Abstract Sculpture by Rory McEwan © The Hope Scott Collection
Marking Pride Month 2022 and Edinburgh’s Pride March on the 25th of June, Dr Rae Rosenberg writes about his research, the potential of queer geography, and queer geography’s ability to “engage with and question the messy matters of living.”
For several years over the course of earning my graduate degrees in Canada, the visa attached to my passport would never fail to prompt the question “what are you studying?” by a Canadian border officer. My answer of geography would almost always prompt one of two follow-up questions:
“Oh, like maps?” or, “So can you tell me where [a location of their choosing] is?”
The latter was less common, yet still frequent enough that I became well-versed in the performance of an awkward laugh, beat, and response, “let me look at my maps and I’ll get back to you!” Little did they know that my map-related skills are strictly limited to Google Maps, and I’m already impressively challenged with that.
The former response was more common and carried a heightened sense of dread in its directness, for one simple reason: I don’t study maps, and in fact some of the most mind-melding moments of my studies have been the direct result of ArcGIS (kudos to all those with the patience for that software). So no, not like maps. I study queerness, space and belonging, and how multiply-marginalised lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, Two-Spirit, and additional (LGBTQ2+) people and communities are caught within networks of power, particularly racism, settler colonialism, misogyny and transphobia. I assure you, those words would never fall off my tongue and land in the ears of any border officer.
All my degrees are in geography, and throughout my studies of space and place I have been fascinated by the productive tension between theory and lived experiences. This is amplified for me as a queer and trans person because queer theory and studies can leave me feeling both alienated and seen, as if my personal experiences and material worlds are meaningless and irrelevant while simultaneously producing the core tenants of renowned scholarship. Geography carries the potential to confront the ways in which the everyday can be assumed, taken-for-granted, and neglected in theoretical works through its focus on materiality and the everyday relations that are informed by the spaces and environments we inhabit. I have been able to make home in queer geographies, a sub-discipline of critical geography that, in part, has critiqued queer theory and studies for invisibilising the lived and material realities of LGBTQ2+ people, and how power unfolds amongst LGBTQ2+ communities with very real consequences.
Queer geographies has a unique dance with queer theory that is generative, complex, and messy. It is in the tangled tensions between queer geographies and theories that I believe lies one of the most fundamental aspects of queer scholarship in a broad sense, which is to question what has become standard. In the words of Manalansan (2014, 94), mess is “the ‘stuff’ of queerness,” so why shy away from it? Taking seriously the task of critically analysing power and normativity necessitates a consistent interrogation of what is occurring in, and constituting, our surrounding worlds. It means adapting ways of thinking and producing knowledge to capture the shifts of normative politics, discourses, power, and to make space for these challenges to emerge.
It is for these reasons that queer geographers urge others who use frameworks of sexuality to think beyond sexuality as the prioritised mode of understanding queerness, and to take matters of race, post- and settler-colonialism, imperialism, migration, class, gender, and health as productive and serious means of exploring queer space. When queer geographies/geographies of sexuality emerged in the 1990s, this field distanced itself from queer theory and its ethereal treatment of identities and power. The limitation of this move, which continues to the present, lies in a refusal to re-engage with queer theory, its developments over almost two decades, and the messy wake it produces. The geographical work emerging from this theoretical distance tends to treat processes of racialisation, colonialism, misogyny and transphobia, and many other productions of power in isolation and as discrete categories to be superficially analysed. Yet, as Oswin (2008, 100) stresses, “queering our analysis… helps us to position sexuality within multifaceted constellations of power,” and the refusal to re-engage queer theory leaves such geographical explorations of queerness as sexuality flat.
Experiences of sexuality and gender are complex and layered in a dense network of power, which is especially recognised in queer of colour critique, a body of work that gestures to the impact of what a more nuanced and intersectional use of queerness can offer in critically assessing normativities and power. In the words of Amar Wahab (2019, 388), practicing ‘contrapuntal queerness’ illuminates “the entangled and inter-constitutive assemblage of otherings which do not necessarily take gender and/or sexuality as the primary site of analysis.” Destabilising the fixity of sexuality as the natural subject of, and framework for, queerness creates pathways of visibility for traditionally erased subjects, experiences, communities, and ways of being, notably amongst racialised queer, trans and Two-Spirit peoples and communities who are often overlooked as valuable contributors of queer geographical knowledge and theory.
My past research with incarcerated trans feminine people and LGBTQ2+ youth experiencing homelessness has necessitated a theoretical approach that allows for the simultaneity of being a racialised, sexualised and gendered subject caught in the sticky folds of nationalism, racism, and colonialism. The spaces we inhabit are produced through these discourses and offer conditions of liveability and poverty, possibility and illegibility, surviveability and dances near death, depending on where subjects land in these networks of power. What makes geography so unique and generative is its ability to capture the specificities of how our worlds are created and experienced, something that can so easily be lost in theory. Queer geographies, in turn, blends this ability with theory to critically engage with and question the messy matters of living and the ongoing shifting normativities that inform our everyday experiences of space.
Manalansan IV, M. F. (2014). The “stuff” of archives: Mess, migration, and queer lives. Radical History Review, 2014(120), 94-107.
Oswin, N. (2008). Critical geographies and the uses of sexuality: Deconstructing queer space. Progress in human geography, 32(1), 89-103.
Wahab, A. (2018). (Re)tracing queerness: Archiving indentureship’s ‘coolie homo/erotic’. Visual Studies, 34(4), 388-394.