“Queer cities” and queer urban spaces can accelerate inclusivity and safety for all. This article by Katie Cashman and Waldo Soto relates queer expression to urban life by way of the impressions of queer* citizens in three cities: Santiago, Berlin, and Nairobi.
The Sustainable Development Goal of inclusivity and the New Urban Agenda are being addressed by city managers and urban activists in different ways. We often think of SDG 11’s aim for inclusivity in terms of democratising the city to include racially or economically marginalised residents. Considering queer expression in urban management provides a way to overcome societal marginalisation and inequality.
The term queer is being used more and more frequently because it allows for total openness to any type of manifestation of our gender and sexuality, without a binary approach that often replicates hegemonies of power. Trans men and women and non-binary individuals are integral to this inclusive formation of identity. Fostering queer spaces collaborates with the objective of urban inclusivity in its broadest sense.
Safe Spaces For Queer Refugees
Queer cities also tend to address urgent social challenges. In Berlin, the “Queerberg” collective stands out, a word game referring to the Kreuzberg neighbourhood and the inclusion of queer immigrants and refugees. This group creates safe spaces that provide psychological help and company to queer-identifying refugees arriving to the city. ‘Schwulen-Beratung’ is another organisation that provides protection to queer refugees, from hate crimes to therapy to those with mental health issues as an effect of living queer.
© Katie Cashman. Young African Artisans Market along the river Spree in Berlin is one inclusive space for refugees.
Moutasem Al Khnaifes, a queer refugee from Syria now living in Berlin, notes that Damascus’ culture enforced a much stricter social control regarding sexuality. The culture for public intimacy also differs between Berlin and Damascus. However, in this case, Damascus is more open: “in Damascus it was acceptable to lock arms while walking and talking because that was seen as friendly intimacy, while in Berlin, where it’s definitely more acceptable to be queer, it’s harder for men to publicly display affection. So far, I have never held a man’s hand while walking in Berlin’s streets.”
Nairobi is a more tolerant host for queer folks in contrast to the rest of Kenya, and also hosts queer refugees from neighbouring African nations. A young queer Kenyan who moved from Nakuru to Nairobi, now feels more included in society: “When I came to Nairobi in the mid 2000s, I started to accept my ‘queerness’, especially after seeing other people across the heteronormative gradient.“ Still, he considers Nairobi as only “semi-inclusive” in the sense that people’s perspectives on the moral question of queerness shift with technology, trends, culture, and “opinion-splitting” religion.
However, Kenyan laws still outlaw homosexuality. Po Kimani, a Nairobian queer activist, has been contesting homophobic laws across the East African region with the queer and trans community since 2006, initially through the HIV/AIDS movement, and now with the growing civil society organisations. Po finds that one of the powerful ways Nairobi is overcoming homophobia is through the increasing representation of queer identity in the arts.
Safe Spaces For Those Without Economic Resources
Planning cities that promote a more inclusive expression of gender and sexuality is not easy. Strategies such as designating “gay neighbourhoods” can sometimes lead to segregation or the manifestation of other non-inclusive spaces. Gay bars, marches, and pride events, moreover, show an excessive predominance of the male gender leading to low representation of other genders.
Berlin has historically been a safe haven for queer people. Moutasem reflects on his landlord’s stories about queer parties in basements in the 1970s. Today the trend continues, yet while it used to be clear which place is queer friendly and which is not, those borders are now blurred.
Strong policies for economic growth as well as the city’s branding as a creative city led to a boom in queer business marketing. But, as Moutasem says, “being queer in Berlin is good for business.” Or, in other words, only queers above a certain income bracket find a place for themselves in the city while younger or economically disadvantaged queers are excluded. As such, he perceives that queerness in Berlin requires a price tag for entry.
The well-known strategy of designating gay neighbourhoods should be reconsidered and overhauled to be open for people of all economic and ethnic backgrounds. Luis Larrain, co-founder of the Iguales Foundation in Chile, explains how the Barrio Bellas Artes in Santiago has become a central space that brings together not only sexual, but also migratory diversity: “The Bellas Artes neighbourhood is a place where you feel safe and meet all kinds of people.”
Recommendations For Developing Queer Cities
In consultation with queer citizens in Santiago, Berlin, and Nairobi, four strategies appear to help form diverse, inclusive, and queer cities.
Firstly, the urgent problem of homophobic crimes in public spaces must be addressed. Larrain comments that in light of reports of homophobic attacks in parks in Chile, mayors and police officers have been asked to improve surveillance and install more lighting. However, the police often lack knowledge about these issues. That’s why it is also important to educate the staff about this topic.
© Waldo Soto. Public spaces like Parque Forestal in Santiago de Chile are being made safer through urban design such as street lighting.
Secondly, queer spaces for meetings shouldn’t only exist at parties and clubs, but also for example in cafes, libraries, and parks. Blanka Vay, a Hungarian trans activist now living in Berlin, envisages the queer city as rainbow flags raised at local government offices, politicians marching at pride, and queer clubs and organisations with fixed meeting spaces, just like sport clubs or senior clubs.
We can also diversify gay liberation manifestations, marches, and campaigns, as many have been taken over by big companies and often over-represent male gay people. Some radical manifestations have arisen, such as the Radical Queer March or the Dyke March in Berlin, which took place the same weekend as the popular Christopher Street Day (CSD) demonstration.
Thirdly, queer support groups and organisations must be authorised and supported by city administrations. The journalist Charlotte Hannah Peters has observed that some associations in Berlin and Brandenburg (a federal state in Germany) face many challenges when applying to be recognised as charitable organisations by official authorities, mostly because of discrimination and a lack of understanding about the needs of queer people.
These associations receive neither tax benefits nor financial support, which makes it hard for them to sustain their work. Once again, an oppressed sector of society has to fight for their rights. A binding anti-discriminatory policy would be beneficial for organisations and in turn help boost the number of people working towards designing more inclusive spaces and strengthening the quality of life for queer citizens.
Finally, no real accomplishment can be made in urban inclusivity without representation of marginalised groups in the city council and other positions of municipal power. Representatives of the city should not only reflect diversity in gender and sexuality, but also manifest solidarity and inclusivity in their policies.
* We prefer the term queer to LGBTQ so as not to encourage a binary understanding of sexuality, and at the same time to provoke a reflection of the word “normal.”