interior of a bar with green lights
“Established in 1966, New Sazae is a disco-fanatic’s paradise in Shinjuku Nichōme, Tokyo’s LGBTQ+ neighbourhood. Best described using the oldfashioned term ‘gay disco’, the venue is one of the oldest queer establishments in the neighbourhood and a pioneer in accepting customers of any sexuality or gender performance,” writes Takeshi Dylan Sadachi regarding the New Sazae bar in Tokyo. Courtesy Kaoru Yamada

Queer Spaces Will Always be Necessary

Two new books show that the relationship between queerness and the built environment can yield innovative physical spaces that are at once adaptable, accessible, and inclusive.

In New York City, there is a small, radical bookstore called Bluestockings where, over the years, I have gathered with queer community to attend things like feminist or disability justice reading groups, LGBTQ+ book launch events, self-defense workshops, among other gay festivities. Bluestockings is more than just an activist bookstore, it’s a trans- and sex worker–owned co-operative, community center, and overall safe space for marginalized and criminalized folks. It’s one of the rare places in the Lower East Side that not only offers a public restroom but stocks it with free menstrual products, contraceptives, and COVID-19 rapid tests. The worker-owners also practice harm reduction, offering safer sex education, Narcan administering training, and providing free fentanyl test strips for the community. You don’t have to buy anything to sit and use their Wi-Fi and the entire space is ADA accessible. In short, Bluestockings is an inclusive, magical space—as queer spaces often are.

How does one define what queer space is when the concept of what it means to be queer itself is beyond categorization, definition, and, ideally, commodification?

cover of Queer Spaces
Courtesy RIBA Publishing
Cover of the Queerness of Home
Courtesy University of Chicago Press

But magic is mysterious, hard to pin down. How does one define what queer space is when the concept of what it means to be queer itself is beyond categorization, definition, and, ideally, commodification? Just as there is no single representation of what it’s like to be queer, or experience the world queerly, there is no single style or architectural typology that defines queer space. While much of the scholarly discourse surrounding queerness in the built environment (most notably Aaron Betsky’s seminal 1997 book Queer Space: Architecture and Same Sex Desire) can be—and is often—critiqued for centering the perspectives of cisgender, white, gay men, it appears that the idea of what queer space is or means continously gets rehashed in academia. Architecture programs across North America host queer space courses, student organizations, and symposia. But how do these ideas take shape post-graduation? Where are the queer spaces in practice? Is there a way to design queerly?

In a 2017 Q&A featured in the “Working Queer” issue of Log, Betsky ponders the “End of Queer Space?” when he tells New Affiliates cofounder, Jaffer Kolb: “My sense is [that] the physical places where queer men and women had to go to define themselves aren’t necessary anymore.” In other words, with the rise of technology, social media, and location-based dating apps, queer people no longer need to rely on underground cruising spots to find sex or community. In a largely white, western context perhaps this is true, but five years later, a new book edited by designer Adam Nathaniel Furman and architectural historian Joshua Mardell points to other truths.

Queer Spaces: An Atlas of LGBTQIA+ Places and Stories (RIBA, March 2022) proves the necessity of physical queer spaces with nearly 100 contributed projects and essays dedicated not only to cisgender “queer men and women” but also trans, nonbinary, and the full range of multifaceted identities that make up the growing acronym. The volume is an impressive step in recording these often-invisible spaces—but is by no means exhaustive. Nathaniel Furman explains, “Large parts of the world have really amazing queer scenes—but they’re not safe to be published. In a lot of countries [queer people] can do their thing, as long as they don’t shout about it.”

exterior queer book store
“When thinking about ecologies of queerness, and the infrastructures required to help a queer population adapt, survive and thrive in any particular social, cultural or physical environment, bookshops can be a potent source of individual and collective nourishment,” writes Andy Summers on Glasgow’s Category is Books. Courtesy RIBA.

While the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” mentality has faded in the United States, the dangers of visibility persists throughout the world. The innovation that comes from the need to remain hidden is a central theme in Cornell University professor, Stephen Vider’s new book titled The Queerness of Home: Gender, Sexuality, and the Politics of Domesticity after World War II. Expanding on the queer domestic spaces throughout the postwar United States, the book uncovers what happens when queer folks use the home as a way of reimagining the built environment as a tool to embody their desires and identities. Illustrated with intimate archival photography, the book looks at topics such as lesbian feminist architecture, community caregiving and the politics of HIV/AIDS, and the future of the queer home. For Vider, queer domestic spaces are sites of connection, care, and community and he writes, “Home should not be understood as a sealed private space, but rather a portal to the public.”

The idea of queer domestic space as a portal to greater systems of care in the public sphere is also apparent in Nathaniel Furman and Mardell’s atlas. Divided into three sections—Domestic, Communal, and Public—Queer Spaces begins with the most intimate form of architecture, touching on historic and contemporary domestic spaces such as private homes, the U.K. hotel that hosted the first transgender conference, and even an 18th-century Bavarian palace that allowed Prince Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm to pursue his same-sex desires. “The space of the domestic for those able to pool resources communally, or those in possession of wealth by virtue of class, was often where queer individuals, couples, and kinship groups were primarily able to create lasting and meaningful environments,” the authors write. “These alternative domesticities were little queer worlds that catered for those whose lifestyles were disallowed in the public sphere, where memories could be accumulated, milestones in life be celebrated, and their value as humans to one another be affirmed and marked in physical form.”

ink drawing
Birkby and Leslie Kanes Weisman included the fantasy environment exercise in their core course, “Women and the Built Environment: Personal, Social, and Professional Perceptions,” at the first session of the Women’s School of Planning and Architecture in Biddeford, Maine, August 1975. Women’s School of Planning and Architecture Records, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA. Courtesy University of Chicago Press
ink drawing
Th is fantasy environment drawing, c. 1974, included a dome that could be variably opened and closed, allowing friends in but keeping demands out. Noel Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA. Courtesy University of Chicago Press

Betsky was right when he posited that queer culture has largely become mainstream—indeed, it’s no longer taboo for straight girls to host bachelorette parties at drag bars, queer shows regularly premiere on popular streaming services, and don’t get me started on corporate pride—yet, 2022 has also been a year marked by the continuous criminalization of trans kids and their families through attempts to ban access to gender-affirming healthcare, all alongside persistent attacks on reproductive rights. It’s never been more apparent that trans people—their bodies, spaces, communities—are far from being understood or accepted by everyone. While many texts on queerness and design have explored cisgender gay and lesbian spaces, Queer Spaces addresses this gap by filling the pages with the stories and images that explore transgender history across the globe including the Archivo de la Memoria Trans (The Trans Memory Archive) in Argentina, a Hijra Guru’s Rooftop in Bangladesh, and London’s Museum of Transology. As Vider writes in The Queerness of Home, domestic radical innovations “betray the circuits of power that enable and constrain them: renovation reveals the home’s wiring.”

Now, nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s obvious that ideas about what the home is have changed. Through digital spaces such as Zoom, our homes have become our workplaces, gyms, entertainment venues, and even doctor’s offices. While Nathanial Furman and Mardell include one example of a queer house party hosted on Zoom, it was important for the editors to not spend too much time on the virtual. “I don’t know, I just don’t think [queer virtual spaces] are as big a thing as people thought in 2015 when everyone was very excited about Grindr,” Nathaniel Furman says. “Of course, there is Telegram, Whatsapp, and Grindr and there are stories that can be made from that, but what’s [important] is meeting people in space, [and seeing] the way that we exist individually, create our homes, mark our lives. Queer spaces are everywhere, and the physical is not dying.”

photograph of people sharing a meal
The Archivo de la Memoria Trans is an archive that “foregrounds stories about lives lived by those in the trans community. It is a way to make the issues pertaining to gender identity in Argentina open, visible and accessible to the entire community through a range of different platforms,” writes Facundo Revueltas.

Of course, with further developments in virtual reality and the metaverse, the future of queer digital spaces is, well, TBD. But just like the early excitement for app-based connection, one can hope that Web3 will usher in entirely new ways of being and expressing ourselves through design and space. Nathaniel Furman notes, “I do think the metaverse is potentially really interesting, but we didn’t position on it because it was too new when we started doing the book.”  

Whether it’s the iconic Palladium Nightclub, a DIY pop-up posted on Lex, or a virtual bar you can roam with a gender-nonconforming avatar (one can dream, right?), queer space is often rooted in the ways we navigate our bodies. Whether virtual or physical, can design provide people with agency over their own bodies? What does it mean to design for visibility when so many remain hidden? How do the marginalized devise a new paradigm for design that is centered on accessibility, equality, and freedom of choice in a world that so often wants to limit our choices?

These are tough questions, and the significance of a historically heteronormative organization such as the Royal Institute of British Architects grappling with some of them through such a book should not be understated.

photograph of a protest march
Comparsa Drag in Beunos Aires, Argentina. Gustavo Bianchi and Facundo Revuelta write, “Their queer wandering and excessive behaviour is the radical disruption of normative city manners, an urban practice that explores territories of sensuality and passion within ordinary spaces.” Courtesy Jetmir Idrizi

Perhaps, as is the point with all things queer, the questions outweigh the answers. But the LGBTQ+ community is particularly adept at noticing when something is missing, unjust, or isn’t serving the greater good. To Nathanial Furman’s point, as long as we exist, we will always need queer spaces. We will always need spaces that are fluid, malleable, and transformational. For me, the most memorable part of the atlas was when trans writer and community organizer, Ailo Ribas, describes how she uses a train ride from London to Spain to take on a more masculine presentation so she won’t be outed to her family once she arrives. She writes, “I used the train as a changing room, an escape pod: it is a locked bedroom door; a public bathroom; being home alone; a queer bar; a new outfit; a pair of breasts; a packer; a friend’s house; a support group.” Her story highlights how the way we inhabit our bodies changes how we inhabit the architecture surrounding us, concluding that, “Queer space is simply that which allows us to be in right relationship with change.” And if change is the only constant in life, well, we can all stand to learn a little bit more about thinking and building queer.

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