Liberation or (Neoliberal) Freedom? Exploring the Evolution of Lesbian and Gay Urban Spaces in the Global North
By Cesare Di Feliciantonio
In the Left and Marxism, the longstanding debate about the dichotomy Transformation/Revolution assumes a main relevance when analyzing the historical changes in LGBTThe use of the acronym LGBT will be differentiated across the text, according to the specific point of discussion. In fact, when talking about communities and politics more generally, the acronym can be appropriate, while in other parts I will just refer to gay/ gay and lesbian/ gay, lesbian and trans. For the aims of the discussion, I prefer not to use 'queer' as an umbrella terms to include all forms of sexual dissidence. politics in Western countries (and beyond) and, more generally, the deep improvements in LGBT everyday life. In fact, at a global level it is undeniable that the social conditions of LGBT people have terrifically shifted towards major visibility and inclusion, in many cases accessing new citizenship rights (although inequalities are still present). In this respect, “sexual citizenship” has become a widespread concept of debate within social sciences with some commentators focusing on rights per se (and the struggles in obtaining them) as a measure of citizenship, while others have reflected upon the wider implications of the recognition (or lack) of rights on the basis of sexuality.See, among the others, Diane Richardson, “Constructing sexual citizenship: theorizing sexual rights”, Critical Social Policy, 20(1), pp. 105-135, 2000.
Acknowledging improved social conditions is not a way to celebrate a presumed unidirectional Western path towards 'modernization' or 'secularization'; indeed recent cases (e. g. the violent reactions of conservative, right-wing and Catholic groups against the approval of the law on same-sex marriage in France) show how the field of LGBT rights is still a contentious and violent one, thus, no path can be taken for granted. Together with this shift towards visibility and more opportunities, commentators have usually registered the mainstreaming of LGBT politics as linked to institutionalization and the politics of lobbying, one of the most evident effects of this being the appearance of LGBT people openly and publicly supporting right-wing governments and parties.See Heidi Nast, “Queer patriarchies, queer racisms, international”, Antipode, 34(5), pp. 874-909, 2002; Diane Richardson, “Desiring Sameness? The Rise of a Neoliberal Politics of Normalisation”, Antipode, 37(3), pp. 515-535, 2005; Urvashi Vaid, Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation, Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1995; Craig A. Rimmerman, “Beyond political mainstreaming: reflections on lesbian and gay organizations and the grassroots”, in Craig A. Rimmerman, Kenneth D. Wald and Clyde Wilcox (eds) The Politics of Gay Rights, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 54-78, 2000. How has this been made possible? How did it come about that a liberationist politics, strongly concerned with the idea of the Revolution, found itself institutionalized and mainstreamed within the neoliberal mantras of 'freedom' and 'human rights'?
This article tries to answer these questions through the disciplinary lens of geographies of sexualitiesJon Bonnie and Gill Valentine, “Geography of sexuality- a review of progress”, Progress in Human Geography, 23(2), pp. 175-187, 1999; Kath Browne, Jason Lim and Gavin Brown (eds) Geographies of sexualities. Theory, practices and politics, Ashgate, London, 2007., i.e. by looking at the spatial dimensions of this process, following the conviction that space (and place) result from diverse and overlapping power relations managing and shaping different social, cultural and economic systems.The relation on space and power has represented a main concern for geography; see, among the others, Claude Raffestin, Pour une géographie du pouvoir, Librairies techniques, 1980; Doreen Massey, For Space, Sage, London, 2005; Jeremy W. Crampton and Stuart Elden, Space, Knowledge and Power. Foucault and Geography, Ashgate, Burlington, 2007. This disciplinary lens allows the exploration of the relationship between space, place and sexualities in the belief that “a history of sexualities is therefore a history of spaces”Phil Hubbard, Cities and Sexualities, Routledge, London and New York, 2012, p. xv., although the focus primarily remains on the urban/metropolitan. This is because LGBT communities have historically been more visible in urban areas where they raised political claims featured by a strong political character.See John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983; Sy Adler and Johanna Brenner, “Gender and Space: Lesbians and Gay Men in the City”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 16(1), pp. 24-34, 1992; Christina B. Hanhardt, “Butterflies, Whistles, and Fists: Gay Safe Streets Patrols and the new Gay Ghetto”, Radical History Review, 4/2008(100), pp. 61-85, 2008. Indeed the Stonewall riots in New York (1969), like the occupation of Porta Saragozza in Bologna (1982) by fag activists, addressed a spatial concern: the need for a place to meet where you can openly behave as you prefer, out of the heteronormative rule. This urban/metropolitan focus is a not a way to underestimate the importance that other spaces can have for LGBT communities or the need to investigate more LGBT venues in 'ordinary cities'.See David Bell and Gill Valentine, “Queer country: rural lesbian and gay lives”, Journal of Rural Studies, 11(1), pp. 113-122, 1995; David Bell, “Homosexuals in the heartland: male same-sex desire in the rural United States”, in Paul J. Cloke (ed.) Country Visions, Prentice Hall, London, pp. 178-194, 2003; Gavin Brown, “Urban (Homo)Sexualities: Ordinary Cities and Ordinary Sexualities”, Geography Compass, 2(4), pp. 1215-1231, 2008. Nevertheless, this vision of the city as the site of coming out and liberation for the self has become an absolutely dominant one, appropriated by most LGBT people in their self-narratives as a “quest for identity”.Larry Knopp, “Ontologies of place, placelessness, and movement: queer quests for identity and their impacts on contemporary geographic thought”, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 11(1), pp. 121-134, 2004. See also Jon Binnie, The Globalization of Sexuality, Sage, London, 2004; Andrew Gorman-Murray, “Rethinking queer migration through the body”, Social & Cultural Geography, 8(1), pp. 105-121, 2007. The historical changes which have occurred within LGBT communities and politics in Western countries can thus be read through the lens of their spatial assemblages in metropolitan areas, the 'gay ghetto' and the Gay Village being the most cited examples.Following Michael Brown (“Gender and sexuality II. There goes the gayborhood?”, Progress in Human Geography, online first, 2013), in this article I use “gay village”, “gay ghetto”, “gay district”, “gay mecca”, “gay neighbourhood” and “gayborhood” as synonyms- even if they refer sometimes to distinct entities- to indicate “the territoriality of gay-male (and to a lesser extent lesbian, trans*, bisexual and queer) sexuality within the cities across the global North and elsewhere” (ibid: 1). Having historically represented the primary topic of concern inside geographies of sexualities, these spatial formations still continue to be the focus of analytical efforts.See Binnie and Valentine, cit.; Brown, cit.; Greggor Mattson, “Style and the value of gay nightlife: Homonormative placemaking in San Francisco”, Urban Studies, online first, 2014; Catherine J. Nash and Andrew Gorman-Murray, “LGBT Neighborhoods and 'New Mobilities': Towards Understanding Transformations in sexual and Gendered Urban Landscapes”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(3), pp. 756-772, 2014.
This article analyzes the tension between the categories of Liberation/Revolution and Transformation by looking at the shifts in LGBT politics and the considerations around these spaces. This is carried out through a review of the geographical literature about LGBT urban spatialities around the Global North, taking some “paradigmatic” cases (notably San Francisco and Manchester) as primary examples of the ongoing shifts in sexual citizenship. However, this focus on “paradigmatic cases” is not aimed at underestimating the need to critically investigate what happens in cities where there is no ‘gayborhood’ and where resistance towards citizenship rights for LGBTI people are still strong. This way, the main research question addressed by the paper concerns the urban spatial formations of LGBT communities raised after the 1970s. Do they represent spaces of liberation from heteronormativity and patriarchy or are they the symbol of the commodification of sexual identities and the assimilation of LGBT claims under the neoliberal agenda? In order to avoid reproducing such a sterile dualistic opposition, the paper tries to explore the possibilities offered by introducing the Marxist category of subsumption to this debate.
The literature review I develop here follows the historical shifts that occurred both in LGBT politics around the Global North and geographies of sexualities as a domain of inquiry. Starting from the 1970s and the 1980s when LGBT communities gained visibility and analytical efforts emphasized the liberationist character of LGBT politics (section 2), I then discuss the literature from the 1990s and early 2000s when Gay villages made their appearance in many Northern American, Australian and Northern European cities (section 3). This emerging debate concerned how Gay Villages represented a main feature of neoliberal urban governance, a view that was then included in the formulation of the category of “homonormativity” by Lisa Duggan. In order to overcome the rigid opposition between liberation and neoliberalization, in section 4 I propose the introduction of the Marxist category of (capital) subsumption- as discussed by autonomous theorists (e. g. Hardt, Negri)- thus echoing other historical materialist contributions about the shifts in LGBT politics and spaces. Finally, after having summarized the discussion, in the conclusions I indicate some points requiring further scrutiny in future research, as they emerge from the article.
Revolution and Liberation: The Emergence of LGBT Politics and the 'Gay Ghetto'
Gay communities have historically found a territorial basis in the anonymity of urban spaces, their proliferation being favored by the new urban dimensions of capitalistic development between the XIX and XX centuries.See George Chauncey, Gay New York: gender, urban culture and the making of the gay male world 1890-1940, Basic Books, New York, 1995; Rosemary Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism, Routledge, New York, 2000; David Higgs (ed), Queer Sites: gay urban histories since 1600, Routledge, London, 1999. Nevertheless, the end of the 1960s is usually referred as the uprising of the transnational LGBT movement with the Stonewall riots and the following emergence of political claims addressed by LGBT groups and organizations.Many commentators have noticed how this narrative is marked by the lens of Americanization, as in other national contexts communities and individuals were already active before the end of the 1960s (for the Italian case, see, among the others, Marcasciano, 2002, Pini, 2011). In any case, it was in the 1970s that gay and lesbian people came out as a collective political subject linked to the Left and to its ideas of the Liberation and Revolution. In fact, the emerging gay, lesbian and trans activists in those years were actively engaged in social and political struggles, for instance in the Italian case they were linked both to the Radical Party (Partito Radicale) for institutional struggles concerning civil rights and to non-institutionalized leftist groups, mainly autonomous ones (Autonomia).See Gianni Rossi Barilli, Il movimento gay in Italia, Feltrinelli, Milan, 1999. We can then see how the ideas of 'Revolution' and 'Liberation' were pervasive in the documents and pamphlets produced by collectives, organizations and individuals (e. g. Guy Hocquenghem, the FHAR, the Gay Left Collective, Mario Mieli). To give an example, we can consider Mario Mieli’s words in his main work Elementi di critica omosessualeMario Mieli (1952-1983) is usually considered as the most well-known Italian gay activist from the 1970s-early 1980s. Elementi di critica omosessuale (Feltrinelli, Milan, 2002 [or. ed. 1977]; Engl. Vers. Homosexuality and Liberation: Elements of a Gay Critique, Gay Men’s Press, London, 1980), his most famous work mixing Marxism and psychoanalysis, was his degree dissertation then edited as a book. A second edition of the book was published by Feltrinelli in 2002, together with several essays on Mieli and his work- including one by Teresa de Lauretis.:
The revolutionary homosexual struggle is not aimed at obtaining social tolerance for gays, but the liberation of homoerotic desire in every human being: until there will be 'normal' people 'accepting' homosexuals, human species won’t have recognized its deep homosexual desire, it won’t have perceived its universal presence and will suffer without any remedy for the consequences of this removal that is repression. As homosexual revolutionaries, we seduce the others to imitate us, to come with us, in order that all together we can subvert the Norm repressing (homo)erotism.Mieli, cit., p. 73. Italics as in the original, author’s translation.
This emphasis on Liberation and Revolution carried by LGBT activists deeply influenced the analytical perspective developed by the first scholars (mainly urban sociologists) studying emerging spatial concentrations of gay communities around US cities: the 'gay ghetto'. For instance, Levine developed a social-ecology analysis depicting the 'gay ghetto' as featured by residential concentration, social marginalization, a shared cultural background, features that allowed the adoption of forms of homosociality safely.Martin Levine, “Gay Ghetto”, in Martin Levine (ed.) Gay Men: The Sociology of Male Homosexuality, Harper and Row, New York, pp. 182-204, 1979. This view of the emerging gayborhood as a fundamental instrument to come out from the (urban) closet against heteronormativity has then been re-proposed by many scholars working in different contexts.Jon Binnie, “Quartering sexualities”, in David Bell and Mark Jayne (eds), City of Quarters: Urban Villages in the Contemporary City, Ashgate, Aldershot, pp. 163–172, 2004; Nadine Cattan and Stéphane Leroy, “La ville négociée: les homosexuel(le)s dans l’espace public parisien”, Cahiers de géographie du Québec, 54(151), pp. 9-24, 2010; Stéphane Leroy, “La possibilité d’une ville. Comprendre les spatialités homosexuelles en milieu urbain”, Espace et sociétés, 139, pp. 159-174, 2009; Catherine J. Nash, “Toronto’s gay village (1969 to 1982): plotting the politics of gay identity”, Canadian Geographer, 50(1), pp. 1-16, 2006. In this direction, the work that has represented a milestone for future research is Manuel Castells’ The City and the Grassroots (1983), in which there is an in-depth analysis of the formation of the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco. Although the evident bias featuring the overall analysis - especially when referring to the 'male' way of territorializing spaces opposed to the 'female one' - Castells’ contribution remains fundamental for the analysis of gay communities and gay districts in urban spaces. His main thesis was that Castro represented a space of freedom and liberation, responding to gay people’s instances of escaping social compulsory heterosexuality and avoiding homophobic violence. In his analytical perspective on Castro formation, Castells recognized the role of a multiplicity and complexity of social, political and economic factors, notably the role played by low real estate values- thus opening the way to the literature on the role of gay communities in gentrification processes and urban growth coalitions.See Mickey Lauria and Larry Knopp, “Towards an analysis of the role of the fay communities in the urban renaissance”, Urban Geography, 6, pp. 152-169, 1985; Larry Knopp, “Some theoretical implications of gay involvement in an urban land market”, Political Geography Quarterly, 9(4), pp. 337-352, 1990; Larry Knopp, “Exploiting the rent-gap: the theoretical significance of using illegal appraisal schemes to encourage gentrification in New Orleans”, Urban Geography, 11(1), pp. 48-64, 1990; Larry Knopp, “Sexuality and the spatial dynamics of capitalism”, Environment and Planning D. Society and Space, 10(6), pp. 651-669, 1992. Moreover, he emphasized the role of the specific claims addressed by the gay community (and their political organizations) as a response to a socio-economic system devoted to familism and machismo.
From the 1970s CastroBeyond Castells’ contribution, for a history of Castro see, among the others, Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Forging Gay Identities: Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco, 1950-1994, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002; Nan A. Boyd, “San Francisco’s Castro district: from gay liberation to tourist destination”, Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, 9(3), pp. 237-248, 2011; Alyssa C. Howe, “Queer Pilgrimage: The San Francisco Homeland and Identity Tourism”, Cultural Anthropology, 16(1), pp. 35-61, 2001. had become one of the districts of the city inhabited by the gay community, made mostly of (working class) migrants from other parts of the country attracted by the liberal reputation of San Francisco. They settled in Castro because of low real estate values: Castro was a typical case of a working class district with rapidly declining real estate values. Despite widespread narratives highlighting how San Francisco is the first case of gentrification led by gay communities, Castells’ analysis pointed out how most of the gay people moving to Castro were low income thus sharing flats and houses and engaging in a self-organized grassroots’ renewal of the neighborhood. Although highlighting the liberationist character of Castro, Castells already envisaged upcoming risks for the local LGBT community and politics at the end of the 1970s: a) the initiation of conflicts with ethnic minorities, especially latinos, over land values leading to the perception of a 'gay invasion' of the district; b) an emerging divide between a gay working class Castro, linked to social movements promoting anti-speculation policies and redistribution, and a new class of rich gay landlords, mostly living in Pacific Heights and promoting an 'assimilationist' political model based on the idea of the 'good gay'; c) the formation of a lobbying politics inside the gay movement, focused on particularistic claims, thus disembedding claims on sexualities from more general social claims and risking being destructive. Castells appears then as a sharp-eyed analyst, having anticipated future analyses on the mainstreaming of LGBT politics and the appearance of a 'new homonormativity' (see next section).
As already mentioned, this perspective analysing the 'gay ghetto' and LGBT commercial spaces (e. g., bars, clubs) as expressing instances of liberation from patriarchy and heteronormativity has been emphasized by many scholars especially when considering other national and urban contexts. For instance, in the case of Paris, Stéphane Leroy stresses the importance of the gayborhood for the practices and the spatial representations of homosexual people since their urban visibility is still limited to what is authorized by the norm.Leroy, cit., pp. 170-171. In a completely different theoretical perspective but in a similar vein, Camila Bassi has analysed the importance of gay commercial clubs in Birmingham (a non-paradigmatic case), showing how the attendants of these place can use them to challenge and subvert different forms of power and oppression, for instance racist denigrations or the “pathologising notion” of second-generation British Asians as “caught between cult.Camila Bassi, “Riding the Dialectical Waves of Gay Political Economy: A Story from Birmingham’s Commercial Gay Scene”, Antipode, 38(2), pp. 213-235, 2006. However, the shifts in LGBT politics that occurred in the 1980s and the 1990s, together with the appearance of Gay Villages in any “wannabe global city”, set forth a deep change in the analytical perspective developed within geographies of sexualities during the 1990s, this being the object of the next section.
Transformation: The Gay Village as a Marker of Neoliberalization
If we look at the geographical literature on LGBT urban venues (both residential and for leisure) from the 1990s and the early 2000s, beyond 'expectable' cases like London’s Soho district, we will find an extensive amount of work concerning Canal Street in Manchester.See, among the others, Jon Binnie and Beverly Skeggs, “Cosmopolitan knowledge and the production and consumption of sexualized space: Manchester’s gay village”, The Sociological Review, 52(1), pp. 39-61, 2004; Lesley J. Moran, Beverly Skeggs, Paul Tyrer and Karen Corteen, “The formation of fear in gay space: the 'straights' story”, Capital & Class, 27, pp. 173- 198, 2003; Annette Pritchard, Nigel Morgan and Diane Sedgley, “In search of lesbian space? The experience of Manchester’s gay village”, Leisure studies, 21(2), pp. 105-123, 2002; Stephen Quilley, “Constructing Manchester’s “new urban village”: Gay space in the entrepreneurial city”, in Yolanda Retter, Anne-Marie Bouthillette and Gordon Brent Ingram (eds), Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance, Bay Press, San Francisco, pp. 275-292, 1997; Beverly Skeggs, “Matter out of place: Visibility, violence and movement in the city”, Leisure Studies, 18(3), pp. 213-232, 1999; Beverly Skeggs, “The appearance of class: Challenges in gay space”, in Sally Munt (ed.), Cultural Studies and the Working Class, Routledge, London, pp. 129-150, 2000. This can be explained by making reference to both i) a tendency in urban geography (and geographies of sexualities as well) to give preference to paradigmatic cases, especially 'world' cities, following the idea that what is happening in these cities will happen in similar forms in other cities around the worldOne of the main contributions in this direction came by Ed Soja, Post-modern Geographies: The Reassertation of Space in Critical Social Theory, Verso, London, 1989. This idea then bases the theories on 'world' and 'global' cities (e. g. Saskia Sassen, The global city: New York, London, Tokyo, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1991; Peter J. Taylor, “World cities and territorial states under conditions of contemporary globalisation”, Political Geography, 19(1), pp. 5-32, 2000). An in-depth critique of these approaches has been carried by Jennifer Robinson, “Global and World Cities: A View from off the Map”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 26(3), pp. 531-554, 2002.; ii) funding received by scholars from the City Council and other local institutions as these were engaged in a process of promoting a new image of Manchester as a post-industrial city of leisure, the Gay Village being a strategic part of this plan.
Although gay spaces could be found in Manchester since the beginning of the XX century, the Gay Village has become evident to the (straight) urban visitor in the 1990s thanks to the Manto, a modernist bar with 30 foot glass windows, thus marking a strong character of visibility, rejecting the in/visibility traditionally associated to gay venues. Here’s a synthetic description of Manchester’s Gay Village by Binnie and SkeggsBinnie and Skeggs (2004), cit., p. 48.:
Manto was developed on a space, which used to be the Worker’s Reading Library, opposite the Rochdale Canal (the heart of the industrial revolution) and very close to three old traditional gay bars and two major cottages (public sex spaces of the George Michael kind). It is in close proximity to train and bus stations, just outside of the main shopping centre, next to Chinatown and very close to three large universities (which have a combined population of 62,000: not insignificant when only 450,000 live in the city centre = 14%). The gay village offers at least 50 different opportunities for gay consumption of varying kinds. The surrounding streets have been developed with very expensive loft apartments, more bars and restaurants and in 1998 the first lesbian bar ‘Vanilla’. Until the opening of Vanilla, lesbian space in the village was restricted to one room above a male leather bar on Canal Street that was two years ago turned into a ‘bistro’. The lesbian club ‘Follies’, closed in April 2001. It had a history as a significant space for working-class lesbians throughout the Greater Manchester area.
Beyond the description of the features of the Village itself, what emerges in the literature is that it responded to a completely different logic than the one described by Castells for Castro (made of spontaneous grassroots dynamics): the Village has been promoted by local institutions as a fundamental part of the City’s economic regeneration plan based on 'culture'. This reflects a shift towards a neoliberal urbanism featured by “entrepreneurial governance”XXX, cit., among the others, David Harvey, “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism”, Geografiska Annaler. Series B. Human Geography, 71(1), pp. 3-17, 1989; Tim Hall and Phil Hubbard, “The entrepreneurial city: new urban politics, new urban geographies?”, Progress in Human Geography, 20(2), pp. 153-174, 1996. in which Gay Villages, like ethnic neighbourhoods, mark the tolerant, cosmopolitan character of the (“wannabe global”) city.
A Symbol of (Exclusionary) Neoliberalism?
As already seen, the emergence of Gay Villages in different cities across the Global North has been recognized as a marker of the neoliberalization of urban governance- meant as the set of strategies, norms and narratives developed by urban elites- although the vast literature on neoliberal urban governance has devoted little attention to sexuality.Phil Hubbard, “Revenge and Injustice in the Neoliberal City: Uncovering Masculinist Agendas”, Antipode, 36(4), pp. 665-686, 2004. As cities lose their industrial basis and are projected in the global arena for attracting investments and tourists, they must become attractive for the cosmopolitan citizen/consumer for whom tolerance and (social, racial and sexual) diversity are necessary features of the urban milieu, as stated in the neoliberal model of the “creative city” proposed by Richard Florida in The Rise of the Creative Class. In fact Gay Villages (like other commercial sexualized spaces of consumption) have “functioned increasingly as one of these ethnic spaces in consumer culture, serving as a marker of cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and diversity for the urban tourist. Thus queer and ethnic spaces are offered as equivalent venues for consumption at a cosmopolitan buffet in a manner that erases their individual histories and functions, as well as the differential mobilities of the bodies that inhabit them”.Dereka Rushbrook, “Cities, Queer Space, and the Cosmopolitan Tourist”, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 8(1-2), pp. 188, 2002. In this view, 'gay' - like 'queer' or 'ethnic' - is used as a label to prove the 'authenticity' of the experience of a place to consume; indeed as consumption becomes the most relevant aspect in defining personal identity and in regulating both individuals and (urban) spaces, a shift towards a new paradigm of citizenship is realized: the 'consumer citizen'.David Bell and Jon Binnie, “Authenticating Queer Space: Citizenship, Urbanism and Governance”, Urban Studies, 41(9), pp. 1807-1820, 2004. The contradictory character of gay and lesbian commercial venues as based on consumption was already recognized by Binnie in 1995 when he wrote: “In focusing on the material spaces of the pink economy, I recognise that I occupy an ambivalent position. As a consumer and participant in the scene, I am easily seduced by the (limited) sexual freedom gay pubs and clubs may facilitate; but I am also acutely aware of the level of economic inequality that pervades the gay commercial scene”.Jon Binnie, “Trading places: Consumption, sexuality and the production of queer space”, in David Bell and Gill Valentine (eds), Mapping Desire: Geographies of Sexualities, Routledge, London, pp. 187, 1995. Can we recognize the exclusionary nature of these places as based only on consumption, i.e. on the spending capacity of the attendant?
Research has highlighted a multiplicity of factors determining exclusionary practices in these spaces of consumption, perhaps the most widely acknowledged being gender. Indeed several scholars focused on lesbian spatialities as distinct from Gay VillagesFor instance, see Lynda Johnston, “Mobilizing pride/shame: lesbians, tourism and parades”, Social and Cultural Geography, 8(1), pp. 29-45, 2007; Julie A. Podmore, “Lesbians in the crowd: gender, sexuality and visibility along Montreal’s Boul St-Laurent”, Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 8(4), pp. 333-355, 2001; Gill Valentine, “Negotiating and managing multiple sexual identities: lesbian time-space strategies”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 18(2), pp. 237-248, 1993. while others highlighted how transgender and/or bisexual subjects can often feel very uncomfortable in attending these places.See, among the others, Kath Browne and Jason Lim, “Trans lives in the 'gay capital of UK'”, Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 17(5), pp. 615-633, 2010; Catherine J. Nash, “Trans geographies, embodiment and experience”, Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 17(5), pp. 579-595, 2010; Catherine J. Nash, “Trans experiences in lesbian and queer spaces”, The Canadian Geographer/Le géographe canadien, 55, pp. 192-207, 2011. Moreover, people not interested in adopting the 'gay' label to define themselves may prefer to attend different urban venues, defined by Gavin Brown as “post-gay”.Gavin Brown, “Cosmopolitan camouflage: (post-)gay space in Spitalfields, East London”, in Jon Binnie, Julian Holloway, Steve Millington and Craig Young (eds.) Cosmopolitan Urbanism, Routledge, New York, pp. 133, 2004. More generally, commentators have overemphasized the intersection between class, gender and race in determining access to these spacesSee, among the others, Jon Binnie, “Class, sexuality and space: A comment”, Sexualities, 14(1), pp. 21-26, 2011; Catherine J. Nash, “Queering neighbourhoods: Politics and practice in Toronto”, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 12(2), pp. 193-219, 2013; Yvette Taylor, “Introduction. Sexualities and class”, Sexualities, 14(1), pp. 3-11, 2011., what Michael Brown has recently defined the “Holy-Trinity”Michael Brown, “Gender and sexuality I. Intersectional anxieties”, Progress in Human Geography, 36(4), pp. 541-550, 2012. of the literature on intersectionality, excluding other forms of oppression such as age, religion or (dis)ability.
A New Homonormativity?
The overrepresentation of the white affluent gay man in urban spaces reflects a more general visibility of certain forms of gay and lesbian culture in the public sphere (media, politics and so forth), this new trend being defined by Lisa Duggan as the “new homonormativity”Lisa Duggan, “The new homonormativity: the sexual politics of neoliberalism”, in Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson (eds.), Materialising Democracy: Towards a Revitalized Cultural Politics, Duke University Press, Durham, pp. 175-194, 2002. or the “sexual politics of neoliberalism”, a concept that seems to include all the issues concerning the relation between LGBT urban communities and neoliberalism. Concerning the case of US mainstream LGBT politics, Duggan examined how, in the 1990s, the emergence of neoliberal policies was accompanied by new representations and discourses from LGBT mainstream groups around the issues of “equality”, “freedom” and “right to the privacy”. In her own words:
The democratic diversity of proliferating forms of sexual dissidence is rejected in favour of the naturalised variation of a fixed minority arrayed around a state-endorsed heterosexual primacy and prestige. This New Homonormativity comes equipped with a rhetorical recoding of key terms in the history of gay politics: “equality” becomes narrow, formal access to a few conservatizing institutions, “freedom” becomes impunity for bigotry and vast inequalities in commercial life and civil society, the “right to privacy” becomes domestic confinement, and democratic politics itself becomes something to be escaped. All of this adds up to a corporate culture managed by a minimal state, achieved by the neoliberal privatization of affective as well as economic and public life.Ibid: 190.
Duggan’s conceptualization highlights the occurring process of “assimilation” of certain kinds of (homo)sexualities by neoliberal, growth-oriented regimes. In a similar vein, Diane Richardson speaks of a “neoliberal politics of normalisation” featured by a hegemonic discourse on the “individuals”, “equal rights” and a “new partnership” between state institutions and LGBT organisations.Richardson, cit., p. 516. In fact, “contemporary struggles for ‘‘equality’’ help to reaffirm the regulatory power of the state by reinforcing the authority of the institutions appealed to which confer rights and responsibilities (in this case military, marriage, family), and through which sexualities are regulated”.Ibidem,. p. 532. The primary focus in this debate has been on the exclusionary nature of homonormativity, notably in terms of race; for instance, Heidi Nast defined it as “gay white patriarchy” supporting “pre-existing racialized and politically and economically conservative processes of profit-accumulation”.Nast’s article (cit.) generated a lively debate on Antipode (one of the most important journals of radical geography), starting from a response by Glen Elder, “Response to “Queer Patriarchies, Queer Racisms, International”, Antipode, 34(5), pp. 988-991, 2002 followed by another critical intervention by Matthew Sothern, “(Un)Queer Patriarchies: Or, “What We Think When We Fuck”, Antipode, 36(2), pp.183-190, 2004. According to Jasbir Puar, the inclusion of gay and queer subjects/bodies has become crucial to fully developing the U.S. American nationalist and militarist project of the War on terror; indeed, in her view, “certain domesticated homosexual bodies provide ammunition to reinforce nationalist projects”.Jasbir Puar, “Mapping US homonormativities”, Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 13(1), pp. 68, 2006. The concept of “homonormativity” experienced an immediate success inside geographies of sexualities, the efforts devoted to highlighting how (relatively) privileged forms of homosexualities assimilated into normative discourses and powers led to invisibility for other sexual dissidents’ subcultures - BDSM practitioners, people living with HIV/AIDS and so forth.See, among the others, Jin Haritaworn, “Queer mixed race? Interrogating Homonormativity through Thai Interraciality”, in Kath Browne, Jason Lim and Gavin Brown (eds.), Geographies of Sexualities. Theory, Practices and Politics, Ashgate, Burlington, pp. 101-112, 2007; Natalie Oswin, “Producing Homonormativity in Neoliberal South Africa: Recognition, Redistribution, and the Equality Project”, Signs, 32(3), pp. 649-669, 2007; Matthew Sothern, “HIV+ bodyspace: AIDS and the queer politics of future negation in Aotearoa/New Zealand”, in Kath Browne, Jason Lim and Gavin Brown (eds.), Geographies of Sexualities. Theory, Practices and Politics, Ashgate, Burlington, pp. 181-194, 2007.
What Happens to the Gayborhood?
After an intense centrality both in research and urban governance projects, an increasing number of commentators have started to analyse some forms of decline of the traditional spatial agglomerations of lesbian and gay communities in Global North metropolitan areas. Early concerns around this issue arose by highlighting processes of 'de-gaying' such spaces with more and more heterosexual women using them to escape (straight) men’s interest, thus inducing a sense of discomfort among lesbian attendants.Mark Casey, “De-dyking queer spaces: Heterosexual female visibility in gay and lesbian spaces”, Sexualities, 7(4), pp. 446-461, 2004; Pritchard et al (2002) and Skeggs, cit. Moreover, this process is linked to the usually central location of these venues, thus attracting the cosmopolitan, trendy (straight/metrosexual) consumer and generating an increase in real estate values.See Alan Collins, “Sexual Dissidence, Enterprise and Assimilation: Bedfellows in Urban Regeneration”, Urban Studies, 41(9), pp. 1789-1806, 2004.
More recently, several scholars have been concerned with the 'demise' of such spaces with straight people moving to these areas and new “queer-friendly” neighbourhoods appearing.See, among the others, Kath Browne and Leela Bakshi, “We are here to party? Lesbian, gay bisexual and trans leisurescapes beyond commercial gay scenes”, Leisure Studies, 30 (2), pp. 179-196, 2011; Andrew Gorman-Murray and Gordon Waitt, “Queer-friendly neighbourhoods: an interrogation of social cohesion across sexual difference in two Australian neighbourhoods”, Environment and Planning A, 41(12), pp. 2855-2873, 2009; Catherine J. Nash, “The age of the ‘post-mo’? Toronto’s gay Village and a new generation”, Geoforum, 49, pp. 243–252, 2013; Nash and Gorman-Murray, cit. As mentioned, Brown defines these emerging spatialities as “post-gay”, incorporated into new urban projects promoting authenticity and cosmopolitanism not requiring people to clearly define their sexualities under rigid labels. In the Australian case, much attention has been paid to the 'de-gaying' of Oxford Street in Sydney, proved by the emergence of homophobic violence in the area, generating anxieties and uncertainty among territorial-based gay groups and associations.Robert Reynolds, “Endangered territory, endangered identity: Oxford street and the dissipation of gay life”, Journal of Australian Studies, 33(1), pp. 79-92, 2009. Still in the case of Sydney (but in a comparative perspective), Andrew Gorman-Murray and Gordon Waitt register the appearance of “queer-friendly” neighbourhoods, featured by a high visibility of lesbian and gay residents, organization and business, promoting social difference and cohesion.Gorman-Murray and Waitt, cit. According to Catherine J. NashNash 2006, cit., a similar path can be traced in the case of Queer West in Toronto, although not planned but driven by marginalization and nascent gentrification. In another articleNash 2013, cit., she links the shifts in Toronto’s sexualized urban geography to the new cultural norms emerging in Canada and to an inter-generational divide among the LGBT community featured by the emergence of 'post-mo' and 'post-gay' identities and practices assigning a new meaning to same-sex relationships. Concerning the leisure spaces of the new 'gay world city' in the UK, Brighton, Katherine Browne and Leela BakshiBrown and Bakshi, cit. stress the need to overcome the rigid dichotomy gay/straight when analysing leisure venues since these places remix practices and behaviours; on the contrary, a more intersectional analysis (accounting of race, gender and class) would be more appropriate to understand visibility in urban spaces. These emerging trends of 'demise' raise crucial questions for LGBT communities and politics in terms of funding for services providing and welfare measures (considering that in many countries services are neighbourhood-based) and the risk of losing a 'territorial identity' that remains important for many LGBT people. More research is needed to understand which the effects of the 'demise' of Gay Villages for LGBT communities’ everyday life will be and how neoliberal urban governance will now address issues of diversity to attract consumerism.
However, this process remains deeply uneven: indeed many 'ordinary' cities around the Global North have not registered similar paths in the rise (and decline) of gayborhoods. On the contrary, such spatial formations can still play a pivotal role in promoting community-formation. For instance, Nathaniel Lewis has recently highlighted how the debate about LGBT spatial formations does not really concern smaller cities like Ottawa thus contesting the metronormative bias of the literature on Gay Villages.Nathaniel Lewis, “Ottawa’s Le/The Village: Creating a gaybourhood amidst the 'death' of the village”, Geoforum, 49, pp. 233–242, 2013. According to him, declaring that gay villages are no longer necessary hides a privileged (metropolitan) position, forgetting the need for symbolic places in small, 'ordinary' towns.
Despite these criticisms, the main dichotomy Liberation/Neoliberalization remains: do these spaces express instances of Liberation from heteronormativity and patriarchy (Revolution) or are they proposing a selective and exclusionary change being part of the transnational neoliberal agenda (Transformation)? In the next section, I propose an exploratory theoretical hypothesis to overcome this dichotomy, i.e. the need for considering the role of capital subsumption towards LGBT spaces and politics as this Marxist category has not been considered within this theoretical debate.
Thinking the Role of Capital Subsumption
Proposing a consideration of the role of capital subsumption to overcome a sterile opposition between emphasizing the instances of liberation embodied in LGBT urban spatialities and “a reading of commercial gay space as part of a wider hegemonic strategy to simply contain sexual dissidence”Bassi, cit., p. 214. See footnote 20., is one way of understanding the dialectical character of these spaces without ceding to negative, all-encompassing analyses of capitalism, leaving room available for instances of radical change. In this sense, recent historical materialist analyses, notably Hennessy and FloydHannessy, cit.; Kevin Floyd, The reification of desire. Toward a queer Marxism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2009., have produced important steps forward to understanding how capitalism -and especially Fordism- opened up unprecedented possibilities for the establishment of firstly-gay culture and communities. Aimed at analyzing the relation of sexuality to capital- emphasizing the inseparability of the sexual from the social - Kevin Floyd’s The Reification of Desire has shown how “this relation is mediated by a range of normalizing regimes and forms of social hierarchy, including those that operate along axes of gender, race, and nation”.Floyd, cit., p. 3. In order to do so, the historical materialist scholar recasts the categories of reification and totality, now bound together to account for “capital’s simultaneous unity and internal differentiation” and provide “the tools for situating sexual normalization, as well as queer critique and the history of praxis it presupposes, within the broader social processes of capital”.Floyd, cit. p. 17. According to him, the reification of sexual desire, as has taken place since the XIX Century, has produced “a hierarchical relation between heterosexual and homosexual forms of subjectivity”, these opening up “the conditions of possibility for an ongoing, internally contentious history of collective practice, for the production and reproduction of knowledges critical of heterosexuality’s normalization”.Floyd, cit. p. 210. In this perspective, it is important to note how public urban spaces- even the commercial ones aimed at consuming sex- are fundamental in promoting all kinds of social encounter, confirming the impossibility of discerning the social character of sexual spaces, thus challenging the neoliberal idea of privatizing both the sexual and the social.Floyd, cit., p. 214.
In a similar Marxist vein, Camila Bassi’s analysis of the commercial gay scene in Birmingham represents the main attempt to overcome the discussed opposition Liberation/Neoliberalization inside geographies of sexualities.Bassi, cit. Starting from recognizing that “if any debt is owed to capitalism, it is for the conditions that have materialized the possibility for an elite group of gay men to first claim a gay life through the market and for the market to then claim gay lifeBassi, cit., p. 214., she emphasizes the ambivalent, contradictory character of gay commercial venues, confirming “how immanent within capitalism itself there is both capture and escape” (ibid). She does so by moving from the Althusserian conceptualization of ideology to Marx’s Grundrisse where he explained how the commodification of human culture cannot be reduced to a capital tendency to exploit our needs and aspiration, neither celebrated as a space of freedom. Moreover, Bassi recalls the Marxian formulation of “the great civilizing influence of capital” as it stresses the radical potential within capitalism. In this way she challenges the accounts emphasizing how cosmopolitanism is the latest round of capitalist colonization of social (urban) life, stating that “the commodification of sexual and ethnic difference both subsumes cultural otherness to the socio-economic inequality of the market and provides cultural otherness because of the market, including its potential as a radically new use-value”.Bassi, cit., p. 219. Bassi refers to this contradictory movement of capital(ism) as “dialectical waves” both integrating identity-based consumption/production into exchange-value relations and favoring the cultural creativity producing new use-values that escape capitalist relations.
Following these insights, I here (re)introduce the Marxist category of subsumptionMarx introduced the double categorization of “formal” and “real” subsumption of labour to capital in the so called Volume VI of Capital, published after his death in 1933. as it highlights the ability of capital to penetrate intimate and affective parts of social life in order to make value of them, but without fully totalizing them. The way I use subsumption then echoes both Floyd’s reification and Bassi’s “dialectical waves of political economy”, stressing the generative nature of capital(ism) opening up radical possibilities of change and contention. Just like these historical materialist contributions, my theoretical exploration of capital subsumption rejects the rough reductionism of the formula “base/superstructure” wrongly associated to Marx and Engels’s work.Feminist historical materialism has brightly highlighted this false representation of Marx and Engels’s ideas (e. g. Cinzia Arruzza, “Gender as Social Temporality: Butler (and Marx)”, Historical Materialism, 2015, forthcoming).
Subsumption has been recently defined as one of the “ontological dispositifs” of capitalism, intended as “the complex set of sociocultural and institutional relations associated with specific economic-spatial settings and socio-political conditions, which allow the process of capitalist accumulation to come into being and expand further”.Ugo Rossi, “On the varying ontologies of capitalism. Embeddedness, dispossession, subsumption”, Progress in Human Geography, 37(3), pp. 350, 2013. Although originally introduced by Marx when distinguishing the formal and the real subsumption of labor under capital, the vision of capital subsumption as purely negative and all-encompassing has been recast under the influence of the Frankfurt School in which “society is subsumed into capital”. On the contrary, the way I use subsumption here follows the reformulation of the concept by (post)Marxist, autonomous theorists, notably Hardt and NegriMichael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2000., who emphasize the real subsumption of “life itself” within immaterial, cognitive capitalism. Indeed in the last decades, capitalism has been able to subsume “life itself” into production and exchange-value relations, i.e. knowledges, emotions, affects, desire and language have become crucial factors producing value.On the role of these immaterial factors within immaterial capitalism, see, among the others, Andrea Fumagalli Bioeconomia e capitalismo cognitivo. Verso un nuovo paradigma di accumulazione, Carocci, Rome, 2007; Maurizio Lazzarato, Lavoro immateriale. Forme di vita e produzione di soggettività, Ombre Corte, Verona, 1997. These theorists have made reference to this process as “general intellect” thus recalling Marx’s famous formulation to mean “the exterior, social and collective character of intellectual activity when it becomes the real spring of wealth production”.Paolo Virno, Grammatica della moltitudine: per una analisi delle forme di vita contemporanee, DeriveApprodi, Rome, 2001, p. 17, author’s translation. In this way, we see how capitalism has been able to appropriate what Hardt and Negri define as “the common forms of wealth”, mainly knowledge and affects, including (sexual) desire and the desire for freedom and visibility as well. Indeed “the cultural forces contesting the disciplinary Fordist-Keynesian regime in previous years have been incorporated into the emerging capitalist forces and organizational paradigms”.Rossi, cit., p. 360.
However this movement of incorporation does not mark a unidirectional and unchallenged power relation- failing to totally penetrate all the life domains and claims raised by those subjectivities: indeed the appropriation of “living labor” (including language, information, emotions, desire, affects and so forth) by capitalist forces is not only generative of new subjectivities, it also produces contention and conflict. Hardt has included these immaterial resources that capitalism tries to appropriate among the artificial commons, highlighting their peculiar character of resistance/counter-powering:
Ideas, images, knowledges, code, languages, and even affects can be privatized and controlled as property, but it is more difficult to police ownership because they are so easily shared or reproduced. There is a constant pressure for such goods to escape the boundaries of property and become common. If you have an idea, sharing it with me does not reduce its utility to you but usually increases it. In fact, in order to realize their maximum productivity, ideas, images, and affects must be common and shared.Michael Hardt, “The Common in Communism”, Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society, 22(3), pp. 349, 2010.
These instances of contention and challenge take place primarily in urban/metropolitan areas, as cities are the primary sites of “biopolitical production”, constituted by “living dynamic of cultural practices, intellectual circuits, affective networks and social institutions”.Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth, Belknap Press, Cambridge, 2009, p. 154. Through this framework, we can see how LGBT instances for visibility and freedom- as embodied in their urban spatial configurations- cannot be fully incorporated into capitalist relations of commodification and making value. Indeed, when taking place, capitalist accumulation and regulation processes subsume social subjectivities’ claims leaving room for contentious (collective) knowledge and practices, without totalizing and fully suffocating them.
In this perspective, the work of Cristina Morini on the subsumption of women’s claims for decent life, freedom and equal opportunities inside and outside the family can represent an enlightening analytical example.Cristina Morini, Per amore o per forza. Femminilizzazione del lavoro e biopolitiche del corpo, Ombre Corte, Verona, 2010. Morini shows how post-Fordism has been able to incorporate the main oppositional claims addressed by feminists that appeared to pose a threat to the Fordist mode of regulation for a long time. These claims for equality, freedom and self-determination have been subsumed by capital, although in a subaltern position: the average woman’s salary is still inferior to a man’s, women’s bodies, sexuality and reproductive rights are still under the scrutiny of State institutions and women have to engage more than men in conciliating their working-time with time for (household) reproduction. This ambivalent position of women under capitalism leads Morini to emphasize the possibilities of the current scenario, in terms of political intervention and conflict.
So subsumption, as reframed by autonomous thought, offers a theoretical possibility for accounting for instances of both liberation/subversion of heteronormative patriarchy and neoliberalization/commodification/making value as expressed in the shifts of LGBT politics and its spatial configurations. LGBT instances and spatialities have been subsumed under the inequalities of market economy, thus leaving room for new forms and practices of contention and challenges to an uneven system.
Conclusions: Exploring Place-Based Possibilities
In this article I explored the tension between the traditional categories of Revolution and Transformation embodied in the debate about LGBT urban spatialities in Western countries that has featured geographies of sexualities since the early 1980s. Indeed spatialities originally seen as sites of Liberation from heteronormativity - emerging through the politically radical instances of the 1960s and the 1970s - soon became the markers of neoliberalization. This reflected the shifts that occurred in the urban governance of the main Western metropolitan areas during the 1990s when new entrepreneurial models were set up in order to promote investments and tourism and to prove the 'cosmopolitan' character of the city. At the same time, LGBT politics moved more and more towards assimilationist trends, what Lisa Duggan has successfully defined the “new homonormativity”. Following historical materialist contributions on the relation between capital and sexuality, highlighting how capitalism has opened up- and still opens up- the conditions of possibility for radical changes concerning sexuality and desire, I explored the possibilities offered by reintroducing the Marxist category of subsumption to overcome an oppositional dualism between Liberation/freedom and neoliberalization/commodification. Reading subsumption through the post-Marxist, autonomous framework provided by authors like Hardt and Negri, offers the chance for understanding the tensions inside the capitalist dynamics, aspiring to subsume “life itself” but facing an impossibility to fully realize it and creating new subjectivities through this process. In this scheme, cities are the core of “biopolitical production” thus occupying a privileged position both in accumulation processes and radical, contentious practices and movements. This reveals the main importance that specific urban venues still have for LGBT communities challenging heteronormativity, patriarchy and putting diverse sexual and social experiences into practice. So the oppositional dialectic Liberation/neoliberalization results embedded within capital(ism) contradictory character. This is not a way to propose an all-encompassing model for analyzing LGBT urban spatialities; on the contrary, this perspective stresses the need to consider how this immanent contradictory movement of capital takes place and is shaped locally, as it results from place-based social regulation forces, and can generate place-based radical forms of challenge and contention.
Such a theoretical exploration of subsumption can be read as an attempt to account the possibilities of change and social experimentation within capitalism itself in terms of desire and sexual encounter as embodied in LGBT urban spaces. However, further research is needed to analyze how different forms of radical change take place in different urban contexts, across the Global North and beyond, according to - and shaped by - the forces of social regulation acting there. This could reveal the concrete possibilities of change offered by LGBT urban spatialities in specific contexts, accounting the variegated, place-based nature of capitalism and neoliberal governance.