Social space and the urban environment as factors in the writing of gay, lesbian and transgender histories
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Most cities have certain quarters and precincts that are in some ways exotic and distinguishable in a characteristic and tangible way, from each other and from the blandness of suburbia - chinatown in the postcolonial new world cities, 'coolie' parts of Asian and African cities, or the queer districts: Oxford Street in Sydney, Church Street in Toronto, Christopher Street in New York, Castro Street in San Francisco, the Hillbrow in Johannesburg, Rue Sainte-Cathérine in Montréal. These places are part of a queer geography and are known throughout the international networks of queers as queer places. They even have mythological significance: they are represented in queer literature and even specific bars, like Stonewall, have a historic mythological presence chez gais. Journeys are made to visit and experience them.
This essay explores a way to approach the history, or histories, of urban lesbians and gay men through an understanding of the significance of queer place. The particular framework I am exploring involves establishing histories of any queer collectivity, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, within social space in relation to defining or appropriating particular place as queer places. First, this particular framework necessitates exploring and establishing an understanding of queer historiography, and second, exploring the nature and meaning of place within social space and the urban environment and how the history of queer place(s) contributes to queer history.
I have not attempted to present a full survey of existing queer historiography but to suggest one particular framework, that of place within social space, and some important considerations for approaching the writing of the history of queer minority/ies. I have identified some research work that has been done, and selected particular studies, but it is by no means a consolidated list or a selection of the best. In addition, I have restricted historiographical consideration to this century although there is a well established historiography of homosexuality for the classical period: Egypt, Greece, Roman times; for mediaeval, renaissance and early modern periods in Europe; and for Asian antiquity, early modern and contemporary periods.
A more salient reason for restricting consideration to this century is because of the inextricable link between the pursuit of same-sex sexual activity and queer identity/ies. As one of the foremost gay historians, Jeffrey Weeks, puts it: "we have to distinguish between homosexual behaviour, which is universal, and a homosexual identity, which is historically specific - and a comparatively recent phenomenon."(1)
It is the politics of being queer and the history of queer expression that I suggest is the most important opening to the charting and understanding of the history queer place(s) within the queer social space of the city. The history of homo-eroticism is becoming increasingly well documented. There is more to the history of homosexuality in any one place or culture, Australia or elsewhere, than the claim by Craig Johnston and Robert Johnston in the 1988 anti-bicentenial volume of dissenting history, Staining the Wattle
, that homosexual history in Australia is mostly of same-sex sexual activity.(2)
I am not denying the importance of uncovering historical traces of homoerotic activity,(3)
and a lot of time and effort has been devoted to this pursuit. Queer history is however, more than stories in the past of having sex and being caught. An important aspect of queer history is the body of (hi)stories of conscious and deliberate appropriation of public space by queers and defiance of the law to create and 'own' queer public places.