Gays in the hood
by Brian Bromberger
There Goes the Gayborhood? by Amin Ghaziani (Princeton University Press, $35)
"This is the only place to be ourselves, to be with people who are like ourselves and not be looked down on," is a key theme expressed by an anonymous resident of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., featured in University of British Columbia associate professor of sociology Amin Ghaziani's new book, There Goes the Gayborhood? In the last few years there have been articles in newspapers and blogs about the purported demise of gay neighborhoods or "gayborhoods" (including the Castro), with LGBT people leaving and straight households arriving. Ghaziani wanted to see if this observation was true, and if so, why. The book is a history of gayborhoods, considers what the future might hold for them, and analyzes their present plight. It defines a gayborhood as having a distinct geographic focal point, a unique LGBT culture, a concentration of self-identifying gay/lesbian residences, and a cluster of gay-owned or gay-friendly commercial spaces.
Gayborhoods were born following WWII, after thousands of gays and lesbians were discharged from the military and settled into cities that had housed military bases, as many LGBT did not want to return to their provincial and bigoted small towns. Sociologist Manuel Castells documented that the rise of gayborhoods was "inseparable from the development of the gay community as a social movement." One could say they were the physical embodiment of gay communities. Their appeal came from their being a beacon of tolerance, secure havens from antigay violence, a place "from which they could resist all things heteronormative, and a self-controlled territory in which they could incubate an oppositional consciousness." So freedom and safety were their chief assets. They also cultivated sexual subcultures, fostering a sense of sexual liberation, so one could find friends, hook-ups, or spouses. Gayborhoods have supporters as well as critics. "There's an old saying among realtors that if you want to improve a neighborhood, rent to a gay man" is a quote from the president of the Greater San Diego Business Association. Gayborhoods have also been attacked as gay ghettos, or as activist Urvashi Vaid called them in 1995, "more spacious closets."
Are gayborhoods the victims of their own success? The chief challenge to gayborhoods is that gay life has moved beyond the closet. "Post-gay" people profess "that their sexual orientation does not form the core of how they define themselves, and they prefer to hang out with their straight friends as much as with those who are gay." Does this new gay paradigm, typical of teenagers and young adults, render the gayborhood obsolete? To answer this question, Ghaziani looked at 617 newspaper articles across the US from 1970-2010, analyzed demographic trends from the 2000 and 2010 US Censuses, and interviewed 125 gay and straight residents of Chicago (particularly Boystown, where he lived).
Gayborhoods are de-gaying because sexual orientation is receding in primacy for how many of us define ourselves. So it is just as easy for LGBTs to leave the gayborhood as it is for straights to move into them. But many straights prefer to live in a "diverse neighborhood" rather than a "gay neighborhood," leading Ghaziani to conclude that some straights who live in gayborhoods may not be as politically progressive as they think. Post-gay does not mean post-discrimination, and almost all LGBTs say we have not reached full equality with heterosexuals. People of color, small-town gays, and transgender individuals still see a need for gayborhoods as safe harbors. So gayborhoods are not necessarily declining, as gayborhoods have become entertainment districts or marketing assets for cities. The criticism that the Castro is turning into a gay theme-park for tourists is an example of this cosmopolitan shift. Ghaziani argues that gayborhoods are growing, not ending, being reimagined into new possibilities as vibrant cultural enclaves.
Ghaziani provides no easy answers to the questions he has posed. While he gives strong evidence that gayborhoods are continually evolving entities, he underemphasizes the economic reasons for why established gayborhoods such as the Castro are losing LGBTs: the rents are unaffordable, except for the well-to-do. Gentrification alone cannot explain why gayborhoods are changing, but it is a stronger factor than Ghaziani is willing to admit. Still, this critique doesn't invalidate his conclusion that gayborhoods today still offer exciting sexual, gender, and spatial expressions for both LGBTs and straights, reinvigorating cities in a new era of urban and social innovation.