Monday, 26 January 2015

Queer-ying gentrification

18 months ago my colleague Dr Kirsten Besemer blogged on here about a surprise finding from some work we had done for the EHRC in Scotland – that a disproportionate number of non-heterosexual people lived in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland. We’ve since written this up as a journal article now published in Housing Theory and Society.

In writing up the paper we set the findings in the broader gentrification literature. As Kirsten wrote about back in 2012, this was because the narrative of LGBT households as gentrification pioneers is dominant. Growing up, one of the formative events in my emerging sexuality was watching the Channel 4 drama Queer as Folk. Aiden Gillen’s character Stuart typified this narrative – he lived in a swanky loft apartment in central Manchester, in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood, paid for through his successful career, despite the homophobia he had experienced in his life. Similarly, in a lot of American scholarship on the creative class, LGBT households are synonymous with the creative class. If you’re a gay man, you’re rich and live in a loft apartment.

Reading through the literature on gentrification and LGBT residential location choice that I did for this paper, it was surprising how much this narrative has not been troubled – even though Loretta Lees in this article from 2000(£) argued that gentrification scholarship needed a much greater focus on issues of gender, ethnicity and sexual identity as well as class. Apologies if I did miss out on particular literature, but the stuff that came up in my literature search was predominantly accepting of the gay gentrification narrative.

There are two issues with this. Firstly, it does smack of a growing heteronormativity that has been particularly noticeable in the debates around equal marriage. Gay men are now just seen as men, in fact they’re almost seen as uber-men as they aren’t burdened with childcare, and just want to settle down with their husband in a very tastefully decorated house. This ignores the “little things” that Panti Bliss talks so evocatively about that frame how non-heterosexual people experience the world. Yes, we have seen the declining significance of homophobia in our society, but as a non-heterosexual you still find yourself censoring your behaviour; or feel that lump of fear in your throat when you reveal the gender of your partner to a relative stranger. To presume that non-straight households are always gentrification pioneers, or increasingly second-wave gentrifiers, is to ignore diversity within the non-straight population, and impose a heteronormativity upon non-heterosexual people. If data on sexual orientation at a neighbourhood level is available for other countries, I would strongly encourage others to repeat our analysis to see if this is a Scottish phenomenon, or a broader one.

The second issue is one of the policy implications of recognising that the lives of non-heterosexual people might be difficult and therefore they find themselves living in socially-rented housing in deprived neighbourhoods. As we stated in our original Hard to Reach report it is all too easy to presume Scotland’s deprived neighbourhoods are homogenous, white, heterosexual working class areas. We have shown they are not. Our finding might be a geographic fluke because the non-heterosexual population is so small, although tests of statistical significance show it is not. That this non-straight population living in deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland is comparatively older, does give credence to the description an older LGBT-identifying friend described, of lots of older non-straight people who had pretty difficult lives, living in social housing in the west of Scotland. If we accept this, then we need to consider whether services for non-heterosexual people need to move out of inner-city locations, or that mainstream services in deprived neighbourhoods need greater skills and training around helping a non-heterosexual population that might have multiple problems. 

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