[*Update: I’ve reviewed more literature behind definitions of “post-gay” and outlined a general lit review for LGBTQ geographies and methodologies for documentation. Noting my participants for audio interviews are generally underrepresented in gayborhood studies, I’m leaning toward a more open and nuanced research question around how ‘queer-of-center’ identities have responded to the loss of LGBTQ sites.]
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 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?
See project plan and timeline here.
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 web-based map gathers documentation of Lansing’s LGBTQ sites from public forums and Lansing State Journal archives. These sites then become ‘artifacts’ for engaging with locals’ experiences and reactions to their proliferation and disappearance. By following methodologies of heritage documentation which privilege innovative and democratic means of representing invisible heritages (Dierschow, 2016), the site will feature audio interviews alongside information about the LGBTQ site’s opening and reasons for closure.
Interviews. 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).
Beyond the initial building and case study of the project, the map is projected to move over the the Salus Center so it can continue to be a site for documenting Lansing’s LGBTQ history, as well as represent and be curated by local LGBT locals.
The project will be temporarily hosted on GitHub pages, and will use Bootstrap and Leaflet. The clickable map will be the landing page, but other tabs will include “About,” and “Contact.”
If users click on a marker, they will be able to see the site, reasons for opening and closing, and have access to audio recordings associated with that site.
The “About” page will document the story of the project, along with the methodology, relevance, and functions of the site. I’m also considering a data visualization of public attitudes toward LGBT through the Municipal Equality Index alongside the decline of LGBT sites to possibly provide correlation and indication of post-gay patterns.
The “Contact” page will instruct how users can modify the information or send in their own audio commentary of the spaces.