Queering Geographies

Queering Geographies


A Sociospatial Account of the Urban “Gayborhood”

The built environments of American cities are exceptionally dynamic. They are localities that are constantly evolving despite their immutable facades of wrought iron and masonry, steel and glass. People move in and out, prominent groups rise and fall, and communities are restructured accordingly. Urban queer spaces are not anomalies in such a context, and have in fact become some of the most profoundly altered spaces in recent decades. Experiencing tremendous change from their postwar nascence, queer spaces now bear little semblance to their early arrangements, as sexual salience has curtailed within the cultural, political, and socioeconomic fabric of the West. As the violent hegemony of heteronormativity began to evanesce, the queer enclaves that formed as refuge started to fundamentally rearrange themselves within the newfound context of broader queer acceptance and visibility. This shift has posed the question: What is the necessity of an LGBTQ+ enclave in a progressive city where LGBTQ+ people are widely accepted? And how can the cultural currency and historical importance of such enclaves be preserved while still recognizing trends of queer diaspora?

To better understand the modern arrangement of queer urban space, it is important to break down the embodied history and extensive power relations that exist between the queer and the conventional. The earliest of such spaces represented the fostering of an unprecedented community in contemporary Western history, a community entirely aberrant from the mores of compulsory heterosexuality. The material neighborhoods that exist today in modern cities had not yet formed, as the culture of repression relegated the queer experience beyond even the periphery. Thus, the first era of queer space in cities was an era of non-places. It was a time that imposed “concealment (you cloaked who you were from your family and friends), isolation (you felt disconnected from networks of other gays and lesbians), feelings of shame, guilt, and fear (which you endured because you internalized negative societal views about homosexuality), and duplicity (you lived a double life).”1 Heteronormative culture confined queerness to transience, subsisting only in realms of anonymity, like public parks or restrooms. By every conceivable interdict, queer community, congregation, and certainly celebration was quashed. It was a time of erasure, and the legacy of “straightwashing” queer figures and expunging queer history during this era still can be felt today.2.

In contrast, the second era of queer space inaugurated an inversion of these deeply ingrained social values, where queer individuals began to accept their existences as fundamental to their bodily autonomy and sense of self. In the United States, the period began in the post-war wake, and coincided with psychiatric and social trends of the epoch. While soldiers have been removed from the military since the Revolutionary War for homosexual conduct, it wasn’t until around World War II when the notion of queerness shifted from a behavior to an identity, as “the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”3 During the war, as men were dishonorably discharged for suspected homosexual behavior, they were released from their bases located in or near major American cities. There, equipped with a novel identity, they formed refugee camps of sorts and ushered in the first assemblage of material queer settlements.

However, urban aggregation of the LGBTQ+ community didn’t pick up serious traction until the Sexual Liberation movement in the 1960s. In this era, there became a physical manifestation of queer space in cities, demarcated by various bars, clubs, cafes, shops, and other social institutions that catered specifically to the queer community. These acted as axial sites and provided a sense of community and connection, inadvertently forming unofficial “gayborhoods” in the process. Compounded by other factors, such as how “social and familial control functions to a lesser extent in cities, and more opportunities exist to meet other LGBTQs and consequently to pool together,” the conflation of the queer and the urban began to rise in popularity.4  Overwhelmingly, these “gayborhoods” symbolized a pronounced departure from the surrounding cities and broader societies in which they were situated, heterotopias in their own sense as they reflected the material geographies of the cities in which they existed, but whilst inverting established cultural standards and expectations. Queer spaces quite literally queered the domain that they occupied.

With the burgeoning queer identity and manifestation of community came a counter-movement to quell LGBTQ+ development and preserve the established order of heteropatriarchal power. Urban renewal campaigns of the time, like former New York City mayor Robert F. Wagner’s attempt to “clean up” the city in preparation for the 1964 World’s Fair, went down as a soured venture to purge the city of its homosexual connotations.5 This slow violence, seeking to demoralize the queer community, took shape in myriad forms. One such way was by denying LGBTQ+ bars liquor licenses from the New York State Liquor Authority, as the bars were arguably the foundational sites for queer connection. In conjunction with more acute violence, like police during raids and entrapments, queer resistance grew. The barbarity of state-sanctioned violence became the eventual backdrop for the infamous Stonewall Riot, where queer people fought back against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. This event marked one of the most important shifts in LGBTQ+ history, initiating the annual Pride parade and establishing the political influence of the queer bloc.

As queer communities continued to rally throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, amplifying their voices as a social and political collective, their leverage began to influence policy and public opinion. Queer unification was critical, since “the spatial concentration of gays in neighborhoods [was] used very effectively to maximize gay political clout.”6 As the twentieth century came to a close, police raids dwindled and homophobia-infused violence fell, while queer acceptance and visibility were as robust as ever.  The broader urban environment became an increasingly safer space for queer people, and so the necessity for a queer encleave was reduced. Queer subjugation kept queer people unified, but as social integration proceeded, their communities followed suit.7. As Ghaziani posited, queer communities of this era have died, “a victim of their own success.”

This then segues into what some scholars have called the  ‘post-gay’ era: the modern-day realization of queer space in the face of widespread visibility. As the primacy of sexual orientation has attenuated in the twenty-first century, so has the associated animus. This shift has been materially mapped onto the geographies of “gayborhoods” as locales actively hemorrhage queerness in lieu of baby strollers, yoga studios, and Whole Foods Markets. This transitional process, apty coined “gaytrification,” is an urban phenomenon of queer attraction and migration to a typically historic neighborhood that functions as a marker for a future genesis of gentrification by the heterosexual hand. This is reflected in how “LGBT bars and clubs have been said to have had a catalytic effect in encouraging a wealthier public back to areas such as London’s Soho or New York’s East Village.”8 In essence, queer urban vanguardism eventually prices itself out of its own community, a perversely self-inflicted wound.

Contemporary technology has also critically altered the spatial distribution queer space. In the modern era of the Internet, physical proximity is no longer a necessary constituent in finding community. With dating-focused social networking apps such as Tinder, Bumble, and HER, communication has shifted away from the physical realm in favor of the ease and immediacy of digital interaction. In a study of gay immigrants on Grindr, Andrew Shields observes, “These geo-locative platforms challenge the idea that a “gay space” needs to be a physical space distinct from a straight space, since the ‘grids of the Grindr interface can be overlaid atop any space.”9. This has allowed queer community-building and what Shield deems as ‘social voyeurism,’ or the ability to reap sexual, romantic, and/or social benefits from simply occupying a virtual queer space. In tune with this idea, individuals may also use an app such as Grindr not just to find sex, but also to make friends or merely participate in this “‘social voyeurism.’”10 Such technologies have signaled another tear in the unraveling queer spatial fabric, transmuting the necessity of face-to-face interaction. Modernity has generated a digital terrain where LGBTQ+ people can engage with one another outside of the context of a queer bookstore or bar, and many have taken advantage of the simplicity and anonymity that comes with a virtual existence.

But even in a post-gay era, with widespread acceptance, visibility, and safety, there still remains the necessity for a concentrated locality of queer people. Having a sense of community is incredibly important, as Ghazini reflects, “They allow gays and lesbians—who, unlike racial minorities, are often not physically identifiable—to find one another for friendship and fellowship, sex, dating, and love. Such individuals can create unique cultures, political perspectives, organizations and businesses, families, rituals, and styles of socialization in and around their neighborhoods.”11 And although homophobia-fueled hate crimes—whether at the hands of the police or the populace—have generally reduced since the twentieth century, safety is still an important attribute that queer spaces can lend. In 2018 alone, “more than 1,300—or nearly 19 percent—[of all reported hate crimes] stemmed from anti-LGBTQ bias,” and LGBTQ+ friendly spaces can help remove queer people from what would otherwise be dangerous situations.12 And, as exemplified in the Sexual Liberation movement, physical queer spaces have a marked ability to influence politics. The LGBTQ+ bloc is powerful and has had a history of success at mobilizing change, not just for the queer community, but for all marginalized populations. And finally, queer spaces have remained constant sites of artistic significance and vitality. They “have produced important contributions, from politics to poetry to music, art and fashion,” and sites of queerness remain saturated in groundbreaking arts and culture.13

Urban queer spaces are certainly not dead, but they have radically shifted in recent years. Like all urban sites, they have an ebb and a flow and respond to the myriad factors that influence and co-construct the built environment. While “society is much different than it once was in terms of gay acceptance, surely even in a ‘post-gay’ urban world, one in which sexual identity plays a marginal role, one must admit that the playing field isn’t exactly even—yet.”14 A binary opposition like persist or perish provides a myopic depiction of the future of queer urban spaces at best. Rather, the composition of such localities have been altered and will continue to adjust themselves for years to come. While such changes have been seen as unwelcome to some, perhaps even threatening, there need not be worry. Even in a world of complete hypothetical equality, there will always be a marked necessity for distinct space for LGBTQ+ people. The queer, after all, can never be acculturated.

  1. Amin Ghaziani, There Goes the Gayborhood?, (Princeton University Press, 2014), 8.
  2. Gregory Rosenthal, Make Roanoke Queer Again: Community History and Urban Change in a Southern City, (University of California Press, 2017), 35–60.
  3. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, (Random House, 1980), 42-44.
  4. Yvonne P. Doderer, “LGBTQs in the City, Queering Urban Space,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35, no. 2 (2011), 432.
  5. Katia Hetter, “A Longtime New Yorker’s Guide to LGBTQ Life in Greenwich Village, Past and Present,” CNN, June 27 2019.
  6. Mickey Lauria and Lawrence Knopp, “Toward an Analysis of The Role of Gay Communities in the Urban Renaissance,” Urban Geography 6, no. 2 (1985), 159.
  7. Jen Jack Gieseking, “Mapping Lesbian and Queer Lines of Desire: Constellations of Queer Urban Space,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 38, no. 5 (2020): 941–960.
  8. O’Sullivan, “The ‘Gaytrification’ Effect: Why Gay Neighbourhoods Are Being Priced Out.”
  9. Andrew Shield and Yoel Roth quoted in Andrew Shield, “Gay Immigrants and Grindr: Revitalizing Queer Urban Spaces? – Spotlight On Disruptive Urban Technologies, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, January 11, 2019.
  10. Danah Boyd quoted in Shield, “Gay Immigrants and Grindr.”
  11. Ghaziani, There Goes the Gayborhood?, 2.
  12. Tim Fitzsimons, “Nearly 1 in 5 hate crimes motivated by anti-LGBTQ bias, FBI finds,” NBC News, November 12, 2019.
  13. Natalie Hope McDonald, “How LGBT Acceptance Is Redefining Urban America,” Next City, August 15, 2014.
  14. McDonald, “How LGBT Acceptance Is Redefining Urban America.”
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