Panel Session: Politics, Class, and Identity in the Queered City

This is a live blog entry by resident pluralist, Sarah Nusser. The panel is part of the 2011 Graduate Consortium of Women’s Studies conference on Gender, Sexuality, and Urban Spaces in Cambridge, MA.

“Beyond the Gay Ghetto,” Laura Braslow and Jacob Lederman, PhD Candidates in Sociology, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Laura and Jacob’s work focused on the contemporary identities of gay white-collar males in New York City.  At the basis of this work is their argument that the “reputational character” of neighborhoods is the key factor driving the location decisions of middle- to upper-class residents in the city today.  Whereas in the past, location decisions were primarily based on income or place attachment.  If reputational character is driving location decisions (for those who can afford choice) the implication is that neighborhood choice is strongly linked with individual identity.

In order to study this, Laura and Jacob looked at two highly visible demographically similar communities of gay-identified, young, professional men in New York (Chelsea and North Brookyln).  The ideas was that these two communities share class backgrounds but very different cultural and social norms.  They found that North Brooklyn gays saw Chelsea gays as “super gay” “muscle queens” who drank expensive vodka, wore tight shirts, and participated in “mainstream” retail.  (In fact the presenters said that Chelsea is often used as an adjective to describe an upper-class, stereotypical gay male.)  Unexpectedly, when Chelsea gays were asked about themselves, they also claimed not to identify with a “super gay” lifestyle and its consumption practices. One respondent felt that he could be himself in Chelsea without having to present in a particular way.

Furthermore, members of both neighborhoods were ambivalent about participation in the “gay community” yet acknowledged that most of their friends were gay and that most of the places they gathered were majority gay and/or associated with gay people. Why this desire to distance from “super gay” or “gay community” no matter how much the participants were actually invested in it?

Some in the audience posited that this was a generational divide and that new conceptions of gay community were being developed by younger people.  I question though whether this isn’t some sort of a) internal homophobia in the gay male community, b.) the voluntary depoliticization of a politicized identity, or, in a more positive light c) the rejection of possibly rigid roles constructed in some gay male communities.  Laura and Jacob’s research is clever, and if it goes deeper in uncovering a more complicated set of gay identities, I think it’s useful.

“Bodies Built in Queer Space: History, Politics, and Economy on Chicago’s North Halstead Street” Zachary Blair, PhD Candidate in Anthropology, University of Illinois at Chicago

Zachary discussed the politics around the 1998 streetscape improvement project on North Halstead Street, one of the first instances of a city-led planning project that promoted gay space.  I was excited about this presentation, because I’ve been wanting to know more about the planning rationale and mechanisms for implementing this project for quite some time.  The project is probably most known for the giant rainbow pylons that now line the street.

Zachary’s reading of the streetscape improvement plan was that it was a reward from Mayor Daly to the corridor’s business owners for “turning the neighborhood around.”  That it is to say it was an economic development strategy that was less concerned with promoting queer community and queer residents.  This is further evidenced by the fact that most queer residents felt the project came 10 years too late.  Due to rising housing costs, queers had been migrating to Andersonville for over a decade.

Today, Zachary describes the neighborhood as fraught with tension amongst many different groups claiming space.  Straight residents want the nightclubs gone, queers still utilize many of the area’s services and fear the silencing of queer sexuality, queers of color are claiming street space and are active (if not always wanted) participants in the new LGBT center.

While Mayor Daley’s inclusion of established queer space in a city-wide planning initiative seems like a rare step forward, has this step promoted a positive queering of the public realm?

“From Gay Architecture to Queer Space?” Olivier Vallerand, PhD Candidate, School of Architecture, McGill University

Finally, Olivier discussed the evolution of gay spaces in Montreal.  He argued that because you can’t necessarily identify queer people by sight, they’re often identified by the spaces they visit.  His work has looked at the architecture of gay bars, and in this talk he outlined specific changes in Montreal’s gay village in the late 20th century. Unfortunately, because of sound issues I couldn’t hear his presentation very well.  Which is too bad.  I’ll be looking for his work in other places, because I’m particularly interested in how young architects are thinking about identity and space.

The facilitator, our very own guest blogger, Julianna Sassaman, opened up with the simple question: is queer space consumer space?

Zachary argued that service-oriented businesses and entertainment spaces (which he described as cultural) create the primary meaning for queers in Chicago’s Boys Town.  Rather, it’s the city who sees it (and promotes it) purely as consumer space.  Olivier said he can’t really think of any LGBT-identified space that’s not a commercial, bar space.  And Laura and Jacob repeatedly stated that their work had nothing to say about queer space – rather it was about identity.  An audience member made the argument that privately-owned space has to be commercial, in that it has to have a business model in order to survive.

I’m not so sure that consumer space is inherently bad space or inaccessible space (not that Julianna was necessarily trying to make that point).  Bars, coffee shops, barber shops, and so forth are all places with a history of important social exchange and community-building.  However, it’s still an interesting question.  What does non-consumer queer space look like?  Is it limited to the few and far between LGBT Center?  Is it the park, the street, the pier, or another public gathering spot commonly used by queer people?  Are these “acceptable,” “accepted,” or protected spaces?  Some may be skeptical, but I think queer space is at an exciting crossroads with new conceptions and transformations yet to come.  If only we can think boldly.