- Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence by Christina B. Hanhardt
Unsafe SpaceSticks and stones may break my bonesBut names can never hurt meThe queens and the hustlers of the red light zonesNever did desert me—Bambi Lake
I recently saw Bambi Lake on Market Street at the edge of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. She was stooped on a low wall yelling something unrecognizable as floods of tourists, techies, and business people poured by. Seeing her reminds me that the collapsing present of speculative capitalism has not yet swallowed us all. Bambi has remained mythological in many San Francisco subcultures for the past four decades. A marginally housed trans woman, punk performer, and cabaret singer often living on the frays of addiction, she has a way of spinning her alienation outward destroying most in her path. She resides against both the proper subject of mainstream trans inclusion and radical liberationist politics. As her autobiography suggests, she remains, at least for now, The Unsinkable Bambi Lake.1
Bambi’s song “Golden Age of Hustlers,” from where the epigraph was taken, narrates her life as a hooker on Polk Street in the 1970s and 1980s. The song, which has recently reached a wider audience through Justin Bond’s cover, summons a history of public trans/queer street life where violence was laid bare and communities of care were forged in the excesses of normative existence. The San Francisco of Bambi’s lyrics is the background from which I encountered Christina Hanhardt’s dazzling new book, and 2014 Lambda Literary Award winning, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence.
Hanhardt’s Safe Space offers an activist historiography of urban redevelopment and displacement, where biopolitical shifts have carved the social [End Page 218] and physical landscape of San Francisco and New York City from the 1960s to the present. She begins with a reading of the localized effects of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty as they manifested new programs and forms of organizing in San Francisco’s Central City district. She skillfully manages a dance of scale—telling both a macro history of changing postwar American liberalism and the micro histories of the ways it all came to remake daily life.
This same period, the early 1960s, also marked the growth of the homophile movement in San Francisco and New York City. Often understood to be among the first openly gay and lesbian organizations in the United States, the homophile movement utilized a politics of respectability, under a claim to privacy, to argue for “tolerance.” Hanhardt uses these scenes to show how, even in this very early moment of what will become known as the LGBT movement, an antagonism became visible. The predominantly white homophile community and “anti-poverty” activists, many of who were of color and not LGBT-identified, battled over competing definitions of safety. Not only did this render trans people and trans/queer people of color unimaginable, it grew activist attachments to the spirit of the law.
By emphasizing the different ways people relied on or resisted policing (or both), Hanhardt charts the meaning of “progressive politics” under an increasingly carceral state. For example, homophile and other gay and lesbian groups organized against the policing of vice and stings against gay male sexual practices. Under the banner of proper citizens, they argued for the extension afforded to white heterosexuality to their own claims of privacy. This, in turn, left the necessity of policing itself unchallenged. For them the racial terror of the punitive state was not the problem, but only that it had incorrect targets in its sights (65).
This difference, which also signifies difference itself, becomes one of the structures that Hanhardt builds upon for the rest of the book. Among the central arguments she offers us is that safe street patrols, which were privately formed in response to street violence against lesbians and gays, worked to territorialize (white) lesbian and gay space. One such patrol, the...