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Sexuality and the city: the changing geography of LGBTQ spaces

Sao Paulo, Brazil - 3 June 2018: Revelers fill the streets holding a giant rainbow flag during the annual gay pride parade Sao Paulo, Brazil - 3 June 2018: Revelers fill the streets holding a giant rainbow flag during the annual gay pride parade Nelson Antoine/Shutterstock
17 Dec
2021
In cities around the world, the geography of homosexuality is shifting. As historic bars and clubs close down, or where they never existed, queer people are finding other ways to gather

 This feature was originally published in the May 2021 issue of Geographical

Thirty-one years ago, the May 1990 edition of this magazine featured the headline ‘Geography of homosexuality’. The relevant article, written by Lawrence Knopp, then an assistant professor in the department of geography at the University of Minnesota, set out the key themes of a burgeoning field of research, pointing out that there are geographical consequences to the way in which society treats homosexuality. 

Subsequent letters, many published in the following issue, reveal that not all readers deemed this to be an appropriate topic, particularly for a publication that might be read by schoolchildren. Section 28 – the infamous British law that prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities – was in force (it wasn’t repealed in England and Wales until 2003) and even an academic article was considered by some to fall within this loose definition. 

‘I probably had hoped for a slightly different reception, but I wasn’t surprised,’ says Knopp, now officially retired but still producing work in the field at the University of Washington. Along with British academics Gill Valentine and David Bell, he now considers himself one of ‘the first people in geography who didn’t pay a high price for doing what we did. There were some folks before us in the 1970s and ’80s who paid very high prices for trying to even talk about this stuff. I’d like to think that my article in Geographical provided some legitimacy.’

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Yet the idea that sexuality, and our treatment of it, has geographical consequences is hardly surprising or controversial. Knopp was one of the earliest to look at the phenomenon in an academic context in the USA. Since then, the field has grown enormously. Practitioners all around the world trace the geographical repercussions of sexuality (including heterosexual sexuality), from its impact on migration, refugee status and tourism to street protest and the differences between urban and rural areas. ‘Geography is about people in place and you can’t understand people in our contemporary era without understanding how we’re constructed sexually, as much as through gender, race and ethnicity,’ explains Kath Browne, a professor of geography at University College Dublin whose work has focused strongly on ‘gay Brighton’. ‘Any contemporary city where you have, say, red light districts or areas where certain forms of sexuality are disapproved of and end up in particular spaces – you can’t understand that city without understanding how those spaces are formed. I would actually argue that you can’t really understand the 21st century without understanding the sexual and gendered norms that have shifted so massively.’

Cities and homosexuality

When it comes to sexuality, cities aren’t everything. In fact, a growing body of research focuses on rural experiences. Nevertheless, the metropolis is a logical starting place for any consideration of the geography of sexuality. A glance at most Western cities reveals that gay districts are as ubiquitous as Chinatowns and Irish pubs. In the literature, references to ‘gay meccas’, ‘gay capitals’ and ‘gaybourhoods’ are common. Areas within London, Brighton, Manchester, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Sydney (the ‘gay capital of the South Pacific’), Berlin, Rome, Cape Town and many others have all claimed these titles at some point. 

In fact, the presence of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people and venues in these locations is often the continuation of a much older, if more hidden, trend. George Chauncey, a professor of history at New York’s Columbia University and the author of Gay New York has demonstrated in his work that a gay–lesbian world with clear spatial characteristics already existed in that city by the end of the 19th century. Much of the academic literature has therefore been concerned with examining these spaces. Most recently, however, the narrative has been one of decline.

Take London, for example. In 2017, a pivotal audit by the Urban Laboratory at University College London revealed that since 2006, the number of venues for LGBTQ Londoners had fallen from 124 to 47, a loss of nearly 60 per cent. According to the report, rent hikes from landlords and construction for London housing and public transport projects were the main reasons for the fall. London Mayor Sadiq Khan was quick to react, saying that urgent action needed to be taken in light of the ‘shocking’ statistics. He pledged to do all he could to protect the capital’s LGBTQ nightlife, a policy that now comes under the remit of his ‘night czar’ Amy Lamé who, appropriately enough, has run the LGBTQ club night Duckie since the mid-1990s.

 Chante HerriesHairdresser Chante Herries prepares backstage for the swimwear category of the LGBT Cape Peninsula pageant, shot by South African photographer Lee-Ann Olwage for her project: The Queens of Cape Town

The situation can be seen across almost all of the cities once deemed LGBTQ hubs (although Berlin remains a notable outlier). In 1973, the number of gay bars in San Francisco peaked at 118; today, there are fewer than 30. Across the board, spaces for queer women have dwindled to almost nothing – there’s only one dedicated lesbian bar in London, for example. The result is a scene in which only the most profitable locations remain open, some of which then become unpleasantly commercialised. Spaces that were once for the most marginalised are taken over by everyone else and no longer fulfil the same purpose. Governments deliberately market them to tourists, making them less useful as a meeting place for locals or for those lacking funds. 

Does any of this matter? In a world where legal rights for LGBTQ people are improving, are separate spaces still necessary? 

What’s in a night?

One of the easiest ways to pinpoint the importance of LGBTQ spaces is to look to the past. The so-called gaybourhoods of the late 20th and early 21st centuries weren’t just important from a social perspective, they were political spaces where people rallied, planned and were moved to act. ‘Everything that has been achieved in terms of LGBT rights started with the communities that were built and the revolution that was started in the bars, pubs and clubs,’ reads a quote on the Twitter page of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, South London’s oldest surviving gay venue, which was designated a listed building following a prominent campaign in 2015.

This surely remains important. Homosexuality is still illegal in 35 per cent of UN member states. Only 28 countries have legalised same-sex marriage. Even in countries that we consider to offer equal rights to LGBTQ people, legal battles are only just being won. It was only last year, in June 2020, that the US Supreme Court held that employers who terminate workers’ employment on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity are in breach of civil rights laws. Until the decision, it was legal in more than half of US states to fire workers for being gay, bisexual or transgender. 

Nor is the path to equality always a linear one. In India, for example, in 2018, following a long battle, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favour of decriminalising homosexuality, overturning the infamous section 377 of the penal code, which outlawed ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. Section 377 dates back to 1861 and the era of British colonial rule. However, historical studies suggest that before the arrival of the British, homosexuality was more tolerated in India. ‘It is only relatively recently in human history that the heterosexual monogamous relationship has come to be viewed as necessarily a married person’s chief emotional outlet,’ wrote the editors of popular anthology Same-Sex Love in India, a book widely quoted during the fight against Section 377. ‘Our study suggests that at most times and places in pre-19th-century India, love between women and between men, even when disapproved of, was not actively persecuted.’

shutterstock 1934393354Two men kiss at the tenth Delhi Queer Pride Parade in November 2017 [SHUTTERSTOCK/INDIAviaMirror]

And even without any political dimension, queer spaces remain vital for social reasons. ‘Our research highlighted how vital these spaces are as part of a “social and cultural infrastructure”, to use the term that is used in policy in London,’ says Ben Campkin who led the 2017 UCL study about the decline of gay bars in the capital. ‘They have various different types of value: value to the economy, value to cultural production, value to people’s wellbeing, value to being able to imagine a sense of community, connecting with the history of different queer populations – all of those things that accumulate to give a sense of place and a sense of identity.’

More than anything, such venues foster a sense of release. ‘Queer space is transformative for people, there’s no two ways about it,’ says musician Laurie Belgrave, who from 2016 to 2019 ran an LBGTQ venue called the Chateau in southeast London. ‘When people walk into these spaces for the first time, or maybe they’re a little bit older and they’re coming into their identity later, it does something, entering a space where you know that you are accepted and that you can be yourself. It sounds sort of cheesy to frame it in that way, but that is what we’re creating. We’re creating space away from the oppression that exists for so many people in our community outside our doors.’ He adds that bars and clubs are also important centres from which other kinds of community events can spin off. ‘There’s still that need for the solid, permanent venues that provide hubs from which there can be a whole galaxy of other events and organisations.’

‘You grow up in minority within your own family,’ adds Jeremy Linn, a writer whose memoir, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, was published in February 2021. ‘This is probably a generational difference, but I’ve been talking with my partner about the fact that we were tacitly encouraged to lie our whole childhood and adolescence. The socially acceptable expectation is that you perform, if not actually deceive and I think one of the responses to that in recent history has been a kind of public exchange and sharing, and a kind of a release of repression.’

Venue 1 Tasha Doughty EDITThe space in southeast London where LGBTQ night the Chateau was held [Tasha Doughty]

This certainly isn’t unique to London. South African photographer Lee-Ann Olwage spent two years before Covid-19 hit documenting a particular drag scene in Cape Town, a place where legal reality and lived reality don’t match. ‘If you look at the South African constitution, we’re the most advanced when it comes to LGBTQ rights in Africa, so on paper, [Cape Town] looks like a fantastic city to be queer in,’ she says. ‘But what I found on the ground was that discrimination and violence were part of everyday life.’ This situation is backed up by Andrew Tucker, deputy director of the African Centre for Cities.‘There’s a disjuncture between what the law says you can and can’t do, and what actually happens on the ground. And the reality is that you’ve got to overlay that law with the legacy of apartheid, the legacy of colonialism,’ he explains. 

Olwage’s work took her to the Miss Gay pageants, performance spaces that operate as places of haven and safety, but just as importantly of liberation and release. ‘Drag queens from the townships [residential areas that during apartheid were used to house mostly poor, black people] travel in taxis or take public transport to the city, but they would never travel in drag, it’s just too dangerous. So they would come to the city, get dressed in drag and then de-drag before going home. These spaces were little pockets within the city where people really felt safe, but also where they were absolutely celebrated for who they are. It’s that feeling of security, of belonging.’ She adds that many of the people she met were experiencing mental health issues, making the spaces even more vital. ‘What we see with queer artists is this very flamboyant personality. That often masks a lot of things that are coming up for a person who may feel like they’ve been outcast by society, or family or within the work environment.’

Radical spaces 

Against this backdrop, the decline of LGBTQ venues seems particularly sad and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate the situation. Geographies of sexuality academics are already studying the impact of the pandemic. Nevertheless, it would be untrue to say that all is lost. Concerted campaigns to protect established venues are having some success. In London, Sadiq Khan recently announced a £225,000 funding package specifically for some of the LGBTQ venues hardest hit by the pandemic.

But, perhaps more importantly, people are also finding new ways of doing things. In the UK, a younger generation of event planners is finding ways to circumvent the problem of high rents to create radical queer spaces. From Queer House Party (a weekly online event held throughout the pandemic in the UK via Zoom) to a whole plethora of pop-up events and collectives aimed at trans people, queer people of colour and many other marginalised groups, these spaces are often markedly radical, confronting some of the issues inherent in older venues, many of which were seen to cater for white men only and which often celebrated a narrow aesthetic. The use of the word ‘queer’ reflects this trend. Reclaimed from its original use as a slur, it now operates as an umbrella term that unlike ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ can encapsulate a huge variety of different identities. 

Both community members and academics still see such radicalism as important. Gavin Brown, now professor of political geography and sexualities at the University of Leicester, pointed to radical spaces in his PhD thesis, arguing that they ‘are important because they provide a constructive and practical attempt to offer a non-hierarchical, participatory alternative to a gay scene that has become saturated by the commodity.’

Noxolo GrootboomNoxolo Grootboom prepares for the evening wear section of the Miss Drag South Africa pageant in Port Elizabeth [Lee-Ann Olwage]

‘I’m quite attached to this idea of queerness as quite a radical movement,’ says Johan Anderson, a senior lecturer in human geography at King’s College London. Speaking about the push to preserve venues of historical importance, he admits to being ‘a little bit uncomfortable with the rhetoric. Perhaps you can use heritage rhetorically to try to incorporate new protections in the planning system, which are clearly needed. But I think there’s still room for the queer movement to be radical. I think it should push forward.’

According to Laurie Belgrave, many people are indeed pushing forward. ‘Overall, yes, there has been a decline of venues. And of course, within the queer community, we feel it much more acutely because each of these spaces is so important. But what these figures miss out is all the amazing, transient club nights that are moving between different venues, that are providing incredible space. And actually, what’s happened recently is that a lot of these organisations are around not just nightlife, but workshops and other kinds of events, focused on specific experiences within the community that need attention.’

HIDDEN SPACES

In fact, all over the globe, a more hidden world of queer spaces and nightlife could be said to better reflect the ‘real’ gay scene than the Sohos or Greenwich Villages more commonly associated with gay life. In Delhi, apart from one prominent club in a five-star hotel, there are very few designated gay venues, yet there’s a thriving scene if you know where to look, albeit one dominated by men. ‘I would say there is a range of places where queer nightlife is happening in Delhi,’ says Dhiren Borisa. Now a professor at Jindal Global Law School, he was the first person to complete a PhD at an Indian university on the theme of geographies of sexuality. ‘I researched nightlife in Leicester, Birmingham, Manchester and London, which are the only cities where South Asian gay nights are organised in England,’ says Borisa. ‘All these people who go to them think that they’re blessed because they’re in England, and therefore they’ve got gay liberation. And I say, “No, come to Delhi, I’ll take you out dancing four nights in a row!”’

Polls conducted during the 2018 battle against Section 377 in India suggested that many people would like to see a fixed queer venue in Delhi; however, Borisa is keen to point out that such a space would only ever work for a certain section of society, especially in India, where questions of religion, class and caste intersect with sexuality. ‘Since 2018, some commercial spaces have tried to capitalise on the queer-citizenship bandwagon,’ he says. ‘Especially in South Delhi, where most rich people live, they have, for instance, painted the staircase as a rainbow. These are certain markers through which you’re made to feel welcome. But these spaces are not transacting sexuality through your sexual desires, but your class position.’ Certain people, he suggests, would still not be allowed in. A trans person in a smart black dress – yes. A trans person in a sari – probably not. Such a person, he says, would be deemed a hijra (a grouping peculiar to India that includes transgender and intersex people).

shutterstock 1195678522The number of LGBTQ venues in Soho, the historic centre of gay nightlife in London, has fallen dramatically since 2006 [SHUTTERSTOCK/ Willy Barton]

For women, queer life is even less visible in Delhi. ‘I think it was Gill Valentine who said we are everywhere and nowhere,’ says Niharika Banerjea, associate professor at Ambedkar University. ‘For the community, historically speaking, it has been more common to meet in people’s households. So, household spaces were, and still are, a very primary point of gathering, a point of collectivising.’ Queer women, she adds, also tend to locate cafes known to be friendly and make them regular meeting points. 

It’s something that occurs again and again, particularly in the countries where visibility isn’t always desirable from a safety perspective. Even in these places, queer people gather. Andrew Tucker from the African Centre for Cities focuses on LGBTQ spaces across the continent. ‘Outside of South Africa, you don’t really get gay bars, but you get bars that are gay friendly,’ he says. ‘I’ve been to these spaces in Nairobi, I’ve been to these spaces in Kampala – they exist. And you actually do have some sense of solidarity within that space. That’s really important, especially in places that are really homophobic. You need that release. For as long as these cities aren’t overtly gay friendly, you’ll always have that.’ 

Even in South Africa, with its prominent gay neighbourhoods, such as De Waterkant in Cape Town, Tucker has identified a parallel scene that exists primarily because the main gay bars are Western imports. ‘You have similar versions of Western gay spaces in a city such as Cape Town, but those spaces are reflected very much by class and race privilege, so they’re overwhelmingly white and middle class.’ It’s away from these flashy centres, he says, that you find a more ‘authentic’ scene. ‘The idea of social groupings, or safe spaces, in townships is very real. They’ll meet at someone’s house, or they’ll rent a hall somewhere and get someone to cook food. You have these groupings that offer social solidarity, where they talk about health, they talk about relationships. You could argue that is the new gay space.’

THE SHOW GOES ON

The age of the famous gay bar, or the iconic gay village, may be waning, but it would be a mistake to think that queer space is unimportant, or even in decline. The geography of homosexuality in cities seems to be shifting, but it will never be irrelevant. ‘If I were to draw on my intuition, or make an educated guess, I would say that I don’t think that LGBTQ spaces are ever going to disappear,’ concludes Larry Knopp. ‘They may take different forms, they may be defined a little bit differently, they may intersect with other spaces in different kinds of ways, but I don’t see them ever disappearing. And frankly, I’m not sure that they
ever didn’t exist.’

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