By Gavin Brown (University of Leicester)
On 26 June 2015 the US Supreme Court ruled that state-level bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. Four days before marriage equality was approved in the United States, the Pitcairn Islands, with a population of just 48 people (and no known same-sex couples) also joined the growing list of nations to recognize and allow same-sex marriage. The accelerating acceptance of same-sex marriage around the world is part of a wider trend, over the last two decades, of greater social tolerance towards sex and gender minorities in many countries. This has been accompanied by new forms of legal recognition and protection for lesbian, gay and transgender people in some countries (at the same time as more repressive legislation has been threatened or enacted elsewhere).
Geographers and other social scientists have attempted to understand and make sense of these changes in social attitudes. One popular explanation is that these changes are an expression of a ‘new homonormativity’. This concept was first articulated by Lisa Duggan, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, who argued that the incorporation of some lesbian and gay people (particularly those in settled couples) into American society’s normative understandings of appropriate sexual conduct was an expression of ‘the sexual politics of neoliberalism’. By this, she meant that society was increasingly willing to accept and support lesbian and gay people who took responsibility for their own well-being (without recourse to state welfare benefits) and who preferred to express their sexuality within domestic spaces rather than the public sexual cultures of earlier (lesbian and) gay neighbourhoods in major urban centres. Homonormativity is said to have domesticated gay culture. ‘Homonormative’ lifestyles are understood to be socially liberal, but fiscally and sexually conservative.
As I have previously argued (Brown 2012), although there is a lot of merit in many analyses of contemporary ‘homonormativity’, too often they focus on the experiences of people living in major urban centres (in Europe and North America) at the expense of those living in provincial cities, smaller towns and rural areas. By studying lesbian and gay lives in a wider range of locations, it is possible to reconsider what it means to be socially ‘normative’, and what it takes for sexual minorities to fit in, or feel part of, different types of localities. The geographical study of sexuality and sexual politics is diminished if scholars over-emphasize urban (and specifically metropolitan) sexual cultures at the expense of other places.
In the 1970s, lesbian and gay subcultures became more visible in the urban landscape and many lesbians and gay men migrated to large cities in the hope of finding community and the possibility of leading more open lives. At the same time, and in parallel with a wider ‘back-to-the-land’ movement, smaller numbers of lesbians and gay men left the cities for a ‘simpler’, more self-sufficient, and ‘environmentally friendly’ life in rural areas. I have recently been revisiting the archives of a lesbian and gay organization from the period, the Gay Rural Aid and Information Network (GRAIN), which offered practical support and encouragement to gay people who wanted to move to rural England and Wales (see my paper published recently in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers). Although many in the network believed that they were socially and politically progressive, I find their rejection of urban gay subcultures and their promotion to domestic-level self-reliance, to be more complex and contradictory, at times being socially and sexually conservative. Even so, the economic practices pursued by these lesbian farmers and gay smallholders were far removed from the emerging (urban) neoliberal economies from which they had fled. They engaged in all sorts of non-waged labour, domestic production, bartering and skill-swaps. Some of these practices were part of their ideological commitment to living sustainably on the land; but they also helped to embed them, as lesbians and gay men, in the existing diverse economies of the rural areas to which they had moved. Although these people (and the places where they lived) are very different to those normally considered in debates about contemporary ‘homonormativity’, I believe traces of emergent homonormative beliefs and practices can be found in their lives.
Thinking about the diversity of economic practices and social relations that might be associated with the emergence of homonormative attitudes over recent decades emphasizes that ‘homonormativity’ is not as a single entity, but a cluster of traits, relationships and values. Geographers can make an important contribution to understanding homonormativity by demonstrating that homonormativities are multiple, as well as time and place specific. A cultural and historical geography approach to these questions can help find traces of homonormativity in some very unexpected places.
About the author:
Gavin Brown is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Leicester where he leads the Critical and Creative Geographies research group.
BBC (2015), ‘US Supreme Court rules gay marriage is legal nationwide’, 27 June,
Brown, G. (2012), “Homonormativity: a metropolitan concept that denigrates ‘ordinary’ gay lives,” Journal of Homosexuality 59 (7): 1065 – 1072.
Brown, G. (2015), ‘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, doi: 10.1111/tran.12095
The Guardian (2015), ‘Pitcairn Island, population 48, passes law to allow same-sex marriage’, The Guardian, 22 June
Halberstadt, A. (2015), “Out of the Woods”, New York Times, 6 August.