- How Places Make Us: Novel LGB Identities in Four Small Cities by Japonica Brown-Saracino
By Japonica Brown-Saracino
University of Chicago Press, 2018, 326 pages, http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/H/bo24945929.html
Twenty-five years ago, Arlene Stein's edited collection Sisters, Sexperts, Queers: Beyond the Lesbian Nation (Plume) captured in its title and pages the contours of changing lesbian identities from the lesbian-feminist visions of sisterhood to the radical, sex-positive, Susie Bright Sexperts to burgeoning queers, less concerned with gender and engaged in radical activism for a queer future. Stein's book is one of many in the past fifty years that map the contours of lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer women's identities. Understanding identities has been a subject of interest to women themselves and to scholars—sociologists, historians, literary critics, and many others. Japonica Brown-Saracino's new book, How Places Make Us enters this vibrant dialogue. How Places Make Us explores in depth lesbian, bisexual, and queer (LBQ) women's identities in four communities across the United States: Ithaca, New York; San Luis Obispo, California; Portland, Maine; and Greenfield, Massachusetts. Brown-Saracino's close attention to LBQ women and their identity formation in communities reveals new information about identity formation, the relationship between place and identity, and LBQ women generally.
Using interviews and participant observation complemented by census data, Brown-Saracino assembles for each community a profile and case study that highlights women's lived experiences with identity. Her observations about LBQ women in Ithaca, New York echo broader narratives about lesbian and queer identities, particularly that they are relics of the past as a new post-lesbian and post-identity world emerges. While mindful of these broader narratives, Brown-Saracino stays with her subjects, diving deeply into their own community dynamics for answer to emerge from the subjects and the places rather than from national overlays. The Ithaca case study, in particular, explores the lack of salience of the identity of lesbian in a community with a relatively large population of lesbians and queer women, high levels of LBQ acceptance, and low levels of homophobia. These conditions result in greater integration of lesbians, bisexual, and queer women within the community and lower identification with category labels. In this case study, Brown-Saracino carefully maps the nuances of integration and the resulting post-identity politics, examining in particular how they are shaped by the local community and its geography.
While the Ithaca case study supports some popular narratives about identity and integration, the other locales tell different stories. In San Luis Obispo, Brown-Saracino finds a community with a large lesbian population that strongly identifies with the label lesbian and even lesbian-feminist. Carefully mapping social networks in this community, Brown-Saracino demonstrates the durability of identity politics among these LBQ women, including the resiliency of lesbian identities among women moving into the community.
Portland, Maine reveals yet another model of identity articulation fusing the hybridity politics of queer and the identity politics of lesbian. In this geographic area, Brown-Saracino observes a wide range of "microidentities" in a community with a variety of sexual cultures. Finally, in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a community adjacent to Northampton, Massachusetts, which has a longstanding, active lesbian community, Brown-Saracino maps lesbian communities of Greenfield along two axes, one lesbian-feminist and one more queer identified. Through the Greenfield case study, she demonstrates how identities change as local economic, social, and political conditions change.
Two aspects of How Places Make Us are particularly refreshing. First, Brown-Saracino effective deploys a method for talking about women's nonheterosexual sexual identities in a way that simultaneously expresses multiplicities and unification. Her construction of LBQ as an identity moniker for nonheterosexual women is a helpful intervention for discussing women's sexualities. Second, her attention to LBQ women outside of major urban centers, which have for too long dictated the understandings of lesbian, bisexual, and queer identities, is welcome and energizing. Experiences of LBQ women in small cities are underexamined by scholars, and this work is an important corrective. At the same...