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Queering Canadian suburbs: LGBTQ2S place-making outside of central cities

Queering Canadian suburbs: LGBTQ2S place-making outside of central cities

Alison Bain

Where are LGBTQ2S households living in the suburbs of Canada’s three largest metropolitan areas? How are suburban LGBTQ2S residents served by community, municipal and NGO services? Under what social and neighbourhood conditions do diverse LGBTQ2S populations live in suburbia, and how does queer sexuality inform their place-making practices?

These are the questions that Professor Alison Bain’s SSHRC Insight Grant is shedding light to. The research addresses key knowledge gaps regarding the lives, service needs, and place-making practices of suburban Canadian LGBTQ2S (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, and Two-Spirit) populations. Notably, there is a dearth of research studies on sexuality among suburban scholars such that the limited investigation of the suburbs by geographers of sexualities means that little is known about the LGBTQ2S populations living there, or how to situate them within changing suburban landscapes.

In Canada, this inattention has significant implications: a limited understanding of the spatial, embodied and discursive dimensions of everyday queer lives in suburbia; an inadequate grasp of the support services and the socially inclusive policymaking needed at the municipal and metropolitan scales; and an inability to imagine suburbia as a queer location. The research thus uses queer and intersectionality theories to document the geographies of queer suburban lives as they intersect with other minority identity markers (e.g., ethnicity, racialization, class, gender, and age) in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

Research shows that Canadian suburbs are not the normative environments they once were, having been transformed by forces of expansion, decentralization and immigration. Concurrently, seismic shifts have occurred in the socio-legal status of Canadian LGBTQ2S populations. While LGBTQ2S place-making is visible in downtown neighbourhoods, the complexities of making and supporting LGBTQ2S lives in suburban places is largely unexplored by scholars and policymakers. Increases in same-sex marriage, parenting, social inclusion policies, and housing prices suggest that more LGBTQ2S people live in suburbs that were originally built for heterosexual households and where differing ideas of family, sexuality, and citizenship may increasingly clash.

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Photo credit: Chan Arun-Pina.

The project has employed an innovative theoretical and methodological approach to analyze LGBTQ2S lives in suburban Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The first research layer involved statistically and cartographically examining the influence of socio-demographic and neighbourhood characteristics on social relations among same-sex and non-same-sex households in the three metropolitan regions. The second research layer involved the assembly and analysis of two databases, one on print media representations of LGBTQ2S suburbanites and the other on LGBTQ2S suburban governance through municipal public-facing communication records on social planning and inclusion. The third documented LGBTQ2S social service provision through in-depth interviews with civic leaders, service providers, para-public community organization leaders, and LGBTQ2S activists. A final research layer countered these formal governance and service representation with collaborative mental mapping and photo-elicitation interviews with a diverse cross-section of LGBTQ2S residents, permitting the co-generation of local knowledge about queer place-making practices that could foster community-building across cultures and generations.

Research findings from this project have been published in: Geography Research Forum, “On the edge of urban ‘equalities’” (2019); Social and Cultural Geography, “‘Straightening’ space and time?” (2020); Gender, Place, and Culture, “Challenging heteronormativity in suburban high schools through ‘surplus visibility’ (2020); Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie, “Scavenging for LGBTQ2S public library visibility on Vancouver’s periphery” (2020); Geography Compass, “‘No queers out there’?”; Children’s Geographies, “More-than-safety” (2021); Urban Studies “Relocating queer” (2021); Urban Studies, “Placing LGBTQ+ urban activisms” (2021); and Progress in Human Geography “Whither queer suburbanism?” (2021). In “Relocating queer: Comparing suburban LGBTQ2S activisms on Vancouver’s periphery,” Bain and Podmore examined sexual politics in suburban civil society, focusing on the grassroots organising of not-for-profit activist groups as they interact with local government outside of the electoral process. A comparative case study approach revealed how LGBTQ2S activists work through variations in suburban political opportunity structures, resource landscapes and inter-organisational relations resulting in differential practices of mobilisation and collective action. In contrast with an urban legacy of insurgent practices of LGBTQ2S resistance, it was noted that suburban LGBTQ2S activisms primarily centre on enactments of local resourcefulness, community resilience and institutional reworking within more dispersed resource landscapes.

In the long run, the research is intended to contribute to existing city-centric theorizations of sexuality and space while at the same time providing needed data on suburban LGBTQ2S lives for policy development and service provision. It is expected to supplement the Canadian scholarly record on suburbia in quantitative and qualitative terms, provide a service efficacy assessment for institutions and community groups striving to address the changing needs of LGBTQ2S populations, and speak to suburban municipal governments seeking more inclusive social plans and policies.

Bain is a feminist urban social geographer who studies contemporary urban and suburban culture. Her research examines the complex relationships of cultural workers and populations to cities and suburbs in Canada and Germany with particular attention to questions of identity formation, place-making, spatial politics, and neighbourhood change. Her writing focuses on the (sub)urban geographies of artistic labour and precarity, creative practice, and cultural production within cities and across city-regions. She co-edited a book on Urbanization in a Global Context (2017) with Linda Peake for which a 2nd edition will be available in 2022. Collaborators for this research include Julie Podmore (John Abbott College), Tiffany Muller Myrdahl (Simon Fraser University), Brian Ray (University of Ottawa), and Tarmo Remmel (EUC, York University). This project has been made possible through funding from the  Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the associated universities and partners.