Project Planning Document

Title: Lansing’s Lost LGBTQIA+ Spaces

Project Description:
Lansing, Michigan has a history of LGBT culture but has faced challenges that limit the presence of these establishments. A quick dig into Lansing State Journal’s archive reveals Michigan Avenue as a once-hailed “Sin Strip” filled with LGBTQ bars, and adult shops lining the 500 block where Cooley Stadium now sits. It is a history few residents know because many public LGBTQ establishments have lived short lives, often struggling in the face of low attendance and urban redevelopment. Though the once gay space of Michigan Ave. dispersed into today’s few remaining LGBT sites in Lansing, the signs of low attendance and replacement with other commercial establishments points to downtown Lansing as either (1) exhibiting symptoms of a post-gay landscape, one which no longer feels sexuality to be a necessary marker of space (Brown, 2004; Ghaziani, 2014), especially amongst the newer generations of LGBTQ population (Nash, 2012), and/or (2) a common result of urban redevelopment which pushes sexual culture from public to private spaces (Warner, 1999).

As a response to these patterns, this digital mapping project began as part preservation of Lansing’s LGBT cultural heritage and part participatory mapping of the experiences and meanings behind these sites by LGBT residents. By looking closer at the proliferation and closure of Lansing’s LGBT spaces and audio interviews of long-time residents, the project asks (1) Has the effects of these patterns and closures on long-time residents aligned with those experienced in what the literature has described as “post-gay landscapes”? (2) How does the loss weigh differently on locals, particularly those traditionally underrepresented in gayborhoods? And (3) How have locals responded to this loss?

Literature Review:
The literature has referred to gay spaces as areas demarcating LGBT culture by material and symbolic markers of this culture (i.e. a territoriality marked with rainbow flags, businesses, commemorations, anchor institutions, etc.). Such spaces began in the late 60s to early 70s as a reprieve and safe haven from a specific form of oppression (Castells, 1983; Knopp; 1990). However, researchers have noted the marked decline of gayborhoods in recent years (Brown, 2014; Lovett, 2011), citing a mixture of causes precipitating this pattern such as urban redevelopment, and a post-gay attitude that is often complemented by a trending cosmopolitan urbanism.

The idea that LGBT have moved “beyond the closet” and into mainstream culture was popularized in commentaries by Seidman (2002), Sullivan (1996), and Warner (1999), but found the phrase “post-gay” through Out Magazine’s editor James Collard (Ghaziani, 2014). Sensing a greater tolerance and assimilation of gays into the mainstream, the “post-gay” generation places little emphasis on distinguishing their sexuality and often don’t feel they share the same fate as other LGBT (Egan et al., 2008; Brown, 2006). Previous LGBT spaces have also been redeveloped by commodifying LGBT culture to attract “straight tourists” who want to live a more diverse, cosmopolitan lifestyle (Collins, 2004; Reynolds, 2009). The resulting mixing of sexual difference has rewritten previously gay spaces into commercialized areas wherein sexual distinction is no longer a dominant feature.

Nonetheless, there is still a need for LGBT marked spaces to serve residents in other ways than by playing a supportive role in gentrification, neoliberal marketing, and a reinscription of heteronormativity. The continued need for gay spaces (Grewel, 2008; Ghaziano, 2014; Lewis, 2013) has argued the link between spatially structured community and identity (Miller,2005) alongside continued resistance against the erasure of LGBT groups from public and private spheres (D’Emilio, 1983).

In the case of Lansing, a measurement of inclusive municipal laws, policies, and services of LGBTQ people in the city received a 65/100 score on the Municipal Equality Index 2016, demonstrating that though the city is strong in non-discrimination laws, its commitment to including the LGBTQ community is still a work in progress. The departures of many of Lansing’s adult sites seem to echo a more generally positive attitude toward the LGBTQ groups in recent years; crime and harassment that pushed gays out of establishments were mostly documented. Many of the more recent establishments departed due to financial and economic factors stemming from (1) low attendance, exacerbated by newer competing LGBTQ bars; (2) business taxes; and (3) being bought out and/or pushed out for more mainstream commercial and residential businesses. These patterns, marked by decreased attendance and spaces as well as limited support for LGBT populations show possible indications of post-gay attitudes, though not necessarily urban cosmopolitanism.

The project will be represented through a web page containing a digital map of Lansing that has clickable markers for related oral histories and information about the LGBTQIA+ site. Each site will have its own section that includes its address, years of operation, description, and emergence/closing.

Functionality & Technology:
The site will live in GitHub pages during its development, and eventually hosted on Salus Center’s website. A Bootstrap template will provide the three main pages: Map, About, and Contact pages. Users entering the webpage will see a map of the Michigan region with markers and pop-ups of the represented community establishments (generated by Leaflet) alongside a bar menu containing links of the additional pages. The home page’s map and menu will be followed by an About and Contact section.  Clicking on the About page will bring users to information behind the project, such as its history, relevance, and project methodology.  Background info will provide a timeline of the sites’ closings (provided by Timeline JS), an analysis of the displacements/closings, and references. Ideally, users can use the toggling option on the map to explore the community’s movement through time as an interactive reflection of the timeline.  Finally, the oral histories will be stored in MSU’s MediaSpace.

Since the project is meant to inform viewers of what pressures threaten and reduce these cultural spaces and the effects of cultural heritage loss, audiences will specifically include community organizers, educators, LGBTQIA+ locals and student groups who seek to carve out more spaces for cultural heritage and to add another angle to this multifaceted history. Mainly, since the site is for Lansing’s LGBTQIA+ community, its oral histories and commemorations of sites provide one medium to trace and celebrate LGBTQIA+ lineage.

Data, Information, Content
The project compiles data from previous research articles, books, local interviews, and online forums. Since it’s impossible to identify LGBT people, it’s unfeasible to do a random sampling. However, the project strove for diversity in terms of gathering participants who identify as having alternative sexualities. More specifically, we make room for identities that have been least represented in the literature on gayborhoods which are heavily gay white male represented (Brown, 2014), such as woman-identified women of color. These interviews are conducted one-on-one and contain the following base questions:

  • What would Lansing look like if it were only a map of what LGBTQ people frequented?
  • How were you initiated into those spaces? Or how did you know it was an LGBTQ-friendly space?
  • How has the community survived despite the limited spaces?

The accumulation of “thick description” of place from audio is intended as participatory, preserved case study, and as a form of ethnographic measurement of motivations behind settlement/moving patterns (Gormann-Murray & Nash, 2014).

Lansing’s LGBTQIA+ center, the Salus Center, will host the project’s final representation. Data collection, website design and functionality, and marketing of site will be shared by myself, colleague Wonderful Faison (PhD candidate in MSU’s WRAC) and Salus Center’s president Phiwa Langeni.

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