Painting the Town Rainbow
By Luce James
March 13, 2023
A bird’s-eye view of Chicago reveals the orderly gridding of streets, creating a patchwork quilt that sprawls over the land.
Walk along those streets and you might see the beautiful architecture of the Merchandise Mart, carefully placed crosswalks and meticulous wayfinding allowing citizens to safely navigate the streets. You could pass a sports stadium, sit in a leafy park to drink coffee with friends, or enjoy dinner and a drink at a lively bar.
But there is so much more to how a person may experience an urban environment, especially if that person identifies as part of the Queer community.
By exploring how Chicago can be better designed to suit the individual and diverse needs of its Queer community, and why it isn’t already—especially when studies suggest that Queer inclusion and economic development are mutually reinforcing—perhaps we can apply new ways of thinking to the way we interact with our cities and create better places for everyone to experience.
From macro to micro level, after the Great Fire of 1871, every detail of Chicago was researched, planned, tested and created by the architect and designer Daniel Burnham. Whenever a friend visits Chicago for the first time and I walk them through the neighborhoods, they marvel at the distinct territorialization of each community. Chicago actually ranks in the top five of most segregated cities in the US. It’s abundantly clear that Burnham’s idea of a “utopian” city has been used as a tool of oppression, like in many Midwestern cities, by government officials and property owners implementing zoning practices and racially restrictive housing covenants, to perpetuate segregation and fuel difference.
In today’s world, architecture and urban planning continue to be predominantly White cisgendered male led professions, with 72.3 percent of architects in the USA identified as male and 71.8 percent categorized as White (non-Hispanic), therefore resulting in an urban design approach that favors the privileged male perspective. In addition to this, civic decisions influencing the lives of Queer Chicagoans are reflective of a historic underrepresentation of Queer members in its City Council; up until 2015 there were little to no Queer representatives, and since then only five council members openly identify as Gay, Bisexual, or Lesbian, a majority of which are male and all of which are White and cisgender. And there have been various articles discussing the ways in which civic data collection of the Queer community in the US is flawed, biased, and falls incredibly short of representing the true population of Queer individuals, therefore displacing much needed funding to those communities.
So it’s little wonder that heterosexual drinking establishments are favored to receive a license, and safety in public sports facilities, public transportation, and public parks are overlooked from a non-male perspective. Even when there is a clear BIPOC Lesbian representative in a position of power there seems to be a distinct push toward White heteronormativity: I was recently witness to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s political party receiving getting booed during this year’s Chicago Pride Parade. Her commitment to gentrification, disinvestment in communities of color, and more militarized police force seems to have left Chicago’s most marginalized communities with a bad taste in their mouths.
For Queer people, hate crime is a constant threat. We ask ourselves whether we will be able to express our gender freely, or will doing so lead to verbal or physical abuse? Can we show public affection toward our partners, or will this lead to harassment?
According to chicagopolice.org hate crime statistics, there were 252 homophobic or transphobic hate crimes recorded between 2012 and 2022, reaching a peak of 90 in 2021. It is important to note that these data sets could be under representative for various reasons: lack of faith in police response or desensitization to homophobia by Queer individuals (leading to an unlikelihood to report). Regardless, however, this statistical claim that homophobia and transphobia are going nowhere has been, and continues to be, echoed by personal accounts of my Queer friends. As someone who identifies as non-binary and Queer, I have personally experienced varying degrees of unreported homophobia and transphobia while living in Chicago, from verbal to physical assault; usually by cis-gendered males and usually while commuting alone around the downtown area.
For this and other reasons, it is common for marginalized communities to create their own spaces within a distinct territory or neighborhood away from heteronormativity. Soho in London, Greenwich Village in New York, and Boystown in Chicago are all indicative of the LGBTQ+ community redesigning or repurposing a once marginal space for the inclusivity and safety of their members.
While these growing number of metropolitan cities do present themselves as inclusive to the Queer community by championing their gay neighborhood, or “gayborhood,” many also succumb to the ideals of “homonormativity,” in that they promote a palatable aspect of Queerness; one that commodifies the lifestyle of the cisgendered gay male and by doing so fails to provide safe and equitable spaces for the ‘outliers’ of the Queer community. We’ve all seen how, as the gayborhood becomes more desirable, the cost of rent rises; the establishments surrounding become structured for White gay cis males with disposable income, investors begin to regenerate and regentrify and finally, non-Queer inhabitants who value the safety and creative culture begin replacing and displacing the people who initially created the space.
In some countries, such as the UK, there are existing guidelines for inclusive design; predominantly focusing on accessibility. The outline on the UK government website in regards to public planning policy, outlines a general principle of “Making sure that all individuals have equal access, opportunity and dignity in the use of the built environment.” In addition, the New European Bauhaus cites goals and values such as: “inclusion, from valuing diversity, to securing accessibility and affordability.” So there would appear to be opportunities for innovative, design-led solutions that cut across architecture and urban planning, public policy, and transportation and could lead to effective inclusion for marginalized communities, so that we all feel safe within our cities.
As a recent transplant to Chicago from Birmingham, UK, I am perhaps a little more critical of a city born of politics I have no affinity to; and that’s not to say the UK doesn’t have its issues, because I have firsthand experience that it does. But I have experienced Chicago in a dangerous, unregulated, and unfriendly light; especially for those, like me, who live outside of the heterosexual, cisgender White male “norm.” From lighting issues that can create ominous nighttime environments, to policies that seek to criminalize marginalized communities, there are aspects of Chicago that fail to accommodate those who are “different.” Even with a current shift within urban planning and architecture toward a more inclusive and equitable design approach, leading Chicago to produce its Neighborhood Design Guidelines, it seems that the city still falls short of creating safety and inclusion when Queer people actually experience it, specifically Queer people of color.
So the question is, what are real solutions — how can we create a possible future for Queer individuals where they feel a sense of safety and belonging? And what other factors contribute to how a Queer person positively or negatively experiences an urban environment?
My experience of Queerness is an inherently fluid state of identity and being, so it would make sense that Queer spaces typically follow this behavior; constantly shifting, customizable, individual, and collaborative experiences within the context of urban environments. When I consider my idea of a utopia, I think about all the attributes of a living environment that would create a sense of belonging, safety, and wellbeing for me as well as allowing for that inherent Queer fluidity. I imagine the sprawling community gardens and open green spaces I’ve experienced in suburban Denver, farmers markets and art fairs of my hometown in Shropshire, England, the independent pop-up bookstores, thrift shops, and coffee spots of Camberwell in London, and the repurposed industrial buildings as underground bars and clubs of Detroit. I imagine how the environments could shift through time, a duality of space shared by various intersections of groups to create an ever-evolving and intersectional web of experiences; a record shop by day and a club by night or a candlelit restaurant by night and a bookshop by day. Looking from above, I imagine the borders of the spaces blurring and mixing; the bookshop becoming a club, the record shop serving food. Collaborations and integrations ebbing and flowing like the tide.
I visited Montréal this summer with my partner and was disappointed by the gay cis-male or “straight” overpopulation of the gayborhood there. By design; through public policy advocating for the normality of protecting Queer rights, Canada typically offers itself as a haven for the Queer community. But after a middle-aged woman at a bachelorette party (ostensibly straight; she spoke loudly about her husband) yelled at us for blocking her view of the queens during a drag show, my partner and I no longer felt safe or welcome in a space that was supposed to be designated for us.
It appears this sentiment is shared throughout the Queer community; A viral TikTok video of a Queer woman demanding that straight people stop using Queer spaces sparked debates online including an open letter to straight people on how to respectfully enjoy Queer spaces:
Generally speaking, you are perfectly welcome in our bars, as long as you keep in mind that they are spaces that are not intended to cater to you — if you think that’s unfair, then go cry about it ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD, since that’s the space that DOES cater to you, pretty much exclusively. You know that sense of discomfort and alienation that you sometimes feel in our bars? That’s how we feel in virtually every social space we go to, so please do not begrudge us this one public place on Earth where we can pay for the “privilege” to hit on, dance with, and make out with people we actually find attractive without watching our backs.
Which made me wonder: how should straight people approach utilizing gay bars if it is in the context of safety or embracing Queerness? Surely, it should not fall on the marginalized Queer community to create spaces of safety for heterosexual people? After conversation with a fellow Queer person at the desk of our hostel, we uncovered that, because of how Queer folk are generally welcomed throughout Montreal, there is less and less need for specifically Queer bars and that those we had experienced were tailored for gay cis male and straight female tourists. Our mixed responses were indicative of the complexity of the issue; we felt a real sense of belonging, acceptance and safety in a city for the first time, but also grief over the commodification of our culture. A general feeling of disappointment at the loss of a significant ownership of a specific space was shared.
The majority of solutions of creating inclusive urban environments center around the idea of integration in the face of segregation, but in Amelia Abraham’s Queer Intentions: A [Personal] Journey through LGBTQ+ Culture, we see how Queer folk push back on the idea of integrating with the heteronormative society, for fear of losing Queer culture. People quoted in the book share the idea that advocating for equal rights is less about the desire to conform to a heteronormative life, and more about having the same freedom to live the kind of lives they want. “I suppose a lot of people want to have the choice [to marry], but don’t want to actually take it,” says Abraham, in response to California’s Proposition 8 and Trump’s inauguration. “But when the choice might be taken away from you, you suddenly want to take it.”
According to an analysis posted by the American Journal of Public Health in 2010, mental health within the Queer community took a sharp decline after California voted against same-sex marriage. There was a 37 percent increase in mood disorders among Queer identifying people, despite many citing a lack of interest in heteronormative lifestyles. This study demonstrated how oppressive public policy can affect the wellbeing of a marginalized community. But more importantly, it highlighted that for Queer folk, it is less about the need to conform, and more about promoting positivity around difference and the freedom or ability to make the same legal choices and engage in the same traditions—whether Queer people ultimately decide to do so or not.
In Mapping Lesbian And Queer Lines Of Desire: Constellations Of Queer Urban Space, Jen Jack Gieseking echoes some of these Queer experiences of a city. They use the metaphor of constellations; bright points of light in an urban environment, some burning out and others igniting; a constantly shifting pattern. They suggest that non-male Queer experiences of a city are usually not related to a neighborhood because of outpricing, lower income and non-conformation to homonormativity but instead are made up of smaller places spread around the city; a feminist bookstore with a Queer section, an inclusive sex store that sells binders, a train line that carries similarly looking passengers, a Queer bouldering club, a trans-owned gym:
Like stars in the sky, contemporary urban lesbians and queers often create and rely on fragmented and fleeting experiences in lesbian–queer places, evoking patterns based on generational, racialized, and classed identities. They are connected by overlapping, embodied paths and stories that bind them over generations and across many identities, like drawing lines between the stars in the sky.
When I reflect on my own Queer experience of Chicago, I can relate strongly to this metaphor; Berlin night club is my favorite place to watch Drag Kings and alternative Drag Queens; I bought my first binder from a non-binary friend’s recommendation of Early to Bed, a sex shop in Andersonville, and I met that particular non-binary friend and their partner at a Fletcher concert at The Riviera. I spent my summer creating a group of Queer friends that I had collected from various fleeting Queer events around the city.
So if Queer people experience cities as constellations, it feels as if investment in gayborhoods is very far from the answer. In fact, much like individuals frequenting gay bars for different purposes; territorializing Queer spaces of living, work and leisure magnifies that same complexity. By creating a defined area, there is opportunity for commodification and gentrification which leads to further marginalization. But this should equally be balanced with resistance to conformity, the solution should not sit with Queer people having to “make do” with heteronormative spaces. Instead we should be focusing on those Queer “constellations” across the spread of Chicago and create more opportunities for “stars” to be born or the existing ones to shine brighter. This could be through programmes of investment for the people who create those “stars.” Combine this with improving safety during transit; through more investment and better trained CTA staff presence, stronger messaging for zero tolerance of hate crimes and education around Queerness and we might start seeing a safer future for Queer communities.
But those changes won’t happen on their own; as citizens of Chicago, or any city for that matter, we must look at what we can be doing to create those changes and build stronger constellations for our Queer communities. We must start forging relationships between the multitude of Chicago’s communities and neighborhood organizations, working with urban planners, petitioning and becoming City Council members, educating landlords and creating publicly funded Queer business investment companies or collective ownership of an inclusive space. Maybe then, for Queer individuals experiencing Chicago, the stars might finally align.