February is LGBT+ History month in the UK. Celebrated each year to mark the anniversary of the abolition of Section 28 of the Local Government Act which prohibited the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities (including schools). 2022 also marks the 50th anniversary of the first Pride held in the UK. To mark this, I volunteered to write a blog about LGBTQ+ spaces and then spent weeks not doing that. So, just in the nick of time, here are some muddled thoughts on the built environment, place and LGBTIQ+ safe spaces.
LGBTQ+ representation in public life and spaces in the UK has certainly increased in recent years. We see pride parades through town and city centres, LGBTQ bars pop up in many places, rainbow flags adorn zebra crossings, town halls and businesses. And we’ve seen the introduction of new legal rights such as equal marriage. As an important side note, I think we need to think again about rainbow crossings. I love a rainbow flag, I do, but as the Access Association have pointed out ‘colourful crossings’ can be dangerous for Disabled People as they can confuse people and guide dogs who rely on the high contrast pattern of a zebra to safely navigate our streets. So, let’s keep our flags on flag poles and our zebras black and white. Back to LGBTQ+ spaces…
The built environment is connected to LGBTQ+ lives and experiences in a number of ways. Perhaps most notably through so called ‘gaybourhoods’. Reading around for this blog I read about Boystown in Chicago. Recognised as the first official gaybourhood in the world, it has been supported by the local government and become the centre of LGBTQ+ life in the city. However, its location within a predominantly white neighbourhood in Chicago’s more affluent northside gives it an identity characterised by white gay men. Boystown has been described by academic Jason Orne as ‘Gay Disneyland’. And research by Eric Knee gives an understanding of how such LGBTQ+ spaces have quite clear hierarchies built around race, gender, and class. That LGBTQ+ ‘gaybourhoods’ can fail to be inclusive to Black LGBTQ+ people, women or to those economically excluded (for example homeless people) is a stark reminder that a rainbow flag on the street signs does not ensure inclusivity in our towns and cities.
Also part of this debate are concerns about the survival of LGBTQ+ venues and spaces. Manchester’s gay village, Soho in London and I’m sure others, have struggled with threats to their survival. Sometimes through gentrification, rising rents and land prices, and even losing some of their potency as LBGTQ+ people have found wider acceptance in society. In Manchester this has been a perennial question over several year as venues come and go. Indeed, even Manchester’s popular Pride celebrations which have dominated the Gay Village and at points outgrown it, have come under fire for losing their way in this process. The latest report and statement from Manchester Pride suggests a return to their activist roots, a renewed focus on accessibility to all in the LGBTQ+ community, better community engagement (Can we get a commission?) and a return to events focused in the Gay Village. Perhaps reflecting that Mancunian desires to have an inclusive LGBTQ+ presence in the city centre have not dimmed.
A further concern relates to the type of spaces deemed safe or LGBTQ+ friendly. Most often late-night venues, serving alcohol. These bars and clubs can be great — recognising that they possibly don’t always welcome everyone equally — but the LGBTQ+ community needs more than a local boozer. Liverpool based Comics Youth have created an excellent illustration of Liverpool’s safe queer spaces based on interviews with 14 queer icons in the city. You can see it here. What they point out is how many of the LGBTQ+ safe spaces they identified are associated with alcohol and partying. However, their LGBT Trail also includes venues such as News From Nowhere (check them out, they’re ace!), FACT, Tate Liverpool and Bold Street Café. Heartening to see a more diverse set of spaces identified as feeling safe for LGBTQ+ people in Liverpool.
I’m in danger of rambling, but as a gay man I have known some of the joys and concerns about LGBTQ+ spaces personally. Simple walking down the street holding my partner’s hand can be an easier experience on Canal Street than Market Street. But it’s important to continue to think about how our built environment can be both inclusive and exclusive for different people — and that’s a lesson I’ll take with me beyond LGBT History Month.
(You can read more in the original article here, although it may be behind a paywall. See: Knee (2019) Gay, but not Inclusive: Boundary Maintenance in an LGBTQ Space, in Leisure Sciences 41:6, 499–515, DOI: 10.1080/01490400.2018.1441767)
Dr. Sam Hayes
PLACED Project Manager