Research at Boston University

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By James O'Brien
Considering Community

What do a gastronomist, an engineer, a financial researcher, and an ethno­grapher have in common?

Answer: all of them are applying their individual skills to parsing the systems that shape communities across the globe. From Italian open-air markets and better strategies for parking and energy use in American cities, to the social effects of gentri­fication, these four Boston University researchers are engaged in studying the ways in which people interact with one another in an era defined by globalization and new technology.

While working on a book about gentrification in communities in Illinois, Maine, and Massachusetts, ethnographer Japonica Brown-Saracino caught sight of a separate tale, one concerning the ways that queer women impacted and were impacted by the places they chose to live.

Now, the assistant professor of sociology is hot on the trail of the rest of the story—focusing on lesbian, bisexual, and queer-identified individuals.
U.S. Census data suggests that lesbian couples are more likely than gay men to move outside of a central city, and to communities rich with nature such as the seashore or the woods. She is examining what has happened to them in the process.

“Why is this the case?” she asks. “The puzzle is why now, why still today when gays and lesbians are increasingly accepted, would queer women be oriented to these places that among lesbians in the 1970s and 1980s were presented as places to escape to?”

This has led her to look closely at Ithaca, New York; Greenfield, Massachusetts; San Luis Obispo, California; and Portland, Maine.

As Brown-Saracino delves into the factors that influence where people live, a complex idea is emerging from her ongoing collection of interviews: queer women are telling her that they move to places where they can be out and accepted, but also where they can deeply integrate with a heterosexual population.

This can come at a price—which is one element emerging from her study of Ithaca—what she refers to as “a deep sense of loss associated with their integration, a loss of lesbian community.”

It is a theme, said Brown-Saracino, that she intends to follow. She hopes to complete the writing of her book on the subject within the next two years, providing a close look at how social identities inform the choices people make about where to live.

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