Butterflies, Whistles, and Fists: Gay Safe Streets Patrols and the New Gay Ghetto, 1976-1981


For my first direct engagement, I would like to write about Christina B. Hanhardt's article Butterflies, Whistles, and Fists: Gay Safe Streets Patrols and the New Gay Ghetto, 1976-1981. I would like to revisit concepts I brought up in class discussing homonationalism, gentrification, economies of risk and the body.

As Hanhardt suggests, the riots at Stonewall were a challenge to police authority by LGBTQ populations, many of them existing on the margins of society as working-class and people of color. The largest organization that immediately stemmed from the riots was the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), an organization largely consisting of LGBTQ activists from nationalist organizations (such as the Young Lords and the Black Panthers), feminist and anti-war movements. It is notable that the GLF got its name from a Vietnamese Nationalist organization (called the National Liberation Front) that directly opposed the Vietnam War. This was a coalitional approach that operated within a lens focused on radical politics (by radical I mean "root" as in the algebraic understanding of the term). Fissures quickly formed within organizations such as the GLF, often resulting in racialized and classed factions.

Race and class privilege, or at least the ability to navigate more affluent social networks with ease, could be credited in many circumstances for the trajectory many middle and upper-middle class LG(BTQ) organizations took in the years following. Hanhardt's essay largely focuses on a lesbian and gay land grab, similar to westward migrations by white American's in the 19th century, where lesbian and gay white folks fled rural areas and migrated for settlement in urban areas. Queer identities in this context became linked to urban areas (What Mary Gray would term "queer urban imaginaries" and Jack Halberstam would call "metronormativity"), and more specifically to neighborhoods within the cities--such as the Castro, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Seattle's Capital Hill and Chicago's Boystown.

The "city" granted a degree of animosity for lesbian and gay folk, offering privacy from ones family and strength in numbers. The "city" was reinvented as a space where such queerness was possible. Claims to space resulted in claims to property. Citing Hanhardt, "property ownership is one means by which neighborhoods have been claimed and marketed for exclusive urban constituencies" (pg 63, emphasis mine). Hanhardts reading suggests that, " Neighborhoods came to be seen as an expressive demonstration of gay identity, and thus as the collective asset most in need of protection" (67). Gay neighborhoods became symbolically tied to the healthy body of a lesbian and gay population; they must be protected from outside pests and contaminants.
The community-policing model used by the Butterfly Brigade and the Christopher Street Patrol engaged with "economies of risk" that largely resembled public health discourses that would shortly follow when HIV/AIDS exploded in gay male communities. The name RID, after the pest deterrent, becomes symbolic for me, as the languages used for pest deterrent are often militaristic. Medical language discussing the bodies' response to HIV/AIDS seroconversion often referred to the body as a fortress, the immune system as an army, and HIV as an invasion.

There is also an aspect of identity formation within gay neighborhoods. I see the street patrols as protecting gay neighborhoods from populations who were defined as not belonging. Through this surveillance, I recognize a distinction as more acutely drawn, creating a dualism between how one could be gay and how one couldn't. This is to say that while the rainbow flag was created in San Francisco as a symbol of diversity, that within this context gay and lesbian communities were largely imagined as homogenized. Considering the characteristics that often raised flags for patrollers were raced and classed markers, this renders being gay/lesbian and working-class and a person of color as impossible. The result was what could be related to white flight to the suburbs and gated communities, where we substitute the new gay "ghetto" (or homonationalist islands). This follows Lisa Duggan's definition of the "new homonormativity", where gay and lesbian social movements begin to more closely mirror the values of affluent heteronormative populations and (gay) marries neoliberalist discourses.

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