Street Corner Citizenship: Gay Neighborhoods, Vicarious Citizenship, and the Self-Enfranchisement of LGBT Youth

Against a tide of shifting residential patterns and institutional deconcentration in the face of increased growing political and sociocultural tolerance for LGBT citizens, iconic gay neighborhoods like Chicago’s Boystown have increasingly become popular destinations among populations of black and Latino groups, seeking asylum from the homophobia and violence many encounter within their own residential communities. Many travel for hours to participate in a community where they believe their gender and sexual identities would be affirmed and supported, only to find themselves excluded from the organized sociocultural and economic life of the gayborhood. Some are too young and many lack the economic resources to access the institutions that anchor much of the community in these spaces. They often endure racial profiling and discrimination from business owners and the local police, as well as sexual harassment and exploitation from local residents – many of who are gay white men who turn around and publicly lash out against their presence in the neighborhood as a threat to community safety. Yet despite these obstacles, many queer youth defend their right to be in gay neighborhoods. Drawing on the area’s reputation as a gay neighborhood and their presence on street corners and public areas around key institutional anchors, these young people manage to situate themselves as legitimate community stakeholders, with rights to participate in the affairs of the local community.

Their presence and participation as community insiders in Boystown reflect a process of non-residential community participation I refer to as vicarious citizenship. Vicarious citizens comprise a diversity of self-identified community members, including former or economically displaced residents of a neighborhood, who draw on a variety of socio-territorial practices to mobilize against perceived threats to their visions of authentic community. Without claims to residency (the sine qua non of local community citizenship), vicarious citizens combine a sense of shared identity with their participation in the cultural, social, and political life of a local area to situate themselves as community stakeholders, with legitimate claims of ownership and investment in the affairs of the local community. Vicarious citizenship gestures to new ways of thinking about how urban participants live locally and align themselves socially, culturally, and politically to neighborhoods in the postindustrial city, not only drawing attention to the powerful influence that extra-neighborhood residents can wield over local areas, but also how that influence reconfigures notions of community membership and belonging.

Drawing on the experiences of black and Latino queer youth in Chicago’s iconic gay neighborhood of Boystown, this paper examines how these vicarious citizens connect their socio-territorial practices to meaningful forms of community participation and investment. While much of the scholarship focusing on queer youth situates them as bystanders and inheritors of gay culture, I show how those who seek community draw on Boystown’s reputation as the city’s gay area to demand political participation in local area decision-making, drawing on familiar socio-territorial practices form their own local communities to make the area socially and culturally accessible to them. More broadly, by highlighting the experiences of black and queer youth, who defend their presence in Boystown against community stakeholders with more material stakes within the community, this paper also considers how iconic gay neighborhoods like Boystown may retain their symbolic relevance for certain LGBT populations in the face of their institutional and demographic decline.

This paper advances the empirical and theoretical goals of the CLAGS: After Marriage Conference in two important ways. First, this academic presentation contributes to existing scholarship pertaining to the demographic, sociocultural, and political diversity of LGBT communities in the United States. Recent popular and academic scholarship on gay neighborhoods have focused on their declining salience, citing the attraction of these amenity-rich communities for heterosexual cosmopolitans and widespread acceptance for LGBT Americans, which has decreased the imperative for sexual communities to seek gay neighborhoods for safety and a sense of community. Yet while political gains and increasing social acceptance have expanded the residential imagination of gays and lesbians beyond traditional gay neighborhoods, I highlight how iconic gay neighborhoods like Boystown retain their symbolic importance for a variety of actors who participate in the social, cultural, and political lives within gay enclaves, including actors who are priced-out or residentially displaced through gentrification, as well as the LGBT Youth of color who seek refuge in iconic gayborhoods like Boystown.

Secondly, this presentation considers the place-making role that queer youth assume within iconic gay neighborhoods. Much of the scholarship on queer youth in the last decade has focused on how the conditions of the “post-gay era” have now made it possible for LGBT youth to reject self-identification almost exclusively on the basis of their sexuality. The socio-political realities under which gay youth now come out potentially makes gay neighborhoods less politically and socio-culturally meaningful, predicts Ghaziani (2014: 116). For Ghaziani and others, these conclusions are based on the assumption of queer youth as “bearing witness” [to] the production and the preservation of queer culture in gay neighborhoods, “ (Ghaziani 2014: 178). However, these arguments obscure the various ways in which queer youth still find meaningful forms of community identification and participation through the appropriation of space and the production of its meaning. Although many of the spatial practices seem inconsistent to more traditional forms of community place-making, I show how queer youth of color make gay neighborhoods culturally and socio-politically meaningful to them, not only a forms of resistance (Shepard and Smithsimon 2011), but also as strategies of action to legitimate their interests as community members.


Part of panel Queer Communities After Marriage
October 1, 2016, 11:15–13:00