How Places Make Us explores how environment shapes identity.

Can Environment Shape Our Identities? A New Book Suggests We’re More Malleable Than We Think.

Can Environment Shape Our Identities? A New Book Suggests We’re More Malleable Than We Think.

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Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Dec. 13 2017 8:35 AM

How the Places We Live Can Shape Our Queer Identities

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A poster for the 2011 "Dyke March" in Portland, Maine.

Photo by author; poster design by kd diamond, 2011.

Adapted from How Places Make Us: Novel LBQ Identities in Four Small Cities by Japonica Brown-Saracino, out now from the University of Chicago Press.

When Sam—a petite, tattooed woman in her early thirties with a degree from an Ivy League university—decided to move from Boston, to Portland, Maine, for graduate school, she knew her new daily life would be significantly different than the bustle of her twenty-something world in Boston; but what she didn’t anticipate was how her very sense of self would change. On moving, she found that the cities share a number of traits: a cityscape marked by antique homes and proximity to water, and pockets of both gentrification and poverty. However, something unexpected occurred after her move. After years of thinking of herself as lesbian, as a woman who loved other women but who did not devote much thought to what kind of a lesbian she might be, she came to think about and speak of herself as “stone butch.” Not only did the way she thought about herself change, but her ties—and the basis on which she forged them—changed, too. She cofounded an online and off-line meet-up group for butch individuals, which, via bowling nights, dance parties, and conversation over coffee, celebrated the diverse forms butch identity can take—spanning the gamut from the “tea-drinking-fairy-butch” to the “preggers butch” to the “survivor butch”—and immersed herself in a network of individuals committed to polyamory.

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Sam could not put her finger on the source of her personal transformation, but she was certain that it had occurred. She also noted that those around her in Portland approached identity and difference in a manner distinct from that which she had found in other small, Northeastern cities. In Portland, like Sam many celebrated very specific lesbian, bisexual, and/or queer (LBQ) identities, like stone butch, high femme, or queer punk. Sitting on the back patio of her rental in Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood she said, “[In Boston] there’s like a different kind of queer . . . I couldn’t really escape being around, like, student groups and there’s always kind of like an ‘outy’ feeling . . . that feels different than, like, queer here.” In Portland, she said, “there’s more opportunity for people to feel welcome even if they have sort of a particularized identity.”

I met Sam when I was collecting the stories and charting the experiences of LBQ residents of four small, politically progressive U.S. cities: Ithaca, N.Y., San Luis Obispo, Cali., Portland, Maine, and Greenfield, Mass. Like Sam, most of the 170 individuals I interviewed and many of the others whom I observed while collecting field notes are highly educated, white, and mobile individuals, who moved to these cities sometime in the decade before I met them. Moreover, like Sam, nearly all have found that in these new places, they felt a shift both in how they relate to those around them (gay and straight alike) and in how they understood themselves and the group to which they belonged.

Taken alone, Sam’s personal transformation is not particularly surprising. Indeed, the notion that identities change on moving will surprise few. We have long associated relocation with reinvention of the self: for example, the pioneer who started anew in California in the 1850s or the immigrant who traversed an ocean to find new economic possibilities in nineteenth-century New York City.

However, at heart my findings challenge an assumption most of us share about such transformations: that transformation is either an individual process (the wanted man from Connecticut who reinvents himself as a law-abiding citizen in San Francisco or the frantic executive who takes up yoga and meditation and becomes a calmer, more “centered” person) or that it is universal (the seemingly standard process of assimilation for all nineteenth-century European immigrants).

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Considering Sam’s personal transformation alongside that of many other LBQ individuals rules out individual-level explanations for her transformation, such as life stage, or personality, as well as broad scale or more universal explanations, such as far-reaching changes across American identity politics. It also challenges an even more fundamental assumption: the belief that, beyond the basic groups we belong to based on our race, class, and sex, we, as individuals, are the ones who change who we are and the group to whom we belong. Even though we know that each of us is growing and changing all the time, most of us hold onto the notion of an essential self—a core identity that is who we really are, regardless of where we live, what job we have, or where we go to school. My research troubles this assumption by revealing how places make us.

Why is this the case? As I discovered, Sam’s transformation was city specific. That is, if she had moved to a different city—even another very similar city—the way she thinks about herself as a sexual minority, and the way she relates to both other LBQ individuals and her heterosexual neighbors, would be different. Despite the fact that the four cities I studied share many traits, and that the people I spoke with and whom I observed who moved to these places are themselves quite similar, on moving without meaning to and without even fully recognizing that they are doing so, LBQ migrants craft a sense of self that corresponds with their new home. That is, their new cities call out new ways of relating to those around them and therefore new ways of thinking about their sexual identity and difference and, ultimately, a different sense of who one is. As a result, there is, in Sam’s words, a “different kind of queer” in each of the four similar cities I studied.

Consider that shortly after Sam left Boston for Portland, another woman—Lisa—left Northampton for Ithaca, N.Y. While in Northampton, Lisa thought of herself as lesbian and occasionally described herself to friends as “butch.” Once in Ithaca, Lisa found that she rarely considered herself “lesbian” or “butch,” although she suspects that throughout her adult life most have read her as a “big old dyke.” While she remains with her female partner, in Ithaca the story she tells herself about who she is has shifted. She increasingly thinks of herself as carpenter and gardener. Just as Sam wonders how she became resolutely “stone butch” and enmeshed in a world of butch-femme polyamory, Lisa wonders when “lesbian” stopped being the defining facet of her self and how she came to spend evenings beside heterosexual men in a working-class bar. In fact, Lisa wasn’t very happy with her personal transformation; she did not feel entirely at home in the person she had become in Ithaca, and yet, despite this discomfort, in her new context she found that she couldn’t be any other version of herself.

The personal transformation of these two women, taken together with the many other individuals I interviewed, affirm Sam’s notion that what it is to be lesbian, or bisexual, or queer, varies from city to city. Indeed, there is what I call a sexual identity culture that is distinct in each city; in other words, sexual identity and even our basic notions of difference are shaped by the city in which we live. Despite the fact that the LBQ residents I encountered across the cities share many demographic and cultural traits, their approaches to sexual identity politics and to ties with other LBQ individuals and heterosexual residents vary markedly by city. Specifically, by suggesting that their sexual identity cultures vary by city, I mean that the way they talk about or describe themselves varies by city, as do their coming out practices and even whether they prioritize being “out” and “proud,” the degree to which they seek to build ties with heterosexuals, and their attitudes about contemporary LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex) politics and issues, such as marriage equality and transgender rights.

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It would be impossible to overemphasize the degree to which informants’ sexual identities and ways of relating to their neighbors vary by city. In Ithaca, which is home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, most, like Lisa, think of themselves as being “post-identity politics,” downplaying the centrality of sexual identity to their self-understandings and celebrating ties predicated on shared politics, beliefs, and practices, rather than on sexual identity. In San Luis Obispo, on California’s Central Coast, most identity as “lesbian” and surround themselves with others who share that same identity. In Portland, Maine’s most populous city, many, like Sam, emphasize the import of sexual identity for their self-understandings, celebrating hyphenated sexual identities, such as “stone butch” and “queer-punk.” Finally, in Greenfield, a former-factory town located in the verdant northwestern corner of Massachusetts, longstanding residents identify as “lesbian feminists” and cultivate lesbian-only networks centered in neighboring Northampton, otherwise known as “Lesbianville, USA”. However, in contrast to the other cities where sexual identity cultures span migration waves, newcomers to Greenfield think of themselves differently. Much like those in Ithaca, new residents emphasize facets of the self other than sexual identity, like being members of the local co-op and taking classes at the YMCA.

As I spoke with people in city after city, I found myself returning to the same question: Why are they not more aware of how they are shaped by the place they live? I now realize that this question is applicable to every one of us: I think that, more often than not, we are all largely unaware of the ways place shapes identity. That lack of awareness, as we’ll see, makes sense: It is obvious to all of us that New York is different from Los Angeles—that nearly every city has some kind of distinct identity. But we tend to think of those distinctions between one place and the next as the result of categorical differences. Mapping how cities shape identities not only solves the puzzle of why those I studied describe and understand themselves in such different ways, but also advances a new, more sensitive and specific approach to place; an approach that calls all of us to seriously consider the influence of even subtle differences in city ecology on self and group.

It is surprising that LBQ residents are largely unaware of the place-specificity of their identity. Except for a few exceptions, my informants all told me that the notion of identity as place specific did not occur to them until after they moved to their current place of residence and, in the context of an interview, had the opportunity to reflect on their moves and how they have changed over time. Many describe this as an after-the-fact discovery, and no one I spoke with described it as having driven their decision to move. Indeed, many are quite surprised, and some are even disappointed, by the identity cultures they uncover in their new place of residence.

Why might this be true? Why do some have a vague sense of the place specificity of identity but do not pair this with serious inquiry into place-specific identities before relocating? After all, most of us weigh numerous factors before moving somewhere, from the price of housing to the quality of schools. Doesn’t it stand to reason that we would also inquire about something as essential as identity? Apparently, no. I see a few reasons that explain this seeming oddity.

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First, despite some cognizance of the place specificity of identities, for the most part LBQ individuals, like most of us, assume that variations in identity comes from elsewhere: from demographic, regional, or other categorical differences, such as whether a city is rich or poor, big or small. Thus, if you are moving from Boulder, Colo. to Portland, it is easy to assume that the lesbian community you find there will be similar. This assumption obscures the possibility that identity will feel different even if you move to a similar city that possesses a demographically similar LBQ population. If we attribute identity variation to categorical differences, there is little reason to expect identities to take novel shape in Portland, compared with what happens in Ithaca, for instance.

Second, few propose that they adopt entirely new identities in each place. Few shift from “straight” to “lesbian”; instead, on moving and without intending to do so one might transition from thinking of oneself as “lesbian” to framing oneself as “butch-lesbian” or “post-lesbian.” That is, we rarely become entirely new people on moving, but, instead, we “do” and feel who we are—lesbian or bisexual or butch—in markedly new ways in a new city.

Together, the fact that cities typically call out new arrangements or frames for the self, rather than wholesale reinvention, and that we tend to turn to categorical explanations for place-based identity differences (turning, for instance, to whether a place is urban or rural, rich or poor), help to account for underdeveloped awareness of how places shape identities.

Regardless of their source, at its core, these accounts of the unexpected emergence of place-specific identities tell a story of personal malleability. At first glance, the concept itself is not surprising. After all, we live in a cultural moment that emphasizes self-improvement, calls for relentless actualization, and lauds the intentional crafting of the self. But the story residents inadvertently shared with me is not about self-evolution as we usually think about it. On the contrary, the LBQ residents I spoke with told me again and again of transformation that is involuntary. This is a story not of the practiced shaping of the self or of the body as performance, but about our exquisite, though often ignored, sensitivity to our environment; it is a story about the unintentional and unplanned remolding of the self in relation to one’s surroundings.

To preserve anonymity and maintain confidentiality names have been changed, and in some instances identifying characteristics are masked.

Reprinted with permission from How Places Make Us: Novel LBQ Identities in Four Small Cities by Japonica Brown-Saracino, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2017 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.