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What historic queer spaces can teach us about online trust
Queer folks have long created vibrant, safe communities in unlikely environments
For a period from the 1950s to the mid-90s, New York’s Times Square was home to scores of pornographic movie theaters, populated by men of various sexualities masturbating and cruising among each other. Detractors complained the venues drove crime by encouraging drug use and unsafe paid sexual encounters; these fears reached a fever tilt in the 80s, with the twin perils of the crack and HIV/AIDS epidemics. When, by the mid-90s, Rudy Giuliani’s pro-business administration began the full-scale shuttering of these theaters and other sites of public sex in Manhattan under the rhetoric of public safety, it was heralded by many as the long-desired cleansing of the city. Out were gay men, drug users, and the homeless, all seeking refuge in the glowing skin-flick celluloid darkness; in was Disney’s Lion King, the four-story Toys “R” Us, and a spate of new luxury development that heralded the city’s final emergence from decades of decline.
Still, if you asked science fiction writer Samuel Delaney, who frequented Times Square’s theaters for decades before their final closure in 1996, safety was almost never a concern inside the theaters. Recurrent visitors developed an understanding of the various uses the theaters offered, from a quiet, unjudgemental place to sleep, or a potential site of sexual gratification. Varying levels of desire coexisted, and regular visitors developed relationships both ephemeral and consequential, creating a field of intimacy built on subtle communication. While newcomers were more vulnerable to potential harm, even a handful of return visits would endear you to “the particularly social queens clustering in their corner of the theater,” those watchful eyes who were quick to dispense warnings like “Honey, watch out for that guy over there. He’s up to no good!” Delaney suggests that, across thousands of visits, he witnessed just one violent robbery.
In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, first published in 1999, Delaney makes the case for pornographic theaters as a critical social infrastructure for intimate cross-class contact, the kind of social space that both increases pleasure for its users while serving as a vital, accomodating environment for marginalized people of all stripes. Today, in our capital-flush metropolises, such places for public sexual culture have been largely obliterated. While some of their functions have shifted online, like the use of hookup apps, such digital environments offer only a pale imitation of what the theaters represented to their patrons. While the connection is not necessarily intuitive, the legacy of these theaters prompts us to ask: how we might redesign safe digital public spaces that allow us to experience life with more beauty, vulnerability, and pleasure?
At first glance, it may seem unusual to draw comparisons between these oft-forgotten porn theaters with the social media platforms that mediate our lives today. While sexual uses of social media do exist, their relative marginalization — especially in the wake of SESTA/FOSTA, a 2018 law which criminalized various online aspects of sex work — means that such uses are far from the norm for many online. But if we can observe the marginalization of a public sexual culture in both digital and urban space as intertwined forces, in ways that punish the most marginalized and otherwise deny unexpected pleasure as a vital part of being alive, we can ask how the internet might be remade to meet the messy totality of our lives.
Gentrification of the city, and the internet
As New York’s porn theaters were under attack, other aspects of its complex urban fabric were also coming undone. During the 1980s and 1990s, neighborhoods like Chelsea and the Lower East Side became rapidly gentrified as HIV/AIDS killed significant numbers of gay residents, opening their rent-controlled apartment units to market-rate transformation.
Gentrification is many things, not just the economic displacement of existing tenants and businesses with higher-income residents, but also a mental and emotional shift, according to Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind. For Schulman, a New York-based author, activist, and dedicated member of AIDS activist group ACT UP, one consequence of New York’s gentrification was the loss of avant-garde lesbian theaters and other radical artistic communities, lovingly chronicled in her early novel Girls, Visions and Everything. With high rents pricing out these kinds of heterodox uses, which created spaces to encounter people from different backgrounds, gentrification erased the possibility of living in mixed communities.
Meaningful urban diversity exposes us to different ways of being, and as Schulman argues, “the daily affirmation that people from different experiences are real makes innovative solutions and experiments possible.” This analysis also helps us see why so many digital spaces lack the kind of texture that makes authentic living difficult. Too many digital spaces, however much they present themselves as revealing the reality of other people, create a false sense of sameness and homogeneity, replacing messy, uncertain environments that acknowledge the needs of others with something smoother and less challenging.
Gentrification includes both racial and aesthetic homogenization, two forces that became apparent in danah boyd’s research on the shift from Myspace to Facebook in 2006 and 2007. boyd found that white high schoolers perceived Myspace as “ghetto” due to its varied visual interface, enacting a kind of digital white flight to Facebook’s cleaner user interface and elite college-adjacent network as “safer” environments. Of course, the idea that a cleaner UI and an air of exclusivity would confer users a greater degree of safety has proven false in the years since boyd’s research, and in time we’ve watched the internet become less variegated, more surveilled, and less likely to facilitate the meaningful cross-identity encounters that non-gentrified urban space has provided its residents.
Many online spaces today are widely (mis)understood as digital public environments, despite being significantly more surveilled and controlled by their own rules than real-life public spaces. (Physical “public space” is also under attack today: consider the hyper-surveillance of New York City’s Hudson Yards and its attempt to assert ownership of its visitors’ digital photographs.) In practice, social media platforms erase the variations that distinguish human beings, reinforcing certain aspects of class stratification (whether through one’s follower count or verified status, for example) while flattening other critical distinctions, as they seek to enact a streamlined model for targeted advertising. Shoshana Zuboff argues in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism that social media platforms use “dehumanized methods of evaluation that produce equivalence without equality,” an approach that “reduce[s] individuals to the lowest common denominator of sameness—an organism among organisms—despite all the vital ways in which we are not the same.”
The social world of the porn theaters stands in stark contrast to these narrowed visions of user categorization, as theater patrons formed idiosyncratic bonds that could only emerge in a complex physical environment. Delaney describes having dozens of sexual encounters with men who struggled with homelessness and addiction, disappeared for long stretches at a time, and reappeared unexpectedly, each a meaningful part of Delaney’s life. These affinities transgressed the bounded expectations of a suburbanized heteronormative sexual life, in which physical encounters are curtailed and carried out in private.
Likewise, digital environments could indeed create rich possibilities for novel sexual and emotional encounters, in ways that push beyond the limitations of physical geography and embodiment. But the majority of digital spaces today seek the opposite: bounding our imaginations for what we might desire from these virtual platforms.
Lesbian digital activism
If Times Square Red, Times Square Blue models the kinds of intimacy that remain possible in public spaces, then Cait McKinney’s Information Activism: A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies shows how marginalized communities have appropriated resources and used tools not always of their own design without losing community values. By creating lesbian indexes, newsletter networks, phone hotlines, and archives, lesbians have sustained communal life by making do with imperfect foundations, creating ad-hoc systems that allow queer experiences to proliferate.
Information Activism shows that community norms are essential both on- and offline. While the rules governing a lesbian bar and a lesbian newsletter may differ, their creation by those who identify with the identity category “lesbian” means that negotiating expectations for both individual and collective behavior is critical. Lesbian information activists worked out these agreements in real time, and McKinney’s research finds shifting norms and expectations emerge in the margins of phone hotline call logs, with differing opinions on the inclusion of trans women—a mix of hostility, uncertainty, and a gradual recognition growing from the quotidian work of sustaining community resources. These social agreements, developed through conversation, organizing, and productive conflict, helped many women define a distinct lesbian identity, even as McKinney finds the term lesbian shifting in meaning over the course of decades.
Despite McKinney’s playful question, “Did lesbians invent the internet?”, and ample evidence that core aspects of Black and queer digital practices have permeated web culture, marginalized people have rarely held full control over the web platforms they inhabit, leaving them vulnerable to harassment while producing billions in revenue for web companies. In this climate, lesbian information activists offer further lessons for today’s users, adopting a “good enough” approach that emphasizes tactical concessions to systems beyond individual control, without relinquishing core community values.
This is apparent in the ways that trans people have operated online, where we’ve had to make do with platforms ambivalent (at best) at our presence. In earlier formations, trans people worked around AOL’s attempts to ban trans digital spaces by using the names of community elders to find one another, a canniness that proved necessary until the ban on trans chatrooms was lifted in 1994, which resulted in the creation of the Gazebo, the first-ever dedicated and open trans chatroom. Then, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, much of this crafty use of digital spaces shifted over to Tumblr, which also created space for alternative pornography and other niche communities to thrive.
As one research paper on the platform’s impact on the community argues, “Tumblr allowed trans users the changeability, network separation, and identity realness, along with the queer aspects of multiplicity, fluidity, and ambiguity, needed for gender transition.” Tumblr users described it as an “open space,” an environment where one could strategically express one’s emerging identities, and where “Anonymity was less about being technically anonymous, and more about being separate from the rest of one’s everyday network.” For my friend and fellow writer Sasha Geffen, the site was a space that gave them access to trans communities years before they were fully out to the world: when their photograph was shared by a popular genderqueer blog, it affirmed a core part of their identity that was still in-the-making in their IRL relationships. Trans Tumblr also connected them with others who have stayed friends and whose relationships have migrated to other digital spaces, primarily Twitter, where shifting expectations again delimit what is and is not possible.
Still, Tumblr’s emergence as a key site for many trans users was unintentional: the platform did not seek them out, and the community still faced challenges with content moderation and censorship. Despite that, Tumblr proved vital for numerous bloggers to share details about their transition processes, until a 2018 ban on adult content (enacted by new owner Yahoo!) and “female-presenting nipples” rendered it nearly unusable for these purposes. The loss has left us to once again mourn complex digital spaces, just as Schulman and Delaney lamented the parts of New York that made queer life decades ago so meaningful.
Today’s dominant tech companies are interested in minimizing user fluidity and self-determination while maximizing profit. These simplified platforms have crowded out earlier web tools that were weirder, more niche, and most importantly did not seek to encompass the totality of the web or delimit how we can encounter one another. Ironically, Yahoo’s purchase of Tumblr proved the challenges of a profit-only approach as it alienated the platform’s existing user base, severely curtailing how it could be used without generating any significant financial return. The backlash should reveal obvious lessons: we share an abundant desire to inhabit digital environments that enable productive instabilities, our identities and affinities never fixed in place, always open to negotiation, unhappy with the status quo.
Gentrification has been a decades-long process, still ongoing in cities around the world today. By contrast, the destruction of niche online space has been carried out almost as soon as the internet came online, a speeding-up process that we can speculatively see ricocheting back into meatspace, amplifying the physical destruction of mixed communities. Reversing these trends in both contexts will require an appreciation of the virtues of living amongst those who are not like us. If we are to remake both our cities and the digital environments that have become a second home today, we must ask for more: spaces that are not perfect, or even necessarily of our own design, but still capacious enough to live as if our belonging does not require the erasure the messiness of others, and, just as importantly, ourselves. 🌳
Annie Howard is a housing organizer and freelance journalist based in Chicago. She writes about queer and trans life in cities, radical urban histories, and plenty more. Her website is annie-howard.com, and she’s on Twitter @t_annie_howard.
Illustration by Josh Kramer.