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Simeon Shtebunaev: All spaces should be queer spaces

Simeon Shtebunaev is the RTPI Young Planner of the Year

I collected my Young Planner of the Year 2022 award in a skirt and leggings. As a usually male-presenting person, wearing women’s clothing always surprises people and frankly makes a few of them uncomfortable. Bar the issue of pockets, however, wearing dresses and skirts has been a revelation - you can be comfortable and look nice! My choice of attire at the awards, however, wasn’t just about comfort but a response to a comment at the RTPI Planning Conference a month earlier, where even though I was dressed in a typical male business suit, my clothes were still the topic of conversation by a group of men. 

A microaggression is a subtle, often unintentional, form of prejudice. From a seemingly harmless sarcastic jab about someone’s attire, to judgemental looks and defensive body language, queer people experience microaggressions on a daily basis. It is tiring y’all! Somehow, because we do not all conform to heteronormative ideas of behaviour, just our existence tends to provoke reaction - regardless of if we are trying to fit in as hard as we can.

As an immigrant, it is obvious to me when my accent or a mention of country-of-origin triggers people, especially post-Brexit. But those feelings are usually aimed at the broader debate, the individual opposite me doing their hardest to excuse me being in the UK, it is rarely personal. But as LGBTQ+ the feeling differs. It is personal. Our existence reminds people that they have embraced self-imposed limits to their identity in order to fit in a system geared towards reproduction. We remind others that the social contract we each enter into with wider society is a tailored custom-built deal, not a standardised market offer.

By embracing our own identity we remind some of suppressing theirs. Such feelings often erupt on a short-term basis in jabs towards the way queer people are dressed, the way they hold themselves, their make-up or chosen accessories of self-expression. However, they are quite often solidified in long-term decisions we make about planning, a misunderstanding could result in the removal of LGBTQ+ spaces for communities in a S106 negotiation or as we see in the USA - the systematic dismantling of rights and freedoms.

As planners we need to create inclusive spaces - both in the physical manifestation of our plans, but also in the process of planning.

Professional behaviour and dress codes are supposedly designed to erase those differences, yet often prop up a system of prejudice and unspoken biases. As planners we need to create inclusive spaces - both in the physical manifestation of our plans, but also in the process of planning. An inclusive space is one where someone’s behaviour isn’t  moderated, where they can share their own experiences with confidence and thus enhance the design and planning process. The RTPI has embraced a fantastic framework on equality, inclusivity and diversity - CHANGE, however, the challenge for all of us now is to consider its implementation. In my personal experience planning culture still has a way to go before a queer person is comfortable to be themselves. Planning committees, many planning consultations and inquiries are not queer spaces. 

As part of the Commonwealth Youth for Sustainable Urbanisation, I recently met representatives of the Commonwealth Youth Gender Equality Network (CYGEN) arguing for the reformation of many outdated gender notions - most recently at the reception for Commonwealth Day at Buckingham Palace and The Commonwealth Sports Minister meeting in Birmingham 2022. As planners we have a responsibility to find, partner and work with such organisations to create the physical, digital and discursive spaces which allow for queer inclusivity. 

Inclusive spaces should be designed to erase such microaggressions. When we speak about queer spaces we often imagine the typical gay neighbourhood - a bar full of hen parties or a nightclub with a drag show - but it is more than that. All spaces should allow queer people to exist without fear of repercussion.

In their book Queer Spaces, Adam Furman and Joshua Mardell map an eclectic mix of queer spaces linked by the simple axiom that they all allow for their inhabitants to be themselves. Split in three parts - Domestic, Communal and Public - the spaces vary from remote cabins and Italian villas, through locker rooms and community centres, to the end carriage of metro trains and the thick foliage of a local park. The book is one of the first attempts to map those spaces and understand the multitude of uses - taking no moral stance but beautifully presenting their diversity. 

Inclusive spaces should be designed to erase such microaggressions.

Recently in Sofia, a new queer friendly space has emerged called “The Steps”. It is a mix between a gallery, co-working space, cafe, bar, nightclub and a multi-functional area, all nested on the ground floor of a block of flats. It is precisely this flexibility that allows the space to attract a wide range of people but with a clear ethical stance to allow queer people to be themselves. Dimitar Zhelev’s master’s dissertation for the MArch course at Sheffield University, entitled “TO BE (OUT) THERE Exploring how LGBTQIA+ folk accommodate themselves within a heteronormative city landscape”, highlights the current state of appropriation and ad-hoc community subversion of public spaces by queer people and it is a rallying call for town planners to consider delivering this much needed community infrastructure. 

I wish I could say that the homophobic behaviours which still persist in my home country are eradicated in the UK, however, I have been shouted at too many times on the streets of Birmingham while walking with a partner to believe otherwise. In order to start considering queer space in our infrastructure provision, we need to first accept that the spaces which most of us occupy in our day-to-day life - work, home, play are often the opposite. This is a wider point about the lack of truly inclusive design and planning embedded in our decision-making processes. 

Celebrating Pride as town planners should be about empathy - putting yourselves in the shoes of others and understanding their experiences, thus being able to inform your own practice. We should be thinking about the ethics of spaces as much as their physical design. All year around, not just in June! 

Simeon will be on the panel at the Pride in Planning event with Arup next month to explore the relationship between LGBTQ+ communities and the built environment.

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