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Geography of sexualities

One of the key areas on which we are working is the geography of sexualities. The following article, which is identical to the text for the same entry on na Wikipedia  at the time of the article’s publication, serves as an explanation of this extensive and interdisciplinary field. Michal Pitoňák PhD is the author of both articles.

Geography of sexualities

Homomonument v Amsterdamu

The geography of sexualities is a subfield of social (human) geography whose origins date back to the early 1990s. Mapping Desire: Geographies of sexualities (Bell & Valentine, 1995), edited by British human geographers David Bell and Gill Valentine, is considered to be the founding publication in this field. As a field at the intersection of the natural, social, and human sciences, the geography of sexualities is primarily concerned with the spatial dimension of human sexualities, i.e., the spatiotemporality of sexualities as experiential categories. Along with feminist geography, the geography of sexualities is now an established subfield of Anglo-American and Scandinavian human geography (Browne, Lim, & Brown, 2007; Browne & Nash, 2012; Johnston & Longhurst, 2009; Kulpa & Mizieliñska, 2011; Nayak & Jeffrey, 2011; Pitoňák, 2013, 2014b).

The basic premise of the geography of sexualities is the recognition of sexuality, along with social class, gender and race, as one of the four basic social relations (Pitoňák, 2013), which are considered to be the four main axes of social difference in human geography (Panelli, 2004). The geography of sexualities therefore understands „that to neglect any of these social differences, in this case sexuality, is to overlook an important aspect that differentiates, structures and creates hierarchies within society, space and time“ (Pitoňák, 2014a).

In geography, sexuality is studied mainly from a social-constructivist perspective, however, its essential conditioning and biological (e.g., physiological) function is not addressed, unlike medical sexology, for example, which has a long tradition in Czechia. Ruth Panelli understands sexuality in geography as: „a diverse set of sexual preferences and identities that are constructed culturally and socially or through discourses, spaces and relations between people“ (Panelli, 2004; Pitoňák, 2013). If we divide sexualities into sexual orientations, preferences, behaviours and identities, then we can say that the geography of sexualities focuses mainly on the geographical aspects of sexual behaviour and sexual identity.

Main areas of study within the geography of sexualities

Although research in the field of the geography of sexualities has also included research on heterosexuality, especially since the early 21st century, this field has had a stronger orientation towards the study of  non-heterosexuality from the very beginning, i.e., gay and lesbian geographies that have exhibited specific features of social exclusion, segregation, adaptation, or other spatiotemporal forms of organisation.

Although the focus of the field can be narrowed down and defined for the sake of simplicity, it should be emphasised that this is a subfield which must be understood in a pluralistic, heterogeneous and diverse way. It can already be seen in the titles of both the geography of sexualities and related feminist geographies, that the plural emphasises respect for the simultaneous discussion of multiple approaches, rather than the dominance of one approach. Both disciplines stem from the ‘cultural turn’ in geographic thinking, which began in the Anglo-American tradition of human geography in the 1970s and has continued in this country since the end of the 20th century (Sýkora, 1993); a geographic movement closely related to a range of philosophical and theoretical approaches, including feminism, postmodernism, post-structuralism, and queer theory, which has actively developed in the geography of sexualities (see below).

Geography of the gay village

A body of evidence has been accumulated in work from the past up to the present day which shows the presence of „homosexual“ people in inner city neighbourhoods such as New York (Chauncey, 1995), London (Bell & Valentine, 1995) and Prague (Seidl, 2014). The nature of this „homosexual spatiality“ varied considerably in the past depending on legal, social, economic and other conditions, just as the spatial organisation of sexualities in cities remains diverse today.

Foreign urban geographers have had an interest in sexualities from at least the time of the ‘Chicago School of urban sociology’ in the 1920s. Early works such as (1923) and The Ghetto (1928) mentioned „homosexual“ people in the context of rundown neighbourhoods, and talked about „sexual deviants,“ and the local „prosperity“ of prostitution and crime.

The first person to explicitly address „homosexuals“ as part of his work was the American sociologist Martine Levine, who identified „gay ghettos“ within major US cities in his work The Gay Ghetto (Levine, 1979), inspired by Louis Wirth’s book The Ghetto . His work’s main contribution was the fact that it sparked interest in the issue of the segregation of „gays“ in US inner cities. Another sociologist who worked on the „geography of sexualities“ was Manuel Castells, whose research was focused on the residential concentration of „gays“ and „gay“ commercial spaces (bars, restaurants) in the Castro district of San Francisco in the early 1980s. His sociological book City and the grassroots (Castells, 1983)  is often cited as one of the first works in the field of the „geography of sexualities“.

The geography of gay neighbourhoods, which have emerged due to specific political and social conditions, particularly in the US, the UK and Australia (Pitoňák, 2014a), therefore encompass a range of topics in the field of geography, from urban geography and gentrification to gay tourism, commodification and gay consumerism (Gabiam & Pitoňák, 2014). „Gay villages“ can now be found in a number of cities, but for the most part, these are areas with a local commercial concentration of „gay businesses“, rather than neighborhoods in which only „gay people“ live. There are very few areas which have a significantly higher residential concentration of lesbians (Pain et al., 2001)

It is perhaps surprising that we can include the work of Tatiana Matejskova among the most important works in the field of the „gay geography of sexualities“. Matejskova published her research, conducted in Slovakia and entitled Straights in a Gay Bar: Negotiating Boundaries Through Time-Spaces, in the prestigious book Geographies of sexualities: theory, politics and practice (Matejskova, 2007), edited in English, in 2007. The book is now considered a classic work in the field.

Geography of Sexualities and Queer Geographies

Since the late 1980s, geographers, as well as researchers in related fields, have been asking questions with the aim of understanding the factors that, among other things, drive non-heterosexual people (gay, lesbian and bisexual people) to migrate to or visit these „gay villages“. They found the answer in a deeper exploration of the nature of the social discrimination against them, and the “heteronormativity” that underlies it (Pitoňák, 2013). Gathering together and seeking protection within a group in „gay villages“ then began to make more sense, especially after the now legendary 1969 attack by American police officers on the Stonewall Inn, a gay establishment in New York City, which sparked a mass protest of „gays“ and their supporters (Bell & Valentine, 1995), and which became the basis for establishing the tradition of „LGBT pride parades“ (gay pride parades, queer pride parades, etc.). Similar parades and festivals are now organised annually in most countries around the world (they have been organised in Czechia since 2008, when the first queer parade was held in Brno (iDNES, 2008). These parades are then explored as part of the geography of sexualities, for example, because the organisation of such parades disrupts heteronormativity, makes non-heterosexuality visible and makes people of all sexualities equal (Pitoňák, 2014a), all of which significantly influences the spatiotemporal organisation of people according to their sexual diversity.

Queer geography

The diverse geography of sexually normative relations between people of different sexualities, the spatiotemporal regulation and organisation of non-heterosexualities, and the ways in which public spaces and everyday life in society are made heteronormative are among the main issues addressed in the field of „queer geography“ (Pitoňák, 2014), a subfield of the geography of sexualities that tends to utilise and develop “queer theory” and other related feminist, postmodern, post-structuralist and social critical theories. Queer geography therefore tends to use non-conformist methodologies and ways of thinking, and attempts to literally „queerly“ re-define its own volatile subject matter, which is by its very nature reluctant to be anchored to one discipline, defined or stabilised in any way. In Czechia, Michal Pitoňák is the leading scholar in the field of queer geography (Gabiam & Pitoňák, 2014; Pitoňák, 2013, 2014), but, using the international scale in which queer geography is understood (Nedbálková, 2000; Seidl, 2014), other Czech authors working in related fields can also be included in the field of queer geography.

The relationship between the geography of sexualities and feminist geography

To some extent, the origins of the field of the geography of sexualities can be viewed together with „feminist geography“, whose main subject matter is the differing socio-spatial conditions and relationships between women and men, or more precisely, the gendered spatiotemporal aspects, which are also closely related to human sexuality (M. Blažek & Rochovská, 2006). Although it is still not possible to speak of the establishment of either feminist geography or the geography of sexualities in Czechia or Slovakia, a number of authors have already published works that delineate this geographical field of study. The best-known publication is probably the Slovak book Feministické Geografie (Feminist Geographies) by Alena Rochovská and Matej Blažek (M. Blažek & Rochovská, 2006), whose professional contribution to Czech geography is yet to be acknowledged. In the Czech publications that offer an overview of the fields of study of geography, feminist geography has so far received only marginal attention in the form of isolated chapters (Matoušek & Osman, 2014), whose subject and methodological backgrounds have not yet been more widely reflected within the field of geography as a whole. This situation is also reflected in the teaching of geography, where neither feminist geography nor the geography of sexualities are as yet significantly represented in the curriculum.

The impact of the institutional position of Czech human geography

As human geography, or social or socio-economic geography, is traditionally associated with institutions of natural science in Czechia (e.g., the Prague Albert School of Geography or the Institute of Geography at Masaryk University in Brno), social geography is more closely related to economics and regional studies than to other disciplines with which human geography is associated in the Anglo-American sense. Although Czech social geography also overlaps with sociology in certain areas (e.g., urban geography overlaps with urban sociology), it can be said that the institutional embedding of geography in Czechia is closer to „natural science“ than it is to the „social science“ or „humanities“ understanding of the discipline that is more common in, for example, Anglo-American or Scandinavian traditions of human geography. For this reason, the institutional position of Czech human geography can be understood differently from the position of human geography than how it is understood in foreign geography (Nayak & Jeffrey, 2011). In Czechia, therefore, human geography is essentially on the periphery of interest of an otherwise primarily economically-oriented (Toušek, Kunc, & Vystoupil, 2008) and regionally-oriented (J. Blažek & Uhlíř, 2011) socio-economic geography. Therefore, research in feminist geography or the geography of sexualities as part of the field of geography is also, to some extent, institutionally isolated from related research in the field of feminism or sexuality that is carried out within related disciplines. In Czechia, therefore, a certain part of the study of human geography, for example, the geography of sexualities or feminist geography, takes place under related disciplines such as gender studies, sociology, media studies, philosophy, social psychology, etc. Significant works in these fields, such as The Order of Public Toilets (Nedbálková, 2009) by Kateřina Nedbálková, which is a qualitative study focusing on the space of public toilets and the negotiation of intimate relations within a heteronormative society, are then understood in Czechia as being research within the field of sociology, although internationally such works fall within the scope of the geography of sexualities or queer geography. Similarly important works by Czech researchers outside the „field of geography“ include the work of Věra Sokolová, who was concerned with the socialist regime’s relations towards homosexuality and non-heterosexual people (Chapter 4 of Havelková, Oates-Indruchová, 2014), or the work of Kateřina Kolářová, who dealt with the socio-political context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic (Chapter 10 of Havelková, Oates-Indruchová, 2014). Although these works include topics in the field of the geography of sexualities, they are not often cited in the field of mainstream geography in our country.


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