This past Friday, March the fourth, I attended a lecture by University of Regina MFA candidate Caitlyn Jean McMillan (check her website here) titled Repressed Identities: A Traveling Exploration of Gender and Sexual Construction in Public Space (click title for her posts on gendered travels).
Generally, I don’t think about spaces through the lens of gender and sexuality very often. McMillan’s presentation of Repressed Identities reveals many ideas on how different people experience urban and rural spaces.
Repressed Identities is a study of different places, Saskatoon and New York primarily, as well as Banff, Halifax, Toronto and Thunder Bay. As part of the study of gendered spaces, Caitlyn Jean McMillan put together an exhibition at the Banff Centre. The exhibition explores images and impressions of her gendered travels.
Saskatoon had a lot of interesting discussion around it. I understood the artist’s intention was to find spaces she could identify as open to LGBT people. Saskatoon was the least open place of those she looked at, although the consensus in the room was that Regina was even less open. At least part of the problem McMillan describes comes with car centred streets and a lack of pedestrian traffic.
The riverside park, near the downtown core, was a prime example of dominantly heterosexual space. The people using the multi-use pathway, running through the park, were all either heterosexual couples or families. There were also many sunbathers wearing swimming gear, which she found confounding because there was no swimming, laying about or recreating (frisbie, football, etc…). The park didn’t feel like a place she would be comfortable to walk with her significant other.
Unlike a public park, Divas, the ‘gay bar in Saskatoon’, was confusing because it’s entrance was out-of-the-way – off an uncomfortable ally that didn’t feel safe. Our speaker felt a dark ally excluded, and separated the LGBT community from the broader population. Its location was thoughtless of common concerns for comfort and safety. There was some discussion if the obscure entrance was by choice to be separate from those not in the community.
New York was the opposite, its pedestrian orientation, street activity and public transportation enabled McMillan and her fellow travelers to move about easily. The size and the diversity of the city also provided freedoms in dress and association; they participated in a Transgender march where the concentration of normally marginalized people created a critical mass that claimed the streets.
There were areas in New York that felt less accepting, the Bronx and Harlem were mentioned as places that didn’t feel open to LGBT people. One place of interest that had mixed messages was the Stonewall Inn, location of a famous gay rights event in the 1960s. On one hand the iconic location and small park featuring statues representing the history of LGBT struggles provided a representative space. On the other hand, there were some people at the Stonewall who made the visiting students feel unwelcome because they were not part of the local community.
The best city for inclusion was Halifax. The city didn’t feel like there was a specific ‘gay’ area set aside and the walkability and activity of the city centre made it feel safe. This was contrasted with Toronto, which has a large village, but somehow, the speaker did not feel it was as open as Halifax. She contrasted the New York public transportation system with Toronto as well, suggesting Toronto, because of poor subway, did not feel as accessible.
The most interesting discussion for me was of Banff and Thunder Bay, natural spaces which the speaker could not gender. She did not get the sense that nature was particularly exclusive for anyone. This confirmed her feelings that the gendered construction of space is a purposeful human endeavour.
My take away from this discussion: Most of the people in the room seem to concede Regina is not a place that feels comfortable for LGBT people to be public. This is not a revelation, rather a sad commentary of the state of the city.
The City of Regina’s vision does mention inclusivity among its goals and it is my hope that through, perhaps this summer’s Official Community Plan discussions, the continuing Downtown Plan and through ad hoc urban development projects, people can focus on ways to include all Reginans in the future.
A lot of what I heard suggests that a public presence, walkable built form and comfortable spaces (well-lit, no blind spots, accessible) could be a great start in creating physically open spaces.
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