Butch on the Streets: The Butch Flâneur and the Queering of the City

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Since being given form in Baudelaire’s Paris in the 1860s, the flâneur has claimed a central position in Western urban culture. Cast as an inherently male figure, the flâneur occupies the city spaces he traverses, bestowed with the privilege to observe and consume the urban milieu at leisure. In recent decades a small smattering of feminist scholars have sought to construct and examine the possibility of a female flâneur, or flâneuse. Sally Munt’s influential essay, ‘The Lesbian Flâneur’ (1995) proposed a specifically queer form of female flâneuring. Munt’s work, though often cited, has been little advanced by other scholars.

In this essay I want to turn the historical lens onto the lesbian flâneur, and, in particular, onto the butch lesbian and her experiences of navigating the city space. Although the butch lesbian is a common figure in queer urban history, her relationship to the streetscape has often been depicted along narrow lines. In heteronormative and homophobic urban environments, the butch lesbian has always been a visible symbol of non-conformity, and thus deemed permanently at risk as she traverses the city. Whereas the flâneur walks at leisure, and without purpose, queer history has depicted the urban butch as always running a gauntlet, between home, work, and the semi-private space of the lesbian bar.

However, in this essay I seek to complicate this picture, via the queer potential of the butch flâneur, examining ways in which the butch occupies and traverses the city space, using their butchness as a passport to look, taste, and consume the delights of the streets. Oral history provides a way to understand and interrogate queer lived experience, thereby allowing for a more nuanced and detailed picture of urban butch experience to emerge. Here I employ the oral history of Nat, a self-identified butch, as a case study through which to consider the particularly queer type of flâneuring of which butches partake. Through an analysis of Nat’s use of queer codes to signal their butchness to other queer city dwellers, as well as a consideration of the inherent eroticism of the butch flaneur, I suggest that the butch flaneur derives self-actualisation and agency from inhabiting butch identity amongst the urban milieu.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationContentious Cities
Subtitle of host publicationDesign and the Gendered Production of Space
EditorsGene Bawden, Jess Berry, Nicole Kalms, Timothy Moore
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020

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