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Retheorizing the So-called ‘Gay Ghetto’ of Vancouver’s West End

Vancouver’s West End in the upper left of this image from Google Earth**

This essay in now in press.* Part of this essay is available in the PDF file that has been posted here. ingram-2009-retheorizing-the-so-called-gay-ghetto-of-vancouvers-west-end


Can interdisciplinary sciences such as landscape ecology, fields of inquiry that fully engage natural and social sciences, be adapted for better understanding the dynamics of networks of sexual minorities, and more broadly the patterns across space and time of participants of various kinds of sex that does not specifically lead to reproduction? If most scientific inquiry in recent centuries in the West has had a “heteronormative” (Warner 1991) bias, of what could queered forms of landscape ecology studies consist?  In this essay, I revisit some early discussions on neighbourhoods of visible sexual minorities sometimes labelled “ghettos” along with literature from past decades on the formation of landscape ecology in order to shed light on these questions. This essay re-examines the environmental context of the formation of one so-called “gay ghetto,” Vancouver’s West End, and explores more nuanced, spatial, and materialist means of describing social processes involving sexual minorities across metropolitan areas.  Through revisiting primarily materialist frameworks, such as landscape ecology’s notions of fragments, edges and matrices, I hope to build a theoretical bridge to better blend biophysical and empirical descriptors in investigations of social networks and physical sites of sexual minorities with critical forms of cultural theory.

The afterlife of the queer theory of the 1990s is shifting to fuller recognition of and engagement with material conditions (Shapiro 2004) that can be termed “queer ecologies.” Broadening the theories and practices that underlay how marginalized groups come to perceive, assess and claim sites, neighbourhoods and social resources has become a project in contemporary sexual cultures and politics (Ingram 1997a). But what do we need to know about our communities and associated physical environments to better defend and expand new-found gains? This essay explores some opportunities provided by and limits to adapting the field of landscape ecology for providing and organizing information on neighbourhoods that in turn can be used in local activism. My focus is on gay male community formation processes that took place in Vancouver’s West End until the onslaught of AIDS in the 1980s, when the neighbourhood’s white gay male demographic began to peak. The West End has been a strategic and mythic locale in Canada’s homosexual male, gay, lesbian, and queer cultures and politics but was particularly important to the formation of notions of gay rights in the 1960s and 1970s. The historical moments that saw the urban changes that created a self-defined gay ghetto (even as long-term resident lesbians were moving away) comprise the focus of this essay.

Until recently, most of the Earth’s ecosystems have been transformed by human cultures that have coupled heterosexuality with reproduction, socialisation, and survival. While exceptions have existed, notions and spaces of sex for pleasure outside of heterosexual reproductive units often remained decidedly marginalized. Well into the 20th century, studies of biological exuberance (Bagemihl 1999), of pleasure in general, were often considered “unscientific,” especially any explorations of the implications of certain human cultures and pursuits of erotic pleasure on ecosystems. Over the last 40 years, the combined movements for women’s reproductive freedom, gay liberation, lesbian feminism, transgendered activism, and queer theory have transformed the formerly heteronormative notions of the biosphere. In the more affluent parts of the world, urban life is being restructured by pursuits for satisfaction, diversifying practices of biological reproduction and modes of families and socialization. The implications of these queer human ecologies on an urbanizing world already degraded by globalization, consumerism, contamination, destruction of habitat, loss of species, and climate change have barely been explored.

In these uncertain times, any utopian anticipation of a planetary lustgarten would be premature and naive. Instead, we are in an era where any space and associated ecosystems and landscapes capable of supporting consensual intimacy are increasingly vulnerable to violence or privatisation or both, and thus becomes a site for contestation. So while there may be a queering of ecological investigations, through at least a tolerance of notions of biological exuberance that includes sexual intimacy between two or more members of the same gender and/or sex, the totality of the habitat (indeed the biosphere) of human sexual expression remains conflicted and “uncomfortable” within the broader contexts of the now lurching globalisation of capital and environmental deterioration.

In this contribution to the debates around Queer Ecologies, I explore an expanded paradigm for understanding the biophysical and cultural environments of networks of public and private sites. In so doing, I hope to contribute to erotic expression, there and elsewhere, that is defined by erotic desire rather than procreation, and that is “queer” at least in the sense of dismantling of the poisonous blend of racism and heteronormativity that was consolidated in the late Victorian period. In particular, I want to queer the vocabulary of landscape ecology in order to better describe and understand the shifting relationships between those physical spaces increasingly influenced by urban design, ecosystem management, and aspects of sites marked in some ways by the rich combination of homoerotic social networks, forms of private and perhaps public erotic expression, and resistances to homophobia.

The central argument of this essay is that landscape ecology holds some theoretical and methodological tools that can be adapted to understanding material aspects of processes of queer urbanization, but that in order to do so it will be necessary to rethink ways to combine the natural and social sciences with a kind of eroticised cultural studies. In particular, it will be necessary to build theoretical bridges linking research methods on cognitive maps to better the defining of erotic subcultures, on one side, and to inventorying uses of particular sites and landscapes by specific groups along with notions of agency, on the other side.  Landscape ecology as a field of inquiry consists of interdisciplinary approaches for studying the interplay of biophysical ecosystems and human communities – including culture. Some European schools of landscape ecology have focused on cultural transformations of ecosystems and physical space. Some associated research methods, that map shifting culture landscapes at various scales over time, can be applied for more nuanced understandings of sexual subcultures (which of course have a material basis), and also for the “queering” of neighbourhoods and even for identifying contemporary policy and design agendas. But queering landscape ecology, as with contesting the cultural biases in any science, will not be easy.

A second argument emerges from applying landscape ecology to understanding community formation for sexual minorities in Vancouver’s West End: in describing material aspects of queer social relationships, there is a basis for identifying important dynamics between the physical environment and economic relations, on one hand, and culture and popular political ideas on the other. Some of these relationships can be dialectical, yet they are only partially mediated by political economy. In other words, environmental contexts and city forms have impacts on sexual cultures while sensibilities and ideas directly influence urban policy, design processes, neighbourhood landscapes, and metropolitan ecosystems. These dynamics between and among physical contexts, political economy, and culture–including erotic cultures–are not symmetrical across space or time. Ideas, including ones that are key ingredients for sexual cultures, lead to the transformation of urban spaces just as biophysical environments can foster certain experiences and ideologies. A kind of queered landscape ecology, as a mode of investigation, could be pillar of a renewed and more empirically based body of activist theory and associated research methods, especially useful for better understanding persistent social inequities that extend to sexual expression.


* This paper was originally presented in May 2007 at the Queer Ecologies Colloquium organized through the Faculty of Environmental Studies of York University and held at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto. A version of this essay is in press as part of Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Ed. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.

Table of Contents


A Genealogy of Queer Ecologies. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson

Section 1: Against Nature? Queer Sex, Queer Animality

Chapter 1 Eluding Capture: The Science, Culture and Pleasure of “Queer” Animals. Stacy Alaimo

Chapter 2 “Enemies of the Species.” Ladelle McWhorter

Chapter 3 Penguin Family Values: The Nature of Environmental Reproductive Justice. Noël Sturgeon

Chapter 4 Queer nature cultures. David Bell

Section 2: Green, Pink and Public: Queering Environmental Ecopolitics

Chapter 5 Non-white reproduction and same-sex eroticism: Queer acts against nature. Andil Gosine

Chapter 6 The Role of Nature in Lesbian Alternative Environments in the United States: From Jook Joints to Sisterspace. Nancy Unger

Chapter 7 Polluted Politics? Confronting Toxic Discourse, Sex Panic, and Eco-Normativity. Giovanna Di Chiro

Chapter 8 Undoing Nature: Coalition Building as Queer Environmentalism. Katie Hogan

Chapter 9 Retheorizing the Formation of a So-called “Gay Ghetto” through Queering

Landscape Ecology. Gordon Brent Ingram

Section 3: Desiring Nature? Queer Attachments

Chapter 10 “The Place, Promised, that Has Not Yet Been:” The Nature of Dislocation and

Desire in Adrienne Rich’s Your NativeLand/Your Life and Minnie Bruce Pratt’s

Crime Against Nature. Rachel Stein

Chapter 11 “fucking close to water”: Queering the production of the nation Bruce Erickson

Chapter 12 Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands

Chapter 13 Biophilia, Creative Involution, and the Ecological Future of Queer Desire. Dianne Chisholm.

** This is a modified, 2007 composite satellite image of the Vancouver Peninsula. The eastern edge of Stanley Park, including the important past and present, public sex sites, is in the upper left. The West End is adjacent to Stanley Park and extends to the middle of the image where the neighbourhood meets Vancouver’s Downtown business district.

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