Note: I’ve been a bit hunkered down with coursework of late, hence the absence of school related posts. That’ll be changing here I press ahead to complete a term paper, a part of which will be arranging my thoughts on source material. Blogging seems to help with that aspect, so for a few weeks here there will be less politics and policy commentary. If you follow Punditocracy solely for those things I apologize in advance.
The working principle for studying the urban social environment is that space and place matter, both in the sense that people shape them and are in turn shaped by their interactions with social structures. Recently my coursework has focused on how these aspects matter in terms of the marginalized embodying multiple identities in urban communities.
In Alder and Brenner’s work this applied to their study of lesbian communities. In short, they differed from gay men as a reflection of their gender: akin to women in general they had less access to capital which affected their rootedness in the community; they were more likely to be caretakers of dependent children, which meant they approached space and place with different needs and motivations based on this status; finally, they continued to hold a gendered vulnerability to violence in public spaces. Likewise, Melissa R. Gilbert’s study of survival strategies in Worcester, Massachusetts dealt with ‘spatial entrapment’ and the agency of women interacting with their place — rooted in their social environment as individuals with a class, race, and gender identity.
I thought of these factors when reading Alyssa Coppelman’s “Young, Gay, and Black in a Southern Town” on Preston Gannaway’s photographic work. Gannaway spent time with Tavaris Edwards, a young man living in public housing in Chesapeake, Virginia. What stood out to me was this description of Edward’s relationship to his (predominantly black) neighborhood:
Throughout the project, she was pleasantly surprised not to see too much prejudice surrounding Edwards’ sexuality. “If someone is just keeping his head above water, struggling to keep the lights on and food in the fridge, he’s not going to be worrying about who some other guy is sleeping with,” Gannaway noted about living in a financially struggling community. “Family and community [are] very important. That seems to trump just about everything.
It’s interesting that the relative lack of stigma attached to being gay in this context is “pleasantly surprising,” almost as if we should first expect the most non-normative aspect of his life to stand out. It speaks, perhaps, to how we assume hierarchies of identity rather than, say, a spectrum. Yet all of these demographic factors matter in people’s spatial embeddedness. Gannaway describes Edward’s day to day material conditions as leaving little room for the luxury of active discrimination based on his orientation, even as his activity in the gay community there is an important way he approaches place. To be poor and black in a “financially struggling community” is a consuming identity in America. And to take away from Gilbert, those communities and strong social ties represent a key resource in surviving the city.
This is all a way to reinforce the concept that race, class, and other statuses are not always operationally distinct, autonomous, forms of existence. While there might be a type of functional hierarchy of in terms of effects, they are the cumulative result of these categories, not a sequential order of operations. Which is to say that our lives are the product of these characteristics and the way they are embedded in, and interact with, place.