April 15, 2015 | Essays

A Geographer in the Gallery: Reflections on Making the Invisible Visible


An excerpt from the publication: Complex Social Change (2014)

Challenging exclusions
Is there value in making sexual difference visible? If so, what is the value of this type of visibility?

One goal of this exhibit was to provoke conversation on these very questions. As well, it suggested the stakes of invisibility in a place where propriety and acceptable speech preclude acknowledgment of sexual difference.

The exhibit, and the archive of local lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and queer (LGBTQ) oral histories from which the exhibit was produced, counter the omission of LGBTQ stories from the local historical narrative. They challenge an inaccurate telling of the city’s history and a homophobic public discourse that designates LGBTQ people as unmentionable second-class citizens.

After all, documenting histories entails more than “holding a mirror up to the past and reporting on what is reflected back.”1 To document histories, one must reckon with the absences embedded in the existing historical record. In the collective story of Lethbridge, as in the historical record of any place, the absences inscribed in the “common sense” account of the city are not innocent. Rather, they are systematic exclusions that reveal long-held perceptions and attitudes about whose stories matter.

This project takes one set of systematic exclusions as its starting point. The research that formed the basis of “The Value of Making Sexual Difference Visible” exhibit began in the fall of 2010, aiming to record the social geographies of sexual difference in Lethbridge. The LGBTQ oral histories that have been collected comprise a new archive2 that includes narrator transcripts, audio recordings, and ephemera such as images and organizational newsletters. At the conclusion of the research, the archive will be donated to the Sir Alexander Galt Museum & Archives in Lethbridge, where it will be preserved and made available for public use.

As of this writing, the archive includes stories from 26 people, ages 20-67, who share their experiences of place, community, activism, faith, and so many rich details of their contributions to, and observations about, the growing city. Its very existence disrupts the local historical record, in which local LGBTQ communities and contributions are almost entirely absent.

Indeed, during the four years I lived in Lethbridge, the queer presence in the city was limited in the extreme. It was not the absence of a gay bar or a gay neighbourhood that denoted the limits of queerness. Although these are signs North Americans often look for to prove a gay presence, LGBTQ lives are hardly limited to these contexts.3 Instead, the limits to queer life in Lethbridge were apparent through a combination of myriad elements of daily life, such as the surveillance of non-normative gender performances, which in turn was made possible in part by the dearth of gender performances that disrupted the norm. Queerness also seemed hemmed in by the hyper-visibility of religious discourse and iconography in the urban landscape, from the gendered apparel of Hutterite shoppers to an ever-present Christian billboard on a dominating landmark—a converted water tower—all of which mark Lethbridge as normatively Christian. Two Billboards are in continual roation: one popular account of the water tower4 depicts the incongruous set of billboards, with an advertisement for truck sales on one side, a housing developer on the other, and the crucifixion scene sandwiched in between.

Of course, queerness and Christianity are not mutually exclusive categories, and many in Lethbridge’s LGBTQ communities are also members of faith communities. Despite such links, and in spite of the sizable number of LGBTQ people who call Lethbridge home, city streets and public discourse largely obscure the local LGBTQ presence.

A geographer in the gallery
Geographers are, for the most part, trained to think about data in two ways: as text or numbers. For those who collect numerical data, the accepted wisdom suggests that scholars should represent their data spatially, and most often this means depicting findings in the form of the map. Graphic representation is less common for those whose research materials are primarily text-based. Instead, geographers who read archival documents or conduct interviews are expected to share their findings in print.

The logic of this expectation became clear as I worked to translate the archive of LGBTQ oral histories into a visual display. Compare the measurements of the physical gallery space (two walls that are eight foot in height; the length of one was seven foot and the other was sixteen foot) to the amount of data the project has produced (the twenty-six oral histories alone equal approximately twenty single-spaced pages of text each, or approximately 520 text-filled pages!) This may explain the reaction that one visitor shared with me at the opening reception: she said, “It feels like walking into a book!”

Yet, creating a visual format to share the voices of the narrators became increasingly important as this project developed. Lethbridge is at an important historical juncture. The city’s population is growing and changing. As a signatory member of the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination (CCMARD), the municipal government has committed to making Lethbridge a “welcoming and inclusive community”. Likewise, Lethbridge is partnering with the provincial government for the Family & Community Support Services program, which prioritizes social inclusion and cohesion as one of three key policy areas. Principles focused on helping all residents foster a sense of belonging are reiterated even in the City’s planning documents.5

At the same time, much work remains. The inclusion of LGBTQ people in these policies and plans is often implicit: at best, LGBTQ experiences are quietly included—a singular, non-specific reference in a forty-page policy document, for instance. At worst, LGBTQ voices are absent altogether; we are covered by a blanket description, diverse populations.

Our stories, our lives, are too important to be lost or concealed within an ambiguous banner of diversity. The exhibit was one effort to push the monolithic use of diversity by highlighting LGBTQ voices and showcasing a more complete range of our experiences. By linking narrators’ stories to maps of Lethbridge, the exhibit asked its audience to reconsider the experience of being in, and moving through, this city: it underlined feelings of safety and fear, it presented myriad methods used to carve out social spaces, and it demonstrated that efforts to create community are as varied as the community itself.

In other words, the exhibit refused the re-silencing of LGBTQ lives and experiences that occurs when LGBTQ people are implicitly included in the banner of diversity. In effect, deploying diversity without an attendant discussion of sexual difference sends yet another message that LGBTQ lives and experiences do not matter. Further, it works to essentialize LGBTQ experience: it disregards the diversity of experiences among LGBTQ people, and ignores the ways that sexuality is produced, performed, and perceived in conjunction with other markers of difference. The experiences of difference and othering are shaped through both individual experiences and systems of power and privilege, which means that for some, being gay is unremarkable, whereas for others, sexual difference shapes every aspect of their daily lives. When LGBTQ voices are silenced, our lives are characterized as marginal, exceptional, and one-dimensional.
Exhibiting the archive

The exhibit emphasized complexity and resisted a narrow representation of LGBTQ experience. It was structured around three themes that have emerged through the oral history collection: Policy Matters, Being & Feeling In Place, and Keeping It “Normal”. Narrators’ voices were showcased within each topic, as well as in the exhibit introduction and overview.

Policy Matters highlighted the significance of laws and policies as they affect experiences of school classrooms, workplaces, homes, and public spaces. They may be a little-noticed sub-text of daily life, but laws and policies include everything from local regulations like school board decisions that dictate “acceptable speech” in K-12 classrooms, to corporate policies that create equal benefits for heterosexual and same-sex partners, to provincial and federal laws. Thus, these rules and regulations shape dominant understandings of, and interactions with, our cities and communities.

The stories featured in this segment of the exhibit focused on high school and post-secondary experiences, on the relevance of, and response to, equal marriage legislation, on the fight for equal rights in the workplace, and on facing down discrimination in sites as diverse as the cafe and the doctor’s office. They underscored the relationship between the need for policies that address homophobic behaviours, and the reality that policies by themselves are never enough. Compare these two narratives, for example:

“I went through a lot of really bad teasing and bullying [in high school]. Fortunately it was never physical, but often verbal– just calling me ‘fag’ or ‘faggot’. I got that all the time. And there were three boys specifically that did it. I don’t really remember their names but I remember that that’s who they were… Luckily, I had fantastic friends in high school, which really saved me in some classes, and certain teachers. If I hadn’t gone to certain classes, it would’ve been like the end for me. If I didn’t have the Language Arts class that I loved because the teacher was great, my art class teacher was fantastic, and also the concert-band I was in. If I wasn’t in those three classes, I would’ve been a dead man. I wouldn’t have even wanted to go to school, or live, let alone school. But those three things literally saved my life, those three classes and those three teachers literally saved my life.”
Narrator: E (pseudonym), 30s6

“Even at what I found to be not a welcoming [Lethbridge high] school, they have stuff—there are posters about coming out…The disservice I see being done is I don’t think any attention was drawn to it and there wasn’t an inclusive language policy. So fine, you slap that poster up there but if you don’t do anything about it– …So it’s good that you’re seeing the posters and the message being there, but if it’s not actually addressed, kids don’t look. They’re not reading them. So if you don’t make it an issue to say like ‘No, you’re not allowed to say that in class’–”

Researcher: Then what point does it have?

“Yes, exactly. There’s no impact. Like to have that poster up at school, maybe would make you feel better as a young gay student, you’re seeing that and you’re thinking ‘Oh, ok.’ But when you get into practice in the classroom, if the other students are still being rude and being disrespectful about that, then I mean, how safe do you really feel?”
Narrator: L (pseudonym), 20s

In the first interview excerpt, the narrator, E, exemplifies the effect of bullying at school. He asserts that three things literally saved his life: friends, certain teachers, and certain classes. The second excerpt suggests that some high schools have taken the threat of homophobic bullying seriously, at least to the extent of developing signage that tacitly supports gay youth. As the narrator notes, however, signage alone is insufficient in its ability to prevent or respond to bullying: other steps like an inclusive language policy and daily classroom interventions are essential. It is also important to remember that LGBTQ students are not the only ones who are targets of homophobic bullying, nor are they alone in the effects of bullying: according to the 2011 Egale report, 58% of straight students surveyed, or roughly 1400 students, “said that they too found it upsetting to hear homophobic comments.”7

Being & Feeling In Place explored how narrators describe their sense of belonging. Often, it is only when confronted with feeling out of place—when our bodies, our presence, or our actions somehow do not fit the norm of the place—that it becomes possible to articulate how it feels to be in place. As geographer Tim Cresswell writes, though, places do not have inherent meaning;8 we are the ones who assign value to places and the actions that occur within them. Public displays of affection, for example, are framed as acceptable or not-acceptable only because we define them as such. What becomes defined as “normal” or in place is then defended through discourse and practice. The threat of being shunned by the community is what narrator R [40s] refers to in this quote: she says, “[The fear that some in Lethbridge have of being known as gay] is about losing your job, it’s about losing your place in society, it’s about losing your sense of belonging. And the opinion of others that allow you to belong.” In R’s words, having a sense of belonging is directly linked to the perceptions of others, who are the gatekeepers of belonging.

Cultivating a sense of belonging happens at multiple scales: it happens within families, within school communities, and within cities. In this excerpt, the narrator, C [50s], talks about how her sense of belonging in her family shifted as a result of her sister’s advocacy. She comments:

“Well, my mom had asked my sister why [she thought] my mom and I weren’t very close. And my sister said, ‘Well, Mom, you have to accept whoever C. brings into the family the same way you’ve accepted my husband, your other daughter’s husband, your sons’ wives. That’s what you have to do to get C. to be close to you again. You have to accept whomever she brings into the family as a full member of the family’. And it helped. Having that little chat with mom helped.”

Recognizing LGBTQ family members sometimes requires a change in practices, as C’s quote suggests. This idea can also be extended to the city. LGBTQ community members are, in essence, part of the city’s family, which means that City government has a role in cultivating a sense of belonging for members of their community. The raising of the Pride flag at City Hall and the participation of City leaders and staff are two affirming practices that are helping some LGBTQ people in Lethbridge to feel a greater sense of being in place. Narrator V (pseudonym), 60s, highlights this point, while also implying that these changes are not without struggle:

“I was a little worried the first year of Pride Fest three years ago when we raised the flag at City Hall, that there might be protests, that there might be weird things happening with that. But people were driving by and honking and, you know, there didn’t seem to be an issue…We are up to three years now. And lots more people from City Hall came out and the police were out and a lot of people from the Aboriginal community are coming out to those events. I think that in City [government], there’s an [effort toward] ‘Let’s make this a more friendly, safer community, and that means accepting everybody.’ Even if it chokes people to say the words, to say ‘lesbian’ out loud.”
Narrator: V (pseudonym), 60s

The shifting norms of place pointed to by the previous narrator take centre stage in the Keeping It “Normal” segment of the exhibit. The norms of place are not static; however, taken-for-granted expectations of what is acceptable in public discourse and public space are firmly entrenched in Lethbridge. Here, the experience and effects of social difference—feeling different, being made to feel outside the norm, observing the treatment of those who are read to be different, our own treatment of those who appear different from ourselves—has not been welcome within public discourse. Moreover, the costs of being pegged as non-heterosexual or at odds with gender norms have been high: legitimate fears of losing homes, jobs, families, and communities have compelled some to hide sexual or gender difference. One upshot of these trends is a strong investment in normalcy; narrators across all age groups emphasized the importance of being understood as normal. Yet there are certain tensions embedded in the reliance on normalcy: what does being normal look like in practice? Who gets to make this claim, and at whose expense? What bargains do we make to be read as normal? If making our differences invisible is a price we pay for the promise of normalcy, how does the invisibility of difference shape the construction of what we come to think of as normal?

This segment of the exhibit brought to the fore this complexity by representing narrators’ voices invoking various notions of normalcy. The fourteen quotes were literally mapped onto the city: together, the quotes take on the shape of Lethbridge.

The following quotes were included in this map of Lethbridge. When read in conversation, these stories delineate how the pursuit of a perceived sameness is valued in certain contexts (for some), while (for others) refusing sameness is an essential antidote to feeling invisible or unaccepted.

“The difference between Lethbridge and Vancouver or Calgary is [that] it’s an agricultural farming central point. So we come together no matter what our background or sexuality because it’s the only game in town. It reminded me of the church out at Enchant where I grew up. They didn’t have enough Catholics or Lutherans or Mormons to make a church, so they said Evangelical Free. We will build one church for the community for all religions to attend. We don’t talk about our differences, we talk about our community and how we are similar.
Narrator: O, 50s

“I’m very polite, so troubling [the norm is] if somebody says, ‘oh my husband and I de-duh de-duh,’ and I go, ‘Yeah, that’s true; [partner’s name] and I find that too’. You know? So I will insert parallel examples. Whatever heteronormativity is happening in terms of description of ‘what I did last night’, or ‘where I am going tomorrow’, or the family, or trouble with kids, or whatever, I insert—deliberately, consciously—I insert my life to make it visible. Because I didn’t for forty years. I just was silent. I passed. I [pause], yeah. I passed. Sometimes I probably still pass.”
Narrator: M (pseudonym), 50s

“You can agree with me or not, it’s just that’s how it is for me. I have never been denied anything because I’m gay because I didn’t make an issue of it. But I won’t walk down the street holding hands with [my partner] either. Well, I can now. I’m old. Seriously (laughs). People don’t put a sexual thing on it, because we are old.”
Narrator: B, 60s

“When we talk to queer people from different towns, it’s like, ‘You’re out in Lethbridge? That must be scary!’ I mean, there’s really no queer community in Lethbridge compared to bigger towns, but I think we’re doing pretty good for where we are in the Bible Belt, you know?…Lethbridge has a Pride celebration, and now it’s a week long and everything… And [we’re] being more out and just trying to integrate ourselves into the general community. I think that’s the only way you’re going to gain acceptance, is by saying, ‘I’m not going to be okay with not being accepted.’ You have to put it out there, and I think sometimes people will surprise you. Like, I was surprised by my eighty-two year old grandma. So you can be surprised by people who you assume aren’t going to accept you, but if you don’t give them the chance, of course they can’t accept you. You just have to put yourself out there and hope for the best sometimes.”
Narrator: J, 20s

“Quite frankly I am a person, that’s what I am. If you need a term to define because it makes it easier for yourself, ok. But I’m going to define myself as a human being, but my sexual preference, my god, that’s such a small part of who I am. And it seems like yes, I can certainly define myself as a lesbian, but I can also define myself as…a musician, a teacher, a gardener, you know? I guess it all depends on, like I say, who it is and how anal they are about being able to fit things in little boxes.”
Narrator: H, 40s

These quotes denote the complexity inherent to questions of the visibility of sexual difference, where normalcy is navigated in and through visibility. By itself, though, visibility does not produce social change. Rather, visibility must be understood as a symbolic marker within a larger framework that accounts for creating spaces of belonging across social difference.

Hopefully, the exhibit contributed to this framework, serving as an intervention into a local conversation about the value of making sexual difference visible. Its attention to stories and context that may seem too local or too specific to be representative—spaces on the side of the road9—nonetheless offer critical evidence of the uneven pace of social change. Yet, there are many important stories from the research that were not on display in the exhibit, and there are many memories that have not yet been recorded. Equally as significant as the materials displayed on the gallery walls, then, are the stories that have yet to be told. Some of these, perhaps, will emerge out of conversations sparked by the exhibit.

The impact of the exhibit
For universities today, research impact is a key concern: there is heightened scrutiny about (certain) research outputs and dissemination, and a greater emphasis on making research outputs accessible to communities beyond the university. Yet this formulation of impact is problematic in that the hierarchy of research dissemination remains unchanged: conversations among scholars, or scholarly publications, retain primacy while community engagement is prioritized as a distant second. More work must be done to alter the value of community engagement and the focus on research dissemination that centrally involves being in conversation with communities outside the university.
Creative, community-based dissemination like the exhibit is at the core of re-formulating research impact. In fact, this archive will be a community resource and, in the best case scenario, a tool for community building. Thus, the stories should be shared in a way that will make a difference to the narrators’ lives. The exhibit made this effort by giving LGBTQ voices and experiences space and visibility not often afforded in the Lethbridge region. Additionally, it allowed narrators who have contributed to the project thus far to get a sense for how their stories and their experiences of queer place-making compare to others’ stories and experiences.

Indeed, while creating an archive may constitute a significant impact, it is only in making use of the archive that its full value is discernible: assembling the materials in multiple forms and in ways that become available to both narrators and a wider set of audiences. The exhibit accomplished this by showcasing excerpts of every one of the narratives collected to date, and by transforming the oral histories—what might be otherwise understood as dry social science data or, worse yet, dusty historical materials—into a living, breathing display of intimate, daily experiences.

The fact is that most of the narrators who have contributed to the archive won’t be interested in reading a scholarly research monograph, even if it is priced and written to be accessible to a more-than-scholarly audience. Moreover, the LGBTQ community in Lethbridge has much in common with queer communities in other cities: what may appear to be one LGBTQ community in Lethbridge is in fact many communities, divided by the usual factors (e.g., generation, class, race) as well as some additional features (like one’s status as a local or transplant to southern Alberta). As a result, while stories of queer place-making and comfort and safety are certainly shared among friends, the opportunities for dialogue among LGBTQ folks in Lethbridge are limited. Seen in these terms, the exhibit offered a new entry point for narrators (and allies) to consider the opportunities and challenges of queer place-making in and around Lethbridge.

Taken together, these elements demonstrate that creative dissemination is fundamental to generating research dissemination that is meaningful, including to the communities engaged in the research. The exhibit’s capacity for impact was significant if (mostly) intangible. As it temporarily performed the archive, the exhibit created a social space of queer oral history, which celebrated the diversity of LGBTQ experiences and educated its audiences about the role of (real and perceived) social difference in our laws, policies, school spaces, work spaces, and daily interactions. Such spaces are infused with possibility according to anthropologists Horacio Roque Ramírez and Nan Alamilla Boyd, who argue that “something transformative seems to occur as new knowledge is produced”10 in the social space of queer oral history. It remains to be seen what new knowledge is produced from displaying queer oral histories in the space of the gallery. Whatever emerges must reckon with the high stakes involved in disseminating the stories of LGBTQ lives, as the following narrator intimates:

“Queer history is specific as I understand it. I’m always taken aback by the propensity to erase that history for the sake of universality, and I’m really not into that. I think it’s important for people, even if they’ve never been to NYC, to understand what Stonewall was, or what early Pride Parades looked like, or what dyke marches were about in Toronto or Montreal…and all those things added up to this outness that we can explore today…It didn’t just come out of nowhere. And we have to be responsible for sharing that history, because if we aren’t, then there will be lots of other people who will say our cultural experience is something else, and it won’t be as generous or accurate. I think there is some urgency to getting our heads around that.”
Narrator: D, 30s

The very act of making sexual difference visible through the exhibit disrupted the entrenched norms and taken-for-granted truths about Lethbridge. The exhibit refused the systematic exclusions that conceal stories about LGBTQ lives and experiences in Lethbridge and region, and created an opening for LGBTQ voices to be acknowledged and valued for, not despite, their differences. The research as a whole shows that the invisibility of LGBTQ stories has dramatic effects for individuals, their communities, and the Lethbridge region, whether those costs are to individual mental and physical health, or to the expenses associated with the city’s inability to retain local graduates and a talented labour force. Seen in these terms, the value for making sexual difference visible in Lethbridge is indeed quantifiable, and more interventions like the exhibit are essential to reshape the existing public discourse.

1) Leonie Sandercock, Introduction to Making the Invisible Visible: A Multicultural Planning History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 6.
2) Narrators are not included in the archive without their consent. They must elect to participate in the archive at the time of, or subsequent to, their oral history interview. Narrators may participate in the research project without participating in the archive.
3) See, for instance, Podmore, Julie, “Gone ‘underground’? Lesbian visibility and the consolidation of queer space in Montréal,” Social and Cultural Geography 7 (2006): 595-625 and Lewis, Nathaniel, “Moving ‘out’, Moving on: Gay men’s migrations through the life course,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers (2014).
4) Image from http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2009/02/09/welcome_to_lethbridge. The text of the Christian billboard is reproduced in this column.
5) For instance, see the City of Lethbridge Integrated Community Sustainability Plan/ Municipal Development Plan.
6) On identifying narrators: In this research, narrators decide whether to be identifiable: many have chosen to allow their oral history to be public and others have opted to make their oral history transcript available with the use of a pseudonym. In all cases, the oral history interview—typically between two and four hours in length—is transcribed, reviewed, edited, and returned to the narrator for their approval. The approved copy is then annotated and indexed in preparation for its submission to the Sir Alexander Galt Museum & Archives in Lethbridge, which will take place in 2014. Because narrators are at different stages of the transcript-approval process, and even those who agreed to make their oral history public need to approve their story before identifiable quotes become publicly available, I used limited identifiers in order to maintain a consistent format for the quotes. For the purpose of this exhibit, narrators are identified by the initial of their first or last name and the age bracket they were in at the time of their interview. Pseudonyms are noted when used.
7) Taylor, Catherine, et al. Every class in every school: The first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools. Final report. (Toronto: Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, 2011), 10.
8) Tim Cresswell, In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology, and Transgression. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) pg#.
9) Kathleen Stewart, A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996) pg#.
10) Roque Ramírez, Horacio N., and Nan Alamilla Boyd, eds. Introduction to Bodies of Evidence: The Practice of Queer Oral History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 2.

Funding support for this project has come from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, the University of Lethbridge Research Fund, and the University of Lethbridge Internal SSHRC Grant. Thanks to the project’s Community Advisory Board for input on making data visible, to Chris Clark for design expertise, and to the many research assistants who have participated in research process. Most of all, THANK YOU to all of the narrators who have shared their stories. I am privileged to work with you to bring this archive into being.

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