Place and geography in LGBTQ culture deal with the ways in which location and sense of belonging have been claimed by the Gay community. Location may be myth-based, actual (Gay enclaves, historical sites, and physical shrines for LGBTQ people), or virtual (accessed on the world wide web).
History: Fictional Geographic Identity
Due to proscriptions in many societies against speaking openly about sexual matters, and an ingrained belief that the mere mention of same-sex issues was harmful, some names given to homosexual people were based on geographic locations associated with homosexuality rather than naming the act, thus creating the fiction of citizenship. Homosexual women were given the label lesbian, a person from the Isle of Lesbos, because of homoerotic themes in verses written by Sappho, a renowned sixth century BCE Greek poet who lived on that island. Homosexual men were called sodomites, citizens of the doomed city of Sodom destroyed by God for its wickedness (among their sins was the attempted rape of two male angels) in the Biblical Book of Genesis.
More recently, other locations have been associated with Gay identity, such as “gay Paree” (Paris, France), Fire Island (New York), San Francisco, and Uranus (which sounds like “your anus”). A fictitious location in a short story by Annie Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain,” has become synonymous with Gay men since the movie of the same name. “Brokeback Mountain,” a story about two male ranch hands who fall in love, was released in 2005.
From Space to Place
Spaces for homoerotic/romantic encounters and expressions have necessarily been unmarked in many societies as not to attract attention and trigger the wrath of homophobic law enforcement or vigilantes. The shift from space (anonymous) to place (personable, supportive) would likewise be unmarked for all but those in the know. Early court records in Britain from the eighteenth century describe the conviction of men who frequented molly houses, private places where men could sing, dance, carouse, and have sex with other men.
In the early twentieth century, a growing sense of community among Gay people and unprecedented public display of gender variant spectacle with pansy shows and drag balls generated temporary and permanent places where Gay folk could gather, such as the Ubangi Club and Clam House in New York City; Joaquin’s El Rancho in Los Angeles; and Mona’s, Finocchio’s, and the Black Cat in San Francisco. Gay enclaves in major cities became known as spaces in which Gay people could live with a greater degree of security, where they were among others like themselves, and where men could encounter other men for sex in secluded public spaces and semi-private bathhouses. The most prominent of these enclaves was Cherry Grove on Fire Island, a barrier island off the coast of Long Island, New York. Cherry Grove became home for a fairly independent Gay community, which later expanded to an adjacent town, Fire Island Pines, separated by a wooded area called the Meat Rack, a site for men to have sex with men.
Even on Fire Island, any permanent venue for the Gay community and Gay performers was constantly under threat of police raids. It was not unusual for Gay establishments and the police to work out an agreement in which officers were bribed to ignore Gay clubs, but the agreement could be broken by the police at any time. This covert arrangement was challenged in 1960s San Francisco by the Tavern Guild, an organization of Gay bars and liquor wholesalers that sought legal protection from raids. The Tavern Guild was perhaps the first legally-recognized Gay business association in the USA.
At about the same time in Los Angeles, Troy Perry formed the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). He held his first services in his living room. The MCC eventually obtained an old theater for its first church building, which was burned down by arsonists, a pattern that would occur for other MCC churches and Gay bars that were too public. Well into the 1990s, it was custom in many American cities not to have any identifiable signs in front of Gay bars for fear of gunshots and firebombing.
The Stonewall Awakening changed the visibility of Gay spaces dramatically when protesters openly rebelled against the authorities in Greenwich Village. Takeover of public streets and parks for protests after Stonewall made for the tradition of Pride parades and celebrations around the world where significant portions of public urban spaces become LGBTQ spaces for the duration of an event. In addition, Gay bookstores, coffee shops, community centers, and other venues operated as places for people to meet and organize.
As for the Lesbian community after Stonewall, women began the Land Movement away from urban spaces, with particular focus on rural Oregon. Reverence for the land and the need for women-only places informed some women’s festivals, such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. One remarkable women’s place in the mid- to late 1970s was Sahara in Manhattan, a nightclub that featured women’s art, female musicians and DJs, and a policy of inclusiveness that appealed to people of every gender and orientation.
Nightclubs for Gay men in Manhattan progressed from an old firehouse and the semi-privacy of David Mancuso’s Loft parties (held in his home) to grand venues with sophisticated sound and light systems such as the Flamingo, Saint, and Paradise Garage in Manhattan, EndUp and Trocadero Transfer in San Francisco, and Probe in Los Angeles. Fire Island also had its own places for dance, such as the Monster, the Ice Palace, and the Palladium. But rather than police oppression closing down nightclubs, the often fickle desires of Gay men to be in the newest and most fashionable place led to clubs falling in and out of favor on a regular basis. The devastating effects of the AIDS crisis also closed many venues in the 1980s.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, festival spaces dedicated separately for women or men were created across the USA and Canada. Women’s music festivals and men’s Circuit parties became sites for what many participants considered a gathering of their respective tribes. In addition, LGBTQ nightclubs catered to events for gender performance of drag kings, queens, erotic male dancers, and female burlesque (such as Montreal’s Boudoir). Various groups within the community (Bears, Leatherfolk, women’s music fans, queercore followers, etc.) had their own theme nights in LGBTQ clubs. Others, such as the Hole in Manhattan and Sex Garage loft parties in Montreal, were radically licentious places that welcomed everyone.
As the community grew worldwide, local communities felt the need to start archives, many of which not only hold records of LGBTQ history and documents but also memorabilia, and that feature lectures and special exhibits. In Canada and the USA, these archives act as places dedicated to historical preservation and community-building, such as the Archives gaies du Québec (Montreal), Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (Toronto), ONE Institute and Archive (Los Angeles), GLBT Historical Society (San Francisco), Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project (Seattle), Stonewall Library and Archives (Ft. Lauderdale), Sunflower Archives (Olathe, Kansas), and the Happy Foundation (San Antonio, Texas). Some archives were started specifically for certain communities within the LGBTQ collective, such as the Lesbian Herstory Archives (Brooklyn), Bisexual Archives (San Diego), Bear History Project (Fitchburg, Maryland), Black Gay and Lesbian Archive Project (New York City), and the Leather Archives and Museum (Chicago).
Community Centers and Gay-Safe Zones
Many cities in Gay-tolerant countries have spaces specifically set aside for members of the Gay community to gather and obtain information about events. These community centers often have names containing words associated with LGBTQ culture, such as “pride,” “rainbow,” and “Stonewall.” Educational institutes may also have offices designated as Gay-safe zones and use rainbow flags, banners, stickers, and signs to alert passersby.
During the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada, an international community center in Whistler named PRIDE House was opened for Gay athletes from competing nations. PRIDE House was modeled after the various national houses set aside for athletes (Austria House, Norway House, Slovenia House, Irish House, etc.). It featured a lounge, bar, video screens for watching Olympic events, and a media area for interviews. In addition to socializing and interviewing, PRIDE House functioned as a place in which issues concerning homophobia in sports could be voiced, and those whose countries outlawed homosexuality could seek help from the Rainbow Refugee Committee.
Since the Stonewall Uprising, the LGBTQ community began to claim places that held particular historical significance, such as the location of the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village and the Gay Liberation monument in front of the Inn. The Castro Theatre in San Francisco is especially revered by the LGBTQ community.
Memorials were constructed to honor homosexuals who had been persecuted by the Nazis, including various markers in former concentration camps. Amsterdam’s Homomonument, built in 1987, is a series of three large descending triangles-within-a-triangle going from street level to a canal. Burial sites for LGBTQ icons became places of pilgrimage, such as the graves of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, Collette, Michel Foucault, and Oscar Wilde. The house occupied by the Ladies of Llangollen, an historic monument in Wales, became a site for Lesbian pilgrimage, as did the town of Eresos on the Greek island of Lesbos, home of Sappho.
Hindu shrines in India dedicated to Aravan (a hero who makes love to the male God Krishna-turned-seductress-Mohini) and Bahuchara Mata (Patroness of the hijra community) are places in which hijras (hijra: a transwoman identity in South Asia) hold their own festivals and communal worship services. The Church of San Vicente Ferrer in Juchitán, Oaxaca is one venue used for an annual vela (commemorative festival) dedicated to muxes (effeminate men and transwomen), nguiu (masculine women and transmen), and LGBTQ people in general. There is also a small shrine in Taiwan dedicated to the Rabbit God, patron deity of LGBTQ people.
Some LGBTQ spaces are designed to reside temporarily in a spot, such as the AIDS Quilt. Having grown so large that it filled the Mall in Washington, DC, the Quilt has a permanent residence in a warehouse in Atlanta, and blocks (12’X12’ squares that usually contain eight 6’X3’ panels, each dedicated to a person who died of AIDS) regularly travel from Atlanta to various locations in the USA and Canada for display.
One technical innovation that has contributed to community building has been the internet, which functions as a safe haven for those who fear to meet each other in public, or have difficulty in getting together due to distance. Although not in actual space, the internet is described in spatial terms such as cyberspace and conceptualized as a physical location, as in visiting a website that can be found at a web address.
Much of the sense of location comes from the speed in which a netizen (abbreviation of “internet citizen,” also known as cybercitizen) can visually and vocally communicate with other people. Since the time lag for web communication can be almost nonexistent, the psychological sense of distance is reduced. A virtual space can become a familiar location that people visit and feel welcome, thus acquiring a sense of place. Or it can be an anonymous space, such as sites for pornography and for those who seek others with whom to have sex.
People in organizations who risk serious harm if they regularly met in a physical location may choose to meet on internet sites, such as Aswat for Palestinian women and the Iranian Queer Railroad (IRQR). Other sites are dedicated to disabled and differently abled LGBTQ people, such as Queers On Wheels and the Deaf Queer Resource Center. There are also internet shrines for Gay American Heroes, the AIDS Quilt, and sites dedicated to important icons such as Gloria Anzaldúa.
Leslie Cohen on Inclusive Women’s Place: Sahara
Leslie Cohen, co-founder of Sahara, a women’s bar in Manhattan known for its glitterati and inclusiveness, gives the following account of her nightclub for the Qualia Encyclopedia of Gay People:
Sahara was opened by four women — Leslie Cohen, Michelle Florea, Barbara Russo and Linda Goldfarb in May 1976 and closed in late Dec 1979. The fact that women were opening a club for women was unheard of at that time. There were many famous people who came to Sahara to show support for the burgeoning women’s movement and gay and lesbian rights movement.
Fantastic contemporary art by women hung on the walls, groundbreaking in itself since women artists had little, if any, opportunity to show their art at that time. The women that showed at Sahara like Louise Fishman, Harriet Korman, Kate Millett, Joan Snyder, Dotty Attie, Pat Lasch, Helene Aylon and Nancy Spero, among others, are now famous and hanging in the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the Museum of Modern Art.
I started a cabaret on Thursday nights. We had many great performers but Pat Benatar was our most frequent performer. We threw benefits for women who wanted to run for political office… It was a heady stew. The walls would literally sweat from all the people packed into a relatively small space, the music would be pulsating (female DJs — another first) and hundreds of women (and some men) of every size, shape, color and economic strata mixed in this dance club that was the first of its kind.
Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World. New York: Basic, 1995.
Corinne, Tee A. “Woman’s Land.” Off Our Backs May/June 2003.
Higgins, Lisa. Reconstructing Gender, Personal Narrative, and Performance at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Dissertation for the Graduate School of the University of Missouri-Columbia, 2008.
Johnston, Lynda. Queering Tourism: Paradoxical Performances at Gay Pride Parades. New York: Routledge, 2005.