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CHM looks at queer spaces, past and present [3 February, 2010]

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The Chicago History Museum, 1601 N.  Clark, hosted a two-person presentation on Chicago’s queer spaces January 28.

The speakers were Sharon Haar, an architect and associate professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and Doug Ischar, UIC professor of photography.

Jane Saks, executive director of the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College Chicago, introduced the evening’s topic and speakers.  Historically, “queer space” has meant either the existence of built space exclusively intended for use by queers, like bathhouses or spaces appropriated by queers for strategic and sometimes ephemeral occasions, like parks used for cruising.  Saks addressed the complexity of such notions of “queer space” and that it can offer a “resistance to heteronormative boundaries” that are “unscripted” by hetero conventions.  Laying the ground for what would become a theme of the evening, Saks went on to interrogate the idea that queer spaces could be easily defined, given that they could be either temporary or permanent and that they are always marked by race and class and power.

Haar took up the question of power by asking, “What’s queer about urban public space and who creates it?”  Quoting Christopher Reed, she pointed out that “for a long time, the look of the queer community was invisibility” and that the ways in which gay men and lesbians occupy space has markedly changed in the last 30 years.”  She raised the question of whether it was possible to create queer space by design and how we might go about archiving queer space.  Like Saks, she emphasized the fact that queer space challenges heteronormative public spaces and questions cultural assumptions about what may or may not “appear in public.”

Haar focused on spaces that exemplified the creation of queer space in different historical contexts and with differing degrees of deliberation: the Jane Addams Hull House, Boystown and the Center on Halsted.  According to her, Hull House was less explicitly marked as queer but could be read as such given the larger number of single women who cohabited the space.  Boystown, with its rainbow pylons, and the Center, explicitly marked as a community space, are outwardly more explicitly queer spaces.  However, she pointed out, as it became more acccessible, Boystown’s “original denizens have left.” Haar also pointed out that it is not actually clear that the Center is a queer space, given that it was made possible by forms of access to power and financing—which some might regard as not queer and too mainstream.  Ultimately, according to her, the Center’s design, is at once assimilationist and passing and “very truly transgressive.”

The theme of public transgressiveness was also taken up in Doug Ischar’s presentation of “Marginal Waters,” a series of photographs he took in the summer of 1985 at Chicago’s Belmont Rocks, once a lively gay beach.  In its heyday, Belmont Rocks was a very queer space, and a photograph of a nude man sunbathing on the concrete steps indicates that gay men openly flouted the city’s rules about acceptable public behavior.  Also included in the presentation were intimate photos of men kissing.  Ischar said that he was allowed, after making himself a persistent presence on the beach, to record such moments of intimacy between his subjects, many of who appeared to have allowed him unfettered access to their time spent on the beach.  Speaking of the various images as they appeared on a screen behind him, the photographer spoke of the various kinds of items brought by queers to the beach, including pink flamingoes and inflatable mattresses as well as myriad books and other reading material.  All of this indicated a level of comfort and ownership of the beach.

In his conclusion, Ischar emphasized that such a queer space was “the opposite of institutional space,” the kind defined by the state and laws, and that such moments of intimacy were especially remarkable given that they were occurring publicly in the midst of the AIDS epidemic.  He also said that “we have lost touch with the … pleasure of danger, we risk losing our difference,” in the absence of such spaces.

The question-and-answer session that followed raised the issue of queer lesbian spaces, which, one respondent said, were disappearing while their absences were barely recorded.  Another questioned the myth that gay white men had “built the neighborhood from scratch,” which ignored previous communities.  The speaker added that the creation of the neighborhood’s public displays of the pylons came about in a top-down fashion.  Ischar, in his response, reiterated a theme of the evening in saying that the pylons denied the transience of the community as queers were pushed northwards; he predicted that they would remain as “tombstones” of the neighborhood.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 3 February, 2010

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