Gap in the syllabus: Human geography, queer memorials, and LGBTQ+ public art

Credit: Julia Rosner

Ilia Hionidou

For the fifth article in our series on LGBTQ+ inclusivity in higher education, Ilia Hionidou interviews Dr Martin Zebracki, Associate Professor of Critical Human Geography at the University of Leeds.

In 2019, the UK experienced a wave of protests against same-sex education in primary schools. Ilia Hionidou interviews academics about their experiences in teaching courses that feature LGBTQ+ content. The series discusses the benefits and backlashes of including LGBTQ+ studies in higher education across the UK and the US and aims to inform readers about important moments in LGBTQ+ history.

Within popular discourse, the geography of LGBTQ+ populations brings to mind a handful of familiar place names: San Francisco, Brighton, Berlin, and Rio de Janeiro, among others. The study of LGBTQ+ geography, or sexuality and space, covers many facets of cultural geography, including citizenship, gay villages, or sexual moralities. Within the field of social and cultural geography, the work of Associate Professor Dr Martin Zebracki at the University of Leeds focuses on gender and sexual inclusivity through the lens of public memorial arts and urban spaces. He tackles the paradox of presenting sexuality – which is often seen as a private affair and as something “lived” – through public art. On occasion, this intersects digital public spaces. For example, in his work Queerying Public Art in Digitally Networked Space: The Rise and Fall of an Inflatable Butt Plug, Dr Zebracki considers how the anti-normative is able to simultaneously “que(e)ry” digital and non-digital spaces.

Dr Zebracki is the Principle Investigator of the research project Queer Memorials: International Comparative Perspectives on Sexual Diversity and Social Inclusivity, supported by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).  For this, the research team has interviewed, amongst others, policymakers, activists, artists and members of the public in the case-study localities New York City, Amsterdam and Poland. The project examines the impact that LGBTQ+ memorials have, or may have, on people’s everyday lives, and to consider how these memorials are significant to social change and attitudes towards LGBTQ+ populations. 

Dr Zebracki is taking the lead on equality, diversity and inclusive practice in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds’s Faculty of Environment, putting in place initiatives to ensure the institution’s tolerance and openness to social difference, a process that has been well received. In October 2019, the Athena Swan Silver Award was presented to the Faculty of Environment commending its inclusive policies, processes and ethos. University-wide, the LGBT+ Staff Network was founded as part of the University’s wider equality and diversity agenda, offering LGBTQ+ staff, colleagues and PhD students with a safe, welcoming space to meet and socialise. 

For Human Geography students at the University of Leeds, Dr Zebracki imparts that while the module options are “quite broad in scope … sexuality and queer topics on the curriculum have always been integrated as part of modules.” Although the modules across the undergraduate programme do not specialise in sexuality as such, Dr Zebracki states that he: “always aims to devote at least some lecture content to issues around sexuality and intersectional analysis.”

How should educators incorporate LGBTQ+ content into their teaching? Dr Zebracki conveys that providing students with theories and practices that address gendered and sexual dimensions of society and space is the first step. To build on this, Dr Zebracki, with reference to his research recently published in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education, informs such theoretical and practical aspects with “ethnographic, anecdotal and personal elements”, arguing how “students may become enthusiastic [about LGBTQ+ topics] when [the teaching] features ‘real world’ elements… Such examples may resonate within their everyday lives, including their experiences around sexual and gender issues on the university campus.”

In addition, Dr Zebracki argues that teachers, when approaching sexual and, in extension, social inclusivity, have a responsibility to address marginalised populations both within and beyond LGBTQ+ communities. “Singling out queer people and sexuality does not capture the complexity of intersectional relations in which sexual issues cannot be taken apart from issues across – let’s say – ethnicity, class, geographical origin, abilities, age and religion.” 

Dr Zebracki cites the notion of intersectionality, coined and critically developed by Colombia Law School and University of California Los Angeles Professor, Kimberlé Crenshaw. This notion was popularised in Crenshaw’s 1989 academic paper, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. Intersectionality, defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage” is usually associated with third-wave feminism and queer theory. 

Since Crenshaw’s publication, the concept of intersectionality has informed a wide range of arts and humanity subjects: in Human Geography, studies have focussed on the intersectionality of spatiality. “Standpoint theory”, as defined by Patricia Hill Collins and Dorothy Smith, argues that an individual’s world perspective is shaped by their social encounters and experiences. These differing experiences can also be shaped by geography, i.e. growing up in an urban or rural context, one’s country of residence, or one’s immigration status. The consequences or benefits of such geographical factors have tangible impacts on LGBTQ+ people, especially for many of those who live between intersections of the LGBTQ+ community. Awareness of these factors have increased, and Dr Zebracki notes that since the 1990s “there has been an increase in academic interest across the humanities and social sciences in the usually marginalised realities of LGBTQ+ populations and their encounters with, and struggles over oppression, stigma, bigotry, and so on.”

Why, therefore, is it important to teach LGBTQ+ themes in higher education? Dr Zebracki’s answer is threefold. Firstly, teaching about LGBTQ+ populations allows students to understand and be mindful of such issues: “I think it’s important to address these topics to raise awareness of the socially marginalised, in this case, gender and sexual variant communities. So, for students, as future citizens and leaders, it’s pivotal that intersectional issues of social inclusivity are well understood. Such fundamental understanding of inclusivity is relevant to basically any human being.” Students should also be critically taught about “exclusivity, prejudice, and intolerance and so forth to understand that there’s still a lot of work needed to improve in that respect, especially in contexts where gender and sexual minorities are further marginalised or even persecuted.”

Secondly, Dr Zebracki believes that concurrent with such awareness comes respect. “Staff and students should feel comfortable in an environment of mutual trust and dignity. It shouldn’t matter what ethnic, gender or sexual positionality you have, what age you are, etcetera; teaching about these issues facilitates a sphere of mutual respect.” Such inclusive environments develop not only from teaching. As Dr Zebracki advocates: “It’s not only about teaching, the whole institutional culture needs to put inclusivity upfront … It’s about making a difference so that all beings are treated with equal respect and opportunities.” 

Thirdly, Dr Zebracki argues that in regard to his own research on queer memorials, it is especially vital to remember historical moments and processes of LGBTQ+ struggle: “We see, in current social and political landscapes around the globe that the position of LGBTQ+ people, especially in particular countries and places, becomes more and more precarious. There are heated debates around LGBTQ+ commemoration, and backlashes in terms of the erasure of LGBTQ+ histories, which all the more stress the importance of memorialising victims of anti-LGBTQ+ oppression and violence. I am aware of the privilege to learn about these issues and embrace – to a large extent – social and sexual liberty, a certain privilege, not everyone has or can afford in the world today.”

Dr Zebracki has also been conscious of using his research to impact LGBTQ+ communities outside of academic circles: “The dialectic between research and socially engaged pedagogy has been part of my work within and beyond academia and sometimes these realms overlap. A few years ago, my partner and I initiated the idea of an LGBT+ monument for the Belgian city of Ghent. This evolved into a lucid artivist protest action that claimed an LGBT+ monument in this city after it witnessed a severe incident of gay-bashing. Also, we co-initiated and co-organised the first Queer Pride in Ghent.”

Dr Zebracki’s scholarly informed activism, both inside and outside of academia, emphasises the need for spaces that provide safety, support and a sense of community for LGBTQ+ people, for instance through queer memorials, Pride events, or equality and inclusion accolades. Evidently, universities ought to pioneer and promote these spaces to encourage inclusive education that reflects the diversity of their staff and student bodies.


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