In a March 10 lecture titled “Broken Windows at Blue’s: A Queer History of Gentrification and Quality of Life Policing,” Associate Professor of LGBT Studies at the University of Maryland Christina Hanhardt analyzed gentrification of queer neighborhoods from the perspective of the marginalized groups within these communities. She hoped to explore how efforts of LGBT activists have marginalized other groups in efforts to empower and foster the growth of gay neighborhoods.
The lecture, sponsored by the American Studies Department, was a review and discussion of Hanhardt’s book, “Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence.” Hanhardt’s book sheds light on the ways in which queer gentrification reinforced hierarchies and oppressive power dynamics despite strides reflected in the development of thriving gay urban neighborhoods. In the process of trying to protect against street violence particularly in gay neighborhoods, lesbian and gay activists targeted subgroups within the community.
The process of gentrification, by which many vibrant gay neighborhoods in urban centers formed at the end of the 20th century, followed a narrative that Hanhardt described as typical. As upper-class white gay people moved into the economically-depressed areas, revitalization efforts often came at the expense of disadvantaged communities of low-income queer people of color. White queer elites encouraged gentrification for the sake of improving the quality of life and stimulating commercial growth, but ideologically the concept went hand-in-hand with upholding racialized and class-based conceptions of the ideal American city and citizen.
“Hanhardt’s work and the themes she explored in her lecture are so relevant to American Studies because American Studies scholars are constantly attempting to dismantle popularly held convictions, especially those tied up with the project of nation-building,” remarked American Studies major Grace Gregory ’17 in an emailed statement. “[Gentrification] obviously outlines who is the ideal, accepted, or normal American citizen–the citizen chosen to represent America in these new, tourist-attracting, gentrified cities–the white, middle class, straight citizen. Of course, we see these criteria shift with the emergence of homonationalism, specifically in San Francisco as Hanhardt mentioned, as white gay males become included in this identity group of the ideal American.”
Hanhardt traced the beginning of queer gentrification to the 1970s. After observing the success of urban renewal, white queer elites sought to replicate the end-products in cities with large queer communities like San Francisco and New York City. In response to the high crime rates in impoverished areas, elites organized the training of vigilante groups trained to patrol the streets. People of color and of various sexual orientations and gender preferences were perceived as threats to law and order. Consequently, wholesale surveillance of and violence against them became legitimized. Cemented within justifications for urban renewal and anti-crime campaigns was a narrative of white gay victims combatting the onslaught of violence perpetrated by prejudiced, non-white criminals.
Hanhardt expounded on another similar theme: the mainstream LGBT movement’s abandonment of coalition-building with other marginalized groups. Hanhardt noted that in the pursuit of respectability, the movement attempted to distance itself from stigmatized groups historically associated with queerness. This group, Hanhardt explained, typically included drug users, prostitutes and the mentally ill, all of whom were most commonly young, poor people of color.
Following the lecture, many students noted how the process and products of queer gentrification provided valuable insights for how organizations should engage in activism on and off-campus. “A lot of people had complaints with Queer Coalition of Vassar College (QCVC)…being overly white and cis and not representative of the coalition and the community,” President of QCVC Rishi Gune ’17 said. “As the new president, I’ve tried to bring in more queer POC [people of color], but white queer people have this entitlement to claim the space. When they’re in a space with other queer white people they aren’t thinking, ‘Where are the queer POC? Where are the trans POC?’”
Gune continued, “[Activism] needs to be more based on community-building and centralizing queer POC and building that sort of community for us–and also allowing white people to come in–but with us being the center and bringing them as well as our ability to have affinity spaces to address our needs as a community…in any activist movement, queer POC and trans POC need to be centered and their needs must be addressed.”
A member of TransMission stressed the importance and urgency of the struggle to end gentrification-induced violence. They also noted the importance of listening to and integrating the ideas of queer scholars like Hanhardt. “I think [moving towards the future] starts with acknowledging this particular moment as excruciatingly violent for queer/trans indigenous/people of color, particularly women,” they stated through an emailed statement. “If I have to make one demand from people, it would be this: listen to trans women (of color). Listen to trans women speak, cry, shout, scream–even if you don’t understand, or it unsettles you–because it’s the voices and expressions of trans women of color, the ones most marginalized even amongst the groups of marginalized people, that are the revolutionary ones.” They advocated seeking alternative methods to existing systems of policy making, in order to truly be helpful to marginalized queer and trans people who experience violence. The people who have the most at stake are often drowned out in traditional methods of decision making and implementation. In order to hear those voices, it is necessary to embrace those individuals and encourage solidarity instead of perpetuating internal divisions.