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Queering the City

Queering the City: Introduction

Gabrielle Adjerad, Gregory Bekhtari, Anne Crémieux, Claire Finch et Laurence Gervais

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Ingrid Gantner, « Keïona de la House of Revlon, performance de voguing à la Fondation des Etats-Unis », Paris, 10 juin 2021.

1Every edited dossier of an academic journal is a long time in the making and it is an organizing committee’s final reward to read the fruits of a vibrating conference, now available online.

2The conference itself was delayed by the surprise of COVID in 2020, followed by continued restrictions in 2021. With the first lockdown, we pushed back our June 2020 conference to the Fall, which led to a stimulating collaboration with Université Paris Cité and the LARCA. Along with Emmanuelle Delanoë-Brun and Juliette Mélia, when tests were not yet widely available and masks were still scarce, we held a hybrid conference on “Queering Art” with only the speakers meeting in one room, followed by the online screening of Alexis Clements’ 2019 documentary about lesbian cultural spaces across America, All We’ve Got. The screening was followed by a roundtable with four queer and feminist urban associations, Féminicités, Genre et ville, Handiqueer and LOCs (Lesbiennes of Color). This first gathering firmly grounded our analysis of queer spaces as manifested through art, where grassroots politics draw so much inspiration and strength. Six months later, in June 2021, “Queering the City: Transatlantic Perspectives” was a hybrid conference not only because some of the panelists were not allowed to travel unless they had agreed to quarantine when they returned, but because workshopping, art, and performance were an integral part of the experience. We were graced with a performance piece by scholar and artist Emilio Williams, a film screening of Chriss Lag’s 2015 drag king documentary Parole de King, a drag king workshop by Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis, a mini-ball by the House of Revlon, and a monumental photography exhibit by Flore Prebay and Léa Gouzy. This edited dossier seeks to reflect the exhilarating atmosphere created by the fusion of art and science.

3To ask what produces social relationships in urban space today, and how social relationships produce space and place, is to affirm that the connection between society and space is a two-way street. If space is the product of social relations, then conversely space—according to Henri Lefebvre’s triad of “lived, conceived and perceived space”—far from being the passive receptacle of social forces, actually structures and contributes to the reproduction of social relations, in addition to challenging them. This publication questions the relationship between gender, sex, race, and space. In an urban space marked by prescribed social relationships, is it possible to resist and “queer” the city? If we understand “queering” as Kath Browne does in “Challenging Queer Geographies” as “operating beyond powers and controls that enforce normativity” (Browne 886), then “queering the city” implies redrawing, reconceptualizing, rethinking, and remapping to remake bodies, spaces, and geographies. As presented by the August 2023 issue of Social Inclusion edited by Karine Duplan, Monica Battaglini, Milena Chimenti, and Marylène Lieber, inclusivity in urban spaces is a public policy issue that questions the very foundations of freedom and anonymity of the urban spaces we live in.

4Lise Nelson argues that Judith Butler’s concept of performativity can be enhanced by accounting for our lived experience and geographical roots. Nelson underlines the importance of these elements in resisting the constraints imposed on self-construction. For geographical roots do not necessarily imply deliberate “territory-building” by collectives or individuals—it can be the result of more flexible relationships between individuals and territories, including through art. Territorial identification, spatial belonging, or what Doreen Massey calls “creating a sense of place” are strategies for invisibilized groups to create, own, and queer the city.

5Because the city is a place of power, it is also a place of counterpower. Women’s and sexual minorities’ studies have shown how much, in spite of the physical, legal, and cultural barriers, space is queered away from its original intent. George Chauncey’s groundbreaking work on “gay New York” (1994) revealed the existence of meeting places for the city’s gay population (cafeterias, nightclubs, dance halls, neighborhoods), but also of coded recognition tactics (e.g., specific slang or clothing) in urban spaces since the beginning of the twentieth century, long before the sexual revolution of the 1960s. In the wake of Chauncey’s work, historians have retrieved from the dustbin of history the gay neighborhoods of large and medium-sized cities in the United States. In France, from 1975 onwards, feminist and lesbian groups began to think about archiving the LGBTQ movement’s struggles. The first archive centers were created by activists in 1983 in Paris and gathered evidence of what was happening in places of visibility and resistance against erasure. France was reputed for its ostensibly liberal attitude toward homosexuality, which had been decriminalized in 1791, and gay and lesbian bastions had developed rapidly in Paris, particularly during the belle époque. However, homosexuality faced formal repression from the end of the nineteenth century: until 1968, police routinely arrested homosexual men; and until 1982 the ages of consent were not the same for same-sex and different-sex relationships. Wearing pants was illegal for women until 2013—although not enforced in the twentieth century—while gender non-conformity was considered a mental illness until 2010. Artist Michel-Marie Poulain first told of her sex change in the popular French magazine Voilà in 1934 and the concentration-camp survivor Marie André Schwindenhammer created the first support network for trans people in 1965. This set the stage for some public visibility that reached a peak with transgender cabaret culture in Paris, where the Cabaret du Carousel in the 1950s and 1960s housed trans sex-workers in a supportive environment. Starting in 1997, the Existrans marches and their proud occupation of the Parisian pavement in the great tradition of public demonstration for equal rights have participated in making transidentities central to queer politics and queer history.

6Queering urban space requires both the transformation of space and of language, so as to transform the narrative of the city. Queer and trans activism has famously employed performance, street theater, or monumental activism, while contemporary art has integrated militant uses of text, body, and image.

7In these days of increasingly powerful movements of revolt against sexism, sexual harassment, and violence directed at women and dissidents of gender norms and sexual practices, this publication of articles, interviews, and art seeks to map a geography of queer and activist space from a transatlantic, urban perspective.

8The first contribution by Petra Doan develops precise city-level geopolitical models with which to think about why queer people come to urban spaces, why they leave, and why they might stay, putting a queer spotlight on the complex phenomenon of gentrification, where individuals and groups function as entities moved by centrifugal and centripetal forces within increasingly vicarious queer communities. Doan suggests strategies for queer communities to uphold their neighborhoods by using urban protection policies and reclaiming their history as worthy of celebration and preservation.

9The value of queer history as urban heritage is manifested in Lara Cox’s examination of the “imaginative geography” of Philadelphia’s queer community through murals, a defining feature of the city since the launch of its Mural Arts program in 1987. Cox analyzes how art not only represents, but also affirms and congregates communities through the visual occupation of urban landscapes.

10Symbolic occupation and poetic exploration of urban spaces is at the heart of Atom-R’s digital performance experience. The body is brought to the center as a powerful tool for producing immediate and dramatic transformations in physical and conceptual space that engage queer urban heritage via sexual politics. Atom-R’s inverted virtual cityscape invites viewers to penetrate and explore Trump Tower, this temple of man-made power, turn it upside down and “make a bottom out of the tower’s top.” Their reflections on how to work as artists coming from a context of American imperialism, and own that concept without letting it crush creativity, may resonate outside of queer circles, for their dream-like aesthetics weave together complex realities to serve queer theory in ways that expand its scope.

11Literature as an art of resistance and a mapping mechanism is analyzed by Elisa Cecchinato and Thomas Muzart. As presented by Cecchinato, Black American queer novelists writing in 1930s Harlem produced cartographies that allow for underground spaces to be pulled to the surface, giving us a glimpse of a transformed, “re-oriented,” queer and dissident city that produced the Harlem Renaissance. Also focusing on a pioneer of (this time explicitly) gay literature, at the heart of the sexual revolution of the 1970s, Thomas Muzart questions queer attempts to combat heteronormativity through a study of Guy Hocquenghem’s writings on homosexual traveling and capitalism. Muzart questions how the study of the past may project us into a particular futurity, one perhaps detached from idealism and its particular blind spots.

12Emilio Williams’s burlesque poetic performance is presented here as prose, and a renewed proposition to practice queer theory in a way that is freeing instead of restrictive, focusing on hybrid methods of knowledge production, mixing history, literature, photography, and academic sources to render the experience of queerness in a former “gay Paris.”

13The invisibility of queerness in pre-AIDS France is mirrored by Vinii Revlon’s and Fred Nauczyciel’s interview about the Paris voguing scene, a largely non-white and migrant, trans and non-binary urban community that just recently gained major visibility with the crowning of Keiona, mother of the House of Revlon, as France 2 Drag Race France’s Queen (season 2). As a happy foreshadowing, Keiona had brilliantly won the Revlon mini-ball on June 11, 2021, at the internationally acclaimed “Queering the City” academic conference! It is a pride and joy to have witnessed her talent, and the tantalizing energy of the House of Revlon, only a few months before they became internationally celebrated by rising on the podium of Legendary Season 3 (2022). The father of the House of Revlon’s dialogue with Fred Nauczyciel highlights the practices of invisibility and appropriation queer communities face, and offers thoughts on how to peacefully educate allies to respect and celebrate artistic communities without adding to the marginalization that brought them into being.

14This edited dossier includes a conversation with drag king performers and workshop organizers Louise Deville and Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis about the critical exploration of masculinities through performance. It is a follow-up to Sentis’s drag king workshop, which gave the conference a training ground for intimate space hacking practices. Panelists and conference attendees experienced queer theory’s famous “performance of gender” by learning to talk, walk, pack, and drag it up. The US-born Louise de Ville has brought a contextualized set of US queer practices to her burlesque and drag king workshops in France, where she hijacks and makes art out of gender codes. There she has found and become part of an inspiring French drag king scene which includes performers such as Isabelle Salem Diego Sentis, interviewed alongside Louise de Ville. The interview interrogates the way drag kinging deconstructs the binaries of masculine and feminine by tracing drag king history as it continues to be invented, and by examining drag king practices in urban spaces.

15Just as the conference was inhabited by Flore Prebay and Léa Gouzy’s large-format photographs, we suggest periodically pausing the reading of this collection of essays to experience the empowering effect of queer art on academic research with the representations of queering gender in the city, which are included in the final contribution to the edited dossier: an album of queer bodies photographed in urban spaces by two up-and-coming photographers.

16This edited dossier seeks to advance our understanding of how transactional minorities navigate urban space and politicize it through their presence and their political existence, through art, dance, performance, and activism. It is this unique blend of intellectual, sensory, and communal experience that this edited dossier hopes to reflect.

17We would like to thank the universities of Paris Nanterre, Paris 8, Paris Cité, and Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, the CREA, TransCrit, LEGS, LARCA, and EMMA research working groups, as well as ArTec and IdA for their support, the Fondation des États-Unis for hosting us, and our speakers, panel chairs and moderators, interpreters and technical support. We also thank Transatlantica and its editors-in-chief Guillaume Marche and Monica Manolescu for their immense editing support, and, most importantly, our contributors, who we warmly invite you to read in the following pages.

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Bibliographie

BROWNE, Kath. “Challenging queer geographies.” Antipode, no. 38, 2006, p. 885-893.

BUTLER, Judith. Giving an Account of One Self. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.

CHAUNCEY, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

DUPLAN, Karine, Monica BATTAGLINI, Milena CHIMIENTI, and Marylène LIEBER. “In/Exclusive Cities: Insights From a Social Work Perspective.” Social Inclusion, vol. 11, no. 3, 2023, www.cogitatiopress.com/socialinclusion/issue/view/356. Accessed 16 October 2023.

LEFEBVRE, Henry. The Production of Space. Translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

MASSEY, Doreen. Space, Place and Gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

NELSON, Lise. “Bodies (and Spaces) Do Matter: The Limits of Performativity.” Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, vol. 6, no. 4, 1999, p. 331-353.

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Légende Ingrid Gantner, « Keïona de la House of Revlon, performance de voguing à la Fondation des Etats-Unis », Paris, 10 juin 2021.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/21771/img-1.jpg
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Gabrielle Adjerad, Gregory Bekhtari, Anne Crémieux, Claire Finch et Laurence Gervais, « Queering the City: Introduction »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/21771 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.21771

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Auteurs

Gabrielle Adjerad

École normale supérieure - PSL, République des Savoirs

Gregory Bekhtari

Université Paris Nanterre, CREA

Anne Crémieux

Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, EMMA

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Claire Finch

Université Paris 8, LEGS

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Laurence Gervais

Université Paris Nanterre, CREA

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