A brief history of sex and the suburbs: on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and same-sex marriage in the US

The rainbow flag flies before the U.S. Supreme Court. Image: Getty.

This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the most important case involving same-sex marriage since it became legal in all 50 states. On its surface, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case looked like it was a contest about discrimination and the meaning of religious liberty. But the circumstances of the case may actually be more important than the decision.

My research on the history of the postwar United States indicates that Americans should also see this conflict as a consequence of the growing sexual diversity of the nation’s suburbs.

Suburban migration

The conflict that led to the case did not just happen in the abstract realm of the law or the court of public opinion. Rather, the conflict happened in a particular place: Lakewood, Colorado, a suburb outside Denver.

Since the 1960s, many Americans have associated openly gay life with urban neighborhoods such as San Francisco’s Castro District or Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

But same-sex couples and transgender people are increasingly living outside of these traditional “gayborhoods”. Many of the national battles over lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights have grown out of everyday conflicts between these new suburbanites and their straight-identified neighbors.

The movement of openly gay couples away from older cities defied the perceived connection between heterosexual family life and the suburbs that dates at least to the 1940s.

The federal government played a particularly important role in defining the suburbs as “family friendly” places after World War II. Officials at the Federal Housing and Veterans’ administrations pushed banks to give mortgages to married men with children and forbade them to lend to Americans they suspected of “sexual deviance”.

The 1944 G.I. Bill was the first law in U.S. history to specifically exclude homosexuals from federal benefits, including mortgage assistance.

Realtors promised homebuyers a chance to live in safe neighborhoods away from urban vice. During the 1950s and 1960s, planners and builders designed new communities with few bars or other “moral hazards” and which provided ample space for churches.

Making suburbia ‘family friendly’

Lakewood is in Jefferson County just west of Denver, and it first incorporated as an independent city in 1969.

At the time, local businesses and homeowners worried about attempts by neighboring communities, including Denver, to annex new land. Many middle-class residents of Jefferson County saw themselves as defenders of a particularly suburban way of life that was threatened by annexation from the central city. They identified that lifestyle with low taxes, good schools, racial homogeneity, happy marriages and, above all, the well-being of children.

People attracted to others of the same sex have always lived in the suburbs, but discrimination often meant that most openly gay men and lesbians in the 1940s and 1950s had no other option than to live in older cities.

In the two decades after World War II, urban centers across the country attracted sizable LGBT communities. Nevertheless, life in cities was not necessarily easy, as police in urban centers like Denver tried to close gay bars and clamp down on LGBT life.

This divide between city and suburb started to break down in the 1970s and 1980s. Many Americans in the late 20th century delayed their marriages. States like Colorado made it easier for them to divorce. Government officials also prohibited discrimination in lending to unmarried people.

Sensing an opportunity, developers marketed new apartments to single residents and diversified the suburban housing stock.

In 1970, the number of Americans living in suburbs exceeded the number in central cities for the first time. Places like Jefferson County no longer looked like the suburban stereotypes of white nuclear families and cookie-cutter houses. Whereas, according to the U.S. Census, over 60 per cent of households in Lakewood were “married couple” households in 1980, only 41 per cent of them were “married couple” households in 2010.

Diversifying suburbs

Openly gay and transgender residents were a part of this new suburban diversity.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the gay rights movement challenged many medical, religious and criminal restrictions on homosexuality. This activism opened the door for same-sex couples to legally raise children and, eventually, marry.

After these victories, a largely white, middle-class group of openly gay men and lesbians began moving to the suburbs for many of the same reasons as their straight counterparts.

In 1979 The Advocate, a gay magazine, profiled two men who lived together in a Denver suburb and who finally felt comfortable speaking publicly about their relationship. The magazine noted that the gay couple enjoyed “puttering” around their spacious home and socialising with a group of lesbians from their neighborhood.

This history provides important context for the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.


Christian faith versus gay rights

The case involved two men, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, who married in Massachusetts in 2012 and organised a reception for their family and friends in their home state of Colorado shortly afterwards.

The couple met with Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, who told them that his religious beliefs prohibited him from designing a cake for gay wedding celebrations.

While Colorado prohibited same-sex marriages, Craig and Mullins filed a formal complaint with the state Civil Rights Commission alleging that the baker had violated a Colorado law that protected citizens from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The commission told Phillips that if he made cakes for opposite-sex weddings, he would need to make them for same-sex couples too. Phillips fought the decision in state court and later appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which this past July ruled in his favor. The court’s majority said that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had not respected Phillips’s Christian faith and had not given him a fair hearing.

Cultural collision in suburbia

At the time of their wedding, Mullins and Craig lived in suburban Westminster, Colorado. They would be hosting their reception in a restaurant in nearby Lakewood.

When they got married, Lakewood boasted at least one LGBT-inclusive church and openly gay realtors. In 2011, the census reported that Lakewood had the fourth-highest number of same-sex couples in the state.

Not everyone, however, liked these changes. Studies have shown that same-sex couples and transgender people have faced significant amounts of housing discrimination across the country, and some LGBT people moving to the Denver suburbs have faced violence or harassment.

In 2015, a lesbian couple that included a transgender woman tried to rent a townhouse with their two children in Gold Hill, Colorado, a small town approximately 25 miles outside of Denver. Although the owner initially agreed to lease the home to the couple, she later rescinded the offer after neighbors complained about the possibility of the two women moving in next door.

Phillips, the baker, has described himself as someone who has lived in Lakewood “since before there even was a Lakewood”. He turned away the business of five other same-sex couples before he met Craig and Mullins, including Stephanie and Jeanine Schmalz, who lived in nearby Littleton. Phillips also found support among suburban churches such as Littleton’s Calvary Chapel South Denver.

The confrontation at Masterpiece Cakeshop, therefore, reflects more than a showdown over abstract notions of discrimination and religious liberty. It also reveals an ongoing struggle to define suburban life.

As areas outside central cities grow increasingly diverse, the seemingly trivial setting of wedding cake shops have become important battlegrounds over the meaning of belonging and respect.

The Conversation

Clayton Howard, Assistant Professor of History, The Ohio State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Canada’s gay neighbourhoods are struggling. Can queer pop-ups plug the gap?

Vancouver. Image: Getty.

Queer life was highly visible in Western Canada last year. In May, Vancouver declared 2018 the “Year of the Queer,” celebrating decades of service that the city’s cultural organisations have provided for lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer and two-spirit (LGBTQ/2S) people across the region.

Yet 2018 also saw the loss of multiple queer venues and gay bars. While economic forces, such as rapacious gentrification are part of the story and struggle, our research shows that something creative and generative is happening in the city as well.

In the face of changing urban landscapes, economic hardships, and more straights moving into historically gay neighbourhoods, queer pop-ups — ephemeral gathering spaces whose impact lingers among revellers long after the night is over — now play a large role in the fight for LGBTQ/2S equality.

Scattered gay places became neighbourhoods

Queer life germinated in “scattered gay places” across cities in North America from the late 1800s to the Second World War. Inside cabarets, bars, theatres or outside in public parks, washrooms and city streets, queers found spaces which could hold and celebrate transgressive sexual connections while also providing respite from daily experiences of discrimination and social exclusion.

After the Second World War, scattered gay places congealed into permanent gay bars and residential “gaybourhoods” in a period anthropologist Kath Weston calls “the great gay migration.” Queer people flocked to urban centres and sexual subcultures flourished in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto.

The formation of queer community spaces has always been controversial. Cultural and legal backlashes marred early developments. A host of laws and regulations tried to suppress and contain homosexuality in North America by limiting its presence in the public sphere.

These measures resulted in frequent hostilities, police raids and violence. Queers congregated together not just to find love or community, but to protect themselves, to protect one another and to find refuge. Pride parades, now celebrated worldwide, commemorate these early turf wars.

Pop-ups revitalise queer spaces

Researchers have written a great deal on the cultural and political importance of gay districts in urban centres, and they have grappled with concerns that these areas, along with the establishments they house, are fading.

But innovative urban forms challenge arguments about the death and demise of queer spaces in the city. Our research suggests that queer pop-ups, or temporary cultural gathering spaces, cater to diverse and often marginalised queers.

Some gaybourhoods are dwindling in their residential concentration and gay bars are dropping like flies. But new queer place-making efforts are emerging.

Two of the authors at the queer pop-up in 2018 at East Side Studios in Vancouver. Ryan is on the far left, back row, Adriana is on the far right of the back row. Image: author provided.

Unlike gaybourhoods and gay bars, pop-ups are intentional in how they address persistent, intersectional forms of inequality. Queer pop-ups offer patrons a space to explore non-binary forms of gender and sexual identities, and especially a place to experience collective effervescence among queer people of colour, and femme lesbians.

Some pop-ups create environments that are explicitly trans-inclusive, consent-focused, and sex-positive. Pop-ups are not panaceas for queer life. Pop-ups can also be places where issues around socioeconomic status, gender identity and expression, and racial inequality are called out.

Yet these spaces directly and indirectly encourage dialogue on inequalities within the queer community, conversations that help produce safer spaces for marginalised queers to find each other and forge enduring queer consciousnesses.

Turf wars

Queer pop-ups show similar trajectories of infighting and compromise that the LGBT social movement encountered from the late 1970s through the early 2000s when trying to forge a collective consciousness, gain social visibility and win legal rights.

These turf wars, expressed as contests over space and inclusion, are generally sparked over three perennial concerns: privilege, race and gender. One interviewee, a 20-year-old self-identified queer, trans person of colour (QTPoC), who spoke about Vancouver’s gay district told us:

“I tend to avoid the gay bars on Davie [because] a lot of the gay bars there have now been taken over by cis-gender, heterosexual people. I’ve [also] heard from a lot of QTPoC friends that they are often uncomfortable going to gay bars on Davie, because it’s usually very dominated by cis-gender, white gay men.”

A 28-year-old white, cisgender, queer male found pop-ups more politically and culturally radical than gay bars. He put it this way:

“It’s very rare that we’ll ever have a conversation about politics [in gay bars]. It’s just about partying and things that we kind of see as very stereotypical portrayals of gay culture: like going out, dancing, drinking, fucking.”

Historically, gaybourhoods have served an important role in the fight for LGBT rights, but they have also developed to cater to a specific cis-gender, white, middle-class, male sensibility. One 30-year-old, white, trans DJ put it bluntly, “the mainstream scene is just not welcoming to trans people, in my experience,” adding that verbal transphobic harassment is common in the streets of Vancouver’s gaybourhood.

At Vancouver Pride this year we were reminded of this schism at a local pop-up event. “Gay men won’t come here, it’s too trashy,” shouted a white Australian lesbian playfully to friends over loud music. We were at Eastside Studios, a large warehouse turned into the newest collaborative queer venue in Vancouver.


The comment was striking because it highlights the visible bifurcation occurring in queer life and queer consumption in Vancouver. Many gay men tend to patronise businesses and events in the West End, Vancouver’s official gaybourhood; whereas, other members of the LGBTQ community are scattered across the city at events and venues that are far less permanent. Eastside Studios attempts to break through the homonormative bent some gay bars perpetuate. It is a space that generously houses some of the struggling pop up events who lost space to gentrification in Vancouver’s out of control rental market.

Historically, pop-ups arose as the first signs of urban sexual transgression. They continue to emerge as spatial innovations which nurture transgressive queer diversities that do not have space or representation in the gaybourhood. Weekly social media blasts via Facebook or Instagram and word-of-mouth dissemination play an important role in linking queers around the city to these events. Pop-ups take different tones and establish different vibes among patrons. Collectively, pop-ups highlight the many important projects local queers are undertaking to increase the plurality of what queer life looks like and how it is expressed.

Struggles for equality

Marriage is the leading story in many headlines these days, but queer struggles for equality were never only about relationship recognition or acceptance into the mainstream.

Queer struggles are also fights to resist oppressive normativity, to end racial inequality and white supremacy, to end sexualised violence, to reconcile generational traumas associated with colonialism.

Continuing these fights is perhaps what makes queer pop-ups unique. Organisers of these events are intentional and responsive to such concerns. They seek to create new worlds that soften the impact of inequalities, both in gaybourhoods and in other parts of Canadian cities as well.

Pop-ups nourish queer lives; they emerge as temporary meeting grounds where diverse, oftentimes marginalised, queers flock for community and collective, momentary release. Here an image from a Man Up pop-up event in Vancouver. Image: Shot by Steph/Facebook/The Conversation.

Many of these spaces are an opportunity for patrons to travel in a re-imagined world, even if only for the night. While not all pop-ups that appear survive, the ones that do matter, fundamentally, because they create spaces that resist heteronormative culture and homonormativity, address intersecting inequalities, assert and anchor queer cultural and political identities, and promote well-being for a wider portion of the community in ways that gaybourhoods used to and have always had the potential to.

Pop-ups nourish queer lives in ways that gaybourhoods and gay bars historically had. They emerge as temporary meeting grounds where diverse, oftentimes marginalised, queers flock for community and collective, momentary release. They allow patrons to dance and comfortably explore the implications of their gender and sexual identities around like-minded individuals. At times they are more than friendly social gatherings, becoming sites where the moral arch of the community is shaped through demonstrations on urgent issues impacting queer lives and the surrounding community.

Queer pop-ups are vibrant locations that work to push forward the unfinished projects of social justice first envisioned during gay liberation.

The Conversation

Ryan Stillwagon, Ph.D. Student, Sociology, University of British Columbia; Adriana Brodyn, Ph.D. Candidate, University of British Columbia; Amin Ghaziani, Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair in Sexuality and Urban Studies, University of British Columbia, and D. Kyle Sutherland, PhD Student, Department of Sociology, University of British Columbia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.