Jen Jack Gieseking

A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians, Dykes, and Queers is a lesbian and queer historical geography of New York City. In this edited extract, the author Jen Jack Gieseking explains the conceptual and political limitations of imagining neighborhoods as the emblematic form of queer space. The book draws upon interviews with 47 lesbian and queer New Yorkers (women and trans and gender non-conforming people) who came out between 1983 and 2008, and scholarship in queer theory and geography, to argue that the concept of what Giesking calls “constellations” better captures queer practices of space-making against the assumption of queer liberation through “the myth of neighbourhood liberation.” Gieseking then goes on to show how constellations can help us to better understand the lesbian and queer practices of “U-hauling.”

A Queer New York traces the gentrification of and by lesbian and queer people from 1983 to 2008, or, more colloquially, from the early days of the AIDS crisis to the last season of The L Word. The years after participants’ names demarcates their year of coming out in order to trace the generational framework within which they experienced and, at times, still see and imagine lesbian-queer spaces, cultures, and politics. In other words, ‘Phyllis ’88’ means Phyllis came out in 1988.

cover art for the book, “A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians, Dykes, and Queers,” by Jen Jack Gieseking

Like other queer and feminist geographers before me, I ask, Beyond queer bodies producing queer space, what of the queer practice of producing space itself?[i] I rely heavily on the work of queer, feminist, trans, and sexual geographers who, in the last decade or so, have produced work that does not presume that queer identities and spaces equate with a radical way of being, at all times, “beyond normativity.”[ii] I too do not suggest that constellations are always radical or “alternative.” Rather, they show how practices of queering sometimes necessitate sitting in and dwelling alongside white cis-heteropatriarchy, inasmuch as they require navigating through, around, and against the same systems of oppression. I theorize constellations, as I describe below, to dislodge lesbians and queers (sexual and “other”-wise)[iii] from the lgbtq fixation on what I call the myth of neighborhood liberation. Applying an “ethnic enclave” model to city life that (supposedly) worked as a project of claiming rights for certain marginalized groups before them, white, middle-class, and/or college-educated people with the resources to produce these neighborhoods were disappointed to find them untenable. Many lgbtq people, across races and classes, have long clung to the American Dream-saturated belief that producing lgbtq and/or lesbian neighborhoods would afford their liberation.

Which brings us to lesbian-queer geographies and practices that at times resist and at times are complicit with the myth of neighborhood liberation in producing gayborhoods: cruising and U-hauling. Cruising can be understood as searching for a sex partner(s) and having sex with that person or those people—usually casual and anonymous—in public space. Cruising is often a spotlighted practice in the literature on queer spaces, which describes radical sex publics as typical of the queer or lgbtq claim to space.[iv] Throughout urban history, cruising spaces have been highly regulated across races and classes.[v] In his critical analysis of Times Square’s “revitalization” at the turn of the century, novelist and essayist Samuel Delany describes how the elimination of many gay male cruising hubs is in fact a refusal of queer bodies, practices, and livelihoods—especially those of working-class people and people of color—by the city itself.[vi]

Cruising is also a popular topic among and associated with lgbtq people, namely gay and queer men. Notably, none of my 47 lesbian- and queer-identified research participants brought it up in our conversations before I asked, even though participants often brought up sex as a topic without hesitation. For all that cruising is regarded as a signature “queer” act, significantly less attention is paid to lesbian-queer cruising. Indeed, per my participants, lesbian-queer cruising may just be significantly less common than gay-queer male cruising. The attention paid to cruising also shaped my participants’ ideas of themselves, as more than one wondered, … why do lesbians and queers assigned female at birth presume they do not/choose not to cruise? When I asked participants if they would ever have sex in the Ramble, a well-known gay male cruising territory in Central Park, Alex said, “That’s gross. It’s unsanitary.” To which I added, joking at the time, “It’s also outside and it’s cold!”

Figure 1. “Whatever Color is Your Hankie . . . On Our Backs Has It!” Lesbian self-created hanky code from On Our Backs, 1984. Hanky codes were used by cis gay men to signal sexual desires by placing a certain color in a back pocket (left to give/dominate, right to take/receive). This play on a common gay male practice by the sex positive On Our Backs magazine was a way of creating playful codes specific to lesbian practices. (Notably, I have never heard of Victorian play except for here!)

And this is when the geographies of lesbian-queer sex changed everything I was writing and thinking. At the intersection of the history and socialization of gender, design, and political claims to protecting “women’s safety,” I realized that the actual geography and physiology of people assigned male and female at birth and the temporality of their sex and orgasms both tend to afford very different sexual practices. Historian George Chauncey writes in Gay New York that, for gay men in the city from 1890 to 1930, “privacy could only be had in public,” because working- and middle-class gay men could not share private spaces.[vii] Yet, women and trans and gender non-conforming people (tgncp) are more associated with private or semi-public spaces, and largely lack the economic capital to make spaces of their own, let alone neighborhoods. Bailey pointed out that there are fewer and fewer lesbian bars and, again compared to some gay men’s bars that allot literal backroom spaces for casual hookups, “There’s no [back] room there!” Cruising often requires or is imagined requiring public territory such as streets and parks or semi-public spaces that can be claimed for undisturbed sex.

A few participants even mentioned being excluded from gay male spaces because the focus was on sex foremost rather than camaraderie or sociality. A handful of my participants preferred to spend their time among gay and queer men. Phyllis ’88 said that “for a while I identified as a gay man” because “they had the best [techno] music.” Annabelle ’97 shared how her coming out in London was bound to the gay male club scene: “I was the only girl in a sea of sweaty Muscle Marys and I loved it. I felt so accepted and so loved.” Framed through the lens of those assigned female at birth—as well as trans women who are already often policed, denigrated, and harassed—my findings suggest that the radical production of queer space needs to herald the geographies of queer sex and sexuality as evidence of more multiple and varied ways of queering space. This queering of space is more than a project of merely claiming public space—and claiming a gayborhood by extension—especially when recognizing that it is cis- and passing men who have a greater ability to claim public space.

Seemingly antithetical to cruising and central to the lesbian mythos is a practice I originally encountered in a joke I first heard in the early 1990s: “What does a lesbian take on a second date?” Answer: “A U-Haul.” The practice of what lgbtq people—most especially lesbians and queers—colloquially term “U-hauling” involves moving in with someone shortly after you start dating. My participants often proffered an explanation for dyke tendencies toward quick-start serial monogamy: those assigned female at birth are socialized to nest. I knew this explanation was reductionist at best, and even used as a way to legitimate why lesbians are not seen as central to urban culture—as Sally ’96 pointed out, they were said to “drop out of the culture.”

It’s so much fuckin’ work just to live here [in New York City] that it makes sense to me. [laughs] … This is coming from the experience of someone who has dealt with this shit for my whole life … you’re on guard all the time, and you’re kind of dealing with … millions of people that don’t give a shit about you … And to find someone who gives a shit about you and wants to make a safe space with you is a pretty big deal. … it makes sense to me that people do that…. So it’s like having some stability when there’s not a lot of room for movement because of your economic constraints.

I was floored as I realized the white cis-heteropatriarchal fog I had succumbed to. I had missed why our fragmented and fleeting star-like places in the context of New York City often came together with a gravity I could not previously discern. In my focus on lesbian-queer people’s inability to afford housing, I had forgotten to account for the urban political economy of affording queer life, which often requires splitting rent in relationships—or with (many) roommates—a practice induced by racial capitalism as much as the gender pay gap.

Such stars come together in constellations. I theorize constellations as a queer feminist geographical imagination of urban pasts, presents, and futures. Constellations realize the lesbian-queer ways of producing urban space that do not and often cannot rely on neighborhood exclusion as bound to property ownership, which, in turn, invoke politics of resistance as well as resilience and reworking.[viii] The model of constellations accounts for the fluidity and flux of queer life that is more fragmented and fleeting, but still connected and devoted to the tenets of social justice inherent to feminist, antiracist, and anticapitalist dyke politics. Dyke politics is a term I use to refer to the underlying antiracist and anticapitalist politics that fuel queer feminist ideas of community the shape lesbian-queer productions of space and place. Dyke politics not only blends production and social reproduction through this group’s paid, underpaid, and unpaid labor but also manifests in its commitment to the production of community, culture, knowledge, and shared identities in place.

In other words, constellations afford a way of queering the production of urban space as it relates to and works against capital to radically make sense of, more aptly describe, and take action in radically shaping the lesbian-queer role in the city. Thus, the political insight of constellations is that lesbians and queers resist cis-heteropatriarchy in claiming and making spaces (for however long), and by finding one another (however few or multiple) in and beyond neighborhoods. Constellations speak to how lesbians and queers make sense of their direction in life, their irregular temporalities, and the tropes and myths of their world-making.[ix] Queer, feminist, trans, antiracist, and anticapitalist practices of urban survival can offer profound insights in support of organizing against white cis-heteropatriarchal capitalism—constellations reveal workarounds and tactics to work for social justice.

Then there were Afro-Caribbean, working middle-class Alex ’98’s keys. In one interview, she shared her artifact of two sets of keys, totaling over twenty:

The reason why I keep these keys is because … I moved out of my mother’s house after I came out. She didn’t kick me out but it was sort of, like, respectful. I didn’t want to be there taking girls…. And so ever since then, at seventeen, I always was living with a girlfriend. I have never not lived with a girlfriend…. I just moved from my last place—where these keys are [holds up one set of keys]—to my new place [holds up the other set] where these are. [laughs] And I still go back and forth to get my mail…. My keys say it all. And, you know [holds up a couple of keys], the keys [for the place where I volunteer], [holds up another couple of keys] and the keys [for the place where I work]. Which is why I still have these.

While her “keys say it all,” Alex implies that her experience as a Black woman only amplifies the stress and violence of precarious housing, which she negotiates with relationships and different forms of kinship over the years. Only through an analysis of gender, sexuality, race, class, and so on can we make sense of constellations.

Each of Alex’s keys represents a star in her own queer constellation of relationships and places that, at times, navigate white cis-heteropatriarchal property ownership. In our online group conversation, Alex shared that “the queer community existed around [a friend or date], not the location…. Nomadic in action, we were coupled and free.” For Alex, constellations are more social than spatial. Yet in the materiality of her keys, apartments, and ex-lovers, Alex’s constellation endures as a sociospatial network of new forms of kinship, as well as a practice that accumulates each star of a home and the partner within it and the lines between them into constellations that are Alex.

Every constellation is equally produced in the deficit of social, economic, and political supports lesbians and queers must navigate. In her history of feminist bookstores, library studies scholar Kristen Hogan writes, “As spaces run by lovers, the bookstores were also sites of contentious break-ups and just plain bad days.”[x] As Alex jangled her keys in front of us, I realized that she was also expressing the need to carry a representation of important spaces and relationships with her—on or near her body wherever she wanders—to show a queer space that remains open to her even amid the personal and collective lesbian-queer history of breakdowns and breakups in activism, work, businesses, and home life.[xi]

Reader, I was one of those dykes who had previously mocked U-hauled relationships. I never thought I’d write this, but I contend that we must attend to the political economies of relational spaces in constellations—and to do so we must place U-hauling alongside cruising as a radical queer practice. Issues that lgbtq people are likely to face include lack of access to secure housing, abuse, domestic violence, lower incomes, longer commutes, and longer work hours, all of which in turn lead to more breakups and more frequent relocations.[xii] All of my participants mentioned facing at least some of these agonies. U-hauling helps to articulate the spatialized networks of lesbian-queer constellations that have, as Frederic Jameson framed Walter Benjamin’s relational understanding of constellations, “no centers … except for the relationship of all these [dykes] to each other.”[xiii] Lesbians’ and queers’ lack of social, legal, policy, and economic supports place other strains on their relationships, which in turn lessens their ability to stay put and produce long-term spaces.

U-hauling is a spatialized pattern of what Halberstam calls “queer … failure as a way of life.”[xiv] Halberstam also writes, “Like many others before me, I propose that … the goal is to lose one’s way, and indeed to be prepared to lose more than one’s way.” But I hesitate to agree in this instance.[xv] I want to embrace Halberstam’s position, but my interviews tell me all loss and failure is not always celebratory: if we replace “to lose one’s way” with “to lose one’s home,” we can see that there must be limits to embracing queer failure. The very promise/violence of capitalism must be confronted fully with dyke politics of feminist antiracism and anticapitalism to reimagine and enact new queer worlds and futures. In moving away from notions of default “lgbtq spaces” of neighborhoods, bars, and cities, I make the mutually material, virtual, and social qualities of lesbian-queer urban lives apparent. Constellations are evidence of lesbian-queer failure and resistance.

Seen through the lens of structural oppressions rather than failed relationships or personal preferences, U-hauling is not merely a pattern of women’s socialization to “nesting,” but rather an outcome of the precarity of lesbian-queer life. U-hauling and cruising can also be seen as queered responses to the hypermobility enforced by heteronormative state logics. U-hauling and cruising exemplify what queer geographer Gavin Brown coined as the “queer commons,” what Nadja Millner-Larsen and performance studies scholar Gavin Butt described as thevaried ameliorative responses not only to the failures of mainstream LGBT politics but also to twenty-first-century austerity and gentrification.”[xvi]

Jen Jack Gieseking is an urban, cultural, and digital geographer, feminist and queer theorist, and environmental psychologist. They are Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Kentucky. His first monograph, A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians, Dykes, and Queers, 1983-2008 (NYU Press, 2020), is a historical geography of contemporary lesbian-queer society and economies in New York City. As part of his commitment to public queer history, Jack created a companion website, An Everyday Queer New York, including interactive maps of over 3,000 lesbian and queer places and organizations that they gathered from archival sources. They also co-edited The People, Place, and Space Reader (Routledge, 2014) with William Mangold, Cindi Katz, Setha Low, and Susan Saegert. Jack is Managing Editor of ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, the only fully open access journal in geography. He is also a board member of the Rainbow Heritage Network. They can be found on Twitter at @jgieseking or via his website



[i] Cf. Browne, Kath, “Challenging Queer Geographies,” Antipode 38, no. 5 (2006); Brown, Gavin, “Mutinous Eruptions: Autonomous Spaces of Radical Queer Activism,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 39, no. 11 (2007); Oswin, Natalie, “Critical Geographies and the Uses of Sexuality: Deconstructing Queer Space,” Progress in Human Geography 32, no. 1 (2008): 89–103; Nash, Catherine J. and Andrew Gorman-Murray, “Sexualities, Subjectivities and Urban Spaces: A Case for Assemblage Thinking,” Gender, Place & Culture 24, no. 11 (2017): 1521–29; Johnston, Lynda, “Gender and Sexuality III: Precarious Places,” Progress in Human Geography 42, no. 6 (2017).

[ii] Oswin, “Critical Geographies,” 91.

[iii] Cf. Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2 (1998); Warner, Michael, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, Harvard University Press (2000); Warner, Michael Publics and Counterpublics, New York: Zone Books (2005); Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. NYU Press, 1999; Chisholm, Dianne, Queer Constellations: Subcultural Space in the Wake of the City, University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

[iv] Cohen, Cathy J. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3, no. 4 (1997): 437-65.

[v] Cf. Chauncey, George, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, New York: Hachette Book Group, 1995; Warner, Publics and Counterpublics; Catungal, John Paul and Eugene J. McCann, “Governing Sexuality and Park Space: Acts of Regulation in Vancouver, BC,” Social & Cultural Geography 11, no. 1 (2010): 75–94; Phil Hubbard, “Kissing Is Not a Universal Right: Sexuality, Law and the Scales of Citizenship,” Geoforum 49 (2013): 224–32.

[vi] Delany, Times Square Red.

[vii] Chauncey, Gay New York.

[viii] Katz, Cindi. Growing Up Global: Economic Restructuring and Children’s Everday Lives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

[ix] Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2006.

[x] Hogan, Kristen. Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability. Duke University Press, 2016: 41.

[xi] Alex’s anecdote adds another dimension to the working-class butch praised for her ring of keys in Fun Home. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (New York: Mariner Books, 2007); Sydney Lucas and Beth Malone, vocalists, “Ring of Keys,” track 18 on Jeanine Tesori, comp., Fun Home: A New Broadway Musical (P.S. Classics, 2014).

[xii] Petra L. Doan and Harrison Higgins, “The Demise of Queer Space? Resurgent Gentrification and the Assimilation of LGBT Neighborhoods,” Journal of Planning Education and Research 31, no. 1 (2011): 17–18.

[xiii] Jameson, Fredric, Late Marxism: Adorno, Or, The Persistence of the Dialectic, Verso Books, 2007: 244; citing Benjamin, Walter, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Verso Books, 2023 (orig. 1925).

[xiv] Halberstam, Judith. Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011: 171.

[xv] Halberstam, 6.

[xvi] Brown, “Mutinous Eruptions,” 2685–2698; Nadja Millner-Larsen and Gavin Butt, “Introduction: The Queer Commons,” GLQ24, no. 4 (2018): 401; see also Amanda Huron, Carving Out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C., University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

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