Monday, January 3, 2011
Cities are central to queer life. Most of us around the world live in cities. Even if we don't, cities are the main locations where queer subcultures and identities have traditionally been defined and developed. Cities offer us freedom and anonymity. They provide us with the possibility of making a community of our own, away from traditional ties of family and morality. Amongst the crush of the city's diverse populations we have the opportunity to cast off old ways of thinking, meet like-minded folk and explore new ways of being.
The pleasures and opportunities offered by city life are contradictory. The anonymity that gives us the space to experiment amongst strangers can make cities lonely, impersonal places. Most cities are dirty, noisy and overcrowded. What passes as public space is increasingly owned by major corporations and policed by private security firms who clamp down on any expressions of difference or dissent.
In many ways, the mainstream gay scene is no better. When you're first coming out, or if you're trapped in a small town feeling isolated and alone, knowing that there are places like Canal Street or Soho can offer enormous hope. Nights out on the scene can be fun, but the novelty soon fades.
If the gay scene offers us hope (for a while), it also limits our possibilities. There might be bars and club nights for every taste and fetish, every shape, size and colour of queer body, but in the end our desires become just another niche marketing opportunity fuelling someone else's profits. On the scene our sexuality and even our bodies become commodities.
It's no wonder so many of us feel out of place and uninspired by the commercial scene. Cities offer so many opportunities and possibilities for queer folk that it seems a shame to shackle ourselves to that overpriced ghetto. Rather than limiting ourselves to the gay consumer playgrounds of a few major cities, let's go out and queer the whole of every city. The rest of this little rant offers a few suggestions of ways we can make our cities more queer, not just friendlier or safer for well-behaved gay consumers, but more open to the limitless possibilities of gender and sexuality. In the process, we might also make cities more human, more fun to live in, and begin to break our reliance on the market, building our capacities for a life without capitalism.
So, where do we start?
We need to celebrate and mark our histories. Although there are more spaces where older queer people can comfortably socialise, too much of the commercial scene is still the preserve of the pretty young things. The alternative queer scene is not much better. We ignore the knowledge and experiences of our elders at our peril. We can learn so much from them. We should listen to the life stories of the first generation of queer activists, early gay libbers and those who struggled to build and defend queer communal spaces 'before Stonewall'. Beyond living memory, we should also seek out local queer histories from earlier centuries.
Having uncovered our histories, let's share them and mark them in the urban landscape - to reclaim and validate our presence in the city and public space. This way, we can challenge dominant society's erasure of queer visibility.
If we are really serious about building alternative radical queer communities, then these can't just be the preserve of twenty-something year old activists. We need to build alliances across generations and create communal spaces that are more inclusive of older generations.
We must also engage with other difference and learn to listen to other's experiences and points of view. Often the areas of our cities that feel safest for us are those that are most culturally and ethnically diverse, but how many off us really engage with that difference? In some ways, the gay scene is more accepting of difference than society as a whole. But, it is still riddled with prejudice - we dismiss people because of their age, their body size, because they have different abilities, because they are too camp, or not wearing the latest fashions; and, too often, we objectify people because of their ethnicity. We need to talk to queers who have grown up in other cultures and learn from their experiences. There are many more ways of not being heterosexual or playing with gender than the identities that are sold to us through the pages of Attitude and Diva. What makes sense in Soho doesn't necessarily have meaning in Singapore, Sao Paolo or Soweto. Engaging with different 'queer' cultures can enrich our lives, build global solidarities and help break down racism on the scene.
In the past, cottages and outdoor cruising grounds have been strategic sites where queer men have built community and defined their identities. Over the last couple of decades, the number of these sites has declined dramatically as public space has become privatised and cost-cutting local authorities have closed down public toilets. Our next task, then, is to defend sites of public homosex. These are important non-commercial spaces that can foster communality across class and ethnic distinctions. You don't need to have a lot of disposable income or even be able to speak English to enjoy the communal pleasures and excesses of a cruising ground. In these places actions speak louder than words and they can serve to question and undermine rigid sexual identities and social norms.
Some might argue that with the growth of gay saunas and sex clubs there's no longer a need for outdoor cruising sites. But, why pay for the pleasure when you can get it for free' Advocates of the commercial scene argue that clubs and bathhouses are cleaner and safer than outdoor sites. But there are things we can do to improve existing cruising grounds. To make them safer, we should learn self defence and get into the habit of looking out for each other when we're out cruising. Cruising sites probably wouldn't be too appealing or sexually charged if they were too clean and sanitised, but that doesn't mean that we should put up with overly dirty spaces or leave litter and the detritus of sex in our wake. Respect the environment and tidy up after yourself! If a favourite site is getting too filthy, take responsibility for it, get together with some mates and make it sparkle. If the cops or the council move to shut your local cottage or cruising ground down and curtail our pleasures, we need to work together to defend the site and keep it open. It's amazing what a few queer pixies armed with bolt-cutters can do to prolong the life of a threatened cruising site.
I started this article by stressing how fun cities can be for queers, but sadly one of the costs of living in cities is that we find ourselves separated from the land and 'nature'. We need to reconnect with the land, to defend and expand green space in our cities, making space for more allotments and community gardens where we can work together to grow food and enjoy the rhythms of nature rather than the roar of traffic. Instead of paying expensive gym membership fees, start walking or cycling around town. Take time to get out beyond the streetlights and enjoy the stars. Get some friends together and go walking in the forest, relish the quiet sounds of nature. Fuck in the sunlight and snow, rather than the sauna for once. Get muddy and have fun.
We need to make time and space for play (rather than leisure). Leisure, even when it's energetic, is something provided by other people for us to passively consume. Play, on the other hand, is an active learning experience. It's something we do with others, rather than alone. Leisure facilities - gyms, nightclubs and shopping malls -operate to other people's rules. When we play together, we make up our own rules as we go along. Play laughs at authority (not each other). What could be queerer than that?
While we're in a playful mood, let's create autonomous queer spaces - ones that we create and control ourselves, through our own self-activity and self-organisation. These spaces can take many forms but, they are all collectively built and maintained for as long as they exist. When cruisers take over a corner of your local cemetery, that becomes a temporary autonomous queer space. Other examples are abandoned buildings that we squat for cafes, gatherings, parties or housing; or buildings that are collectively owned and run as housing co-ops or queer social centres. These are spaces that we shape ourselves, beyond the normal limits of the commercial scene. We can make them whatever we want them to be. We can (and should) make them fabulous. They are spaces of hope.
The Pink Pauper, London, 2004