I am thrilled to announce that I have signed a contract with NYU Press for my in-progress book, A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians, Dykes, and Queers, 1983-2008. While a project of urban feminist historical geography, the book will be the first lesbian- and/or queer-specific history of New York City. I am 3/4 through writing the book and hope to have it on the shelves and online open access by the spring of 2019. Hurrah and gayme on!
I provide a brief excerpt from the introduction of book below.
Blue star tattoos. I saw them on the arms of lesbians and queers for as long as I could remember. They marked Brazilians at queer Kreuzberg, Berlin dance parties in 2010, trans Southerners on the Lower East Side, New York City gay bars in 2003, a bisexual woman from Seattle at my New England women’s college in 1998, and L.A. dykes on a plane to Tokyo in 2001. With their sleeves rolled up, the blue star shined. In the summer of 2008, I led group interviews with lesbian-queer New Yorkers, two of whom had visible blue star tattoos. I asked both of these women what inspired their tattoos and each said they had heard and liked that it was “a lesbian thing to do.” I immediately described Elizabeth Kennedy and Madelyn Davis’s important history of the mid-20th century Buffalo, New York lesbian community, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, which neither of them had yet heard of. I explained that Kennedy and Davis recorded how a group of Buffalo lesbians got blue star tattoos on their wrists which they kept hidden behind their watchbands during the day, and used to recognize one another at night.[i] Suddenly, the invisible lesbian-queer lives and spaces materialized, concretized, and could be traced through lesbian-queer bodies across the urban landscape.
I met Madelyn Davis in 2010 when I was beginning to write the book you are reading now. I told her this story and her whole body shook with laughter as she pulled her watch back and showed me her own blue star tattoo. “My friends and I got drunk one night and I convinced them to do this. Then I put the story in the book!,” Davis said with a smile. I told her it wasn’t just my research participants, but many, many women and gender non-conforming people (GNCP) who had these tattoos. I find that some of these blue star-tattooed lesbians, dykes, and queers have read Kennedy and Davis, some have not, but many feel their tattoos afford meaning and connection. These stars trace an embodied and spatially interdependent history—for a people with so little history—that runs over half a century from one evening among friends in 1950s Buffalo; to the decade Kennedy and Davis spent gathering, writing, and publishing Boots of Leather in 1992; to this story being passed on through that text and by word of mouth among lesbians and queers over generations; to the decade I spent gathering, writing, and publishing this historical geography of lesbian-queer New York City; and, all along, to these tattoos being reproduced on and in lesbian-queer bodies and places as a “lesbian thing to do.” I begin with this story to recognize the multitude of lesbian-queer stories that still need to be told about the city, including and beyond the prevailing narrative of lgbtq territories.
The blue star tattoos of lesbians and queers visualize the central argument of this book: lesbians and queers often create and rely on fragmented places and fleeting connections they weave together through embodied place-making and sharing memories in, what I call, constellations. By fragmented, I mean that lesbian-queer spaces are and always have been more diasporic than the myth of the territorialized, communal lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (lgbtq), lesbian, or queer neighborhoods implies. By fleeting, I refer to women’s and GNCP’s diminished economic and political power that leaves their spaces vulnerable to closing. Such spaces are often linked to physical places and emerge from experiences with others (a first kiss, a love affair, activisms, friendships) or on their own (reading, listening to music, a realization). This lesbian-queer model of producing space is at odds with the project of claiming long-term territories and, with them, tenured communities that are the promised outcomes of gentrification. Instead, like drawing lines between the stars that come and go in the sky, lesbians and queers are connected by overlapping, embodied paths and stories that culturally and politically bind them in their ways of making urban space, in what I call constellations. Even when we cannot see the stars or they fall out of the visible landscape these places—bars, centers, parties, co-ops, softball teams, ex-girlfriends—often burn out all too quickly from the cityspace, they remain in my participants’ memories, shining bright, and full bodied.
Lesbians and queers, and women’s and GNCP’s role in the production of the city as it relates to capital requires attention. Lgbtq people continue to experience an erasure and amnesia of their spaces and history, and the role of gender is even more obscured. Popular narratives of US urban queerness and urban women’s lives remain simplified: lgbtq people, along with artists (regardless of their gender and sexuality), are the forces behind gentrification. Lesbians’ and queers’ roles in urbanization processes remain largely uninterrogated and prompt many unanswered and important questions. Instead of asking why such “passé” lgbtq and lesbian neighborhoods are declining on behalf of “assimilation” or presuming a claim to a lgbtq or lesbian neighborhood, I ask: what are the conditions that afforded the existence of these neighborhoods in the first place, especially beyond the idealized space of the lesbian bar? What role do “invisible” lesbians and queers play in urbanization, both in and through gentrification? What is the lesbian-queer production of the city? What does the eternally unrealized promise of the affordable, all-welcoming territorialized community—in the form of the lgbtq and lesbian neighborhood—expand and/or limit in the experiences of a fulfilling lgbtq life? In a period of extreme changes that bookend the contemporary period, from the cultural touchstone of AIDS epidemic to The L Word, how can these women’s and GNCP’s productions of space allow us to rethink projects of spatial justice?
These questions are central to my intention to create thick, deep understandings of the unrecorded stories of everyday, urban, lesbian-queer spaces and lives. I structure this book through the lens of neighborhoods because, when asked what type of lesbian-queer space was most important to them, participants told their stories by locating them or describing them in neighborhoods—a spatial formation that bridges the residential and commercial, and public and private spaces of everyday queer life. Then, quite immediately, my participants would describe the constant material erasure and experiential partiality of lgbtq neighborhoods. This split begs attention.
[i] Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (New York: Penguin, 1994).