We usually think of ourselves as “naturally” gendered beings that inhabit or dwell in cities. In the following, I would like to challenge this and think about the city as a heterosexual matrix that organizes space and reproduces frames of gender recognition. Gender recognition here is understood as a process of subjectivation that “crafts” corporeality through the framework of gender; this doesn’t mean that the body is willfully gendered, rather, the way we “access” our own bodies is mediated by a gendered matrix composed of a variegated structure of buildings and discourses.
Back in the 70s Monique Wittig argued that heterosexuality was not a natural disposition but a political regime that separates humans in two groups: men and women; and organizes them hierarchically so that the latter is in an inferior position to the former. In short, it structures the world in a binary edifice.
Gender, as a construct, “stages” power relations according to a binary matrix that not only sublimates certain parts of the body as “sexed”, but organizes a whole system of cultural signs and devices around that sublimation. Argentinian thinker Rita Segato suggests that gender is an archaic “scene” that repeats itself throughout social spaces, in different guises; one of those “scenes” being where the negotiations for legitimacy between the formal and informal city take place. Consider that job informality has become strongly feminized throughout the “third world”. So it appears that the gender-sex binary establishes coordinates of functionality, forms of occupation, and structures that link asymmetrically all sorts of networks of spaces.
In overcrowded shanty houses where the spatial divisions between parents and children, and the latter’s separation according to sexes are non-existent, such is usually perceived as an “issue”. There is also the lack of a clear demarcation between public and private spaces which is taken as a property related problem. Of course these are all architectural issues that need to be handled but the models of improvement are based, for the most part, on Western ideals of dwelling and the sexual politics that go along with it.
I don’t mean to suggest that gender can simply be transposed to any and all social scenes, nor that space is categorized exclusively around it, rather, the gender-sex binary works tacitly as a framework of signification that renders certain spatial configurations possible while others, if not impossible at least politically unfeasible. Accessibility is a case in point. A building is deemed “accessible” if it has the elements for it’s physical means of ingress and egress, and while that is crucial, what other articulations can be thought of under the rubric of “accessibility”? Can we think of, say, spaces that are only accessible through the public but do not communicate to the private? I’m here thinking of certain south American colonial haciendas’ configuration, which had a room for travelers from which one could not enter the familial space.
The city is a matrix that circumscribes occupation according to structures of heterosexual kinship, even when it comes to matters of “safety”. Take the whole Trans public bathroom usage controversy in some cities of the USA, which is part of a wider segregationist strategy to create “pink” spaces for consumption rather than occupation. I don’t mean to romanticize queer livelihoods in the favelas but want merely to suggest that urbanization’s promises of democratic cohabitation comes with the price of furthering the identity ghetto and simultaneously securing the sanctity of the heterosexual family household.
Finally, this post is an invitation to think about the sexual politics that tacitly inform design and upgrading, which use ready-made spatial occupation configurations and property arrangements framed through a heterosexual matrix whose purpose is to further a “universal” ideal of what it means to dwell.