Where Are the Welcome Signs? Finding Lesbian, Bisexual and Queer Community in Unexpected Places

A friend once volunteered her impression of Boston’s Jamaica Plain: “You always hear it is the lesbian neighborhood,” she said. “But when I get off the train with my partner it isn’t like anyone is standing there holding a welcome sign.” She described a neighborhood in which LBQ residents (lesbian, bisexual and queer women and their transgender and genderqueer friends, partners, and neighbors) are plentiful, and yet hard to find.

Her words are familiar. They echo the sentiments of residents of two of four cities I studied for my book, How Places Make Us: Novel LBQ Identities in Four Small Cities. Take Ellen, a white, middle-aged attorney who lives in Ithaca, NY. Before moving, she had an idyllic image of what life would be like in Ithaca: “It was like a little image of you go in, you check in, [and they say] ‘lesbian 49 million has arrived.'” However, now that Ellen lives in Ithaca she wonders where all of the lesbians might be. Referring to LBQ tennis players, she said, “What is up with my sisters? Where are you people?” Like many Ithaca informants, she frequently notices LBQ residents, but Ellen can’t predict when or where this will happen. She isn’t certain how to find someone to date, or even to play tennis with.

My book, which draws on my ethnography of four small U.S. cities with growing or emerging populations of LBQ individuals — Ithaca, NY; San Luis Obispo, CA; Portland, ME; and Greenfield, MA — reveals that Ellen’s experience is common. However, crucially, the book also suggests that it isn’t universal. Many LBQ individuals — from recent college graduates to retirees — whom I encountered in the four cities are, like Ellen, white, highly educated professionals, and the cities themselves are similar (i.e., progressive cities with lots of natural amenities, a college or university, and unusually high proportions of lesbian couple households; I chose four similar cities to study because, initially, I had expected to study the role of LBQ residents in gentrification). However, I found that in each LBQ residents nevertheless create very distinct social worlds; if Ellen is searching for lesbian tennis players, a similar woman in another city is tripping over them.

Why is this? My fieldwork reveals that sexual identities are place-specific. That is, each city possesses a novel “sexual identity culture” or place-specific ways of thinking about and “doing” sexuality. In Portland, Maine, hyphenated identities like queer-punk and polyamorous-high-femme proliferate. In San Luis Obispo, California, most identify as “lesbian.” In Ithaca, many present themselves as post-identity politics, and do not rely on sexual identity labels. Finally, in Greenfield, MA longtime residents identify as lesbian feminists who live in an outpost of Northampton, while LBQ newcomers embrace post-identity politics.

What do place-specific identities have to do with the absence of welcome signs that Ellen and my friend gesture to? Just as identities are place-specific, so too are ways of building and sustaining (or not) LBQ community. Specifically, LBQ residents forge ties with heterosexuals in cities in which they experience high levels of acceptance and reliably encounter other LBQ residents, and where city-wide place narratives celebrate inclusivity (e.g., the mantra that Ithaca is “Ten Square Miles Surrounded by Reality”). This, in turn, cultivates the sense that sexuality is not a defining personal trait. “I like to think of myself just as a person,” a middle-aged small business owner in Greenfield told me. Another said that being identified by her partner’s gender “makes about as much sense to me” as being grouped “because we both drive red cars.”

In Greenfield, as in Ithaca, the presence of LBQ residents is unmistakable. They are at the co-op, serving tables, swimming at the YMCA, and shuttling children to school. And yet, during fieldwork I almost always found LBQ residents socializing with heterosexuals with whom they shared a profession, politics, or children of the same age. In fact, one white, professional woman told me, “I don’t even think about that [whether or not friends are straight].”

Conversely, LBQ residents of Portland and San Luis Obispo feel less accepted, describe a smaller LBQ population, and absorb place narratives that don’t emphasize acceptance. In turn, opportunities for LBQ communion are almost everywhere. In Portland, I could be certain to encounter LBQ residents socializing in the (now defunct) coffee shop and performance space, the North Star. Lesbian professionals grabbed morning coffee; twenty-something queer-punks lunched with trans men; butch and femme couples attended shows in the evenings. Crucially, more often than not these LBQ residents talked, flirted, ran, surfed, and drank with one another. Beyond the North Star, they relied on a group for butch individuals, the Dyke March committee, drag king troupes, and dyke night at a gay bar. More informally, they described “Queer Family Christmas” and a weekly supper where dykes, genderqueer, and transgender residents talked queer theory. In other words, in Portland there seemed to be endless opportunities for engagement with LBQ residents.

For its part, San Luis Obispo, California lacks a North Star, and yet opportunities for interaction were abundant. Lesbians gathered for hikes, bonfires, dances, and dessert hours. In this context, the welcome sign my Boston friend yearned for was on ready display. When a newcomer wrote to a lesbian listserv with questions about relocation she was inundated with messages; women told her of rooms for rent, offered to loan trucks, and invited her to parties. Some helped to carry her boxes.

Why was this the case? Why would San Luis lesbians jump to aid a stranger, and why do LBQ residents of Portland surround themselves with one another? The origins of this pattern are best described by a Greenfield resident who reflected that on living in another (bigger) city, she turned to other LBQ individuals “for safety and support. Because I had to. And I don’t have to do that [in Greenfield].” In contrast, in San Luis Obispo and Portland, residents feel that if LBQ residents don’t carry boxes, no one else will; even in coastal, progressive cities there is safety and comfort in numbers.

This is, of course, somewhat counterintuitive. We expect welcome signs in high profile LBQ enclaves where residents feel free to proudly proclaim sexual difference, and where at least some have moved to live around others like them. We especially expect this of big city “gayborhoods” and their LBQ equivalents. Instead, we are more likely to find visible and accessible LBQ public life in places that are a bit off the map; places in which feelings of abundance and acceptance are less prominent, and in which residents celebrate place attributes unrelated to safety, acceptance, or sexual difference.

The variety of ways of socializing and establishing ties that I found in four similar cities trouble recent claims about the demise of LBQ community; that is, it challenges the increasingly familiar claim that LGBTQI individuals don’t seek one another’s company anymore. Instead, my fieldwork reveals that LBQ community life is vivid and reliable, at least in places where residents feel it has to be.

Author’s note: All names have been changed to protect the identities of informants.

Japonica Brown-Saracino is Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston University. A graduate of Smith College (A.B.) and Northwestern University (Ph.D), she is the author of A Neighborhood That Never Changes: Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity (University of Chicago Press, 2009), which received the Urban Affairs Association Best Book Award, and editor of the Gentrification Debates (Routledge, 2010). Her articles on sexualities and place have appeared in journals such as, Sexualities, American Journal of Sociology, Social Problems, and Qualitative Sociology. She lives in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood.

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8 Comments

  1. Thank you for this fascinating article – which, incidentally, assuages some of my trepidation regarding the utter uncertainty as to where the academic job hunt will bring me next year. I was not out even to myself before starting grad school, so I have only really known how to look for or find this community in one city long-term.

  2. wow, this has been on my mind so much this month as i move from portland, OR to bronxville, NY with a stop in newton, MA on the way! thank you for sharing your research in this article and i cannot wait to read this book!

  3. It’s interesting to think about. Thank you for writing your observations. I do wonder what you’d find going north to deep south. Would you find a tight knit secret society of elusive lesbians hidden in underground covens?

    Seems to me that as LGBT people become less persecuted and more accepted in any given area as a ‘perfectly normal occurrence’ in public places that the need for tight knit community wains.

    I also partly blame it for the extinction of the lesbian bar.

    The million dollar question is how do we find community as LGBT folks become scattered about in straight het communities?

  4. I’m so fascinated with how we (do or don’t) develop and maintain queer spaces in our cities. I’ve really struggled to find a community since moving to Portland, OR last fall, but as you say, I see them out and about, easily identifiable. It’s comforting to know that the spaces exist (Either Or is a good replacement coffee shop that has frequent LBQ individuals), I just need to find them.

  5. Wow, okay, I can’t wait to read this book. In fact, I started reading this article thinking, yeah, seriously where are my queers, and then I saw that one of the cities you focused on is Ithaca, the place where I live. The place where I’m constantly wondering what is going on with our queer community.

    Yeah, there are tons of queer people and I think we’re pretty visible going around town but also, we have no bars, coffee houses, resource centers, meeting places. Most of my friends are queer and we tend to meet through common interests – book clubs, tarot groups, etc. – and then through each other. But I am constantly hearing the lament of a lack of explicitly queer space for us. It also makes dating kind of miserable. Apps are the only option, pretty much, because as much as I love my queer friends, they’re pretty much all committed/coupled. People keep telling me I have to get out of this place to date and import someone in. I wish there was a queer bar or coffee house to meet cuties, or events or something.

    tl;dr It’s awesome living somewhere that being queer is so normalized that no one thinks of us as particularly different. It’s hell living somewhere that being queer is so normalized that I can’t figure out where to meet cuties.

  6. I’m in the East Bay, CA, over the hill from Berkeley. Usually the more exciting queer spaces and events are there…Not here.
    We have one really good LGBTQ center which is good for resources, but not for socializing. The next town over has a gay bar. Otherwise, there is no queer space. Where is everyone? How do they find each other? Why are we invisible? I cant tell if people dont feel comfortable being out or they are just happily integrated…
    Please, queer space is so important, especially coffee houses. I think its important to be around kindred even if you are just reading a book. Its nice to be integrated, but ah, its also nice to have places to be flamboyantly queer in and safe to be ones self. And still, its not just about us who are out, its also for those comming out, those who are new or passing through, for questioning youth to see us visible, so that even if they cant be out now, there is a place for them.

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