Sexual Identity and Urban Community

David Serlin, Instructor

Metropolitan Studies Program, New York University, Spring 1998

Complete Course Description and Syllabus

This course will introduce students who are considering Metropolitan Studies as a major to some important questions and ideas found at the intersection of urban studies, cultural geography, and gender studies. By studying specific gendered and sexual identities, as well as the communities that people form to protect and defend those identities, we will be able to make greater sense of the complex relationships between the personal and the political in urban culture. We will ask questions such as: are gender and sexuality defining features of the urban experience? Or are they only components of a much larger and more complex set of urban identities? In what ways do the class divisions and political tensions already implicit the urban landscape exacerbate the roots of racism, sexism, and homophobia?

Students will read and respond to many different historical, sociological, and theoretical writings about a wide variety of issues related to gender, geography, and community. Some of the topics we will explore will include:

the creation and maintenance of multiple urban identities
how different communities define private, public, and semi-public spaces for men and women
the economic and political role of sexual commerce and sexual culture
patterns of recreation and consumption for gay and straight communities
health care and health education, with a special emphasis on communities forged around HIV prevention and AIDS education
and the social, political, and cultural distinctions (and parallels) between mainstream, alternative, and “queer” communities.
Course Requirements

Mandatory attendance and participation

Weekly readings (and possible reaction papers)

Occasional audio/video supplements to readings

Occasional field trips (e.g. Lesbian Herstory Archives)

Three short essays (3-5 pp)

One short midterm examination

Final projects: students will conduct individual or group projects related to ethnographies of gender, sexual identity, and urban community in the New York City area. These projects will combine primary research (oral histories, interviews, photographic studies, audio/video presentations, etc) with secondary sources (historical and theoretical source material discussed in class).

Required Reading List

Dangerous Bedfellows, eds. Policing Public Sex: Queer Politics and the Future of AIDS Activism

William Hawkeswood, One of the Children: Black Gay Men in Harlem

Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter, eds., Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance

Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community

Kevin Mumford, Interzones: Black and White Sex Districts in New York and Chicago

Daphne Spain, Gendered Spaces

Recommended Reading List (not required but useful for reference):

Allan Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two

George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940

John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America

Lilian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Volume I

Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America


Week One (January 20) : Introduction to Course

Week Two (January 26 and 28) : Identity, Culture, and Urban Space

What factors particular to the urban environment affect how we understand the gendered and sexualized aspects of cities—from the “male” terrains of the subway and X-rated commercial zones to the “female” spaces of private homes and shopping districts? These gendered and sexualized spaces have historical underpinnings—but do they still exist today?

Readings: Mark Gottdiener, Chapter 9 of The New Urban Sociology, in coursepack

Elizabeth Wilson, “Cities of the American Dream,” in coursepack

John Kasson, “Semiotics of Everyday Life,” in coursepack

Daphne Spain, Gendered Spaces, pp. 1–29

Week Three (February 2 and 4): The Gender Politics of Domestic Space


Christine Stansell, “The Origins of the Sweatshop,” in coursepack

Daphne Spain, Gendered Spaces, pp. 109–40

“Playboy’s Penthouse Apartment” (1956), in coursepack

Week Four (February 9 and 11): Public Spaces and Civic Identities


Mary Ryan, “Gender and the Geography of the Public,” in coursepack

Kathy Peiss, “The Coney Island Excursion,” in coursepack

George Chauncey, “Privacy Could Only Be Had in Public,” in coursepack

*First short paper due

Week Five (February 18): Building Lesbian and Gay Culture in the City

Are urban spaces “gay” or “straight”? Can we read spaces as “gay” and “straight”? Are “sexualized” spaces the city, such as Times Square, impermeable to people from the outside? Are there codes for knowing, understanding, or participating in these spaces: behaviors, clothing, language?


Timothy Gilfoyle, “From Soubrette Row to Show World,” in Dangerous Bedfellows, eds., Policing Public Sex

John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” in coursepack

James Polchin, “Having Something to Wear,” in Queers in Space

Presentation by James Polchin, Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies, NYU

Week Six (February 23 and 25): Commercial Spaces and Sexual Practices


selections from Kevin Mumford, Interzones: Black and White Sex Districts in New York and Chicago

Week Seven (March 2 and 4): Community Studies


selections from William Hawkeswood, One of the Children: Black Gay Men in Harlem

Week Eight (March 9 and 11): Urban, Suburban, and Rural Lives


selections from Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold

*Second short paper due

Week Nine (March 16 through 20): Spring Break!

Week Ten (March 23 and 25): Urban, Suburban, and Rural Lives, Part II

March 23: Midterm exam

March 25: selections from Kennedy and Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold

Week Eleven (March 30 and April 1): Oral Histories

This week, we will learn research strategies for conducting oral histories and discuss a range of methodologies for your final projects. We will also hear a a presentation by Carl Strange from the Hetrick-Martin Institute and take a field trip to Brooklyn to visit the Lesbian Herstory Archives

Week Twelve (April 6 and 8): The Global Queer Community


selections (TBA) from Queers in Space

Presentation by Eugene Patron, journalist, on queer community in South Beach, Miami

Week Thirteen (April 13 and 15): Transgender Communities


Annie Woodhouse, selections from Fantastic Women, in coursepack

Kate Bornstein, selections from Transgender Warrior, in coursepack screening of film, Paris is Burning

*Third short paper due

Week Fourteen (April 20 and 22): Ellen and Beyond: Queer Identity in the Commercial Marketplace


selections (TBA) from Policing Public Sex and from Queers in Space

Video presentation by Steve Capsuto, author of Alternate Channels: The Battle Over Gay, Bisexual, and Transsexual Images in Television and Radio, 1930s-1990s

Week Fifteen (April 27 and 29): Final end of semester presentations

Week Sixteen (May 4 and 6): Final end of semester presentations

If you have appropriate syllabi, please contact CLGH chair Karen Krahulik at