Through Hir Eyes

Gender. It's an immutable fact of life. Or is it? Hir, a pronoun/adjective somewhere between "his" and "her", negates the gender binary set up by the English language. How do we deal with this binary, interacting with gender politics and gender exclusion and inclusion? The answer: Postmodernist and Third Wave Feminist theory.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

"Home Plate in the Orgy Room"

I attended a pre-run for a lecture by one of my favorite professors, Professor William Leap, on November 7th. Leap is the head of the anthropology department at American University and centers his research on queer communities and the claiming of gay space. The lecture I attended was a pre-run of the talk he is going to give this up coming weekend at the University of South Carolina.

The lecture was originally titled "Home Plate in the Orgy Room" but for propriety's sake he decided it might be best to title it "Professional Baseball, Urban Restructuring, and the (Changing) Language of Gay Geography in Washington DC." The new title is not nearly as interesting because it leaves out a specific aspect of what he is centering his lecture on: the building of the new Nationals Baseball Stadium on top of many queer sex clubs in the Navy Yard district, namely the Orgy Room.

The spark of his research was that there was a lack of outcry against the destruction of queer space that would be hard to relocate. Because of this reaction, Leap was interested in the way that the Washington, DC gay community (specifically gay men) claims their own "gay space." Leap is a member of this community himself and therefore had a lot of inside access to make this discovery.

Leap conducted his research in one of the most fascinating way possible: he asked men to draw a map of "their gay DC." He used the drawings created, as well as the discussion that followed from the explanations of the maps, to create his conclusions. The maps tended to define the gay culture in terms of gay consumption and visibility. There is always references to where they go to "do" or to "use the services" instead of where they go to "be." For instance, none of the participants included their homes in their maps. Leap documented Michael Christopher (51, white professional) who commented on the lack of private spaces on his map:

"It's an interesting thing, because I didn't, I didn't put any private homes. Like I didn't put your [Leap's] apartment, either. And I didn't put the apartment of a friend who has, uh, who has foreskin parties. I didn't put that... Those are private spaces and um these [as he points to the map] are all public spaces. And I don't know if there is a reason for that. I don't know if I claim my space, my apartment, as a gay space. Isn't that interesting, but I am not sure if I do." (William Leap, lecture on Nov 7th 2005)

Leap concluded that there was an incredible disconnect between the "discovery and conquer" aspect of the queer community versus the "personal." He deemed this as heroic masculine language. Leap also suggested that this might have been the repercussions of the Washington, DC history and its interaction with the gay community: i.e. McCarthy era witch hunts for queers, Don't Ask Don't Tell, bizarre policing of gay spaces, Homeland Security (the constant reminder that what is private is now also public), DC's economic decline and Mayor William's mission to uplift the economy through development of housing and business (especially in the Waterfront and Navy Yard districts).

To theorize the disconnect, Leap called upon Louis Althusser who argued that there is always common sense and regulatory power in the form of ideology. Leap spoke at length on the concept of interpellation where a subject is "hailed," and therefore deemed a subject and how there is recognition of this hail. The recognition shows the connection to the obviousness of the circumstances and can occur even without the subject being aware of how the process works. Leap then lead into Peychaux's arguments on recognition that states that a subject can recognize themselves either affirmatively to the "hail" through acceptance or can outright reject the labeling. There is also a process of disidentification where one neither accepts nor rejects due to a mixture of feelings or a positioning in a different non-binary category.

Another interesting aspect of the map analysis was that the Navy Yard was always represented either in the periphery or an area that is separate. There was rarely a connection on the map between the other areas and the Navy Yard district. For instance, in one map, it seems like the drawer was able to "superman" hop from Dupont Circle to S.E. DC, continuing to reaffirm the hero masculine language. Even when the Navy Yard was labeled, the sex clubs were not, even when they were talked about in conversation.

A question that arose related to why the Gay Bars and Sex Clubs were even located there. This area of town is predominantly poor, black and run down. Why were flamboyant gays going to this area to set up their clubs? The answer was that this area had affordable space with on-street parking near expressways allowing easy access and flow of people in and out of the area. Additionally, the Navy Yard was supposed to be developed into high rise offices, making the area potentially more valuable in the future. Also the types of business - sex clubs and bath houses - were generally not accepted in the affluent parts of town.

An interesting thing was that the maps and narratives recognized that this area was seedy, but they foregrounded the gay entertainment and erased the surrounding environment. Leap quotes Turner Hopkins (24, African American, Unemployed):

"This friend of mine lives right by the river. It's a very, very seedy area as he describes it. But he doesn't have any problems. He drives a new car, plays violin, a very classical, renaissance oriented man. I am very attracted to him. I hung out with him in his place. We had biscotti and flavored coffee. A wonderful, wonderful man." (William Leap, lecture on Nov 7th 2005)

Through his discussion the binary is set up between the dark neighborhood and the gay presence of culture: the outside is crude, the inside is refined.

Now, why doesn't the gay community not crying out against the stadium?

  • Everything that the stadium promises has already been recommended by gay business. The movement of money and business into the area and the hiring of the local community.
  • The gay property owners of the gay bars and sex clubs don't mind because it fulfills what they want: more people, different people, and more businesses in the area that would help their own businesses.
  • Gays have other options in the city for entertainment.
  • Though the loss and hard replacement of the sex clubs is evident, there is difficulty defending the "sexual risk taking" that the Navy Yard area represents. There is a sense of pre-AIDS ideology in this geography that is nowhere else.

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