Trailblazers 2019: UBC professor Amin Ghaziani highlights the importance of queer urban spaces

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      While living in Chicago’s LGBT district, Boystown, Amin Ghaziani was holding hands with another man when he noticed a straight couple uncomfortably staring at them. It was a gay neighbourhood—why would a same-sex couple walking hand-in-hand be gawk-worthy?

      It also happened amid increasing numbers of straight people moving into the neighbourhood, leaving him feeling “a little distressed by the changing cultural tone of its streets”, he says by phone.

      To understand what was happening, Ghaziani (who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but shortly thereafter moved with his family to Chicago) focused his postdoctoral research at Princeton University on queer urban spaces, which, he says, “offered a potential for some catharsis and personal therapy in light of the deep emotional reaction and response that I was having in those years”.

      His subject matter resonated internationally. His resultant 2014 book, There Goes the Gayborhood?, garnered widespread media coverage. In fact, he says, conducting more than 100 media interviews in seven countries became a “part-time job” for him, and he continues to give interviews on the subject. He adds that he still gives a dozen interviews each year on the subject, most recently about why there isn’t a gay neighbourhood in Oakland, California.

      While he had anticipated media interest, he says he was “not expecting it to be picked up that widely”. Granted, he had intentionally written the book with accessible language and avoided “an academic tone” to reach non-academic audiences—something that is a priority for him.

      “I am personally, professionally, and politically deeply committed to the public dissemination of academic research,” he says. “I think it’s a great shame, especially given the nature of the research that I myself do, to relegate that to just academic audiences because I study things that are relevant to queer people and their everyday lives so I want to reach those individuals.”

      Ghaziani, who is the author of several articles and essays and the author or editor of five books about queer topics from LGBT marches on Washington to highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), points out that public engagement doesn’t necessarily offer any benefit to him for his academic career. Nonetheless, he remains personally invested in the subject matter and wants people to understand the research results.

      In particular, he says that he wants to help people understand sexuality as a “centerpoint of thought” in life.

      “Our sexuality informs some of the most quotidian decisions that we make, including where we want to live and the streets that we want to call our home,” he says. “To the extent that we can facilitate higher level consciousness and a more civilized engagement with one another across any number of categorical boundaries of gender and sexuality I think that is possible only through the public dissemination of knowledge.”

      However, he is aware that his gayborhood book “sometimes sits uncomfortably with straight people”, and he has faced pushback in response to what it points out about how some straight people behave within LGBT spaces.

      “Liberal-minded straight people who will tell you that they support gay rights in theory and believe in the common humanity of gay people will nonetheless interact with them in ways that perpetuate discrimination,” he explains.

      Defensiveness can sometimes arise when someone doesn’t want to feel guilty or responsible for behaviour that has an unintentional negative impact. However, Ghaziani regards discomfort is an “antecedent of personal growth” that can lead to positive changes.

      “It can be uncomfortable but another way of thinking about discomfort is…growing pains,” he says. “The trick is getting people to embrace or desire their own personal growth. That’s not always so easy.”

      Now a UBC associate professor of sociology and Canada research chair in sexuality and urban studies at UBC, Ghaziani has contributed to urban-planning discussions about the Davie Village’s Jim Deva Plaza and is working on a forthcoming article on queer pop-up events in Vancouver. Undoubtedly, his work will continue to enlighten and help inform academic and nonacademic audiences, as he is clearly passionate about educating everyone.

      “Elevating consciousness and advancing knowledge is my religion,” he says.

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