Cities in Literature: Reading the Queer City

As a new book is published on the topic, we take a look at the idea of the city in the queer canon: often presented as a place of freedom and emancipation, but at other times an enforcer of social constructs

Feature by Holly Rimmer-Tagoe | 24 May 2017
  • Carol

When Russell T Davies’ Queer As Folk appeared on TV screens in 1999, armchair audiences were introduced to gay urban life in a Northern setting for the first time. The pioneering Channel 4 drama showed the difficulties and triumphs of its working-class gay characters, and showed the neon lights and camaraderie of Manchester’s Canal Street as a beacon of escapism from prejudice and social scorn.

Queer As Folk reflected a particular experience of city life as a chance to explore burgeoning sexuality and celebrate the liberal social order of the cityscape. The city has always been a shifting and transformative setting in the queer literary canon. The literary city seems to offer sanctuary to those marginalised by their identity, while also being a space of alienation that exacerbates the awkward path to sexual maturity.

The Victorian city: excess and repression

If we look back to the time of steam engines and straining corsets, the Victorian city is a place of illicit sexual vice. The combination of a growing urban population and the public repression of sexual desires in Victorian England can be traced in the literary representation of same-sex relationships in the urban sprawl. In both Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the city becomes a site of sexual subversion and acts as an enabler of the illegal act of homosexual sex.

As Wilde’s protagonist Dorian descends into a life of excess, the opium dens and parties of London society provide shelter for his sexual experimentation and hedonism. Anonymity among the dark alleyways and hideaways similarly allows Henry Jekyll’s monstrous other Edward Hyde to roam unrestrained and terrorise the city’s inhabitants. 

Jekyll and Hyde has long been interpreted by critics as a tale of the division of the homosexual self in Victorian England. In public you would have to present a façade of acceptable heterosexuality, while at night the city would conceal and enable your homosexual desires. Hyde’s ‘evil’ is a tacit acknowledgement by Stevenson of Hyde’s outlawed and repressed sexuality. In order to appease the moral strictures of the Victorian readership, Hyde’s subversive behaviour later becomes entangled with other crimes of violence and murder and leads to the eventual repression of his personality by Jekyll.

In both novels, the city space becomes an enabler of a ‘grotesque’ sexuality which surpasses the legal and social limits of acceptable behaviour.

Queer New York: a place of duality

New York is perhaps the most prominent setting of queer literature and has been the background to many characters’ sexual awakening. Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s 2006 memoir I Am Not Myself These Days follows his life performing as drag queen Aqua Marine among the smoky bars of the Big Apple and charts his relationship with a mysterious, rich hustler. While the nightlife of New York gives Purcell an opportunity to perform in drag and abandon society’s judgements, Purcell's New York is also a hostile economic environment. The high cost of living means that Purcell is forced to quell his alcohol addiction by waiting for random men in bars to buy him drinks, and he becomes trapped in an abusive relationship because his rich partner is his only source of economic security.

This trope of the economic insecurity of city life being combined with burgeoning sexual identity is also seen in Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt [the inspiration for Todd Haynes' 2015 film Carol]. Therese is beginning her foray into the job market and is desperate to begin a career in theatre set design. When Therese meets the elusive Carol, Carol immediately captures her attention. Their ‘meet cute’ in the toy section of a NY department store reinforces their financial differences: Therese plays the part of a subservient shop girl and Carol is the rich purveyor with an endless credit card.

Carol and Therese’s affair is only realised when they leave New York and take a road trip to the West of America. In Highsmith’s novel, the protagonists have to escape the oppressive gender and economic hierarchies of the city in order to achieve emotional and physical intimacy. The Price of Salt positions the idealised American image of the road as an escape from the city which allows for the transformation of Therese as she falls in love for the first time. New York is characterised by a sense of duality – it’s both a hub of inversion where different relationships and identities can co-exist in relative harmony, but it is also a self-defined city of winners where you have to find your place quickly or be eaten up.

The city has always taken on a mythological place in literature. It’s a setting that has brought us everything from Charles Dickens’ orphans to F Scott Fitzgerald’s raucous parties. Cities in the queer canon are often either a place of freedom and emancipation or somewhere that exacerbates the social rigmarole, seeking to curtail acceptable sexuality. While the cityscape can be hostile, lonely and expensive, for many, the city is the only place that they can be their true, uninhibited self. 

Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd is published 24 May by Chatto & Windus