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Region, Space, and Place in Queer History

An image shows a sticker in the back of the car with the text "Y'all means all." The word "all" appears in rainbow colors.

Y’ALL MEANS ALL Southern Poverty Law Center Sticker in rear window of car on North Charles between Chase and Biddle Street in Baltimore, Maryland on Friday evening, 2 June 2017 by Elvert Barnes Photography. Source: Elvert Barnes via Flickr and Creative Commons License Attribution-Share

Most queer people do not grow up in queer families or queer communities, and this fact shapes the roles of place, region, and migration in LGBTQ history. Which strategies people find possible or attractive for handling their difference from the norm has always been shaped by historical context, including configurations of race, class, and gender, as these intersect with region. Beginning in the 1970s, gay liberation activists asserted that gay and lesbian people should disclose their difference to their families and communities of origin, even at the price of rejection or exile. “San Francisco is a refugee camp for homosexuals,” wrote Carl Wittman in the movement’s most influential manifesto. “We have fled here from every part of the nation, and like refugees elsewhere, we came not because it is so great here, but because it was so bad there.” Harvey Milk, the first gay man elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, famously referred to a phone call from a lonely young gay man in Altoona, Pennsylvania—standing in for small-town and rural America more generally—as the embodiment of his mission of visibility.

Since the emergence of the subfield, scholars in LGBTQ history have worked to complicate easy assumptions about where queer culture is located. To be sure, many key works in LGBTQ history do focus on New York and San Francisco, examining how and why they came to be nationally significant, and there is much we have yet to learn about their histories. Still, most LGBTQ people have lived elsewhere. As I have noted, in 1970, these two cities were home to only 4 percent of the U.S. population, and slightly more than 10 percent of the gay bars listed in Damron’s Address Book, the most comprehensive national directory. My own book on Chicago argues that the migration of gay people to cities in the late twentieth century gave the first generation of gay politics a decidedly urban cast, but also that some of the crucial developments in gay political history, especially the decline of antigay police harassment, happened later in other big cities than in New York and San Francisco. In his new book, Julio Capó Jr. expands on migration to consider it transnationally, emphasizing the centrality of gendered labor migration between the Bahamas and south Florida in the shaping of early twentieth-century Miami’s sexual communities.

Migration and travel have long been central themes in LGBTQ history, even in books that are framed as national studies. For example, one of the earliest monographs in the field, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (1983)—John D’Emilio’s book on the rise of the homophile movement after World War II—is highly attentive to geography, teeming with moments of travel and return. A lab technician at UC Berkeley travels to Los Angeles in February 1953 to learn about the Mattachine Society and returns to start the first chapter in the Bay Area. The early lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon meet on the job in Seattle in the early 1950s before moving to San Francisco together. A young man named Randy Wicker prints posters on the West Side of Manhattan in the summer of 1958, but when he goes back to college in Texas that fall, no one left in New York is willing to engage in such bold and reckless activism.

Histories of queer and trans people of color help reveal that urban neighborhoods imagined as “gay spaces” have often been quite exclusionary. While Greenwich Village has long been considered a safe place for LGBTQ people, for four African American queer women from Newark, New Jersey, in 2006, it was anything but. For these women—who became known as the New Jersey 4—a night out in the Village turned into a nightmare after a man attacked them and they fought back. Arrested and charged after defending themselves against their attackers, these women were demonized by the media as a “lesbian wolf pack.” Prosecutors attached “gang enhancements” to their charges and the courts sentenced them to lengthy prison terms in New York’s vast network of upstate prisons. Inverting the dominant image of New York City as a safe haven for queer refugees, the case of the New Jersey 4—which is the subject of the award-winning documentary “Out in the Night”—points to the usefulness of looking critically at the iconic gay capitals of New York and San Francisco.

The case of the New Jersey 4 challenges the metropolitan bias of queer history, the notion that highly gentrified, affluent, predominantly urban gayborhoods in big cities are where LGBTQ history has unfolded. These young women were politicized by their encounter with policing and punishment, but in oral histories with the Queer Newark Oral History Project, they noted that for all the hostility they encountered from classmates and relatives, they also found community close to home. Renata Hill, for example, recalled that as a high school student, she found community not primarily in New York City, but in downtown Newark. “The ‘G corner’ was on Broad and Market, and that’s where you would go,” she said. “Especially like after school hours, all gay people would be down there . . . Like everybody gravitate towards that corner and just be out there talking to each other, chilling, hanging out whatever.” That was how she usually spent her time with her friends, she said, “except for that one night when we decided, let’s just go to the Village.”

One of the most exciting developments in the field, moreover, has been the rise of rural LGBTQ histories. Important works include John Howard’s pathbreaking 1999 book on queer life in Mississippi, Peter Boag’s book on the Pacific Northwest as a region, E. Patrick Johnson’s book on black gay men in the South, and Emily Skidmore’s recent book of trans men who lived often quietly and easily integrated into small towns across the country at the turn of the twentieth century. In Just Queer Folks, Colin Johnson develops a historical analysis of the relationship between sexual deviance and rural American identities. Gabriel Rosenberg traces the fascinating sexual and reproductive politics of 4-H clubs. More recently, books by Brock Thompson and Carol Mason on the history of queer Arkansas and Oklahoma, respectively, have added to this vital area of historical scholarship. (I’ve limited this list to books due to space constraints.)

All of these stories offer a powerful challenge to the notion of highly visible urban gayborhoods as the natural template for LGBTQ life, defining our identities and aspirations. That idea itself, moreover, is of surprisingly recent vintage. In the 1964 essay in which the British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term “gentrification,” gay men made a fleeting and awkward appearance. Famously, Glass described areas of central London that had been “invaded by the middle classes,” districts now characterized by “an abundance of goods and gadgets, of cars and new buildings,” by “a gleam of affluence,” and where, as she memorably put it, “prosperity is freshly painted on.” As for sexual minorities, Glass referred to them in the euphemistic language of Cold War social science, locating “the marginal men” and “the various security risks” alongside “delinquents and prostitutes,” “the lunatic fringes,” and others who reside in “‘twilight’ zones.” In these inner-city areas, “all sorts of people who have to keep, or who want to obtain, a foothold in central London are crammed together—and frequently have to pay exorbitant rents for the privilege.” Their “shabby, modest” dwellings are likely to be “taken over, when their leases have expired,” and turned, one by one, into more “elegant, expensive residences.”

Rereading Glass highlights that whereas today many Americans imagine that the movement of gay people into a neighborhood will generate higher property values, just a few decades ago most people would have expected quite the opposite. Historical contingency, in short, has shaped not only the meanings of space and place for LGBTQ people, but the very conceptual tools we have available to think about them.

Timothy Stewart-Winter is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark, co-director of the Queer Newark Oral History Project, and a visiting faculty fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. His book Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics (Penn, 2016) was awarded the John Boswell Prize.