Layla McCay, Director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health reflects on how marginalisation of LGBT+ people in their own neighbourhoods may contribute to mental health problems - and how planners and designers might help.
On Saturday, walking through my south London neighbourhood, Brixton, a Valentine's Day-themed display in the local department store caught my eye. Taking up a full window display in Morleys, in a prime location right across from Brixton Station and the famous Electric Avenue, three giant red hearts enclosed three couples: a man and a woman; two men; and two women. As a gay woman, I was filled with unexpected joy. Whatever my feelings about Valentine's Day, it felt important to see my life represented in this place, my home, which has so far felt pretty far from a 'gaybourhood' (despite its LGBT+ history). I realised I had never seen a same-sex couple on the high street in Brixton, in advertising or in person. I realised that this lack of representation has been making me feel marginalised in my own community. I was filled with respect for Morleys. That department store's simple design choice had succeeded in making me feel more like I belonged.
Of course it wasn't a simple design choice. On Monday morning, I was walking my dog past the same window. The three couples were still in situ but across the glass in front of them, somebody had scrawled:
'F*CKING LIBERTY - SOMEONE SHOULD SMASH OUT THIS WINDOW!'
In an instant, my feelings about my neighbourhood changed. I no longer felt included in this community. I didn't even feel safe. I looked around, wondering whether the person who had felt compelled to express this view might be nearby, and what they (and their like-minded friends) might decide to do if I was walking past with my wife.
Morleys department store window, Brixton, 12th February 2018
This experience made me think more explicitly about the relationship between sexuality, urban design and mental health. Part of designing environments that promote good mental health is achieving feelings of safety, belongingness, and community connection. When these feelings are replaced by fear, anxiety, mistrust, and marginalisation, and experiences of bullying, harrassment, abuse and discrimination, this can increase people's risk of developing mental health problems like anxiety and depression. LGBT+ people are already twice as likely to have mental health problems compared to heterosexual people, and much of that is thanks to issues like self esteem, discrimination and marginalisation.
LGBT+ people do not always find acceptance and support within their own families and communities, and often move to cities in search of community and belonging. However, cities are not always tolerant utopias.
What can urban design and planning do to promote good mental health for LGBT+ people?
There are two main approaches: first, a sense of safety and inclusion that empowers LGBT+ people to fully access the environmental factors that promote good mental health, such as access to parks, physical activity, positive social interactions. Secondly, building on the importance of pro-social places by strengthening the role of the built environment in promoting a sense of community and belongingness.
Dedicated LGBT+ venues
Much has recently been written on the topic of 'queer urban planning' (see further reading at the bottom of this page for some examples). Most of the debate has centered around the demise of venues owned by or dedicated to the LGBT+ community, and the pros and cons of protecting and maintaining these spaces of safety and connections: are they sanctuaries or ghettos? Should they have a special status?
Last night I attended an event about queer city planning at the Museum of London, curated by UCL Urban Lab. We learned that 116 LGBT+ venues have closed over the last decade or so in London, and today few remain. A positive interpretation could be that this reflects an increasingly inclusive society: perhaps LGBT+ people no longer experience the prejudice that underlies the need for dedicated venues. Or perhaps the rise of the internet and apps overlying physical space is helping like-minded people find each other and build communities in new ways.
And yet dedicated physical spaces still play important roles for minority communities. These spaces emphasise commonality. They facilitate connections, support, and freedom for people to express themselves without fear. This is especially important because such spaces may not exist in other parts of some LGBT+ people's lives. They provide an important setting to be with people who accept each other without requiring explanations, enabling them to connect, and build communities. People who have just come out of the closet (or are bracing themselves to take that step) are at increased risk of loneliness, depression, anxiety and suicide. The support and solidarity and acceptance they can find in LGBT+ venues can be an incredibly protective factor for mental health. Without such venues, people may rely on the internet and struggle to make meaningful social connections. Even meeting up in person can be complicated. For instance, at the Museum of London event, cultural producer Chardine Taylor-Stone spoke of the overt and covert discrimination she has faced when trying to run events for LGBT+ people in venues that do not have LGBT+ management.
Another interesting argument for the importance of dedicated LGBT+-run establishments is that such venues provide much-valued 'official' visibility for LGBT+ people on the streets of their city - a gay bar on the corner of the high street provides physical proof that LGBT+ people are present and deserve to be present in a landscape. This is meaningful because heterosexual representations tend to dominate in most cityscapes.
Two performers dressed up as two of my favourite lost London LGBT+ venues, First Out and The Glass Bar, read (and are clothed in) the relevant planning permissions at the Queer Salon event at the Museum of London
This leads to the second major topic of discussion - the concept of 'gaybourhoods'. These are areas of town (often originating as deprived areas) where LGBT+ people gather, set up venues and over time, preferentially move in, creating neighbourhoods with populations comprising higher-than-average LGBT+ density. There are various discussions about the pros and cons of these 'gaybourhoods'. Such places can create a feeling of solidarity, and the sort of 'safety in numbers' that empowers LGBT+ people to enjoy activities that heterosexual people might take for granted, such as walking down the street holding your partner's hand, or encountering families that resemble their own. 'Gaybourhoods' enable convenient targeting of LGBT+-specific services, events and information. However, some criticisms of the gaybourhood include the self-marginalisation or 'othering' of LGBT+ people, and the association with gentrification which, over time, can lead to exclusion of these neighbourhoods' original communities - and of younger and less rich LGBT+ people.
What does this mean for urban planning and design?
At the Museum of London event, the poet Travis Alabanza spoke compellingly about their experience of belonging and being celebrated at LGBT+ club nights, and then five minutes later, in the same outfit, as exactly the same person, stepping out of the door to be reviled and abused (sometimes even by the very same people, who seemingly consider this self expression to be laudable in one place, but not acceptable in another). The importance of safe spaces where any of us feel we belong cannot be overstated. But in a diverse society, spaces of safety cannot be restricted to a few venues dotted around an entire city. Since probably every neighbourhood in the world is home to LGBT+ people I am interested in the opportunity to move beyond specific 'queer' venues or 'gaybourhoods' (while recognising their historical and current importance) to think more about how to design and plan inclusive, thriving, diverse places for everyone. If we do not, we are simply providing fuel for distress, discrimination, marginalisation, and mental health problems.
What are the attributes of a 'gay-friendly' neighbourhood?
Between 2008 and 2011, I co-ran Gay Camberwell, a place-based initiative that increased LGBT+ inclusion and acceptance in an area of South-East London that was not previously known for these attributes. In addition to encouraging local businesses to run regular LGBT+-themed events (such as film nights, comedy shows, drag brunch, and literary events), my wife and I went to every local bar and restaurant, had drinks/food, and wrote a review on the Gay Camberwell webpage that included a rather tongue-in-cheek 'gay-friendliness' rating. To ascertain this rating, we would hold hands and gaze at each other romantically, and then look around to see if anyone was reacting or making us feel threatened. That was a bit of fun entirely lacking in valid science or even diversity of experience, but it underlies some basic principles that may be helpful for thinking about the concept of 'gay-friendly neighbourhoods' (which I shall use as shorthand for what can otherwise be termed LGBT+, LGBTQI+ or queer-friendly neighbourhoods).
I personally feel that I am in a 'gay-friendly neighbourhood' when I can go about my day (1) feeling comfortable and safe, (2) not feeling compelled to modify my behaviour to avoid disclosure of my sexuality, and (3) not inciting reactions if I do disclose any evidence that I might be gay.
Of course everyone is different, so these factors may vary for different people. They may also differ in different countries where heterosexual norms also differ. But in general, so-called gay-friendliness may start with a feeling that anybody can safely express who they are (for instance by personal clothing, haircut, etc choices, or affection expressed to their partner), whether or not that expression falls outside the so-called norm, without fear of any repercussions. Because cities are for everyone, and everyone deserves to be included.
Back in Brixton, Morleys promptly removed the graffiti. And whenever I walk past, these same-sex couples in the window still make me smile.
This is not a complete review of all of the challenges and opportunities in this interesting field, but is intended to provide food for thought. How can urban design and planning specifically contribute to making places feel inclusive for LGBT+ people?
Please reply in the comments to share your knowledge, suggestions and ideas.
Planning and LGBTQ Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Spaces by Petra L Doan
Queerying Planning: Challenging heteronormative assumptions and reframing planning practice by Petra L Doan (book)
The Inclusive City: an LGBTQIA+ Perspective by Mariangela Veronesi
Relevant upcoming event (London)
Our Kind of Town seminar: Queerying London - March 22 2018
Sanity and Urbanity: