To be queer is to counter the social, political, economic, and even aesthetic norms of the world. In Sara Ahmed’s chapter “Queer Feelings” from her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion1, she writes of the compulsive force of heteronormativity:
“It is important to consider how compulsory heterosexuality – deﬁned as the accumulative effect of the repetition of the narrative of heterosexuality as an ideal coupling – shapes what it is possible for bodies to do, even if it does not contain what it is possible to be. […]
“Sexual orientation is not then simply about the direction one takes towards an object of desire, as if this direction does not affect other things that we do. Sexual orientation involves bodies that leak into worlds; […]
“[…] the failure to orient oneself ‘towards’ the ideal sexual object affects how we live in the world, […] and as a threat to the social ordering of life itself.”
In other words, although there are infinite ways to be, heteronormativity in our world-order sets limits on what is conceivable, and anything that deviates from the norm (i.e. queerness) is a “threat” or illegitimate. This compulsivity “leaks” into different worlds, including landscape architecture.
Then how does compulsive heterosexuality shape landscapes? One could argue that the modern approach to landscape architecture prioritizes “function” as a foundational principal in our heteronormative culture. In the latter part of the 20th Century and now into the 21st Century, we have seen landscape theory dominated by scientific research, stormwater management, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and others. Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature (1969) marked a pivotal point in landscape architecture, with his scientific and ecological approach to design. Being so mathematical leaves no room for feeling. Feeling, therefore, is a queer approach to landscape architecture, in that it operates outside of the norms of the field.
Feeling and emotion have been identifiers of the queer community for decades. The same year that McHarg’s Design with Nature was published, the Stonewall Rebellion gave birth to the Gay Liberation movement. With roots stemming back to the early days of the movement, the phrase “Gay is Good” centered emotion as an organizing principal, over other forms of logic. Instead of arguing that queer people are scientifically equal in our genetics or biological condition, we argued simply that we are “good”—no other explanation needed. In Sarah E. Chinn’s article in the journal Transformations, titled “Queer Feelings/Feeling Queer” (2012), she writes:
“Over time "gay pride" became the predominant mechanism for political organizing and cultural analysis within LGBT communities. In the 1980s, the symbol for the LGBT rights movement was the pink triangle, the pathologizing, genocidal sign of Nazi concentration camps reclaimed as a message of survival and resistance.” (p. 124)
The symbol of the pink triangle in Gay Liberation and AIDS activism recognizes the historical pain and trauma of the queer community. The utilization of emotions, of shared feelings of pain and pride, is uniquely queer in a heteronormative world. Therefore, queer landscapes are those that are designed with emotion as the guiding logic, or Feeling over Function.
Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Chapter 7. “Queer Feelings,” 2nd Edition, Routledge, 2014.