Lesbians in the Crowd: Gender, sexuality, and visibility along Montreal's Boul. St-Laurent

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Julie A Podmore
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  Gender, Place and Culture, Vol. 8, No. 4, pp. 333–355, 2001 Lesbians in the Crowd: gender, sexuality and visibilityalong Montre ´al’s Boul. St-Laurent   JULIE A. PODMORE, John Abbott College, Que´bec, Canada   ABSTRACT Boul. St-Laurent is a commercial artery in inner-city Montre´al. Often characterised as the border zone of a multicultural and bilingual city, it is a place where a variety of populations and activities come together. It is also a central activity space for residents of the Plateau Mont-Royal District, an area of the city with a signicant population of lesbian residents. Using qualitative interviews with lesbians who live in this district, the author examines how this neighbourhood shopping street facilitates lesbian patterns of social interaction, place making and expressions of desire. Most previous research on how lesbians establish a presence in urban space focuses either on the exclusion of lesbian subjectivity fromheterosexual spaces or patterns of residential and institutional clustering in urban neighbourhoods. The objective of this article, however, is to focus on an area of the city that can be described as a ‘space of  difference’ and examine how its heterogeneity accommodates lesbian visibility, especially among the lesbians themselves. Introduction Over the past decade, geographers have witnessed a multiplication of research on thesubject of sexuality and space. Not only have these studies been important in articulating geographies that depart from the heteropatriarchal [1] norm, they have also made acrucial contribution to our understanding of the importance of gender in mediating gayand lesbian geographies in North American and European urban centres (Castells, 1983;Lauria & Knopp, 1985; Winchester & White, 1988; Bell, 1991; Adler & Brenner, 1992;Bouthillette, 1997; Stein, 2000). In North American cities in particular, lesbians and gaymen exhibit markedly different patterns of residence, neighbourhood and visibility inurban public space (Wolf, 1979; Bell, 1991; Peake, 1993; Rothenberg, 1995; Valentine,1995; Bouthillette, 1997; Forsyth, 2001). Since lesbian businesses, institutions anddomestic spaces are rarely concentrated in a single territory, lesbian geographies appearto be more dispersed, hidden and ‘private’. Lesbian urban landscapes, therefore, havebeen described as ‘invisible’ (Chamberland, 1993; Valentine, 1995; Wolfe, 1998), or atleast ‘imperceptible’ to outside observers (Adler & Brenner, 1992; Peake, 1993).The difculty in ‘seeing’ lesbian spatialities and subjectivities in urban space highlightsimportant conceptual problems in urban geographical studies. While the less visiblegeographies of lesbians can be attributed to demographic and spatial factors that womenexperience in cities, lesbian spatialities are further obscured from view by an emphasison territoriality, singular identities and visibility. Stein’s (2000, p. 47) comparative Correspondence:  Julie A. Podmore, Geosciences Department, John Abbott College, PO Box 2000, Ste. Anne deBellevue, Que´bec, Canada H9X 3L9; e-mail: jpodmore@johnabbott.qc.caISSN 0966-369X print/ISSN 1360-0524 online/01/040333-23 Ó 2001 Taylor & Francis LtdDOI 10.1080/0966369012011159 1 333  334 J. A. Podmore  research on gay and lesbian geographies in Philadelphia from 1945 to 1972, for example,suggests that contrasts between lesbian and gay geographies may have more to do with‘the ways that lesbians and gay men make themselves visible’ than with a ‘lack’ of meaningful urban spaces in the everyday lives of lesbians. Others have more forcefullysuggested that lesbian ‘invisibility’ in the urban landscape might be a product of howsocial scientists ‘look’ at urban landscapes. As Jay (1997) has argued, gay and lesbianstudies in urban geography have uncritically adopted a methodological framework thatlimits our capacity to see lesbian geographies. The vast majority have too readilyaccepted ‘that public visibility and collective presence is vital to recognition and politicallegitimacy’ (Jay, 1997, p. 166).While Jay (1997) suggests that lesbian subjectivity might be more meaningfullyexamined by integrating the domestic sphere into these interpretations of sexuality andspace, there are additional feminist issues surrounding the question of lesbian visibility incities. First, this question could be addressed at an epistemological level. The idea thata group of women are ‘invisible’ in the urban ‘landscape’ points to Rose’s (1993) critiqueof the gender of geographical knowledge, in which she questions the heteropatriarchalnature of the geographers’ claims to a comprehensive understanding of ‘transparent’space. More specically, lesbian visibility raises questions regarding essentialist denitionsof territory and identity. As Taylor (1998) has observed through her case study of Sydney, Australia’s ‘Lesbian Space Project’, the terms ‘lesbian’ and ‘space’ are unstablepolitical concepts, ‘each provoking the contestation of the other, and producing ongoing upheaval’ (1998, p. 140). Her suggestion that these two terms are antithetical is informedby a post-colonial feminist recognition that the xing of gender and sexual identities inplace is always undermined by internal contradictions.Within queer urban studies, essentialist denitions of identity and urban space create very particular problems for lesbian visibility. The continued reproduction of what mightbe described as a ‘mosaic model’ of the city’s residential geography in queer urbanstudies, for example, reinforces lesbian invisibility in urban space. Despite the recognitionof the multiplicity of identities and spaces, the city continues to be interpreted as acollection of socially isolated but physically contiguous ethnic, class or sexual territoriesthat are made visible through the material landscape. From a feminist perspective, the‘mosaic model’ is problematic because it articially separates the public and privatespheres and masks the multiplicity of identities located within enclaves and households(Gibson, 1998; Pratt, 1998). For lesbians, however, the most important problem with thismodel is its reliance on ‘visibility’ and singular categories of identity. Having little impacton the material public landscape of the city, ‘others’ are rarely able to detect a lesbian‘presence’. All of these observations indicate that in order to examine further the urbanspaces that are important in the daily lives of lesbians, we need another ‘way of looking’.In this article, I propose that lesbian visibility in the urban landscape should bereconsidered in terms of more complex denitions of personal identity and space. Tworecent studies (Rothenberg, 1995; Bouthillette, 1997) demonstrate that lesbian neigh-bourhood concentrations are often found in areas that might be categorised as ‘spaces of difference’, socially and culturally mixed inner-city neighbourhoods that experience somegentrication. Moreover, these studies show that neighbourhood shopping streets, busi-nesses and institutions can be important sites of lesbian sociability and communality,even if they are not lesbian-specic sites. While Valentine (1993a, 1993b) has done agreat deal of research on how British lesbians negotiate the various realms of urban life,there is little consensus on how lesbians mark and use the public spaces of their ownparticular neighbourhoods. Putting aside the search for ‘lesbian space’ as it is carved out  Gender, Sexuality and Visibility along Montre ´al’s Boul. St-Laurent  335in bars, homes and community centres, I present a case study of how a social network of lesbians living in such a neighbourhood in inner-city Montre´al perceive and experi-ence Boul. St-Laurent. An important commercial artery of the Plateau Mont-RoyalDistrict (Fig. 1), this street is lined with shops and restaurants that serve visitors and theresidents of this relatively diverse neighbourhood. The study is based on 18 qualitativeinterviews that were conducted in 1996 and 1997. I use these interpretations tocontribute to and extend the debate regarding how gender mediates geographies of sexuality in the urban landscape. The objective is to de-emphasise the territorialoccupation of space that renders lesbians invisible by focusing on a heterogeneous publicspace in which lesbians are visible to each other. I contend that for a population withlittle formal space of their own, neighbourhood streets can be important resources forshaping lesbian subjectivity, communality, sociability and even desire. I do not allege thatthis makes this population unique, but rather, that this realm of sociability be recognisedas important in our understandings of lesbian engagements in urban social life. Streets of Desire In recent years, urban theorists have revisited the city streets to investigate public culture(Sennett, 1991; Zukin, 1995). Feminists and queer theorists, in particular, reacting toinequities in the heteropatriarchal public sphere, have turned their attention to the streets(Young, 1990a, 1990b; Golding, 1993; Knopp, 1995; Wilson, 1995). For feminists,contesting the exclusion of women from the public sphere has often been givenexpression in activism and research on the politics of the city streets. Queer activists havealso long identied the streets as important places of subversion, whether through publicsex, cruising or the carnivalesque occupation of the streets during demonstrations andpride parades. In these literatures, ‘the streets’ play two political roles. First, like feministefforts to contest the separation of the spheres, queer theorists and activists often interpretthe streets as the most accessible sites from which to call into question heterosexualhegemony. The streets represent both the dominance of heterosexuality as an institutionand the persistent possibility of subversion and contestation by sexual dissidents. Asecond discourse extends from the rst. In post-structural feminist literatures, the citystreets have become a metaphor for a radical pluralist society (Young, 1990a, 1990b). Inresponse to essentialist notions of gender and the anti-urbanism of earlier feministutopias, post-structural feminists turned to the uncontrollable multiplicity found along ‘the streets’ of the metropolis. A counter-discourse exemplied in Young’s (1990a, 1990b)denition of ‘unassimilated otherness’ [2], this urban ideal was a direct response to therecognition of multiple identities that postmodernism and difference brought to femi-nism. Sexuality and desire have also, however, been an important component of thefeminist celebration of the heterogeneity found in the city streets. Feminists have, attimes, interpreted urbanism as a social condition that has been necessary for theexpression and experience of autonomous female sexualities (Wilson, 1991; Munt, 1995).Wilson (1991), for example, counters the idealisation of the ‘rural’ in feminist separatismusing images of ‘desiring’ women walking the city streets, negotiating between their ownobjectication and ‘other’ prospects.Some writings on lesbian desire and urban space have also taken this turn. Munt’s(1995) lesbian aˆneur, for example, is an attempt to insert lesbian subjectivity and desireinto a heterosexist debate about gender and public space (see Wilson, 1995). In Munt’s(1995) work, butch drag aˆneurs merge with the anonymous crowd as they amble the  336 J. A. Podmore  F IG . 1.
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