“There Goes the Gayborhood?”: America’s new LGBT hubs aren’t where you’d expect them to be

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Wayne, a gay man who lives in Roanoke, told the Washington Post in 2001 that small-town gays “[may]be gay sexually, but they are not gay culturally.” He added, “There is no large gay enclave to retreat into…[forcing you]to relentlessly interact with people who are not gay.” Fast forward 11 years, and Nate Silver, a statistician who shot to fame when he accurately predicted Obama’s 2008 election, said something similar to the editor of Out: “I’m kind of sexually gay, but ethnically straight.” Silver lives not in a small town, but in Manhattan.

These remarks urge us to step back and consider the gayborhood. A colloquial term, the word “gayborhood” conjures images of rainbow flags and districts such as the Castro in San Francisco, Boystown in Chicago, Midtown in Atlanta, and Chelsea in New York. However, when you visit these famous gayborhoods, you’ll notice some incongruous scenery that’s becoming increasingly common: baby strollers and heterosexual couples holding hands, for example.

On the flip side, while gayborhoods were once cultural meccas, LGBT people moving to urban areas will no longer automatically gravitate to them. “In 2010, the census revealed that 93 percent of all counties in the United States contain same-sex partner households,” writes Amin Ghaziani, a professor at the University of British Columbia. He added, “Gays, in other words, really are everywhere.”

Nate Silver’s remark about being “ethnically straight” struck a chord in Ghaziani. It was in line with the post-gay mentality of people who claim that, culturally, they’re more similar to their straight friends than to other gays. This—in addition to the rampant assimilation of gayborhoods—led newspapers to predict that gay enclaves will disappear. Ghaziani decided to dig deeper, examing 617 newspaper articles from 17 presses across all regions of the US, along with demographic trends in US Census data and 125 interviews with gay and straight residents of Chicago. The resulting book, There Goes the Gayborhood?, gives us a meticulous look at the sometimes cacophonous opinions on the subject. 

As the punctuation in the title indicates, whether you can definitively say “there goes the gayborhood” is still a big question. And Ghaziani’s answer is: it’s complicated.

There are certainly reasons to believe that these neighborhoods are loosing their foothold. Census data from 2000 to 2010 showed that the segregation of same-sex households from hetero households has decreased significantly. (Census data is a whole other story—it asks no questions about sexual orientation, so demographers must look at the number of reported same-sex households, a question not even asked until 1990. And in the 1990 census, same-sex households that claimed to be married were considered mistakes and changed by the Census Bureau to be recorded as heterosexual couples).

Another reason gayborhoods are in decline is that LGBT people have expanded their definitions of gay-safe places. Ghaziani, who interviewed well over a hundred people for his book, recorded one resident saying, “San Francisco is our Castro,” while another proclaimed, “The entire island of Manhattan is gay.” 

One lesbian whom he interviewed explained that since she now feels safer, gay neighborhoods don’t serve much of a purpose: “Boystown used to be somewhere you would go to feel like you could totally be gay and totally not worry about anything and be whoever you want. That’s what it was when I was growing up, and that’s where I would go when I cared more. Now, I don’t think about my sexuality as much as I used to. No one really cares,” she said. 

However, this may be a case of individuals projecting their feelings onto the LGBT community as a whole. An analogy is to university life: After freshman or sophomore year, you may feel comfortable with your group of friends and no longer need on-campus housing services. But that doesn’t mean that on-campus housing is passé for each year’s incoming freshmen.

One of Ghaziani’s interviewees explained that the need for gayborhoods ebbs and flows. “I think it becomes more important when you’re single, or if you’ve had a big change in your life, and you suddenly are without a lot of friends, that’s more important to have that community.” Three groups for whom the gayborhood remains an important safe haven are transgender individuals, youth of color, and youth from rural communities—groups whose voices are traditionally underrepresented by media.

What’s more, there’s proof that even those who leave the “pink ghetto” feel a need for what gayborhoods provide. And as people move out of gayborhoods into the suburbs, they tend to move into suburbs with a high concentration of other LGBT people.

In dot429’s interview with Ghaziani, he said, “One of the surprises I encountered is the multiplication of gay neighborhoods.” (Take Decatur, Georgia, which most LGBT people outside of metro Atlanta have never heard of; or Oakland, which in 2004 was the city with the third highest number of gay and lesbian households in the nation, just behind San Francisco and Seattle). Gay neighborhoods aren’t disappearing—they’re just becoming smaller, more diffuse, and less iconic.

This offers a freedom unprecedented in recent generations. However, political power is still a concern. Homophobia is far from being over or even fully illegal. Hate crimes towards the LGBT community, especially transgender people, still continue at troubling rates. Despite the fact that gays and gayborhoods “really are everywhere,” if LGBT people prefer to identify as “ethnically straight,” how will political campaigns address existing inequalities? Ghaziani said, “We know that the United States, for instance, has what we call a pluralist political system. This requires the recognition of grouphood and is precisely why we have important ideas like voting blocs. The loss of clusters therefore may have implications for the LGBT community in terms of exercising political or electoral influence.” 

There Goes the Gayborhood? hints at two ways in which traditional gayborhoods might stay intact. Civic commemorations and hangar institutions (businesses or organizations such as an LGBT community center or bookstore) are neighborhood anchors. In Chicago, such businesses have kept Boystown from dissipating. Many Boystown business owners actually own their properties, giving them a personal stake in the community’s success. 

The overall picture is one where LGBT people have plenty of residential options to choose from, but perhaps sell their own culture short. In response to cisgendered people becoming defensive about taking over LGBT neighborhoods, Ghaziani points out: “[Heterosexual] cries of reverse discrimination are plausible and palatable only because we as a society have not articulated a compelling logic in which acts of queer cultural preservation and resistance make sense as life-saving, identity-affirming, and community-building.”

In other words, perhaps a truly post-gay society is not one where heterosexual people can pretend that you are not gay (or that you are “ethnically straight”), but rather one in which they can recognize that LGBT culture is something to be celebrated and preserved.

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