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  • Writer's picturedowntownjason

City should come out

A gay-friendly district could support Winnipeg's call for greater inclusion and diversity

Strings of pink plastic balls form a ribbon along a section of Sainte-Catherine Street in Montreal’s Gay Village. The street closes off as a pedestrian mall for the summer. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press files)

Like any tourist, I often try to check off all the boxes on must-see destination lists and sample restaurants recommended by travel blogs, but I also make a point of visiting specific neighbourhoods consistent in many metropolitan cities: Chinatowns, downtowns and gay districts. They’re generally the most metabolic areas of a city — bustling, bursting and active with people, history and great urbanism. They’re spaces that energize you as a traveller, and often tell the diverse story of its people. They’re gritty, spontaneous, unpredictable — and largely enjoyable.

Montreal’s Gay Village, or Le Village Gai, is located on Sainte-Catherine Street, extending along Amherst Street. Its evolution is marked by a sizable increase in business activity, festivals and pedestrian movement. You’ve likely seen the iconic art installation — Pink Balls by Claude Cormier and Associates, strung from one architectural building marvel to the next — in-person or in photographs throughout the summer, as the street transforms into a lively pedestrian mall for the LGBTTQ* community, allies and tourists. It becomes a stage for all sorts of performance and a site symbolic of inclusion and tolerance. Meanwhile, gay-friendly cities like Vancouver have Davie Street and Toronto, its Gay Village — both boasting some of the largest Pride festivals in the world, drawing in visitors from across the globe, fuelling the local economy and embracing the strength of its local community.

These places are said to make people feel comfortable and safe. They ensure that people are able to act with authenticity. On every street, you’ll likely see same-sex couples holding hands, some even planting a peck on their partners’ cheek, with no reactions from those nearby. The commercial spaces — bars, restaurants and other venues — are often lined with flags and posters to punctuate their solidarity, physically expressing how they see value in their gay clientele. Along public nodes and corridors, you might see gay-friendly banners, posters on display boards outlining community services and outreach opportunities, and of course, pedestrian crossings splashed with rainbow paint — likely a modest financial investment by a municipality.

Recently, Winnipeg has begun to let loose on its regulations for pedestrian crossings, abandoning the traditional black-and-white zebra design for artistic interpretations from residents. During Canada’s 150th birthday, pedestrian crossings were transformed through initiatives like Cool Streets. Launched by Stephane Dorge, Cool Streets’ goal was to acknowledge the role of streets in our neighbourhoods, and to offer new canvases for colourful expression.

Andrew McLaren, a downtown resident and member of the LGBTTQ* community, is known as one of the organizers of the widely popular Pride Run, which takes participants on a brisk tour of the Exchange District and The Forks. Inspired by Cool Streets, he installed Winnipeg’s first rainbow pedestrian crossing at The Forks. Located on Israel Asper Way, with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights serving as a timely and figurative backdrop, the rainbow crosswalk not only helped to break up the banality of daily urban life and its bleak and grey infrastructure, but also provided passersby with an uplifting visual message about the strength of Winnipeg’s LGBTTQ* community.

A rainbow crosswalk was painted at The Forks. (Mike Deal/Free Press files)

"The prominent location made the rainbow crosswalk a welcoming symbol for local LGBT* people as well as visitors to Winnipeg," McLaren said. "It was also a great community building project because it brought together the LGBT* volunteers who installed it with terrific support from The Forks and the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, who helped fund it."

One of the first rainbow crosswalks can be traced back to West Hollywood, Calif. — installed with the motivation to brand the city as a gay-friendly destination and to add colour to otherwise-drab concrete paving.

Tourism Winnipeg, the City of Winnipeg’s destination marketing agency, has a website dedicated to marketing the queer history — past, present and future — of the city. In their words, "Winnipeg is home to one of the largest LGBT populations in Canada between Toronto and Vancouver. We also hold the distinction of being the first major North American city to elect an openly gay mayor." Their campaign efforts attempt to position the city as a gay-friendly attraction, with shops and places that not only embrace gay culture, but welcome the community and its allies.

To me, urban space is about interpretation; they’re layered with social meanings. Urban space can highlight our civic values, our desires and provide a sense of who is "included" and who isn’t. When we imagine our favourite urban spaces in Winnipeg, who do we see? What do we see? What’s missing? For planning theorists who study queerness and urbanism, what’s missing is LGBTTQ* representation. Heterosexual experiences dominate most cityscapes — suppressing the visibility of other sexual identities. Urban theorists Danielle Endres and Samantha Senda-Cook have written about "the constructed nature of place" and how these spaces are often "under constant negotiation" between many proprietors. The key question emerging for me: to whom does urban space belong?

On a date once, a male partner placed his arm around me. We were walking down Market Avenue toward Main Street. Even with cars buzzing by and hundreds of music lovers spilling out from the Centennial Concert Hall, a group of men turned to us and uttered, "Get a room, you queers!" While I am a self-professed lover of downtown, in that particular instant, my feelings about the neighbourhood had changed. I no longer felt included in this community. I didn’t feel safe. Later, I wondered whether these individuals would have felt compelled to express their prejudices if I were with a woman that evening.

This experience made me think more cogently about the relationship between sexuality and urban design. Part of our job as urban planners and placemakers is to promote community well-being and social prosperity. We try to achieve these goals by incorporating phrases like "sense of belonging" and "community connection" into our plans and policies. When marginalization and discrimination slither into our urban spaces, our city becomes uglier as a result — feeding into fear, anxiety and "othering." For many LGBTTQ* people, who often lack acceptance and support within their own households, they look to the city for that sense of belonging and community connection. Unfortunately, civic places aren’t always built to support gay people, and they aren’t always tolerant.

Public spaces are not equally accessible. Public space affords opportunity for some, but not for everyone. Gay districts, then, represent an active protest, and can generate "a sense of space where ambiguities of proprietorship, of esthetics of social relations (class and gender in particular) and the political economy of everyday life collide" (David Harvey). Gay districts can be a tool to rebalance the political, economic and social status of LGBTTQ* community members.

Davie Street in Vancouver gets readied for Gay Pride Festival. (Arlen Redekop photo)

So how can city planners and urban design work toward making Winnipeg a more inclusive place for the LGBTTQ* community? One of the first steps towards a gay-friendly district might be mapping where gay people feel most comfortable. How do commercial spaces, public institutions and other civic infrastructure accommodate the experiences of LGBTTQ* people? Interviews with organizations like Pride Winnipeg and the Rainbow Resource Centre may illuminate geography-specific activities and initiatives with queer history or connections. Once a specific location is identified and confirmed through a public engagement process, a visual concept may be developed featuring queer-friendly infrastructure. Wherever this gay-friendly district may be located or clustered, this form of explicit urban representation may have the potential to lessen stigma, to improve the lives of LGBTTQ* community members and to serve as a safe sanctuary for full freedom of expression.

At a time when the dignity and existence of LGBTTQ* community members are under threat — and more recently for transgender people — gay-friendly districts and urban placemaking provocations like rainbow crossings are needed. We can’t simply talk about wanting inclusion for people — it needs to be manifested in a physical and permanent way. As a new city council is sworn in to serve the citizens of Winnipeg, I implore them to work toward these aims, to simply provide a sense of value for the people they represent.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on November 24, 2018.

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