After the New York Times unveiled its dramatic May 24 front page that listed a small fraction of the 100,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S. to that date, another story concerning another virus began circulating on social media. Back in 1991, the Times had republished a piece by the Associated Press titled: “U.S. Reports AIDS Deaths Now Exceed 100,000.” It had been printed on page 18 without a single name included.
The marked difference between that almost 30-year-old article, which appeared below the newspaper’s fold, and the Times‘ coronavirus coverage highlights a broader issue of space for LGBTTI2QQA people, from the printed page to the streets to the dance floor. Though space — both material and metaphor — has long been a salve and a refuge for communities operating beyond heteronormative binaries, it has also been the site of ongoing violence and erasure.
Just two weeks ago, we commemorated the fourth anniversary of the shootings at Pulse nightclub in Florida, where 49 people lost their lives in an ostensibly safe space. We also continue to bear witness to the senseless murders of trans women of colour, such as Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells in Pennsylvania and Riah Milton in Ohio, in cities across North America.
At the same time, celebratory events such as Pride gatherings around the world have been suspended as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, although digital spaces such as Club Quarantine continue to provide virtual environments for various forms of queer belonging. These shifts in how we come together in times of mourning and celebration are a reminder that, though queerness may not be a place, it is inescapably spatial.
What exactly, then, might queer space be?
When we think about queer space, we may first be drawn to the architectural metaphors long intertwined with non-heterosexual identity: the closet and the washroom. The very idea of the closet is rife with contrasts, invoking both interior and exterior, storage and room, pride and repression, homo- and heterosexuality. Although it wasn’t until the 1960s that the term “coming out of the closet” entered the cultural lexicon, the closet itself is foundational to queer narratives and how they’ve been told.
During the Gay Liberation movement in the United States, the slogan “Out of the closet and into the streets” was emblazoned on buttons, T-shirts, flyers and countless other kinds of highly visible pulp material. Interior space, however, is more opaque when it comes to queerness, even if its role in sexuality is longer and more complicated.
Around 1840 or so, posited the late SFMOMA curator Henry Urbach in his 1994 essay “Closets Clothes disClosure,” the standalone wardrobe (made popular in consumer catalogues all over the world) was absorbed into the walls of the home, becoming a codified extension of its “moral property.” With the publication of homemaking guides such as 1969’s American Women’s Home, which included a chapter dedicated to the requirements of a proper “Christian Home,” the domestic interior took on a new role as the locus of constructing normative ideas of family, gender, class, race and, of course, sexuality.
The closet was central to this image of heterosexual whiteness. “Holding things at the edge of the room, at once concealing and revealing its interior,” writes Urbach, “the closet becomes a carrier of abjection, a site of interior exclusion for that which has been deemed dirt.” As much as the closet drew speculation about what was inside, it largely functioned to conceal as well as “cleanse” unruly objects and identities that might “soil” the pristine image of heterosexual domesticity. Hence its later connection with the veiling of homosexuality. But the storage closet isn’t the only kind of closet designed to obscure non-normative identities.
The washroom (or water closet) has been at the heart of architectural discourse since modernists such as Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier championed plumbing as a cultural boon. Yet pristine white fittings alongside pipes and drains are as much about concepts of gender as they are about modern technology.
As poet and theorist Lucas Cassidy Crawford outlines in Transgender Architectonics: The Shape of Change in Modernist Space (2015), architectural plumbing is a resounding metaphor for our bodily plumbing. If the closet is indivisible from homosexuality, the washroom is inescapably linked to transgender identity. “Plumbing is not a ‘gender-neutral’ term,” says Crawford. “When applied to bodies, the word conceals histories of normative ideas about gender, race, ability and other bodily modes.” Expectations of plumbing run parallel to expectations of bodies, and access to these spaces have likewise been at the core of transgender rights.
Conservative legislation, such as North Carolina’s controversial 2016 “Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act,” known as “House Bill 2,” has often looked to limit access to public restrooms by dictating that washroom use must correspond to one’s gender as listed on a birth certificate. Largely touted as safeguards to protect cisgender occupants, the motions have not only demonized transgender individuals but have led to a number of violent attacks, primarily against trans women, in shared public facilities.
Elsewhere in Transgender Architectonics, Crawford issues a bold call to arms for designers: “To exhume these ideas and address them, we must redesign actual washrooms and metaphorical “plumbing.’” It’s a challenge that transgender historian Susan Stryker, architect Joel Sanders and professor Terry Kogan have taken up with their ongoing project Stalled!.
Using space to explore constructions of bodies, gender and accessibility, the design provides a conceptual template for a new kind of public facility. Comprised of three distinct zones — one dedicated to washing, one to grooming and the other to eliminating — the project looks to “address an urgent social justice issue: the need to create safe, sustainable and inclusive public restrooms for everyone regardless of age, gender, race, religion and disability.” The two iterations — one proposed for Gallaudet University’s Field House and the other for a standard airport renovation — “re-conceive the restroom as a semi-open agora-like precinct,” where the acts of defecating and cleaning are transformed into shared public activities.
In doing so, Stalled! asks us to reimagine our own relationships with ourselves, our bodies and the architectural scaffolds that surround us by transforming what was once constructed as private acts into safe, anti-discriminatory communal experiences for all.
Thinking beyond the closet and the washroom, nightclubs, bars and dance floors have also been key environments through which queer folks have found safety, community and belonging.
When architect Louis Kahn famously quipped, “You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ and brick says to you, ‘I like an arch,’” he hadn’t anticipated the material’s response in the hands of activists during the 1969 uprising at New York City’s Stonewall Inn. Though there are countless opinions on who thew the first brick — or if one was even thrown — during the two nights of rioting that followed a particularly brutal and unexpected police raid on the Greenwich Village gay bar, it’s a compelling and enduring myth.
“Stonewall was, at its core, about people reclaiming their narratives from a society that told them they were sick or pitiful or didn’t even exist,” writer Shane O’Neill says. Whether occupying the bar or the streets outside, it was a deliberate act of asserting presence in urban space that had long been used as a vehicle of erasure.
But as much as these places provided room for marginalized communities, they were still fraught with their own anti-Black, anti-trans politics. It wasn’t until well after its establishment, for instance, that the first drag queens, among them transgender activist Marsha P. Johnston, was welcomed to the bar, which had long been frequented by cisgender men exclusively.
The riots and protests that followed the 1969 uprising, unfortunately, did not quell the violence that continues to permeate these spaces. In the early 1970s alone, arson attacks at UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans as well as the Aquarius bathhouse in Montreal collectively claimed 35 lives. Many bodies were never identified and were laid to rest in pauper’s graves.
The 1981 raids on four Toronto bathhouses by over 200 police officers similarly revealed something particular about the relationship between queerness and space. Whether through a terrorist act or police intervention, the goal was to destroy a certain physical place in an attempt to destroy the communities who used them. Here space was inseparable from queerness itself.
These spaces remained for as long as the ephemeral nature of nightlife architecture would permit. But what happens to their records, narratives and cultural relevance when they disappear?
“For the many nightclubs — such as Loft, Danceteria or Mudd Club in New York — designed by unknown architects or short-lived architectural firms, archived information is difficult to find,” explains critic and historian Ivan Lopez Munuera, a contributor to the upcoming exhibition “Night Fever: Designing Club Culture” at V&A Dundee. Though essential in the formation of queer enclaves and their relationship to space, he notes, “their architects, communities, contexts and contributions to the built environment are missing from histories of architecture.”
“Nightclubs test the limits of what societies deem acceptable,” adds photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, who has chronicled these performative milieux, from Berlin to New York, since the 1980s. “For me, photographing queer spaces isn’t voyeurism,” he says. “I feel I have a duty to preserve it.” Aiming to ensure the stability of these enclaves in our current climate, Tillmans recently brought together 40 artists to sell posters, thereby keeping a number of nightclubs, venues, bars and other art spaces open as they reel from the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns.
Queer space, in this regard, is intimately tied to its inhabitants — the performances on countless dance floors by innumerable individuals who make and remake space. “As an artist and an activist, I’ve learned how important the dance floor is for queer people,” writes Syrus Marcus Ware, co-founder of Toronto Pride’s Blockorama event and a Black Lives Matter member who recently spearheaded a sit-in outside the city’s police headquarters alongside the larger-than-life painting Defund the Police to protest ongoing police brutality. “These spaces are essential,” he notes. “We’ve met our lovers in these spaces. We’ve met activists in these spaces. We’ve become politicized in these spaces.”
In addition to bars and nightclubs, the Black and Latinx members of Harlem’s 1980s ball culture — immortalized in Jennie Livingston’s controversial documentary Paris is Burning (1990) and the subject of FX’s current series Pose — appropriated existing structures like New York’s Rockland Palace to hold their expansive pageants and gatherings. Participants would walk in themed sections ranging from “Butch Queen First Time in Drag” to “Executive Realness,” the winner achieving the goal of being almost indistinguishable from the character being emulated. “You’re not really an executive, but you’re looking like an executive,” says drag queen Dorian Corey in the film. “You’re showing the straight world that ‘I can be an executive if I had the opportunity.'”
In a sense, queer space is also about this realness, which is “not just a sassy by-word for a convincing costume, but a tragicomic disguise of the chasm between what is being emulated and what is absent (namely racial justice, class equality and safety),” according to writer Shon Faye. These spaces, frequented primarily by queer people of colour, were mediums for finding community as well as challenging the status quo that other forms of architecture framed; space-making was integral to their efforts at defying injustice. Instead of simply “passing” as heteronormative, as countless queer bars the world over did, the realness attempted was a more radical aesthetic vision, assuming visual and physical space that had been denied through skillful artifice.
Another blatant architectural reference in Harlem’s ball culture were the “houses” — entire queer families named after opulent fashion dynasties — that defined the scene. Along with their competitive role, the houses served as important places for queer youth to establish systems of support denied to them by their biological families or society at large. In addition to their respective “children,” each house consisted of a “House Mother” or “House Father.” Like the dance floor, the house is central to understanding queer space.
In 1970, Johnson and fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera founded and financed STAR House as an extension of the STAR project (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). Operating until 1973, it provided desperately needed housing to queer youth and, as Rivera notes, “was part of the people’s revolution.” Domestic space was and remains central to equality. With between 25 to 40 per cent of the 40,000 homeless youth in Canada identifying as LGBTQ2S, access to adequate housing is still a pressing issue.
So, too, is accessible housing for queer seniors. As critic Mimi Zeiger points out, queer futurity — the potential for aging — seemed unattainable with the emergence of the HIV/AIDs epidemic. How could one even consider growing old when the lives of friends, colleagues and lovers, such as those chronicled in the Instagram archive The AIDS Memorial, were so tragically cut short? Thanks to more recent advances in advocacy, education and treatment, however, the possibility of a queer future is something real, accessible and now even architectural.
Take, for instance, New York-based studio Leong Leong’s recently completed LGBT Center in Los Angeles, which will see youth and senior housing (slated for completion early next year) added to its existing 17,000-square-metre footprint. A similar proposal, in Boston, involves a 74-unit complex designed by DiMella Shaffer. The first of its kind in the city, the structure is described as being “LGBTQ-friendly,” although it’s not exclusively reserved for the queer community.
“The number one issue for LGBT seniors is housing,” Bob Linscott, assistant director of Fenway Heath’s LGBT Aging Project, told The Boston Globe. “There’s a big fear of going to a place where people will be bullied and harassed [in the same way they might have been harassed] decades ago.”
In December 2019, another queer-friendly seniors facility also opened its doors, this one in New York. Dubbed Stonewall House in honour of the eponymous bar, the 17-storey, 11,600-square-metre structure designed by Marvel Architects is, like many others, not entirely reserved for queer elders, even though a reported 53 per cent of LGBTQ seniors experience social isolation and are far more likely to experience discrimination in securing housing.
Nonetheless, these spaces offer environments for meaningful community building at the convergence of queerness and shifting modes of domestic life. “Queer time, even as it emerges from the AIDS crisis,” explains Columbia University’s Jack Halberstram, “is not only about compression and annihilation; it is also about the potentiality of a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance and child-rearing.”
What unifies these seemingly disparate structures across an expanse of history is the fact that, though used by queer people, they are not actually conceived by the communities they serve. From nightclubs and ballrooms to affordable housing, these queer spaces are essentially acts of appropriation — a calculated repurposing of existing typologies of building, claiming of space whether visible or invisible. These structures become queer only in the sense that they are activated, inhabited and transformed by queer-identifying individuals. As academic Christopher Reed suggests: “Fundamentally, queer space is space in the process of, literally, taking place, of claiming territory.”
Rather than merely actions or occupancy, queerness might also be regarded as a way to think beyond the very binaries inherent in building. Much of this exploration has — and continues to be — investigated within the context of exhibitions and galleries.
Shortly following the establishment of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in March 1987, the New York collective — formed to highlight the severity of the AIDS crisis and the American government’s blatant indifference — was invited to produce an installation for the New Museum’s window overlooking Broadway in Manhattan. The resulting neon emblem, the now-iconic SILENCE = DEATH with its glowing pink triangle, transformed the storefront into a spatial manifestation of absence, one that still feels relevant as reports circulate about the editing of queer narratives from the Canadian Museum of History in Winnipeg.
Running parallel with this activism was the work of theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (author of 1990’s Epistemology of the Closet, which first anchored said construct as not only a metaphor but a fundamental way of understanding non-heterosexuality) and architecture historian Beatriz Colomina (co-editor of the 1992 compendium Sexuality and Space, which grappled with the spatial tendencies of non-heterosexuality). Both would participate in an important exhibition, fittingly titled “Queer Space,” at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture in 1994.
Held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the exhibition, which was organized by Colomina and fellow historian Mark Wigley with Sedgwick, Urbach, Dennis Dollens and Cindi Patton, featured a variety of installations by interior designers, artist, filmmakers, theorists and architects, among them Jurgen Mayer and a young Charles Renfro (before he was the +R in DS+R).
These spatial investigations not only pushed the limits of architecture through queer critiques but moved beyond the traditional models and drawings more common in exhibitions of its time. A number of similar shows would soon follow, addressing the architectural echoes of normative ideas of bodies, genders and sexualities within the home.
More recently, the traveling neon-soaked exhibition “Cruising Pavilion: Architecture, Gay Sex and Cruising Culture” examined, as its title suggests, the material structures intertwined with sex — from historic cruising sites to the implication of apps like Grindr. Organized by Pierre-Alexandre Mateos, Rasmus Myrup, Octave Perrault and Charles Teyssou, the show drew vast connections, ranging from DS+R’s Blur Building (considering it akin to the atmosphere of a steam room, a cloaked public space that “makes private action possible,” according to Renfro) to works by Studio Odile Decq and Andreas Angelidakis.
Part of a growing interest and resurgence of queer architecture over the last decade, “Cruising Pavilion” was a deliberate response to a particular lapse in architectural thinking: namely a tendency to ignore the explicit role of sex in buildings, expanding on the ideas instigated in “Queer Space” as well as in Berlin-based contemporary art duo Elmgreen & Dragset’s original 1998 glory-hole-punctured “Cruising Pavilion.”
One of the more thought-provoking participants was Spanish architect and educator Andrés Jaque, who, with his firm Office for Political Innovation and their project Intimate Strangers, investigated how dating apps not only map desires but project the very potential of sexual activity onto any space.
“Architecture is the way our societies are constructed and the way devices like tables or lamps or walls, but also streets and light posts and many other things come together to mediate the production of the situations in which we live,” Jaque explains to a cohort of children in a video produced by DIS. “Normative spaces are spaces where rules are very strict, but you can feel that there are other places with many different layers to them, where many things could happen. Queer, in this sense, is the possibility of behaving differently.”
In these conceptions, queer space or queer architecture is not simply a place used or appropriated by non-heterosexual people, but a performative strategy to challenge the behaviours, rules, expectations and situations framed by the built environment. “[Queerness] is an open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning,” explains New Affiliates co-founder Jaffer Kolb in the proceedings of the 2017 conference “Stand By Your Monster and Some Queer Methods,” held at Princeton University. “In other words: it exists as a counterpoint, a reconfiguring agent.” Queerness is not so much a place, but an expanded strategy of interrogating place.
So what, then, do we mean by queer space? Is it a metaphor — like the washroom and the closet — that continues to shape our relations to ourselves and one another? Do we consider material spaces that once played host to queer communities the definition of queer space? Or can queerness be seen as only one of a number of spatial tactics? In the end, is there even a queer space?
“Queer individuals,” writes Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet, “are located within an irreducible set of minoritizing and universalizing views on sexuality. These two views contrast the ideas that people really are gay while simultaneously preserving that desire is inherently unstable.” So, too, is the very idea of an architectural queerness — between spaces that really are queer and the ephemeral spatial strategies that move beyond modernist binaries to occupy places that have historically functioned to erase or harm.
From closets to washrooms, nightclubs to exhibitions, parks to homes, these spaces are, as the curators of “Cruising Pavilion” assert, “laboratories for political futures…central to understanding new ways of thinking, living, loving, meeting and belonging.”
Though the many ideas surrounding the conception of queer space have, as much of the architecture profession, been centred on white, cisgender men (myself included, ultimately informing how the narrative of this very piece is shaped), ongoing work by Stryker, Halberstam, Crawford and more offer new strategies — such as scraping and cutting — to dwell more deeply in architecture’s liminal space.
In the end, locating a permanent, stable and material queer space may not be possible. But that’s the point. It’s in the revisiting of these pasts and presents, through a variety of strategies, that allow a glimpse at the potential of queer futures — even if, as noted throughout, they are only a small fraction of the many ways queer individuals and communities navigate space.
“There is no queer space,” the historian George Chauncey aptly concludes. “There are only spaces put to queer uses.” And as we begin to slowly enter the world after sheltering in place, witnessing ongoing anti-Black and anti-trans violence, it has never been more important to remind ourselves exactly whose uses these spaces are being put to.
The architecture of desire is storied and complex, whether it’s a nightclub, a seniors centre or something else entirely.