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How Places Make Us

Novel LBQ Identities in Four Small Cities

We like to think of ourselves as possessing an essential self, a core identity that is who we really are, regardless of where we live, work, or play. But places actually make us much more than we might think, argues Japonica Brown-Saracino in this novel ethnographic study of lesbian, bisexual, and queer individuals in four small cities across the United States.

Taking us into communities in Ithaca, New York; San Luis Obispo, California; Greenfield, Massachusetts; and Portland, Maine; Brown-Saracino shows how LBQ migrants craft a unique sense of self that corresponds to their new homes. How Places Make Us demonstrates that sexual identities are responsive to city ecology. Despite the fact that the LBQ residents share many demographic and cultural traits, their approaches to sexual identity politics and to ties with other LBQ individuals and heterosexual residents vary markedly by where they live. Subtly distinct local ecologies shape what it feels like to be a sexual minority, including the degree to which one feels accepted, how many other LBQ individuals one encounters in daily life, and how often a city declares its embrace of difference. In short, city ecology shapes how one “does” LBQ in a specific place. Ultimately, Brown-Saracino shows that there isn’t one general way of approaching sexual identity because humans are not only social but fundamentally local creatures. Even in a globalized world, the most personal of questions—who am I?—is in fact answered collectively by the city in which we live.  


“Featuring a rigorous analysis and compelling presentation, this book forces us to rethink what we know about the identities we hold, the communities we belong to, and the places where we live.”

New Books Network

“Reimagining the city as a vibrant, active force, How Places Make Us demonstrates how places imprint their unique character on the lives of their inhabitants, shaping not only the communities and cultures that scaffold our lives, but also how places transform how we present and define ourselves. . . .Brown-Saracino provides a marvelous blueprint for urban and community scholars to explore the pervasive power of the local in shaping and transforming our lives. . . .How Places Make Us will rank among the canonical studies within our field.”

City and Community

“A groundbreaking book that will inspire urban sociologists for years to come. . . .Ethnographies are rarely this dynamic and fun to read. . . .How Places Make Us inspires a plethora of new studies that will keep urban sociologists busy for a very long time. I cannot think of another recent book that chants the mantra of urban scholars—place matters, place matters—as clearly and engagingly as this one. How Places Make Us is obligatory reading for anyone interested in cities and sexualities, as well as place and identity in general.”

Sociological Forum

How Places Make Us makes a compelling argument that between-city comparisons must be made to be able to argue how place matters to identity processes. . . .I enjoyed Brown-Saracino’s unwillingness to accept a simplistic reading of identity in her cases. . . .More ethnographers should follow her lead. . . .How Places Make Us will make a welcome addition to courses on gender, sexuality, and urban sociology and certainly will shape new studies on these communities. I know it will shape mine.”

Jason Orne | Gender and Society

“Brown-Saracino raises important questions about the continuity of sexual minority culture and community as sexual minorities continue to assimilate (or resist assimilation) into the broader American culture.”

Politics and Gender

“Brown-Saracino’s work certainly fills an important need in that while studies examining LGBTQ experiences and identity negotiation in large cities and rural areas are abundant, small cities are often overlooked.”


“[How Places Make Us] is authentic, and honest, and the narratives presented are grounded in the social and cultural context of the four cities in question. Its biggest contribution to the field is that, in short, it calls us to devote far more attention to how and why places matter.”

Cultural Sociology

“Brown-Saracino offers an exceptional and comprehensive model for understanding how place, as city ecology, shapes sexual identity at the individual and community levels. Through her work, she further contributes to greater efforts in sociology at centralizing the concept of place as an organizing principle of social life.Her book exemplifies how the measurable indicators of safety and acceptance, coupled with the discursive dimension of place narratives, inform how LBQ residents interpret their social milieu and how this sense of place in turn shapes their identity.”

Social and Cultural Geography

“Brown-Saracino’s case studies are thoughtfully nuanced with close attention to the subject’s narratives and stories. Her examination of place, both the geography of a place as well as the
narrative of a place, and how place shapes identity is important not only for sociology but also LGBT Studies and urban studies.”

Social Forces

“Brown-Saracino tell us a lot about sexuality but, more importantly, about the cities—location, location, location—where sexuality occurs. Using case studies of lesbian and queer settlements, she sheds light on social formations across the board, providing details of how subgroups form, regroup, and disband. There is relevance here, again and again, for understanding how place gets into any of us.”

Harvey Molotch, New York University

“A wonderfully profound and engaging study of how cities shape who we are. Demolishing the common idea that global retail stores and media culture have made places less distinct, Brown-Saracino’s delicately textured ethnography reveals how our fundamental sense of self is still shaped by the places we live. A must-read for all students of modern social life.”

Kathleen M. Blee, University of Pittsburgh

“Through the lens of LBQ communities in four small US cities, Brown-Saracino tells the story of the myriad ways that place and community influence LBQ cultures, politics, and identities. A lively, informative, and provocative read, this book illuminates the changing nature of LBQ life in contemporary American urban life and makes a significant contribution to contemporary theorizing on sexuality and space.”

Verta Taylor, University of California, Santa Barbara

Table of Contents

One / Ithaca: Integration and Post-Identity Politics
Two / San Luis Obispo: Lesbian Identity Politics and Community
Three / Portland: Hybrid and Hyphenated Identity Politics
Four / Greenfield: Lesbian Feminist Longtimers and Post-Identity-Politics Newcomers
Five / How Places Make Us
Methodological Appendix

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