What Could a Gay Utopia Teach Urban America?

What can Gay Utopia can teach Urban America?

Kissing Kens, little boys playing with girls, little girls trying to live up to their gender role. These were some of the activities at the recent Place It workshop in Los Angeles, where the diverse LGBTQ community discussed their shared voice, common values, and their power to create a queer-friendly city that benefits everyone.

Sponsored by Mi Centro LGBTQ Community Center in Boyle Heights, this was the first event of its kind in L.A. Many of the 17 adult attendees came out of curiosity and wanted to understand how their sexual identity impacts and creates their community beyond bricks and mortar.

The workshop created a space for LGBTQ people to come together to reflect on their lives through storytelling, art-making, and play. Through this process, they generated innovative ideas on establishing long-term LGBTQ community values that could impact city planning in L.A., and beyond.

As the icebreaker, the participants were asked to “build your first childhood memory of being different” in 10 minutes by choosing from hundreds of small objects. This prompt helped participants re-create that "aha” moment in their lives that revealed that they were different from the rest of the children or youth around them.

Once they started to explore the materials in front of them, they chose pieces based on color, shape, or texture to illustrate their memory. For the next few minutes, the participants were in a meditative state of building.

After a few minutes the activity slowed down as the participants became satisfied with their models. Once everyone completed building their memory, they presented their first queer memory to the group. The builders spoke with conviction as they told compelling stories illustrated through the objects. Everyone intently listened to these visceral details.

While many of the memories seemed amusing in hindsight, the participants expressed feelings of confusion, awkwardness, and vulnerability at the time. Many of the participants expressed confusion when they felt the first stirrings of being LGBTQ; they didn’t understand why they acted or felt the way they did. Unlike most children, who can easily identify their personality with gender roles, many of the participants could not; they would identify with the opposite gender.

Isolation was also a common theme. Unlike other children, who had social networks in which to learn about life, many of the participants did not have social support. Many of the memories illustrated that as children they felt different and could not share their feelings with others.. They were on their own to figure it out. Queer youth at early age learned how to hide, repress, and compromise their desires and passions in order to fit in.

The memories revealed LGBTQ people's struggle, confusion, and perseverance from childhood that developed a “sixth sense” on how to understand and navigate the physical and social world around them, and to find welcoming spaces. This nuanced perspective allowed them to coexist with others and understand the dualities and complexities of the people and places around them.

The first individual activity prepared the participants for the next collaborative activity. Each table/team was asked to create their ideal gay-friendly city in 15 minutes using the same objects or more. They could expand the model size and footprint by using the whole tabletop to accommodate their new ideas

Team members quickly began talking, laughing, and standing around the tables, clearing space for their ideas. As team members tested their ideas with their colleagues, new ideas emerged from existing ones, and they began to fill the tabletops. When time was up, many of the tables were filled with dozens of ideas. 

Participants were asked to walk the rest of the participants through their gay-friendly designs. In debriefing the experience, participants noted that many of the designs embodied several common themes, such as inclusion, equity, nonjudgmental spaces, gender safety, openness, access, beauty, comfort, and living harmoniously with nature.

We live in a world in which queer experiences are not always highlighted or respected in the urban planning outreach process. Humanizing, relaxing, and creating a safe space for the community gathering can be achieved by integrating storytelling, imagination, and art-making. This allows people to express themselves in a variety of different ways. Having participants listen and learn from each other gave LGBTQ attendees knowledge to collaborate and create an innovative, queer-friendly community.

The fate of existing and new LGBTQ communities should not be shaped by economic forces but rather by their shared values.

As is the case with most minority groups, the LGBTQ perspective is often overlooked because most public planning meetings are unintentionally designed for straight people. LGBTQ people may not feel safe in revealing their thoughts and ideas in this public setting. At the Place It workshop they looked across the room and saw themselves in each other, which created a comfortable space where they were open, forthright, and sharing their most intimate and personal experiences.

JAMES ROJAS is a Los Angeles-based urban planner and the founder of Placeit and the Latino Urban Forum. Follow him at @JamesRojas.

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