamp’s Going Stealth draws on queer theory and trans theory to rethink surveillance studies. Beauchamp seeks not to center the trans subject per se, but rather to consider how both bodies and citizenship are constructed and conveyed along gendered, racialized, classed and other vectors of power.
While the scholarship we have reviewed comes from eight fields (American studies, communications studies, geography, sociology, history, cultural studies, gender and women’s studies, and English literature), the scholarship in our texts, as in LGBTQ studies and queer theory, tends to draw on the same methods: ethnography, media analysis, archival research, and close readings of texts. Rather than limiting, we found that the research arguments made across the texts were all the more accessible for these shared trends in methods and methodologies. Some of our texts bridged consideration of LGBTQ activist work and the commodification thereof, ranging from the history of radical and not-so-radical practices of feminist bookstores in Kristen Hogan’s The Feminist Bookstore Movement, to the (often frustrating or saddening) affective experiences of contemporary LGBTQ non-profits in Myrl Beam’s Gay Inc., and to Julio Capó, Jr.’s Welcome to Fairyland about the queer history of Miami. At the same time, some queer subjects become radical because they live in nation-states that do not ascribe to pro-lesbian and gay tourism or homonormative government policies around marriage, child-rearing, healthcare, familial recognition, and so on. In Hongwei Bao’s Queer Comrades, the author argues that queer Chinese, drawing on socialist politics, have been infused with and therefore restructure a different China than many thought possible.
Many of the texts we reviewed draw from and contribute to the burgeoning field of trans studies. Jack Halberstam’s Trans* offers a wide consideration of trans bodies across scales, states, and temporalities. Other texts, like Ann Travers’ The Trans Generation, stick within the bounds of Western nation-states to closely examine the place-making practices of trans youth in their everyday geographies such as schools, healthcare, public spaces, and spaces with parents. In many of these monographs, race and ethnicity were of primary importance. C. Riley Snorton’s Black on Both Sides demonstrates that blackness and transness are bound to one another in our understanding of other bodies, just as Lynda Johnston’s Transforming Gender, Sex, and Place demonstrates in her longitudinal study of trans and gender non-conforming people in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia that bodies and identities are constituted through daily negotiations with and navigations through everyday spaces and practices and larger structures of, for example, the city, university, or nation-state. While focusing on the 18th century, a period when the idea of a trans subject is anachronistic, Greta LaFleur’s The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America still speaks to and from theories that broaden our understanding of how the co-production of race, sexuality, and gender have produced the modern nation-state.
As a class, we took great joy in reading these texts and discussing together what the future of queer studies would look like in our own fields of geography, gender and women’s studies, English literature, and food studies. While only two of the texts in this collection are published in the field of geography, we found each of them deeply intertwined with fundamental critical geographic concerns. Geographers interested in queer theory and sexuality thus have a rich field of literature to engage with and to enrich further human geography’s interdisciplinarity, a trait that makes the field so special to begin with. For example, we found that the study of sexuality and queer theory deeply upsets rural-urban binaries and notions of cosmopolitanism that all too often fuel the work of urban geographers (some of us included).
At the same time, we argue that geographers have the ability and perhaps an imperative to contribute to this field in the production of monographs and articles alike. We implore not only more geographers to employ queer theory and questions of sexuality in their work but also for those doing this work in the fields mentioned above and beyond to engage more with geographers. We envision a space of theoretical reciprocity and generative dialogues in which there is an expansion of the canon of “major” queer theory and where there are further entanglements between geography, American studies, history, media studies, and so forth. As one reviewer notes, this work does and will continue to “compel…us to remain critical, reflective, and humble”.
Berlant L (2011) Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press
Berlant L (2016) The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34(3):393-419
Katz C (1995) Major/minor: Theory, nature, and politics. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 85(1):164-168
Puar J (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press
Seitz D K (2015) The trouble with Flag Wars: Rethinking sexuality in critical urban theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39(2):251-264