The formation of fear in gay space: the 'straights' story.

Author:Moran, Leslie J.

It is well-known that lesbians and gay men have long been produced and examined as objects of fear. However, this article analyses lesbians and gay men as subjects of fear. This paper offers an exploration of the formation and uses of fear in the context of lesbian and gay experiences of danger and safety associated with violence. In so doing it explores the politics and geography of fear that inform lesbian and gay perceptions of danger and safety. The evidence provided is based upon an analysis of an established and a non-established arena of lesbian and gay performance and visibility/invisibility.


Lesbians and gay men have long been produced and examined as objects of fear (Duggan, 2000; Hart, 1994; Moran, 1996). This article offers a new departure: a study of lesbians and gay men as subjects of fear. More specifically we offer an exploration of the formation and uses of fear in the context of lesbian and gay experiences of danger and safety associated with violence. (1) It is now perhaps a trite point, but one worth repeating within the frame of a lesbian and gay politics of violence, that fear of crime is for many more important than direct experience of criminal acts in the generation of experiences of danger and safety. In this article we begin an exploration of the politics and geography of fear that informs lesbian and gay perceptions of danger and safety.

Our analysis of lesbian and gay experiences of fear of crime uses data generated as part of a major research project, 'Violence, Sexuality and Space'. (2) In general the research concentrates on how three specific groups (gay men, lesbians and heterosexual women-identified as 'high risk' groups by various crime surveys) produce and make use of space in two contrasting geographical areas, a large city and a smaller town both in the North West of England. Manchester is a major city at the heart of a large urban conurbation. It has an identifiable and well established gay space known as 'the Village'. The Village is the location that gives concrete form to what has been described as 'the strongest and most vibrant Lesbian and Gay communities in the country'. This 'gay Mecca' (Healthy Gay Manchester, 1998) offers gay men in particular, high visibility and spatial concentration. It is a 'mecca' characterised specifically by way of various forms of cultural capital: 'pleasure', consumption, 'style', fashion, cuisin e and more specific events such as a Queer arts festival. Lancaster offers a sharp contrast. It is a much smaller provincial city some 50 miles to the north of Manchester. It has no clearly identifiable and durable gay space. (3) The project data was generated using a reflexive, multi-method approach. In each location we conducted a space census survey, semistructured interviews with key informants and focus groups for lesbians, gay men and straight women. (4)

After situating our work on lesbian and gay fear within the wider contemporary fear of crime debates, we begin our analysis by reference to findings generated by the survey, to date the UK's largest survey of lesbian and gay experiences of safety and danger. (5) The surveys generated some unexpected findings relating to the importance of fear of violence in lesbian and gay definitions of safety and danger in our two locations. One difference between the data from the two locations is the appearance of 'straights' as a distinct category of danger in the Manchester data. Having set out a summary of the more general findings we turn our attention to the data on 'straights' as danger. We explore the meaning and significance of 'straights' as danger through an examination of the project's wider research data on safety and danger, generated through the focus group discussions and semistructured interviews. We develop an analysis of the complexity of definitions of fear of violence and safety that are being produced in and through this category. We then turn to consider the spatial themes that inform the fear and danger associated with 'straights'. Our data not only draws attention to the importance of taking the location of fear of 'straights' seriously it also points to the importance of fear of 'straights' in the production of location. We examine the challenges that these spatial themes raise for those who seek to understand lesbian and gay fear and safety and for those who generate policy in response to it.

Lesbian and gay politics of violence and fear of crime

Victim surveys have played a key role in drawing attention to violence against lesbians and gay men. Debate continues as to whether these surveys document previously unrecorded levels of violence or constitute a new 'epidemic' of violence (Jacobs and Potter, 1998; Moran, 2000). However, they consistently show that the wide spectrum of homophobic violence, from physical assault to harassment and verbal abuse, is an everyday experience for lesbians and gay men.

This documentation of violence has been used to demand changes to policing practice and crime control provisions more generally including new reporting procedures, enhanced punishment provisions and new offences. The use of victim surveys by lesbians and gay men appears to follow a standard pattern of political activism (Jenness and Broad, 1997; Jenness and Grattet, 2001; Mason and Tomsen, 1997). In sharp contrast to this lesbian and gay activism has paid less attention to a second dimension of victim surveys; their use to document fear of crime.

In many ways this silence is surprising. Fear of crime has been a major growth area in criminological and criminal justice work at the level of practical interventions, policy debates and within the academy (Hale, 1996). Ditton and Farrall (2000) reported an explosion of interest in this area. In a four-year period, conference papers, monographs and books on the subject increased from just over 200 to more than 800. Reviews of the literature on the fear of crime draw attention to the highly problematic and contested nature of the domain. Most recently Bannister and Fyfe (2001) have suggested that a recent explosion in the literature indicates that interest has outstripped the conceptual development of fear of crime.

The themes of fear of crime literature resonate with many individual and collective ills highlighted by a lesbian and gay politics of violence (Jenness and Broad, 1997; Jenness and Grattet, 2002). For example fear of crime, scholars suggest (Bennett, 1990; Hale, 1996), is closely connected to the processes of victimisation, resulting as the consequence of a breakdown in social control or as being mediated by the urban environment. Others have noted that fear of crime has an important role in the production of social division and social exclusion (Stanko, 2000) by way of its psychological, physical and economic impact on individuals. This has strong spatial significance. In response to fear there is a withdrawal into the private realm. In turn this withdrawal generates the decline and deterioration of the community and the public realm, which in turn gives rise to more crime in public places (Hale, 1996).

The characterisation of fear in this literature is also of interest. It is dominated by a particular set of associations. This fear endlessly portrayed as a threat or danger associated with the unknowable and characterised as the unruly, that which is beyond control (Wurff and Stringer, 1988). More specifically, the fear of crime literature foregrounds the body. It is the primary location of fear experiences. Fear is emotion, pain, uneasiness, anxiety, caused by the sense of impending danger (Bannister and Fyfe, 2001)/ Fear is personalised and individualised in and through the body. In its association with the body fear is predominantly understood in this literature as unreason and irrationality.

Engagement with the fear of crime literature does pose some problems. On occasions 'fear' has been replaced by other terms such as terror, anxiety, worry, anger and loss of trust (Jefferson and Hollway, 2000; Stanko, 2000; Walklate 2000; 2001). These distinctions, their individual significance, their inter-relation and their connection to fear has been used to challenge much quantitative research on fear of crime (Hale, 1996), and to generate calls for new approaches to fear of crime research (Ditton, Bannister, Gilchrist and Farrall, 1999). Another site of controversy has been over the meaning of 'crime' in this context. Work that documents fear associated with aspects of well being, quality of life, life-style (Hindelong, 1978: 244) has been challenged. 'Fear of crime', it is suggested, is a phrase that should only be used in the context of a fear of a particular range of legally proscribed acts, usually limited to serious physical violence and property crime (Hale, 1996). Others have challenged resort to t his narrow, pedantic definition of crime.

Stanko's critique of the resort to narrow definitions of 'crime' in the context of fear is of particular importance here (2000). She suggests that it has had both particular and more general effects. It has been an important factor in reducing fear of crime to a debate about victims, more specifically a debate about good victims and bad victims and the needs of the former and the culpability of the latter. More generally, she suggests, it has had the effect of erasing the structural and political issues of social hierarchies and inequalities that have not only been a key factor in the generation of victim surveys but also a central feature of the data. For us 'crime' (and our interest here is focused on violence as crime) must be widely construed. In part this draws upon feminist and lesbian and gay scholarship, that emphasises the urgent need to recognise the multiple forms of violence and its different effects.

There is also support for this position within fear of crime literature. Sally Merry's work (1981) has particular significance. She argues that...

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