In 1992, professors Sy Alder and Johanna Brenner released their study, “Gender and Space: Lesbians and Gay Men in the City,” of the spatial concentration of lesbians in an undisclosed community. Their research was a contribution to the work begun by Manuel Castells in his seminal study of gay culture and identity in San Francisco’s Castro District, published in 1983 in The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. Alder and Brenner, while taking issue with some of Castells’ assumptions, nevertheless replicated his methods for gauging urban cultural identity and political differences between gay men and lesbians.
Here is part of their conclusion (emphasis mine):
While we reject Castells’ characterization of the gender differences between gay men and lesbians, we do think there are important dimensions along which gay men and lesbians may relate differently to urban space and urban politics. These differences do reflect the fact that lesbians are women. First, as we have already argued, lesbians, like other women, tend not to have access to capital. Second, lesbians are more likely than gay men to be primary caretakers of children. Their choices about where to live will have to take their children’s needs into account. When they do locate in a lesbian neighborhood, they bring a set of interests and styles of sociability very different from those of people without children. This diversity, while a strength for the community as a whole, might also militate against the development of a distinctive urban subculture. Third, lesbians share with other women a vulnerability to male physical and sexual violence. Of course, it is true that gay men have had to defend themselves from attacks on their places and persons. And lesbians have ably resisted assaults, for example on lesbian bars. Still, it seems to us that women are more at risk in public places than are men, and that this in turn may limit lesbians’ interest in or ability to create the kind of vibrant street culture that makes an urban community.
More than twenty years later we’re in a much different, generally more accepting, context for the legitimacy of LGBT rights and culture. The details and dynamics have certainly changed, as sociologists are no longer necessarily studying sexual orientation under the banner of ‘counter-cultures’ or looking for LGBT groups in ‘hidden’ communities. These were, and continue to be, incredibly important and compelling areas of interest; yet two aspects in-particular caught my eye.
First, Alder and Brenner go on in their conclusion to emphasize that lesbian politics and culture communicated a “double vision” of organizing on sexual orientation and gender identification. Lesbian contributions were an important part in the development of an independent women’s culture. Likewise, their political activism was inexorably tied to a broader, more heterogeneous, movement against gender oppression. According to the authors this dual-salience of political identity represented broader feminist influences, but also a simultaneous pressure to make “the women’s movement less homophobic.” To this point they described lesbian participation in the feminist movement as something akin to an ‘interest group,’ highlighting and promoting more radical sympathies in a dynamic that had no analogous aspect in gay organizing.
Second, that the comparative lack of organization around space partially reflected an absence of access to credit. Both authors reaffirm Castells observation that one of the key characteristics to claiming urban space is ownership of business and real estate. Without sufficient access to capital, whether due to gender or orientation discrimination, this factor was largely absent in lesbian communities. Thus, they lacked a critical component to claiming spatial and political legitimacy over place as representing their interests and identities — both as women and lesbians.
Alder and Brenner’s other conclusions are just as significant; that lesbian women were more likely to be responsible for children, and were not immune to the (still existing) gendered vulnerability to physical and sexual assaults. All of these factors are relevant to understanding that women approach and occupy space and place differently than men. Moreover, this spatial relationship is embedded in their characteristic as socially complex individuals and groups. Summarily, this is why it is important to conceptualize social and personal identities as mutually engaging, rather than separate spheres of influence, when thinking about how people exercise agency in interacting with their environment.