Canadian urban issues are complex yet rarely experienced in isolation. The challenges that different cities face are often shared and present opportunities to find common ground. In this occasional series, City of Edmonton planner Jason Syvixay, a former Winnipegger, and collaborators look at how different cities approach similar issues and develop their urban landscapes. Like neighbours on a street, good things happen when cities talk to one another.
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/6/2021 (225 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Although many First Nations communities included concepts such as being "two-spirit" to signify diverse gender, sexual and spiritual identity, the nation-state of Canada excluded and criminalized LGBTTQ+ community members for much of its history.
In 1969, though, the federal government partially decriminalized gay sex. Soon after, protests and pride parades multiplied, spilling queerness onto streets. In 1971, more than 100 people gathered at Parliament Hill for Canada’s first gay liberation protest, and in 1973, a national Pride Week was held in Winnipeg and other cities, including Toronto and Saskatoon.
These annual events have been important opportunities to show solidarity for members of the LGBTTQ+ community, and for people to express themselves in an authentic way. With the pandemic, Pride Winnipeg and organizers across the globe, understandably so, have opted for digital celebrations. This shift, from a demonstration in public space to an online platform, prompts a series of important questions:
How do we make year-round physical and virtual space for queer expression? How do we make queer celebration a permanent fixture of our city’s fabric? How can queer identity and experience be meaningfully represented? Throughout this article, terms like LGBTTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Two-Spirit, Queer or Questioning), gay and queer are used interchangeably to represent and be inclusive of a myriad of sexual and gender identities.
Author Aaron Betsky explores how queer space is historically "not built, only implied, and usually invisible." Betsky argues that queer experiences are closeted, and often in the shadows away from view — and that public spaces are designed to accommodate heteronormative experiences and identities. As the dignity and existence of LGBTTQ+ community members continue to be under threat, policies, programs, and actions are all the more important.
"Still to this day, being queer, or read as queer in public spaces is fraught with danger," says Dr. Kristopher Wells, the Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth. "Recent survey reports demonstrate that for trans and non-binary people, especially youth, public spaces are among the most unsafe spaces they encounter, particularly public bathrooms,change rooms, and transit. Fear of and violence in public spaces is a major concern for queer people."
Wells is leading the Edmonton Queer History Project, a grassroots initiative led by urban planners, academics, artists, city councillors, queer folks, and their allies. The initiative hopes to facilitate and support discussions about queerness in urban environments through programming and research. Recently, the Edmonton Queer History Project developed an online Queer History Map, showcasing the people, places, and events that built understandings of Edmonton’s queer community over the past 40 years. It draws from art, artifacts, and interviews from the past and present, to imagine a more equitable future for members of the LGBTTQ+ community.
As described by the project, Edmonton’s first formally established gay bar Club 70 opened in 1970. Before Club 70, members of Edmonton’s queer community "gathered together clandestinely in houses, apartments, parks, tea rooms, and other fugitive spaces to find friends, relationships, and spaces of society."
Some places in Edmonton, like the King Edward Hotel, as well as the Corona, Mayfair, and Royal George hotels, tolerated same-sex patrons, as long as they were "quiet and unsuspecting." As a result, Edmonton’s public realm became popular clandestine gathering places for the LGBTTQ+ community to meet. During this time, gay sexuality was pushed underground.
"Prior to 1969, gay sex in the private sphere was still illegal, as laws prohibited sodomy, which was regulated in the Criminal Code as a form of gross indecency," says Wells. "Hotels and landlords did not have to serve or accommodate gay couples or people looking for sexual companionship. Gay youths were regularly thrown out of their homes and disowned. Gay street culture, then, served as a vital site of kinship, community, and conviviality."
Winnipeg’s queer history is no different, with public spaces in the downtown and notable establishments like Happenings Social Club and Gio’s Club and Bar. Projects like Edmonton’s Queer History Map provide a valuable connection to queer spaces and communities that have been lost or taken away, by acknowledging the urban histories that have been untold or erased from our collective memory. What places are coded and deciphered as safe, inclusive, and welcoming?
Missing: in policy and places
Urban spaces are layered with social meanings. They can tell us about our city’s values, desires, and can provide a sense of who belongs — and who doesn’t. Planning theorists and practitioners continue to explore the contested nature of places, and the constant negotiations between residents, business, developers, politicians, and more. To whom does urban space belong?
Land use regulation, policies, and urban discussions are steeped in heteronormativity, which is a worldview that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation. In many cities, zoning bylaws define what a family is, and in many cases these definitions fail to account for different types of family structures. For queer people, it is not always families of biology, but families of choice. Winnipeg’s Zoning Bylaw defines "family" as "one person or two or more persons voluntarily associated, plus any dependants, living together as an independent, self-governing single-housekeeping unit." Zoning can regulate the built form and the land uses. It should not regulate the user, the activity, or business inside a building.
Regulations that define families in heteronormative terms limit a diversity of housing that would meet the needs of people who live outside of that expectation. It is important to note that there is an overrepresentation of queer people (especially youth) who are homeless and street involved. Contemporary research indicates how many LGBTTQ+ Canadians still experience rejection from their families of origin, and significant rates of violence, harassment, stigma, and social isolation. For both young and aging LGBTTQ+ Canadians, housing precarity and unaffordability is a major barrier. This relates to the fact that it is fairly straightforward to build a single detached house for a family to live in. But, building housing options that are accessible for queer youth who have been kicked out of their homes is much more arduous. Developing and integrating accessible housing options takes unique expertise to plan, develop, and operate. Acquiring the financing for non-conventional housing products can be close to impossible. The process throws up many roadblocks.
How the built environment is designed can also create physical and mental threats for those with diverse sexual identities, gender identities, and ages. Many queer people cite feeling oversurveilled. Public washrooms are largely designed for able-bodied people, and are often gendered. Queer people of all ages often cite how being queer or read as queer in public space can create real and perceived danger. For trans and non-binary people, public space is often identified as an unsafe space they must navigate, especially concerning are public washroom spaces and transit.
‘Rainbow crosswalks are not enough’
The built environment is developed through a heteronormative lens, but change is possible. Community-driven actions such as pop-up spaces, pride flags, and rainbow crosswalks bump up against dominant perceptions of space, pushing the heteronormative limits of what is to be expected and celebrated within our communities. Although there are many complexities and challenges, other ways to illuminate and illustrate our queer identity meaningfully might include designated queer districts or more permanent recognition through queer art and memorials.
In 2016, the West End Sex Workers Memorial was unveiled in Vancouver’s gay district, Davie Street — a lamp post with a red light commemorating the displacement of sex workers in the area in the 1980s. As UBC professor Becki Ross states, sex workers "built the foundation of what would become this city’s first gaybourhood, and yet hookers on Davie Street have never been honoured as the former fighters for gender, sexual and racial minorities." Inscribed in the monument: "In memory of their ongoing struggle for equality." A digital petition in 2016 was created, calling on the city’s council to remove the monument, stating that "it is an affront to all past and present residents of the West End and to anyone in Vancouver who believes in residents’ rights to defend their neighbourhoods." This type of resistance and community commentary is not atypical in planning processes. It prompts an important discussion around the contested nature of city space. The intersectionality of race, gender, and wealth play a significant role in whose voices and calls-to-actions are heard more loudly in urban debates. Queer voices are often silent or silenced.
Monuments, as well as rainbow coloured sidewalks and art installations, are an opportunity to create visibility and an opportunity for people to see themselves reflected in their cities. These types of physical statements showcase a city’s queer history, people, places, and culture. Their designations, naming, and physical presence suggest a sense of safety and sense of welcoming. We are inspired by these types of physical expressions of queer identity, and are eager to see how we continue to expand the types of queer expressions that become commonplace in our communities.
Inclusive bylaws and policies also matter. Many municipalities in Canada have now moved beyond visible symbols of inclusion to examine their own policies and practices to ensure they are welcoming, respectful, and inclusive of their LGBTTQ+ citizens. Vancouver became the first municipality to amend their business licensing bylaw to prohibit "conversion therapy." Other cities like Calgary, Edmonton, St. Albert, Beaumont, and Saskatoon have also passed "conversion therapy" prohibition bylaws and policies designed to protect their citizens from the harms and dangers of these fraudulent practices. Perhaps, most importantly, these actions demonstrate to LGBTTQ+ communities that they belong and do not need to change who they are or who they love to find acceptance and support.
‘There goes the gaybourhood’
The presence of rainbow crosswalks and pride flags in an urban area often indicates the presence of a queer district. However, not all queer-inclusive areas are so highly visible.
According to researchers Alex Bitterman and Daniel Baldwin Hess, in North American and European cities, gay neighbourhoods serve as hubs of LGBTTQ+ life, providing physical space for many to organize and advocate in support of equality, same-sex marriage, sexual positivity, and personal expression. Gay neighbourhoods are also home to buildings and establishments that promote and preserve LGBTTQ+ culture and history. While gay neighbourhoods first appeared in the 1930s, they become prominent in the 1980s and 1990s in response to civil rights struggles and sexual liberation, and later by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Since then, queer neighbourhoods have become important spaces of community and expression, especially as they have become more inclusive of a broad diversity of LGBTTQ+ community members, including people of colour, transgender and gender non-conforming folks, and others whose identities were or are still not welcome in typical white, cisgender, and male-dominated spaces.
At their origin, queer neighbourhoods were often located in fringe or undesirable areas of the city where there was available space and affordable rents. As queer acceptance has grown in recent decades, these areas have evolved into centres of popular culture, mainstream nightlife, and tourist attractions. What began as underground social refuges have transformed into places of cultural and economic development. While this activity initially supported community vitality and business success, more recently queer residents and business owners have struggled with rising costs of living in these areas — becoming "victims of the gentrification they unintentionally helped," according to Bitterman and Hess. This co-opting of queer identity for economic development often ends up pushing lower income queer residents and key queer businesses out of the area, a process termed "de-gaying." This further perpetuates the overrepresentation of queer people in poverty, which is especially true for Indigenous, transgender, and racialized people.
In the 2020s, will queer neighbourhoods be as important to queer communities as they have been in the past? With ongoing gentrification, queer individuals are increasingly leaving historically gay neighbourhoods for all corners of urban areas. Meanwhile, queer history and inclusive spaces are not limited to the bounds of a gay district in every city, they may just be less visible. Affirming schools, churches, online spaces, and seniors residences can be hubs of the LGBTTQ+ community, while pride flags, celebratory festivals, historical markers, and memorial spaces indicate recognition and acceptance of queer folks throughout the city.
Researchers note how planning and policy work is tied to the preservation, enhancement, and/or neglect of urban spaces, yet planners have historically been reluctant to engage with the LGBTTQ+ community and work to address their needs.
To be perfectly queer
As we look to the future, what ideas and approaches might we pursue to embed queerness visibly and permanently throughout our city’s fabric? As queer people look to digital and public space for queer expression, cities can play a role in nurturing opportunities for inclusion, human rights, and the celebration of diversity.
Community members are able to create and recreate spaces (both in-person and virtual) where queerness is centred through pop-up activities or art. Cities should hasten these kinds of activities by removing barriers for activities in public spaces, while ensuring people’s ability to walk or roll along a street is not impinged upon. Property owners can also reprogram the spaces they own to facilitate temporary and permanent queer spaces. Walking, bicycling, and virtual tours should orient people to a city’s queer history, featuring welcoming places, and even not-so-safe spaces. Wayfinding and signage might be advanced to physically mark a building, sidewalk, or street with queer history and/or expression. Municipalities can recognize queerness through inclusive policies, flag raising, sidewalk paintings, events, festivals, and memorials.
Cities must confront their legacy of exclusion by understanding the intentional and unintentional impacts of their policies and regulations on the LGBTTQ+ community and their ability to access housing, public space, and services and amenities. Cities should ensure access to relevant infrastructure such as free Wi-Fi and safe public spaces such as public libraries to augment the increasingly hyper-digital nature of queer communities.
The legacy of oppression that queer people have been subjugated by cities continues to be felt. Yet, people, programs, and policies are converging to find opportunities for liberation, safety, authenticity, and belonging. We are eager for cities, such as Winnipeg and Edmonton, to come out with even more opportunities to recognize, honour, and celebrate both our diversity and our queerness.
● Jason Syvixay (he/him) is an urban planner and PhD candidate who convenes dialogue around pressing urban issues. He has helped to build safe, resilient, and equitable places and policies through his work at the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, HTFC Planning & Design, and City of Edmonton.
● Kaelin Koufogiannakis (she/her) is an urban planner working in Metro Vancouver. She works to build inclusive, sustainable communities through innovative planning practice and meaningful engagement, and is particularly passionate about climate action, youth empowerment, and child-friendly urban design.
● Stephen Raitz (he/him) is an urban planner working in the Edmonton Region with a keen interest in transportation planning and community engagement. He focuses this passion with his work as Chair of Paths for People, a non-profit that advocates for safer and more liveable streets, and also supports his local community in responding to and engaging with development and policy changes.
● Michael Phair (he/him) has been active for over 25 years with Edmonton’s Gay/Lesbian (Queer) community, as the founder of AIDS Network of Edmonton and Edmonton Pride Senior Group. In 1992, Michael Phair was elected to City Council where he served in Ward 4 until 2007. Appointed in 2015, Michael served as Chair of the University of Alberta Board of Governors.