Essay: Why the Public Realm Must be Queered

It’s hard to talk about queer space without first discussing the closet, the most powerful contemporary queer space, even though it is a psychological one.  The closet not only represents the first queer space queer individuals typically experience, but it is a spatial method intentionally used by society to isolate queer identity.  The closet is encapsulated in many long-standing state policies, including the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” dictate.

In a literal sense, the closet is not a place meant for people but for items that dress up and sanitize, including clothes and hats, towel linens, and cleaning supplies.  The closet is a functional space, but its door is kept shut so that it remains in the dark and out of sight.  Metaphors suggest the closet is where murderous secrets are kept (“skeletons in the closet”).  Most queer people are in and out of this closet space throughout their lives.  Even queer people who don’t mask their identities might feel they travel the earth in a portable closet, making choices throughout the day about whether to open the door to people who can’t or won’t see that it’s there.

The metaphorical closet space has an imprint on the physical spaces designed and regulated by planners.  Planning practice has always interacted with issues of sexuality, whether by promoting the heterosexual family through the design and provision of housing or targeting heterosexual singles through the support of formal entertainment zones. While these interventions do not explicitly single out the heterosexual couple or single as being the intended beneficiary (as opposed to a lesbian, for example), they are supported by implicit assumptions about the (hetero)sexual orientation and household make-up of all those who planners serve.  As a result, the identities of sexual minorities are rendered invisible and are silenced – closeted – in the planning practices and policies that regulate urban spaces.

Planning fundamentals are challenged by the complexities of the closet and queer experiences, in particular the division of space into public and private uses.  The dichotomy of public and private space is often inconsistent with the everyday lives of queers.  Private space has historically been stripped of its promise of safety for many queer people.  Queer men have not legally had the right to intimacy in private spaces until recently.  For queer youth, rejection by one’s own family may be a greater fear than rejection by society at large.  The hallowed privacy with which we associate the home space may provide less safety and privacy around self-expression than public space.  Consequently, queer people have carved private space out of public space.  (Examples include Pier 40 in Manhattan, used as a gathering and support space by queer youth of color; or P Street Beach in Washington DC, used by queer men for hook-ups.)

But this use of public space is also not straightforward.  Queers orchestrate a delicate balancing act between connection and protection – or visibility and invisibility – in public spaces created for gathering, safety, community, and intimacy.  Thus, queer public spaces have often remained informal or temporary rather than institutional spaces, like LGBT Centers: “…creating fixity also requires making public what was private” (Frisch).  Planning frameworks that do not encompass queer realities act as conceptual and regulatory barriers for planners, designers, and academics who must re-imagine how urban space can meet the needs of the queer public.

And yet another great challenge to meeting these needs is a popular narrative that runs against the economic, community, and identity struggles of queer people.  This narrative tells the story of gays and lesbians (not transgenders or queers) who organized white, gay enclaves in San Francisco’s Castro and New York’s Lower East Side, created a base of power that lead to the Stonewall Riots and the modern gay rights movement, saw their wealth greatly increase as gay enclaves evolved into “hip” gentrified spaces, and are now “citizens” highly sought after by cities for their potential to revitalize neighborhoods and maintain homes without burdening the tax base.

Like planning practices before it, this narrative re-closets queers by refusing to see the economic and community development issues of many queer people, including public safety and police harassment, access to jobs, and homelessness.  Rather, this narrative is comforting in a capitalist construct, because it reduces queer identity to consumerism and the exciting potential of gay spending power: the narrative around these gay urban spaces “exclude ‘undesirable’ forms of sexual expression, including their expression in space by reducing the ‘gay public sphere’ to consumption spaces and gentrified neighborhoods only” (Bell and Binnie).

In my own masters’ research on queers in everyday space, my findings suggest an incredibly heightened awareness of how queer self-expression conflicts with the urban public realm.  In a more heteronormative city, findings revealed a vast urban geography of where and to what extent queer people edit themselves in response to an unwelcoming or hostile public realm.  In a less heteronormative city, this same awareness existed even though queers feel they can be “out on the street.”  Yet even here, queers suggested that being out on the street is a product of public attitudes and diversity rather than a re-imagined public realm inclusive of queer identities.  As a consequence, every interviewee complained of a “watering down” of the queer public, of a lack of spaces where queers could feel fully comfortable or spaces available for more vulnerable queer and questioning youth.  One interviewee summed it up: “I don’t think there is one public space designed specifically for queer gathering.”

To planners and designers who are interested in an urban practice that plans for multiple publics, new ways of envisioning urban spaces are necessary.  For spatial meanings in the public realm are resistant to change: “Spaces affirm the established social roles by encouraging those who act and those who look on to respond to socially sanctioned cues and to ignore incompatible empirical ones” (Edelman).  In other words, without a way to construct spaces that reflect the unique needs of queer communities, the closet space stands firmly, if inconspicuously, as a clarifying principle in designing our cities.

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My writing for Plurale Tantum hopes to engender and facilitate dialogue and ideas around these acts of creation.   The purpose is three-fold: to describe and explore a variety of contemporary queer experiences and spaces in cities; to inspire the creation of new space designs and planning frameworks via these explorations; and to direct study and action in this realm to community and economic development and away from solely a rights discourse.