VIEWPOINT: Queering urban justice – From transitional objects to intergenerational care

VIEWPOINT: Queering urban justice – From transitional objects to intergenerational care

Image Credit: A still from the short film Marvellous Grounds (directed by Min Sook Lee, featuring ILL NANA/DiverCity Dance Company).

Jin Haritaworn

The climate crisis has renewed a public interest in youth leadership. However, as Indigenous, racialized and global south commentators have highlighted, Greta Thunberg’s popularity as a global icon for intergenerational environmental justice is inseparable from her whiteness — this realisation is urgent given the very immediate impacts of climate change on the life chances of colonized and racialized youth. In urban justice discussions, too, we must ask: how do we make sense of the uneven ways in which youth of different positionalities are prepared for life and death in the city? What would need to happen for social movements to grapple with their complicity in urban development, and take leadership from those most affected by gentrification, policing, and other violent effects of the neoliberal city?

My individual and collaborative work on queering urban justice began with an exploration of how the metropolitan centres in Europe and its settler colonies, long ardent exporters of the cis-heteropatriarchal family norm, have reinvented themselves as champions in the global fight against homophobia and transphobia. This ‘invention’ of a new western tradition of LGBT-friendliness willfully forgets the brutal suppression of sexually and, especially, gender non-conforming Black and brown bodies in the name of civilization. The hauntings of this violent gender binary that is deeply embedded in European-derived cultures are seen in the state-sanctioned beatings, rapes, murders and incarcerations of Black trans women and other trans-feminine people of colour that, if anything, are escalating in this moment of historical repression.

In Toronto, the city I live in, the existence of a ‘gay village’ at the intersection of Church Street and Wellesley Street is often used as a proof and symbol for Canadian benevolence, progress, rights, and multiculturalism. Indeed, the ample funding for public health and non-profit programs for LGBT youth might tempt us to believe this story. Nevertheless, not all queer youth are able to access care and protection in the same way. Toronto-based activists such as Rio Rodriguez and Aemilius Ramirez, both contributors to the anthology Marvellous Grounds: Queer of Colour Histories of Toronto that I had the privilege to co-edit with fellow activist scholars Ghaida Moussa and Syrus Marcus Ware, have documented how queer youth who are not monied or white are violently excluded from LGBT spaces that are essentially designed for consumer citizens. The ‘gay village’ is a prime example. For years, queer youth who were under-aged or could not afford to frequent businesses in the village would gather and socialize in outdoor spaces such as the steps in front of the Second Cup café on Church Street. There, they claimed public space and invented ways of communing and being in the world that subverted an urban landscape that in Toronto, as elsewhere in the capitalist world, is increasingly commercialized, ‘condofied’ and privatized. Not surprisingly, ‘The Steps,’ as they became known, were considered an eyesore by the café managers and the Business Improvement Association in the village, who joined forces with urban planners in order to remove the hang-out spot along with the youth who inhabited it, ostensibly in order to build a wheelchair ramp. Nevertheless, as my co-authors and I argue in Marvellous Grounds and its sister anthology Queering Urban Justice, the legacy of The Steps and other space-making projects innovated by queer Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour (QTBIPOC) has left a lasting imprint on urban justice movements in the city.

Which youth really count in the city? Which youth are seen as deserving of care? As my research on Berlin shows, where I continue to spend time as a community member, youth of colour, in particular those constructed as Muslim or Black, are interpellated as violent, criminal and homophobic, rather than as leaders, queer or otherwise, deserving of care. Transnationally, low-income youth of colour are folk devils in the sense coined by Stuart Hall and his colleagues. In Policing the Crisis, Hall et al. described how in 1970s Britain, young Black people assigned male at birth – in many places the quintessential ‘youth’ – became constructed as ‘muggers.’ This involved a moral panic that was intentionally fueled by media, police, academics, policy makers and other experts and opinion makers in order to sell news, gain votes, power and funding, ultimately paving the way for the long conservative reign of Thatcher. The racialized homophobe is related to the mugger and other globalized, racialized figures of crime and violence. Each is a subject of moral panicking. Each has a spatial setting in the lawless inner city, long considered the natural habitat for racialized people, now gentrified and fortified. Each is considered the subject of failed families, leading to a lack of empathy, impulse control, and communication skills. Each, finally, is targeted with an arsenal of ‘resources’ that are carceral or bio-medical in nature rather than educational and empowering. While speaking the language of care, these moral panics invent youth of colour as the very opposite of care: as a result of their nature or their culture, they appear incapable of care and are hence undeserving of it.

In my book Queer Lovers and Hateful Others, I argue that the queer subject has become a lovely sight in the shadow of a hateful, homophobic Other who properly belongs in the urban archive of violence and crime. The two are twin figures that produce consent for punishment, by turning the latter into a sign of diversity, love, care and protection for minorities. In a tongue-in-cheek spin on English childhood psychologist Donald Winnicott, I describe the queer lover as a ‘transitional object.’ Winnicott argued that teddy bears and other transitional objects help young children move from a waking to a sleeping state, and from more to less parental involvement, until they are no longer needed and discarded. Similarly, the queer lover helps us accept state withdrawal as a benevolent stance of ‘care’, thus coating neoliberalism in an affect of welfare. Beyond easing a fuller transition between the welfare and the neoliberal state, this figure moves us beyond a neoliberalism that long paid lip service to diversity and multiculturalism. As the current wars over trans people’s pronouns, trigger warnings and attacks on abortion rights, sex education and gender transition indicate, we have arrived in an outrightly hostile regime that is confident to be seen in its birthday dress. From Trump to Ford to Brexit to the AfD, white supremacy no longer needs its teddy bears (1).

Any formulation of the ‘caring city’ must account for the ways in which the language of care has already been harnessed in deeply uncaring ways. As illustrated by Berlin, where the moral panics over racialized homophobia, crime and violence took their full course under a left-wing government, the city that claims to care is deeply implicated. Ultimately, we need to ask: Why do we care, and who are our caring efforts directed towards? If care is about mending wounds, what are the harms that we’re healing from?

Queer and trans Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour (QTBIPOC) have been at the forefront of formulating some of the most interesting and relevant accounts of healing justice. This movement is itself indebted to disability justice, a framework of transformation that is in turn grounded in the radically intersectional experiences of QTBIPOC women and trans people. The roundtable conducted by nisha ahuja with Lamia Gibson, Pauline Sok Yin Hwang and Danielle Smith for Marvellous Grounds illustrates this. The authors distinguish their account of healing justice from neoliberal bio-medical notions of wellness, care and self-care by acknowledging that ‘the harms to be healed’ have been created through systems of violence that include colonization and capitalism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. ‘[O]ur wellness as individual beings is absolutely connected to collective liberation’ (p. 151).

In such a framework of healing justice, the work of care is necessarily embedded in the work of abolishing racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and their institutions, and vice versa. QTBIPOC youth have been at the forefront of many urban justice projects geared towards these goals, yet the category ‘youth’ is itself deeply relational. Thus, older QTBIPOC, too, face intense age oppression. Indeed, in a context of premature death, we become elders and ancestors at an alarmingly young age. As we put it in our introduction to Marvellous Grounds: ‘Younger folks in the city crave elders, who are missing and dismissed from a white archive that passes itself off as “the queer history” while robbing us of elders and ancestors who could give us perspective on what needs to be done, in these times of unabashed racism, eroding entitlements, and wars without end’ (p. 9). The question of what a caring city might look like thus expands the quest for who or what the face of change should look like. Instead, we end up on a ‘web of relationships’ – a web that, as the authors of the healing justice roundtable remind us, connects us ‘with everyone else and all living things’ (p. 150).

(1) Fuller accounts of this attempted historiography are in my forthcoming pieces in Topia 40 and in S. Thobani (ed.), Race, Diversity and Settler Colonialism in the Canadian Academy, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
You can find out more about the Marvellous Grounds project via their blog, Facebook page, and follow them on twitter @marvellousgTO.


Jin Haritaworn is Associate Professor of Gender, Race and Environment at York University. Their publications span two monographs (including Queer Lovers and Hateful Others: Regenerating Violent Times and Places), numerous articles (in journals such as GLQ, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Society&Space, sub\urban and TOPIA), and several co/edited collections (including Queer Necropolitics, Marvellous Grounds and Queering Urban Justice).

Image Credit: A still from the short film Marvellous Grounds (directed by Min Sook Lee, featuring ILL NANA/DiverCity Dance Company).


The articles in this special issue of Discover Society were written and are based on research conducted before the COVID-19 outbreak, and thus do not engage with the new lived realities of urban youth in a global pandemic. Yet we hope and believe that the discussions presented here will continue to be relevant in rethinking urban futures in the years to come.