Growing up in a straight family in Greenwich Village has left me with an appreciation for the virtues of America's big-city gayborhoods. When I lived in Boston, there was something about the South End that felt more like home to me than anywhere else in the city. And it's probably not a coincidence that I live in DC's Logan Circle now. To the casual eye, it seems clear that these gay clusters are "less gay" — more moms at brunch and fewer leather shops — than they were when I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s.
Amin Ghaziani, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia and author of the new book There Goes The Gayborhood?, noticed the same thing living in Chicago's Boystown in the early aughts, and so did his friends.
"We noticed more straight couples holding hands on the streets, more baby strollers pushed by straight families," he tells me. "I would notice that a sex store would close and a nail salon would open in its place."
The difference between Ghaziani and me is, he actually put in the work and did the research. The Census Bureau doesn't study whether people are gay or straight. But it does ask people about their living arrangements. That lets us see how many same-sex couples there are living together in the United States and in its various sub-divisions. Same-sex cohabiting romantic couples are obviously a serious undercount of the overall LGBT population, but they work as a rough proxy. Ghaziani's research tells us that between the 2000 and 2010 Census, the number of same-sex couples living in key traditional gayborhoods declined, often as larger trends in urban life made those neighborhoods newly desirable destinations.
At the same time, the Census now finds same-sex romantic couples living together in 93 percent of America's counties. The gay population is becoming less concentrated as its legal, political, and social reality is increasingly accepted.
That acceptance itself is clearly a good thing. But the decline of the gayborhood may be a negative consequence of declining homophobia. Ghaziani notes that the American political system heavily rewards geographically concentrated voting blocks. Gays and lesbians are a relatively small minority in the United States, but when they cluster in hubs, the politicians who represent those hubs become key champions of their issues.
"We have no reason to believe that homophobia will die," Ghaziani cautions, even as legal rights advance. "You can simply ask yourself has racism gone away or has sexism gone away?"
Part of the drive is basic economics. Gayborhoods originated in the aftermath of the Second World War. Ghaziani explains that "gay men and lesbians who were discharged from the military for their real or perceived homosexuality remained behind in major port cities" rather than return home in disgrace. That's left gayborhoods as an especially prominent feature of exactly the kind of coastal cities most likely to be experiencing critical shortages of affordable housing. In some cities, even as traditional gayborhoods straighten, adjacent neighborhoods are getting gayer as younger LGBTQ cohorts find themselves unable to afford the old hubs.
But Ghaziani says the "national public conversation surrounding gay neighborhoods tends to over-emphasize economic factors at the neglect of other important variables."
Fundamentally, the urgent need for safe spaces has diminished as a result of growing equality. But both politics and culture can suffer from the collapse of gay neighborhoods. A return to the less-tolerant attitudes of the 1970s and 1980s is obviously not a realistic solution. But Ghaziani advocates other strategies to help nudge cities to nurture the value of these communities. One strategy is commemoration, with special street decorations — often rainbow-themed — on key commercial centers in gay hubs. The other is to maintain, with subsidies if necessary, the "anchor institutions" (community centers, gay newspapers, iconic bars) that formed in these neighborhoods in their heyday
"Areas of concentrated minorities groups have been crucibles to cultural innovation," Ghaziani observes, and they have inspired expressions from music to fashion, poetry and literature." Preservation strategies can help us hang on to some of those valuable gayborhood contributions, as well as perhaps retaining a critical mass that's necessary for political mobilization.
But nothing, he cautions, will freeze the gayborhoods of yore into place.
"All neighborhoods change," Ghaziani says and these strategies won't change that.
"Gay neighborhoods are not an exception to this most basic insight of city life."
My curiosities began while I was a graduate student living in Chicago's Boystown neighborhood from 1999 to 2008. I began to notice changes on the ground informally, and they became central preoccupations of my friends and me as we would try to figure out what's happening in the neighborhood. We noticed more straight couples holding hands on the streets, more baby strollers pushed by straight families. We also began to notice that some of the straight couples who were living in Boystown or walking through its streets would make faces — of disapproval, perhaps — when they would see a same sex couple holding hands. I would notice that a sex store would close and a nail salon would open in its place. These types of casual conversations provided the motivation for me to do this book once I had completed graduate school some years on.
I then looked at census data and other demographers have looked at census data, and there is widespread consensus that these areas are de-concentrating. In other words, when we compare the 2000 US Census to the 2010 US Census, we see that there are fewer male and female same sex partner households residing in gayborhoods than there were 10 years earlier. Now same sex partner households reside in 93% of all counties in the United States.
There is a lot that is lost both politically and culturally if these neighborhoods disappear in theory. The loss of clusters may, for example, have implications for the LGBTQ community in terms of exercising political or electoral influence. And bigotry and bias will persist even as we move toward an era of complete legislative equality. A lot of peopl say that it's only a matter of moments before same sex marriage is the law of the land. But even after that happens, we have no reason to believe that homophobia will die. You can simply ask yourself has racism gone away or has sexism gone away?The same holds true for homophobia.
There are cultural concerns for us to think about as well. Historically, we know that such areas of concentrated minorities groups have been crucibles to cultural innovation and they have inspired expressions from music to fashion, poetry and literature. You might think about the Harlem Renaissance as one example that's not related to gay neighborhoods. In a similar way, non-heterosexuals have used gayborhoods to build rich, diverse, dynamic communities, celebrate human sexuality, to inspire artistic expression such as Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City.
The first is something that we might call commemorations or civic commemorations. Chicago, became the first city in the world to use tax funded dollars to municipally mark its gayborhood — Boystown. They installed art deco styled rainbow colored pylons along North Halsted Street, which is a main clear artery of the commercial and night life district in the city. We've seen versions of this in many cities across North America.
Philadelphia installed rainbow flags underneath the street signs that demarcate a portion of the Washington Square West neighborhood. Toronto did the same thing by installing rainbow flags underneath its street signs in the gayborhood. In Vancouver, recently, the city installed permanent rainbow colored crosswalks in the heart of the Davie Village gayborhood. West Hollywood has done the same thing.
These kinds of commemorative markers do not require us to deny the realities of residential change. All neighborhoods change. Gay neighborhoods are not an exception to this most basic insight of city life. These markers embrace that reality while still honoring the heritage and history of these particular neighborhoods.
The second urban measure that we might consider are the promotion of what are called anchor institutions. These are particular organizations or non-profit community centers, businesses that have particular importance or significance for the LGBTQ community. This could be something like the community center on Halsted in Chicago. It could be a particular bar that may have existed for a while that has special significance to the community. These anchor institutions will continually inspire people to visit and spend time in the neighborhood even if they no longer live there.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity