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.

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.