Back to the City


pace has long seemed to me an important concept in thinking about the past. While my field of study is political history, my approach to studying urban machine politics was shaped by William H. Sewell Jr. (2001), whose memorable graduate seminar on social space imparted an interest in space that shaped how I approached the writing of the book. Sewell’s concept of “spatial agency” articulated the way that insurgents “not only are shaped and constrained by the spatial environments in which they take place, but are significant agents in the production of new spatial structures and relations” (55). Also important was Gayle Rubin’s concept of sexual migration and her inquiries in “Thinking Sex” (1984) and elsewhere about how to think about urban political economy and sexual politics together.

As an outsider to the field of geography, then, I was honored to be asked to discuss Queer Clout with a group of distinguished scholars in that field at the AAG annual meeting. I’m especially grateful to David K. Seitz for the invitation, and I thank Larry Knopp, Alex G. Papadopoulos, and Rinaldo Walcott for their thoughtful engagement with my work. I am fascinated to observe the interest of the geographers on the panel in San Francisco in parts of my story—such as the controversy over the construction of “four-plus-one” apartment buildings in Lakeview, and the history of the Sandburg Village redevelopment project—that my fellow historians less often picked up on. Reading these three comments as a historian, I am reminded of how useful and productive it is for scholars to converse across disciplinary lines, and I appreciated the chance to learn what geographers found useful or significant in my work.

I am an urban historian, and as such, I have approached spatial questions with a focus on change over time. Queer Clout thus, for example, interprets LGBTQ pride celebrations in the context of the longstanding body of scholarship on ethnic parades and street festivals tied to religious and cultural calendars. As Robert Orsi (1992) put it, cities have been “one of the privileged sites at which different peoples . . . encounter each other and enact their understandings of themselves in relation to the other, in ritual and story, for themselves and others to see and hear, over the changing moments of their histories” (339). There are many things to be said about LGBTQ “pride” celebrations that are beyond the scope of my book. Indeed, the very idea that the Stonewall uprising warrants annual commemoration, not only in New York City but in places around the world, reflects the “accelerated circulation of labor-power, commodities, and capital through space” under neoliberalism (Brenner, 1997: 142).

Queer Clout takes a historical approach: as I emphasize throughout the book the emergence of LGBTQ pride celebrations (and gay politics more broadly) was part and parcel of neoliberalism. They were born at the same historical conjuncture and have been intertwined ever since. In a case study of Chicago, the history of LGBTQ pride celebrations is revealed as inseparable from late twentieth-century processes of metropolitan racial segregation. Since there was almost no urban-historical writing on the topic, the book tries to outline some of the emerging institutional dynamics of “mainstream” pride events, especially conflicts in the 1970s over how gay men and lesbians would relate to one another through this wholly new apparatus of visibility. Chicago’s mainstream pride parade has become a ritual that draws half a million diverse queer and allied folks from across the Midwest into a complex annual encounter with politicians, corporate sponsors, small business owners, and an ever-shifting cast of insurgencies. But Queer Clout also argues that “pride” has been contested since its emergence—encompassing as well, the struggle in the 1990s of black LGBTQ activists to be recognized as participants in the South Side’s Bud Billiken parade, the nation’s largest annual African American parade (a struggle that they won two decades earlier than New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade allowed gay groups to participate); the dyke marches that have sustained a tradition of lesbian alternative organizing and cultural production whose DIY ethos is far more removed from electoral politics than its mainstream counterpart; and lakefront barbecues on the evenings following official pride events, where black and Latino Chicagoans for decades have headed as the dusk settles on “Boystown’s” commercial core.

I appreciate and welcome the divergences between the commentators. Notably, I was struck by the differing views on the part of Knopp and Papadopoulos concerning the usefulness of Kath Weston’s (1995) “great gay migration” concept, which I draw on prominently in framing the book’s argument. My own take is that there is ample empirical evidence to sustain the claim that big-city municipal politics was the pivotal arena for policy innovation in securing some rights for gay and lesbian Americans in the decades after Stonewall. From the 1970s to the 1990s, when most statehouses and the federal government were hostile to gay organizing, it was almost exclusively municipalities that enacted gay rights legislation, with population size by far the strongest predictor of its enactment (Wald et al., 1996). Queer Clout argues that big cities mattered not only because gay people lived there in large numbers, but also because of the particular local opportunity structures that they offered. In many of the nation’s largest cities, which were those in which gay mobilization was most successful, the ascent of black insurgents to power in city hall was a pivotal contextual element. In Chicago, a left-liberal coalition to challenge police practices, much of it under the aegis of a remarkably successful umbrella organization, the Alliance to End Repression, was a major vehicle for gay political empowerment.

Knopp suggests “queer” in the title does not align with the specific meaning that that word holds for him. But “queer” has more than one meaning. To me, the title Queer Clout reflects the tension between, on the one hand, the radical possibilities that urban sex and gender subcultures embody, and on the other hand, the particular, highly urban distributional regimes by which the state allocates rights and power to a subset of gay citizens. That is, “Urban politics allocated clout to some gay men, and to a smaller number of lesbians, even while it marginalized many other gay and transgender citizens” (9). In chapter 4, I trace how and why certain queer people—mostly men, mostly white, all cisgender—were able to plug themselves into urban machine politics at particular moments. A figure like Chuck Renslow—a physique photography entrepreneur and gay bathhouse owner, thus became the sole openly gay precinct captain under Mayor Richard J. Daley and owned the city’s first commercial gay newspaper, which began publication in 1975—embodies some of these complexities. Renslow remained involved in a world of outlaw sexual subcultures—the worlds of erotic illustration and photography, sex-related small businesses, as well as the nonprofit International Mr. Leather contest and the Leather Archives and Museum, which he founded—even as he became enmeshed in Democratic Party politics. (Sadly, the long-lived Bijou Theater on North Wells Street, which Papadopoulous rightly calls a sign of queer bohemia’s persistent vitality, closed its doors in 2015.)

In addition, I welcome and share Rinaldo Walcott’s discomfort with a progress narrative. A major theme of my work has been the political and ethical costs of the growing alignment between LGBTQ people and law enforcement. The predominantly white gay-rights movement abandoned what, as Queer Clout contends, was its first major policy concern, police harassment. In articles that draw partly on the book, I have taken up both the macro implications of this abandonment for the history of the carceral state and its more local manifestations during a 2011 controversy over policing in Chicago’s Boystown (Stewart-Winter, 2015a, 2015b). I have also tried to trouble the notion that the present political moment, and the legalization of same-sex marriage during the last decade in particular, solves the predicaments that marginalized LGBTQ people continue to face. “Will even a fraction of the energy and money that have been poured into the marriage fight,” I asked, “be available to transgender people, homeless teenagers, victims of job discrimination, lesbian and gay refugees and asylum seekers, isolated gay elderly or other vulnerable members of our community?” (Stewart-Winter, 2015c). Queer Clout concludes on a note of ambivalence, highlighting in its final paragraph the persistent marginalization of queer and trans people of color, in a moment too often cast in heroic terms. Walcott’s own work (2005) on the liberatory promise of black queer diaspora studies points to important directions for future work that connects the local to transnational processes.

In a sense building on the work of Barbara Ransby, Danielle McGuire, and others who have argued for an expanded notion of civil rights leadership foregrounding the role  of women, Queer Clout argues that progressive black-led coalitions were pivotal to legitimizing the expansion of the antidiscrimination apparatus of the state—again, first and pivotally at the municipal level—to encompass gay citizens in the decades after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Grassroots activists like Willie Barrow, politicians such as Anna Langford and Carol Moseley Braun, and progressive black male civic leaders—including notably some, like Cliff Kelley and Harold Washington, whose nonconforming status as “bachelors” made them the object of rumors but did not stop them from taking up the mantle of advocating gay equality (See Holmes, 2015). Although it deals with the not always inspiring scene of urban machine politics in an era of budget cuts, concentrated poverty, and AIDS, my book nonetheless contends that “black sexual politics” in the late twentieth century is not reducible to a flat, monolithic, exclusively church-centered conservatism—at least not everywhere. 


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