Dr. Michael Frisch explores sexuality in the suburbs

Dr. Frisch from the University of Missouri, Kansas City, questioned the relationship between sexuality and urban planning in a lecture on Oct. 24. (Photo courtesy of skakerman via flickr creative commons.)

Dr. Frisch from the University of Missouri, Kansas City, questioned the relationship between sexuality and urban planning in a lecture on Oct. 24. (Photo courtesy of skakerman via flickr creative commons.)

Are the suburbs straight?  Dr. Michael Frisch, an openly homosexual professor from University of Missouri, Kansas City, posed this somewhat confusing question to an auditorium filled with students who specialize in urban planning, historic preservation and various other humanities and social sciences. Frisch, recognized by the American Institute of Certified Planners as a professional urban planner, spent the past ten to fifteen years researching this question and posits that, yes, the suburbs are indeed straight.

Frisch began by defining a phenomenon he calls “heteronormality,” which emphasizes procreation, the nature of human beings and pleasure, which is normally derived from marriage or other heterosexual relationships. Suburban lifestyle reinforces these elements by discouraging “abnormal” behavior (such as homosexuality) and encouraging the typical, nuclear family, especially within the community. For example, contractors construct “single-family homes,” building off the social construct of the loving relationship between a man and wife, along with their children, excluding, perhaps inadvertently, the LGBT community from the “family” label.

In addition, the general lack of LGBT gathering places, such as community centers, bars and recreational facilities leaves the LGBT population with no escape from heteronormality. Furthermore, Frisch pointed out that many states regulate housing in a manner that privileges heterosexual couples. Suburbs, according to Professor Frisch, often do not allow two unrelated people to rent a house together, a stipulation which generates problems for gay couples all over the United States. Because many states do not recognize gay marriage, or partnership for that matter, gay couples do not qualify for rental homes in certain regions because they are “unrelated.” The heteronormal definitions of family and household as heterosexual institutions create an inevitable homogeny in the suburbs – a homogeny which  Frisch argued oppresses the LGBT community and other minorities.

So where did this “heteronormal” method of urban planning originate? Frisch considers some of the pioneers of urban planning responsible for this homophobic presence in organizing cities. Due to its relative youth, one can trace the roots of modern urban planning back to the early 20th century. Sir Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, all highly esteemed figures from the 20th century in the world of urban planning, partly founded their techniques of arranging urban areas with homophobic beliefs. Vitriolic quotes contra homosexuality surface readily when scanning their writings, which leads Frisch to believe their homophobic ideology inspired these urban planners to organize cities in a manner meant to prevent or to stifle homosexuality. Frisch quoted the “founding father” of urban planning, Sir Patrick Geddes, who said that “many of our social conditions are dismally abnormal, and are directly provocative of abnormalities in sexual expression” such as the “loathsome and sinister perversions of the…repulsive fleshly attractions between those of the same sex.”

Frisch admits there is much research remaining with regard to his thesis, questions left unanswered. What is the impact of heteronormal urban planning on LGBT families? Can better suburban organization promote diversity? And is the U.S. pattern of heteronormality indicative of a global phenomenon? Inquiries such as these already indicate a mentality of change within the urban planning profession, and there clearly exists a desire for progress. So what do you think? Are the suburbs straight after all?

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