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The domestic space of gay men and lesbians

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The domestic space of gay men and lesbiansWhat is written between the lines in obituaries is often as important as the words staring you in the face. I always wonder about people who travel halfway around the world to be with a friend then set up home with that friend for no ostensible reason.

Which is why it was so refreshing to read the obituary of collector James Agapitos who died in January with its recognition of his relationship with partner Ray Wilson; they were 'married', as The Sydney Morning Herald put it, "by a matey ampersand, James & Ray".

I know many gay and lesbian couples attached by punctuation but such a public display is unusual – one of the most prominent I can think of is Waz & Gav, Warren Sonin and Gavin Atkins, the gay couple on the first series of Channel Nine’s The Block whose popularity helped them launch their own design company. It also highlighted the boundaries of “acceptable mainstream images of gay men”, says geographer and archival researcher, Andrew Gorman-Murray (pictured below).

Gorman-Murray’s PhD topic, Queering home or domesticating deviance? looks behind stereotypes to the meaning of home for gay men and women, stripping away the gloss to show the home’s emotional and practical pulls.

"Queering the home was used against the normal idea of home to assert that we also need to look at home as not always being a heterosexual unit," he says. Domesticating deviance illustrates the tension between the nuclear family home and the design blood that is supposed to flow through all gay men.
Gorman-Murray interviewed 20 gay men and 17 lesbians, mainly but not all couples, aged from 19 to 68 though mostly of working age, living in Sydney primarily (and in all areas, not just the 'ghetto' of Darlinghurst) and in Melbourne, Newcastle, Wollongong and regional towns in New South Wales.

The sample was self-selected; the majority had no children and were tertiary educated managers or professionals. There was a mixture of owner-occupiers and renters and people living in houses and units, but the main findings of the research applied across the board.

"Design was important", says Gorman-Murray, "not for aesthetic reasons per se but for deeper reasons, for the self and relationships and well-being." It was the "materiality of home" that mattered, "the way it was designed to support and affirm sexual identities and relationships."

Going back to the 1930s or even the 1950s to 1970s, when homosexuality was essentially a criminal activity, gay men and women established and sustained their subcultures through their domestic spaces. House parties and dinner parties were very important as they are today but it is the private home that resonates most, “particularly when seen in a context where the expression of your sexual identity is inhibited in public spaces or in workplaces”, he says.

Home design demonstrates an investment of self. "In terms of establishing – and maintaining – relationships it is the bringing together of personally meaningful objects, and of making decisions over the way you would design, or paint or purchase furniture or other household items together, of making the home their home, using their favourite colours, combined."

For some the combination of family objects and those representing their sexual identify was "a crucial way to legitimise that identity and reconcile it with the family identity".

The domestic space of gay men and lesbiansThese findings were consistent regardless of whether interviewees were living in areas seen as being gay and lesbian friendly, where they might feel comfortable out and about in the streets, or in more traditional suburbs, where couples who fly rainbow flags in the front gardens "were making a statement that it’s OK to be a gay or lesbian person in a suburban location and we’re comfortable here and other people can be comfortable with that too."

Gorman-Murray says that given the importance of home for gay and lesbian well-being, issues concerning accommodation are likely to have significant impact and need further research. With more low income and working class gay men and lesbians being forced to rent housing is becoming less affordable. Secondly there is evidence of discrimination on the basis of renters’ sexuality, and thirdly, with an ageing population, gay men and lesbians are keeping themselves closeted in nursing homes or with care at home.

And who knows how many ampersands might soon appear in obituaries when, as Gorman-Murray points out, "we are entering the first cohort where we have old gay men and lesbians".



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Existing comments

The most challenging part of the article is in the last part. How do we provide for the living/loving needs of older gays and lesbians. Not every gay person spends their entire life frolicking at Mardi Gras. I see little evidence of aged care institutions and agencies even acknowledging that there are older gays let alone providing nurture and comfort in older age.

Roger Fitz-Henry Borrell | 06 March 2007  

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