Karl Rivera
Artist / Scholar

Exploring Safety and Liberation

A brief introduction to my master's thesis completed at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. 

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“The fact that I have any kind of attraction to men makes me deviant... it makes my body and my selfhood expendable.”

I recited the above epigraph to a room of 100 individuals at the Posse Plus Retreat on the campus of Wheaton College. I was terrified. I had publicly disclosed a facet of my identity that would affect the relationships that I had, the ideas I shared, and the community I surrounded myself with. My identity acted as a negative modifier, morphing me from an individual with a multiplicity of identities—artist, scholar, and more—to just one: gay. Even in those who seemed more open to my proverbial leap out of the closet, excitement came from the ability to speak to the fact that they could now tell their coworkers, or friends, or family that they had a gay blank. Blank because the second identifier didn’t seem to matter anymore. I was now one dimensional. Since coming out, I have pondered whether there is a space that would enable a sense of safety, a degree of liberation from this stigmatized identity, I now openly embodied.

When I arrived at the Central European University, the first meeting I attended was for the LGBTQ student group. I went alone, entered late, and sat at the back. One by one, every person in the room introduced themselves, and after going over general plans and expectations for the year, we headed to Anker’t, a ruin pub in the area. I made friends and found a community. Shortly after, a small group of students invited me to a gay club in the city center. I walked into a complex space: three dancefloors, multiple bars, minimal light and although quite frankly I was terrified, I felt lighter.

I ordered a drink, I walked around and then I danced, and danced. I looked around and saw intimacy that I had, for so long, been told was not ok, being publicly shown and without noticeable fear. I felt free. I sought out more spaces like it, not only in Budapest, but everywhere I traveled after: Austria, Germany, Brussels, France. And in each of those places, I felt something similar. This freedom, this safety kept returning. In class, as I studied the relations of power, and the means through which they are organized, my original question was complicated, but it remained: for queer people like me, where can liberation be found, if at all? Where can safety be felt?

And so, after months of exposure to these clubs and casual conversations about the unique space that my friends and I enjoyed, I realized quite viscerally that this wasn’t a singular phenomenon. It was commonplace for those who attended. As a result, I began investigating how this happened. How is safety found? How is the space within the club created? What is it about these clubs that enables people to perform in the manner which they do? Is this liberation and safety static, or does it happen in degrees, in a more fluid nature? This thesis works to answer those questions, by identifying the club through a post-modern lens, in which space, in its multi-dimensionality—real, imagined and embodied—allow for a more complex understanding.

As I begun this project, I immediately realized the heteronormative bias that seemed to dominate the text I was reading. Not just from literature in the social sciences but in the natural sciences as well! But this came as no surprise, as not too long ago psychiatrists begun treating homosexuals as patients with mental disease, relegating them to the periphery as their identity and personhood was made distinct and separate from the heteronormative society which they occupied. (Epstein, 1987; Foucault, 1978; Knopp, 1990; Lauria & Knopp, 1985 as cited in Ruiz, 2012). Thomas Piontek also speaks to this this point by demonstrating the notion that the inherent bias in the way in which studies are conducted gave “particular weight and authority to the medical establishment’s moral judgement” against queer folk (Piontek 1992: 145, as cited in Binnie, 1996). This reified the marginalization queer folk experienced as it naturalized the maltreatment they received.

At this point, I believe it is important to reiterate my positionality and what it means in the context of this study. As a gay identifying man, it is my intention to do some academic shaking, challenging more heteronormatively conventional conceptions of space, liberation, and safety. This is especially important given that historically, as I detailed earlier, there is a notion of distinctness between those who are ‘sexually deviant’ and those who are normal. Thus, the occupation of space by LGBTQ+ folk requires a unique conceptualization, lest the heteronormative bias continue to alter the way in which we understand this community and their confrontation with structures of violence, namely the stigmatization of homosexuality and queerness in general.

I do this in three parts. I begin by offering an overview of literature that centralizes the catalyst for the gay club’s creation in the stigmatization of non-heterosexual identity. I then segue to describe how, because of this stigma, a fluidic approach is necessary to understand the social mechanics at work within the space. It is here that I introduce what Edward Soja (1996) calls the thirding of space and describe why this method is best when understanding the subjectivities of those who visit these spaces.

I then move onto Chapter Two, and I work to situate the field and the subjectivities of the eight informants who provided the empirical richness of this thesis by giving a brief overview of each of the informants’ first experiences within the gay club. Moreover, I speak to the way I decided to conduct my research. I elucidate how each of my informants were chosen, and why I decided to investigate the gay club as a general phenomenon, and not simply in one geographic location.

In my final chapter, I go through the first, second and Thirdspace of the club using interview material to explicate the space’s fluidity, and explore the spectrum of safety and liberation that was found. Using bell hooks’ (1989) notion of the fragmented, but radical open space that exists in marginality, I concretize my findings theoretically while intertwining it with empirical analysis.