Welcome to the Gayborhood — A Case for the Inclusion of Queer Spaces in the Narrative and Pedagogy of Foucault’s Heterotopias
Written for “Theories of City Form”
Critics : Vishaan Chakrabarti, Skylar Bisom-Rapp
In the Foucauldian conceptual development of heterotopias, spatial theorists have posited extensively on the relevance and salience of the heterotopia and its precepts through the dimensions of race, ethnicity, and class; the manner these dimensions contradictorily manifest themselves against hegemonic power dynamics within the city have been extensively documented, with Los Angeles itself being the primary model for the heterotopia.1 Despite the predilection for the heterotopia to be explained via approaches on class or race, an additional understanding of the city as a spatial instigator of sexuality expands the notion of the heterotopia—the heterotopia as both a Foucauldian and a Lefebvrian construct could be articulated via a discursive scrutinizing of queer spaces of the city and the presence of the queer heterotopia in various urban and historical frameworks.
Heterotopias, as elaborated by Michel Foucault in his seminal “Of Other Spaces,” are institutional and discursive spaces that are inscribed with multifarious layers of meaning that simultaneously (and paradoxically) create places of “otherness”; these are spaces which are contradictory and incompatible in relation to the normative power dynamics of city.2 Foucault notes that to escape repression in everyday life, the creation of heterotopic spaces is necessary so that individuals can begin to express their underlying differences.3 Foucault illustrates the heterotopia in intimate spaces such as the brothel and the bathhouse, but the heterotopia as a space of purported sexual deviance and liberation can also be illustrated in larger-scale, urban spaces such as a public park. Each of these spaces, despite their seeming triviality, embody a queer heterotopia in that they are articulated, formalized spaces of the city where an actor’s agency in reforming their mutable sexual identities (vis-à-vis actions such as gay cruising in institutional, “family-friendly” spaces such as Berlin’s Tiergarten, London’s Abney Park, New York City’s Central Park, and Copenhagen’s Ørstedsparken; and the sociocultural prescription of homoeroticism to recurrent spatial typologies of the city such as locker rooms, bathhouses, public restrooms, etc.) is informally amplified in a salient domain where hegemonic, heterosexist social discourses cease to regulate bodies.4 The case for the inclusion of these spaces of “deviant” sexuality in the pedagogy of the heterotopia is not an attempt to move the narrative away from the heterotopias of race, ethnicity, or class; rather, by intersecting queer space and theory into the broader discourse of the heterotopia a new understanding of the informality of the heterotopia is established and the power of city form in constructing society’s conception of gender and sexuality is given salience — the queer heterotopia is an example of the Foucauldian heterotopia in praxis.
The rethinking of sexuality as a site-specific construct establishes a powerful conceptual link with the Foucauldian interpretation of the heterotopia. The differentiation between the utopia and the heterotopia is, according to Foucault, indicated in a “mixed” or mitoyenne experience expressed in the material presence and reality of heterotopia in relationship with its material and social context. Foucault highlights specific urban spaces which accomplish these precepts: the cemetery, park, garden, etc.; which become not only axiomatic spaces of difference but additionally begin to radically deconstruct common conceptions of place.5 To highlight the salience of the heterotopia in relationship to queer theory and space, the dialect of the public park/nature reserve in the city and its appropriation as a sexual landscape is notable. The city within the Western cultural imaginary has historically been attributed with aspects of degeneration (homosexuality, pollution, and immigration), an ideological discourse which has been used to reinforce an urban-wild, unnatural-natural paradigm in which the idea of the natural has been, in turn, manifested itself as an institutional scaffolding attached to ideas and paradigms on heterosexual masculinity.6 Parks “can be considered ‘heteronormative’ in the sense that these spaces reflect the ‘hierarchies of property and propriety’ that society attempts to reproduce over nature.7 This narrative is illustrated particularly in the proliferation of urban green spaces and wilderness areas for people watching (under the policing male-gaze) and the reinforcement of the structures and dynamics of the traditional family (e.g., the urban wild as a location for “wholesome family fun”).8 Despite the entrenchment of such a social construct in the contemporary, Western, cultural imaginary, however, the association of heterosexual masculinity with natural space in the city is not entirely fixed. Rather, these spaces are indicative of the fragility of normative discourses around sexuality and space, and that they are contested spaces for the queer sexuality in a historic and ongoing process only begin to undermine their status as heterotopias—spaces of “otherness” produced contradictorily via the same institutional forces that produce normativity (formal, social, cultural, etc.) in the city.9
To illustrate the methodology in which the formalized, urban green space has come to embody an iteration of the queer heterotopia, it is important to acknowledge the informal practices and forms of resistance gay men have historically taken by gay men to subvert the paradigm of the public park as a gendered public space charged with societal conceptions of domesticity, family, and decency—the most “deviant” to the social premise of the park as a heteronormative space being gay cruising and illicit sex. The gesture of “deviant” sexuality taking place contradictorily in such institutional places (and the subsequent transformation of the urban wild to an erotic landscape) produces heterotopia, such sexual acts aggravate the heteronormative constructions of “natural” city, and by engaging in illicit acts and spaces, gay men are participating in the “democratization of natural space, in which different communities can experience the park in their own ways” by establishing corporeal claims on public space, challenging what are otherwise “disciplinary spaces.”10 Parallels between cruising between members of alternative social groups and forms of political action and social resistance intent on reclaiming exclusive or socially charged spaces are well established.11 This political act of spatial reclamation gestures to the liberating and experimental characteristics of Foucault’s heterotopic space and furthermore brings into discussion Henri Lefebvre’s own definition of the heterotopia, as well as the Lefebvrian concept of the “right to the city.” In his “La révolution urbaine,” Lefebvre also establishes a formal (and somewhat different to Foucault’s) nomenclature for the ‘heterotopia’ to emphasize places that are other and that are socially and spatially disordered—“heterotopy,” he states, is “the other place, the place of the other, simultaneously excluded and interwoven.”12 Lefebvre’s hétérotopie “delineates liminal social spaces of possibility where ‘something different’ is not only possible, but fundamental for the defining of revolutionary trajectories” in the establishment of social paradigms and the conception of urban public space.13 The park, seen as a liberating space where individuals are empowered to engage of a politics of subversion against the predominant configurations of sexuality and gender, can thus be seen as an articulation of Lefebvre’s precepts. In their structuring, the queer heterotopia, as visible in the production of “other” spaces of unintentional, informal sexuality in the infrastructural and normative spaces of the city, is an exemplar that simultaneously exhibits characteristics of both the Foucauldian and Lefebvrian definitions, therefore affirming the validity of the queer heterotopia in the narrative and pedagogical discussion of the heterotopia in general.
Queer spaces, though previously alluded to via the informal resistance and acts of agency by gay men, is more demonstrative of the Foucauldian-Lefebvrian heterotopia when it is acknowledged that the narrative of the queer, heterotopic spaces is multifaceted and complex, encompassing a wide range of spatial practices – from the small-scale, informal forms of resistance via urban cruising, to the large-scale, more formalized practices that engage more holistically with the spatial and political dynamics entrenched within the landscape of cities. To appreciate the latter, the development of the queer community in San Francisco in the late, twentieth century is an exemplary case, as “San Francisco has been the city where gays have uniquely succeeded in building up a powerful, though complex, independent community at spatial, economic, cultural, and political levels.”14 A demarcated territory is a foundational trademark for the emergence of a gay community in the city; as noted previously, due to social prejudice and political violence, gay social networks have previously been established on an intimate level, working within the informal domains of bars and urban cruising where queer activity could take place out of the realm of the broader “public.”
Nonetheless, during the tumultuous cultural changes occurring in the American, social landscape of the 1960s, gay men began to expand their territories from bars and illicit, temporary occupations of backdoor alleyways and parks to specific neighborhoods (the Castro, South of Market, North Beach, Tenderloin) of the city where gay men were becoming concentrated. These “gay free communes” profoundly altered the urban structure of San Francisco, and “gay territory expanded according to a logic the understanding of which will be a key element for establishing the relationship between cultural transformation and urban form.”15 The queer community of San Francisco at the time flourished due to the city’s cosmopolitanism (being a nexus for travelers, transients, and soldiers and sailors engaged in the Pacific front and who were discharged due to “sexual deviance”) and lack of established social rules, which enabled a blurring between the normal and the abnormal.16 This casual attitude towards sexuality and political liberalism provided San Francisco with its image as a speculative gay utopia within the American, cultural imaginary and served to amplify the population and concentration of gay men in the city, who migrated to participate in their sexualities away from more provincial regions of the country. The concentration and spatial-political influence of gays in San Francisco exploded in the 1960s:
Gays’ network expanded and took advantage of the atmosphere of liberalism imposed by the anti-war and civil rights movements . . . Gays ‘came out’, and many of them migrated from all over the country to cities where they could express themselves. The new militants were not content just to be close to social spaces where there were sexual networks, but tried to develop, symbolically and politically, a lifestyle defined as gay . . . so a collective movement, informally organized, began to take over a well-defined area.17
The makings of the gayborhood in San Francisco thus came as a result of increased political agency of gay men in the city and the way this agency manifested itself in the creation of tangible, autonomous urban spaces within the formal structuring of the city (“cities within cities”) where their collective, political willpower could be exerted.
In the history of San Francisco’s gay community, gay men became increasingly engaged with a politics of concentration and visibility over the course of the mid-twentieth century, spatial concentration as a method of collectively “coming out” and establishing autonomy and spatial dominance of an urban territory is a primary characteristic of San Francisco’s gay liberation movement, and the emergence of such a social movement and its increasingly militant politicization is “traced through the spatial organization of a self-defined cultural community.”18 These demarcated territories where queer peoples could develop their own, radical life styles safely away from the heterosexist norms of contemporary society are phenomena aligned with the concept of heterotopias, as they are spatially defined zones where the existing power dynamics of the city can be reprocessed and radicalized:
The relationship between the gay movement and the city [can be distinguished by] a spatially defined community where culture and power can be reformulated in a process of experimental social interaction and active political mobilization. By virtue of an alternative life style in a spatial sub-set of the urban system, a ‘city’ emerges within the city . . . in a process that transforms established cultural values and existing spatial forms.19
These gay neighborhoods, as queer heterotopic spaces, reveal a democratization of public space and exemplify Lefebvre’s reading of the heterotopia as a space “of the other” that is “simultaneously excluded and interwoven,” they are “liminal social spaces of possibility where ‘something different’ is not only possible, but fundamental for the defining of revolutionary trajectories.” Indeed, gay leaders in San Francisco speak of “liberated zones” that have been explicitly constructed by gay people as a methods of forming safe urban space where the gay rights movement could establish political power, and the boundaries of these “liberated zones” and gay territories expanded with the increased capacity of gay men to defend their radical society and formally shape a series of autonomous institutions.20 Thus, formalized, queer, heterotopic spaces (“gayborhoods”) allowed gay men to democratize public space and exert their rights to the city.
By looking at queer spaces as heterotopic spaces (and acknowledging the variegated methods of queer agency and resistance have the capacity to influence the wider form of the city and its politics), the salience of the heterotopia as interpreted by both Foucault and Lefebvre is averred. Queer heterotopias, as spaces of the city that become subversive and subject to manifold interpretations against those of traditional dynamics of power, reveal the deeper mechanisms of heterotopia via its informal (illicit, temporal uses of urban, public space) and formal (establishment of urban, political autonomy) manifestations; by intersecting queer identity into the broader discourse of heterotopias a superior understanding of the heterotopia is accomplished.
1Baynam, Reyner. “Reyner Banham Loves New York.” (BBC, 1972).
2Foucault, Michel. “Des espaces autres.” Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, No. 5 (October). 1984.
3Foucault, Michel. “Des espaces autres.” Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, No. 5 (October). 1984.
4Martin, Biddy. "Sexualities Without Genders and Other Queer Utopias." Diacritics, Volume 24, No. 2/3, Critical Crossings, Summer/Autumn. 1994.
5Gandy, Matthew. “Queer Ecology: Nature, Sexuality, and Heterotopic Alliances.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Volume 30. 2012.
6Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona. & Erickson, Bruce. “A Genealogy of Queer Ecologies.” Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press) 2010.
7Gandy, Matthew. “Queer Ecology: Nature, Sexuality, and Heterotopic Alliances.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Volume 30. 2012.
8Sbicca, Joshua. “Eco-queer Movement(s): Challenging Heteronormative Space Through (Re)Imagining Nature and Food.” European Journal of Ecopsychology.Volume 3. 2012.
9Conlon, Deirdre. “Productive Bodies, Performative Spaces: Everyday Life in Christopher Park.” Sexualities, Volume 7, No. 4. 2004.
10Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona. “Unnatural Passions? Notes Towards a Queer Ecology.” Invisible Culture: An Electronic Journal for Visual Culture 9. 2005.
11Brown, Gavin. “Sites of Public (Homo)Sex and the Carnivalesque Spaces of Reclaim the Streets,” The Emancipatory City? Paradoxes and Possibilities. Ed. Loretta Lees (Sage, London, 2004).
12Lefebvre, Henri. La révolution urbaine. 2003. Translated by Robert Bononno (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 1970).
13Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. (Verso Books, London, 2012).
14Castells, Manuel. The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press) 1983. 139.
17Castells, Manuel. The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press) 1983. 155-156
19Castells, Manuel. The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press) 1983. 139.
20Lefebvre, Henri. La révolution urbaine. 2003. Translated by Robert Bononno (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 1970).