Conflicts about space and access to resources have shaped queer histories from at least 1965 to the present. As spaces associated with middle-class homosexuality enter mainstream urbanity in the United States, cultural assimilation increasingly erases insurgent aspects of these social movements. This gentrification itself leads to queer displacement. Combining urban history, architectural critique, and queer and trans theories, Queering Urbanism traces these phenomena through the history of a network of sites in the San Francisco Bay Area. Within that urban landscape, Stathis Yeros investigates how queer people appropriated existing spaces, how they expressed their distinct identities through aesthetic forms, and why they mobilized the language of citizenship to shape place and secure space. Here the legacies of LGBTQ+ rights activism meet contemporary debates about the right to housing and urban life.

Stathis G. Yeros is Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Florida.

What motivated you to write on this topic?

This topic is rooted in my personal and academic journey. Within my field of architectural history, I noticed a significant gap in the historical exploration of queer and trans spaces, despite extensive development in adjacent fields over the past few decades. While disciplines like sociology, anthropology, and art history have made significant strides in understanding the history of homosexuality and transgender embodiment, architectural history seemed to lag behind. Historian George Chauncey’s seminal work Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 set a precedent for studying urban homosexuality, providing invaluable insights into where to uncover evidence of queer social life and how to interpret it. My own research in the San Francisco Bay area owes much to Nan Alamilla Boyd’s work on an earlier period of queer urban life in Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965.

My personal experiences in the Bay Area also fueled my curiosity. Having arrived as a student from Greece almost two decades ago, I witnessed rapid transformations in the urban landscape. The disappearance of iconic queer spaces like Esta Noche, a Latinx club in the Mission, and The Lexington Club, the last lesbian club in San Francisco, coupled with the visible impacts of gentrification and economic shifts, prompted me to explore the forces shaping LGBTQ+ spaces.

Ultimately, I wanted to understand the complexities of societal changes and to uncover narratives of resilience, struggle, and adaptation within queer communities. While maintaining my own political critiques, I approached the research with an open mind, seeking to challenge oversimplified narratives and embrace the fluidity and diversity of queer experiences and movements.

Why focus on urban spaces? What does the urban landscape reveal about queer history and how queer people made their place in the world?

Focusing on urban spaces offers a nuanced understanding of LGBTQ+ experiences and their profound impact on urban life. Historically, cities have been portrayed as havens for LGBTQ+ individuals seeking acceptance and community. But this narrative overlooks the multifaceted nature of queer history and the diverse ways in which LGBTQ+ movements have shaped not only cities, but also the political economy of the nation state.

Scholarly work by Margot Canaday, Lauren Berlant, and Jasbir Puar, among others, shows the complexities of LGBTQ+ citizenship and its intersections with national and urban citizenship. This scholarship informs the concept of insurgent queer citizenship, which highlights the local attachments and municipal advocacy efforts inherent in queer identity formation.

In examining urban queer experience, we see that specific cultures, demands, and forms of territorialization vary among different groups within cities, who express their right to inhabit urban space differently. This critical lens uncovers unexpected coalitions among marginalized communities and challenges homonormative narratives. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the construction of Chicanx and Latinx homosexualities reshaped existing queer landscapes, de-centering whiteness as the defining attribute of urban queer identities.

The analysis of various urban spaces, both ephemeral and enduring, reveals the evolution of queer habitation and its political significance. From bathhouses and sex clubs to Victorian homes and plazas, these spaces carry queer embodied knowledge that informs political activism and urban inhabitation. The sedimented histories of queer presence in the San Francisco Bay illuminate the plurality of political projects driving contemporary struggles for urban space.

How and why did queer people use the language of citizenship?

Queer people have historically used the language of citizenship to assert their belonging and rights within communities, particularly in urban contexts. In the San Francisco Bay Area, queer inhabitants have employed various spatial tactics to make demands for spaces and services, thereby asserting their queer citizenship rights. Pivotal activist periods such as gay liberation, the AIDS crisis, and anti-gentrification organizing have witnessed the explicit invocation of citizenship. This has served both to advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusion in urban and national political communities and to challenge the authority of state institutions.

Dispossession and oppression persist, particularly in the face of the Bay Area’s affordability crisis. Nonetheless, queer people continue to fight for their right to shape the city according to their values, creating spaces where nonmainstream ways of living, socializing, and organizing thrive.

Some queer individuals opt not to engage with normative state institutions operating under the radar of mainstream urban initiatives, viewing them as perpetuating sociocultural norms and inequality. Others employ territorialization tactics to claim physical space and influence urban decision-making processes. Both approaches, whether engaging with or resisting mainstream institutions, are framed as insurgent articulations of queer citizenship.

The ongoing erasure of queer cultures from contemporary urban landscapes and the dispossession of queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming people underscore the urgency of communicating historical research findings. Understanding how queering operates to subvert mainstream urbanism informs grassroots activism and emphasizes the importance of preserving and advocating for spaces where queer communities can thrive.

What is one key learning you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope readers will better understand the dynamic and ongoing nature of queering urbanism. Queer people have long engaged in processes of occupation, appropriation, and alteration of physical spaces within cities. From carving out spaces of intimacy and socialization in the face of societal norms and legal prohibitions, to the evolution of queer activism in the later twentieth century, the book underscores the transformative power of queer engagement with urban environments. I show how different queer groups have used physical spaces to articulate distinct political demands, shaping the aesthetic and organizational characteristics of their communities.

Ultimately, the work of queering urbanism is never done. It is an ongoing process that requires continual adaptation to unsettle established norms and create inclusive urban environments that reflect the diverse needs and aspirations of queer communities.