Ordinary in Brighton?: LGBT, Activisms and the City

KATH BROWNE AND LEELA BAKSHI, 2013

Surrey, Ashgate

256 pp., 978 1 4724 1294 2, hb £65.00

By Alice Elizabeth Whiteoak, University of Hull

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Ordinary in Brighton? contributes to a relationship that has, for decades, been fraught with difficulty and tensions: the one between academia and activism. Co-authored by Kath Browne and Leela Bakshi, an academic and a research activist respectively, and both self-identified lesbians, this work shows a great appreciation of experience and the importance of challenging the notion of objective knowledge. Published in 2013, Browne and Bakshi note the grounding of their research, which stretches across over a decade: beginning in 2000 with the ‘Count Me In’ project that saw LGBT issues put on the local agenda, followed by the emergence of the organisation ‘Spectrum’ in 2001 that allowed for the development of partnerships between activists and public sector services, and finally the Count Me In Too (CMIT) project of 2005. CMIT proved to be the greatest influence in the production of this book, partly because it allowed for the circulation of a 2006 survey, which boasting 819 responses, offered a vital insight into the real lives of LGBT people living in Brighton, the self-appointed gay capital of the UK.

In giving voice to so many lived experiences, Ordinary in Brighton? treads a fine line between documentation and story-telling, and yet the balance is found with such clarity as to transform these snippets of narrative into the very life-blood of the work itself. Browne and Bakshi are quick to account for the limitations of their research, whilst also stressing the importance of their chosen methodology. The centrality of participatory research is evidenced throughout: they most certainly do challenge hierarchies within their research, as well as creating something collaborative, whilst stressing the importance of temporal context throughout the research process. Their awareness of and concern for issues such as these, makes for a rich and interestingly self-contained piece of research, that looks towards a future of LGBT activism in a way that is constructive as opposed to instructional.

Through their focus on Brighton, Browne and Bakshi delve into some of the key issues that arise in relation to the city itself, as well as those who live within it. The importance of ‘place’ is continually stressed, as too is the perceived desire of LGBT people to be seen as ordinary. Together, these two overarching themes serve to guide the reader through the complexities and tensions present within this context. Brighton, influenced by a number of key legislative changes in the early 21st century, has over the past decade become a highly significant, and in many ways symbolic place for LGBT people. Such importance however, as the authors highlight, has brought expectations and a variety of imaginings of a city that is still in the process of coming to terms with the reconceptualisation of sexual identities. In this sense then, Brighton offers an interesting case study of how urbanities can develop into places of inclusion, as well as how a specific space can see the creation of sexual and gendered lives and activisms.

The authors note a number of consequences of these developments within Brighton, all drawing attention to ways in which the move towards an ordinariness of LGBT people has a much greater impact than some conceptualisations might suggest. The most notable consequence of this desire to be ordinary is the growth of homonormativities and increasingly enforced ‘requirements’ of gay behaviour, which whilst exposing systems of hierarchy and privilege within the LGBT community, also foster the marginalisation of groups such as bisexuals and transsexuals.  Within these normative behaviours are also issues of gender, class and the emphasis placed on alcohol consumption, all of which serve to further exclude groups, whilst simultaneously claiming to represent them within the broader LGBT community. Browne and Bakshi use the gay scene to demonstrate these issues at work, whilst also highlighting the ways in which such exclusion is felt by LGBT people, and how it can be tackled.

The practice of activism, in many ways the spine of this work, is discussed most notably in relation to the LGBT event, Pride. In keeping with the centrality of place, Browne and Bakshi explore how attempts to be more inclusionary in response to issues of marginalisation, has directly impacted the role of politics within Brighton Pride. This has also impacted the way in which activism is practiced, with the authors pointing to a distinct diversity to the LGBT community in Brighton, where no single homogenous group can be seen.

What is perhaps the greatest strength of this work is the honest and yet enlightening message that what LGBT people want is to be unexceptional: they desire to be ordinary. It is the simplicity and manner in which this message is delivered that truly emphasises what the fight for sexual identity really means. And it is a fight that neither academics nor activists can endure alone.