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Dossier : La vie des personnes LGBT en dehors des grandes villes

From Nowhere: Provincializing Gay Life

La provincialisation de la vie gay
Gavin Brown
p. 129-143

Résumés

Sur le fondement de sources contemporaines et historiques relatives à une ville anglaise provinciale de taille moyenne, cet article examine les traits distinctifs de la vie gay en dehors des grandes villes métropolitaines. L’article concerne la question de la violence et de la discrimination à l’encontre des personnes LGBT dans les villes européennes petites et moyennes et s’intéresse plus particulièrement à la vie quotidienne dans ces villes. D’un point de vue conceptuel, l’article tente de « provincialiser » certaines hypothèses théoriques clés sur la politique sexuelle contemporaine. D’un point de vue empirique, l’article s’appuie sur des sources littéraires et d’archives sur la vie gay à Leicester (et dans la région anglaise de l’East Midlands) à la fin du XXe siècle, ainsi que sur des observations ethnographiques menées dans la ville au cours de la dernière décennie. S’appuyant sur une variété de matériaux empiriques, cette réflexion englobe l’appel de Catherine J. Nash et Andrew Gorman-Murray. Ces derniers invitent les géographes à utiliser le concept d’agencement (assemblage thinking) pour mieux comprendre la configuration des pratiques sexuelles et des identités contemporaines, façonnées par les récents changements sociopolitiques et les nouvelles avancées technologiques.

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1I have, for many years been fascinated by the figure of the gay English playwright Joe Orton. August 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of Orton’s murder, in 1967, by his lover Kenneth Halliwell. The summer of 2017 also marked the 50th anniversary of the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. Those two anniversaries do not completely frame what I want to say in this paper, but they haunt it a little.

  • 1 Randall Nakayama, «Sensation and Sensibility: Joe Orton’s Diaries», in Francesca Coppa (ed.), Joe (...)

2John [Joe] Orton was born and grew up in Leicester, the city in the English Midlands where I now live and work. In fact, he grew up in a working class family on a large social housing estate that is just a few minutes’ walk from my current home. As well as a novelist and a playwright, Joe Orton is well-known for keeping a diary – both as a teenager and in the last couple of years of his life. Indeed, when Halliwell murdered Orton (before taking his own life), he left a message placed on top of the diary manuscript that stated, “If you read his diary all will be explained”1. His juvenile diary suggests that Joe felt that Leicester constrained him and sucked the life out of him. Orton grew up in a home where there was little love or affection (even if he was clearly his mother’s favourite). His younger sister, Leonie, reflected on their upbringing and his relationship to their mother in the following terms:

  • 2 Leonie Orton, I had it in me. A memoir, Leicester, Quirky Press, 2016 p. 17.

Her cronies all agreed she made them laugh with her outrageous turns of phrase and Elsie basked in the raucous laughter. Many years later her son’s plays would have the same effect on West End audiences. John had observed our mother’s behaviour and it must have irked him. I think he internalised it, stored it away. He was angry and for many years he felt trapped by the working class deprivation and the hand-to-mouth existence he witnessed daily on the Saffron Lane Estate2.

3His mother, by all accounts, was a cruel and self-centred woman who bullied her husband and her children. His father frequently escaped to the local working men’s club to play skittles (incidentally located on the corner of my street – a street I will discuss later in the paper). I argue that some of the (contradictory) aspects of the working class up in continue to contribute to the shape of gay life in Leicester. Using culture that Joe Orton grew contemporary and historical sources about one medium-sized provincial city in England, this short paper examines the distinctive features of gay life outside major metropolitan cities. As such, this provocation engages with the focus of the papers presented in this special issue on violence and discrimination against LGBT people in small and medium sized European cities. However, my comments focus more on thinking about everyday life in such cities (without focusing purely on LGBTphobia).

  • 3 Catherine J Nash et Andrew Gorman-Murray, «Sexualities, subjectivities and urban spaces: a case f (...)

4Conceptually, this article’s objective is to explore the limits of theories based on metropolitan sexual politics for understanding the experiences of LGBT people in provincial cities. Empirically, this short paper draws on literary and archival sources about gay life in Leicester (and the broader English East Midlands region) in the late 20th century, along with ethnographic observations conducted in the city of the last decade. In thinking about these issues through a diverse range of empirical material, this paper engages with Catherine J. Nash and Andrew Gorman-Murray’s call for geographers to utilize assemblage thinking to help theorize how contemporary sexual lives and sexual politics are shaped by the coming together of recent socio-legal changes and various new socio-technical arrangements3.

Questioning the metropolitan focus of geographies of sexualities

  • 4 Amin Ghaziani, There Goes the Gayborhood, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2014 ; Andre (...)
  • 5 Catherine J. Nash Toronto’s «Gay Village (1969–1982): Plotting the Politics of Gay Identity», Can (...)
  • 6 Gustav Visser, «The homonormalisation of white heterosexual leisure spaces in Bloemfontein, South (...)
  • 7 Sharif Mowlabocus, Gaydar Culture: Gay Men, Technology and Embodiment in the Digital Age, Farnham (...)

5Much geographical writing on the lives of LGBT people remains focused on the experience of life in major metropolitan urban centres. For example, over the last decade, many commentators have described significant changes in the size, significance and functioning of those inner city ‘gaybourboods’ where (lesbians and) gay men have tended to cluster for residential and leisure purposes4. A range of factors are thought to contribute to the decline of these neighbourhoods; but a key argument is that, with increasing social acceptance of sexual minorities and the rapid (if uneven) diffusion of formal legal equality, lesbians and gay men no longer need to congregate together in distinct urban clusters in order to find community and protection5. In many major cities (but also more widely), the presence of lesbians and gay men has been normalized in a range of social settings6. Alongside these geographical and socio-legal changes, new digital and locative technologies have enabled sexual minorities to no longer rely on attending specific bars in order to meet each other7.

  • 8 Lisa Duggan, «The new homonormativity: the sexual politics of neoliberalism», in Donald E. Pease, (...)
  • 9 Gavin Brown, «Homonormativity: a metropolitan concept that denigrates ‘ordinary’ gay lives», Jour (...)
  • 10 Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy et Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of (...)
  • 11 Paul J. Maginn et Christine Steinmetz (eds), (Sub)Urban Sexscapes: Geographies and Regulation of (...)

6Same-sex marriage, other forms of legal equality, and the apparent shrinking of lesbian and gay public culture have been taken as evidence of a ‘new homonormativity’ – a form of neoliberal sexual politics that encourages the domestication of financially independent and self-reliant couples no matter what their sexuality8. For geographers of sexualities, the spatialities of homonormativity – where and how it is manifested in and across cities, suburbs and regions – is of particular interest9. Thinking geographically about homonormativity complicates some accounts of this social phenomenon. Lesbian and gay people have always lived (and, to some extent, been visible) in the suburbs and smaller cities, as well as in the inner cities of large metropolitan urban centres. A number of foundational lesbian and gay oral history projects have recorded and illustrated same-sex suburban domesticity since the 1960s or earlier10. Similarly, the suburbs should not be taken as a synecdoche for domesticity, but should also be acknowledged as sites of public sex and locations where adult entertainment and sex industries also operate11.

7One of the problems with dominant theorization of ‘homonormativity’ is that they attribute too much power and influence to state and corporate actors. Although formal legislative changes offering legal protection and equal rights have been (and continue to be) very significant in many countries, the really profound transformation in people’s intimate lives have resulted from the cumulative changes in the everyday practices of millions of people, gay and straight. To lead a publicly visible gay life is now more quotidian than transgressive. Even so the benefits of these social changes are still experienced unevenly and there are costs associated with this ‘progress’ (which are borne disproportionately by trans people and queers of colour).

  • 12 Jeffrey Weeks, The World We Have Won, London, Routledge, 2017 p. 9.
  • 13 Mary L. Gray, Out in the Country: Youth, Media and Queer Visibility in Rural America, New York, N (...)

8In reflecting on these profound changes in social attitudes and legal frameworks, Jeffrey Weeks challenged the strong anti-normative critiques of many queer theorists, reminding researchers that they should “never underestimate the importance of being ordinary”12. Most lesbian and gay people do not live in the metropolitan centres where ‘homonormativity’ has been described, theorised and critiqued. And, those that do, may seldom define their sense of self entirely through the spaces and social relations that are considered to be quintessentially ‘homonormative’. While there are an increasing number of studies of lesbian and gay life beyond the metropolitan centres of Australia, North America and Western Europe13, the experiences of metropolitan gay men and women are extrapolated from, globalised, and presented as the universal gay experience too frequently and in highly problematic ways.

  • 14 Jennifer Robinson, Ordinary cities: between modernity and development, London, Routledge 2006.
  • 15 Gavin Brown, «Urban (homo)sexualities: ordinary cities, ordinary sexualities», Geography Compass (...)
  • 16 Margot Weiss, Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the circuits of sexuality, Durham, NC, Duke Univer (...)

9Just as certain ‘global cities’ have come to dominate key debates and conceptualizations within urban studies, I believe it is important to challenge any tendency to present the experience of certain global cities as the barometer against which all gay life and sexual politics is measured14. Most lesbians and gay men do not live in London, New York, San Francisco, Sydney or the handful of other global gay cities that dominate the literature. Even in these cities many (perhaps, most) gay people will live suburban lives that are not solely focused on city centre living, employment or consumption. Consequently, social scientists need to study the specific histories and geographies of gay life in a much wider range of locations, paying attention to whether and how ‘homonormative’ social relations are reproduced in such locations. As I have argued previously, for as long as homonormativity is theorised as something uniform and universal, scholars risk overlooking the specific geographies of the social, political, and economic relations that shape gay lives. There is an uneven geography to these processes and practices (which are experienced in very different ways depending on their specific geographical context)15. More than simply contextualizing ‘local’ sexual assemblages, I believe researchers should «map the complex and often contradictory social dynamics that produce and are, in turn, reproduced within particular sexual cultures, practices and desires»16. Rather than assume that the homonormative subjectivities produced in the dense social networks and spaces of metropolitan gay life are reproduced in other geographical contexts, I suggest that researchers should examine the complex range of contemporary and historical factors (including, but not limited to neoliberal economic policies and modes of governmentality) that shape LGBT lives in small and medium-sized cities.

  • 17 Ben Anderson et Colin McFarlane, «Assemblage and geography», Area, n.º 43 2011/2, 124-127; Ben An (...)
  • 18 Dave Holmes, Patrick O'Byrne et Stuart J. Murray, «Faceless sex: glory holes and sexual assemblag (...)
  • 19 Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society. Assemblage theory and social complexity, London, Con (...)
  • 20 Catherine J. Nash et Andrew Gorman-Murray, «Sexualities, subjectivities and urban spaces: a case (...)

10In considering the historically and geographically specific production of sexual identities and sexual politics, I am influenced by debates in Anglophone Geography over the last decade about the potential of post-Deleuzian assemblage thinking17. Until recently, this strand of thinking has had little influence within the ‘geographies of sexualities’ sub-discipline, although scholars working in Youth Studies and sexual health fields have explored how contemporary sexual practices (and the meanings attached to them) are shaped by assemblages of human beings, technologies and material objects of various kinds18. As DeLanda highlights, unlike wholes or totalities, assemblages are «made up of parts which are self-subsistent and articulated by relations of exteriority»19. Most recently, Nash and Gorman-Murray have argued that assemblage thinking offers significant possibilities for an interpretive analysis of contemporary sexualities that «considers the (re)combination and mutual constitution of locations, material objects, bodies, experiences, ideas and emotions»20. In this way, larger entities emerge out of smaller entities; large scale assemblages are frequently made up of many smaller assemblages of various kinds. What is important is to understand the ways in which assemblages come together, stabilize, but also the conditions under which they destabilize and fall apart. Such an approach might pay attention to local labour markets, flows of capital, (path dependencies unfolding from) local histories, the use of smart phone technologies, the fleeting popularity of a new bar, and much more besides. Assemblage thinking draws attention to the contingent coming together of multiple factors to shape sexual practices, subjectivities, and politics in a specific time and place. While the primary purpose of this paper is not to make a strong case for assemblage thinking in the study of the lives of LGBT people, I use it here to illustrate the range of factors that might shape contemporary sexual politics in Leicester. I use this specific case study to argue that there is a danger in over-extending universalizing arguments about contemporary sexual politics that are based on the experience of life in a small number of major global cities.

Leicester then and now

  • 21 Ned Newitt, A People’s History of Leicester. A pictorial history of working class life and politi (...)

11Orton grew up on the Saffron Lane Estates, a large social housing development build in the inter-war period to address the city’s severe housing shortage21. His mother worked in the hosiery factories that, along with precision light engineering, made the city have one of the highest per capita incomes in Europe in the 1930s. Despite this affluence in the city, the Orton family struggled financially and there was seldom enough money to meet Elsie Orton’s aspirations for herself and her eldest son. Elsie Orton pawned her wedding ring to pay for Joe to attend a private business college in the city. Consequently, when he left school he took low grade clerical jobs, rather than following his peers on to the factory floor. Nevertheless, Orton retained a strong sense of his working class identity throughout his life. At the height of his fame, in the months before his death, his diary recorded the following encounter about a cheap fur coat he had received as a gift from his agent.

  • 22 Diary entry for Monday 9 January 1967, in John Lahr (ed.), The Orton Diaries, London, Minerva, 19 (...)

«I’ve discovered that I look better in cheap clothes». «I wonder what the significance of that is», Oscar said. «I’m from the gutter», I said. «And don’t you ever forget it because I won’t»22.

12In her recent autobiography, Leonie Orton considers the role of class loyalties in influencing Joe to maintain (an arms-length) relationship with his family after he moved to London and, eventually, achieved fame as a writer. Tellingly, she also notes how Joe acknowledged the role class played in scripting his homoerotic desires.

  • 23 Leonie Orton, I had it in me. A memoir, Leicester, Quirky Press, 2016, p. 15-16.

13Why John kept in contact with us does surprise me somewhat. He knew we were ill-informed and uneducated but he also knew we intrinsically cared for him. Does it show a vestige of care on his part? I like to think so because for him to disown us would have been a betrayal of his working class roots and he was justifiably proud of what he’d achieved. His bias towards the working classes is apparent in this quote from his diary: «It’s the fucking middle classes», I said, falling back, when in doubt, upon class hatred, «I’ve never got a hard on over a middle-class kid yet»23

  • 24 Diary entry for Sunday 19 February 1967, in John Lahr (ed.), The Orton Diaries, London, Minerva, (...)

14Orton’s juvenile diaries reveal little sexual interest in men in his teens (although they chart a number of failed relationships with girls of his own age). However, in his adult diaries, he recalls that as a young teenager, in the early 1940s, he was ‘interfered with’ by a man in the toilets of a local cinema (an encounter that Orton seemed to remember somewhat nostalgically as an adult)24.

  • 25 Sarah Neal, Katy Bennett, Allan Cochrane and Giles Mohan, «Living multiculture: understanding the (...)
  • 26 A. Amin, (2002), «Ethnicity and the multicultural city: living with diversity», Environment and p (...)
  • 27 Nissa Finney et Ludi Simpson, 'Sleepwalking to segregation'?: challenging myths about race and mi (...)
  • 28 Richard Buckley, Mathew Morris, Jo Appleby, Turi King, Dreide O'Sullivan et Lin Foxhall, «‘The ki (...)
  • 29 John M. Williams, «Leicester City are football champions of England – I’m tearful, incredibly pro (...)
  • 30 Anecdotally, when Leicester City Football Club won the Premier League, local sexual health servic (...)

15Leicester today is, of course, very different to the Leicester that Joe Orton grew up in the 1930s and 1940s and occasionally returned to, grudgingly, once a year when he felt obliged to visit his family25. Leicester is currently the tenth largest city in the United Kingdom. The population of the city is approximately 350,000 people, with closer to half a million people living in the city and its suburbs. In the 1970s, the city received a large influx of East African Indians fleeing persecution in Uganda and Kenya. Many of these men were professionals or entrepreneurs who had run successful businesses. Because of this, Amin has argued that quite quickly they came to create jobs in the city, rather than being seen to compete with the city’s existing working class populations for work26. Over time they have been joined by other flows of migrants from the Indian sub-continent, elsewhere in Africa, and from Central and Eastern Europe. Consequently, the social geography of the city is comprised of a rich patchwork of neighbourhoods shaped by different intersections of ethnicity, religion, and social class. Leicester is the first local government district (outside parts of inner London) where no single ethnic group forms the majority of the population27. These changes in the Leicester’s demographics, along with the unexpected discovery of a dead king’s bones under a car park in the city centre28, and the even more unexpected success of the city’s football team in 201629, have all helped to raise the profile of the city (inter)nationally30. In many ways, in recent years, the city has challenged the monotonous logic of its own motto, Semper Eadem (always the same), which encapsulated Joe Orton’s frustrations with the city so well.

16When I moved to the city nearly ten years ago, after a lifetime living in London, the city challenged lots of my assumptions about the geographies of LGBT lives. In that context, I turn now to briefly charting some of the recent history of gay life in the Leicester and the surrounding region.

A historical geography of gay life in Leicester

  • 31 Gavin Brown «Cosmopolitan Camouflage: (Post-)gay Space in Spitalfields, East London», in John Bin (...)
  • 32 Gavin Brown «Urban (homo)sexualities: ordinary cities, ordinary sexualities», Geography Compass n (...)

17While my doctoral research in East London had looked beyond the centrality of city centre ‘gaybourhoods’ in gay men’s lives31, the geography of the infrastructures of LGBT lives in Leicester challenged my thinking further32. Those infrastructures were neither as dense, nor as extensive, as I was used to finding in London and other large metropolitan cities; but they were not entirely absent either. I quickly discovered that Leicester was home to a small number of bars and clubs, and that one of them claimed to be one of the oldest continuously-operating gay bars in England.

  • 33 https://leicesterlgbtcentre.org/our-history/

18In the years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England in 1967, from the mid-70s onwards, there were a small core of gay activists in Leicester who built a range of community organisations. As well as social groups, they set up a gay telephone helpline and befriending service. This helpline was the first gay community group in England to receive public funding. In 1983 they hosted a national conference of gay helplines. Out of this helpline infrastructure, they created the Leicester Gay Centre (now the Leicester LGBT Centre) in 198533.

  • 34 Peter Scott-Presland, Amiable Warriors: A History of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and Its (...)
  • 35 https://sites.google.com/site/leicestergayliberationfront/
  • 36 http://gaynewsarchive.org/author/bernard-greaves/

19What became the Leicester Gay Group started as the Leicester branch of (the national) Campaign for Homosexual Equality, but over time it became little more than a social group (organised and attended by many men who were largely closeted in most areas of their lives)34. There were a small group of gay radicals in Leicester in the late 1970s who formed a local Gay Liberation Front group. To some extent, they (possibly) had stronger support amongst the heterosexual Left in the city, at the time, than amongst other gay activists, and edited a ‘gay pride’ special issue of a local, left-wing, community newspaper in 197735. However, in many ways the centrist Liberal Party were the driving force of gay politics in the city for much of the 1970s and ‘80s. One of their leading members, Bernard Greaves, initiated a campaign against police entrapment of gay men in toilets and cruising areas in the city, replicating a campaign he had previously initiated in Cambridge36. This campaign eventually inspired: first, changes in police procedure; and, later, the law.

20These stories are helpful in rethinking common narratives about (the paucity of) LGBT life in medium-sized provincial cities. But I would also suggest that elements of these pasts might continue to shape life in Leicester. What path dependencies did they establish? What opportunities did they create? What other opportunities did they shut down?

  • 37 http://www.derbyshirelgbt.org.uk/blog/2010/11/30/derby-lgbt-history-gay-bars/
  • 38 Gavin Brown, «Thinking beyond homonormativity: performative explorations of diverse gay economies (...)
  • 39 J.K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron & Stephen Healy, Take back the economy: An ethical guide for tr (...)

21The commercial bar scene in Leicester has never existed in isolation – rather it forms part of a wider regional network of LGBT social life circulating between Birmingham, Nottingham and Leicester, as well as small towns in-between. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, many men from Leicester would travel to the Pavilion Club in rural Derbyshire – a gay club owned and run by its members that was located in a former village sports pavilion37. This venue serves as a useful reminder that the gay bar scene has relied on a diverse range of economic forms and relationships to sustain it over many decades38. In the spirit of Gibson-Graham’s work on diverse economies, I see value in reading the economies of LGBT life for difference, rather than sameness, to draw attention to those organisations and relationships that rely on economic practices that cannot easily be reduced to ‘neoliberalism’, but hint instead at other possibilities39.

22I would suggest that local gay identities in Leicester were shaped by a wider culture of interstitial ‘Midlandsness’ – being in the heart of the country but never at its centre; caught in the contradictions between collective urban working class cultures and the conservatism of the surrounding countryside. Working class lesbian and gay subcultures (such as drag and butch-femme) persisted as a central aspect of local gay life for longer than in many larger cities. Anecdotal recollections by middle-aged and older gay men suggest that local gay bars in Leicester were typified by a culture of brawling and street-fighting (sometimes for the ‘fun’ of it, sometimes in self-defence) well into the 1980s.

  • 40 Peter Scott-Presland, Amiable Warriors: A History of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and Its (...)

23In contrast, some of the ‘activist-run’ gay social groups were typified by more individualistic, conservative and libertarian attitudes that were suspicious of state-intervention, but also suspicious of collective political resistance40. Few in these groups strongly valued the importance of ‘coming out’. Their interests and outlook on life largely reflected the habitus of the provincial middle classes (and the most affluent layers of skilled workers). They were more likely to invite the local Anglican bishop to discuss the theological implications of homosexuality, than a gay activist from London. Similarly, their meetings and outings celebrated English homosexualities (for example, the music of Benjamin Britten) and the faded camp splendour of stately homes, rather than transatlantic gay liberation chic. I now turn to thinking about how these histories might linger on in shaping assemblages of contemporary sexual subjectivities, norms, and politics locally.

  • 41 Jeffrey Weeks, The World We Have Won, London, Routledge, 2007.

24In the last two decades, social attitudes about homosexuality have liberalised significantly and there have been rapid shifts towards formal legal equality for lesbians and gay men in many countries41. The impacts and consequences of these social changes have been uneven and inconsistent. The lives of many lesbians and gay men have been improved by increased social tolerance and legal ‘equality’; but, these gains have not been enjoyed universally. There remain fears that these new ‘rights’ have strengthened the relative privilege of more affluent white gay professionals.

  • 42 Diane Richardson, «Desiring sameness? The rise of a neoliberal politics of normalization», Antipo (...)
  • 43 Lisa Duggan, «The new homonormativity: the sexual politics of neoliberalism», in Donald E. Pease, (...)
  • 44 Margot Weiss, Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the circuits of sexuality, Durham, NC: Duke Univer (...)

25The boundaries of the socially acceptable have shifted, as sexual minorities increasingly seek to demonstrate their ‘sameness’ with heterosexual social norms42. In the era of same-sex marriage, gay life has been domesticated. The politics of contemporary austerity look favourably on stable romantic couples with the capability and resources to secure each other’s welfare without recourse to state benefits. When considering Duggan’s definition of ‘the new homonormativity’ as an expression of the sexual politics of neoliberalism43, it is important to consider neoliberalism not only as an economic theory, but a form of governmentality that promotes personal responsibility and individualised autonomy in the context of marketized ‘free choice’44.

  • 45 Gavin Brown, «Rethinking the origins of homonormativity: the diverse economies of rural gay life (...)
  • 46 Gavin Brown, «Thinking beyond homonormativity: performative explorations of diverse gay economies (...)
  • 47 Gavin Brown, «Homonormativity: a metropolitan concept that denigrates ‘ordinary’ gay lives», Jour (...)

26In Duggan’s articulation of the ‘new homonormativity’, the term ‘new’ is crucial and implies two key points: first, that the phenomenon she was describing was historically specific to the start of the 21st century; and, second, that it was distinct from other potentially normative expressions of homosexuality that might have existed in earlier periods. A recent historical geographical analysis of the lives of LGBT people in the 1970s and 1980s who were members of GRAIN – the Gay Rural Advice and Information Network in England and Wales – suggests otherwise45. That study explored how the seeds of the new homonormativity were sown in the period when neoliberalism was still in the ascendancy. There are dangers in seeing neoliberalism and, therefore, homonormativity as all-encompassing46. Theorizations that see expressions of neoliberalism and homonormativity everywhere, in everything, foreshadow other experiences, economic practices, and social relationships. Such theorizations of homonormativity frequently overlook geographical variation and specificity in the lived experience of sexual minorities such that they (re)centre exactly the metropolitan experiences that they critique47.

An ordinary street

Here is a photo of the sunset over my street.

Here is a photo of the sunset over my street.
  • 48 Kathie Burrell, «Lost in the ‘churn’? Locating neighbourliness in a transient neighbourhood», Env (...)

27It is a very ordinary residential street – neither in the city centre, nor quite in the suburbs. At one end of the road is the large local working men’s club where Joe Orton’s father found solace in games of skittles. The street is a mixture of late-19th century terraced housing built for the workers of a local factory and larger houses built in the mid-20th century. Some houses are owner-occupied, many are privately rented. The street is home to people from a range of social backgrounds. It is home to a more ethnically diverse range of residents than it was a decade ago, and there have been subtle shifts in the class composition of the residents – there are undoubtedly more highly educated professionals here than a few years ago, but I hesitate to suggest that that is necessarily the result of ‘gentrification’ (as opposed to subtler dynamics of urban change and churn)48. At present, the neighbourhood continues to be socially, economically, and ethnically diverse. No new social group has come to define (or substantially change) the social character of the neighbourhood, nor visibly displace existing social groups. There are still several clothing and light engineering factories in the nearby streets, but the workers are as likely to be recent migrants from Poland or Lithuania as people born in the city. But the factories are no longer the defining feature of local working class life – many more people are employed in retail, catering, and carework. For the graduates living locally, a degree may help secure an ‘office job’ but it is no guarantee of secure employment or a significantly higher income. Clearly, however, the incremental changes in the social mix could reach a tipping point and enact a qualitative shift in the character of the area. For now, with this mix of people and experiences, new ideas and practices are assembled which shape the habitus of the area (including, its attitudes to LGBT people).

  • 49 Amin Ghaziani, There Goes the Gayborhood, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • 50 Andrew Gorman-Murray & Catherine J. Nash, «Mobile Places, Relational Spaces: Conceptualizing Chan (...)
  • 51 Sam Miles, «Sex in the digital city: location-based dating apps and queer urban life», Gender, Pl (...)

28The subtle changes in the character of this street over the last decade have meant that the numbers of lesbian, gay and bi people living on the road have become considerably more visible – both on the street and online. Where once my partner and I were just about the only visible gay couple on the street, there are now several sets of lesbian parents with their children; there are a few other gay male couples; there is the bisexual guy (who used to live with a male lover and now lives with his wife and child – his Grindr profile simply states ‘love me, love my wife’); and there have been many more visibly LGBT teenagers living with their families nearby. Many commentators have lamented the role of new digital technologies in contributing to the erosion of public gay culture and the clustering of gay residences and businesses in particular kids of ‘gaybourhoods’49. In contrast, an assemblage approach highlights how these technologies might be contributing generatively to the formation of new LGBT spaces and spatialities50. The geo-locative technologies embedded in most dating and hook-up apps make other clusters of LGBT people visible, reconfiguring the boundaries between public and private space, and (potentially) creating a new sense of location and connectedness in a locality51. In large metropolitan areas, with big, dense populations, the grid of (100) nearby users visible on an app like Grindr can change rapidly as one moves short distances across the city. However, in a city the size and density of Leicester, the same group of users tends to be visible more constantly, even if their relative proximity changes as one moves across the city. This can mean that the ‘gay community’ feels more restrictive, but also (potentially) more tangible. On apps that appeal to more specific gay subcultural groups, the users displayed on screen can stretch 50 kilometres or more across the region.

  • 52 Carl Bonner-Thompson, «‘The meat market’: production and regulation of masculinities on the Grind (...)

29Time spent on Grindr or other locative hook-up apps reveals many more men in the surrounding streets who are looking for ‘discreet’, ‘no strings attached’ encounters with other men52. It can be tempting to think of these men as living in somewhat similar circumstances to the men that the young Joe Orton encountered on these streets sixty or more years ago. But, of course, social attitudes are very different now, so too is the law, and they have access to locative hook-up apps to facilitate meeting other men for sex. The socio-economic, socio-technical, and socio-legal assemblages that constitute their sexual lives are, of course, historically and geographically specific.

Discussion

  • 53 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princ (...)

30On the basis of these observations, I want to close this paper with some thoughts about how contemporary gay life in small and medium-sized provincial cities like Leicester could be theorized. As should be clear by now, my intention is not simply to theorize LGBT life in provincial cities, it is also to ‘provincialize’ some of the common theorizations about LGBT life and contemporary sexual politics that are based on (and continue to prioritise) the experiences of life in metropolitan ‘world cities’53. By thinking with assemblage theory, I want to provoke an exploration of the ways in which ‘local’ sexual cultures and politics come together and stabilize, but also how they might destabilize and fall apart. As I began to do in the previous section, this means paying attention to local divisions of labour, the (symbolic and material) legacies of local histories, flows of migrants and flows of capital, the use of smart phone technologies, and many other elements. I think there are several points to make:

31First, LGBT people are becoming more visible in cities of this kind (and they are not concentrated in specific gay neighbourhoods, but dispersed across most of the city). By moving beyond a one—dimensional focus on ‘homonormativity’, it might be possible to trace how different LGBT subjectivities shape sexual cultures and politics in a specific location. In doing so, a greater range of LGBT people might come into view. The recent history of Leicester serves as a reminder that LGBT people have found ways of creating a range of social, sexual and support infrastructures for themselves in ‘ordinary’ cities for many decades.

  • 54 Marianne Blidon, «Moving to Paris! Gays and lesbians: Paths, experiences and projects», in Gavin (...)

32While major cities like London continue to be a pole of attraction to young LGBT people54 (as they were for the young Joe Orton nearly seventy years ago), the cost of living there and a dysfunctional housing market are making other locations increasingly more affordable and attractive for many people. It is too early to tell how this centrifugal dispersal and displacement will reconfigure assemblages of sexual cultures and politics in cities like Leicester over the next few years.

  • 55 Daniel Miller, The comfort of things. Cambridge, Polity, 2008.

33The social impact of recent equalities legislation (although open to critique on many levels) has had a material (and, largely, positive) impact on many people’s lives. I actually wonder if, in many ways, their impacts might actually have been greater in provincial cities? After Miller’s anthropological studies of everyday life in contemporary London, I would suggest that what is at work here are not strong ‘social norms’ that discipline people to behave in specific ways, but a looser desire to place oneself in comfortable proximity to ‘the ordinary’ – not to conform absolutely, but equally not to stick out too much55.

34As elsewhere, the development of locative dating and hook-up apps is changing the ways in which people find each other, assess their surroundings, and locate themselves (socially and sexually) within space. This plays out differently in a mid-sized provincial city than in might do in a large, densely populated world city like London. If, in London, proximity and immediacy of opportunities is everything, in a city like Leicester, I think the use of these apps can be shaped by different temporalities and spatialities. Certainly, the sense of existing within networks of mobility spanning a whole region (rather than just a city), still persists. With potential sexual partners stretched across a wider area, the apps are driven less by the possibility of immediate contact and satisfaction. At least for some demographics, meetings can take more planning and longer to arrange, so there is more opportunities for something close to friendships to develop.

35At a societal level, gay life in cities like Leicester is shaped by the same political economic and governmental pressures to be self-reliant, domesticated, and ‘homonormative’. However, these social relationships are shaped by the spatialities of life in a provincial mid-sized city in different ways than in metropolitan areas. In much of my work on the geographies of sexualities over the last decade (since moving to Leicester) I have questioned how useful the ‘big’ concepts of queer theory really are in the context of a city like Leicester. I have suggested that those concepts are frequently shaped by the metropolitan intellectual cultures and economies within which they were developed. Instead, I have called for more nuanced studies of the political, economic, social, technological and material infrastructures that shape LGBT lives in specific locations. I still think that this project is vital and important.

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Notes

1 Randall Nakayama, «Sensation and Sensibility: Joe Orton’s Diaries», in Francesca Coppa (ed.), Joe Orton. A casebook, London, Routledge, 2003.

2 Leonie Orton, I had it in me. A memoir, Leicester, Quirky Press, 2016 p. 17.

3 Catherine J Nash et Andrew Gorman-Murray, «Sexualities, subjectivities and urban spaces: a case for assemblage thinking», Gender, Place & Culture, nº 9 2017/1. doi:10.1080/0966369X.2017.1372388.

4 Amin Ghaziani, There Goes the Gayborhood, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2014 ; Andrew Gorman-Murray et Catherine J. Nash, «LGBT Communities, identities and the politics of mobility: Moving from visibility to recognition in contemporary urban landscapes», in Gavin Brown et Kath Browne (eds.), The Routledge Research Companion to Geographies of Sex and Sexualities, London, Routledge, 2016, p. 247-253.

5 Catherine J. Nash Toronto’s «Gay Village (1969–1982): Plotting the Politics of Gay Identity», Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe Canadien, nº 50, 2006, p. 1-16.

6 Gustav Visser, «The homonormalisation of white heterosexual leisure spaces in Bloemfontein, South Africa», Geoforum, nº 39, 2008, p. 1347-1361.

7 Sharif Mowlabocus, Gaydar Culture: Gay Men, Technology and Embodiment in the Digital Age, Farnham, Ashgate, 2010; Catherine J. Nash et Andrew Gorman-Murray, «Digital technologies and sexualities in urban space», in Gavin Brown and Kath Browne (eds), The Routledge Research Companion to Geographies of Sex and Sexualities, London, Routledge, 2016 p. 399-405.

8 Lisa Duggan, «The new homonormativity: the sexual politics of neoliberalism», in Donald E. Pease, Joan Dayan et Richard R. Flores (eds) Materialising Democracy: Towards a Revitalized Cultural Politics, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2002 p. 175-194.

9 Gavin Brown, «Homonormativity: a metropolitan concept that denigrates ‘ordinary’ gay lives», Journal of Homosexuality n.º 59 2012/7 p. 1065-1072.

10 Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy et Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community, New York, Penguin, 1994; Kevin P. Murphy, Jennifer L. Pierce, et Larry Knopp, (eds), Queer Twin Cities: Twin Cities GLBT Oral History Project, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

11 Paul J. Maginn et Christine Steinmetz (eds), (Sub)Urban Sexscapes: Geographies and Regulation of the Sex Industry, London, Routledge, 2014.

12 Jeffrey Weeks, The World We Have Won, London, Routledge, 2017 p. 9.

13 Mary L. Gray, Out in the Country: Youth, Media and Queer Visibility in Rural America, New York, New York University Press, 2009; Scott Herring, Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism, New York, New York University Press, 2010; Robert Kulpa et Joanna Mizielinska, De-centring Western Sexualities: Central and Eastern Europeans Perspectives, Farnham, Ashgate, 2011.

14 Jennifer Robinson, Ordinary cities: between modernity and development, London, Routledge 2006.

15 Gavin Brown, «Urban (homo)sexualities: ordinary cities, ordinary sexualities», Geography Compass n.º 2 2008/4 p. 1215-1231; Gavin Brown, «Homonormativity: a metropolitan concept that denigrates ‘ordinary’ gay lives», Journal of Homosexuality n.º 59 2012/7 p. 1065-1072.

16 Margot Weiss, Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the circuits of sexuality, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2011, p. 7.

17 Ben Anderson et Colin McFarlane, «Assemblage and geography», Area, n.º 43 2011/2, 124-127; Ben Anderson, Mathew Kearnes, Colin McFarlane et Dan Swanton, «On assemblages and geography» Dialogues in Human Geography, n.º 2 2012/2, p. 171-189.

18 Dave Holmes, Patrick O'Byrne et Stuart J. Murray, «Faceless sex: glory holes and sexual assemblages», Nursing Philosophy, n.º 11, 2010/4, p. 250-259; Louisa Allen, «Sexual assemblages: Mobile phones/young people/school», Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, nº 36, 2015/1, p. 120-132.

19 Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society. Assemblage theory and social complexity, London, Continuum, 2006 p. 18.

20 Catherine J. Nash et Andrew Gorman-Murray, «Sexualities, subjectivities and urban spaces: a case for assemblage thinking», Gender, Place & Culture, nº 24, 2017/11, p. 1521-1529 (p. 1526).

21 Ned Newitt, A People’s History of Leicester. A pictorial history of working class life and politics, Derby, The Breedon Books, 2008.

22 Diary entry for Monday 9 January 1967, in John Lahr (ed.), The Orton Diaries, London, Minerva, 1986, p. 54.

23 Leonie Orton, I had it in me. A memoir, Leicester, Quirky Press, 2016, p. 15-16.

24 Diary entry for Sunday 19 February 1967, in John Lahr (ed.), The Orton Diaries, London, Minerva, 1986, p. 88. See also John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears. The biography of Joe Orton, London, Bloomsbury, 2002, p. 45.

25 Sarah Neal, Katy Bennett, Allan Cochrane and Giles Mohan, «Living multiculture: understanding the new spatial and social relations of ethnicity and multiculture in England», Environment and planning C: government and policy, nº 31, 2013/2 p. 308-323; Suzanne M. Hall, «Migrant urbanisms: Ordinary cities and everyday resistance», Sociology, nº 49, 2015/5, p. 853-869.

26 A. Amin, (2002), «Ethnicity and the multicultural city: living with diversity», Environment and planning A, 34, 2002/6, p. 959-980.

27 Nissa Finney et Ludi Simpson, 'Sleepwalking to segregation'?: challenging myths about race and migration, Bristol, Policy Press, 2009.

28 Richard Buckley, Mathew Morris, Jo Appleby, Turi King, Dreide O'Sullivan et Lin Foxhall, «‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death and burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485», Antiquity, n.º 87, 2013/336, p. 519-538.

29 John M. Williams, «Leicester City are football champions of England – I’m tearful, incredibly proud, and full of envy», The Conversation (UK), 2 May 2016, online at: https://theconversation.com/leicester-city-are-football-champions-of-england-im-tearful-incredibly-proud-and-full-of-envy-58658.

30 Anecdotally, when Leicester City Football Club won the Premier League, local sexual health services reported increased contact from otherwise ‘heterosexual’ men who were worried about drunken, celebratory sex they had had with other male fans.

31 Gavin Brown «Cosmopolitan Camouflage: (Post-)gay Space in Spitalfields, East London», in John Binnie, Julian Holloway, Steve Millington et Craig Young (eds.) Cosmopolitan Urbanism, London: Routledge, 2006, p. 130-145.

32 Gavin Brown «Urban (homo)sexualities: ordinary cities, ordinary sexualities», Geography Compass nº2, 2008/4, p. 1215-1231.

33 https://leicesterlgbtcentre.org/our-history/

34 Peter Scott-Presland, Amiable Warriors: A History of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and Its Times: Volume 1: A Space to Breathe 1954–1973, London, Paradise Press, 2015.

35 https://sites.google.com/site/leicestergayliberationfront/

36 http://gaynewsarchive.org/author/bernard-greaves/

37 http://www.derbyshirelgbt.org.uk/blog/2010/11/30/derby-lgbt-history-gay-bars/

38 Gavin Brown, «Thinking beyond homonormativity: performative explorations of diverse gay economies», Environment & Planning A nº 41, 2009, p. 1496-1510; Gavin Brown, «Rethinking the origins of homonormativity: the diverse economies of rural gay life in England and Wales in the 1970s and 1980s», Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, n.º 40, 2015/4, p. 549-561.

39 J.K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron & Stephen Healy, Take back the economy: An ethical guide for transforming our communities, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

40 Peter Scott-Presland, Amiable Warriors: A History of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and Its Times: Volume 1: A Space to Breathe 1954–1973, London, Paradise Press, 2015.

41 Jeffrey Weeks, The World We Have Won, London, Routledge, 2007.

42 Diane Richardson, «Desiring sameness? The rise of a neoliberal politics of normalization», Antipode nº 37 2005, p. 515-535.

43 Lisa Duggan, «The new homonormativity: the sexual politics of neoliberalism», in Donald E. Pease, Joan Dayan et Richard R. Flores (eds) Materialising Democracy: Towards a Revitalized Cultural Politics, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2002 p. 175-194.

44 Margot Weiss, Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the circuits of sexuality, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011, p. 18.

45 Gavin Brown, «Rethinking the origins of homonormativity: the diverse economies of rural gay life in England and Wales in the 1970s and 1980s», Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, nº 40, 2015/4, p.549-561.

46 Gavin Brown, «Thinking beyond homonormativity: performative explorations of diverse gay economies», Environment & Planning A, nº 41, 2009, p. 1496-1510.

47 Gavin Brown, «Homonormativity: a metropolitan concept that denigrates ‘ordinary’ gay lives», Journal of Homosexuality n.º59, 2012/7, p. 1065-1072; Julie Podmore, «Critical commentary: Sexualities landscapes beyond homonormativity», Geoforum n.º 49, 2013, p. 263-267.

48 Kathie Burrell, «Lost in the ‘churn’? Locating neighbourliness in a transient neighbourhood», Environment and Planning A, nº 48, 2016/8, p. 1599-1616.

49 Amin Ghaziani, There Goes the Gayborhood, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2014.

50 Andrew Gorman-Murray & Catherine J. Nash, «Mobile Places, Relational Spaces: Conceptualizing Change in Sydney’s LGBTQ Neighbourhoods», Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, n.º 32, 2014/4, p. 622–41; Catherine J. Nash et Andrew Gorman-Murray, ‘Digital technologies and sexualities in urban space», in Gavin Brown and Kath Browne (eds), The Routledge Research Companion to Geographies of Sex and Sexualities, London, Routledge, 2016 p. 399-405.

51 Sam Miles, «Sex in the digital city: location-based dating apps and queer urban life», Gender, Place & Culture, n.º 16 2017/1; Sharif Mowlabocus, «Horny at the bus stop, paranoid in the cul-de-sac: Sex, technology and public space», in Gavin Brown and Kath Browne (eds), The Routledge Research Companion to Geographies of Sex and Sexualities, London, Routledge, 2016 p. 391-398.

52 Carl Bonner-Thompson, «‘The meat market’: production and regulation of masculinities on the Grindr grid in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK», Gender, Place & Culture, nº 15, 2017/1.

53 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2000.

54 Marianne Blidon, «Moving to Paris! Gays and lesbians: Paths, experiences and projects», in Gavin Brown and Kath Browne (eds), The Routledge Research Companion to Geographies of Sex and Sexualities, London, Routledge, 2016, p. 201-212.

55 Daniel Miller, The comfort of things. Cambridge, Polity, 2008.

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Gavin Brown, « From Nowhere: Provincializing Gay Life », Droit et cultures, 77 | 2019, 129-143.

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Gavin Brown, « From Nowhere: Provincializing Gay Life », Droit et cultures [En ligne], 77 | 2019/1, mis en ligne le 19 février 2019, consulté le 14 septembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/droitcultures/5286

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Auteur

Gavin Brown

Gavin Brown est professeur de géographie humaine à l’Université de Leicester. Il a publié de nombreux ouvrages sur les aspects géographiques de la vie des personnes LGBT, l'homonormativité et la géopolitique de la sexualité. Il est co-rédacteur de The Routledge Research Companion to Geographies of Sex and Sexualities (2016). Il étudie également les mouvements de protestation et la solidarité transnationale. Son livre le plus récent, co-rédigé avec Helen Yaffe, s’intitule Youth Activism and Solidarity: the non-stop picket against apartheid (Routledge, 2017). Il est l’un des éditeurs de la revue Social and Cultural Geography.

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Droits et Culture est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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