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social sciences

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Most people would expect that the discipline of geography has little or nothing to say about glbtq topics. They think of this academic discipline as a dry almanac of remedial factoids about state capitals and the Corn Belt; or worse, they reduce it to only the physical branch of the discipline (the study of landforms and earth processes). Yet Human Geography, the social scientific and humanistic side of the discipline, actually has had quite a bit to say about glbtq issues.

For much of its history Geography has been misunderstood and underappreciated, especially in the United States, where it has been swallowed up by the historian-dominated social studies curriculum for schools. There are only 60 doctoral-granting departments in United States universities.

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Ironically, this marginalization stems in part from a legacy of . In the 1940s, a simmering conflict over a gay relationship between geographers in Harvard University's Geography Department catalyzed the push to close the department. Once Harvard closed its geography department, other major schools followed, leaving the discipline on a precarious footing in the academy. Conversely, geography is much stronger in British and Commonwealth universities, due in no small part to the discipline's historical service to empire and imperialism. These ties, too, had their own queer lineaments.

Nevertheless, over the past 25 years geography has been especially attuned to glbtq people and places and natures. Like other social sciences, early efforts of glbtq scholars were directed at drawing the discipline's attention to its own neglect of glbtq people and places primarily by locating them in space and discussing the resulting patterns' significance. Other efforts attacked the discipline's own homophobia and , sometimes quite dramatically, as when one of the field's queer "pioneers" presented a paper at an academic conference in drag. These efforts were abetted by the emerging power of feminists and other critical scholars at the intellectual vanguard of the discipline.

They also corresponded to the rise of so-called "postmodern" and "poststructural" cultural theory and epistemologies across the social sciences and humanities, where an appreciation of grounded, contextual, and local knowledge opened up space for geographers' insights to begin to be heard and appreciated. The result was increased--though still limited--intellectual traffic between queer geography and allied disciplines such as architecture, history, and anthropology.

Sexuality and Space

Geography's main contribution to sexuality studies may be summarized in its emphasis on spatiality. Geography insists that all social relations are spatial, and that this matters profoundly. In other words, they do not exist--nor are they best understood--in some abstract purity. Instead, they must be understood relationally and situationally in both space and time, and at a variety of spatial scales from the globe to the body itself. Hence it matters where things take place in order to understand what they are. For example, the uneven distribution of glbtq people and identities across space is fundamental to understanding who we are and what being "queer" means.

Such a perspective stands in sharp contrast to conventional social-science approaches where key theoretical concepts or themes retain an essentialized, platonic form, or where their variability over time is highlighted to the exclusion of their variability across space. Geography's "anti-essentialist" perspective means that it is best understood not as a topically-focused inquiry in the academic division of labor, but rather as a mode of seeing and thinking. That standpoint is often called "the geographical imagination."

While work on sexuality and space grew through the 1980s, it was not until the mid 1990s, with the publication of Bell and Valentine's Mapping Desire (1995) that the subdiscipline took hold. Sexuality and space is now a strong and vibrant part of urban, cultural, political, and feminist geographies.

To find cutting-edge work on sexuality and space, readers should consult the international journals Antipode; Gender, Place, and Culture; Social and Cultural Geography; and Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Furthermore, the Association of American Geographers has a specialty group dedicated to the topic. And while there is a decided focus on gay men and lesbians per se, there have also been consistent attempts to study other sexual minorities, including bisexuals, people, sex workers, and more generally, as well as heterosexual cultures and spaces.

Five themes (location, place, nature-society, movement, and regions) exemplify the geographical imagination, and illustrate how geographers have researched sexuality.


Geographers have shown a broad interest in specifying the absolute and relative location of gay and lesbian neighborhoods at a variety of spatial scales. The most obvious treatment of location in queer geography is Gates and Ost's 2004 atlas of same-sex couples in the United States. The Gay and Lesbian Atlas shows the concentration of same-sex households in typical areas such as San Francisco, New York City, and Provincetown, Massachusetts, but it also reveals the ubiquity of such family formations across the entire country. Before the 2000 American Census, such mapping was difficult because there was no way to detect same-sex households. Ironically, now that such data are available and being used, some geographers are criticizing the perpetuation of uncoupled glbtq people's invisibility, as well as that of those who are not heads of households, in such research.

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