I’ve been interested in the theme of queering social reproduction lately for two reasons. First, I have been wondering how queer people’s lives and practices fit into the way that feminist political economy has conceptualized social reproduction. Social reproduction itself has traditionally been approached through uncovering the way women’s unpaid labor inputs subsidized the breadwinner wage in industrial capitalism, and thus through tracing the emergence of the heteronormative nuclear family, particularly as the seeming naturalness of this institution was destabilized by women’s entrance into the paid labor force (Laslett and Brenner, 1989). Secondly, beyond a fairly small academic literature on gay men’s homemaking (eg Pilkey, 2014; Gorman-Murray, 2006, 2008; Cook, 2014; Vider, 2014, 2015) it’s increasingly clear that most attention paid to gay men’s social reproductive worlds has consisted of either the glib dismissal of its very terms or its spectacularization, for instance of gay DINK couples’ use of women’s labor as cleaners or as surrogates to bear babies—discourses which are seemingly not as pointed in reference to lesbians and queer women. Especially since the United States Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision extending same-sex marriage to all fifty states, I’ve kept asking myself why pleasures and labors of mundane queer intimate life are so often approached by scholars through the all-too-often reductive lens of homonormativity, and how restrictive and fundamentally devaluing of queer everyday life and its complex spatialities that felt.

As scholars have repeatedly demonstrated, a lot of the important recent work on social reproduction focuses on the importance of de-privatizing, or socializing, the work of social reproduction by, for example organizing collective child care or even food provision, such as wartime Britain’s “rural pie scheme” in which the state provided hot lunchtime pies to male and female agricultural workers toiling in the fields (McDowell, 1983). Dolores Hayden’s landmark paper “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like” for instance imagines urban neighborhoods of shared community kitchens, daycare services, and transportation that might actually allow for women’s labor force participation on an equal footing to men. Other writers (eg Glenn, 1992) have made clear the reliance of capitalist urban economies on the paid reproductive labor of low-paid racialized women who work in child care, as cleaners, and the like. But a second strand of the work of social reproduction that is too often neglected, especially by feminist geographers, is the process not just of making links between public and private, but the by-necessity public forms of social reproduction, the infinite acts of equally gendered mostly though not always unpaid labor that make cities run (cf Thrift, 2005 for an account of urban “maintenance and repair” that totally neglects gender and sexuality).

From William Julius Wilson’s (2003) problematic paeans to “collective supervision” in poor urban neighborhoods, through recent work on “self-help cities” in the slums of the developing world (Berg-Schlosser and Kersting, 2003), from the well-meaning but intrusive Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’ Bleak House (Dickens, 1948) through Hillary Clinton’s most famous meme, that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ (1996), it has become increasingly clear that, as Sudhir Venkatesh (2000) writes “There is no community in which ongoing collective labor is not required to ensure livability, though the resources available to communities will differ” (463). Revisiting what have seemed, at least for a geographer, like perhaps tired debates about the ontology of gay neighborhoods—are they in decline, are they adequately resisting incorporation into regimes of entrepreneurial urbanism (Ghaziani, 2014; Bell and Binnie, 2004)—has for me raised the question not just of how they serve as spaces of sociality and political organizing but also places which are continuously performed as queer spaces through the kinds of collective labor that makes them tick.

In this essay I want to think about queering social reproduction through conceptualizing specifically gay men’s social reproduction as ongoing collective labor that is essential to the constitution not just of gayborhoods but of urban spaces in general, particularly through the way it might unsettle binaries of public and private that constrain our thinking around not just intimacy (Berlant & Warner, 1998) but caring labor.

Uncovering histories of Queer Labor

In reference to paid work, Allan Berube (2011) perhaps provocatively glosses “queer labor” as jobs where men do women’s work, often in personal service or “decorative, designing, and self-expressive arts” (268). As he notes, jobs that become understood as “gay jobs” are those in which white gay men perform caring labor in the service sector. Race is central here, as Berube notes that in the first half of the 20th century Asian men’s labor was often feminized, for instance, in the laundries, but not necessarily homosexualized. Black railway stewards, unlike white cruise ship stewards, were also not seen as performing “queer labor.” It was white gay men’s forfeiting of their privileged access to what Heidi Nast (2015: 772) calls “bodily identification with the machine” as phallic substitute that produced for them the specific category of “queer work” that included—and still includes—hairdressers, dressmakers, florists, and flight attendants.

Berube asks “what would we learn if we began to uncover other histories of people who did queer work? How do the traditions of queer work wind their way through our whole economy and social fabric?” (268; see also Hennessy, 2006). In this vein, I’d like to ask, what about unpaid labor? Manuel Castells (1983), in his classic work on The Castro hints at this question tantalizingly when he notes that

the artistic talents of many gays has [sic] accounted for one of the most beautiful urban renovations known in American cities. The effects on urban aesthetics have gone beyond the careful painting of the original Victorian facades [and] can be seen in the well-designed treatment of semi-public spaces—between the front door and the pavement for example; in all, a very unusual architectural improvement in the highly individualistic world of modern cities. (166).

Castiglia and Reed (2012) even argue that gay men’s camp aesthetic—that bold use of kitsch to denote an existence outside of heteronormative temporalities—served as one of the originary assaults on the masculinist sterilities of modernism. For Castells, “the most important contribution of the gay community to the city” is in fact “urban meaningfulness [emphasis added] […] how decisively street life, popular celebrations, and joyful feasts have increased during the 1970s as a direct consequence of the gay presence” (167; for unpaid queer labor in the home, see Barrett, 2015; Pfeffer, 2010).

Metabolizing the Queer Migrant

I want to suggest that much of the essential queer labor being done to endow the urban with meaning is the performative endeavor of what Chicago School urban sociologist Ernest Burgess (2003) called the urban metabolism: In his classic and much critiqued work he asks: “In what way are individuals incorporated into the life of a city? By what process does a person become an organic part of his society?” (159). Though for Burgess the city was an organism that, when functioning properly, digested newcomers, he didn’t offer many clues as to how this labor was accomplished.

Feminists have entered this breach. As planning historian Daphne Spain (2001) notes “Male professionals built grand boulevards and civic monuments in search of the City Beautiful. Female volunteers built the places of everyday life, the neighborhood institutions without which a city is not a city” (13). Municipal housekeeping is Spain’s term for the ways in which the links between private lives, public space, and formal politics were made clear by turn of the century women activists and volunteers. Women organized not just the Settlement House movement—quasi public spaces integrating immigrant women and children into American language, hygiene, and foodways—but also agitated for public hygiene in the disorderly new cities of industrial capitalism, for instance for the hasty removal not just of rubbish but of the bodies of dead horses from the streets where many of these children played.

To help us re-envision queer neighborhoods as, in Spain’s terms, “redemptive places,” spaces of labor-intensive family- and community-making that metabolize migrants—I want to use some scenes from the 2008 film Milk about the San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, first openly gay man in the US to be elected to public office. Queer labor here is essential to the space of the gay neighborhood, in this case, again, the emerging Castro, as an organism digesting and incorporating queer bodies into the fabric of the home, the street, the neighborhood, the city. I should note that I’m not particularly interested here in representational questions or in the role of film as text per se, but in how these few scenes demonstrate emblematically queer geographies of metabolism.

In one scene, fairly early in the film, Milk first meets young Cleve Jones on the Castro Street sidewalk as the latter walks past as Milk is attempting to canvass and register gay men to vote during his first campaign for city supervisor in 1973. Milk implores Jones to register but the latter responds with a “fuck that—elections of any kind are fucking bourgeois affectations.” Milk responds archly, “Is that right? What do you do, trick up on Polk Street?” Then turning conciliatory, he asks Jones what it was like growing up in his homophobic home town. He argues that electoral politics can change these things, and that “we have to start with our street,” The Castro. Jones demurs and starts to walk away and Milk shouts after him “you should do what you do well: be a prick. But come with us and be a prick. Fight City Hall. Fight the Cops. Fight the people that made you come here to do what you do.” “Sorry old man,” Jones replies, insinuating that Milk is really just trying to pick him up, “all the cash I need is in my back pocket.” He sashays away. Jones and Milk’s frustrated encounter here on the sidewalk marks a geographic interface not only between public and private space, with all the requisite gendered import, but between two obverse embodiments of the possibilities of queer labor: Harvey Milk, the iconic gay male politician, “the Mayor of Castro Street” and Cleve Jones, the young migrant to the city, the radical poseur and sex worker in the seedier, racialized, pre-Stonewall gay neighborhood of the Tenderloin, who continually refuses, mocks and subverts Milk’s exhortations to register to vote and join the masculine order of formal politics.

I want to suggest that mediating this encounter on the boundary is queer labor because it is women’s work. Ann McClintock (1995), writing of the feminized figure as boundary in the colonial imagination, notes that “women served as mediating and threshold figures by means of which men oriented themselves in space” (24). The gendered work of superintending threshold crossing continues as an important theme in at least two more scenes in the film. Years after the initial encounter with Jones, Milk arrives home to find him on his doorstep after a breakup. Milk himself arrives at his door running from the threat of an imminent gay-bashing taking place on the nighttime street. The encounter itself serves as Cleve’s come-to-Jesus moment, an immediate precursor to a longer conversation in which Cleve is incorporated into Milk’s political team as soon as he walks through the door and goes upstairs into Milk’s private space, the apartment above his camera shop storefront.

Later, Milk first makes eye contact with his new lover Jack as Jack stares into his storefront window from the outside. Drunk and unable to stand up, he is here another beautiful lost child taken in by Milk. His crossing the threshold is a precursor to a lovemaking scene and stormy relationship that culminates in Jack’s suicide not long before Milk’s own assassination at the hands of Dan White.

I want to think about how these threshold-crossing scenes work in tension—public-private links-making—demonstrating Milk’s singular role at the center of two very well-documented forms of prefigurative and performative queer community making: urban politics and sex cultures. This tension calls to mind Bersani’s (1987) devastating critique of naïve claims that the gay bathhouse, with its racial and physiognomic pecking order, could be a site of some sort of Whitmanesque democracy as well as the fact that, in San Francisco in 1984, the local state, in the form of the city’s Public Health Director Mervyn Silverman, shut down 14 bathhouses and sex clubs catering to gay men (“14 San Francisco Sex Clubs,” 1984). The work of urban metabolism here constitutes not just a set of spatial crossings but also a queering of high and low. It is an insistence on the necessity of multiple embodied as well as cognitive registers of politico-sexual queer care-taking and world-making within the complex microcosm of a gayborhood in the midst of one crisis—homophobic violence—and on the verge of another almost unspeakably ominous.

But if turn-of-the-century women’s work attempted to redeem the industrial city for everyone, why can’t we think of queer social reproduction that way too? So to this end, the second case I briefly discuss comes from the work of Bridgemen, a social program of the San Francisco Aids Foundation (SFAF), which was, in fact, co-founded by Cleve Jones. Bridgemen’s mission states that it “is for gay, bi and trans guys who are looking to give back to our community. We organize fun and relevant community service projects and social events that provide leadership opportunities and create friendships. Our goal is to make San Francisco a safe and happy place for everyone.”[1] Ultimately this dovetails with SFAF’s goals in preventing the transmission of HIV Aids in San Francisco. Volunteering men, connected men, happy men, healthy city.  Crucially, the theme of boundary crossing is prominent in Bridgemen’s branding. Echoing the threshold-centered plot points of Milk, the image below, one of a series using wordplay to promote the program, draws on Paul’s volunteering as an usher to note that the organization opens doors and that Paul loves doing it. Paul’s work here thus transcends the film festival itself to denote his gendered position as a figure not just guiding but encouraging the crossing of psychic and spatial borders.

In the case of Michael, the pun rests on the dual meaning of the verb to spoon, thereby explicitly blurring discursive lines between public caretaking and private intimacies.

The group’s twitter feed[2] illustrates the group’s amalgamation of erotic and caretaking functions. It includes photos of members cavorting at the Folsom Street Fair and picnicking in Glen Canyon as well as working at Golden Gate Park Maintenance Day and undertaking a “sexy service day of painting” at Maitri, a residential facility for people with AIDS.

Other images in the series indicate another form of queering that the group embrances: the gendered expectations around the performance of caring labor.

“Josh” helped plant trees at a community garden and “Dominic” helped clean up Ocean Beach, but key here, of course, is the way the puns, “trimming bush” and “getting wet” clearly allude to the female body, this metonymic feminization serving to mark collective care labor being performed for the city at large as queer in its very performance.


What are the stakes of thinking about queer labor as constituting the gayborhood, as redeeming the city?

As John D’Emilio notes in his classic essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (1983), “the building of an ‘affectional community’ must be as much a part of our political movement as are campaigns for civil rights” (111). Thinking about forms of queer organizing not just under the rubric of “politics,” but as labor, and specifically as unpaid labor, I would argue, raises the stakes, as we can think about the relationship between care and place-making and the mystification and devalorization of gendered forms of “ongoing collective labor.” Our intertwined work of organizing, caring, and fucking is indispensable to the reproduction of the queer neighborhood and the city at large. And queering social reproduction, I argue, then becomes a question not just of making this labor visible, but of rearticulating the value of feminized caring labor in public space, and sometimes that means “women’s labor” performed by men.

The racialized nature of queer labor’s history, of course, posits a caveat to any kind of utopian thinking. As Johan Andersson (2015) has made clear in his recent work on New York’s West Village, well-to-do white gay men’s collective labor of “eyes on the street” can and often is used to remove younger, poorer, blacker, & browner bodies from queer urban space. Rae Rosenberg (2017) has recently made a similar point about the criminalization and marginalization of queer and trans young people of color even by youth social service providers in Chicago’s Boystown. But as Spain notes, 100 years ago it wasn’t only middle class white ladies redeeming the city. The Salvation Army and National Association of Colored Women were working-class led voluntary organizations. I’m enough of a utopian thinker to believe that prefiguring the very production of cross-class and cross-racial alliances can itself be a task on the gay agenda, central to the redemption of gay neighborhoods. I won’t be prescriptive about how, but the recent explosion of social movements for racial, sexual, and economic justice, in the United States and beyond, should not only serve as inspiration, but can provide an institutional infrastructure to be built on.

Heidi Nast (2016) poses a binary of responses to the reconfiguration of sexual reproduction in the late capitalist West, asking whether the energies once directed toward procreation will be redirected inward through narcissistic forms of recreational sex and consumption or alternately whether there can emerge new forms of intersubjective erotic care-giving redirected outward to comfort and sustain marginalized others. Perhaps, however, we don’t need to choose, but can valorize a queerer form of social reproduction that operates on the threshold between recreational sex and erotic care-giving. The creation of semi-public spaces of sexual and social potential has in some sense saved the city from the modernist spatial division of functions which relegates sexuality to interiors and social reproduction to the periphery. So I want to keep insisting on gay men’s and other LGBTQ contributions to ameliorating the suite of contemporary crises in which cities find themselves, and use this as a call for scholars to keep asking how queer forms of social reproduction might offer redemption and challenge market logics in increasingly unequal urban spaces like contemporary New York, San Francisco, and beyond. In this sense I want to push past both the romanticization of autonomist separatism and the reduction of voluntary labor to its role in neoliberal responsibilization of the self. Maybe we can also then move beyond binaries of radical/assimilationist gay lives to recover the emancipatory potential in social domesticities, and the queer labor it takes to maintain them. 


[1] Text and images available at http://bridgemen.org/[2] https://twitter.com/bridgemen_sf


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