Theses defended

The Insular Effect: LGBTQ people's experiences through the lens of geographical isolation

Joana Brilhante

Public Defence date
March 10, 2023
Doctoral Programme
Human Rights in Contemporary Societies
Ana Cristina Santos e Miguel Vale de Almeida
The field of Geographies of Sexualities has been demonstrating for several decades how sexualities are shaped with and by places and spaces. Critical perspectives coming from scholars with work in Rural Queer Studies call attention to the need to decentralize academic knowledge - mainly focused on large, metropolitan cities -, and to engage with the valuable understandings and experiences that come from people who live in isolated, sparsely populated and rural communities. To understand how LGBTQ people's Human Rights are experienced, and how legislative changes are promoted or resisted, we must have an extended comprehension of contemporary spatialities. As such, this thesis contributes to fill the gap of knowledge regarding the intersections between LGBTQ people's experiences and the geographical condition of insular isolation, a perspective that has been insufficiently explored in LGBTQ scholarship.

This investigation comprises a multi-methods qualitative and interdisciplinary approach, making use of a case study, the Autonomous Region of Azores. The methodology encompassed online data collection, participant observation, documental analysis and 25 semi-structured interviews. The interviews were conducted with 21 LGBTQ adults (ages 18 - 70) and 4 key informants, all of whom were Azorean-born or living on the islands.

In registering the experiences of queer people who live in a very particular geographical setting, this thesis adds new information to the national and international body of LGBTQ research. The islands studied breed an intimate and partly closed sociocultural ecosystem. Roughly shaped by its isolation, smallness and the fact that the islands are sparsely populated, these "sociocultural greenhouses" shape the experiences of the local LGBTQ people. The thematic threads around aspects such as Social Contract, Mobility, Space and Exposure, allowed reflections on the importance of categories like family and society, shedding light on the significance of the respect of the local social and cultural norms, which I call during this work, the maintenance of the sociocultural homeostasis. Grounded on these thematic lines, the theoretical work led to the development of the concept of the Insular Effect. The Insular Effect results from the intimate, sociocultural ecosystem which is sustained by the islands' geographical isolation. Therefore, when looking at spaces with these conditions through the lens of LGBTQ studies, it is important to consider three main axes: the insular space, the feelings of exposure and the importance of the dominant social codes. These three axes create the insular effect that rebounds into the local LGBTQ community isolating the subjects. The ways in which this isolation was expressed in the case study were: leaving the islands; the invisibility of the subjects by the compliance with the sociocultural homeostasis; or the isolation that results from an exposure which is not desirable to the other LGBTQ locals. This exposure comes from the over conspicuousness of being openly gender and/or sexually diverse in spaces and places that are tailored by cis-heteronormativity.

This effect seems to be activated by an insular sense of place, which is highly marked by the feeling of proximity with all the members of the community as if the people's quotidian is surrounded by "intimate strangers". Although this seems to be a collective experience in all of the insular community, its impact is different on cis-heteronormative people, when compared to LGBTQ people.

Finally, another contribution of this work, which is based on the analysis of the data in light of an interdisciplinary body of knowledge, is the development of a five-point theoretical approach to LGBTQ studies in insular communities. Hopefully, this scientific endeavour offers an informed conceptual analysis of significant aspects to take into account when variables such as geographical isolation and LGBTQ people intersect.

The empirical data collected sheds light on the role of the geographical context in shaping LGBTQ people's experiences. With the highlight of the important aspects that emerged in the analysis of this case study, the grammar of LGBTQ people's Human Rights has been extended, allowing new perspectives towards future interventions that are compromised with the respect for human dignity, respect and freedom.

Keywords: LGBTQ, isolation, insularity, sense of place, intimacy