How do digital maps help us understand the history of sexuality and gender in new ways? Projects that use Geographic Information System (GIS) methods can document the shifting sites of queer sociality making it possible for viewers to see the changing ways that LGBTQ people made space for themselves in an environment that was often hostile to their existence. But these projects can do much more. The sorts of spatial thinking enabled by digital mapping provide historians with exciting opportunities to analyze social relations in their time and place.
Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis, a collaborative project of the community-based St. Louis LGBT History Project, Washington University faculty and librarians, and area museums and archives, features more than 800 locations significant to metropolitan St. Louis’s queer history from 1945 to 1992. We situate these locations within the “divided city” to foreground how the region was divided by sexuality and gender and how LGBTQ life itself was riven by multiple and entwined forms of segregation. Demonstrating the power of GIS to facilitate intersectional analysis and represent the complexities of the past, our project pushes historical mapping in new directions.
Our approach to this project was catalyzed by recent events in St. Louis. In 2014, the world watched as Ferguson, Missouri—a northern suburb of St. Louis—erupted in flames after a police officer murdered unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown. The media coverage of the Ferguson uprising communicated internationally what many St. Louisans had long known: theirs was a divided city, and nothing about the region could be understood without attending to its long and persistent history of racial segregation. One of a number of projects funded by Washington University’s Divided City Initiative, Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis makes this local knowledge visible in maps, in documents and images, and in interpretive essays. We provide a few examples from the project below.
Mapping proved to be a particularly powerful way to explore the role of race in local LGBTQ history. (Throughout the period treated by the map, fewer than 3% of city residents were of Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American, or Hispanic descent, so this story largely focuses on black/white binaries.) St. Louis is a border city that blends the Jim Crow legacy of the South with the starkly spatialized racial inequality of the Rustbelt North. St. Louis’s LGBTQ communities have generally reproduced these patterns of racial polarization. In some important ways, however, the region’s queer geography complicates the picture.
Black and white LGBTQ people in St. Louis tended to move in parallel social worlds. In the 1950s, some white-owned gay and lesbian bars openly refused service to black customers. In later years, discrimination tended to be less overt, but it still effectively segregated queer nightlife. For example, bouncers might ask that black customers present multiple forms of ID without making the same demand of white customers. Often unwelcome at white establishments, queer St. Louisans who were African American socialized and built community in spaces of their own. These were typically located in the black neighborhoods of St. Louis’s north side or in the racially mixed Central Corridor.
New insights emerged by plotting LGBTQ social spaces over the region’s shifting racial landscape. During the post-World War II decades of white flight, St. Louis’s white gay bars were mostly concentrated in the borderlands between predominantly black and predominantly white parts of the city. St. Louis’s “gayborhoods” likewise developed in these liminal urban areas—due, in part, to discriminatory practices that sometimes kept queer white people from living in more socially homogenous neighborhoods. These maps illuminate how the city was structured at the intersections of race and sexuality.
While racial segregation was foundational to St. Louis’s LGBTQ history, there were important spaces where some queer St. Louisans attempted to bridge the region’s divide. In the 1980s, for instance, Women Against Racism and Black and White Men Together organized locally and held events at gay and lesbian gathering places.
Gender segregation only sometimes mapped so directly onto the built environment, but the process of mapping encouraged forms of spatial analysis that produce a deeper understanding of how the St. Louis LGBTQ community was divided by cross-cutting axes of gender, race, and class. Plotting locations on the map revealed, for example, the distinct spatial contours of lesbian bar life, with white lesbian bars concentrated in the working-class communities of south St. Louis and bars friendly to black gay women sprinkled mainly through north St. Louis.
Placing segregation at the center of analysis also helped to illustrate the shifting social and political relationships between lesbians and gay men in the city. For example, a section on the spatial relations of lesbian-feminism highlights both the creation of separate women-only spaces, and the divisions that often erupted when gay men and lesbians built organizations together.
The metaphor of segregation provided a useful way of exploring St. Louis’s LGBTQ activist history. One example is the split in Iris, a group formed in 1979 by lesbian-feminists and gay and bisexual men to help organize what would be St. Louis’s first annual Pride march. Although they planned to continue to work together politically after the event, the lesbians in the group soon ejected the men for their allegedly sexist behavior.
Mapping also helped to make visible the forms of violence that sought to exclude lesbians, men who had sex with men, and gender non-conforming people from public space through much of the city’s history. These included the firebombing of lesbian bars, the police entrapment of men in city parks, and laws prohibiting cross-dressing.
But the map also highlighted resistance to this violence. For example, Gateway Femmes (later the St. Louis Gender Foundation) began in the early 1970s as an organization for those who self-identified as transsexuals or transvestites. Members created their own map of the metropolitan region, claiming public space in hotels in the city of St. Louis and its suburbs.
Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis joins a number of recent digital mapping projects that document local LGBTQ histories and communities, in cities such as Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and many more. Varied in their approaches, these public history ventures are invaluable for bringing the queer past to a broad and diverse audience. Even more, mapping makes possible new strategies for creating inclusive and critical histories. Through the lens of space, these projects reveal the complexities of crafting community across difference.
Ian Darnell was Senior Research Associate for Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis. He is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago researching the entwined roles of sexuality and race in the growth, decline, and renewal of St. Louis in the twentieth century. He is a contributor to the community-based St. Louis LGBT History Project, and is a Museum Assistant at The Griot Museum of Black History.
Andrea Friedman is Professor of History and Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of Citizenship in Cold War America: The National Security State & the Possibilities of Dissent and Prurient Interests: Gender, Democracy & Obscenity in New York City, 1909-1945. Her current research focuses on the sexual politics of the Clinton presidency.
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