In the latest University of Brighton podcast Geography lecturer Dr Nick McGlynn discusses his research into LGBTQ communities in both rural and urban areas.
He also discusses his ongoing Bear Space project, the attraction of Brighton and his high energy teaching style.
Listen to the podcast by clicking ‘play’ in the link below. Alternatively, most of the interview is transcribed on this page.
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Enjoy the podcast.
Hello and welcome to this University of Brighton podcast, the first of 2020. Our guest this week is Dr Nick McGlynn of the school of Environment and Technology who discusses his research into LGBTQ communities in both rural and urban communities, his ongoing Bear Space project and his high energy teaching style.
Let’s start with your University of Brighton background before going into your research and teaching. You completed your PHD here, which we will discuss a bit later, in 2014 and you’re now a lecturer in the School of Environment and Technology. How did that kind of jump come about then? Did it seem like a natural fit to stay here? Was there a timely opportunity? How did that happen?
Oh, that’s quite a difficult question, I suppose it is quite organic in the way that it happens, a kind of mixture of putting the work in and happenstance, really. So I’ve actually been at the university in a variety of different roles since the beginning of 2009 when I started out as a research assistant on a project. My supervisor, who is Professor Kath Browne, who’s no longer at the university now, she liked me, we got on very well we had a good kind of academic rapport together and she got me onto a PHD program here. That went well. And during that time, Kath got me to do wee bits of teaching here and there, which I was very, very happy to do. I always think that’s such an important thing for PHD students, to get a taste of that. And then I worked with Katherine on a few other projects after I graduated, and then Kath became pregnant and she went away on maternity leave. And Kath’s teaching in geography, which is the subject we’re both in, focuses around issues of gender and sexuality and that’s also my background as well so I was very well positioned to cover her maternity leave.
And then immediately after that, Kath ended up leaving the University and moving back to Ireland, which is her home. And then again, I was in a very good position to pick up her teaching and I was delighted to do that because I’ve been at the University of Brighton for a long time. And the University, certainly my department has, I think always treated me very well. And so I was very happy to stay here. And I love Brighton as well so I’m very happy to stay in Brighton.
Yeah. Well, I’m going to ask that as well. Why Brighton? Because I know you were in London doing your MA before then, and then, was it St Andrews?
I did my BA at St Andrews. Yeah. Well, technically an MA. because we do four years in Scotland but it was my undergraduate degree.
So you technically have two MAs?
I’ve got an MA and an MSc but that doesn’t matter, I think.
Okay but the link with Brighton is mainly due to the supervisor you mentioned?
The link with Brighton was that research assistant job.
When I graduated from my Master’s, which was in Gender Studies and International Development, I was looking for a research-based job, coming out of that. They’re thin on the ground so I temped for a long time in London, not long but I think eight or nine months. And then this job came up. I was keeping an eye out for academic and research jobs. This research job came up. Looked perfect. Interview seemed to go well. And I’d never moved to Brighton before then, I’d had never been to Brighton before then, I didn’t really know anything about it but within a couple of months of living here, I’d just fallen in love with it.
Really? What were your first impressions of the place then? Why did you have that feeling?
Well, so I moved here in January, so it was wet and cold and I thought, oh my God, there’s a lot of hills but I’m Scottish so I’m used to the wet and the cold. I think it was just that very quickly, I met a bunch of very kind, like-minded people. So I’ve always kind of found that a lot of great people in Brighton, I have been able to socialise with and get to know very easily. And of course, being gay myself, I think the fact that there is a large LGBTQ community here is fantastic and that’s part of the reason why I love it. I think it’s easy to forget when you live in Brighton that when you move away, sometimes, that sense of being very at ease, being kind of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer. It feels very easy a lot of the time in Brighton, of course, less so for trans people I suspect but when I go to other parts of the country; I go back home to rural Scotland, to Glasgow, even some parts of London, I suddenly realize, oh, actually, there is something a wee bit different about Brighton and it does feel a wee bit easier there. There’s almost a sense of empowerment and being in Brighton in that sense, where you have this feeling of ‘you can’t treat me like this, this is Brighton’ and indeed that is something that Kath Browne has written about herself quite extensively about that kind of, as we would call it in geography, that geographic, imaginary of Brighton and the effects that has on people who live here.
Well, I was going to ask about that. You kind of brought it up and maybe we’ll jump ahead a bit to exploring LGBTQ communities outside the urban, which is one of your research areas, isn’t it? And can you elaborate a little bit more on that interest? And are you looking into how and if LGBTQ people might find a sense of community in rural areas or smaller towns? Is that kind of what it is based around?
Yeah, certainly that’s been a big part of my research. This is something that geographers have been tackling quite a lot. So the initial work in geography around sexualities and gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans communities, predominantly I would have to say gay men’s communities as we have a bit of a limitation of the discipline there, that work is predominantly focused around cities and urban centres and what might make these cities and urban centres very attractive to the gay communities and so on. However, much more recently over the past, say ten to fifteen years, there’s been a lot more work focusing on rural areas, small towns, areas outside the urban, reacting against this idea that cities are the only place where LGBTQ people are, or that when people in rural areas or non-urban areas realize that they are LGBT, they suddenly think, ‘right! I’m moving to a big city now.’ No, actually, most of the literature over the past ten to fifteen years has really acted against that and I’m very much kind of in that trend as well, which is thinking about the fact that there are LGBTQ people in rural areas, in small towns who have no desire to move to a big city who are very happy where they are. There are, of course, certain issues that they face as there are for LGBTQ people in cities or anywhere else. But yeah, that’s certainly been a big shift within geographies of sexualities or the past ten to fifteen years, against what some scholars have called a kind of metro-normativity, the assumption that not just the city, but the metropolis, London, Manchester, New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, that these are the sites of LGBTQ stuff and they’re the only places that we need to study.
Okay. So what does that kind of more rural-based research entail then? Is it speaking to people about their perspectives of growing up LGBTQ in rural areas, getting their view points on it?
There is certainly a big part of that. My research focused on kind of rural non-urban small town areas around Brighton. So other parts of East Sussex, so Whealden, Lewis, Eastbourne, Hastings, Rother. And a lot of what I was interested in there was what was it like to form LGBTQ communities or to live your life as an LGBTQ person near Brighton, but not actually in Brighton. What might be the kind of effects of Brighton as this quote unquote gay capital that might spread beyond its boundaries and impact on community development there, as well as kind-of public policy and partnership work to progress LGBTQ equality there.
Does that go back to what you are saying about assuming people that live around Brighton might want to flock to Brighton as it being an epicentre but kind of resisting that a little bit?
Yes, absolutely. There is this assumption that if you are LGBTQ and you live near Brighton, well, of course you’ll just move to Brighton. But that’s just not the case. What I did find in my research though, and something that I’m very interested in, are these kind of ongoing movements in and out of Brighton. So I find that many people in those areas that I spoke to or who completed the questionnaire that I sent out, they may not live in Brighton, they may not work in Brighton, but they socialise in it quite regularly. And so that was one of my big takeaways from my PHD thesis, was that when we think of these big urban gay scenes like Brighton, Brighton’s not a big city but I suppose we can talk about it in that sense, also London, Manchester or places like this, I think for a lot of those LGBTQ scenes there, and communities, they are in no small part comprised of people who live in rural small town areas surrounding the city who dip into it now and then but don’t actually live there. So I think that’s a really important takeaway.
Yeah, I mean, because zooming out a little bit, I suppose, this concept of social and cultural geography and I think we describe it as, your supervisor said, imaginary? Imaginative geographies? So I mean, is that about mapping a sense of place through social and cultural trends and demographics rather than a more traditional space? I suppose people might have a traditional notion in their head of what geography entails. And it seems to be a bit more, not abstract, but a bit more metaphysical than that.
Yeah, I think that’s fair to say for some aspects of it certainly. Geography is, I always describe as a very promiscuous discipline, so that geography is interested in almost everything. And I fit myself within a kind of a human geography side and that is really thinking about the interactions between humans and their environments and the spaces and places in which they find themselves in which they create. So geographers come at things from a huge variety of perspectives, but fundamentally we’re interested in these kind of environments around us, whether it’s the human side or the physical side as well. And within the social and cultural geography side of human geography, we’re interested in things like demographics, population movements, that kind of thing, policymaking, as well as people’s geographic concepts that they use. For example, in the news over the past few days, we’ve seen the word metropolitan deployed a lot with a very specific set of meanings behind it and geographers are very keen to unpick the geographic meanings behind these kinds of terms. So there’s a lot of stuff that lies within human geography.
Indeed, it’s a broad church. You mentioned earlier policymaking and your PHD thesis is on partnerships between public services and LGBT communities to improve LGBT inequalities in rural and non-urban areas surrounding Brighton, as you mentioned earlier, so are you very much meaning to have a real world impact, for want of a better phrase, for this research in terms of changing public services and maybe even policy as well.
Yeah, but I think with all of my research, I don’t go into it thinking what is the impact of this? Because I think that term has become quite instrumentalised. Like it’s almost kind of used as a tickbox thing to say, can we demonstrate impact? Tick! And it’s almost become a metric for university benefits rather than to benefit the people who the research is supposed to benefit. So it’s that part that’s always in my mind. Like, how is this going to improve, for example, LGBTQ people’s lives? So certainly I know that the work that I’ve done for my PHD thesis, as well as the work that I did with Cath Browne before that, and other research projects that I’ve done since have all been taken up by people, community groups, organisations to campaign for, advocate for, better public services of LGBTQ people, better health care for LGBTQ people, as well as just to kind of develop understandings of what’s actually happening.
And how would you say that your work does have that direct political and social edge to it? Or is it more a case that it’s a good by-product of what the work entails?
It varies depending on project to project, I would say. Certainly, the ones we’ve been discussing, my work in LGBT Hastings and Rother, my work on the Count Me In Too projects, which is the Brighton-based LGBTQ project that brought me to Brighton originally. Those were very clearly geared towards having some kind of policy relevance where I didn’t just write academic articles for them, we published reports that could be taken up by community groups, by the public sector and so on, so that they could be actively used to progress positive social change. The kind of work that I’ve moved into more recently around the bear subculture of gay, bisexual and queer men, I suppose has less of a – I’m not thinking about that in terms of potential policy relevance, but I do hope for it and intend for it to inform on the way that bear social and community groups are run.
Yeah, well, let’s discuss that because this is some very recent work which has been based around the complexities of the bear community, as you mentioned, in a society which abhors fat, which you’ve said in your own words, and you’ve called the study Bear Space, project Bear Space. Could you give us a bit of context about that and how it started, I suppose?
Sure. Yeah. So I suppose I should probably describe what bears are first. So I’m not talking about the animal, so it’s quite difficult to describe what bears are. Some people describe it as a subculture. Some would describe it as a kind of identity category within gay. And it’s predominantly gay, bisexual and queer men, some of whom are also trans men who tend to be bigger, hairier, skew, older as well. I think there’s certainly sometimes an association of a particular kind of masculinity there, too, or at least a performance of a kind of masculinity. And that is a large and growing gay subculture, a time when the old gay leather scenes are dying off, for example, bear is – although I think perhaps in some ways it’s been picking themselves up a lot recently – Bear has taken over the world in some sense, as you can find better communities throughout the Americas. Certainly it fundamentally started in North America, but you can find it throughout South America, in Istanbul and Turkey, in the UK, across Europe, in China and Japan.
So I’m interested, first of all, that there’s this kind of large and growing global subculture. But then from my perspective, I’m interested in bears and fatness. So as a fat guy myself who is getting fatter over time, as the majority of people will do in the lives, I’m Interested in thinking about what bear communities, organizations, events, the spaces that they create might offer for fatter gay, bisexual and queer men who often are very marginalized in the kind of mainstream LGBTQ scenes and even in the kind of the more radical queer scenes which expose a great deal more body positivity. Certainly even in them, you have a critical mass of aggressively thin people. So I am very interested in finding spaces that feel good and empowering for fat guys.
And would you hope that research would go some way towards going against that kind of marginalization that you described earlier?
Yeah. That’s very much the impetus behind that. Certainly, I don’t think that bear scene communities are perfect in any sense. I would be the first to call on for a half-an-hour rant about why they’re all terrible but I still think that they offer a great deal of value as well. And my intention is certainly to use my findings to give feedback to the community groups and organisations who I’ve worked with in this research to give them some ways in which they might change up their operating methods, how they’re advertising things, the languages that they use, how the spaces are created and so on, to make them more accommodating to a variety of different body types, but to fat guys in particular, and I’ve been really pleased to see that all of the ones I’ve spoken to have been really positively engaging.
Okay. And is this bound to any specific geographical area?
Yeah, it’s a UK specific one. For a number of reasons. I mean, obviously, for kind of manageability of the project when there’s only me doing it. But also I think that bear cultures and communities differ geographically. So I think the kind of bear communities and groups in the UK are not the same as those in America and they’re not the same as those in France or of those in Istanbul or of those in Tokyo or those in Shanghai. So I think it is really important as geographer not to just think about the spaces that bears create, but where those spaces are.
And is there a kind of urban rural divide of the kind that you mentioned earlier with this?
Yeah, definitely. Certainly the spaces that I have been to. So I’ve worked with bears and been to bear community groups and events and pubs and bars and so on. The ones I’ve done are in Brighton, in London, in Edinburgh, in Manchester and in Belfast, all of which are cities different, very different cities, I would argue but I certainly found that when I did the kind of review of what kind of potential bear spaces were in the UK, there’s no getting away from the fact that the ones where people tend to physically meet up does tend to be in urban areas. There’s quite a lot of stuff that does cover people in more rural areas. So there are groups that cover the East Midlands, Yorkshire, places out in the South West but those tend to be much more sporadic. They tend to be much more on line with the very rare kind of meet-up. And that might not even be in that particular area. They might all go away to Blackpool or something. So I think there’s no getting away from the fact that it kind of tends to be focused around cities but understandably, this is a minority population of a minority population like the numbers for bears in rural areas is less than a tenth of the LGBTQ population.
Okay. And we’ll put a link in the podcast description to Bear Space if anyone wants to find out more. And turning on to your teaching then you mentioned the phrases high energy and enthusiasm. That was on your research page but how would you describe your teaching approach more generally?
I do try to be quite energetic in the classroom. I well remember being a student and finding it very difficult to concentrate for long periods of time. So I think that is really important. I teach in a bunch of different stuff, so I teach on human research methodologies within geography. So I do think interview design, ethnographic work and so on, questionnaire design. I teach on some urban geography work. But the main thing that I try to focus on, my specialty, is on gender, sexuality and bodies. And so I teach a human geography module, called Gender, Sex and the Body, where we explicitly go into those issues. So I’ve been teaching that this semester.
I love teaching it. It’s always fantastic to be able to teach your specialty. I’m very grateful to the University. And for my school department in particular, for letting me teach something which certainly is not seen as classic geography by any means. And also a lot of that module deals with cutting edge contemporary social issues and so it can be quite explicit. So when I teach about sex, for example, I’m not teaching about it in the abstract. But we do talk about actual sexual practices in the classroom. Why geographers might want to think about the practices of sex and sexuality as opposed to just thinking about identities, communities and populations. So that’s something that’s really important in that work. And I think the students are a little bit taken aback by that initially, because when you think about kind of academic teaching on the kind of trajectory, the more students go through, you never really get presented with the idea that the actual sexual practices on sexual communities might be worth researching, might be worthy of scholarly attention. Usually the only time students get that kind of stuff is through the perspective of sexual health. Yes. And that’s really the only introduction to it. So I think even the kind of study of sex and sexuality from an academic perspective is quite new to a lot of our students.
It is a relatively new module?
So it was pioneered by Cath Browne, when she was here, and myself and my colleague Paul Gilchrist have kind of revised that just this year, actually. So, yeah, it’s something that students respond to very well. It’s relevant. It’s immediately relevant to everybody’s lives. Because even if somebody has no sexual desire whatsoever, if they’re completely asexual, you still understand that sexuality and sexual desire and eroticism informs our daily lives and the kind of everyday nature of our daily lives, so heavily. Yeah, but that’s kind of a lot of the stuff that my teaching focuses on, as well as that I present students with a lot of work on feminist geographies on their feminist activism and so this is a big part of my work as well.
And would you try and implement relevant new stories around gender into the curriculum as well?
Yeah. I don’t think a day goes by when there’s not something gender-related in the news, whether that be about equal pay for women or what the kind of complexities of that are, or if it’s about trans issues emerging in the media or with regard to sex and sexuality, you can kind of see things like single mothers being demonized as a classic way in which women’s sexuality is going to be wielded against them. How dare they have lots of children and not be in a married relationship and so on. So it is present in so many things, even when we don’t expect it to be.
What do you find most rewarding about your job, it might be on the research side, it might be the teaching side, I understand that there’s a lot of things that you might find rewarding, but is there one thing that stands out in particular?
Oh, that’s a good question. I hadn’t thought of that. I guess for me, it’s both the teaching and the research. I do enjoy teaching. I was teaching before I came to the university in high schools doing foreign language teaching. And I really enjoy presenting students with stuff that they can find useful in their lives, that gives them a new perspective on what’s happening in their life and that’s really what I want to get out of my teaching. And then from the research side, it’s just so wonderful to be at a university because you have access to the most cutting edge research on anything you are interested in, which is something I always try to remind my students of whatever they are interested in, if they’re interested in football, if they’re interested in popular music, if they’re interested in going out clubbing, if they’re interested in going to the beach. All of that. There is research on it, the most cutting edge research on all of their kind of practices that they have in their daily lives, the things that they’re interested in. That is the most wonderful thing about being at university. It is that the wealth of knowledge of the world is at your fingertips. Yes, certainly. I’m at the stage now where I’ve been at university for so long I don’t know how I would live without that. I don’t know how I would go by, not just think I’m going to type this in and see what has come out about it recently. It’s an unbelievable resource that I’m incredibly grateful for.
Okay, great. We end the podcast with five quickfire lifestyle questions.
I don’t know if you know about this. In fact, you probably didn’t but they are quite straightforward. What advice would you give to your 16 year-old self?
It’s okay to move away.
Yeah. I know I keep saying, oh, not all people in rural areas move to urban areas. I swear I didn’t move to an urban area, but I did move away from my village and I was nervous about it. I moved to another country, Japan, and I lived there for four years. And that was a big step and it was a good one to take.
All right. What is your favourite place in Sussex?
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t Brighton. Yep. I love being in Brighton.
Brilliant. All right. Describe your perfect weekend?
Honestly, sitting in my pants playing PS4.
Nice, like the honestly.
And what are you currently reading, watching or listening to? You can have all three of those or one if you want.
Oh, God. What am I reading, watching and listening to. I am watching the new series of She-Ra on Netflix and I’m reading a book called Unlimited Intimacy, which is about sex between sex cultures, between gay men.
Listening to anything?
I am listening to a lot of Gaelic podcasts because I am learning Scots Gaelic at the moment, which is not a kind of indication of how independence is going to go, I just find it very interesting.
And how’s it coming along? Managing to develop the skills?
A little bit, but I don’t know how to say that in Gaelic, so please don’t ask me.
And lastly, then, who are your three fantasy dinner party guests? They could be alive, dead, fictional, whatever you want.
Honestly, it would just be my three best friends. Yeah, we would probably have a better time than having some random stranger there who I idolize. Never meet your idols.
That is a more sensible answer than inviting quite egotistical, high profile people.
And then feeling under pressure all the time to kind of perform for them.
All right. Thanks, Nick.
Thank you very much.
Many thanks to Dr McGlinn. And you can find all of our podcasts by searching for University of Brighton on Spotify, Apple and many more listening apps. See you next time.