Sex(ual Identity) and the City

Julie Abraham, LGBT Studies

In her latest book, Metropolitan Lovers: The Homosexuality of Cities, Julie Abraham explores who we think of as gay, what we think of as a city, and the relationships between the two. From Balzac to Boys Don’t Cry, Engels to Jane Jacobs, Abraham maps the connections between the urban and the queer. “Other writers have looked at literature and history to answer the question, ‘What were gay people doing when?’,” she says. “But I want to examine the underlying structure. I’m tracing the myths that emerge in fiction and the social sciences and then get repeated.”

As an example, Abraham points to urbanist Richard Florida, who recently created what he calls a “Gay Index.” “Florida claims that a city’s health can be measured by the size of its gay population,” Abraham says. “His idea is that the presence of gay people signifies a city that others will want”—one with outlets for creativity, with clubs and cafes supporting thriving neighborhoods. Abraham points out that this “index” doesn’t gauge the full breadth of the gay population; it only measures for the well-worn types we’ve been conditioned to see, both historically (through our literature), and contemporarily (through media and pop culture). She suggests that this commercialized, sexualized image of queerness reflects only the limits of public imagination.

“There are gay people living all sorts of lives in all sorts of places,” Abraham says, “But only the most familiar form of gayness is useful as a commodity, and our cities are increasingly defined as places for consumption.” The familiar image of glitzy urban queerness sustains itself in a kind of feedback loop, while the unostentatious queer person remains off the cultural radar. “The cities we really live in are not just oversized shopping centers,” Abraham says. “And when you say someone is gay, you haven’t said much of anything yet.”

Julie Abraham

Illustration by Joseph Adolphe

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