duke university press

Where the gays are

Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Nonviolence by Christna B. Hanhardt (Duke University Press, $25.95)

In an interesting turnaround of received wisdom, Christina Hanhardt, a professor at the University of Maryland, posits that rather than offering safety for gays and lesbians fleeing discrimination and violence in the ‘burbs and hamlets, so-called “gay ghettos” or “gayborhoods” actually make violence against gays easier to enact. In one sense, by providing a community for connection, these perceived “safe spaces” made possible the gay rights movement, but at the same time by clustering gay people in one place, they also increased the likelihood of anti-gay violence.

That makes sense.

What’s next, though, is a thorough analysis of the ways in which these perceived “safe spaces” have changed over the years, including the gay gentrification of parts of San Francisco and New York (and, from experience, Des Moines–back in the day, we called the what was then-rundown and in the process of being gentrified Sherman Hill neighborhood “homo heights.” It’s now a very desirable address–for people with money).

Hanhardt also tackles issues of racism, classism and gender-policing, especially in Greenwich Village’s “Take Back Our Streets” movement in the early 2000s. While the point, in the Guiliani years, was to go after quality-of-life problems like noise and loitering, in fact most of the “problem” that residents wanted addressed was the influx of black and Latino gay youth to the area around the piers on Hudson River (they’d already been chased out of Washington Park by a police crackdown).

Hanhardt is clear about how gays are not a monolithic group, and that what was, in this instance, perceived as anti-gay by some was actually more about race, class and gender presentation–and was actually supported by some white gays in the neighborhood.

This is a deep and intriguing study of what neighborhood and safety have meant–and seemed to mean–to different facets of the gay community at different times in its development in the period following WWII. The tensions within the community and between white gays and other minority groups (remember blaming Prop. 8 on the black vote? Totally not true, but harmful, nonetheless). Hanhardt does focus extensively on San Francisco and New York, but then, those are the cities with the largest–and most active–gay populations. While obviously written for an academic audience, Safe Space will be accessible to most readers, and offers some insights into ways that gay spaces may not have been quite what we thought they were.