Queering the City, Transatlantic Perspectives
To ask what produces social relationships in urban space today, and how social relationships produce space and place, is to affirm that the connection between society and space is a two- way street. If space is the product of social relations, then conversely — according to Henri Lefebvre’s triad of “lived, conceived and perceived space” — space, far from being the passive receptacle of social forces, structures and contributes to the reproduction but also challenges social relations. We will then raise the more specific question of the relationship between gender/sex/race and space. In an urban space marked by social relationships, is it possible to resist and "queer" the city? If we understand the term "queer" as Kath Browne does in “Challenging Queer Geographies”: “operating beyond powers and controls that enforce normativity6", then "queering the city" implies redrawing, reconceptualizing, rethinking and remapping to remake bodies, spaces and geographies.
Lise Nelson argues that Butler’s concept of performativity can be enhanced by accounting for our lived experience and geographical roots. Nelson underlines the importance of these elements in resisting the constraints imposed on self-construction . Indeed, geographical roots do not necessarily imply deliberate "territory-building" by collectives and individuals — it can be the result of more flexible relationships between individuals and territories, building social relations "with territory". Are territorial identification, spatial belonging, Doreen Massey’s "creating a sense of place", possible strategies for invisibilized groups to "create space", "own”, and "queer" it ", "ungender" and "debinarize" it? How are these strategies overdetermined by intersectionality of gender, race, class and ableness?
Because the city is a place of power, it is also a place of counter powers. The existence of movements and strategies of resistance to power relations based on gender, class or race is not new in the contemporary city, whether French or American. Women’s and sexual minorities’ studies have shown how much, in spite of the physical, legal and cultural barriers that confined them to private space or invisibility, these social groups have been able to create meeting and leisure spaces outside the traditional public spaces intended for men and families. George Chauncey's groundbreaking work on "gay New York" (1994) revealed the existence of meeting places for the city’s gay population (cafeterias, nightclubs, dance halls, neighborhoods) but also of coded recognition tactics (eg. specific slang or clothing) in the urban space, since the beginning of the 20th century, long before the sexual revolution of the 1960s. In the wake of Chauncey’s work, historians have exhumed from the dustbins of history the gay neighborhoods of large and medium-sized cities in the United States. In France, from 1975 onwards, feminist and lesbian groups began to ask themselves how to archive the LGBTQ movement’s struggles. The first Paris archive centers were created by activists in 1983 and gathered evidence of what was happening, given the blossoming of groups and the proliferation of newspapers, in places of visibility and resistance against historical erasure. France was reputed for its ostensibly liberal attitude toward homosexuality, which had been decriminalized in 1791, and gay bastions had developed rapidly in Paris, particularly during the Belle Epoque. However, homosexuality faced repression from the end of the 19th century until 1968, with police tracking and an unequal sexual majority until 1981. Wearing pants is illegal for women until 2013, with no repression since the end of the 19th century, while transidentity is considered a mental illness until 2010. Artist Michel-Marie Poulain first tells of her sex change in the popular French magazine Voilà in 1934 and the concentration-camp survivor Marie André Schwidenhammer created the first support network for trans* people in 1965. This set the stage for a kind of public visibility that reached a peak with transgender cabaret culture in Paris, from the Cabaret du Carousel in the 1950s and 1960s –where many trans* people could live freely, without having to hide, or prostitute themselves in a caring and supportive environment– to the first “existrans” marches in 1997, and is increasingly recognized as central to queer identities.
In "Gay Neighborhoods", the sociologist Colin Giraud posits that it is really in the United States during the 1960s that the notion of a "gay neighborhood" emerged, thanks to rebellious social movements and various different forms of gay activism. North-American urbanization relates differently to the neighborhood, wherein the association of a neighborhood to specific social or ethnic groups is more salient and better accepted. In France, the very idea of a "gay neighborhood " does not appear until the beginning of the 1980s, in the Marais.
In the past twenty years, feminist, queer and trans* movements have tried to challenge “myriad gender contracts which together constitute gendered governance”, “local gender systems and their constituent, culturally, constructed gender contracts” (Jarvis)5. The association “Genre et Ville” («Gender and City ") directed by Chris Blache is attempting to deconstruct binary genders to reclaim urban space and “make collective social mores evolve, by the redefinition of public and private space, both virtual and real". Many collectives have also been active in trying to publicize the extent and the dynamics of sexual harassment in public space, and in giving people means of self-defense — physical or otherwise — against patriarchal violence in public space.
Yet, attempts to claim space for women, gays, lesbians and trans* people are often neutralized by media recuperation and local marketing schemes. We shall thus try to determine, from a Transatlantic, urban perspective, the connection between strategies aimed at resisting gender norms and the creation of territories. Does the resistance and efforts to transform, “degender", “queer" the city, result in the re-appropriation of territory by women and marginalized people? Do these strategies result in the creation of territory? This conference aims at examining the creation of territory, be it by social movements or gentrification or through identity politics in France and in the USA. Specifically, we can question the validity of these new territories in the long term and their intersectional limitations (gender, race, ableness…).
Finally, because the body is also a locus and a performance in itself within American urban space, it is important to discuss artistic and space-based theatrical "performance" strategies in the city. What is the effect of artistic transgression, using the body to break pre-established social codes via performances that seek to "queer" and transform the city, blurring gender boundaries? "Queering " urban space requires both the transformation of space and language, and of the "narrative" attached to the city, in the same way as language and space contributed to constructing the city as an androcentric and cisgendered space to begin with, from which women and sexual-and-gender-norm dissidents were excluded or even expelled at certain points in history. If social movements are a good example of the way space can be created or recreated or appropriated by "marches" and the physical occupation of a given territory, so is artistic language— be it text, body language or imagery. The political use of theater, for example, or performances in which the body is a political tool, are also territory-related forms of activism. Queer and trans* activism has famously employed performance, street theater or monumental activism, while contemporary art has integrated militant uses of text, body and image. The American performer Louise de Ville has exported the burlesque and drag king workshops to France, where she hijacks and makes art out of gender codes. "Ball culture" and “voguing” "houses" with its families headed by a “mother" of mostly young black and latinx queers, have existed in the USA since 1977, with the first House of Labeijia formed by Crystal Labeija, a drag queen and mythical figure of voguing.
In France, the artist, dancer and DJ Kiddy Smile became the ambassador of voguing in the summer of 2016 with his title Let a B!tch know. Many American artists, from Halprin to Judy Chicago and Annie Sprinkle, have tried to transform space and the representations at stake. The march is a typically U.S. political practice. Showing the cloistering of domestic space by “taking the house out of the house", or mapping or "demapping" the city through artistic performance in public space — marches, performances, dance, theatre, happenings — may be a means of "queering" space by creating an ungendered and accessible space, marked by neither class nor ethnic identity. Sophie Calle is an example of a French artist who has employed marches to test the porous boundaries between public and private spheres.
In these days of increasingly powerful movements of revolt against sexism, sexual harassment, and violence directed at women and gender-norm-and-sexuality-dissidents, the questions we hope to raise with this academic and artistic conference are more present than ever. We’re thus hoping for papers related to the history of social movements or of artistic performances in France and in the US, to the geography of queer or activist spaces, to the sociology of social movements linked with the creation of space and with resistance in an urban context. But we’re also hoping for presentations by contemporary artists and interventions by feminist and LGBTQI+ activists. We welcome art installations and bodily performances using the sexuated, gendered, racialized and class-branded dis/abled body, provoking in and for the self a transformation of values and norms. More classic talks will not be set up as panel discussions (presentation + Q & A) but as interactive workshops inspired by popular education techniques.