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Who’s afraid of Virginia’s Woof? (A sidewalk theory)

So, I’ve recently been asked to participate in a conference on ecologies of fear and I think I’d like to do something about queer spaces and the alleviation and production of fear. I’ve long found it fascinating how the built environment affects our behaviours and the ways in which we use space. For example: I have this theory that sidewalk width discriminates on (at least) the basis of race and gender. Let me tell you why.

You know these sidewalks where people hang out and talk and when you need to walk by, each half of the group squeezes a little to their respective side and you have to cut through through the middle? Fun fact: If the sidewalk is either really wide or super narrow, this doesn’t happen. I’d love to conduct a study on the the exact sidewalk width that causes these scenarios, because what happens next is annoying. And scary. Sometimes, nothing at all happens; sometimes, you receive a comment about your physical appearance, and at other times, people get too close for comfort and even threaten your well-being. I know when I talk to someone who has felt vulnerable in a public place before, because I don’t get to the end of the above sentence before they start nodding emphatically.

I also know when I walk with a person who has felt vulnerable before, because they will probably walk on the other side of the road when confronted with such a sidewalk situation. In the past, I’ve had a great remedy for this: my smelly and loud, but extremely lovely, late canine companion Jack. And now, of course, the pandemic and the fact that I’ve moved from a big city in Germany to a sleepy town in Hampshire mean that people are a lot more respectful of my personal space. But what will happen on post-pandemic sidewalks? Will people keep the distances we’re now used to? Will the built environment adapt to a world of respiratory viruses that require us to stay further apart? Will that cause new kinds of fears? Somehow, I doubt everything will just go back to ‘normal’ but that’s a thought for another post.

These days, I borrow Elvis (aka Virginia’s Woof) for walks. Turns out he attracts rather than repels attention. Little bugger.

Today, I’m still thinking about how fear inscribes itself into space. Even safe spaces are of course premised by the knowledge that there is much unsafe space out there. For people of colour, for people with different abilities, for people who are not cis male, for all sorts of queer folk, among others. There is this really interesting (albeit somewhat dated) anthology called BodySpace: Destabilising Geographies of Gender and Sexuality in which Gill Valentine explains why the street is not asexual: the article starts with an early 90s news story about a lesbian couple being kicked out of a Nottingham supermarket for kissing. There are of course more recent (and more intersectional) studies on the subject, but I remember reading this particular article a few years back and thinking: “Ohhh, so it’s not just me!”.

Check out this participatory map of queer safe spaces. Unsurprisingly, the closest ones to me are all in a magical place called Brighton.

Unfortunately, what is already clear is that the pandemic is slowly eliminating queer safe spaces. The few gay and lesbian bars that are left are struggling and it will be some time before the sparkling, sweaty, rainbow-coloured dance parties we love so much can restore any major cash flow. While it is great that so many of us can also connect online, these digital connections (and planning policies unconcerned with such things as fear and marginalisation) have been eating away at physical LGBTQIA*+ space for some time now. I imagine the same is true for places where other communities connect. To clumsily refer back to my sidewalk theory: I really do hope we’re approaching a world in which fewer people have to think about sidewalk widths. For the moment, I still think we desperately need places where we can talk about them.

Further listening: If you’re a speaker of German, you may be interested in this podcast episode in which my wonderful colleague Cornelia Wächter and I interview three activists on the subject of digital and physical queer spaces. If you use a different podcast provider, simply search for “Identität im digitalen Wandel” (Identity and digital change).

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