Zooming into Housing: Work, Care, and Safety

"There is a house in Baku where cis and trans women live together and support each other. They also don't allow any transphobic people or anyone who could potentially be a threat to move in," said a friend to me in a conversation that one usually has when you haven't seen each other in months and want to share the world over a cup of tea. Due to the constant threat of policing and strong social taboos, stories about the trans community's social and economic marginalization are rarely represented in media, research, or other sources of information. The reason I learned about this house was the murder of a trans woman in 2020. Two LGBTQI+ activists visited the funeral, and part of the ceremony was held in that house in Baku.

Painting of the animated house, with the family in it

"It's a three-floor, tall, deteriorating building with interchanging concrete and wooden staircases. Most of the apartments do not have a kitchen - but there is a common sink downstairs. Some trans people also live in small self-built rooms in the courtyard, and it's common for 5-6 people to sleep in one room," said one of the activists. More than anything, it was surprising to her and others that cis and trans women could build some form of kinship and solidarity in Baku. The fact that it was acceptable for cis women to have their children playing with trans women is extremely rare.[1]

This story made me think of queer kinship and care mechanisms embodied in Ballroom culture, something I came to learn about through the Netflix series - "Pose." This type of Ballroom culture also had a particular way of providing housing for those without a shelter and started becoming prominent within Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ communities in North America in the late 1960s and early 70s. The house parents recruit and educate their children to become successful in Ballroom culture and provide them with a space in a shared apartment.

"Ballroom houses, as alternative families, consist of parents and, siblings which are part of an expansive network of kin throughout the scene, including aunts, uncles, grandparents and other extended family roles. In Ballroom, your sex assignment or gender identity does not necessarily determine the role you play in the family." (Bailey, 2021)

Members of the houses come together in the Ballroom and compete in different categories to get prizes. These two places serve as a space for both performance and kin-making, where the community comes together to contest the social conditions in which they live. Today Ballroom culture is part of the urban fabric in several cities of North America and Europe, and structures similar to this exist all over the world.

I realize that the case of the trans-cis women housing unit in Baku doesn't have a similar structure to the Ballroom culture. However, it prompts me to think about different kinds of kinship and care structures that people who are threatened by patriarchal and capitalist systems of housing attempt to create through their own forms of domesticity and relationality.

For the feminist movements, housing and the ways of living as a family unit have been primary for more than two centuries now. Although the research on feminist housing is quite fragmented and closely interrelated with the housing policy of different states and the development of the private property, collecting different threads in terms of practices and theory can provide an interesting perspective for rethinking housing today.

In Western thought, the recognition of the house as the main place of production, and consequently, oppression of women was articulated by the French sociologist Charles Fourier. His idea was that communal ways of living embodied in the concept of phalanstery would pave the way for women's liberation from traditional family life and daily household chores. Since then, across different parts of the world, there have been attempts to create ruptures in the role of women in families through different forms of communal living and housing solutions. Although I would love to delve into practices across broader geographies, limited access to resources and references restricts me to detailed accounts of the US and North-Western Europe and to a more general overview of policies and designs in the Soviet Union.

In the US and North-Western Europe of the XIX and XX centuries, the collectivization of housework - through communal kitchens, dining rooms, and nurseries - was at the core of the feminist way of living. From the beginning of the XIX century, various communities across the US experimented with communal living. Some of the communes made certain hours of work in gardening, cooking, maintenance of common areas, and taking care of children obligatory for all members. In others, there were communal kitchens specifically designed to end the isolation of the housewife and transform mundane house chores into more collective and, at times, more convivial work (Hayden, 1982). It reminds me of my family's summer ritual in Baku, during which a group of women connected through family kin or living in the same neighborhood would come together to cook jams and preserves for the winter. So while the daily housework took place in isolation, mass-cooking became an experience of collectivity and created spaces for conversations, joy, and support.

An interesting experiment can be seen in the XIX century United States, where American women who performed domestic work united in cooperative associations based on membership fees. The group would purchase a building and all the necessary technical equipment for performing various kinds of domestic work collectively and charge their husbands for each service equal to the rates that men received for "skilled work" (Hayden, 1982). While there were many exciting developments with the communal living in the US, within the Cold War context and with the rise of social housing and collective housing known as Dom Kommuna in the Soviet Union, the feminist initiatives of collective housing were seen as a major political threat and feminists were labeled as "agents of Madame Kollontai" (ibid).

Without archival research and substantial fieldwork, it's hard to have a detailed analysis of women's experiences in collective living units in the Soviet Union and the impact of collective living on feminist efforts to reach equality. Nevertheless, Dom Kommunas built from the end of the 1930s can be considered as an institutional attempt of "liberating women" through the collective way of living. The construction of communal houses was expected to facilitate new kinds of relations between workers and lead to the notion of a community. The plan was that the houses would provide social infrastructures such as clubs, kindergartens and playgrounds, communal kitchens and dining rooms, washrooms and showers, laundries, doctors' surgeries, garages, and storage facilities that would eventually liberate women from a substantial amount of house and care work (Vega, 2020). Policy-wise, both within the Soviet Union and in North and Western Europe, attempts to "liberate women" were supported by the state to allow their inclusion into the skilled labor force (Vestbro, 1997). Rationalization and time-saving in housework would allow women to join other spheres of life without creating ruptures in the gendered division of household duties.

In Azerbaijan, after the fall of the Soviets, there have not been any deliberate attempts of collectivizing housework in an institutional manner or any substantial discussions around the issues of housing. Rapid privatization of the housing market often leaves those without sufficient means in a precarious position to have a safe home. For many women and LGBTQ+ individuals, living with their parents can be a very unsafe and threatening experience. However, the rental market and lack of shelters force them to remain in current situations until they can join forces with other people in the community and move to safer living spaces through informal ways of support.

Given the complexity of issues tied to the forms of ownership, design, and habitation practices in housing, when thinking, talking, and working on feminist ways of housing, it is crucial not to relegate it to mere changes in lifestyle. Any push for more feminist housing has to structurally challenge private property and commodification of housing, the gendered division of housework, and what it means to have the right to a safe and dignified shelter.


The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office- South Caucasus Region.


[1] Although this article is recent, at the time of writing, we don’t know if the building is still occupied by these people since they have been under increased police surveillance lately.