Keynote Address: “Queerying Identity: The Tyranny of Gendered Planning”

This is a live blog entry by guest author, Amanda Martin, who is studying urban planning at MIT’s School of Architecture + Planning. The keynote address is part of the 2011 Graduate Consortium of Women’s Studies conference on Gender, Sexuality, and Urban Spaces in Cambridge, MA.

Petra Doan is an Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University.  Her work focuses in two directions: development and planning in Middle Eastern and African cities, and gender and sexuality in urban space.  She gave the keynote address for the conference.

Prof. Doan’s talk, based on her upcoming book Queerying Planning, opened with the definition of queerying: a strategy for posing queer questions to authority.  For planning practice and theory, queerying means challenging heteronormative assumptions embedded in political and social structures.

Prof. Doan illustrated the production of planning’s hegemonic traditions with several anecdotes, from the very first 1909 planning conference, attended exclusively by white men, to the firestorm of outrage to the 1998 formation of Gays and Lesbians in Planning as a chapter of the American Planning Association.  The APA magazine Planning published several letters from professionals who opined that sexuality, along with race and gender, had no relevance to planning practice.

This assertion directly contradicts the experience of many gender variant and queer people, who experience street harassment or a lack of safe bathrooms every day, evidence of the incursion of heteronormativity in urban spaces.   Hate crimes against LGBT individuals occur in a variety of public places.  Yet planning documents, even for LGBT neighborhoods, rarely even mention sexual identity.  Even the feminist literature on planning has almost entirely assumed a gender dichotomy.

Using statistics, historical examples, and a moving personal story of assault, Prof. Doan, challenged professionals to plan for trans and queer people.  She offered some specific recommendations in the following areas:

Safety: While planners have relied on design interventions that build on Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street,” the “eyes” and the “threats” they perceive may not protect gender-variant or queer people.

Urban redevelopment and LGBT neighborhoods: Gayborhoods are experiencing distress due to city action to sanitize them of “adult” establishments and turn into condo land.  Doan suggests that the cultural preservation of Chinatowns in the U.S. could be a model for preserving LGBT communities, recommending limitations on size of businesses and housing demolition.

Bathrooms: Planning for safe, single-person bathrooms will help provide more safety and comfort to gender variant people as well as people with disabilities or those who need personal attendants.

Fair housing: Non-discrimination codes based on sexual identity and gender identity are needed to address the needs of many trans people, including trans youth who have been kicked out of their homes, homeless trans people, and incarcerated trans people.

Equal opportunity employment: Economic development professionals must concern themselves with employment discrimination based on sexual identify and gender identity.  Particularly trans people are fired, have difficulty finding new jobs, and are harassed on the job.

One of the most interesting parts of this talk were two meta-level planning questions posed by Prof. Doan.  She takes up Michael Frisch’s theory that planning is about establishing order, prompting an audience question about whether it is even possible for planners and designers, in their interest in order, to make recommendations for queerness, which many see as an avenue to reject orderly expectations and normativity.

Prof. Doan also raised Leonie Sandercock’s question: who are the subjects of planning?  Yet while Prof. Doan advocated for planning for queer and trans people, I felt it was problematic that she did not consider what it means to plan for diverse LGBT communities.  For example, while considering the preservation of gayborhoods, she did not discuss for whom these gayborhoods exist, and how multiple identities intersect with queerness, gender, and urban space.  In describing tensions between queer neighborhoods and Black or Latino neighborhoods, she suggested that these communities are mutually exclusive.  And while gentrification may mean the loss of queer establishments and some parts of queer communities, some segments of LGBT communities also benefit from and drive gentrification.  It is difficult to conceive of planning for gay and trans communities without engaging in more questions about class and race within LGBT neighborhoods.