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How does the architecture of the Manchester Gay Village create a safe space to be queer?

How does the architecture of the Manchester Gay Village create a safe space to be queer? Nathan Stocks writes about the creation of a vibrant territory

 

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The continuous development of the vibrant territory of the Village highlights its social and spatial value
The continuous development of the vibrant territory of the Village highlights its social and spatial value

 

Gay identity is inextricably tied to the metaphor of the closet, best exemplified by the phrase “coming out of the closet” – the act whereby a person discloses a gay identity to another. The architectural significance of the “closet” is at once a place to hide and reveal; and the space of changing to sustain the possibility of expression.

 

Coming out operates on three levels. First, coming out by acknowledging one’s sexual feelings and personally identifying as gay; second, coming out to other gay identifying people and exploring gay cultural life; and third, coming out within mainstream heterosexual culture by disclosing to family, friends, and significant others.

 

In ‘Epistemology of the closet’ Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a pioneer of gender studies and queer theory, writes that “Closetedness” itself is a performance by the act of silence. The risk of rejection and alienation, coupled with the fear of physical and/or verbal harassment, have been cited as causes of secrecy, low self-esteem and feelings of isolation.

 

Performance and performativity in this sense is also evident in the vibrancy of the highly public annual Gay Pride event and in the Manchester Gay Village itself.

 

In claiming this territory, queer spaces enable emancipation through the performative use of space, leaving traces for future generations so that it’s never forgotten, never lost, never again repeated as an oppressive state of life

 

Manchester’s Gay Village, since 1980, has welcomed members of the LGBTQ+ community to express themselves. The village is described as a structuring presence in personal lives, regardless of class, race, or relationship status.

 

With a political challenge during the 1980’s and in the face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, public hostility was commonly expressed towards gay men. As one interviewee said:

 

“To me, queer spaces are a safe place for members of the LGBTQ+ community to be themselves and express their personality without fear of that they may otherwise receive in hetero-areas. Whilst these spaces are aimed towards the queer community, they’re welcome to anyone and allow others to experience this vibrant environment that they may not have seen elsewhere.”

 

The village is at the height of the celebration during pride events, but it is also an acceptive part of the fabric of the city with importance as a commercial and tourism centre. Indeed, Manchester City Council, in collaboration with LGBT foundations, has commissioned a review into the future of the village as a unique part of the city and as a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community.

 

The continuous development of this vibrant territory highlights its social and spatial value, initially a territory dividing hetero and queer communities and the spaces they occupy. Queer theory as a spatial metaphor offers a way of thinking about architecture as the space that supports and frames identity and human subjectivity, now integrated into public life and no longer invisible (Sanders, 1996).

 

Manchester Gay Village is a vibrant territory that is open for all; not shunned in underground spaces out of sight.

 

In a general sense, queer can be understood to be distinguished from default heteronormative society and was used as an “umbrella term” from the late 1980s under which all non-heteronormative individuals could reside.

 

Figures in the development of queer theory include Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and Aaron Betsky, and inspired by Michael Foucault’s studies of sexuality, though the term queer itself came from Teresa de Lauretis in 1991, “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities”. Foucault’s work moved beyond identities (categories of individuals) to instead look towards acts and sexual practices. In this way, queer theory is less a discourse in the context of identity, but rather a critique of identity.

 

In Manchester’s Gay Village, identities and categories of individuals are secondary, too, if existent at all, to what this space provides from events of celebration to protests seeking equality. This is a vibrant territory that is open for all; not shunned in underground spaces out of sight.

 

Manchester's Canal Street has historical and personal importance
Manchester's Canal Street has historical and personal importance

 

“There is no queer space” states the title of a chapter in ‘Architecture of Masculinity’ that goes on to suggest that there is only space ‘to put queer uses’. In ‘Queer Space in the Built Environment’, Christopher Reed argues that “no space is totally queer or completely unqueerable… Queer space is imminent: queer space is space in the process of, literally, taking place, of claiming territory.”

 

Does this mean any space can become queer? What happens when the users are no longer present in the space? Does it rely on a capacity or agency of performance and acting out to undermine power constructions to unleash suppressed, marginalised social desires?

 

A probing question I have asked myself whilst researching queer space is how are the bars, streets, pubs any different from heterosexual space? Are they designed in specific ways to appeal to the queer community? Does the architecture only appeal to queer people?

 

"It’s of greater value to understand how LGBTQ+ spaces function as visible and public traces of queer communities and their histories"

 

In the end, I’ve focussed on how these spaces produce a vibrant territory. Comparison between queer and heteronormative bars is of limited importance. Instead, I would argue that it’s of greater value to understand how LGBTQ+ spaces function as visible and public traces of queer communities and their histories.

 

Sedgwick describes queer performativity as “an ongoing project for transforming the way we may define - and break boundaries of identity” and according to Foucault queer spaces are ‘identified as spaces that critique the divisions of gender, sexuality, class, and race through political, social, ephemeral and geographic contexts’.

 

This aligns with the principles of queer theory, as a territory demarcated from a heteronormative territory, where the vibrancy of this territory is situated amongst the clusters of LGBTQ+ spaces that enable a relatively small community to challenge - throughout the built environment - the streets, clubs, bars, shops; the heteronormative environment through self-expression and uplifting sense of freedom in a safe environment where otherwise they often may not be able to be themselves.

 

Inspired by Butler and Foucault, John Paul Ricco extends the theory of queer space by performativity and borrows from Gilles Deleuze’s readings of Franz Kafka’s writings whose literature suggests a ‘minor architecture’ in which the architecture is “neither the inside of architecture, nor the outside of architecture, but architecture outside of architecture; possible the architectural outside’ (Bloomer, 1992).

 

Reed argues that the queerness of space, such as Canal Street with the markings of gay flags, symbols and signs, links it to other vernacular queer spaces within the village to keep traces of queer use even when not active.

 

The village has changed the relationship between being publicly and personally seen/accepted as queer. The establishments boldly and proudly express their “difference”, giving the architecture a political meaning

 

The queer theory’s notion of performativity is only possible in relation to context: without context to enable performativity, there is no space to be queer. This was evident in the interviews I conducted as research. Members of the LGBTQ+ share many overlapping stories, none more prominent than the oppressive heteronormative society that has historically discouraged queers in public view:

 

“My biggest fear was being seen going into the place. I mean once you’re inside, you’re alright. But then you’ve got to worry about coming back out again and worrying who might have seen you... In reality, it’s nothing like that... the Gay Village couldn’t care who is gay!”

 

Feminist writer Doreen Massey writes “Queer space is characterised by a kind of social practice accepting the existence of categories, power and valuation, but also attempting to conceptualise them not in a fixed, but rather in a continually changing way. The point is not being different (static and dualistic), but the aim of becoming different (process).

 

Positioned within the Gay village, minor architecture becomes queer space when using architecture figures from the majority (heteronormative society) to contest its relation with the majority in which it resides. That is, the architecture, and built environment of the gay village critiques the identity of space through performative actions in an otherwise non-queer entity.

 

Bar, clubs and other social spaces create networks of the relation between themselves but obtains a minor status when appearing in public views such as newspapers and televisions.

 

The progression of society has allowed the coming out of the community and their occupation of the city. The architecture of queer spaces presents a rare and very public example of the evolution of queer communities and their relationships with society. The emergence of the village has produced a vibrant territory and changed the relationship between being publicly and personally seen/accepted as queer. The establishments boldly and proudly express their “difference”, giving the architecture a political meaning.

 

In all their iterations, queer spaces occupy unique positions in cities across the globe. They lay the foundation for activism and provide vibrant territories for self-expression that are identifiable and interchangeable as “queer spaces” and rise to a sense of community.

 

Queer theory as a spatial metaphor offers a way of thinking about architecture as the space that supports and frames identity and human subjectivity, now integrated into public life and no longer invisible

 

While my work is limited in Manchester’s Gay Village, research and experiences of the community indicate that the performativity used to “queer” space isn’t tied to just one queer space, but is understood to apply to many, providing a vibrant territory that is ‘site of cultural resistance with enormous symbolic meaning’ (Myslik, 1996).

 

Queer spaces are not queer by design, often they are re-used spaces in the context of Manchester and in response to economical need, often perpetuating a new homonormativity instead of contesting heteronormativity. That is, spaces which are viewed as “different” by the heterosexual majority create numerous opportunities for the spaces to be queered, challenging the norms that produce a vibrant territory of social and political potential.

 

With my small-scale research study, I’ve focussed on the complex and difficult interactions that queer people experience in public, but this public view allows identities to be fluid and lives to be lived within a society assumed to be heterosexual.

 

In Manchester’s case, the events that unfold along Canal Street, across the Gay Village are spatial conditions that open and challenge political and social geographies. In claiming this territory, queer spaces enable emancipation through the performative use of space, leaving traces for future generations so that it’s never forgotten, never lost, never again repeated as an oppressive state of life.

 

As such, architecture in this sense has a political meaning. The growth of non-heterosexual “queer” consciousness, village bars, outdoor events, peace protests of race, class, and orientation start to open up to mixed clientele. Non-queers who occasionally attend queer spaces mark an important change in society towards a greater acceptance of sexual minorities – this stark contrast between queer people having to hide away from society in basement, to being integrated as part of an urban fabric evolving from hostile to vibrant territory.

 

LGBTQ+ or queer architecture has what John Paul Ricco calls “minor architecture”, an architecture that uses symbols of the majority to suggest a political message of consternation. Whilst Ricco sees the potential of this minor architecture as a disruption in media outlets, news, TV, film etc. Manchester’s queer bars instead use this directly in spaces that are open to the public through their high visibility in a centrally located area of the city.

 

These minorities exist outside of the heteronormative ideals of most other spaces and are about finding ourselves in the world, the city, and the self; creating numerous opportunities where space appears to challenge norms, where being queer overflows in public view, taking on a vibrant territory of which we are all a part of – being human.

 

 

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