Quick Note: Queer Urbanism

I came out on Twitter the other night. I bring this up here because I was asked something I didn’t, and still don’t, have a really good answer for: how come there are so many queer people, especially ones who are trans or genderqueer, in rail advocacy? This may be just an American question – my impression of German rail advocacy is that it’s much straighter.

On Twitter, there were a few explanations, none of which too satisfying:

  • Autism correlates with queerness (see e.g. here for autism-LGB spectrum correlation and here and here for dysphoria) and also with interest in trains. But then even if one only looks at allistic people, a pretty hefty share of people at (say) TransitMatters are LGBT.
  • Urbanism. The visible queer community is more urban than the general population, for reasons that I don’t want to get into because serious urbanists and Richard Florida have discussed them for decades. Even conditioned on living in a big city with public transportation, the advocacy community is disproportionately queer (again, TransitMatters), but it’s plausible that the same factors making the queer community more urban also make its travel patterns more transit-oriented.
  • Something about American liberal politics mostly drawing from a few groups: queers, Jews, and black people (and maybe other nonwhites). But that is clearly not true of every single political issue, for example the people I can think of in American health care advocacy are straight, and queer activism on health care is often about queer-specific topics like AIDS and trans health care.
  • YIMBY is specifically a fairly queer movement, and the most successful American one, that of San Francisco, is extremely queer; good public transportation advocacy in the US is very YIMBY. But that correlation raises separate questions regarding why good transit advocacy is so YIMBY and why YIMBY has so many LGBT members.

I genuinely don’t know how much of this even holds outside the US. It’s plausible that in countries where passenger rail planning is a career that the average voter of the mainline right party approves of, people with the sexual orientation that the average voter of the mainline right party approves of are more likely to pursue rail advocacy. I don’t have enough knowledge of the political landscape in enough cities to be able to speak comparatively across countries, and if you know more, I urge you to share in comments.

45 comments

  1. Benjamin Turon

    I’ve been to many rail advocacy meetings, and so far sexual orientation has never come up, but all are welcomed. In the end, we are all passengers. I think like many other minorities, the LGBT community has found urban enters places they can find support and acceptance, and that puts them in-tune to the benefits of rail transport, be it local, regional, or intercity. If you live in cities, you are going to want better public transport. Having attended the recent public meeting on East-West Rail in Springfield, Mass; I was very impressed by the diversity of the large crowd that came out to support rail.

  2. calwatch

    As I mentioned on Twitter, I think it’s a combination of perception, time availability, and location. As noted San Francisco is just a “queerer” city than, say, Columbus, being a regional center of the gay community going back decades. More gays are going to be in urban areas, just because there’s more of a dating pool there than in the suburbs. While many LGBT individuals have children, the percentage of people of child bearing and raising age with children is much, much less than the heterosexual community. And, since families require tending, that reduces the spare time available. It’s also the case that there are lot of LGBT people online who take pride in their status as such. In the real world, it’s much harder to see.

  3. Luke

    I can only speak about my own experience, as a gay male interested in trains and transit. However, generalizing from it, I’d say it has at least a little to do with identification—by self or others—with disempowered groups, and the realization that autocentric planning is worst for those groups. After all, if empowerment and disempowerment are about relative access to resources, it seems natural that disempowered people would be least in favor of the most resource-intensive types of geosocial organization.

  4. michaelrjames

    With only about 1% of the population, it surely is a pure numbers game and agglomeration effect as per Richard Florida and others. Combined with job, social and housing discrimination there is a further concentration into the old dense cores of big cities which in turn means less likelihood of car-use or dependence.

    Yesterday (Saturday) was the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, celebrating its 42nd year (and I believe claimed to be the world’s first?). No accident that it began in Kings Cross (suburb of Potts Point) which is just about the closest residential zone next to the CBD, and long the centre of alt lifestyles and club culture etc.
    I’d say it is no accident, too, that Edmund White–resident of the Marais for about a decade–brought to wider notice the term and practice of flaneur. Along with another gay celeb from the international set, David Sedaris, who also lived there, I suspect these helped push the Marais into being the main gay district in one of the oldest quarters in Europe where car use is almost prohibited by the sheer weight of pedestrian numbers, not to mention narrow streets and the cost of off-street parking.

    Another factor in Paris is that Bertrand Delanoë, mayor 2001-2014, deployed his slogan “Paris for people not cars” and policies (weekend and evening major road closures; Velib, Paris Plage–a summer beach on the riverside expressway) that decisively swung the city (and imitators around the world) to a people- and transit- centred urbanism. Is it an accident that he was France’s first openly-gay politician? As to why he was such an urbanist, I wonder if it is one of many behaviours and philosophies that arises out of a unconventional life (pied noir from Tunisia, broken family life, upbringing in what would have been pretty intolerant genderist 50s and 60s France)? It might just be a willingness to consider non-conventional approaches being less indoctrinated into the normes of society, and resistant to the oppobrium such alternative approaches get targeted with.

    Is there any evidence for Buttigieg as an urbanist:-)

    • Eric

      I think 4% not 1%.

      Extremely disproportionate concentrations of an ethnic group in cities are common, e.g. Chinatowns, and I think gay subculture fits that framework. And of course more oriented to cities rather than suburbs because of the lower frequency of child rearing at any stage of life among LGBTs. And among gay males, somewhat skewed towards inner city neighborhoods with a questionable reputation for safely, because those neighborhoods are cheaper, while the tradeoff in vulnerability to crime is less pressing for an all-male community.

    • Alon Levy

      5-10% (higher in younger generations, bi ID is rising), not 1%.

      Re Buttigieg: unclear? I’ve seen so little about his record in South Bend. For what it’s worth: Annise Parker was kind of NIMBY (she opposed the Ashby high-rise), and Lori Lightfoot is screwing Chicago’s transit with her turf wars with Metra. Not everyone is Delanoë, sadly.

      • adirondacker12800

        He didn’t get enough votes to qualify for delegates in yesterday’s primary in South Carolina. Things get interesting in the next ten days. Like Mayor Mike facing his first election.
        South Bend is the end of the line for the South Shore line. They talk about a lot of things but almost nothing gets done.

        Click to access AECOM-CSB-SSL-Feasibility-Study-Presentation-20180419.pdf


        ….the railfans love to take videos of the street running on the single track through Michigan City…

      • michaelrjames

        Ha, mayor Pete is gone! I guess he realised from the NC result that he would be decimated on Tuesday and didn’t want that crystallised into his political record. He should run for the federal Senate to displace a Republican (I haven’t checked Indiana’s status but there are double GOP senate slots up for election this time compared to Dem.) This was proposed for Beto O’Rourke but he has disappointed in not being interested. Odd since he gave Cruz a scare; surely he would have a reasonable chance?

        As for statistics, it is a very tricky issue and I think the most up-to-date and authoritative study is from CDC:

        A 2013 study by the CDC, in which over 34,000 Americans were interviewed, puts the percentage of self-identifying lesbians and gay men at 1.6%, and of bisexuals at 0.7%.

        CDC is charged with this kind of thing, because of how such demographics, disease incidence, lifestyle factors etc impact on public policy re health & health research spending, allocation of resources etc. Which is to say, they strive to get the real picture avoiding politics of all persuasions. If Pence had his way he would probably close it down.

        • RossB

          During the campaign Buttigieg took heat for being only a mayor of a small city. He would reply that it is very difficult to win a state wide race as a Democrat in “Pence’s Indiana”. There is some truth to that. I think he has a much better chance of getting a cabinet position, and then leveraging that for another run. That would give him executive experience in the federal government, making him more qualified than most. Julian Castro tried the same path, and it still hasn’t worked for him. I think the difference is that Buttigieg is a very smooth talker — probably the most articulate since Bill Clinton (with a fair number of similarities, other than their childhood background).

          • Herbert

            Unfortunately mayo Pete would sell his supposed convictions for a wet napkin…

        • Nathanael

          The CDC numbers show “self-identifying”. The studies on actual sexual *behavior* show it’s more like 10% gay or bisexual (of which the majority is actually bisexual). Bisexuality remains so stigmatized that a very large number of people who have sex with people of more than one gender don’t self-identify.

      • Michael

        I lived in SB. Mayor Pete focused primarily on land use & downtown renewal. SB is a typical small Midwest city. It has a grid plan core with the courthouse, city hall, a number of grand buildings from its industrial peak. At some point – probably in the 1960s or 70s – the main avenues through downtown were converted to 4 lane, one-way roads, with the lights timed to 35 MPH. So you could literally put a car on 35 MPH cruise control go straight through the city in about 5 minutes. All of it was in a sad state in the mid-2000s. You could find a house for about $40K most neighborhoods near downtown. There was little-to-no middle class folks moving in.

        Pete’s signature project was re-do the streets through downtown, convert to 2 way, on-street parking, etc. They’ve cleaned up some of the industrial buildings in the greater downtown area. The city did a nice job, and it seems the market is following the lead. I periodically check Zillow there & prices are up to the 100s & 200s, which is a near miracle given where things were.

  5. Lukas

    I think I can explain the difference in Germany. Germany already has a rail system that is good relative to all of the world). This means that many people already ride it. Rail advocacy in Germany comes from three groups: 1. Professionals. Railway planners, engineers, train drivers, etc. These are not very LGBT, because the more senior ones who do all the advocacy have gone through very traditional career paths + are older, so less likely to have lived in times where LGBT was accepted. 2. Riders’ associations like Pro Bahn. Advocacy groups like these draw from the groups who have the time: old people. Who are (at least right now) not very LGBT. 3. Enthuisiasts. These groups are again older, because people need time. A lot of these people are also advocating for railways in the countryside, mostly lines that were closed after WW2. This more conservative idea in more conservative areas results in high amounts of straight old white men.

    I guess all of this results from the fact that US railway enthusiasm, at least in the “build all new lines of HSR, metros and regional rail” way as opposed to the enthusiast’s view reopening old lines is a very politically progressive topic and (sorry, people) also very niche, for now. For any group that sadly has to expect discriminatory behavior from at least a not small part of the general population, the smaller group of people interested in the topic (and their expected political identity) might just be a lot more comfortable, because those who discriminate are easily disciplined in a smaller group and the small group is more likely to positively accept LGBT because of the reasons I wrote above.

    • Herbert

      Despite heritage railroading almost by definition being a conservative pursuit, pro rail policies still skew heavily left in Germany. If you file off the party labels and cite a local politician on transit or cars, you can cite their leanings with pretty good accuracy…

  6. Andrew

    I think of a few factors, especially those related to the above stated agglomeration benefits and social/cultural acceptance that LGBT people find.
    1. We are a subgroup that has had to find each other, rather than being born into the culture/space, so to speak. That means that freedom of movement has had a liberating impact on many LGBT folks’ lives.
    2. Likewise, we have had to mobilize collectively for our rights–the fact that this aligns along other progressive/collective/greater good urban efforts makes sense.
    3. LGBT urbanites in train advocacy are often exactly the kind of group that our (allegedly) participatory processes favor: higher income, fewer kids, more accommodating schedules.

    Granted, I am talking about a very specific demographic here — certainly not all LGBTQ people are urban or wealthy (or white or male), but those are the ones favored by current political systems and overrepresented in train circles.

    • Eric

      “That means that freedom of movement has had a liberating impact on many LGBT folks’ lives.”

      But cars also mean freedom of movement – arguably more freedom of movement, except in cases of overwhelming traffic.

      Maybe the difference is that car usage requires getting a license and buying a car, which generally requires being on good terms with your parents as a teenager and/or young adult, which is less common for LGBT people?

      • Herbert

        Public transit and bikes give kids without a driver’s license a taste of freedom outside the supervision of their parents…

      • Andrew

        The question then is how queer spaces relate spatially to one another. Freedom of movement within cities has always had less to do with cars than within suburbs. LGBTQ social life has, at least within the brick-and-mortar world, has always been dependent on density and concentration, which are in a feedback loop with agglomeration effects. Queer spaces are usually hyperlocal: they’ve traditionally thrived around other queer spaces. Think the scale of gayborhoods and main drags (pun intended). Cars offer access on a regional scale but are an active encumbrance at the hyperlocal level, despite access to more jobs in a given time or whatever else. Cars mean little when hopping from bookstore to bar to bar mere blocks away from one another.

        Personally, I grew up in DC, and I could get myself around well before being of eligible age for a driver’s license — my sense of freedom wasn’t dependent upon cars. Once you’ve lived in a dense city, this feels like a second nature observation.

        The conclusion I reach is that queer spaces have always relied upon the same traits that trains are so good at promoting: centrality, concentration/density, mobility between dense areas, fill in the blank.

        Capitalism and queer spaces is a whole other thing — queer people have traditionally been marginalized from society’s noncapital spaces (e.g., community centers, churches, etc.), hence the reliance on capital spaces as places to gather (e.g., bars, bookstores, social clubs, etc.). That means that queer spaces have always favored those who capitalism and historical freedom of movement have favored most anyway: upper class, gay, white, cis men. Lesbian spaces have always had a greater focus on domestic spaces, as that was how lesbians could realistically gather for the decades before they could walk unattended where they damn well pleased. It’s a really fun little question.

  7. shakeddown

    Re the correlation with autism, there’s a pretty convincing model where there’s a separate variable for the potential for autism (“systemizing behavior”) that becomes autism if it goes too far/is unbalanced by other factors, and strongly correlates with transness (see e.g. https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/11/13/autism-and-intelligence-much-more-than-you-wanted-to-know/). If systemizing behavior correlates with both urbanism and transness, you’d expect urbanism to be disproportionately trans even among the non-autistic population.

    • Herbert

      Persons on the autism spectrum are interested in trains per the general cliche…

      • adirondacker12800

        It might just be that those are the ones that are visible. You don’t see the ones who are deeply fascinated by something that goes on indoors. Or out in the woods.

  8. Benjamin

    Hey, this has nothing to do with the question posed, but I’d like to say congratulations and welcome 🙂

  9. Andrew

    The question then is how queer spaces relate spatially to one another. Freedom of movement within cities has always had less to do with cars than within suburbs. LGBTQ social life has, at least within the brick-and-mortar world, has always been dependent on density and concentration, which are in a feedback loop with agglomeration effects. Queer spaces are usually hyperlocal: they’ve traditionally thrived around other queer spaces. Think the scale of gayborhoods and main drags (pun intended). Cars offer access on a regional scale but are an active encumbrance at the hyperlocal level, despite access to more jobs in a given time or whatever else. Cars mean little when hopping from bookstore to bar to bar mere blocks away from one another.

    Personally, I grew up in DC, and I could get myself around well before being of eligible age for a driver’s license — my sense of freedom wasn’t dependent upon cars. Once you’ve lived in a dense city, this feels like a second nature observation.

    The conclusion I reach is that queer spaces have always relied upon the same traits that trains are so good at promoting: centrality, concentration/density, mobility between dense areas, fill in the blank.

    Capitalism and queer spaces is a whole other thing — queer people have traditionally been marginalized from society’s noncapital spaces (e.g., community centers, churches, etc.), hence the reliance on capital spaces as places to gather (e.g., bars, bookstores, social clubs, etc.). That means that queer spaces have always favored those who capitalism and historical freedom of movement have favored most anyway: upper class, gay, white, cis men. Lesbian spaces have always had a greater focus on domestic spaces, as that was how lesbians could realistically gather for the decades before they could walk unattended where they damn well pleased. It’s a really fun little question.

  10. SCC

    Advocacy in general is very queer. So queer, in fact, that there are many queer people who can’t make an impact in queer advocacy due to competition within queer advocacy. These folks drift away from queer advocacy towards other interest groups where they can make a bigger impact: rail advocacy happens to be one of these interest groups, and rail advocacy tends to be too niche for mainstream, straight people to be highly involved in. Hence, rail advocacy is queer, not because it is an intrinsically queer topic, but because queers who are in the outer circle of advocacy are showing up to an advocacy space where non-queers are not.

    • Olivier

      I think SCC hit the nail on the head: advocacy comes naturally to many queers, topic relatively unimportant.

  11. Ian

    As a gay co-founder of an SF Bay Area transit advocacy organization, Seamless Bay Area, I agree generally with your points. I feel like queer people are particularly personally invested in improving urban centers and urban life – due to the sense of belonging they feel in those centers, and the sense of exclusion they so often feel in places primarily oriented toward nuclear families, which in the US, also means cars. Of course with queer people increasingly being priced out of central, traditionally transit-accessible areas, they are also the forefront of both housing and transit advocacy outlying areas. I do think this is a particularly American phenomenon because of the stark difference between Urban/transit accessible areas and suburban/car-dominated areas. In Canada and Europe, there is a less stark difference – transit can be decent in the suburbs – so transit advocacy doesn’t skew quite as queer in those areas.

    I’m currently 36. If I were straight, I imagine that for various reasons I probably would have had kids a few years ago. That would have almost certainly prevented me from making transit advocacy a central part of my life. May queer people, who either choose not to have kids or who are excluded from doing so, find a sense of purpose in pursuing advocacy, particularly in their 30s and 40s when their straight counterparts are busy raising kids.

    • Alon Levy

      FWIW, London has a huge dropoff in mode share between the city and the commuter belt; no idea how queer the community there is, since I only know a handful of people.

  12. Coridon Henshaw

    This is a very interesting observation. I don’t think it holds true here in Vancouver, however. Vancouver has a very prominent GLBTQ community but they don’t seem to be involved in transit advocacy to any extent. Indeed, Vancouver has no substantive pro-transit civil society that I’m aware of, and certainly no organized pro-transit advocacy on a scale that is visible to the local media.

    Rail advocacy here is mostly a governmental and technocratic thing with mainstream support among many voting blocs. Along the lines of what Lukas (above) says about Germany, there’s probably little civil society rail advocacy here as there’s little perceived need among the advocacy class to promote something that’s essentially mainstream government policy.

    Civil society transport-related advocacy here is anti-transit, either in the form of opposition to all forms of inter-neighborhood mobility, or from the bicycling pod people who want to degrade all other transport modes in favor of bike infrastructure. If there is any disproportionate membership of GLBTQ people in either of these groups, they’re probably among the pod people who think bicycles can solve all transport needs in a hilly city that gets >1.5m of rain a year.

  13. Lee Ratner

    I’m not a fan of treating transit as a social justice issue. Transit works best when treated as a general service for everybody, and we really need to convince people who can afford cars to forgo them if we want good transit, rather than as something must be done so the marginalized can get away.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, my argument is specifically that there’s a deep bench of LGBT Americans who are transit activists and not just as a social justice issue, which isn’t really true of health care or education.

      • Lee Ratner

        I honestly haven’t noticed any particular deep branch of LGBT transit activists.

  14. Brendan

    my casual impression has long been that all sorts of advocacy that I’ve seen (from the perch of a straight white guy) are disproportionately not straight/cisgendered, all the way from some of the more horrifying Tory constituency activists I’ve met and leftward.

    I had never gotten the impression that there’s all that much of a content-specificity to it, at least controlling for other factors

      • Coridon Henshaw

        Sadism is orientation that draws people to conservatism, and especially to conservative activism, in the Anglosphere. That’s not an orientation that’s confined to one end of the straight-queer axis.

        • adirondacker12800

          Or the authoritarians are drawn to both….. Puritans tend to be authoritarians carrying a Holy Book.

  15. Nilo

    A friend of my hypothesized a founder effect like reason. Perhaps due to happenstance the first few transit activists were disproportionately LGBT, and their social networks disproportionately featuring LGBT people led to the continued prominence of people who identify as LGBT in transit activism. A geography argument focusing on transit activism’s birth in SF and NYC could also further this since the Castro and the village/chelsea are both very transit accessible. Of course a geography argument like that runs up against the fact that Chicago area transit activism at least from those who are prominent on twitter doesn’t seem particularly gay, and Wrigleyville/Boystown is very transit accessible.

  16. Daniel

    Congratulations! I visited this blog because you write abour trains. I am autistic and I like the mechanical aspect of trains.

  17. RossB

    I’m gonna go with urbanism as being the biggest factor.

    Transit issues are largely urban issues. LGBTQ people tend to congregate in cities. That is where they have the most freedom, and the most safety. Dan Savage has offered this advice to more than one young gay man, struggling in a small town: get yourself to a big city. Things are changing, of course, but it is still likely that sexual minorities will be more comfortable in a big city. Not only a big city, but the most urban parts of a big city. In the post civil rights era, gay people moved into formerly redlined communities. Unlike other parts of the world, these rundown, low income areas were close to the heart of the city (because of the racist redlining policies). These are areas where someone is far more likely to use transit. It is an area where people are also far more likely to rub shoulders with activists that share their concern.

    I was trying to find some examples of communities like this, and ran across this article: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/nz5qwb/when-it-comes-to-gentrification-lgbtq-people-are-both-victim-and-perpetrator.

    My guess is the reason you don’t see quite as many LGBTQ people discussing issues like health care is because it isn’t really an urban issue. Health care issues cut across the entire population. When you do have an issue that is more urban in nature — or at least more likely to be supported by those in the city — you are more likely to have LGBTQ advocates. For example, needle exchange.

    • Nathanael

      I think you’re right. Any minority group whose members need to find one another will head for the cities, and therefore care about urban issues.

  18. Nathanael

    FWIW, autism correlates *ridiculously* highly with being non-binary and/or genderqueer. Something like over 50% of people with autism. So there’s that.

    • Nathanael

      I always assumed everyone was non-binary and I find it absolutely bizarre that some people think that they have a gender in their brains. (I still don’t believe that they actually do; all evidence is that brains are largely ungendered. But I guess there is evidence that many people believe that they do.)

  19. Oreg

    I was surprised about the correlation between autism and queerness you point out. I’ve spent my career among engineers with their autism propensity and have been wondering for a while about the unusually low number of out LGBTQ colleagues. I guess it must be the heteronormative culture that keeps them in the closet.

  20. yorksranter

    in countries where passenger rail planning is a career that the average voter of the mainline right party approves of

    Damn that’s quite the quote

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