Cartographies of Differences

Interdisciplinary Perspectives

by Ulrike M. Vieten (Volume editor) Gill Valentine (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 240 Pages
Open Access

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Counter-Mappings: Cartography and Difference
  • Part 1 Cartographies of Normality and Normativity
  • Unpacking Prejudice: Narratives of Homophobia in Cross-National Context
  • When Beliefs Become Property: Liberal Legal Discourse, Employee Resistance and Anti-Gay Christian Politics
  • Facial Difference, Consumer Culture and Being ‘Normal’
  • Part 2 Cartographies of Citizenship and (Non-)Belonging
  • National Belonging in Cosmopolitan Times
  • Notions of Conflict and ‘New’ Citizens’ Inclusion: Post-Cosmopolitan Contestations in Germany
  • Everyday Active Citizenship the Balkan Way: Local Civil Society and the Practice of ‘Bridge Building’ in Two Post-Yugoslav Cities
  • Part 3 Cartographies of Languages and Cross-Cultural Communication
  • The Territorial Principle: Language Rights and Linguistic Minorities in Spain and Italy, 1992–2010
  • Conducting Qualitative Research in English and Spanish: Recognising the Active Roles of Participants in Cross-Linguistic and Cross-Cultural Projects
  • Visible Difference, Stigmatising Language(s) and the Discursive Construction of Prejudices Against Others in Leeds and Warsaw
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index


Counter-Mappings: Cartography and Difference

The title of this edited collection, Cartographies of Differences, is inspired by Avtar Brah’s groundbreaking book Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. We aspire to create a synergy between interdisciplinary theoretical-analytical approaches and thorough empirical studies, with all the chapters addressing the theme of ‘encounters with differences’. Brah suggests the concept of ‘diaspora space’ (1996: 16, 178), approaching the non-fixed and dialectically constructed spaces of a diasporic identity. Moving beyond her focus on gender, ethnicity and race, framed by and framing diaspora, this collection takes religion, sexualities, nationality and class as further intersecting social categories that are relevant to the notion of difference and differentiation. All of these angles are crucial to how we experience and locate social space, justice and equality in a contemporary world characterised by fluidity and temporality. Jeffrey C. Alexander (2013) coined the term ‘the mode of incorporation’ to describe current European policies and polemics that are opposed to multiculturalism and aim to stifle the development of a more fragmented, increasingly diasporic and vernacular diversification of lifestyle choices and late modern biographies.

In contrast with the journey towards acceptance of multiculturalism in Britain in the 1990s (conflict-ridden as it was), today in a post 9/11 climate we are witness to much polarising anxiety about ethno-national minorities, particularly orthodox Muslims, in and beyond Europe. At the same time, ideas about intercultural communication, cosmopolitan openness towards ‘the Other’ and management of diversity do receive approval as signifiers of community cohesion in the twenty-first century. For example, the ‘fairy tale’ of early September 2015 in Germany and Austria, which saw an immense wave of sympathy towards Syrian refugees, particularly in Vienna and Munich, might indeed be an indicator of the arrival of a ‘new’, ← 1 | 2 →cosmopolitan and more open version of civil society engagement in some places. Problems arise where structural asymmetry with respect to power and resources is underestimated, and new formations and experiences of social injustice are neglected. Alongside the euphoric cheering and the hospitality shown towards refugees, resentments – and even arson attacks – in some of the more rural areas of Germany, both in the east and the west, remind us that cosmopolitanism(s) means plurality and complexity: it is very much a situated (Vieten 2007), and therefore contested, phenomenon.

Since the early 1990s, the allure of cosmopolitanism has spread across academic and public discourses. A number of scholars engaged explicitly with the concept of cosmopolitanism in the 1990s (e.g. Bhabha 1996, Nussbaum 1996; Brennan 1997; Appandurai 1998; Cheah and Robbins 1998; Nava 1998; Kleingeld 1999). The academic and interdisciplinary scope of research and writing on cosmopolitanism broadened in the twenty-first century (e.g. Derrida 2001; Stevenson 2003; Mouffe 2004; Beck 2006; Calhoun 2007; Fine 2007; Held 2010), and also brought feminist and post-colonial approaches to the debate (e.g. Mignolo 2002; Nwanko 2005; Yuval-Davis 2005; Kofman 2005; Reilly 2007; Werbner 2008; Nava 2007; Vieten 2007; 2012). In the final chapter of Gender and Cosmopolitanism in Europe: A Feminist Perspective (2012), Vieten highlights the sophistication in the labelling of different types of cosmopolitanisms. She refers to Nora Fisher Onar (2011: 13), who argues that we might approach a ‘“cosmopolitan outlook” as a promising formula on how to live together despite our differences’ (Vieten 2012: 184). Here, Onar follows Hollinger (2002: 228), listing ‘“vernacular cosmopolitanism, rooted cosmopolitanism, critical cosmopolitanism, comparative cosmopolitanism, national cosmopolitanism, discrepant cosmopolitanism, situated cosmopolitanism, and actually existing cosmopolitanism”’ (ibid). Post- and de-colonial critiques (e.g. Mendieta 2009) provide further intellectual challenges within what has been called the ‘“cosmopolitan turn” within the social and political sciences’ (Strand 2010: 229). As is widely argued (Vieten 2007; 2010; 2012; Vieten and Valentine 2015), the Janus-faced and largely Eurocentric non-feminist imagination of the new cosmopolitanism tends to ignore the structural impact of gendered, classed, racialised and dis/abled positionalities that are present as specific individual ‘baggage’ beyond the discourses and ← 2 | 3 →phenomena of cosmopolitanism. It is important to reflect on intersecting dimensions within social categories, in order to realise the potential of a cosmopolitan consciousness. Here, the situated (Vieten 2007)1 context matters most, calling for detailed and analytical exploration of difference and otherness with respect to localities, histories, actors and the interdependences of spaces (‘cosmopolitan scales’).

Contests and controversies over the notion of group difference and individual identity, and the question of how to keep the balance here, require further investigation. What kind of community cohesion and cooperation do we need in different societies and localities, and how is difference performed, perceived and prejudiced in various places and spaces?

This is why a counter-mapping of differences is so important: the pluralisation of lifestyles and migration/mobility axes produces a complexity of new and hybrid forms with respect to social identities and cultural groups, further reshuffling the classic Western division of public and private space. This shifting of the boundary between public and private matters – a restructuring of the ‘politics of belonging’ (Yuval-Davis et al. 2006) – might affect individual claims to different faiths and religious beliefs, and might also affect the public consensus on gender equality, anti-discrimination policies or notions of secularism.

New and puzzling spheres of conflict emerge: for example, the racist ‘panics’ which overtook the neighbourhood of Page Hall in Sheffield in November 2013.2 In this instance, white English and black South Asian ‘Brits’ organised ‘community self-help’ against culturally different Roma, who happened to be continental European/EU migrants from Slovakia, both white and ‘black’. In some areas of Britain we witness the emergence of new local bedfellows who cross the post-colonial divide: they articulate a much older, and often racist, claim made by established communities willing to defend their material, cultural and social interests against newcomers.

← 3 | 4 →However, we also see newly emerging spheres of contact: for example, again in Sheffield, a rising cohort of overseas students, particularly from China and South-East Asia,3 changing the local social fabric. Local sites of conflict, after all, become contact zones.4

The presence of new immigrants, coming from distant empires or European republics, brings a new aspect to the post-colonial struggles of post-Empire Britain. The new visibility of more diverse ethnic and ‘racialised’ groups in Britain, as well as elsewhere in Europe, has generated significant academic, public and policy interest in understanding the current complexity of ‘diversity’ (Kraus 2011) or ‘super-diversity’ (Vertovec 2007). Speaking about difference and migration, local spaces have become more socially and culturally complex; experiences of cosmopolitanism might be benign or irritating, but all are experienced in a vernacular context. These new assemblages of local populations, alongside changing patterns of prejudice and cultural crossroads, urge us to analyse spatial and social sites more closely. Or, to put it differently, in the words of Rosa Bradiotti (2005: 171), ‘[h]ow to dis-engage difference or otherness from the dialectics of Sameness is therefore the challenge.’

Turning now to the (inter-disciplinary) framework of this book: critical cartography is located within the discipline of geography but shares with sociology an interest in the mapping and – crucially – the counter-mapping of social practices. The focus moves from an interest in maps as objects to maps and mapping as reflections of social relationships. Critical cartography addresses the multiplicity of cultural narratives, and also aims to deconstruct and de-colonialise spaces that are governed by cartographic maps based around control and fixed representations of territories. We regard ‘mapping’, with Crampton (2009), as an expression of ‘performative, participatory and political’ processes: counter-mapping follows on from this idea in order to challenge hegemonic perceptions of difference. It may use creative-cultural, performative-(re)representational or organisational-political tools.

← 4 | 5 →We aim to develop a post-cosmopolitan narrative of counter-mappings that tracks spatial and social transformations more specifically; we are looking for embodiments of difference that present global conflicts at local sites, a kind of re-drawing of a map of routes to understand differences. In that sense, cartography is the geo-visual expression of a ‘micro-geography of power relations that are simultaneously local and global’ (Bradiotti 2005: 178).

It is important to emphasise that the wide range of contributions to this collection, in terms of discipline and linguistic/semiotic-cultural location, sets the style of writing, reflection and interrogation. As part of the counter-mapping, we, the editors, follow a de-colonialising strategy by leaving more space for the articulation of each author’s thoughts in her and his original voice. Although there is a common thread linking each distinctive part of this book, the way in which the authors play out the theme of ‘encounters with difference’ remains within their particular disciplinary and cultural reading. In order to make the narrative of the book into a coherent whole, we have organised the parts and chapters in such a way that some of the arguments (and potential counter-considerations) of each contribution align with the subsequent contribution.

The nine chapters presented in this collection follow some of the practices of diversification and illustrate a more complex, but paradoxical, cartography of differences. The three parts of the book map out controversies about living with difference as conflict, but also understood as contact zones. In the first part, ‘Cartographies of Normality and Normativity’, the contributors concentrate on different notions and readings of legal norms, national sites and the normal of the everyday. In ‘Unpacking Prejudice: Narratives of Homophobia in Cross-National Context’, Aneta Piekut and Gill Valentine explore the scale and structure of homophobia in Warsaw and Leeds. Going beyond a comparative approach that examines different spatial (local and national) sites, they adopt a social topographical method (Katz 2001) that addresses Europeanization as an intersecting sphere of influence, thus connecting these two different cities and national spaces. They demonstrate that, despite surveys that show that the UK is more liberal and tolerant towards difference, homophobic prejudices in the UK are simply expressed less directly than in Poland. However, the demographic ← 5 | 6 →profile of people holding such prejudiced views is quite similar to the profile they came across in Poland. The normative structure of the public sphere – i.e. what morality means in this context – is decisive in both societies.

While a web of anti-discrimination legalisation in Britain gives legal protection to sexual minorities, those protections are increasingly competing with individual claims to be exempt from anti-discrimination laws, based on private and subjectively experienced religious grounds. In May 2015, the Newtownabbey bakery Ashers in Northern Ireland was fined for unlawfully discriminating against a gay customer when they refused to bake a cake for him. The cake was intended to display the famous comic characters Bert and Ernie and promote ‘gay’ marriage. The owrners of Ashers refused to bake the cake on the grounds of their Christian faith. This site of conflict in Northern Ireland links to ongoing legal disputes elsewhere in the UK: in ‘When Beliefs Become Property: Liberal Legal Discourse, Employee Resistance and Anti-Gay Christian Politics’, Davina Cooper and Didi Herman discuss the normative substance of these competing claims. They argue that what both claims share is a ‘“social property” paradigm in which beliefs and sexuality constitute part of individual’s estate’. In this chapter, different legal cases are analysed, contextualising the way individual claim-making works against anti-discrimination rules, employer commitments and a general language of rights.

The tension between normality and (legal) norms becomes even more complex when one considers the way in which mainstream culture is shaped by conventional understandings of beauty and a presumed right to look at the Other. Here, the vulnerability of the face, increasingly politicised in the context of female veiling across Europe, is discussed in Rosemary Peacock, Anita Sargeant and Neil Small’s chapter ‘Facial Difference, Consumer Culture and Being “Normal”’. Whereas the individual effort to comply with gender and/or sexuality norms, for example, might be a decision that individuals take privately, in the public or semi-public realm it is impossible for individuals with facial difference to hide. Peacock, Sargeant and Small expose the ‘discursive formation of disfigurement’ while critically accessing bodily representations in Western cultures and exploring more concretely the experiences of individuals living with facial difference and their support networks. They argue that we need new ways to think through the ← 6 | 7 →notion of the cosmopolitan, to counter the dominant culture of aesthetics and bodily standards.

The three chapters in the next part of the book examine more closely the idea of ‘Cartographies of Citizenship and (Non-)Belonging’. Alongside a diminished general role for ‘national identity’, we find a strong national-cultural identity present in specific localities, for example Scotland, as Nichola Wood argues in ‘National Belonging in Cosmopolitan Times’. In the context of the UK Westminster election of 2015 and the stunning victory of the Scottish National Party (SNP), this is a very timely and urgent issue. Although cosmopolitan advocates are excited about the possibility of overcoming chauvinistic nationalism, Wood shows in her chapter that the emotional drive of feeling connected to the nation and to a specific territory of nationhood should not be underestimated. The tension between parochial, national and regional affiliations, however, is very much situated: in the next chapter, the historical faultlines and ideological legacy of the German ethno-national community, which tends to reject migrant others and non-Christian minorities, are traced in the narratives and testimonies of ‘new’ Germans from a Turkish and Kurdish background. In ‘Notions of Conflict and “New” Citizens’ Concerns About Belonging: Post-Cosmopolitan Contestations in Germany’, Ulrike M. Vieten argues that in a post-migration and post-cosmopolitan age the cosmopolitan vernacular culture of contemporary metropolitan cities such as Berlin still has to overcome a narrow perception of native national belonging, and also a conventional perception of the migrant Other, who has now become a fellow European citizen. While using narrative methodology to understand the stories individuals tell against a background of restrictive integration debates, Vieten illustrates how ‘new’ Germans enact citizenship as a cosmopolitan potential, while balancing local belonging and transnational identities against anti-Muslim discourses in twenty-first-century Germany.

In the third contribution to this part of the book, ‘Everyday Active Citizenship the Balkan Way: Local Civil Society and the Practice of “Bridge Building” in Two Post-Yugoslav Cities’, Piotr Goldstein argues ‘that active participation in local civil society can be considered to be a form of active citizenship, even if the sector of civil society in which a person is active is not particularly political’. He draws on extensive fieldwork conducted ← 7 | 8 →in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Novi Sad, Serbia between 2010 and 2014, in which he explores a wide range of challenges (and opportunities) within contemporary post-Yugoslav societies.

In the final part of the book, ‘Cartographies of Languages and Cross-Cultural Communication’ are mapped out. Linguistic dynamics, both as conflict and contact zones, shape personal lives and patterns of friendship, social association and interaction in different social spheres. Alternative routes to bridging difference lead us to the possibility of a deeper communication, indicating potential for a deeper democracy. When we think of nationalism and cosmopolitanism, one thing that is crucial to understanding these as distinctive concepts is a certain privileged or de-privileged meaning of territory: territory as locality; territory as an ideologically and emotionally loaded geographic space (or the lack of it); territory as the site for attachment or detachment. Naomi Wells takes a challenging look at the limits of territorial regimes, in the context of accommodating the interests of minority languages within nation states. In her chapter ‘The Territorial Principle: Language Rights and Linguistic Minorities in Spain and Italy, 1992–2010’, she addresses the question of ‘how the territorial principle encourages a tendency to oversimplify or ignore multilingual contexts at both sub-state and state levels’. She discusses in more detail how a specific minority language, the Austro-Bavarian Tyrolean dialect, is not explicitly covered in a state policy enforcing the learning of the standard language, ‘German’. This failure does not help immigrants to Alto-Adige/Südtirol, who may then be able to speak to people from, for example, Hamburg, but not to residents of the region they are going to settle in, Tyrol/North Italy. These disparities between different dominant languages (e.g. Italian and German), on the one hand, and their minoritised dialect counterparts, on the other, are also apparent in other countries, beyond Spain and Italy. Hence, Wells’s considerations are relevant beyond the specific cultural cartography of South-West Europe.

Moving from state policy on language and culture to research with different language communities, Rosa Mas Giralt shares her experiences in conducting cross-lingual interviews, exploring the difficulties encountered when it is less than straightforward to translate and communicate Spanish from the point of view of an English-speaking world. In her chapter ← 8 | 9 →‘Conducting Qualitative Research in English and Spanish: Recognising the Active Roles of Participants in Cross-Linguistic and Cross-Cultural Projects’, she refers to her fieldwork in Northern England with Spanish-speaking migrants whose cultural and linguistic background is Latin American. Here, the multiplying of hybrid cultural practices becomes visible, engendered in the actual translation of transnational societal spaces. Giralt, a European Spanish (Castilian) speaker (who comes from Catalonia and therefore has another mother tongue), had to cross various layers of linguistic, social and cultural difference when reaching out to her interview partners. In addition, they were speaking through the lenses of mestiza, colonialized/post-colonial culture and gendered social class. After all, Giralt highlights the active role of her participants when narrating their selves into the research narrative.

The final chapter, ‘Visible Difference, Stigmatising Language(s) and the Discursive Construction of Prejudices against Others in Leeds and Warsaw’, by Ulrike M. Vieten and Anna Gawlewicz, explores the issue of translating difference and communicating concepts, terms and views of the world (Weltbilder), between and across English- and Polish-speakers. With this, the last contribution, we return to the research project that initiated the book, ‘Living with difference: Making communities out of strangers in an era of super mobility and super diversity’,5 which carried out research on the populations of Leeds and Warsaw. Both cities, as urban and local sites, were investigated to understand how diversity, migration and distinctive national histories impact on contemporary approaches to, ideas about and everyday engagement with difference. As Vieten and Gawlewicz argue, ‘Polish and English colloquial spoken language offers a window to explore how perceptions of (ascribed) difference are spelled out in private communication’. In their view, it is crucial to understand the similarities and differences as embedded in particular Polish and British histories. What ← 9 | 10 →is striking, though, is the finding that ‘alongside similarities in the construction of the gendered working class (parallels between ‘dresiarze’ and ‘chavs’), significant differences are noticeable with regard to how people in Warsaw and Leeds relate to the intersection of ethnicity, religion and gender’. Regarding the discursive overlap between prejudices and dismissive language against socially declassed individuals (e.g. ‘chavs’) in both national contexts, the social topographic argument about Europeanization made by Piekut and Valentine (chapter 1) could be equally applied here. Furthermore, we may be able to discern a global neo-liberal capitalistic discourse that constructs those who fail within the competitive market system as a global inferior ‘Other’.

The chapters presented in this collection come from very distinctive disciplinary angles; nevertheless, they all map the varieties of vernacular cosmopolitanisms as a paradoxical trajectory embedded in transformed local and transnational spaces. Some of these spaces are less visible than others, but all are important in order to understand how a new vision of contemporary cosmopolitanism – or rather, the post-cosmopolitan condition – might take shape.


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Appiah, A. (1998). ‘Cosmopolitanism, universalism and the divided legacies of modernity’ in: P. Cheah and B. Robbins (eds) Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling beyond the Nation,.Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota, 265–289.

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← 10 | 11 →Bradiotti, R. (2005). ‘A critical cartography of feminist post-postmodernism’. Australian Feminist Studies, 20 (47), 169–180

Brennan, T. (1997). At home in the world: cosmopolitanism now. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Calhoun, C. (2007). Nations matter: Culture, History and the Cosmopolitan Dream. New York: Routledge.

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Derrida J. (2001). On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. London: Routledge.

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Held, D. (2010). Cosmopolitanism – Ideals and Realities. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Kleingeld, P. (1999). ‘Six Varieties of Cosmopolitanism in Late eighteenth- Century Germany’. Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 60, No. 3 July 1999, 505–524.

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Mendieta, E. (2009). ‘From imperial to dialogical cosmopolitanism’. Ethics & Global Politics, vol. 2 (3), 241–258.

Mignolo, W.D. (2000). ‘The Many Faces of Cosmo-polis: Border Thinking and Critical Cosmopolitanism’. In: Carol A. Breckenbridge and Sheldon Pollock, Homi K. Bhabha and Dipesh Chakrabarty (eds). Cosmopolitanism. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 157–187.

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Vertovec, S. (2007). ‘Super-Diversity and its implication’. Ethnic and Racial Studies 30 (6), 1024–1054.

Vieten, U.M. (2007). Situated Cosmopolitanisms: the notion of the Other in discourses on cosmopolitanism in Britain and Germany, PhD Thesis, University of East London.

Vieten, U.M. (2010). ‘Situating Contemporary Discourses on Cosmopolitanism in Britain and Germany: Who is the Other, anyway?’, in: Patrick O’Donovan and Laura Rascaroli (eds), The Cause of Cosmopolitanism, Bern; Berlin; Bruxelles; Frankfurt a. M.; New York; Oxford; Wien: Peter Lang Publishing Group, 89–114.

Vieten, U.M. (2012). Gender and Cosmopolitanism in Europe: A Feminist Perspective, Farnham: Ashgate.

Vieten, U.M. and G. Valentine (2015). ‘European urban spaces in crisis: the mapping of affective practices of living with difference; introduction’, CITY- analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action 19 (4), 480–485.

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   1   While I used the notion of ‘situated cosmopolitanisms’ in my PhD thesis in 2007, ‘situated’ was also taken up more recently by Glick Schiller (2015) – Ulrike M. Vieten.

   2   http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/nov/15/sheffield-page-hall-roma-slovakia-immigration

   3   https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/international/countries/asia/east-asia/china/societies

   4   Here we use Marie Louise Pratt’s (1991) terminology regarding contact and conflict zones.

   5   ERC, LiveDifference, 2010–2014, http://livedifference.group.shef.ac.uk.

The project was based first at the University of Leeds and later at the University of Sheffield. The chapters in this book are revised version of papers given at the conference ‘How do we develop the capacity to live with difference?’, held on 12–13 September 2012 in Leeds.


Unpacking Prejudice: Narratives of Homophobia in Cross-National Context

ABSTRACT: This chapter analyses homophobic responses in two distinctive European contexts, Poland and Britain. It is based on a multi-method research project conducted as part of the ERC-funded ‘Living with Difference in Europe’ research programme. It adopts a social topographic approach to produce a cartography of homophobia: the analysis looks at the ways prejudices against lesbians and gay men are refracted through the lens of different national histories and socio-spatial relationships. Our findings show that homophobia is more frequently expressed in silent and subtle ways in Britain, whereas in Poland it remains more salient and blatant. We argue that, despite a transnational narrative of the idealisation of the ‘West’ as ‘homophobia-free’, homophobia still is present in both countries. The chapter demonstrates that we need to pay more attention to the different ways homophobia is expressed across Europe, looking more closely at specific national contexts as well as at the inter-connectivity of homophobia in a transnational age.


Although it is widely considered that it is easier to be a lesbian or a gay man in contemporary Europe than at any other time in history due to processes of individualisation and detraditionalisation as well as legislative change, including emancipatory success of the feminist and queer civil rights movement, nonetheless homophobia is still commonplace. To-date most of the research which has examined this form of prejudice has done so by drawing on the experiences of those who are targeted by this form of discrimination and harassment (Herek and Berrill 1992, Moran et al. 2003) rather than on ← 15 | 16 →the attitudes of the perpetrators. Here, instead of focusing on the accounts of lesbians and gay men this chapter examines the way homophobia is rationalised and expressed by heterosexual people in everyday life in two diverse national contexts: Britain and Poland.

Britain is a European country that has been at the vanguard of processes of detraditionalisation and individualisation, and consequently is characterised by high levels of mobility and the public expression of diverse social identities and lifestyles. Following the introduction of a range of equality legislation including the introduction of civil partnerships (2004) for lesbians and gay men and subsequently gay marriage (2014) it is perceived to be easier to identify as gay in the Britain than at any previous time. In contrast, Poland as a communist state during the post-war period experienced a period in which international mobility was restricted, resulting in greater population homogeneity (Jasińska-Kania, and Łodziński 2009). Following the end of communism this is now being significantly unsettled by contact with ‘others’ as a result of the arrival of migrants from elsewhere and increased engagement with global media and cultures. While the new European Union (EU) accession states have been required to adopt European anti-discrimination and equality legislation (e.g. in relation to sexual orientation), the collapse of communism has also allowed a revival of the Church in some national contexts (e.g. Poland) and with it a re-, rather than de-traditionalisation of attitudes and values (most notably in relation to gender and sexuality). This paper therefore considers the significance of national institutions (e.g. State and Church) in the way they influence the nature and form that homophobia takes.

In exploring homophobia in cross-national context we adopt a social topographic approach to produce a cartography of homophobia (Katz 2001a; Katz 2001b). Specifically this approach moves beyond situating knowledge. (Yuval-Davis 1997, Vieten 2007) in specific contexts to provide an innovative framework for understanding relationships between apparently different contexts. In doing so, it transcends conventional comparative perspectives because it explores qualitatively some of the links that connect places (Valentine et al. 2015b). While physical geographers use contour lines to connect places at a uniform altitude to reveal the three-dimensional form of the terrain, the notion of social topographies is an alternative ← 16 | 17 →cartographic approach which links selected different places analytically along lines that represent not elevation but particular relations to a process ‘in order to both develop the contours of common struggles and imagine a different kind of practical response to problems confronting them’ (Katz 2001b: 722). Hence, a social topographic approach enables us to move beyond a simplistic comparison of these distinct socio-cultural contexts, instead Britain and Poland are treated as nodes which are inextricably linked by wider global processes. In particular, both contemporary states are connected by a shared framework of European legislation and intra-EU mobility through which attitudes, values and social practices are circulated.

The evidence presented in this chapter was collected as part of a European Research Council funded study entitled ‘Living with Difference in Europe: Making communities out of strangers in an era of super mobility and super diversity’, which undertook quantitative and qualitative research in Leeds, UK, and Warsaw, Poland. Leeds is the second largest metropolitan district in England and the regional capital of Yorkshire and the Humber. It has a long history of industrial diversification and prosperity, as well as long histories of immigration and significant levels of deprivation. The share of minority ethnic groups in Leeds is close to the national average (app. 17.5 per cent, 2011 Census). Warsaw was selected for the study since it is the most socially and ethnically diverse big city in Poland. The transformation of the political system in 1989 brought an opening of national borders, freedom of expression and speech (e.g. the possibility of open discussion on individual identities and difference in the public sphere) and equal treatment for all citizens. In this context Warsaw is considered to be the most cosmopolitan city where all forms of visible difference are present in public space, yet such encounters are situated in a conservative normative structure (Piekut et al. 2014).

The first stage of the research involved a survey which was carried out to explore patterns of prejudice in both Leeds (n=1,522) and Warsaw (n=1,499). On the basis of the responses to the survey 30 participants were recruited in each city to take part in in-depth qualitative case studies. Each qualitative case comprised: 1) a time-line; 2) life-story interview; 3) audio-diary of everyday encounters; 4) semi-structured interview about attitudes towards difference; and 5) an interview reflecting on the emerging findings. ← 17 | 18 →The advantage of using this biographical approach was that it enabled a focus on both the personal and public ways that lives develop and an opportunity to explore both continuities and change in participants’ attitudes and values (Valentine and Sadgrove 2014). The interviews were recorded, transcribed verbatim and coded with qualitative research software.

Patterns of prejudice and homophobia in Britain and Poland

Homophobia is defined as ‘unfounded fear and aversion to homosexuality and to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people based on prejudice similar to racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and sexism’ (European Parliament 2006). This is a form of prejudice which like other negative attitudes comprises: affective (feelings towards other people), behavioural (behavioural orientations) and cognitive (thoughts and knowledge) dimensions (Gerrig and Zimbardo 2010). In the survey we explored all three components. We measured affective attitudes with a ‘feeling thermometer’ (Dovidio et al. 2010). Respondents were asked to say how warm their feelings were towards some groups using a scale from 0 to 100. In Leeds the highest levels of prejudice were recorded for travellers, gypsies and Roma as well as refugees and asylum seekers. In Warsaw the highest levels of prejudice were directed towards gay, lesbian, and transsexual people. Figures 1 and 2 present mean values of out-group attitudes towards minority groups (calculated after exclusion of a given minority group) and in-group attitudes in case of attitudes towards white people (attitudes towards own group). Values were recalculated on a scale 0–1 and centred around, value 0.5.

← 18 | 19 →Images

Figure 1. Affective attitudes in Leeds


Figure 2. Affective attitudes in Warsaw

Source: ‘Living with Difference’ survey, 2012.

Attitudes were described as affective prejudice if respondents expressed colder feelings than the assumed neutral reading of 50 degrees. In Leeds 9 per cent of respondents expressed negative attitudes (<50) towards lesbians and gay men; 41 per cent neutral attitudes (=50) and 50 per cent recorded positive (>50) responses. In Warsaw the distribution between three emotions was more even. Approximately a third (36 percent) of the respondents revealed negative feelings towards lesbians and gay men, the same percentage (36 per cent) were positive, with the remainder (28 per cent) opting for a neutral response. Although the level of prejudice towards gays and lesbians is lower in Leeds than in Warsaw, neutral feelings might indicate a more subtle form of prejudice (see Pettigrew and Meertens 1995; Valentine et al. 2015a). Namely there is a reluctance to admit negative feelings towards a given group, but equally an absence of positive feelings to this group. As Pettigrew and Meertens (1995) explain, while blatant prejudice is hot, close and direct, subtle prejudice is cool, distant and indirect. While the first involves rejection of a group, the latter involves opposition to a more intimate contact.

In the case of behavioural attitudes respondents were asked: ‘If the following people moved next door to you, to what extent, if at all, would you be friendly or not to towards them?’ Attitudes were recalculated on ← 19 | 20 →the scale 0–1 (so it is easier to compare them with affective scores), centred around, value 0.5 and presented in Figures 3 and 4.


Figure 3. Behavioural attitudes in Leeds


Figure 4. Behavioural attitudes in Warsaw

Source: ‘Living with Difference’ survey, 2012.

Homophobic behavioural attitudes were again more common amongst Polish respondents. Most people in Leeds expressed positive behavioural attitudes towards lesbians and gay men (77 per cent) and transsexuals (68 per cent). In contrast, in Warsaw only 40 per cent of people stated they would accept lesbian and gay neighbours and 27 per cent transsexual neighbours. Behavioural attitudes were further investigated in relation to a more intimate form of contact. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the following statement (5-point scale): ‘I would be uncomfortable if my GP or doctor was lesbian or gay’. In Warsaw opposition to a lesbian or gay doctor was expressed more strongly than in Leeds with 34 per cent of people disagreeing with the statement compared to only 8 per cent in Leeds.

Finally, we explored the cognitive component of attitudes by asking: ‘Thinking about the past 12 months, do you think your feelings towards any of these groups have become any colder? Can you say which has changed the most? And why?’ Every third respondent in both cities stated that their feelings towards one of 11 groups had become cooler in the last year. Attitudes towards gay men and lesbians or transsexuals had cooled among respondents in Warsaw (more homophobic – 22 per cent of positive answers, 5 per cent of respondents). This reflects the fact that sexual ← 20 | 21 →minorities have become more visible in public spaces in Poland following its accession to the European Union (Graff 2010). Yet some Poles have struggled to understand or recognise this form of difference. In particular, the presence of lesbians and gay men disrupts the presumed heteronormative nature of public space, creating anxiety that the previously unrecognised or taken for granted hegemony of heterosexuality may be under threat (see Bell et al 1994, Bell and Valentine 1995). As respondents in Warsaw explained: ‘they parade around too much, flaunting “otherness”’, ‘they spread intrusive propaganda in media’, ‘they talk too much’, and ‘they took control over media’. Indeed, in the 2011 Polish parliament elections one openly gay person (Robert Biedroń) and one openly transgender person (Anna Grodzka) became members of the parliament; as a consequence these ‘differences’ have become more ‘mainstreamed’ and present in the public discourse. As sexual minorities have grown in visibility so it has mobilised prejudicial discourses about the threat lesbians and gay men pose to the existing social order, specifically the normative regulations regarding the family, sexuality and national reproduction (Piekut et al. 2014).

Although homophobia is more visibly present in contemporary Polish society than in the UK, it does exist in both societies. In Leeds similar prejudicial feelings towards gay men and lesbians also exist but these are generally expressed more subtly. Nonetheless, there are some similarities among the profile of people expressing homophobia in both places. Men are more prejudiced in both cities (Valentine 2010). Previous studies have suggested that this is because male gender roles are more fragile than those of women, and so when traditional gender roles are perceived to be violated men tend to react in more a negative and hostile way than women (Wellman and McCoy 2014).

Likewise, in both national contexts the older generation (people aged 65+) were the group least tolerant of lesbians and gay men. This perhaps can be attributed to the fact that this cohort has been socialised in different times, when sexual difference was not so openly discussed and LGBT rights were not recognised in both countries (see below). Moreover, in both contexts older people are less likely to have everyday contact with lesbians and gay men because the spaces within which they live and move offer them less potential opportunities to encounter or learn about difference ← 21 | 22 →than other generations. This is because older people’s everyday activity patterns are at least in part, a product of various processes (age segregation in housing markets, age discrimination and so on) that lead to the marginalisation or social exclusion of older people from public space and public life (Hagestad and Uhlenberg 2005; Vanderbeck 2007). Although it is also important to note that older people have the same capacity to change their attitudes as younger people when they come into sustained contact with gay people (Valentine 2014).

According to our survey, in both national contexts people who do not belong to any religious group are less homophobic than people of faith. Other international studies have also found a similar pattern which in part reflects the fact that sex is still understood by most faith communities to be a functional practice, solely for reproduction, rather than about pleasure (Adamczyk and Pitt 2009). In contrast, within secular society sexuality has become conceptualised in terms of expressions of intimacy and self-realisation, losing its connection with traditional ethical frameworks and wider responsibilities to produce the next generation (Giddens 1992). Thus many faiths have prohibitions against homosexuality (McFadyen 2000; Crockett and Voas 2003) – although research also suggests that heterosexual people of faith often separate their beliefs (as abstract practices) from their actual everyday conduct when they meet LGBT individuals. Their ability to do so is facilitated by: an ethic of care towards marginalised ‘others’ in recognition of their own complex intersectional identities (e.g. experiences of racism, motherhood etc.) and a religious commitment to compassion which is evident in most faiths. As a consequence while conflicts between sexual orientation and religion/belief as equality strands may be evident in debates about group rights in the public sphere (e.g. in the law courts, media and political/policy debates) they are less likely to be manifest between individuals in everyday public spaces (Valentine and Waite 2012).

In sum, although patterns of prejudice are dissimilar in both Poland and UK, those who expressed homophobic attitudes in both societies share similar motivations and ideological concerns. In the next section we explore further the different historical and societal contexts that refract the expressions of homophobic attitudes in Poland and the UK.

← 22 | 23 →Situating homophobia in the two national contexts

A social topographic approach, linking analytically homophobia and the responses of national institutions to sexuality in each country sheds further light on the patterns of prejudice in both contexts. In Poland we observe a relatively recent growth of visibility of LGBT people and politicisation of the debate on their rights (Graff 2010). The gay and lesbian issues in the UK have already been ‘domesticated’ (Binnie et al. 2006) and the rapid development of equality legislation in late 1990s and early 2000s has reduced the open expression of homophobia in public space, although it has also contributed to what has been described as a privatisation of prejudice (Richardson and Munro 2013, Valentine and Harris 2016).

Poland: visible and politicised difference

In Poland during the socialism period the expression of any form of difference was not encouraged by the national state, nor followed by people. After the Second World War the authorities decided to promote ethnic homogeneity through a policy of the resettlement of non-Polish citizens and by marginalising the remaining minority ethnic groups in the country (Jasińska-Kania and Łodziński 2009). This policy was linked to the belief that the high ethnic heterogeneity of the pre-war state had contributed to ethnic conflicts and tensions and that becoming a more mono-ethnic state would guarantee a more peaceful coexistence with neighbouring states. This was facilitated by the power of the socialist security services or communist police in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRP) to observe and recode ethnic or national difference as “an attempt to erase the borders between private and public” (Heinen 1997: 589).

Our respondents, asked about diversity in the socialist times, claimed that people preferred not to stick out in order not to be labelled as ‘different’; ← 23 | 24 →otherwise the security services might become interested into them. Moreover, although homosexuality was not illegal after the war, it was used by the secret police as a means to put pressure on individuals to cooperate with the state to become secret informants. For example, between 1985 and 1987 over 11,000 people suspected of being lesbians/gay were arrested as part of Operation ‘Hyacinth’ which resulted in creating personal files called ‘Card of a homosexual’, where their personal information and finger prints were recorded (Tomasik 2012). As a consequence, sexual difference was largely hidden during the communist period. Even the ‘Solidarity’ movement (Solidarność), despite fighting for equality and democratic rights for all, failed to recognise the specific needs of either women or minority sexualities (Gruszczyńska 2009).

The political transition in 1989 brought democratic rights including: after all freedoms of expression, speech and international travel. Equal treatment of all citizens was guaranteed in a new democratic Constitution in 1997, which stated that ‘All persons shall be equal before the law. All persons shall have the right to equal treatment by public authorities’ (article 32, point 1); and ‘No one shall be discriminated against in political, social or economic life for any reason whatsoever’ (article 32, point 2). However, discourse analysis of the Polish Constitution of 1997 reveals that it resembles the Catholic Church Catechism, especially in the way family and gender roles are described (Mizielińska 2001). For example, it defines a marriage as a union of a man and a woman (Article 18). Such an understanding of marriage, and more widely, of the family, was common among both more conservative and more liberal interviewees in Warsaw. For example, the same understanding was articulated by a woman who was born in Warsaw in 1992 and was bisexual and atheist, and by a woman born in a village in south-east Poland in 1960, who was heterosexual and Catholic. The latter explained:

The ‘traditional’ heterosexual family model, embedded in Catholic religious norms in Poland, has a profound influence on society (Mizielińska 2001; ← 24 | 25 →Piekut at al. 2014). The Catholic Church played a crucial role as the defender of Polishness during the partitions (1795–1918) and during the Communist era (1945–1989). As a consequence, Poles developed a strong sense of identification with the Church, and after the political breakthrough of 1989, the Church was given a privileged political position, guaranteed by the Concordat signed in 1993 (Borowik 2002). Hence the significance of the Catholic religion in shaping the societal response – particularly along older generations – to the growing visibility of gay men and lesbians after 1989 cannot be underestimated. Research participants linked higher level of homophobia in the Polish society with the role played by the Church previously and contemporarily:

In the 1990s, LGBT groups rarely disclosed their sexual orientation for fear of discrimination and social ostracism. This relative lack of visibility reduced the opportunity for contact, and as a consequence attitudes towards this minority group were shaped mostly by the media and the Catholic Church. However, gay rights became politicised after the presidential elections in 2005, when one of the candidates, Lech Kaczyński, used homophobic sentiments in his campaign including challenging what he described as ‘homosexual propaganda’ (Graff 2010). In the following years many grassroots initiatives and social campaigns have emerged, such ← 25 | 26 →as ‘Love Does not Exclude’, ‘In Relationship with Love’ or ‘Close Strangers’ (Mizielińska and Stasińska 2014). Ordinary gay and lesbian couples or families with gay/lesbian members have started to talk more openly about their experiences of discrimination and institutional limitations. This increased visibility has in turn been mobilised to justify homophobia and to blame lesbians and gay men for provoking the discrimination they encounter. For example, some interviewees reflected that minority sexualities could be in fact blamed for the discrimination against them:

Analysis of the press discourse on same-sex relationships suggests that while the media coverage now includes more diverse voices in this debate, including liberal views (Mizielińska and Stasińska 2014), nonetheless in the period between 2011 and 2013 homophobic and exclusionary discourses have been on the increase. This follows heated parliamentary debates in 2011 about legislation to recognise same-sex partnerships (Arcimowicz et al. 2014). In this way, the growing visibility of LGBT activists and equality debates, on the one hand, and an increase in tolerance of different forms of family and relationships (CBOS 2013), on the other, have led to the emergence of more direct and homophobic discourses among some politicians and media (Arcimowicz et al. 2014). This is reflected in the narratives of many of our interviewees which demonstrate that the heterosexual majority still oppose the growing visibility of minority sexualities and their political efforts to gain equal rights. As the exemplary quote below shows, they are ‘tired’ of sexual minorities ‘flaunting’ their difference in the media:

← 26 | 27 →Although, the 1997 Polish Constitution guarantees basic democratic freedoms and condemns any form of discrimination, groups such as lesbians and gay men have not been protected by specific legislation. Until 2010, the Labour Code was the main element of Polish anti-discrimination legislation (amended in 2001, 2003 and in 2008 to comply with European equality directives). It regulated discrimination in the labour market, but not in other spheres of life. The Equal Treatment Act (ETA) – the Act on the Implementation of Certain Provisions of the European Union in the Field of Equal Treatment – entered into force on 1 January 2011 (Bojarski 2013). However, the ETA is criticised. First, some grounds for discrimination are excluded, and it does not provide a full protection against discrimination. Second, the compensation covers only material damage (not immaterial), what also limits its protective power. Third, only in employment cases the ‘burden of proof’ has been moved from the complainant to the respondent. Forth, it did not create a new equality body; instead it designated the existing Ombud’s Office (Commissioner for Civil Rights Protection) as an equality body. It has limited resources and powers in terms of resolving conflicts between private parties (Bojarski 2013). Despite these limitations equality legislation and civil partnerships have become increasingly discussed in Polish public debates. However, the evidence of this research is that the growth of visibility and politicisation of sexuality has currently brought intensification rather than a reduction in homophobia; the expression of which had been suppressed during the socialist era. In the next section we will explore specificity of the British context.

UK: domesticated difference and privatised prejudice

After the Second World War homosexuality was illegal in the UK and punished by imprisonment. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised consensual same-sex acts – provided they took place in private, and involved two men only aged at least 21 years old. In the 1970s feminist lesbians and gay activist movements emerged campaigning for equal rights. However, in the wake of AIDS-phobia in the 1980s the negative perception of homosexuality was if anything strengthened (Bell 1991). In 1988, ← 27 | 28 →the then Conservative Government introduced ‘Section 28’ of the Local Government Act which stated that local authorities should ‘not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ (in force in the UK until 2003). Although no one was ever prosecuted under this legislation its implementation provoked a backlash which led to the growth of lobbying and equality organisations for sexual minorities such as – Stonewall (in 1989). It played a key role in the parliamentary lobbying in the 1990s and mobilisation of celebrity support for the gay/lesbian movement. In 1997, the newly elected Labour Government initiated a programme of equality legislation which included the introduction in 2004 of a Civil Partnership Act which gave same-sex partners similar rights to civil marriages. Full equality with heterosexual marriage was achieved in 2014 when gay marriages were legalised. In 2010 a new Equality Act1 came into force which brought together over 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single legal framework. This legislation requires people to be treated equally in most aspects of public life, regardless of the protected characteristics of: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

The rights claims of lesbians and gay men and associated legislative change have led to sexual identities and cultures becoming more visible in the media and popular discourse and even achieving relative normalisation within British mainstream culture (see Nava’s 2007 account of modernity and English urban cosmopolitanism). Indeed, some commentators have suggested that the lesbian and gay movement has allowed itself to be co-opted, exploited as a niche market – the so-called pink pound – and ultimately commodified (Altman 1997), becoming in the process respectable and acceptable. Although others have observed that while consumption may have played an important part in the sexual citizenship struggles of some gay men not all forms of cultural difference are as easily assimilated as the white middle class (Binnie 2004).

← 28 | 29 →Indeed, despite these broadly progressive changes in legislation and relatively normalisation of some forms of homosexuality in British culture our research found that acceptance of minority sexuality rights and freedoms is still conditional upon an expectation that lesbian and gay relationships are not displayed in public space but rather remain ‘private’ (cf. Stonewall 2003):

Homophobic respondents expressed discomfort with the increased visibility and public representation of gay men and lesbians. Such discomfort – instead of an open and direct hostility – indicates that prejudice has become what Massey (2009) describes as more ‘modern’ or ‘symbolic’.

In this respect, the views of some of the interviewees from the UK mirrored those in Poland despite the dissimilarities in the legal frameworks in place in the two countries. In a social topographic sense, the common contour which links these two specific national contexts is the shared framework of the European Union. There were clear connections in the way interviewees in both Poland and the UK claimed their own national contexts to have been reshaped by European discourses about equality and by the perceived power of European Courts with the consequence that minorities are perceived to have been afforded too much accommodation or tolerance (this point is explored further in the following section). For ← 29 | 30 →example, in the UK some interviewees argued that their ability to voice disquiet about the acceptance of lesbians and gay men in public space has been silenced by equality legislation which is popularly described as ‘political correctness’ (Valentine and Harris 2016):

People holding negative attitudes towards lesbians and gay men argued that they can only express their views in private spaces – among family and close friends. As a consequence people refrain from expressing homophobia not out of acquiescence with contemporary social norms and equality legislation, but out of a fear of the social and legal consequences of doing so. In other words, there has been a privatisation of homophobia (Richardson and Munro 2013; Valentine and Harris 2016). As such, while equality legislation has contained the public expression of prejudice it has not been sufficient to erase homophobic attitudes from the British society and transform it into a truly progressive culture.

Like the interviewees in Poland, participants in the UK also justified their prejudice towards lesbians and gay men on the basis that same-sex relations are ‘unnatural’ and do not lead to procreation. One of the British participants explained:

Drawing the social topography lines between both case studies demonstrates that although in both contexts homophobia was mobilised by increased visibility of gay and lesbian people in the public sphere (in the UK in the 1990s, in Poland in the 2000s), respondents in each city favoured different justifications for their ‘discomfort’ in relation to gay and lesbian people. In Poland homophobia appears to be anchored in the collective presumptions regarding how the nation and the national culture should be reproduced and with the dominant heteronormative understanding of gender norms and sexuality (Kulpa 2013). In the UK, however, were British people are more likely to support ‘biological models’ of homophobia than to relate their prejudice to social justifications (see also Furnhama and Saito 2009). It appears that as a consequence of the introduction of equality legislation for lesbians and gay men people do not publicly question the sexual citizenship rights of minorities anymore, as they still openly do in Poland. Instead, homophobic sentiments are privatised and are largely channelled through arguments about biological reproduction.

Cross-national discourses of homophobia – Europeanisation of prejudice

Minority sexual groups became more visible in Polish public discourse following Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004. This led to debates about how to harmonise Polish law with EU standards and the ← 31 | 32 →consequences for national culture. For right-wing and nationalist groups LGBT rights became a symbol of EU interference in the Polish nation-state. As Graff (2010: 585) argues ‘collective fears concerning EU accession were projected onto […] an ultraconservative but only half-serious discourse on gender and sexuality’. Attitudes to sexual minorities have therefore become not just a question of the acceptance or not of non-heteronormative behaviours, but rather a boundary marker between the West and the East (see also Mayblin et al. 2016). Some Polish interviewees for example perceived the acceptance of gay and lesbian rights to form legally recognised civic partnerships as desirable so that Poland could become more ‘western’ in comparison while Russia and other Eastern European countries who were represented as having ‘underdeveloped’ equality legislation:

Other interviewees framed Western European societies as having accorded ‘too many’ rights to sexual minorities (e.g. by allowing lesbians and gay men to marry or adopt children) with the consequence that the traditional Polish nuclear family is under threat (Mizielińska and Stasińska 2013). This tension is illustrated in the following narrative where the interviewee draws a distinction between the right to a civil partnership which he is willing to accept as a consequence of joining the European Union and the right of lesbians and gay men to adopt and raise children which he perceives as a step too far:

Indeed high levels of homophobia, including in the media, and the continued acceptance of hate speech towards sexual minorities (including the banning of equality marches) (Mizielińska and Stasińska 2014) has meant that Poland has developed a reputation for homophobia, which Graff (2010: 583) argues represents ‘its mark of difference in Europe’ (Graff 2010: 583). As a consequence Western European countries have developed a patronising discourse towards the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, offering help and education. Kulpa (2014) suggests that Poland and other Eastern European countries are framed as a ‘homophobic Other’ in Europe, not sufficiently liberal and tolerant, a region that has to be ‘taken care of’ by more civilised Western countries. Such perceptions of Eastern Europe were also present among our British respondents:

The reproduction of such narratives results in an idealisation of ‘the West’ as ‘homophobia free’ (Mizielińska and Stasińska 2014). Yet, as we demonstrated in the previous section, while it is not socially acceptable to express homophobia publicly in UK, this form of prejudice is still present – it has just been privatised. However the representation of the UK as a tolerant society compared to Eastern European countries may strengthen prejudice towards other nationalities and minority groups, i.e. Polish migrants, ← 33 | 34 →who may be seen as representing ‘backward’ and ‘homophobic’ societies. More importantly, the belief that Western countries, including the UK, are ‘homophobia free’ may justify private prejudices, because they are not seen as ‘harmful’ – as they do not result in openly discriminatory behaviours or hate speech, which can be found in ‘truly’ homophobic countries like Poland.


This chapter has presented homophobic responses by people in two distinctive European contexts, Poland and Britain, confronted with the legal equality (Britain) and public visibility (Poland) of lesbians and gay men. It is based on multi-method research conducted as part of the ‘Living with Difference in Europe’ research programme. The analysis looked at the way prejudices against lesbians and gay men refracted through the lens of different national histories and socio-spatial relationships. We found out that although homophobic attitudes are expressed differently in Poland from the UK, there are number of similarities among both case studies. First, although the level of homophobia – that was measured in the surveys and talked about during interviews – is higher and more directly expressed in Poland, the demographic profile of people holding such prejudicial views was similar. Men, people aged 65 and over, and those with a religious belief were more likely to express prejudice towards lesbians and gay men in both national contexts. This homophobia was also framed in both places through a discourse about the unnaturalness of same-sex relationships, and in terms of homosexuality as a threat to family life and the reproduction of society. Here the former argument was most prevalent in the UK, where the Polish interviewees placed more emphasis on the preservation of family values and norms (socio-cultural argument).

To some extent the different nature of homophobic prejudice in both contexts is related to the different stages of the national debate about equality legislation and LGBT rights. In both countries equality legislation has ← 34 | 35 →been amended in recent years in response to equal treatment directives from the EU. In Poland, following accession to the European Union in 2004, anti-discrimination directives were implemented for the first time, and in 2011 an Act on Equal Treatment was also introduced. As Poland was the only European member state without an equality body, this legislation established the office of the Ombudsman in this role, as well as providing protection from discrimination in all aspects of public life on the grounds of race, ethnicity, nationality and in part, gender. However, sexual orientation and age were only afforded such protection in relation to employment (Bojarski 2013). Poland won a partial opt-out in relation to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights because of its concerns that the European Court of Human Rights interpretations of the law would lead to a change in the definition of ‘family’ and require Poland to recognise same-sex marriage. As such, legal recognition and protection for sexual minorities in Poland remains relatively limited and heteronormativity is still politically and institutionally legitimised (Binnie and Klesse 2013). Debates about equality for sexual minorities are only just gaining traction, and are still strongly opposed by the Catholic Church which remains a powerful voice in the public sphere in terms of shaping values and social norms.

In Britain, battles to establish lesbian and gay sexual citizenship have a much longer history. As the chapter has described, this began with the decriminalisation of same-sex acts by men in England and Wales in the 1960s, despite high profile activism throughout the late 1980s and 1990s the introduction of more fundamental equality legislation was only introduced as a response to EU directives in 2003 (Binnie 2004). Yet, despite the introduction of broadly comprehensive equality legislation and measures to combat discrimination in everyday life homophobia has not disappeared. It remains resilient taking on new forms and being mobilised in different spaces (e.g. in private spaces among close friends and acquaintances rather than in public life). In this sense, homophobia in the UK might be characterised as silent and subtle, whereas in Poland – it remains more salient and blatant.

However, overstressing the distinction between the two contexts in relation to the development of equality legislation risks defining one context, the UK, as more ‘advanced’ and ‘developed’ and the other, Poland, as ← 35 | 36 →‘backward’ and ‘less developed’. This hegemonic relation between the West and the East in Europe has been strengthened by the European integration process when countries from Central and Eastern Europe were expected to adjust their laws and standards to accord with so-called ‘proper’ European values in order to become members of the European Union (Kuus 2004). As Hegde (2011: 3) has argued, ‘with the transnational circulation of media images, the hegemony of the West is reproduced in the global imaginary as the site of progressive sexual politics and cosmopolitan modernity’ (see also Vieten 2012). Amongst both our Polish and British interviewees the West was commonly idealised as a place free from homophobia. While some Polish participants argued that as homophobia is challenged and reduced Poland will become more ‘civilised’, British respondents situated this prejudice in Central and Eastern Europe. Here, LGBT rights are falsely read as symbolic of a country’s development and sophistication. This assumption that prejudice either happened in another time – the past – or happens elsewhere – Poland, rather than the UK – risks dangerous complacency.

Homophobia is not just a Central and Eastern European phenomenon. Rather, as we have demonstrated in this chapter, it is present in both the UK and Poland, albeit taking a different form and being visible to differing degrees in the two places. As such, we argue there is a need to pay more attention to the different ways homophobia is expressed across Europe by recognising the specificity of different national contexts while also continuing to recognise the connectivity between homophobia in different contexts. In this way we might expose the contours of prejudice which enable us to more effectively pursue policies to eradicate it in all its forms.


We are grateful to the European Research Council which funded this research through an Advanced Investigator Award (grant agreement no. 249658) entitled ‘Living with Difference in Europe: making communities out of strangers in an era of supermobility and superdiversity’.

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Kulpa, R. (2013). ‘Nations and Sexualities – “West” and “East”’. In: R. Kulpa and J. Mizielińska (eds), De-Centring Western Sexualities. Central and Eastern European Perspectives. Farnham: Ashgate, 43–63.

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← 38 | 39 →Massey, S.G. (2009). ‘Polymorphous Prejudice: Liberating the Measurement of Heterosexuals’ Attitudes toward Lesbians and Gay Men’, Journal of Homosexuality 56(2): 147–172.

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When Beliefs Become Property: Liberal Legal
Discourse, Employee Resistance and Anti-Gay
Christian Politics

ABSTRACT: This chapter explores contemporary British conservative Christian legal demands that their religious-based objections to providing services to lesbians and gay men be accommodated by employers and other public bodies. Focusing on a series of court judgments, the chapter explores the dominant interpretation of the conflict as one of two groups with deeply held, competing interests. It argues that these interests can usefully be approached as social property – that is, as things that the state recognises, protects and empowers. Drawing on this framework to understand the conflict as one of property, the chapter explores the question of who conservative Christian workers’ labour belongs to, whether a property framework can provide a useful language for thinking about resistance and transgression, and finally whether a radical politics in relation to religious beliefs and sexual identity necessitates going beyond property’s terms.


A striking development in early twenty-first-century Britain has been religiously motivated litigation over lesbian and gay equality arising from the development of recent anti-discrimination laws. Culminating in the ← 41 | 42 →Equality Act 2010, the Labour government introduced an array of anti-discrimination measures, focused on employment, goods and services. These deepened coverage for existing ‘characteristics’ such as gender and race, and extended it to new ‘characteristics’, such as religion and sexuality. These reforms, particularly in relation to sexual orientation, parallel developments across other jurisdictions where anti-discrimination and liberal human rights have been extended. In Britain, developing legal protection for sexual minorities provided a late stage in the institutional manifestation of gay sexual politics, which moved from decriminalisation and the development of local government initiatives in the 1980s, to the equality measures of the post-1997 Labour government. But this move towards formal liberal equality did not go unchallenged. In the face of ongoing conservative Christian attempts to thwart or impede gay rights, twenty-first-century measures to extend anti-discrimination protection on grounds of both sexuality and religious beliefs opened up a new terrain of conflict. For the past few years, conservative Christians have sought to use anti-discrimination and human rights law to legalise their right not to comply with the new gay equality requirements. Cases to end up in British courts include a marriage registrar who refused to officially register gay civil partnerships;2 a counsellor who felt unable to provide psycho-sexual counselling for same-sex couples;3 a prospective fostering couple who refused to create a gay-positive home;4 a church diocese that wouldn’t employ a gay youth worker;5 guest-house owners who wouldn’t let gay couples share a room;6 and a magistrate who asked to withdraw from family court decisions involving prospective gay parents.7 Similar cases have occurred in other jurisdictions, with some variation in their legal framing, particularly in the USA and Canada.

← 42 | 43 →In Britain, this legal drama over conservative Christian withdrawal has generated extensive scholarship (e.g. Leigh 2008; Malik 2011; Parkinson 2011; Rivers 2007; Stychin 2009a, 2009b; Vickers 2010, 2011). What is striking, however, given the diverse sexual politics of the different commentators, is the degree of academic convergence that has taken shape around a particular narrative of the conflict. This is a narrative of two groups with competing interests and attachments, whose respective claims to equality or freedom deserve tolerance, respect and understanding. In the discussion that follows, we seek to explore this shared narrative, which interestingly, despite many commentators’ criticisms of the judgments, also pervades the courts’ decisions. Our argument is that, at the heart of this narrative, is a ‘social property’8 paradigm in which beliefs and sexuality constitute part of individuals’ estate – things that can be invested in, possessed and secured from the (destructive) reach of others. Thus, this approach extends Macpherson’s (1962) influential work on ‘possessive individualism’ which underscored both the role property owning plays in capitalist liberal society, and the extent to which property relations anchor and frame people’s relationship to their person, capacities and labour. Today, both sexuality and religious faith have become legally and politically intelligible within the British polity in these propertied terms, as characteristics that belong to subjects and which, to varying degrees, can be developed, shared, accessed, and left. British equality law has done much tacitly to consolidate this framework, with its emphasis on balance, ‘property’ conflicts and recognised interests. Yet, the terms of social property cannot be reduced to getting the balance right – making sure each identity has what is owed to it. Property claims are far more unruly and multifarious; and subversive practices, such as squatting, defacement, theft or re-appropriation, demonstrate how activities, rendered intelligible in property terms, can work politically to undercut new emergent hegemonies, including gay equality.

← 43 | 44 →A social property approach

Dominant social characteristics make different kinds of capital, status and power available, as Cheryl Harris’s (1992) influential work on whiteness as property demonstrates (see also Ahmed 2007; Grabham 2009; Keenan 2010; Lipsitz 2006). Masculinity, bourgeois class positioning, Christianity and heterosexuality, in Britain, arguably work similarly. On the one hand, they appear as properties or social characteristics of the self; that is, as qualities which people experience as integral to who they are. On the other hand, such properties function as ‘investments’ – as kinds of capital or wealth that can be accumulated, worked at and protected in order to maintain their wider social force and impact. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that conservative Christian organisations in Britain, the USA and Canada – most notably in the Boy Scouts of America case9 – have sought to oust ‘out’ gay members, students, youth workers, and staff in an effort to maintain control over their collective bodies, to keep their Christian ‘property’ uncontaminated by dissident sexualities. In the past, such behaviour generated progressive concern but was largely untouchable through law. Now, equality law has entered the fray – a legal structure we can understand as re-allocating social property – or at least threatening to. In its refusal to prefer heterosexualities over gay ones or Christian beliefs over others – anti-discrimination law troubles the legal capital (and social power) that particular sexual and religious identities worked intensively to secure and protect; and which, in turn, they relied upon.

We can thus read the legal drama over conservative Christians’ refusal to provide gay men and lesbians with equal treatment as a political response to equality laws’ recalibration of Christian social property – a refusal on the ← 44 | 45 →part of religious proponents to accept the explicit and implicit demotion of Christianity as a valuable attachment. Yet, what is interesting, and perhaps unexpected in the context of British constitutional life with its established Anglican church, is that Christian litigants’ demands that their beliefs be respected as a legitimate basis for refusal was largely rejected by the courts. Judges refused to treat the requirement that Christian service-providers and employees treat gay people equally as a form of actionable discrimination against Christians. Drawing on our social property framework, we can understand this judicial denial as a diminishment of Christianity’s capital, but how exactly did it take place?

Three judicial techniques stand out: narrowing what counts as the propertied ‘object’ (i.e. Christian beliefs); restricting the terrain in which such beliefs can exert effects; and authorising a counter-set of propertied interests, namely that of employers to their workers’ labour. We will discuss each in turn. If, as Christian litigants claim, religious beliefs should rightly function as grounds for treating people differently (in other words, if religious beliefs can exempt their holders from complying with equality law requirements in relation to sexuality), the question arises as to what constitutes legitimate beliefs. In certain contexts, particularly in relation to ‘philosophical’ beliefs, this question becomes one of whether the belief in general is recognised by equality law.10 In the cases discussed here, there was no question of whether Christianity, in general, constituted a recognised belief. Instead, a second question was posed: what actually constitutes Christian belief? In Ladele, a case concerning a London registrar who did not want to conduct same-sex civil partnerships on religious grounds, the judge, Neuberger MR, remarked: Ms Ladele’s ‘objection was based on her view of marriage, which was not a core part of her religion’ (213, italics added).11

Judicial readiness to determine the parameters of the religious propertied object (just as they might determine the boundary to a piece of land) has not, however, gone unchallenged. Several commentators have ← 45 | 46 →criticised judicial attempts to distinguish between a religious core and periphery (the judicial implication being that the latter should not count as power-bearing property). Lucy Vickers (2010, 295), for example, writes: ‘It is not for the court to determine the status of religious views as either core or peripheral, as these are matters which are arguably beyond the competence of any secular court.’

If the courts are not to determine the scope of the propertied object, and must simply defer to the views of property-holders themselves, what role, if any, can they play in determining the geography of use-rights – those sectors and places where religious attachments are to be recognised, since ‘property here is not necessarily property there’ (Keenan 2010, 429)? Judges go out of their way to express respect for religious (and other) beliefs as forming legitimate attachments. Nevertheless, the courts declare such attachments cannot function as acceptable reasons for withdrawing services or refusing to do one’s job. In Ladele, the Court of Appeal declared, ‘Ms Ladele was employed in a public job and was working for a public authority. She was being required to perform a purely secular task, which was being treated as part of her job.’12

Placing limits on where religious attachments can be legitimately actualised (and so able to make a social difference) has come under criticism (Stychin 2009a, 35; Ryder 2006).13 Commentators claim that placing walls around the domains where faith can exert an influence – in effect privatising or closeting religious expression – damages subjects who inhabit multiple overlapping spaces; misreads the world-making character of (much) religion; and undermines the contribution and value of religious identifications. Commenting on the Canadian version of the Ladele case, Bruce Ryder (2006, 12–13) remarks:

Religion is indeed functioning here as the new gay: just as the display of minority sexual orientations in the public sphere invited persecution in Canada in the past, now religious public servants… are being asked to choose between keeping their jobs and acting in accordance with their religious beliefs.

← 46 | 47 →What this trade-off between beliefs and work reveals is the complex character of social property. On the one hand, at issue is the propertied attachment of Christian litigants (as public service providers) to their faith; on the other, is the property relationship between such service providers and their work. Central to several of the cases we are discussing is the question: who owns the labour? Does public sector work belong to those who do it, to their employers, to the state, even to God? And how, if at all, do workers’ religious attachments affect the character and ownership of their labour? Is the service that Christian ‘conscientious objectors’ provide as counsellors, adjudicators, police-officers, teachers and marriage registrars inevitably and legitimately ‘coloured’ by their religious attachments or should conservative Christian providers be expected to exercise self-control in order to keep their religious attachments and investments away from their job? If they cannot exercise such self-discipline, what wider relations of belonging and attachment become precarious as a consequence?

Disavowed attachments

For those conservative Christians who refuse to comply with work-based obligations to sign civil partnership registers, provide psycho-sexual counselling to lesbian and gay couples, represent gay sexuality positively as teachers or raise fostered children in gay-sensitive ways, the stakes in the struggle over their labour are high. Disciplinary action, exclusion from state-organised fostering arrangements, and the risk of getting fired suggest conservative Christians’ labour (like that of other staff) belongs to the state employer; and that it constitutes a human resource, which employers can use and direct as they deem fit (also Pateman 2002). But, these cases are not simply about litigants’ refusal to support, through their labour, an agenda or project to which they are hostile. The relationship of conservative Christian objectors to what it is they are being required to do is more complex and contested since, from their perspective, something of themselves appears involuntarily to stick to the gay-positive future of legal relationships, sexual ← 47 | 48 →coupledom, parenting, teaching and growing up that they are being asked, through their labour, to help create. Conservative Christian litigants seem morally implicated in what they do. Thus, they reject the claims of employers and the state that the work has nothing to do with them since they are employed to act on behalf of (or to represent) another body with authority or proprietary rights over what they have produced or done. Conservative Christians refute the moral alienability of their bodies and its actions, that they can simply be tuned (or re-tuned) as employees or public sector agents to a different moral project. If, in Lockean terms, property becomes vested in what subjects have made, here litigants make visible – even as they refuse – this relationship, demanding the right to disinvest.

Conservative Christian litigants’ claims that their disavowed attachments to their work be recognised and respected have not been upheld by the courts. Rather, the courts argue, since workers’ labour belongs to their employer, a local council can quite properly require that all its staff act in a non-discriminatory fashion. In McFarlane, a case concerning a Christian therapist who felt unable to give psycho-sexual counselling to lesbian couples, the court held that it was justifiable for his employer, Relate, to require that staff adhere to equality principles, which Relate regarded as fundamental.14 Not only are the organisation’s principled policies deemed to be beyond the control of (individual) employees, they are also deemed to be autonomous of laws emanating from a ‘higher’, theistic power. As Laws LJ remarked in the case of McFarlane, ‘The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law; but the state, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself’.15 For the state to behave otherwise would be to allow religious belief to act ‘as a solvent dissolving all inconsistent legal obligations owed to the employer. That plainly cannot be right. Indeed, given in particular the fact that beliefs may cover a vast range of subjective opinions, the consequences would be extraordinary’ (Elias J. Ladele).16

← 48 | 49 →But, while the courts declare that employers’ property in their workers’ labour, and organisations’ property in their policies, can legitimately limit how staff manifest their religious attachments, commentators worry about the consequences. If religious beliefs lose their propertied value, will believers’ social and political membership in the polity likewise diminish? In other words, will a decline in what belongs to the religious subject affect the capacity of that subject to belong in turn? Bruce Ryder (2006, 18), writing in a context of rising Islamophobia in Canada, argues: ‘The pressures to adopt policies that force people of faith to choose between adherence to their faith and full membership in Canadian society need to be vigorously resisted in the current context.’ Ryder’s words resonate with the cases discussed here given that a significant proportion of the British cases involve Black Christian members of minority churches – a constituency arguably vulnerable to wider forms of social exclusion.17 But while such Black British Christians may never have been able to exercise much power as a result of and through their faith, no property power is completely stable. It all depends on recognition by authorising bodies and, as such, any religious property can be vulnerable to becoming non-property or even a kind of negative property – in the sense of generating disadvantages rather than advantages for its members.18 In the United States, activists and commentators have critically addressed the problem of making access to state ← 49 | 50 →resources conditional on one’s political acceptability, and the relations of exclusion that can ensue as a result (e.g. Hodge 2002; Reich 1964). In the present conflict, conservative Australian commentator, Patrick Parkinson (2011, 294) writes, the ‘emerging policy of moral monoculturalism… [denies] employees the right to hold moral positions on the issue of same-sex relationships that differ [] from the majority acceptance of them’. He continues, ‘the new majority… [needs to] offer a reciprocal level of respect to those who hold different beliefs’ (295).19

The problem of excluding people from work, membership or state resources because of their beliefs acquires a particular shape in the court judgments discussed here. People are assumed to be self-possessed, rational, independent decision-makers who can be held responsible for the consequences pursuant to their decisions. Those who don’t like the consequences should make different decisions; in other words, they should exercise the property held in their self differently. For Mr McFarlane, the Relate counsellor, his case is undermined by the fact that he signed up to his employer’s equality policy when appointed – the implication being that if he did not support their policy he should not have taken the job. Maleiha Malik (2011, 34) makes a similar point in relation to Ladele – namely, if Ms Ladele did not like Islington Council’s equality and diversity policy, she had the ‘right to freedom of religion or belief by taking up another job’.

Adopting a liberal framework in which actors are seen to have, and so relied upon having, other options, the courts treat the sexuality equality requirements applied to those taking up public employment (and other goods) as acceptable.20 Since they can leave and work elsewhere, employees ← 50 | 51 →always retain a residual property in themselves (a retention that is crucial, in liberal terms, if the temporary transfer of property in one’s labour to an employer is to constitute legitimate employment as opposed to illegitimate servitude). Supporters of a religious right to exemption from sexuality equality provisions, in contrast, reject the notion that a fair choice exists. Adopting a position more commonly associated with the left, they argue that quitting a job so as to avoid compelled compliance with an employer’s policies is not a free decision, but one forced on the religious worker. Yet, while conservative Christians question the market value of the residual property right retained in the self on which liberals heavily rely, conservative Christian refusal also provides a very clear affirmation of the ‘property’ remaining in oneself. This is not a property that is virtual or pending, activated only by quitting as liberals suggest, but a property that is claimed at the very moment that the labouring body refuses to perform the actions that their employer demands.

Beyond the balanced state

Approached through equality law, social property takes on a particular sheen – equated with fair shares and the need to ensure no one is legally dispossessed. Discussing the cases, Malik (2011: 34) argues for a balancing, which gives ‘importance to both sets of rights’. Vickers (2012, 210) proposes an approach that is ‘open textured’, based on ‘proportionality and equilibrium between competing interests’. For Stychin, an important part of the move towards resolution is the ‘goal of civility and the hope that areas of common ground might be found’ (2009b, 749). He remarks: ‘we are left with tolerance as a basis for moving forward’ (2009b, 753).

The attention commentators have paid to finding win-win forms of resolution is important. It recognises the value of protecting people’s income and welfare; not creating embittered losers; being careful about the deployment of state power; and promoting dialogue and understanding ← 51 | 52 →between different constituencies.21 However, what can get lost in the process of identifying mutually agreeable resolution strategies is a perspective able to stand back from the naturalised attachments, which more proximate accounts of the dispute tend to generate. With some distance from the desire to resolve the conflict according to the terms on which it has been fought, namely of conservative Christian opposition to gay rights, we can consider the wider political stakes, including the demands of a progressive (even radical) institutional politics, and the place of conservative dissent within it. In the limited space remaining, we want to briefly identify how social property can illuminate this broader terrain, providing a language through which the relationship between progressive hegemonic developments and their on-going contestation can be both addressed and affirmed, in the face of equality law’s tendency to identify trumping interests or find a compromising balance.

Focused on the relationship between attachment and power, the concept of social property centres belonging, and what it is that relations of belonging can do (see also Cooper 2014). Although the disputes we discuss are foremost concerned with the propertisation of religious faith and sexual orientation (alongside property in one’s labour), they also gesture to another property stake – the attachment/ power nexus associated with the nation-state, where the nation is both that which belongs, and that which holds the belonging of others. For pivotal to this legal drama are the terms on which such nation-state belonging is to occur. As politically active conservative Christian organisations resourcing and supporting the litigants make clear, their ambitions go beyond mere accommodation. As the website of Christian Concern, who run the Christian Legal Centre that backed McClintock, McFarlane and the Johns, declares,

At Christian Concern we have a passion to see the United Kingdom return to the Christian faith. Our nation has been shaped and defined by this faith for hundreds of years. Yet in the last few decades the nation has largely turned her back on Jesus and embraced alternative ideas such as secular liberal humanism, moral relativism ← 52 | 53 →and sexual licence. The fruit of this is rotten… Yet we believe that this nation has a hope, and that hope can be found in Jesus Christ… We need to be passionate about our faith and became a light and a witness to the nation.22

Asserting historic ties of reciprocal belonging between church and nation, conservative Christian forces argue for the strengthening and sustenance of such connections (Herman 1997). Legal recognition of conservative Christian religious attachments, and what such attachments are entitled to receive, becomes integral to the task of re-attaching Britain to Christianity so that people can be saved and returned to God. Against this project is a liberal one, overtly less focused on the question of to whom (or what) the nation belongs than on who belongs to Britain. Thus, court judgments in this dispute emphasise Britain’s pluralistic character. In Johns, the case of the prospective foster parents, unable to present sexual identity in gay-positive ways, Munby J remarked, ‘We sit as secular judges serving a multi-cultural community of many faiths. … the laws and usages of the realm do not include Christianity, in whatever form. The aphorism that ‘Christianity is part of the common law of England’ is mere rhetoric’ [Johns, 506].23 Similarly, in McFarlane, Laws LJ commented that no one faith belongs more than any other (877).24

Focused on the attachment-recognition-power relationship, the concept of social property elucidates these expectations, claims and relations. At the same time, it also offers a way of recognising and making visible challenges to hegemony – whether from the left or the right. But what value for a liberal democracy can be found in such dissident actions? According ← 53 | 54 →to agonistic feminists and others, institutional processes within a liberal polity should not be too tranquil (e.g. Mouffe 2005). Even progressive forms of order require some disorder, organisation some disorganisation, for a vibrant, dynamic, responsive politics to flourish. Sarah Keenan (2010, 2014) has written about subversive property practices in relation to Aboriginal Australian politics. She (2014) describes such subversive practices as relations of belonging that are out of place – the introduction of things and bodies that unsettle dominant forms of spatial legibility. The disputes discussed here can also be read as dissident (or subversive) property relationships as litigants’ refuse to do what is required of them, using the property held in their bodies and labour to reject official policies. Indeed, we might read Christian claims to be exempted from sexuality equality laws as a form of ‘squatting’, staying in post and refusing to yield; making use of available occupational resources to which they have an uncertain (or denied) right. Thus, while legal commentaries largely focus on outcomes – a focus that generates varying disquiet at conservative Christians’ apparent disenfranchisement, an account focused on conservative Christian engagement in subversive social property acts recognises their capacity to act, the performance and accomplishment of subversive property, without necessarily valuing the grounds upon which such challenges are made (see Cooper 2015).

Dissident social property practices are not, however, free-standing, isolated events. Beliefs, bodies and identities can be used to assert a relationship of belonging that, by simultaneously acknowledging and resisting exclusion, expresses a desire to be included within the ‘we’. Dissident practices can also give rise to reciprocating counter-actions, of renovation, cultivation, and stewardship, as other actors get involved, keen to resist the encroachments of disavowed, dissident others. In Ladele, for instance, Islington council appears, from the judgment facts, to have been impelled to act as a result of the pressure coming from the Christian registrar’s gay colleagues (157, EAT). Perhaps motivated by the contingent and precarious character of their own attachment to Islington council (as a place where they could belong and comfortably dwell), council staff demanded that Islington recognise and affirm ownership of its equality and diversity policy as a relationship that created steward-like obligations of operationalisation upon it.

← 54 | 55 →Using the concept of social property here, in relation to liberal democracies, allows us to explore the agonistic, turbulent, dynamic quality of political, social and legal claims and action; where what counts as theft, dispossession, settling, squandering, appropriation, borrowing, gifting, seizures or trespass depends upon one’s perspective and the balance of force relations. But while property may identify, elucidate and even affirm the value and richness of conflicts often understood in other terms, it also has limitations. Particularly, we want to suggest, it is limited as a normative framework when it comes to sexual orientation and religious belief by its assumption that such phenomena are thing-like: that they can be possessed, invested in, deployed and protected from the predations of others.

Certainly, from a feminist perspective, the depiction of religious faith and sexuality as social property may seem a step on the road to rendering them less structural or systemic social processes. For, as social property, they can be extracted, harnessed and, at least theoretically, transferred or destroyed. Lisa Adkins (2005) makes a related point in her discussion of gender as a flexible occupational resource that male workers, in particular, can take up in non-conventional ways. While her work is critical of the corporate implications of this trend, we might read the de-structuring evident in the disputes discussed as, in part, the state’s off-loading of its own social property. As sexuality and religious beliefs cease to be phenomena that belong to the liberal state, ‘things’ that states structurally and systemically deploy (even as the state is structured by them in turn), they become instead properties that individuals, groups and corporations are deemed capable of freely taking up (and, if they choose, relinquishing). But what would it mean to go further and actually de-propertise religion and sexuality so that they no longer constituted social properties at all?

Undoing attachments; fragmenting and diffusing sexualities and religious beliefs so that they become fluid and undefinable; refusing to convert either beliefs or sexualities into symbolic forms that make extraction from the social fabric possible; withdrawing the institutional recognition necessary for them to extend their property-holding subjects powerfully into the world – constitute some forms this could take. Certainly, we do not want to suggest such processes are especially evident in the cases discussed. Indeed, our discussion has been premised on the extent to which both judgments ← 55 | 56 →and commentary appear, rather, wedded to a propertied logic of investment, accumulation and attachment, where sexuality and even more religious belief come to form coherent, knowable wholes. At the same time, a thinner conception of both faith and sexuality emerges in the refusal of judgments and commentators to compare faith and sexuality’s respective normative worth, and in the equivocation expressed when it comes to the question of propertied objects’ scope and geography – of what it is exactly that legally counts and where. Together, these tendencies gesture to the possibility of a different, less propertied way of understanding, but also of forging, social subjects’ relationship to post-rational (or spiritual) beliefs and sexualities. We might imagine a context in which both appear – not as things which belong, or to which constituencies belong, that may be accumulated, fortified, mastered, and which, like other forms of property, help certain subjects to extend into the world in particular powerful ways – but instead as tastes, desires, stimulations, modes of enchantment and cares. What are the implications of such a move towards the plural and contingent re-assembling of faith and sexuality, within liberal democracies, as creative engagements and explorations that cannot be possessed and owned, and that do not, in turn, possess or own either? Might these be processes to which a progressive institutional and organisational politics could productively contribute?


Our analysis in this chapter was originally motivated by the surprising degree of common ground between legal commentators who, despite holding quite different political ideologies, were equally critical of what seemed – at least at first glance – to be gay-positive, secular-affirming court decisions. Our aim was to understand this common ground, to reflect upon its stakes, and to consider whether such stakes could be approached in other ways. This double-move of understanding and de-familiarising the framing of the conflict as one of competing interests, equally deserving of attention and respect, took us to a conception of social property.

← 56 | 57 →Focusing on social property both highlights and re-frames the challenge that equality law poses by its unsettling and resettling of the power that different attachments can generate and exercise. Social property highlights equality law’s buy-in to the myth of balance, an aspirational ideal in which different attachments co-exist in equilibrium – discrete entities whose relationship to each other is neither constitutive nor relational. At the same time, it highlights the current position, within British equality law decisions, in which one side’s propertied win is the other side’s propertied loss. And it also highlights the complex relationship between ownership of beliefs and identity, on the one hand, and ownership of workers’ labour and public sector resources, on the other. From a progressive perspective, Christian litigants’ refusal to fully give property in themselves or their work to their employers is striking. Treating compliance as moral approval of gay-positive futures, Christian litigants deny a narrative which treats their labour as belonging fully to their employer (or to public authorities). This stubborn refusal of those labouring to recognise the alienation that they have already formally acceded to is criticised by the judges; academic commentators vary in their response. However, where commentators and judges converge (with very few exceptions) is in the value to be afforded religious belief.

Transcendent, post-rational identifications, relations, practices and sensations may provide challenging, enriching, phenomenological ways of experiencing the world. But such forms of enchantment are not what these cases are about. What is, instead, at issue are the conservative dimensions of religious beliefs, where gay sex and same-sex unions are interpreted as ‘contrary to God’s instructions’.25 Thus, while we recognise the dangers of excluding people from public resources and from participation within the polity, including through unemployment, our aim here has not been to affirm conservative Christian anti-gay refusal. Instead, we are interested in the challenge that such refusal poses for a progressive state politics.

Thus, in the final part of the chapter, we considered the contribution social property could conceptually make to thinking about the relationship between hegemonic and anti-hegemonic projects. Yet, while property helps ← 57 | 58 →us think about what is at stake, and while its frameworks and language can provide a grammar for exploring contested political claims and attachments, its emphasis on possession and reification is less useful for thinking about sexuality and faith themselves. Our argument is not that sexuality and religion should return to functioning as socially embedded formations (to the extent they no longer work in this way within liberal polities such as Britain, which we, like many others, would question). Rather, what we want to consider is what it might mean to take the recalibration of property in faith and sexuality, which equality law promises, further. Considering post-propertied versions of sexuality and faith is challenging on several fronts. It requires us to think about what disinvestment and detachment might look like; it also requires ways of imagining sexuality and faith as neither subject formations (to which people belong) nor as chosen goods or properties of the (individual or collective) self. Would this kind of detachment render both too light, losing much of the value that sexuality and faith hold in terms of group identification and belonging? Does it, perhaps, mean thinking about faith and sexuality separately from other kinds of collective ethnic and cultural investments? Conversely, could detachment suggest a stronger investment – in terms of ‘being’ rather than ‘holding’? These are open questions, which bringing property’s organisational logic into the framing of equality politics might help us – even provoke us – to explore.


Thanks to Emily Grabham, Sarah Keenan, Maleiha Malik, Emily Haslam, Daniel Monk, Margaret Davies, Ian McKenzie, Nicola Barker, Phil Hubbard and Maria Drakopoulou. This chapter also benefited from feedback and discussion following presentations at Leeds and Westminster University, and from discussion at the Kent Work in Progress Group.

← 58 | 59 →Bibliography

Adkins, L. (2005). ‘The new economy, property and personhood’, Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 22, no. 1, 111–130.

Afridi, A. and J. Warmington (2010) Managing different equality claims London: EDF.

Ahmed, S. (2007). ‘A phenomenology of whiteness’, Feminist Theory, vol. 8, no. 2, 149–168.

Anthias, F. (2011). ‘Intersections and translocations: New paradigms for thinking about cultural diversity and social identities’, European Educational Research Journal, vol. 10, no. 2, 204–217.

Blomley, N. (2005). ‘The borrowed view: Privacy, propriety, and the entanglements of property’, Law and Social Inquiry vol. 30, no. 4, 617–665.


ISBN (Book)
Open Access
Publication date
2016 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. VI, 234 pp., 4 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Ulrike M. Vieten (Volume editor) Gill Valentine (Volume editor)

Ulrike M. Vieten is a Queen’s Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research deals with the (de-)construction of racialized, classed and gendered boundaries in the context of cosmopolitanism, nationalism and citizenship and currently focuses on right-wing populism in Europe and beyond. Her publications include Gender and Cosmopolitanism in Europe: A Feminist Perspective (2012) and Revisiting Iris Marion Young on Normalisation, Inclusion and Democracy (2014). Gill Valentine is Professor of Geography at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on social identities and exclusion; childhood, parenting and family life; and cultures of consumption. She has published widely and was one of the founding editors of the journal Social and Cultural Geography . Her research has been recognized by the award of a Philip Leverhulme Prize and the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers Memorial Award.


Title: Cartographies of Differences