UrbanOut: Queering The City, or Gay BOBOism?
Well, don’t I feel outside the loop at the moment. Midwestern urbanist Aaron Renn (of The Urbanophile) points us to UrbanOut, a regional blog attempting to focus on urbanism in the Midwest from a gay perspective.
Our first introduction to Greg Meckstroth’s perpective on how “mainstream” gays intersect with urbanism is unsettling in certain respects, repeating a rather frequent criticism within the GLBT community of superficial attitudes towards consumer culture, including urban sustainability issues:
Mainstream Gay Culture: Great weather, Starbucks, homogenous, anti-intellectual, brand, celebrity, car, national, neighborhood, community.
Mainstream Urban Culture: Great character, Starsucks, diversity, intellectual, independent, personality, bicycle, local, neighborhood, community.
Yes, this characterization is largely negative towards the gays. While I am not trying to generalize an entire group of people (a group I am apart of mind you), my experience thus far in the gay community – anything from tales of NIMBYism, moving to Orlando for the ‘nice weather’, scoffs at using mass transit, and being made fun of for not owning a car (among numerous other experiences) – is ultimately what has shaped my pessimistic perception.
To be fair, there is some truth to the gay mainstream scene existing at least in part outside of a meaningfully urbanist mindset: the existence of a large community in Palm Springs, or the adaptation of the gay community to sprawling outer Atlanta, the establishment of Wilton Manors as a largely auto-dependent gay suburb in south Florida, would attest to this somewhat. But at the same time, most gay villages in the United States and Canada – Chelsea, the Castro, Dupont and Logan Circle, Seattle’s Broadway or Boystown in Chicago – exist in the center of major cities, in mid-to-high density neighborhoods with numerous independent businesses, large amounts of restored historic building stock, and a high degree of walkability, pedestrian activity, and transit connections.
None of these things are an accident: sexual minorities began moving into these urban areas in order to better agglomerate in an age not only prior to the Internet, but also prior to the liberalization of sex laws, when it was barely acceptable at best to be out, and where it was somewhat more possible for one’s sexuality to result in genuine relationships rather than secrecy and desperation. (Even when this was impossible, what was possible was the creation of a relatively safe space for non-heterosexual encounters in centralized urban areas where rents were cheap, access was plentiful, and there was a nonzero possibility of maintaining one’s anonymity. In this regard, it’s certainly not surprising that Stonewall happened in the West Village rather than West Orange.)
I would admit that this notion of the gay man sipping a FrappuccinoTM while driving a Mazda MiataTM through Boca Raton or whatever is perhaps emblematic of “the circuit”, certain subsets of the gay male scene that focus intensely on these sorts of superficial interests, pursuing these sorts of public images and status symbols for their own sake. Beyond this is stereotyping, which runs counter to equally strong stereotypes of, say, lesbians moving into radical, separatist urbanized communes. These opposing narratives were in part constructed because of a long, strong history of queer communities as front-line “pilot fish” in rebuilding urban neighborhoods, particularly central and historic areas blighted by urban renewal and the enormous ethnic and economic tensions that followed. We have gone in to create investment where other communities simply would not. (This tendency has been so strong and so consistent that the National Trust for Historic Preservation regularly shows up to staff Pride festivals all over the country.)
The notion of these superficial preferences being somehow definitive as a queer attitude not only denies the reality of GLBT involvement in North American urban revitalization, but constructs a strawman that confuses material and economic arguments for aesthetic ones and implies that both are of equal weight, not unlike Stuff White People Like or David Brooks and his ostensible BOBOs in paradise. Twinks may be ubiquitous, but they don’t define queer communities or their history in urban areas. I understand Meckstroth’s frustration (believe me, I do!), but I also hope that UrbanOut will be able to shine a light on the incredible work that’s already been done, and will continue to be done, in gay villages all over the Midwest and across North America as queer people work to help build and rebuild our shared urban identities.