See Larry Knopp's most recent Society & Space contributions here: Queer Diffusions and Sexuality and the Spatial Dynamics of Capitalism


n June 26, 2015, Timothy Stewart-Winter published an op-ed in the New York Times titled “The price of gay marriage” (Stewart-Winter, 2015). It was a thoughtful and critical contemplation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in light of the gay freedom movement’s more radical political origins. Its gist was that the movement’s radical and coalitional roots are in danger of being forgotten if not betrayed entirely by the selective admission of some LGBT people into conservative institutions such as the military and the institution of marriage. Stewart-Winter managed to convey in that essay—for a largely mainstream audience, in a way that is likely comprehensible to that audience—the anxieties that he and many LGBTQ people feel about the exclusionary (specifically, racist, sexist, transphobic, and otherwise normative) consequences of the contemporary movement’s incorporation into and appropriation by a neoliberal social order. His book Queer Clout accomplishes much the same thing, in a substantially more comprehensive way, through an examination of “the rise of gay politics” (the book’s subtitle) in Chicago. The book is a fascinating discussion of the complex political, economic, and cultural machinations leading to the rise of a particular kind of influence in a particular kind of politics by a particular—and increasingly narrow—segment of the LGBT population. I enjoyed the book tremendously.

First, the book provides a much needed corrective to popular discourses that assume hostility between LGBT communities—coded popularly as white—and communities of color—coded popularly as primarily African-American and as uniformly heterosexual and homophobic. Instead, Stewart-Winter chronicles a cooperative, if not coalitional, politics in Chicago with shared roots in radicalism and experiences of abuse at the hands of police, as well as important overlaps in the two communities’ memberships. He does so while retaining a keen awareness of differences in the ways that homophobia, heterosexism, racism, and classism have been experienced differently by different people sitting at different intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality, and of how racism and classism, as part of late 20th-century and contemporary neoliberal economic restructurings, have rendered such cooperative/coalitional politics not only more challenging than ever but also in many ways more limited and exclusionary than ever before.

The book also provides a needed corrective to the coastal biases in gay and queer community studies and political histories. Chicago may or may not be more “representative of the dozens of other regional magnets for gay migration—from Atlanta to Seattle, Boston to Dallas” (3-4) but its story is still terribly important. Chicago is a huge metropolis (and sexual minority mecca) in the geographical heart of the U.S. with outsized influence culturally and politically, due if nothing else to its sheer size and centrality.

At the same time, it is a bit of a misnomer to call the kind of clout identified in the book “queer.” Neither the political practices nor the political agendas described are particularly queer (in the current poststructuralist, anti-identitarian/anti-essentialist sense of the word). On the contrary, they are quite traditionally distributional and interest-group based, particularly after 1968. But even the more radical, oppositional politics of the 1950s and 1960s are described in terms that reflect the powerful structuralist imagination of that era’s radical left. Perhaps the use of the term “queer” simply reflects an editorial (rather than authorial) decision to capitalize on the currency of the term “queer” today, in which case the decision should be judged in that context. Nonetheless, the irony of this, in the context of a book that aims to critique the appropriation and neoliberalization of a once radical social movement, will not be lost on many readers.

A somewhat more substantial problem with the book is that in his zeal to rescue gay US history from its coastal biases, Stewart-Winter reproduces an urban bias, by explicitly conflating gay politics, radical politics, and urban politics (9, 11). As previously mentioned he posits Chicago as more representative than many more well-known cities (e.g., New York, San Francisco) in the way contemporary gay clout was achieved: “The story of the American gay rights movement is inseparable from that of big-city municipal governance” (5), he says, and suggests that Chicago is the textbook example of how this combination came to be. While there are clearly parallels in certain aspects of the stories of many cities, and while it’s true that in the 80s and 90s urban America became a bastion of a certain kind of (neo)liberalism featuring a very homonormative cultural liberalism, the stories “from Atlanta to Seattle, Boston to Dallas” are by no means the same, whether with respect to the ways in which gay politics and black politics intersected and combined or with respect to how these cities’ politics unfolded more generally.

Seattle, for example, is decidedly not Chicago, not Boston, not Atlanta, and not Dallas (Brown and Knopp, 2016; Dubrow et al., 2015). While there have been some alliances forged around a variety of issues impacting different marginalized populations, the rise of gay politics in Seattle has had only a little to do with a specifically black and gay coalition, and even less to do with shared concerns about police abuse. In fact, in contrast to the experience of Seattle’s black community (and that of many other cities’ gay communities), police harassment of gay people and gay bars was never a major feature of the standard operating procedures of a heterosexist power structure. (As Tyson [2010] has shown, the same is true of Minneapolis.) Rather, gay political clout there, while like in Chicago having some radical roots, has arguably been enabled largely by the larger project of neoliberal urbanization that Timothy talks about near the end of Queer Clout, with the benefits accruing very disproportionately to white homonormative gays and lesbians. And some of the early “victories” (such as the city’s 1973 and 1975 gay rights ordinances) were passed mostly as part of a relatively non-controversial “good government” reform movement, along with the statewide repeal of an anti-sodomy law, not as part of a package of goodies distributed by a municipal government to its governing coalition’s various key constituents.

Much of the urban bias in the book rests on Kath Weston’s (1995) “great gay migration” thesis. And while there is much empirical truth to the thesis, the subjects of this migration are conceptualized in Queer Clout (as in most treatments) as arriving in their new destinations tabula rasa, without histories, biographies, traditions, skills, expertise, etc.—at least with regard to being gay and lesbian and doing politics. Why is this? Why is gay history seen as only starting after the migration? In fact, there are many stories of gay and lesbian political activism in smaller places, and not just special cases like university and resort towns—especially if we broaden our notion of what counts as politics! As Michael Brown and I showed in “Queer diffusions” (2003), many participants in the “great gay migration” brought with them political skills and world-views that proved crucial to their work in “the big city.” We drew on interviews with people who were activists in such unlikely places as Ellensburg, WA and Duluth, MN to show this. One particularly apposite example that complicates the “gay politics is urban politics” argument comes from Minnesota. The passage in 1993 of a comprehensive statewide gay rights law was achieved with crucial “yes” votes coming from rural and small town areas where LGBT activists and allies pressured their legislators to support the bill, while the votes of suburban legislators from the Twin Cities metropolitan area tended to oppose the law.

It is also a problem to suggest that radical politics are or have only ever been (or primarily been) urban. As historians of the American left (e.g., Zinn, 1980; Dyson, 1982) have stressed, the importance of rural and small-town radicalism—including cultural radicalism—in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the U.S. was profound. Indeed, Zahavi (1996) and McDonald (2010) show the importance of the cultural politics of gender and sexuality (if not of homosexuality, and albeit in the context of a left-wing movement’s demise rather than its rise) in the practice of radical politics in a remote farming area of Montana in the early 20th century.

Finally, there is a somewhat teleological tone to the book, despite its clear awareness of contradictions in the current neoliberal regime. This is perhaps most evident in Chapter 5 (“Lesbian Survival School”) where radical lesbian separatism seems to be posited as a necessary step in an inevitable march towards a “gay and lesbian community served by joint institutions” (151) and a recognition that gays and lesbians “needed to work together, as well as to reach beyond the community for political allies” (152). This tone continues in Chapter 6 (“Balance of Power”), and is accompanied by what feels like a bit of romanticization as well, where the election of Harold Washington in 1983 and the “embracing of many of the concerns of gays and lesbians” by the women’s movement are posited as having been key to “opening the public sphere to gay mobilization” (158). Even the AIDS crisis, in Chapter 7 (“A New Disease is Not Welcome Here”), is presented as having been part of this teleology of a march towards “queer clout.” I am skeptical of these characterizations not because I think they are “wrong,” but because I think they are simplistic. I wonder to what extent the book might read differently, and what it might mean as a contribution to knowledge about urban politics, sexual and racial politics, gender politics, and intersections between and among these, if these various moments were portrayed as still connected but not necessarily part of a trajectory. This might lead to somewhat less grand claims about the “representativeness” of the Chicago story, and an even richer analysis of the complex, every-changing dynamics of class, race, gender, and sexuality that are so much of what I appreciate about the book. 


Brown M and Knopp L (2003) Queer diffusions. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21(4): 409-424.
Brown M and Knopp L (2016) Sex, drink and state anxieties: Governance through the gay bar. Social & Cultural Geography 17(3): 335-358.
Dubrow G, Knopp L, and Brown M (2015) Act Up versus straighten up: Public policy and queer community-based activism. In: Doan P (ed) Planning and LGBTQ Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Spaces. London & New York: Routledge, pp. 202-216.
Dyson LK (1982) Red Harvest: The Communist Party and American Farmers. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
McDonald VS (2010) The Red Corner: The Rise and Fall of Communism in Northeastern Montana. Helena, MT: Montana Historical Society Press.
Stewart-Winter T (2015) The price of gay marriage. New York Times, 28 June.
Tyson A (2010) Skirting boundaries. In: Knopp L, Murphy K, and Pierce J, et al. (eds) Queer Twin Cities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 171-202.
Weston K (1995) Get thee to a big city: Sexual imaginary and the great gay migration. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 2(3): 253-277.
Zahavi G (1996) “Who’s going to dance with somebody who calls you a mainstreeter”: Communism, culture and community in Sheridan County, Montana, 1918-1934. Great Plains Quarterly 16(4): 251-286.
Zinn H (1980) A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present. New York: Harper and Row.