By Lucas Flint (B.Arch candidate) | This essay examines the reemergence of queer spaces in Charlotte after the nadir of queer culture in the 1970s and the AIDS scare of the 1980s. It compares the spatial typologies and lighting designs of two local venues–The Scorpio and Cathode Azure–to substantiate the multiple approaches of such contemporary spaces.
Queer space is essential to the development of cities, although much of the evidence supporting this claim has only been researched in the past century. As queers achieved greater liberty to create a public identity in the United States after the Stonewall Riots1, the queer community wielded a greater capacity to establish its own place in society. There was no interest in creating new spaces or moving en masse to the suburbs, but rather a revitalization of the city occurred; historically, the city has been the primary place that the queer community had visibly thrived.
Queer space was initially defined as the intimate space resulting from the secret rendezvous between partners, better known as cruising. This space is ephemeral, disappearing as spontaneously as it is created. It relies on a pre-existing structure of an existing gathering space, but the significance of this space is transformed entirely by a sexual act. These lascivious performances take place in the junkspace of cities: abandoned buildings, winding alleyways, empty parks—places where observation or interruption are minimized. Over time, queers have established institutions, such as bars, clubs, discos, etc., that formalize space for this erotic behavior. In doing so, the ephemeral spaces in which cruising took place instead became concretized as something more permanent and more easily recognizable to others.
In the 1970s, street fronts acted as camouflage for bars and clubs, which contained a labyrinth of entry sequences reflecting the stigma of the clandestine erotic activities of queers. Behind these walls, new technologies created a disorienting synthesis of manufactured light and sound that dissolved the world even further than any orgasm would allow. A discontinuity between male bodies amidst rhythmic flashes of light created an unparalleled realm of sensuality. The disco became the venue of choice for queers. However, as queers gained confidence in their public identities, queer communities accompanied by queer public spaces were introduced into the city fabric. The first and best example of this is The Castro in San Francisco. It was a neighborhood just like any other, save for the fact that almost its entire population was queer. In addition to the obligatory buildings of any city (drugstore, grocery store, liquor store, dry cleaners, etc.), there was a gay bookstore, a gay health club, a gay real-estate brokerage, and a gay lawyer’s office, along with many other gay businesses. All of the bars were also gay—one in particular, the notorious Twin Peaks, would go on to become the first in the country to feature windows that looked onto the street. The queer community had come a long way in building safe places for themselves; it was a new era of public life for the queer community.
But something terrible happened in the 1980s. AIDS, a horrendous disease that could be transmitted sexually, dealt a catastrophic blow to the queer community. The consequences were even more abysmal for this extremely sexual community. AIDS ran rampant, infecting thousands. It all but destroyed queer space. The splendor of The Castro and other queer communities vanished almost immediately, transformed by AIDS into ghosts of their former glory overnight.
Only very recently have queer communities started to recover and regain confidence, aided by social victories such as the expansion of marriage equality. In Charlotte there exists a handful of queer venues. One of these venues maintains the nature of private queer businesses in the 1970s—at the periphery of the city, hidden from plain view—while the others represent those of public queer businesses prior to the AIDS epidemic—integrated into the rest of the city in heavily trafficked public areas. The discrepancy that occurs in Charlotte is a stubborn refusal to publicize the pre-AIDS venue as well as a lack of intimacy and sexuality in public post-AIDS queer venues. The public face of the queer community is undoubtedly an incredible step forward, but the passionate and sensual environment of pre-AIDS clubs has got to be retained if the queer community is to stay true to its authentic identity. An analysis of two queer clubs in Charlotte today will highlight the differences between a principally private approach to queer space and a principally public approach to queer space. After reflecting on either approach, a conclusion may be drawn if one or a combination of the two approaches is an appropriate response to constructing queer space in society today.
The Scorpio (a private approach to queer space)
A re-purposed building in a run down part of western Charlotte houses a queer nightclub that has been open since 1968—before the AIDS epidemic. It sits about two hundred feet back from the road, down a large slope and hidden behind a hill. Extremely isolated from its neighbors, it does exactly what it was designed to—avoid attention and detection from unwanted audiences. Over forty years since its opening, it still largely maintains the general character of queer clubs of the 1970s: dark and intimate, with hundreds of colored lights flashing everywhere to the pulse of the DJ’s music while bodies meld together to the rhythm of the beat. The dance floor, a product of the disco era, is relatively small in proportion to the rest of the club, with its small size intending to maximize the contact between dancers.
Figure 1: The dance floor at the Scorpio is relatively small in size in comparison to the rest of the space. The sporadic movements of the colored lights light the space.
Figure 2: The bar directly adjacent to the dance floor, dimly lit from lights overhead.
The bar stands immediately adjacent to the dance floor, inviting participants to dull their senses with alcohol and remove any inhibitions that might discourage engagement in sensuous activities. Down a narrow hallway behind the bar are the restrooms, tucked away in a private space far from the light and noise of the dance floor where acts of intimacy can occur. All of the spaces in The Scorpio foster anonymity of the queer identity as the body engages in physical or sexual acts with other bodies. The low-lit atmosphere, with a disorienting array of lights and spaces that allow for even greater privacy, let queers express themselves in a way that is social taboo outside of the Scorpio’s walls.
Cathode Azure (a public approach to queer space)
Opened only a few years ago, Cathode Azure sits in a prominent location in South Charlotte, right at the street’s edge and in walking distance of the light rail as well as several other popular venues.
The lighting of the interior of Cathode is quite different in comparison to that of the Scorpio. Everything is awash in a uniform azure-blue light rather than the sporadic and disorienting flashes in The Scorpio. Many of the rooms offer white leather furnishings, which only serve to capture and amplify the light.
Figure 3: Cathode Azure is lit by a uniform glowing blue light. The U-shaped bar serves a dance floor that sprawls through the entire space of the club
The dance floor is conceptually different from that at the Scorpio as well. The large dance floor is intended to unite all of the other smaller spaces in the club. Rather than a clearly defined space, the dance floor bleeds into every space that isn’t hidden behind a wall. The U-shaped bar reinforces the notion of the endless dance floor by serving the enveloping dance floor on all sides rather than just a singular side in dialogue with a spatially static dance floor (such as at the Scorpio). Cathode additionally has an outside patio that doesn’t attempt to hide from the public eye. The club’s attempt to become a part of the public sphere is a laudable one, but it seems that a lot of the spatial clarity and values of older queer space have been lost.
Has a post-AIDS queer culture been tamed by societal norms and expectations of conservative behavior in a club setting? Has the origin of queer space been forgotten with the loss or absence of intimacy and sexuality? The modern club has stepped out of the shadows into the public realm, but what it reveals is not what it once was, but rather a space with a highly maintained image of what society would want a modern queer club to be.
Queer space is unique and significant to queer culture. Its assimilation into the status quo and normative culture is slightly unnerving; queer culture loses its authenticity and identity it is has been built on when these spaces give in to societal demands. A private pre-AIDS queer space may be defined by the culture of suppression of the queer community, while a public post-AIDS queer space is defined by the culture of freedom of the queer community. The freedom has seemingly altered the form and use of that space, but addressing the implications of that change is a tough challenge for the queer community. Will we allow for queer space to become like the rest of the hetero-normative world? Or will we stay true to the heart of queer culture: sex and intimacy?
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Betsky, Aaron. Queer Space. (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997),140-183.
Reed, Christopher. 1996. “Imminent Domain: Queer Space in the Built Environment”. Art Journal 55 (4). College Art Association: 64–70.