The term, “queer space,” has been used in a variety of applications, from discussions about the closet, to the history of bath houses, to looking at nightclubs, and the very notion of a gaybourhood.
All of these are manifestations of the psycho-social concept of queer space. In broad terms, queer space refers to environments and experiences that cater to and/or support individual and group expressions of queer identity. The term implies queer SAFE space – a place, environment or experience where queer people can safely express their queerness. This could be as simple as holding hands in public with a significant other or as challenging as displaying one’s body in non-heteronormative ways. Drag queens and kings, leather daddies, butch lesbians, and androgynous non-binary representation all come to mind.
I have often seen discussion online and in person questioning the “need” for gaybourhoods and other queer spaces. The comments often come from gay white males for whom modern society has provided a certain amount of accommodation. Straight people enthused about their experience attending a gay wedding and suggesting that homosexuals (and by extension, ALL queers) have now been successfully assimilated into “polite” society and therefore the idea of gaybourhoods and other queer spaces are no longer necessary.
What these self-satisfied gay men and uninformed straight people seem unaware of or are unwilling to acknowledge is that for many queer individuals, the world is very much still not a safe place to express themselves. Even the most urban environments includes locales and situations where simply walking down the street holding your boyfriend’s hand can be an invitation to verbal confrontation (or worse).
This discussion is even more important for newcomers and citizens arriving in the city from smaller communities, rural areas, or constrained social situations (e.g. unsupportive family members). For these individuals, the existence of a “gay village” might be the first time they experience overt queer public behaviours. Such experiences can provide a special kind of support to their early queer journey, assuring them that they are not “the only one.”
A centralized gaybourhood also creates safe opportunities to explore queer social environments. For queer individuals with little to no experience navigating the city, it means they don’t need to risk unwelcome exposure by accidentally expressing their queer identity in an unsupportive heteronormative space.
While it’s true that there are more and more queer-friendly spaces available, even if they’re not exclusively queer, I think it will be some time before society at large can offer the inclusive experience that a gay village offers.