Word Screen Park
Kevin McMahon
Queer space is dead

During the Spring of 1992 I participated in a discussion seminar at UCLA that attempted to discover what, if anything, just-emerging queer theory might mean for architecture and urbanism.

My notes, which were included in a Storefront for Art and Architecture exhibition during summer 1994, include the following ...

... The Queer Space group was a response to three political situations:

One was the dumb fact of gay male and lesbian communities.  Everybody knows where they are: what was going on in them architecturally and urbanistically? These places had not been studied properly.

Also, there was the related issue of the gay male and lesbian representation in the design profession, and in the design academy. What were the issues for this constituency? We were curious about meeting as a constituency, if even as an old-fashioned consciousness-raising group. (Certainly, it was as a consciousness-raising group that I found the group most rewarding.)

For many, the project of queer space began and ended with these two issues. But the group was determined by another phenomenon—the emergence the queer movement. This stressed dissent not only from straight culture but dissent from actually-existing gay male and lesbian culture, which was disdained as an collection of totally unacceptable identities. This was a liberation that I needed so badly I didn’t even know I needed it. Indeed the queers dissented from the idea of a fixed identity at all, which seemed to parallel discussions occurring in cultural studies in the academy. (Hence you can imagine our subsequent dismay when the academic theory Mafiosi caught up with us and set about enthusiastically celebrating existing gay and lesbian situations in terms of some jive-ass, patronizing neo-colonialist ethnography of “transgression” or some other virtue they’ve read about.)

In addition, the queers' strategy of announcing "we're here" in direct-action gestures (instead of the usual liberal reliance on education and civil rights) employed a strategy that was spatial.  Architectural and urbanistic interpretation seemed appropriate for this idea of politics as a taking place. (In the sense of being present and visible more than claiming turf.)

For queers, gay male and lesbian culture was compromised because of its misogyny, racism and classism. Misogyny, especially, is endemic, and the group spent a lot of time discovering how excluded lesbians are from access to the mechanisms of production and representation.

In the recent boomlet of literature on sexuality and space one comes across again and again the confusion of gender issues with sexuality issues. In the group we quickly learned that the two are not identical. Sympathetic people talked to us about gender, anatomy, femininity and lots of other stuff--which can be relevant but you have to be careful.

Since sexual difference is not marked in the way racial or gender difference can be, the avowal of a gay male and lesbian identity is all that distinguishes one from the straight world.  Hence the alarm provoked by the queer displacement of existing gay male and lesbian identities. The egregiously taboo notion that The Closet might be a perfectly OK option even came up. And skepticism about the need for a politics …. And so on. Finally, we instituted a ban on discussions of identity. But echoes of this doubt were audible in later discussions of design sensibility and the gay male and lesbian design heritage.

One might wonder where all this is supposed to lead.  We debated that too. For me, an outsider, the context and product of the group were as open to debate as any other topics—and indeed more fruitful and revealing than most (the social reality of our surroundings, and all that). As a for-credit class for the UCLA student participants, the class was required to have some sort of end product—a public discussion, design projects, whatever. This, however, seemed inappropriate—especially to the non-UCLA-student participants. (The course was barely tolerated by the administration to begin with, then by the final public presentations it had attracted attention sufficiently to be embraced as an example of how hip the GSAUP was. It seems to have attracted students to the program, who assumed there was something cool going on.)

By this point, I was definitely more interested in the “queerness” side of things rather than the “space” side. Queerness as more a Weltanschauung than noesis, and and one that called for a valorization of unproductiveness—avoiding legitimacy like the plague. No production of explanations! No buildings!

The favored references were deconstruction (in the Judith Butler version), the idea of cultural production as ultimately spatial, and personal anecdote. But I think what fueled the discussion was the intuition that our experiences of sex and oppression were different from everybody else's and that they mattered. How they mattered was the thing we wanted to find out. (I don't think we did.)

We could probably be faulted for being too eclectic. Or wishy-washy and irresponsible, if you prefer. We made too much of authenticity. We didn't appreciate the gap between the avowal of a deferred identity and our practice. (I can't imagine anyone still being more of a completely middle-class, exclusively gay, white male than me.) And that combination of deconstructive vigilance and romantic anarchism (if it could ever accomplish anything as political action) could easily function disagreeably. ...

[Image: an issue of the queer theory gossip 'zine Judy! from 1993]