Gay Gentrification and the Thin Pink Line

Safe Space: Gay Neighbourhood History and the Politics of Violence.

Christina Hanhardt

Christina Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighbourhood History and the Politics of Violence. Duke University Press, 2013

Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence details the history of urban LGBTQ activist movements in New York City and San Francisco, as they framed and fought the problem of violence against non-heterosexual and gender-nonnormative people. Christina Hanhardt traces shifts in the dominant strains of LGBTQ organizing that occurred when some socially advantaged queers transitioned out of being directly criminalized for being queer or trans. Consequently, post-decriminalization queer organizing rallied around a fear of homophobic violence in the form of “street crime,” which began eclipsing homophobic violence at the hands of the police as the primary public concern for LGBTQ safety. The result of this shift in gay politics, as many activists have discussed, has been widespread gay complicity with enhanced punishments for so-called hate crimes, brutally intense property speculation leading to the gentrification of gay-claimed neighbourhoods, and a progressive gloss on the zero-tolerance, quality-of-life policing required to safeguard property values in increasingly bourgeois, largely white gay havens.

Though written meticulously and presented as an academic history, Hanhardt’s language is understated and readable by non-specialists. For activists doing queer and trans organizing or mobilizing against gentrification more generally, the book is invaluable: it provides a powerful, historicized analysis of the pitfalls of organizing for LGBTQ safety in cities undergoing police-enforced gentrification, a nuanced critique of safety frames in social-justice organizing more broadly, and some tactical models for queer and trans organizers to use to interrupt the dominance of different pro-police strains of LGBTQ movements. Moving between radical history, urbanism, and social movement theory, Hanhardt’s analysis joins with the pronounced turn in queer studies and organizing towards tracking the complicated ways that race and class struggles intersect and are often actively impeded by the formal recognition and protection of LGBTQ people. In particular, Hanhardt examines the reorganization of power that sees the lives of mostly rich, propertied, white, and/or cis-gendered queers as worthy of state protection. As with policing in general, the practical enforcement of this protection is largely directed against people who fall outside of those categories and who are imagined as inherent threats.

Hanhardt’s analysis questions the narrative that identifies gay bashing as the predominant experience of violence against queer people – as opposed to, for instance, poverty, police violence, incarceration, or homelessness – while carefully tracing the historical construction of this narrative. She details the surprising work in the early 1960s of the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, two notoriously reformist homophile and lesbian lobby groups, in the copwatch efforts of Citizens Alert and War-On-Poverty campaigns in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. As more middle-class gay neighbourhoods (like San Francisco’s Castro district) visibly consolidated in the early 1970s, conversations among organizers shifted, and issues of police violence and poverty were pushed aside by the stated need to protect people from street violence, particularly in these dedicated enclaves. In this particular formation, which Hanhardt dubs “militant gay liberalism,” 1 vulnerability to street violence becomes the great leveller, as queers rich and poor, white and racialized, cis and trans, are all seen as constantly at risk and in need of proactive guardianship by the neglectful police.

While not all groups organizing to stop bashing were eager to engage with the police, many did, and with predictable results: mostly middle- or upper-class, mostly cisgendered, and mostly white people won certain limited protection by police, while those outside of these categories found themselves on the other end of the police’s clean sweep of the streets, undertaken increasingly, if not exclusively, in the name of keeping gays and lesbians safe. In an analysis that productively unsettles overly simplistic activist conceptions of police collaboration, Hanhardt notes the racist complicity of some self-defense organizations with the logic of policing in their framing street violence in the terms of criminality, even while these groups pointedly refused outright collaboration with the city authorities: groups like San Francisco’s Butterfly Brigade began taking down reports of homophobic incidents and used these to develop narratives of who was doing the bashing or making LGBTQ people feel unsafe. The consequences of putting faith in such models of profiling to preempt and prevent harm meant that the projects often replicated the profiling and zero-tolerance approaches of the police. At its worst, this meant justifying physical attacks on poor people of colour by groups of queer avengers, whose haste and satisfaction with their framework of judgment – even if the person had perpetrated harm – echoes an ugly political history. The question is not whether the due process of state court systems would be more just, but is rather a broader one asking what these punitive responses within nominally radical organizations can lead to when pursued with the righteous self-satisfaction of a settled and harshly enforced, single-vector perpetrator-victim analysis.

Importantly, Hanhardt traces how many of these local self-defense groups began consolidating into national lobbying organizations in the 1980s. By gathering quantitative and qualitative reports of homophobic victimization on a larger scale, they insisted not only that violence from non-police strangers constituted the primary (and underreported) source of harm facing LGBTQ people, but that the best way to reduce that harm was by understanding it through the framework of crime and using the police, courts, and prisons to preempt, deter, punish, and eliminate it.

Their project became to portray these incidents of violence as a national-scale epidemic (“backlash” for the increasing visibility of queers) in reports used to pressure governments to fold the protection of LGBTQ people into tough-on-crime policy. As a result, under the pretext of protecting queers, more and more resources have been funneled into military and criminal-punishment budgets. As queer anti-criminalization activist Sarah Lamble writes of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, President Obama’s inclusion of it in the 2009-10 defense budget meant it played a part in “facilitating the single largest appropriation of funds to the US Department of Defense in American history.” 2

It is important to understand, though, that this use of gay-protection language in reinforcing imperial military interests functions not only as a dishonest pretext. In an observation particularly relevant for queers opposing the pinkwashing of Israeli apartheid, Hanhardt notes that the two primary organizations collaborating to push governments to pass hate crimes legislation in the US in the late 1980s were B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Anti-Violence Project (NGLTF-AVP). This history troubles a simple analysis that sees an apparently legitimate LGBTQ rights agenda being co-opted and instrumentalized by champions of Zionism; instead, Hanhardt outlines how a particular way of framing the vulnerability and protection of queer and trans people has a profound symmetry with Zionist ideology. This view imagines queers as a potentially invisible minority population that can only be kept safe from external victimization in dedicated, militarized territories on land cleansed of its original inhabitants. When queer and trans safety is imagined this way, the coalition seems disturbingly natural.

Hanhardt does not engage in this critique for the sake of critique, as has so often become the case in left academia, where scathing political one-upmanship reigns and provides a convenient template for those trapped on the publish-or-perish treadmill. Rather, Hanhardt’s critique comes out of the spirit of activism, in which criticism aims to bring about concrete changes in practice and form a means to the end of building smarter movements. The point of her analysis is not that queers are always gentrifiers or that queers with relative privilege will always inevitably turn to the police, but rather that queer organizing in such a context –particularly today – must be consistently vigilant as to exactly how we frame LGBTQ activism and as to the coalitions we seek to form.

Hanhardt holds out hope that our movements can become better. It can become too easy to indulge in static, simplistic sociological conceptions of who will resist and who will oppress among those with relative racial or economic privilege. One need only think of the possibilities for anti-police organizing that have emerged in the past when fairly well-off, mostly white gays saw their bathhouses raided by the police across Canada, from the 1960s and 1970s through to the early 2000s in both Calgary and Hamilton. We may even ask what opportunities for politicization may emerge as the Canada Border Services Agency has begun seizing poppers at the border and keeping them out of bathhouses, and how the policing of gay pleasure could reemerge as a gateway to opposing policing more broadly. It leads us to consider, as an actual and open question, when it is productive to hold queers accountable to histories and heritages of criminalization as queers, and when the coalition between criminalized people and non-criminalized queers may be impossible – but not to assume it is always impossible. For Hanhardt, the worldviews underpinning liberal gay organizing have a history, and so they can be challenged and shifted. This book constitutes one step in that process.

This analysis also prompts necessary reflection within movements against violence more broadly. The impulse to punish and exile the politically imperfect, as with the isolation and purging of profiled gay-bashers, clearly poses important questions for feminist action in framing and fighting sexual violence – how do we imagine the causes of sexual violence; how do we organize activist responses in the context of the racialized gentrification of our cities; how do we mobilize languages of victimization, vulnerability, perpetration, and crime in the context of massive criminalization of indigenous, racialized, and poor people? Questioning the consequences of certain activist responses to violence is crucial in a landscape where we see the legal category of free, informed consent – long a goal of pro-incarceration feminist legal advocacy – becoming the cornerstone of prosecutions of HIV non-disclosure in sexual encounters.

In other words, this means our movements have to consider intersectionality as something more than a pious abstract algebra and that we must ask extremely difficult questions about what our non-state practices of calling out, purging, and exiling perpetrators of harm have to do with the logic of prisons, policing, and criminalization. Hanhardt is not glib about the violence people do face and the deaths that do occur – especially those of poor trans women of colour, a population that likewise faces astronomical rates of criminalization. Her intervention leaves open the question of how we can value these lives without seeking criminal prosecution for perpetrators, something that will have to be (and is being) hashed out in our circles as we avoid engaging or replicating the additional harms of the criminal justice system. We have to ask how the frames around queer and trans victimization – fixated as they often are on the homophobic or transphobic slur as apparent proof of an attack’s singular motivation – collude with zero-tolerance policing models that seek to preempt violent crime by eliminating low-level public-order infractions. How does the ability to articulate harms in the languages of victimization that have currency in anti-oppression circles create leverage against those less educated, less thoroughly socialized to not “take up space,” or less prone to behave – for a variety of mental and social reasons, not all of which are synonymous with privilege – in a manner others find agreeable and not triggering? Hanhardt allows us to see how such safe-space framings, when rigidly practiced, share much with the broken-windows theory of zero-tolerance policing, wherein petty offenses like public drinking, urination, and sex work solicitation must be zealously punished in order to create an environment that pre-empts more serious “violent crime.” We need to ask what it means, and who is protected and how, when a politicizing analysis equates the anti-gay slur with the bat to the head, and when a desire to take homophobia seriously puts offhand insensitive language onto a short continuum with bodily harm or the ending of a life.

The struggle is not merely internal, however. As Hanhardt urges in her epilogue, the “gentrification and punishment” turn in gay communities is not merely something that happened in the past. The process is clearly ongoing, and many of the same reactionary tactics are being redeployed in different situations, crossing borders and spanning decades. The book has abundantly clear utility in the Canadian context, where pro-police LGBTQ organizing is again on the rise. Consider how, in early-‘90s Ottawa, queer lobbying of the police department for the investigation and prosecution of homophobic violence led to the creation of the first dedicated Hate Crimes Investigation Unit in Canada, with a gay activist, David Pepper, becoming the first (and longest serving) director of community policing for the Ottawa police. 3 The embrace of the man in uniform is becoming even tighter as community police officer becomes another job gays seem to do particularly well. Meanwhile, homophobic attacks in Montréal, which have been allegedly “on the rise” for years without even police hate-crimes statistics bearing this out, 4 continue to be compiled to dubious ends by non-police organizations as well. Gai Écoute, a phone line designed for the anonymous non-police reporting and documenting of anti-LGBTQ violence, promises to issue a full report in 2014, echoing the pro-punishment work of the NGLTF-AVP in the US. In the context of a crime wave that is not one, we have to prepare for the ends to which Gai Écoute’s version of events will be put, and how many of the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal’s law-and-order demands they will be able to justify as springing from a desire to keep queer people safe. Some are already clear, with Montréal’s recent pinkwashing of the expansion of policing and surveillance, both in the Gay Village and across the city. Late 2013 saw the emergence of the “Collectif Carré Rose,” a group of prominent Village personas advocating for an increased police presence in the Village and dutifully serving as the backdrop for Mayor Denis Coderre’s proposed citywide roll-out of new security cameras, using a few attacks in the Village as a primary pretext.

Anti-criminalization queer and trans organizers in Montréal have already used the histories in Hanhardt’s book to build on past organizing models for popular education, like those of anti-gentrification groups like Dykes Against Racism Everywhere and the Third World Gay Coalition. Most recently, we took inspiration from a pamphlet by the 1970s San Francisco group Lesbians Against Police Violence, also profiled in Safe Space, to write a broadsheet quiz satirizing the Carré Rose’s law-and-order demands. The legacy of these more critical activist groups likewise reminded us that a diversity of political styles may be necessary to reinvigorate the disillusioned and to shame back home members of our imagined queer community who have taken a wander down the hyper-securitized path — not to mention to undermine the pro-police coalition’s status as the only voice of gay Montréal. Sometimes a bit of shade, instead of a screed, can at least keep people reading a flyer through until the end, and maybe make it harder to keep a straight face while calling everything that makes some gays uncomfortable a threat to life and limb.

Recent high-profile incidents in Montréal[[In an infamous incident in 2012, Vice-President of Fierté Montréal Jean-Sébastien Boudreault (now a member of the Carré Rose) reported having been attacked on his way home from a high-rent Fierté launch party. While passing a public square frequented by many street-based people on the western border of Montréal’s Gay Village, the executive decided to tell a “troublemaker” that she was being too loud and should be quiet. She proceeded to punch him in the face, and two of her friends joined in. What may have sounded to many like just another skirmish in the class war, or at the very least someone learning a hard lesson about the consequences of being rude, got perplexingly spun in the media as an “anti-gay attack.” See Richard Burnett, “Attacks in MTL’s Gay Village continue as new Gai Ecoute homophobia registry tracks incidents.” The Montreal Gazette Blog. [[See “On Guard: A Critique of Project Guardian.” The Homophile Association of London, Ontario. Sep. 1996. Online] Sep. 2012. Online.

]] clearly demonstrate that militant gay liberalism consistently frames any conflict in gentrifying gay neighbourhoods as homophobic, thereby giving that pro-gay gloss to pre-existing zero-tolerance policing agendas. The homeless person therefore is usually imagined as a homophobic straight person (despite extremely high queer and trans homelessness rates) and behaviour that brings any degree of anxiety to propertied gays becomes a prefigurative threat to LGBTQ people, regardless of its economic context, content, or the identity of the person identified as the perpetrator. Radical resistance to this framing must also be accompanied by recognition that, as with the LGBTQ-Zionist alliance, we need to resist even when the protection of certain queer victims is not so inherently contradictory. That is to say, though queer and trans people who are poor, homeless, racialized, or sex workers are paradoxically targeted by an influx of police sent in the name of queer safety, our analysis cannot stop there: we need to oppose, just as ferociously, the police targeting of people who are not queer, because we know that many straight cis men with less social power do, in fact, bear a large part of the brunt of projects of social cleansing.

For activists to intervene in this already extensively developed pro-police gay landscape, we have to tackle several difficult but urgent questions. Do LGBTQ people only intermittently targeted by the police demand on moral grounds that none of this be done in our name? Do we demand that queers today recognize the history of our de jure criminalization, from Stonewall to the 1990 Montréal Sex Garage raids to Julian Fantino’s witch hunts in London, Ontario,6 as grounds to be critical of the arbitrary nature of criminalization more generally? Do we rely, strategically, on statistics that show queer and trans people are disproportionately criminalized (through homelessness, sex work, and drug use), even when, as with the justice system generally, the race and class of those criminalized can be so pronouncedly different from those who are not?

Hanhardt is not prescriptive in these respects. But tackling these questions of strategy with the rigour her book encourages, while engaging in self-criticism that avoids the righteous theatrics of the purge, are of the utmost importance for any of us serious about queer life having something meaningful to do with the left. As Hanhardt writes, we need to be able to work on movements in which queers “realign their affinities” – and, I would add, anxieties – against accumulation.” 5 Toward that end, her book should be widely read, and activist histories of these same trajectories in Canada should be undertaken – and acted upon – such that a radical left queer movement can continue to establish itself against the economic violence of gentrification, against the expansion of our criminal punishment system, and against the many operations of imperialism done, even if only in part, in our name.H


  1. Hanhardt, Christina. Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence. (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2013.) Print. 17. ↩︎
  2. Lamble, Sarah. “Queer investments in punitiveness: sexual citizenship, social movements, and the expanding carceral state.” Queer Necropolitics. (New York: Routledge, 2014.) Print. 155. ↩︎
  3. Kirkby, Gareth. “35 Years and Counting.” Daily Xtra. 8 November 2006. Online. ↩︎
  4. Paré, Isabelle and Marco Fortier. “Climat de peur dans le village.” Le Devoir. 25 January 2014. Online. ↩︎
  5. Hanhardt, 134. ↩︎