How Places Make Us: Novel LBQ Identities in Four Small Cities

How Places Make Us: Novel LBQ Identities in Four Small Cities

by Japonica Brown-Saracino

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We like to think of ourselves as possessing an essential self, a core identity that is who we really are, regardless of where we live, work, or play. But places actually make us much more than we might think, argues Japonica Brown-Saracino in this novel ethnographic study of lesbian, bisexual, and queer individuals in four small cities across the United States.

Taking us into communities in Ithaca, New York; San Luis Obispo, California; Greenfield, Massachusetts; and Portland, Maine; Brown-Saracino shows how LBQ migrants craft a unique sense of self that corresponds to their new homes. How Places Make Us demonstrates that sexual identities are responsive to city ecology. Despite the fact that the LBQ residents share many demographic and cultural traits, their approaches to sexual identity politics and to ties with other LBQ individuals and heterosexual residents vary markedly by where they live. Subtly distinct local ecologies shape what it feels like to be a sexual minority, including the degree to which one feels accepted, how many other LBQ individuals one encounters in daily life, and how often a city declares its embrace of difference. In short, city ecology shapes how one “does” LBQ in a specific place. Ultimately, Brown-Saracino shows that there isn’t one general way of approaching sexual identity because humans are not only social but fundamentally local creatures. Even in a globalized world, the most personal of questions—who am I?—is in fact answered collectively by the city in which we live.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226361390
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/13/2017
Series: Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 915 KB

About the Author

Japonica Brown-Saracino is associate professor of sociology at Boston University. She is the author of A Neighborhood That Never Changes, also published by the University of Chicago Press, and editor of the Gentrification Debates.

Read an Excerpt


Ithaca: Integration and Post-Identity Politics

In 2006 I moved to Ithaca, New York, to teach at Cornell University. Before moving, I knew what many Northeasterners might know of Ithaca: that it was famous for its steep ravines and gorges; that it was home to Cayuga Lake, Cornell University, and Ithaca College; that visitors flocked to the Moosewood, a natural foods restaurant and cooperative; and that it was remote — tucked into the Finger Lakes Region of upstate New York, more than three and a half hours from New York City.

On arrival it seemed nearly every car sported one of two bumper stickers: "Ithaca is Gorges" or "Ten Square Miles Surrounded by Reality." My first night I ate, naturally, at the Moosewood, and found the place dominated by three groups, so distinct that they almost felt like caricatures of themselves: students, academics, and "hippies," both aging and youthful alike. In the days after I shopped at Wegman's Grocery, the co-op, and the Farmers Market, discovered big-box stores on either end of town, and learned a network of running and hiking trails that wind through the gorges surrounding downtown. I learned that Cayuga Heights, which sits above Cornell, houses senior academics and other affluent folks in gracious homes, while cottages, camps, and terraced houses surround Cayuga Lake. In neighboring villages such as Trumansburg and Lansing, professionals live alongside farmers and working class families. A walk through neighborhoods near downtown revealed concentrations of poor, working class, and African American residents, and even months later, the drive out of the city still surprised with its pockets of enduring rural poverty.

Not as obvious, but just as important, was another discovery: the unmistakable presence of a large population of lesbian, bisexual, and/or queer (LBQ) individuals in and around Ithaca. I watched women holding hands with abandon. Playgrounds often contain two-mom families alongside heterosexual couples. Women with short hair wearing Carhartts and hiking boots work behind co-op and coffee shop counters. These recognizably LBQ individuals appeared nearly everywhere: on the bus to Cornell, on hiking trails, at the co-op, Wegman's, and Staples, behind coffee shop counters, in restaurants, and at the library. Both the abundance and ubiquity of LBQ residents in nearly every space I entered was undeniable. These were not just pockets of young queers, nor merely the remnants of legends I had heard of lesbians who moved to Ithaca in the 1970s to live on rural communes or to mingle with other politically progressive residents. Nor were they just university students, eager to experiment beyond the watch of mom and dad. Rather, these were LBQ individuals of a variety of ages and from all walks of life. And they were everywhere.

Data affirm my armchair observations about the breadth of the LBQ population. By the best measure — 2000 and 2010 census data on same-sex couples, and US Treasury Department data on married female same-sex couples — Ithaca has an unusually high and growing proportion of lesbian couples. Indeed, in 2000 and 2010 Tompkins County, of which Ithaca is seat, had the third highest proportion of same-sex female couples of all US counties, and the proportion of lesbian couples increased between 2000 and 2010.4 The year I first lived in Ithaca, The Advocate — a leading gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) periodical — named Ithaca one of the top ten "best places to live" in the United States.

However, what neither the data nor feel-good stories like the Advocate's could tell me is why Ithaca possesses a disproportionately high number of lesbian couples. These sources communicate even less about what it feels like to be LBQ in Ithaca. A year later, as I left Ithaca for a position in Chicago, I decided that these questions were at the foundation of the project that led to this book. Not long after I returned to Ithaca to begin identifying answers.

Ten Square Miles Surrounded by Reality: The "Lesbian Friendly" City and LBQ Migration

There are three standard arguments explaining how lesbians choose where to live. Some suggest that lesbians' choices are financially driven; that due to economic constraints lesbians, whose households tend to be less affluent than those that include gay or straight men, live where they can afford to do so. Others point to the role of ideology, particular when considering the establishment of lesbian-feminist-separatist communities in places like Berkeley. A more recent argument purports that, especially for young women, sexual and gender identity are no longer paramount and that the notion of sexual identity enclaves is outdated. "Post-mo" or "post-gay" LBQ individuals can live anywhere and do live everywhere.

LBQ Ithacans explain their moves in terms that largely depart from these accounts. First, while Ithaca's cost of living is relatively low, there is much competition for jobs. Many report that they make professional or financial sacrifices to move to Ithaca — in large part because they have heard, from friends and books and magazines — that Ithaca is notably politically progressive and, relatedly, "lesbian-friendly." For instance, over lunch at a downtown Indian restaurant Chris, a gender-queer educator whose partner heads a social service agency, said, "I think that is one of the hugest issues to face everyone of any background in this town. Finding work that pays a living wage and finding work period. There are tons of people who are unemployed and underemployed." Chris added, "I was sort of shocked at the cost of living here compared to other places where I've lived — everything from energy prices to lettuce."

This perspective is abundant; many recount periods of unemployment and underemployment. Ithaca is home to LBQ bartenders, baristas, waitresses, carpenters, and nannies, no matter their advanced degrees. The Ithaca Times featured a story on highly educated individuals occupying working-class jobs in Ithaca, and many of those I interviewed could afford to reside in places with a higher cost of living. Affordability, in other words, drives few if any moves.

Second, none of the people I spoke with articulated a separatist ideology — that is, they expressed no desire to live apart from men or around only other lesbians. Indeed, most volunteered distaste for what they regard as an obsolete separatism. Young women were not the only to offer criticisms of 1970s-style separatism. Jan, a butch fifty-something woman with short, dark hair who wore loose jeans and a button down shirt, criticized her youthful separatism, saying, "I identified as separatist for all of six months. It didn't last long. My male friends had an issue with it and told me to get a grip. You know because I liked them, too ... So it didn't last long." Lilith, whose gray hair reaches halfway down her back and who often wears long, flowing skirts, came out in the 1960s and has long resisted separatism; in her twenties she joined a gender-integrated queer commune. None of my informants moved to Ithaca to join separatist communities.

Third, despite their rejection of separatism, none are indifferent to the hospitability of a city for sexual minorities; most of my Ithaca informants told me that they felt comfortable moving to Ithaca because it has a large LBQ population, or because they had heard or read that it is "lesbian-friendly." However, virtually none suggested that they moved simply because Ithaca is lesbian-friendly and has a large LBQ population. Instead, on their account a large LBQ population and a lesbian-friendly reputation was necessary but insufficient information to permit a move; most followed work, education or a partner to Ithaca. In this sense, it is crucial to note that, as this chapter elaborates, in retrospect many find this information about the scale of the LBQ population and Ithaca's lesbian-friendliness to be at once accurate and misleading; while technically accurate, it does not facilitate the formation of lesbian identity politics and lesbian-only networks that they anticipated finding in a progressive city like Ithaca.

An attorney recalled a typical notion of the city, from a moment she had years prior to her move: "I was driving ... [years ago] and there was a sign [for] Ithaca and I was with a girlfriend ... and we both said, 'Oh gosh, we have heard about Ithaca. '... It was like a little image of you go in, you check in, [and they say] 'lesbian 49 million has arrived.'" A much younger woman recounted a similar impression: "I heard there was a good woman's community. ... I'd never been a part of a big, strong gay community. I'd never walked into a bar filled with lesbians."

Many others knew that Ithaca was "lesbian-friendly" and happily anticipated that they could be "out" about their sexual identity; this is another indication that they do not move without regard for sexual identity. Chris recalls: "I remember saying, 'Oh, there are a couple cities like West Hollywood, California, and Ithaca, New York, where they even have non-discrim laws.' [Ithaca] was well known, even [twenty years ago], as sort of a place where people could come, live and be a part of a community and a social fabric. They would be valued; they would be respected." Jan said: "If [my queerness is] not acceptable, I'm not there." Likewise, the attorney, Rebecca, said she always discloses her sexuality in job interviews: "I didn't care because if they didn't want me as I am then they shouldn't hire me. I always talk about my partner. ... Everywhere I have been, everybody knows I am a lesbian. ... I pretty much tell them right away because I am proud of it." Another said, "I don't want to have to educate or defend or explain myself. So I just assume you know, this is me and this is you and if you like it, fine. If you don't, leave me alone." Yet another said, "I am out in my resumes." LBQ mothers assign extra import to being "out." Andrea, a thirty-something, feminine professional said: "We're out in my kid's school. ... That was a criteria for finding a place where it was okay for me to be out and [for my son] to be out."

Thus, LBQ residents here present a portrait of moves motivated by a host of reasons, from work to family to love. However, Ithaca's large LBQ population, and the common perception that LBQ residents feel safe and accepted, affirmed the choice of nearly everyone I spoke with to relocate here, and, crucially, set expectations for the life they would build in Ithaca. Their sense of Ithaca's recent history — as a city renowned for its progressive politics and educational atmosphere — guided their moves, and their sense that Ithaca would be a place in which, as LBQ individuals, they could comfortably pursue a career, build a family, or simply live in a beautiful and semi-remote place.

What They Find in Ithaca

After arriving LBQ residents find that Ithaca meets their core expectations: it is a "lesbian-friendly" place and has many LBQ residents. I asked all the LBQ individuals I interviewed about their perception of the size or proportion of the local population that identifies as LBQ. One woman said, "Fifteen percent? Twenty percent? I mean maybe on a good day, maybe thirty percent." But all my informants greatly surpassed census counts, and several insisted that the census underestimates Ithaca's LBQ population. In other words, the breadth and visibility of Ithaca's LBQ population do not disappoint.

Indeed, across the board LBQ residents celebrate their city's LBQ population and consistently report greater safety and acceptance than in other places they have lived, including more well-known gay destinations like San Francisco. On the Ithaca Commons, which is lined with bookstores, bars, gift shops, cafés, and the occasional empty storefront, women walk arm-in-arm. Residents do not try to hide their sexuality, whether they work as baristas or behind a spa or co-op counter, or as university or college professors. In 2008, the Women's Amateur Softball Association, which is popular with LBQ residents, maintained eight teams — an impressive number for a town of less than thirty thousand. As Maura, a thirty-four-year-old social worker, said, "Here everywhere you go you see lesbians. Like I'm going to get a massage today by a lesbian. My chiropractor's a lesbian. Everywhere you go, they're just there." Before stepping into her silver convertible, a middle-aged attorney who has lived in large US cities told me that she concurs, saying that, despite Ithaca's small size, "you go out and see a zillion lesbians ... you have never seen before." A twenty-five-year-old musician, who wears her hair short and tends to wear men's shirts and skinny jeans, suggested that the LBQ population is not only large but powerful: "It's great. ... The police are obviously here to protect us, which I have never found to be the case anywhere else." Indeed, several people proudly told me that a prominent elected official identifies as lesbian.

However, two surprises await LBQ migrants to Ithaca. First, many reportdisappointment with what they refer to as "community"; a disappointment few anticipate before moving. For instance, one said, "I don't really feel a part of anycommunity," and another describes her "sense of community" as "Zero. Absolute zero." However, this disappointment does not emerge from a dearth of meaningful connections to others; LBQ residents — even those who complain about the absence of community — detail a wealth of support from their neighbors, heterosexual and LBQ alike. They told me excitedly of friendships forged with fellow gardeners and knitters, the support and company of a meditation group and parents' association, and the daily pleasure that comes with even casual interactions with their polyglot neighbors.

This paradox — disappointment with the absence of "community" amidst the discovery of rich local ties — emerges from specific dimensions of Ithaca's city ecology that inform what it feels like to be LBQ in the city. Specifically, that paradox is possible because of the breadth of the LBQ population and its successful integration into Ithaca's social, cultural, and political spheres, and the safety and acceptance that LBQ individuals feel in these "Ten Square Miles Surrounded by Reality." Part of the reason why Ithacan LBQs say they don't feel a strong sense of "community" is because they are so accepted, and because there are so many of them in the town. In Ithaca, rather than constituting an isolated or even persecuted group who would bond with each other more fervently and thus feel a more palpable sense of community, they are part of the mainstream. Most report that their inclusion is largely something to celebrate — but they are equally mindful of, and, justifiably or not, wistful about how inclusion has altered the character of their ties and, relatedly, their identities.

The manner of relating with neighbors — both heterosexual and LBQ — that these dimensions of city ecology cultivate helps to encourage a second surprise, one that we'll see throughout the book: a transformation of ways of thinking, talking, and feeling about the self and one's membership in a broader social category or group. LBQ migrants to Ithaca come to adopt a "post-identity politics" orientation. That is, they come to eschew lesbian identity politics, which regards sexual identity as a defining and inviolate facet of individual and collective self-understanding. Traditional identity politics emerge from the notion that a group of individuals has a common set of interests, concerns, and shared experience and perspective because they share a trait. LBQ Ithacans are dubious about the notion that sexuality continues to produce shared experience, concerns, and interests — that shared sexuality is their "glue" — and challenge the implication that to advance and defend their group they must emphasize their commonalities and advocate on behalf of a shared set of interests. On living in Ithaca, they come to embrace the idea that they live in a time and place that enables them to emphasize facets of the self that they "choose", such as one's profession, or being a parent, or a backyard gardener — facets beyond or other than sexuality.

This chapter traces how LBQ Ithacans perceive city ecology as producing "costs" and "benefits" for social relations. Informants tell me, again and again, that their ability, in Ithaca, to forge ties with heterosexual neighbors and to eschew bonds predicated on shared sexuality threaten a sense of true "community," by which they mean an inclusive, place-based network of individuals who share a social identity and experience social marginalization. Here, they specifically evoke lesbian-only networks that they associate with other places or times; their images closely mirror textbook descriptions of "social movement community," which sociologists Verta Taylor and Nancy Whittier define as a "network of individuals and groups loosely linked through an institutional base, multiple goals and activities, and a collective identity that affirms members' common interests in opposition to dominant groups" (1994, 172). Although they rarely explicitly associate it with social movements, older women typically suggest that they were a part of this kind of a network in previous decades and/or more recently in other cities. Younger residents suggest that such networks used to exist, or that they've observed them in other, less LBQ-hospitable locales. They do not present these networks as perfect, but they do uniformly present them as missed. Yet, they also propose that Ithaca's large population of LBQ residents, feelings of safety and acceptance, and place narratives about Ithaca as a lefty-bubble promote a strong sense of what one woman refers to as ambient community: a sense of belonging and connection that arises from informal, voluntary ties with a diverse mix of people with whom one shares place, beliefs, politics, and practices, and secondary identity traits, such as age or profession. Thus, while Ithacans mourn "community," they experience neither a loss of place-based ties nor newfound freedom there from — outcomes we might predict as a historically marginalized group experiences increasing integration.


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Table of Contents

One / Ithaca: Integration and Post-Identity Politics
Two / San Luis Obispo: Lesbian Identity Politics and Community
Three / Portland: Hybrid and Hyphenated Identity Politics
Four / Greenfield: Lesbian Feminist Longtimers and Post-Identity-Politics Newcomers
Five / How Places Make Us
Methodological Appendix

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