Review: Safe Space

Colin Wilson is full of praise for a recent book on LGBT history, but highlights a broader political problem.


Safe Space: Gay Neighbourhood History and the Politics of Violence
Christina B. Hanhardt
Duke University Press, £17.99

Safe Space charts the history since the 1960s of community organising in three neighbourhoods identified with LGBT people: the Tenderloin and the Castro in San Francisco, and the area around Christopher Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. Hanhardt examines how these areas came to be identified as “gay neighbourhoods” and how activists have sought to ensure that people are safe in them, which has meant engaging with the police in various ways. She repeatedly shows that race is also essential to understanding this history in an American context where neighbourhoods are often linked to ethnic groups, and where “crime” is frequently discussed in a racialised way.

This is then a book that addresses issues around LGBT people, racism, policing and the city, and produce a far more holistic picture of how those issues fit together than anything I’ve read before. While this is an academic book, Hanhardt writes partly from her experience as an ally of FIERCE, a group of young, low-income LGBTQ people of colour campaigning for their right to social space in Greenwich Village. She makes it plain early on that “crime” and “violence” are concepts we can’t use in an uncritical way, as when she explains that by “state violence” she refers not only to “the routineness of police and prison brutality” but also to incarceration. As she puts it, the “stolen bodily autonomy involved in arrest and caging cannot be made null by arguing that it is justified, for that is to accept the belief that crime categories and the idea of crime itself are just.”

Hanhardt first examines the Tenderloin neighbourhood of San Francisco in the 1960s. It was “a place of white homosexuals, sex workers, itinerants and drug users” and the location of Compton’s Cafeteria, where about fifty trans women, runaway teens and others rioted after the owners harassed them in the summer of 1966. LGBT organisations worked with a local liberal church to win state funding for community services like an advice centre. Many histories of the early LGBT movement have suggested that pre-Stonewall activism was extremely nervous and respectable, so this is striking in itself.

Race is immediately part of the picture here. The LGBT activists were being funded from the same pot of money as black neighbourhoods, who opposed money going to the Tenderloin. Tenderloin activists made use of racial terminology, referring to the area as a “white ghetto”. Hanhardt reports that at one point, “over 100 residents of the Tenderloin walked out of a meeting run by African American municipal officials, while singing the song We Shall Overcome.” A trainee minister commented that “the Negro people sat quietly and watched us leave singing their song.” Activists, then, tended to think of LGBT identity as a sort of rival ethnicity to that of African Americans. Their common sense was that no one was a member of both groups. When community services faced cuts in the 1970s, for example, and there were discussions about merging with organisations from other neighbourhoods, one gay activist commented that “I can’t see those militant Black men from Western Addition mingling, let alone sharing the same reception room, with my nelly faggots.”

Gay and black activists did successfully work together, however, against police brutality and harassment. LGBT activists initiated the organisation Citizens Alert because police were beating gay men using the cruising ground at Golden Gate Park. They involved black activists, from a range of motives, but partly because the recent Watts Rebellion of August 1965, where thousands of black people in Los Angeles had risen up against the racist brutality of a militarised police force. Citizens Alert filed formal complaints about police brutality against both black and gay people.

However moderate the politics of these organisations, implicit here is an understanding of the police as essentially oppressive. That understanding continued in a more radical form after the Stonewall riot founded the modern gay liberation movement in 1969: in the words of Chicago Gay Liberation, “Our most immediate oppressors are the pigs.” Since the cops could not be trusted, the newly self-organised lesbians and gay men began to organise street patrols to ensure safety on the streets of gay neighbourhoods. Hanhardt’s focus now shifts to the Castro, which became at this time and remains the main gay neighbourhood of San Francisco. LGBT people – many accounts suggest, in particular, white middle-class gay men – bought houses and opened businesses. The Castro was for example the power base of Harvey Milk, elected as an openly-gay city official in 1977 and the owner of a local camera store. The influx of LGBT people into the Castro was typically identified with the area’s gentrification, and this raised concerns for people of colour in adjoining neighbourhoods, who worried that those districts would become unaffordable. A community organiser from the Mission, a Latino neighbourhood, commented that “we are not saying the gay community are speculators period. They’re also being victimised. But gays are a major part of the influx of white-collar professional types.” As in the 1960s Tenderloin, there is the assumption on the part of both LGBT people and people of colour that the two groups are mutually exclusive: the existence of LGBT people of colour is persistently erased.

In 1977, LGBT activists in the Castro formed the Butterfly Brigade, which patrolled the district, recorded homophobic abuse and attacks, and distributed whistles with which victims could summon help. The use of whistles raises the question of who campaigners expected to respond to whistle blasts. In some cases, other LGBT people did so. But the Butterfly Brigade stressed that they were not vigilantes, that is, they did not challenge the state’s unique authority to use violence – and so, in at least some cases in practice, they encouraged the use of whistles to summon police. Implicit in this approach was collaboration with the cops, and this became explicit in the calls from some members to reform police by the recruitment of lesbian and gay officers and the provision of training for cops on equality issues.

In the 1980s and 90s, as LGBT people faced an increasing level of violence around the AIDS epidemic, reliance on the state became the dominant response of LGBT campaigners. This period saw the enactment, for example, of “hate crime” laws – in much of America the first time that LGBT people were protected by legislation. (Hanhardt here tells the remarkable story of how the concept of “hate crime” was developed by Zionist organisations, which worked with LGBT groups to campaign for hate crime laws.) The 1990s New York group Street Patrol, founded by Queer Nation, recommended that LGBT people facing harassment contact the police, and exaggerate the details of their complaint if they felt they were not taken seriously. For example, they could claim that they were threatened with a knife: the group stated that the cops “will be glad to harass someone if you spice up your complaint some.” One leaflet listed behaviours the group found unwelcome, which included homophobic violence but also drug dealing and use, shoplifting, drinking by minors, illegal parking and noise that bothers other people (“includes boom boxes”).

Inviting police harassment in New York is to invite racism, a racism made explicit in the reference to “boom boxes” or in Street Patrol referring to a group suspected of planning homophobic violence as looking “like gang members”. The references to “public order” also fit all too well with the “broken windows” strategy adopted by Rudy Giuliani, elected as Mayor of New York in 1993. The strategy asserts that signs of small-scale crime, the “broken windows”, create an environment in which serious crime is more likely, so legitimising police harassment of beggars, sex workers and young people of colour.

Finally, Hanhardt describes conflicts over the use of the piers at the end of Christopher Street in the first years of this century. These has been a popular venue for public sex between men in the 1960s and 70s, and from the 1980s LGBT people of colour had begun to socialise in the area, coming from all over the New York area to create a social scene depicted in the wonderful 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. Local residents, mostly LGBT and white, now began to campaign under the slogan Take Back Our Streets, complaining that the neighbourhood had been taken over by “outsiders” they described as “gang members”. Nor is this even a matter of residents acting in their own class interests – for those who were tenants, the further gentrification that was likely to result from their campaign could only push up rents further until they themselves could no longer afford to live there. Young LGBT people of colour, typically on low incomes, formed the organisation FIERCE and raised slogans including “We are Worth More Than Your Property Values” and “Whose Streets? Our Streets Too!”

Hanhardt’s book deserves nothing but praise for its sensitive and detailed accounts of struggles over the course of fifty years, a sensitivity and detail I can’t reflect here. Yet I also came away from it with a niggling sense of unease. The book documents, time and again, how divisions open up, in particular, between LGBT people and people of colour – in particular, how LGBT people are often assumed all to be white, while people of colour are typically regarded as straight. There has developed, since the turn of the century, a strong feeling on much of the left that such struggles must be united. This is reflected in the increased use of the concept of intersectionality, which highlights the fact that people may experience more than one oppression, and that, when they do, oppressions do not combine in simple ways – the experience of black women is different from both that of white women and of black men. This is very much part of Hanhardt’s analysis – but it leaves open the question of political strategy. If we agree that we want to bring together the struggles of workers, women, LGBT people, people of colour and so forth, how do we do that?

Hanhardt cites in this regard the work of 1980s groups such as Dykes against Racism Everywhere and Lesbians against Police Violence, which challenged state violence but also “asked white and middle-class lesbians and gay men to think hard about what role they played” in the continued practice of police brutality. My concern here is that the approach of such groups – which were entirely praiseworthy, but also small and short-lived – appeals to white people to act in an altruistic way, to act not out of self-interest but by reference to some higher morality. It seems to me that an approach based on class – which acknowledges that racism divides our class and movement, so that it is precisely in the interests of white people to oppose it – forms a more solid basis for unity.

This relates also to my concerns about the approach to class in Safe Space. Class is an important element in the book’s analysis, for example of who lives where, and how the police interact with them. At a time when LGBT media is saturated with an aspirational consumerism which assumes that, if we aren’t middle-class already, we soon will be, or at least hope to be, Hanhardt’s approach is to be welcomed. But for the people described here, being working class is always a source of weakness – it means poor housing, low wages or lack of educational achievement. We never see class as a basis for struggle, or workers as people who can bring about social change through their own agency and so change themselves. To be fair, this has hardly been a major theme in US history in the last fifty years – even in the splendid, near-revolutionary struggles of the 1960s and 70s, race seems to have been the crucial factor, class a relatively minor one – and you can’t ask a historian to describe something that isn’t actually there to find.

All in all, Safe Space asks so many pertinent questions, and provides such a satisfying analysis of the issues involved, that the book is simply a joy. If it leaves answers open, that is because the questions need to be answered in the form not of a book, but of political practice – and that’s up to us.


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