I was sitting in what was a back bedroom of a brownstone in Brooklyn in the winter of 2008-9 and I was cold. Archives are often cold. The bedroom-cum-archives had become a records room that now hosts 11 seven-foot high filing cabinets bulging with the organizational and biographical history of lesbians. Around me, scores of boxes towered over me and a bookcase stuffed with comments, mementos, and original Wonder Women comics (which I read often during lunch) sat to my left. I was at—what else but—a dining room table with my legs nestled between more boxes underneath and wearing a knitted cap when I noticed a very interesting pattern in the organizational records of the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) I was reviewing for my research. The pattern was about scale.
Not long ago scholars have argued that scale is socially produced (Smith 1992; Marston 2000). In other words, the power dynamics, social and political relations, and economic structures at various scales (body, home, local, national, global) are produced by the everyday ways we operate. More recently, critical feminist geographer Geraldine Pratt and literary theorist Victoria Rosner (2012) have reimagined scale in a more fused way to show how scales are permeated with one another. The authors work from the feminist maxim that the “personal is political” to trouble the binary of global/local, most especially in the ways it parallels notions of masculine/feminine. Pratt and Rosner’s compelling notion of the global and the intimate reveals the ways geographic scales infuse one another in the people’s experience and action. In their framework, intimate relations are simultaneously global and local, just as the global is experienced in and through the intimate and all the scales in between. My ideas about scale grow from this perspective, and this is the work I used to frame how I collected information about the various scales that the 381 organizations with records at the LHA operated within, all of which are noted below.
So what is so interesting about lesbians, queers, and scale? As the graph above indicates, there was a wide variety of organizations working on missions at very different scales. Given that New York City is a pretty key hub of lgbtq organizing and history, that most groups continue to focus on the city in order to create a livable city for this group is understandable. Nearly one-quarter of this organizing takes place at the state level and these groups are necessary to deal with state’s rights, the battleground for most lgbtq civil rights issues. The small number of online organizations is an unfair representation given that most of these groups are not accounted for in the Lesbian Herstory Archives printed records; I do not yet have estimates on these groups.
The remainder though is what interests me: 7.3% of orgs at the ultralocal scale of the neighborhood, street, or institution, 11% at the borough/county level, and 8.1% at the international. The first set of organizations, at the neighborhood, street, or institution, often were in response to events or crimes at the ultralocal level, and this large number shows how many violences this group faces at that scale. The borough/county issues often dealt with efforts to create larger responses to violence that threaten a series of neighborhoods and are specific to the culture or ethos of one borough versus another. For example, the more middle class and White voices of Staten Island tend to confront issues spurred by the Catholic church while Brooklyn rallies around being a voice of progress.
Most surprisingly(!), even though most of these groups grow to focus on issues at the scale of the city or nation, I recently ran some statistical analyses (t-tests) and found a significant correlation between smaller scale organizations tending to have permanent places compared to these other scales. Furthermore, permanent places tend to last 7 years longer than those without by the same analyses. Evidently, the seemingly more intimate scale of the local has staying power in the lgbtq geographical imaginary and materiality.
After making this visualization, I felt there was a great deal more to say about what was going on in total about the dynamics of lgbtq organizations across scales but also across time. In my next post, I will look how the scale of these organizations shifted over generations and what these growths and declines say to the political, social, and economic shifts in lesbians’ and queer women’s everyday lives.
Marston, Sallie A. 2000. “The Social Construction of Scale.” Progress in Human Geography 24 (2): 219–242.
Pratt, Geraldine, and Victoria Rosner, ed. 2012. The Global and the Intimate: Feminism in Our Time. New York: Columbia University Press.
Smith, Neil. 1992. “Geography, Difference and the Politics of Scale.” In Postmodernism and the Social Sciences, edited by Joe Doherty, Elspeth Graham, and Mo Malek, 57–78. Palgrave Macmillan.