Queers and Planning

By George Cheung and Ann Forsyth

Planners Network has had a commitment to queer issues for some time, but what this means has not been much discussed in the organization. This newsletter issue grew out of our experience, and the experience of several of the contributors, that while progressive planners (almost) uniformly agree that queer planners should not be harassed or discriminated against as people, the implications of queer issues for planning practice are seen as much less clear. In fact the public face of the population–reinforced by the home sections of major newspapers and features in interior design magazines–is of affluent gay men with impeccable homes in gentrified areas. This is hardly the kind of group that progressives are likely to champion. While progressives are unlikely to dismiss queers as people, they have been more likely to discriminate against the population as an issue for planning.

The articles in this issue of Planners Network examine the issue of a progressive response to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, or using slightly different terminology, the queer population. (See below and page 3 for definitions and terms). To date most attention in planning practice and research has focused on gay neighborhoods, but other planning issues have relevant queer dimensions including housing, zoning, economic development, historic preservation, and public space. Recent research with national databases, such as the general social survey and census, has shown that gays and lesbians are much more economically diverse than had previously been thought. On average gay male couples earn no more than (different sex) married couples, and lesbian couples on average earn much less, which means they have a harder time competing in the housing market. Census data on unmarried partner couples indicate that the same sex population is 70 percent male overall; but for African Americans it is 61 percent female (although of course there are many problems with reporting). These same data indicate that the ethnic composition of same sex couples roughly mirrors that of the wider society. As for total numbers, in 1990 conservative estimates indicate that there were roughly as many gays and lesbians in the US as there were Asian Americans.

How has planning responded? Frequently queer issues have been ignored or silenced, as Gail Dubrow explains in relation to historic preservation in this issue. Whether because of outright homophobia or a desire to “respect” the private lives of historical figures, many potential queer landmarks are covered up, perpetuating the invisibility of a rich heritage. As a planning commissioner for the City of Pomona, Gwen Urey encountered a seemingly neutral zoning policy that would have the effect of excluding elderly queer residents. In her article Urey explains her efforts to educate and advocate for more inclusive policies and shows why it is important to deal with queer issues explicitly in planning education.

Increasingly, however, the queer market has been targeted in local planning and international tourist promotions–from St.Maartens to Montreal, Sydney, and West Hollywood–and cities have begun to work with local business organizations. One of the most prominent of these projects is Chicago’s $3.2 million streetscape project to promote business and tourism in the North Halstead area by drawing attention to the neighborhood’s gay identity. Marcel Acosta and Jeffrey Hinkle detail the controversial planning process and the subsequent reaction. A more multifaceted approach will be described by West Hollywood planner Tim Foy in a future issue of PN. This urban area with a vibrant queer community exemplifies the role of sexual identity in the creation and growth of gay residential enclaves. Foy describes the duality of a progressive tradition that maintains strong rent control and open government policies and a more elitist tendency that allows and even encourages gentrification.

However, this situation is not all about acknowledgement and visibility, as queer people still suffer from discrimination. Gay and lesbian youth are reportedly over-represented among the homeless population due to discrimination within the family. According to Lois Takahashi and Michael Dear, using national survey data for 1989, group homes for people living with AIDS were the least acceptable neighborhood use behind drug treatment centers, mental health outpatient clinics, and homeless shelters. While not all people with AIDS are gay or queer, at the time of the survey this was the general perception. Isolation is also a key problem particularly in conservative rural areas and for small populations such as transgendered people. Harassment has been an important issue in public space, as Petra Doan argues in her article in this issue. Since the transgendered community is often the most vulnerable target for hate crimes and other forms of harassment, planners can use transgendered residents as a barometer of tolerance and comfort in public spaces, particularly the comfort to display public affection such as holding hands.

The issue of public affection is crucial for planners. While some may see this as a minor problem, much less important than economic inequality, the point is that human survival and flourishing has a number of dimensions. These include material well-being but also acceptance and affection both within the household and in public. Furthermore, the more complex picture that has been emerging of the economic profile of the queer population shows that they may at the same time be poor and discriminated against within the household and in public space.

This issue of PN can only begin to raise some of these questions. Based on the vociferous reaction caused by the creation of the queer division of the American Planning Association (GALIP) that filled the letters section of Planning magazine, the profession obviously still has a long way to go in debating these issues. In a future issue of PN, Randy Gross will discuss the formation of GALIP and the ensuing controversies. Michelle Majeski, a recent planning school graduate, sums up the importance of queer issues in her review of last year’s PN Conference in Toronto. “As planners who need to address the health, safety and welfare of an entire community, we must be inclusive and sensitive to the concerns of the GLBT community. This will ensure that all of our histories will be respected, preserved and shared.”

George Cheung is a recent graduate of the Kennedy School of Government, where he served as co-chair of the GLBT Caucus. He is currently the principal of Streetcar Consulting. He can be reached at george@streetcarconsulting.com. Ann Forsyth was co-chair of Planners Network from 1994 to 1997 and has previously edited PN issues on feminism and technology.

All statistics and studies cited above are from Ann Forsyth’s recently published article on the planning implications of the growing queer population, Sexuality and Space: Non-Conformist Populations and Planning Practice (Journal of Planning Literature 15, 3: 339-358). The article examines five areas of concern: residential enclaves and neighborhoods, zoning and housing, business development including tourism, historic preservation, and public space.

The use of the terms gay men and lesbians is often associated with a particular stance that sees gay and lesbian identity as relatively fixed. A broader and in some ways more inclusive category, queer, is frequently used by a younger generation more influenced by the flexibility of gender categories. Queer theory argues that while gender identity is both crystallized and lived as immutable, it has changed tremendously in the last century and is relatively flexible within one’s own life. Drawing on the work of theorists such as Foucault and Butler, these writers point out that identities are created by performance–so that a very ‘womanly’ person is doing a particular kind of gender performance very well (Butler)–or by language and discourse (Foucault). People living as queer can be unsettling to gay, lesbian, and heterosexual people who regard sexuality as fixed or natural. In addition, other groups claim separate attention, including bisexuals, and transsexual and transgendered persons (these latter two groups identifying as a different sex to the one ascribed at birth). These people have complicated relationships to gays and lesbians and have not always been welcomed in gay and lesbian organizations. They have also received less attention in writing that relates to spatial issues, and are often folded into the other groups or included as “queer” (at least in shorthand). This has led to many acronyms: GLB, GLBQ, LGBT, GLBQT and so on.

This paper does not take a position in these debates and uses the terms gay men and lesbians, or queer, in a relatively interchangeable and inclusive way, reflecting usage in the particular cases and research under discussion. Many people actually use different terms to describe themselves in different situations so the division between gay men and lesbians, or queers, is not as rigid as it can sometimes seem in academic debates.

– From Ann Forsyth, Sexuality and Space: Non-Conformist Populations and Planning Practice (Journal of Planning Literature 15, 3: 339-358).

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