May 2019

(Hidden) In Plain Sight: The Global Compromise on Queer Life in the Urban Public Sphere

The advent of modern cities was also indispensible in the formation of queer identities...They simultaneously delivered unprecedented freedoms as well as unparalleled scrutiny.

By Teresa Walch

The conflation of cities with “deviant” sexual practices has captured popular imaginations since tales of Sodom and Gomorrah were first penned. Human beings have engaged in same-sex relations since the earliest moments of recorded history, and urban spaces have indeed historically served as host to a wide variety of sexual practices.[1] But it is only in the modern era that the diverse orientations and practices of sexual minorities have consolidated into coherent, collective identities. This development was catalyzed in part by the emergence of the penetrative and classificatory modern state, advances in medicine and criminology, hegemonic bourgeois sexual norms, and by post-Enlightenment emancipatory politics.[2] Yet, the advent of modern cities was also indispensible in the formation of queer identities.

New sites of urban leisure and consumption fostered a new public sphere wherein property-owning, educated, bourgeois men debated politics in coffee houses and newspapers and began to assert their own authority vis-à-vis sovereign monarchs. Soon the organized working class, suffragists, sexual reformers, and other oppressed groups began utilizing urban spaces in a similar manner to articulate collective demands and thereby forge a more democratic public sphere.[3] Constitutional guarantees to the rights of free speech and assembly may form the bedrock of modern democracies, but preconceived notions about who can assemble and for which purposes have meant that these rights are always conditional in practice, often curbed by law enforcement agencies who profess a need to maintain “public order” in justifying bans and restrictions on these rights.[4] Furthermore, the public sphere is always sexed and gendered. Only those who adhere to heteronormative expectations (regarding dress, behavior, and public displays of affection, e.g.) that govern public spaces are granted full participation in this public sphere.[5]

Thus, Janus-faced, modern cities loom large in the lives of sexual minorities. They simultaneously delivered unprecedented freedoms as well as unparalleled scrutiny. A historical-spatial approach illuminates the emancipatory/regulatory dichotomy of urban queer life and allows us to trace patterns across time and space, for “sexuality always has a geography as well as a biography.”[6] It also reveals how queer communities learned to appropriate spatial tactics to refashion the public sphere in the twentieth century, for norms that regulate sexualities in space are neither rigid nor unchanging but rather are always open to contestation and modification.[7]

Robert Beachy has placed the emergence of a distinct homosexual identity in a particular city, in Berlin in the late nineteenth century. It was in Germany that journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny coined the term “Homosexualität” in 1869 to give a name to same-sex attraction.[8] Kertbeny joined a growing chorus of activists who campaigned to overturn Prussia’s anti-sodomy law. This law criminalized bestiality and “unnatural fornication” between men, and it was enshrined in the German criminal code as the infamous Paragraph 175. Well-organized activist groups established at the turn of the century, such as Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (1897) and the Association for Human Rights (1919) mobilized to secure protections for sexual minorities and inspired similar movements abroad, such as Chicago’s Society for Human Rights (1924).

Image 2: Advertisements for homosexual cafes and bars. Das Freundschaftsblatt 11, no. 2, January 12, 1933.

In addition to this collective political activism, which was certainly unique for its time, Berlin of this era is best remembered for its freewheeling nightlife and its flourishing bar and cafe scene which also catered to sexual minorities. These establishments featured prominently in Christopher Isherwood’s novels, were immortalized in Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret performance, and were celebrated most recently in the popular television series Babylon Berlin. Of course, there were similar developments elsewhere in the early twentieth century as sexual minorities carved out spaces for themselves as sites for socializing, cruising, and political activism—especially in large cities like London, Paris, Hamburg, Mexico City, São Paulo, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, Detroit, and Philadelphia, but also in smaller cities such as Buffalo and Portland.[9]

Image 3: A 1931 guidebook to “vice” in European and American metropolises, entitled: Capital Cities of Vice: A Report from the Dark Quarters of the Metropolises.

Within these cities, queer-friendly sites often concentrated in specific districts and places that individuals shared via world-of-mouth or read about in alternative guidebooks. Knowledge of these urban topographies served as critical “mental maps” for queer individuals as they navigated the public sphere. Spas, public toilets and baths, parks, transit stations, and gay-friendly pubs became common haunts of homosexual men. Lesbians too forged spaces, joining common sports clubs and even meeting in lesbian cafes and bars. But because lesbianism was not illegal in most countries, archival paper trails are scant, which makes tracing their spatial networks in the early twentieth century more difficult. Queer-oriented spaces in this era tended to cleave along lines of race, class, and gender. For example, in New York City during the 1930s, working-class homosexuals congregated near Times Square; Greenwich Village primarily hosted a white, middle-class gay and lesbian audience; and Harlem “was the only place where black gay men could congregate in commercial establishments” in the segregated city, though white men and women also patronized establishments there.[10]

These spaces were important sites of socialization that fostered an incipient sense of shared community amongst sexual minorities. Furthermore, because prying neighbors often denounced sexual minorities to the police, gatherings in public spaces often proved safer than meetings in the private spaces of their homes. This promise of sexual emancipation under the cover of urban anonymity prompted many individuals to flee rural areas for larger cities.

Yet uncritical celebrations of cities as “gay meccas” tend to obscure more complex histories of the interrelations between urban life and sexuality, a relationship which has historically been inherently ambivalent. The city which has promised unprecedented freedoms to sexual minorities is the same place where the government has most thoroughly sought to surveil and police sexualities.[11] Furthermore, this limited acceptance often comes at the expense of others deemed even less worthy of protection. Authorities are more willing to tolerate the presence of sexual minorities in the semi-hermetic spaces of cafes and bars if it reduces their visibility in the public sphere at large—particularly in public parks and bathrooms, sites they typically associate with more “deviant” forms of sexuality.[12]

Laurie Marhoefer has documented this form of selective policing in Weimar Germany and has argued that only by renouncing an “an assertive public presence” did sexual minorities manage to secure some privileges and a modicum of freedom from police surveillance. She has termed this the republic’s “settlement on sexual politics.”[13] This is an astute observation which I believe has profound reverberations beyond the geographical and temporal boundaries of Weimar Germany. Indeed, queer life across time and space has been conditioned by what we might term a “global compromise” on sexual minorities in the public sphere.

The piecemeal entrance of sexual minorities into the public sphere has always been geographically limited (to certain “acceptable” spaces) and socially conditioned (via notions of “proper” behavior). This ambivalent approach toward queer life in the public sphere constitutes an enduring historical thread in the modern era, a feature shared by democratic, socialist, and authoritarian governments alike that has outlasted historical ruptures and regime change.[14]

As states began nominally or formally overturning sodomy laws—and thus effectively ending the criminalization of same-sex relations in private—law enforcement officers placed increased scrutiny on nonconformity and breeches of sexual norms in the public sphere.[15] They justified discriminatory policies against sexual minorities by claiming to act on behalf of the public good, to uphold public morality, or to maintain public order. For example, in 1957 the UK government-commissioned Wolfenden Report recommended decriminalizing homosexuality in private, noting that the law’s “function, as we see it, is to preserve public order and decency” and not “to intervene in the private life of citizens.”[16] Such rhetoric provided cover for authorities to routinely mobilize the full weight of modern bureaucracy to constrict the public lives of sexual minorities—by conducting raids of queer meeting sites, revoking business and liquor licenses from queer establishments, stringently enforcing obscure building code stipulations, and by not upholding rental protections for queer individuals. These discriminatory practices helped further cement collective queer identities and inspired a new political awareness wherein the 1969 Stonewall riots marked not the beginning, but rather an important catalyst for a more assertive, and soon transnational, form of activism.

Like other civil rights movements, the queer community’s fight for equal rights has largely advanced by making public claims on streets and asserting a visible presence in the public sphere. In the 1960s and 1970s, members of this “New Left” learned to use public space as a political tool. Activists groups like Boston’s “Queer Nation” staged “kiss-ins” and public weddings to disrupt the heteronormative public sphere.[17] The first pride marches took place in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York in 1970 in conjunction with the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Organizers of these events often struggle to obtain permits and participants are subject to guidelines outlining “proper” behavior and dress, such as when participants in the 1992 Montreal pride parade were told to wear blue jeans and white t-shirts.[18]

Over the past century, due to the persistent, concerted efforts of activists around the globe, queer communities have managed to make space for themselves and chip away at the heteronormative public sphere. Pride month activities in June 2019 surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots should provide ample opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the past century as well as to reflect on goals only half-realized. Space is a political tool which can be employed for democratic or authoritarian ends, and democratic achievements can be quickly unravelled, as the fate of Istanbul’s Pride has shown us.

Even as many of these rather sober political demonstrations and marches transform into festive parades that draw large audiences, it does not prevent them from being targets of harassment and violence from anti-gay protestors, as when a homophobic terrorist attacked the 2015 Jerusalem Pride march, killing 16-year-old Shira Banki and injuring five others. The perpetrator had been released from prison only a few weeks earlier for a similar attack in 2005. The march in Jerusalem continued to require heavy security this year, with a parallel counterdemonstration of far-right activists who decried what they call “LGBT terrorism” and police arresting at forty-nine people whom they suspected of desiring to disrupt the Pride march.

For the most part, however, queer individuals are free to occupy entire city districts in their truest of selves during these events. But such moments stand in stark contrast to the everyday lives of queers, many of whom must continue to hide in plain sight. Once they leave the confines of the parade route and the boundaries of welcoming “gayborhoods,” they must again rely on their mental maps of safe/unsafe places and notions of acceptable/unacceptable behavior to navigate the public sphere.

There is still much to accomplish, particularly for queer people of color and and trans individuals, who are often vulnerable by their mere presence in the public sphere. The Human Rights Campaign recorded that 29 transgender people were killed “due to fatal violence” in 2017 and at least another 26 in 2018. Eight transgender people have been killed in 2019 so far—all of them Black transgender women. Two of them, Muhlaysia Booker and Chynal Lindsey, were murdered in Dallas in the past month, prompting local police to request FBI assistance in the investigation. As transgender women of color, these individuals face myriad forms of discrimination and threats in a heteronormative public sphere that refuses to accommodate them. Their murders demarcate, in horrifically violent fashion, the exterior limits of today’s compromise on queer life in the public sphere.

Teresa Walch is a historian of modern Europe and modern Germany with research interests in urban history, global history, and human geography. She received her PhD in modern European history from the University of California, San Diego in 2018 and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is broadly interested in the politics of space and in the link between ideology and practice. In her current book manuscript, Degenerate Spaces: The Coordination of Space in Nazi Germany, she investigates the relationship between Nazi ideology and spatial practices between 1933-1945. She argues that Nazism itself should be understood as a spatial project to make German judenrein (clean of Jews), and she illuminates how Nazi racial ideology became praxis in everyday life via legislation, systematic measures, and individual actions.

Further Reading

[1] For information on ancient cave paintings of the San people in Africa depicting same-sex relations, see Bharat Mehra, Paul A. Lemieux III and Keri Stophel, “An Exploratory Journey of Cultural Visual Literacy of ‘Non-Conforming’ Gender Representations from Pre-Colonial Sub-Saharan Africa,” Open Information Science 3, no. 1 (2019): 5-6. For a discussion of queer urban spaces in the early modern era, see: David Higgs, Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600 (New York and London: Routledge, 1999).

[2] See, e.g., Michel Foucault, A History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley, Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1978).

[3] The standard account of the transformation of the public sphere remains: Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989).

[4] For two great case studies of this dynamic, see Lisa Keller, Triumph of Order: Democracy & Public Space in New York and London (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

[5] Gavin Brown, Kath Browne and Jason Lim, “Introduction, or Why Have a Book on Geographies of Sexualities?” in idem., Geographies of Sexualities: Theory, Pracctices and Politics (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2007), 2.

[6] Phil Hubbard, “Geography and sexuality: Why space (still) matters,” Sexualities 21, no. 8 (2018): 1296.

[7] Gavin Brown, Kath Browne, and Jason Lim, “Introduction,” 4.

[8] Robert Beachy, Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 31.

[9] See Brett Beemyn, ed., Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories (New York and London: Routledge, 1997); Nan Alamilla Boyd, Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003); Peter Boag, Same-Sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003); Rafael La Dehesa, Queering the Public Sphere in Mexico and Brazil (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

[10] George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 227–28; Ibid., “The Policed: Gay Men’s Strategies of Everyday Resistance in Times Square,” in Creating a Place for Ourselves.

[11] Phil Hubbard underscores these points and expands upon the city’s ambivalence toward sexuality and its consequences for sexual minorities. See Phil Hubbard, Cities and Sexualities (Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2012), xiv.

[12] See, e.g., Jens Dobler, Zwischen Duldungspolitik und Verbrechensbekämpfung: Homosexuellenverfolgung durch die Berliner Polizei von 1848 bis 1933 (Frankfurt: Verlag für Polizeiwissenschaft, 2008).

[13] Laurie Marhoefer, Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2015), 8.

[14] For an excellent comparative analysis, see, e.g., the contributions in Matt Cook and Jennifer V. Evans, eds., Queer Cities, Queer Cultures: Europe since 1945 (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).

[15] See, e.g., Pat Califia, Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Cleis, 2000), 14-27; David Bell, “Perverse Dynamics, Sexual Citizenship and the Transformation of Intimacy,” in Mapping Desire: Geographies of Sexualities, ed. David Bell and Gill Valentine (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

[16] Quoted in Brian Lewis, Wolfenden’s Witnesses: Homosexuality in Postwar Britain (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 255–56.

[17] Tim Davis, “The Diversity of Queer Politics and the Redefinition of Sexual Identity and Community in Urban Spaces,” in Mapping Desire, 293.

[18] David Bell and Gill Valentine, “Introduction: Orientations” in Mapping Desire, 14.

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