In the Mix
Free to Be
A new book celebrates “spaces of affirmation” designed by and for LGBTQIA+ communities
“There is a line from a Pet Shop Boys track that’s been looping around my head lately,” acclaimed novelist and cultural critic Olivia Laing writes in their Foreword to the recently published book Queer Spaces: An Atlas of LGBTQIA+ Places and Stories. “It’s from Being Boring, that strange, elegiac pop song to those lost to AIDS. ‘I never dreamt,’ Neil Tennant sings in his confiding, reticent way, ‘that I would get to be the creature that I always meant to be.’ There’s something central to queer identity encapsulated in this statement: the idea of a hidden self, a mysterious creature that can emerge from its chrysalis, given the right conditions.”
This poignant, personal, and affirming opening paragraph to Queer Spaces foreshadows what follows. Conceived and edited by artist-designer Adam Nathaniel Furman and architectural historian Joshua Mardell, the book catalogs more than 90 sites, both public and private, historical and contemporary, created by and for LGBTQIA+ people around the world. Representing a diversity of contexts, purposes, and styles—from an 18th-century home in England and a 1980s community center in Nicaragua to a present-day bar in Japan—these wide-ranging sites share the same crucial intention: to let queer people be who they are, as the editors put it, “unedited and unfettered... without fear or shame... truly consonant with your inner self.”
The theme that unifies the selection of sites is reinforced by the way in which their stories are told. One by one, each is treated as its own little world, with archival photographs and drawings supported by researched yet sensitive essays from dozens of contributors—film-makers, artists, architects, activists, geographers, researchers, and writers—who have been invited to narrate the specific places that hold personal meaning to them.
Argentinian architect and professor Facundo Revuelta, for example, covers the electric-blue Hotel Gondolín in Buenos Aires, which has provided a nurturing, stabilizing home to hundreds of displaced, often disowned, travestis and trans people since the early 1990s. He explains, “The Gondolín is a concrete exemplar in expanding the means of survival for the travesti community and others beyond the nuclear family, producing and spreading new social structures, capable of favoring a different and more suitable kinship system.” Underscoring the need that the Gondolín meets for its community, he notes, “Aunt Zoe, who has lived there for 25 years, says that her ground-floor window is knocked on on a daily basis by new arrivals asking about available rooms.”
In a similar spirit, Bangladeshi artist and urban planner Ruhul Abdin reports on Dhaka’s persisting subculture of pop-up dances, performances, and readings organized by locals to give their queer community a space of their own, “if only for one night,” a brief but revitalizing escape from state-sponsored persecution. He writes, “The existence of these ever-shifting and relocating events shows the incredible adaptability of the community in Dhaka, and how, no matter the circumstances, a shared joy in life, socializing and celebration in safe spaces, is something that continues to happen all over the city… no matter the external threat.”
The examples that Queer Spaces draw from the past testify to the fact that LGBTQIA+ people have always and everywhere created places to call their own—at minimum to provide safe havens from societal hostilities, and at best to manifest their rights to love who they want, express themselves freely, and uplift their community by sharing knowledge, resources, and emotional support.
British art historian Freya Gowrley spotlights Plas Newydd, a cottage in the Welsh countryside where, at the turn of the 19th century, two upper-class Irish women known as the Ladies of Llangollen lived together for 50 years in defiance of pressures to marry men and embrace prevailing norms. It’s unclear whether Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby’s coupling included sex, but regardless it was widely deemed scandalous at the time and has subsequently been assigned a prominent place in the still fragmentary historical record of queer culture. As Gowrley explains, “Butler and Ponsonby are celebrated by many today as early lesbian heroines, and the Plas Newydd functions as a monument to their life of idyllic retirement and the profound relationship they shared at the house.”
Bringing visibility to such stories could not be more urgent. As Laing cites, homosexuality and divergent gender expressions are still illegal and subject to sanctions in many countries around the world. Meanwhile, in ostensibly more progressive societies, reactionary extremism is on the rise. In the US alone, recent Supreme Court decisions have eroded the national right to privacy, thereby imperiling the rights to marry and have sex as one chooses, among others. On a local level, school board meetings across the US have become hothouses of LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC erasure and worse. Fueled by the proliferation of incendiary rightwing discourse, a crazed vocal minority is demanding policies that censor curricula, libraries, who can be a teacher, and what they can say. The age-old strategy of vilifying LGBTQIA+ people remains depressingly effective at securing the power of the privileged few over the many.
Against these frightening currents, Furman and Mardell's new book pushes back by encouraging readers to feel a bond with people and places that others have endeavored to obscure, making, in the editors’ words, “a small, but meaningful contribution” to the “ongoing and collective work of uplifting all the brilliant queer lives and queer histories.” Each intimate portrait presented in Queer Spaces drives home the “life-giving, and often life-saving” powers that these sites grant the communities they serve, while also documenting and celebrating their creators’ acts of “ingenuity, courage, and skill” within environments too often bent on suppressing their existence.
“We hope,” the editors explain, “it will help readers contemplate what form these spaces of affirmation and memory might take in the future so that they may become active participants in forging them.” ◆
Queer Spaces: An Atlas of LGBTQIA+ Places and Stories, published in May 2022 by the Royal Institute of British Architects, is available here and through booksellers near you.