Havens of Reflexivity in a Heteronormative World? Retreats as Spaces to Contemplate Alternative LGBT Futures

In a time of increasing legal equality culminating in the right to marry, as well as of more ‘homotolerant’ social attitudes, the possibility opens up for queer individuals to be able to live lives more as they choose, rather than lives framed and constrained by homonegativity, heteronormativity and discrimination.

Within this ‘world we have won’ (Weeks 2007), this paper examines the significance of the creation of liminal spaces which enable LGBTQ people to come together, and to address choices about how to live. In doing so, it focuses on the experience of those participating in retreats – as Foucauldian heterotopias (of deviation), – sites which facilitate experimentation in terms of being and living differently. In particular, the paper discusses the experiences of primarily gay men attending largely secular and non-commercial retreats, in which individuals spend time away from their everyday lives. It draws on a detailed analysis of the experience of participating in two retreats, organized by the Eurofaeries in the Netherlands and the Edward Carpenter Community in the UK. Three sources of data were collected: participant observation of the events, biographical-narrative interviews with Dutch and British participants, and semi-structured interviews with organizers.

The nature of these environments is addressed, including the principles, which underpin their operation, and the practices employed to facilitate connection and sharing. Likewise, the importance of the retreats providing a sense of sanctuary, and also the opportunity to play as adults, is reflected upon. Within a space in which the constraints of the everyday are diminished, there follows for many participants an often-epiphanic realization as to the possibility of alternative futures. In turn this may generate a desire to engage in the development of innovative ways of living, as individuals but also collectively. Consequently, the paper discusses how some participants employ their retreat experiences to address existential questions relating to ‘how am I / how are we – to live?’ – in their lives beyond the retreats. The result is often a realization of changed priorities and possible new directions, to be explored both personally and with others, informed by an ethic of post materialism and an ethic of care. Finally, the research also underlines the importance of notions of community and collective experience for those who attend retreats, such venues seemingly fostering for many, an alternative response to the individualizing ‘juggernaut’ of late modernity (Giddens 1990).


Rationale for Inclusion

With the arrival of legal (marriage) equality, there arises greater scope for LGBTQ individuals to shape their lives as they choose, less constrained by homonegativity. This paper draws on the tradition of studying lived experience, to shed light on the ways in which individuals and groups may take advantage of recent social, political and legal changes, in order to improve their quality of life, and further challenge hetero- and indeed homo-normativity. It underlines the importance of creating sites, in which this can be pursued, one such being the liminal space of the retreat.


Part of panel Queer Communities After Marriage
October 1, 2016, 11:15–13:00