Whither the Gaybourhood?

July 26, 2016

In 1999, as he began his doctoral studies at Northwestern University, Dr. Amin Ghaziani, now Wall Scholar and UBC Sociology Professor, lived in Chicago’s Boystown district for nearly a decade. He remembers feeling uneasy in those years.

“I read one headline after another about the alleged demise of my home and other gaybourhoods across the country. The sight of more straight bodies on the streets became a daily topic of conversation among my friends,” he explains. “We squirmed over stroller congestion on the sidewalks. Gays and lesbians also have kids, of course, but to us in that particular historical moment, the stroller was a politically charged symbol of straight invasion into queer spaces.” 

During many a night out, he would watch his friends accost straight couples who locked lips in the bars. 

“One friend said to such a couple, ‘We risk physical violence if we do that in your bars. What makes you think you can do it here? You should be more respectful.’ “

He, along with friends, fumed when straight residents complained that the Center on Halsted, the queer community center in Boystown, somehow excluded them in their programming, he recounts. 

“Were they really accusing us of reverse discrimination? Did they understand the institutional nature of heterosexism and homophobia?” he asked.

Ghaziani had so many questions. So he promised himself that one day he would write a book to find some answers. There Goes the Gayborhood? was published in August 2014.

On January 28, 2015, Ghaziani, along with UBC colleagues, hosted a Wall Dinner Forum entitled, Sexuality and the Interdisciplinary Imagination: An evening of concerts and conversation. In light of Outweek at UBC, The Wall Papers caught up with Ghaziani to ask him about his field of study and his new book.

The Wall Papers (WP): Why is it important for you to bring sexuality to the fore in the study of sociology

Amin Ghaziani (AG): Research on sexuality is important for so many reasons, but I’ll just share the first two that come to my mind. One of society’s favourite myths about gay people is that we are all alike. Social psychologists call this “the out-group homogeneity effect,” a majority-group perception that minority group members are more similar to one another than they are to the in-group. Sex research, broadly speaking, enables us to challenge this pervasive and noxious bias.

From a personal perspective, part of what makes studying sexuality right now so exciting is that we’re living with a generation of scholars who have pioneered the writing of our history. Unlike other minority groups, queer people have a comparatively weaker sense of our heritage, as powerful silences continue to surround the study and lived experiences of sexuality. Who are your people? What is your history? These questions are harder to answer for non-heterosexuals than they are for other groups of people, such as racial/ethnic minorities. For example, I once heard someone say: “I would much rather be Black in America than gay because at least I wouldn’t have to tell my parents that I’m black.” We still have so much that we need to learn, collectively remember, and preserve about who we are, where we come from, and where we are headed.

WP: Why did you want to write a book about gaybourhoods and their possible decline? Were there any perceptions or myths you wanted to debunk?

AG: I have learned that there are numerous benefits that gaybourhoods, and I think only gaybourhoods, provide. They allow gays and lesbians—who, unlike racial minorities, are often not physically identifiable—to find one another for friendship and fellowship, sex, dating and love. We create unique cultures, political perspectives, organizations and businesses, families, rituals, and styles of socialization in and around our neighborhoods. This is precisely why I think that these urban areas stand on guard against an entrenched problem of history and ancestry, as I mentioned earlier. At the end of a long day, gaybourhoods promise an incomparable sense of safety, a place where we can seek refuge from ongoing heterosexual hostilities, hate crimes, discrimination, bigotry, and bias. But gaybourhoods are more than just a protective shield. They also provide a platform from which we organize ourselves as a voting bloc, if we seek to work within the system, or as a social movement, if we wish instead to rally against it. The personal is political, as we know, and in this regard, gaybourhoods represent a space of freedom in which we can discover the authenticity of who we are and celebrate it without being burdened by the tyranny of the closet or the culturally crushing weight of heteronormativity.

Basically, I think gaybourhoods have a hand in nearly every aspect of modern urban life: from the municipal promotion of certain spaces to city planning and the shaping of real estate values; from the institutional development of gay and lesbian communities to our civic engagement; and from pride parades to protests to electoral influence. Gaybourhoods promote policy discussions around sexuality, a topic that many politicians would rather ignore; they enable social service and public health organizations to distribute life-saving resources; and they assist corporations with their efforts to reach a potentially lucrative niche market. The presence of a gaybourhood signals a city’s commitment to diversity, tolerance, inclusion and openness, and research shows that officials can boost their local economy when they invest in them. These are just some of the many stakes involved in the deceivingly simple question about if indeed the gaybourhood is going somewhere– and why I wanted to write this book.

Source: 2010 US Census Data analyzed by Martin O’Connell and Sarah Feliz.

WP: Standpoint said of your book that because you are American you couldn’t resist ending your book on a positive note by concluding that the gaybourhood isn’t disappearing, but is evolving. Are you really just being optimistic, or are there distinct indicators that point to the “evolution” of gaybourhoods? If so, what are they? Is this true of all cities across Canada?

AG: I have crafted my book based on an analysis of data that exists at three different levels:

First, I collected 617 newspaper articles from 17 different presses. These report on 27 different urban, suburban, and rural locations, and they span 40 years of coverage (from 1970 to 2010). I use this information to get a birds-eye view of national trends that are transpiring across the United States.

I also wanted to get a sense for what life is like up close, to hear and feel the rhythms of daily life in gay neighbourhoods. To do this, I interviewed 125 Chicagoans – gay and straight, residents and business owners.

Finally, I incorporated results from opinion polls like Gallup and Pew, along with Census data from the 2000 and 2010 US collections.

This incredible dataset combines breadth with nuance and depth, and it enables numerous opportunities from cross-validation. All my findings stem from it, and thus they are a far cry from an unsubstantiated optimism. Whatever optimism (or pessimism) is implied in my book is a function of what the data say.

WP: If gaybourhoods are evolving and not disappearing, what do you attribute to this change?

AG: I don’t think gay neighborhoods will ever completely disappear for six reasons:

First: simply ask yourself has sexism gone away? What about racism? Similarly, homophobia is far from over. There will always be bigots and homophobes in the world and, in response, there will always be some LGBTQ people who feel safer living near others who are like them.

Second and related, it is a basic human tendency that like attracts like. Birds of a feather flock together, we say colloquially. Sociologists call this homophily, and this too will ensure that there will always be some residential and social clusters.

Third, cities are increasingly moving toward municipally marking gay neighborhoods. These areas may eventually resemble Chinatowns and Greektowns – meaning few people live there and they are tourists traps –but it will ensure their survival nonetheless. They will still be cultural repositories and sites of tourism. As such, they invite queer people to visit, regardless of whether they also live there.

Fourth and speaking of culture: queer cultures are becoming increasingly explicit and articulate. For generations, we have struggled with cultural amnesia as a condition of the closet. But as gay life comes out of the closet and spills onto the streets of cities across the world, so too does our ability to remember, commemorate, and celebrate our rich and diverse cultures. Ways of life of sexual minorities encompass symbolic meanings associated with the closet, genres of television, music and literature (e.g., Frank Ocean as an out hip-hop artist, the Ellen show, and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City), ritual events (e.g., Pride Parades, Dyke Marches, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Marches on Washington), the iconography of drag, along with its respective histories of male effeminacy and female masculinity, histories of political organizing, relationships, kinships, and family forms, camp and the queer sensibility, medical concerns such as HIV/AIDS, and countless other aspects of “gay culture” or “lavender culture” that point to the expression of a unique subjectivity, aesthetic, and style of socialization. None of this requires a gaybourhood, of course, but such urban districts are well-suited to cultivating cultural expressions.

Sex is an important part of queer culture. This brings me to a fifth reason why gaybourhoods will evolve, rather than disappear. These districts make it easier to meet someone for a night or for a lifetime. Some commentators remark that on-line dating and mobile apps are creating a “diaspora” of gays from traditional gaybourhoods—but I’m not convinced. We can think about Grindr, with its GPS-enabled technology, as offering a creative and protean proxy for queer space: it can now exist wherever you happen to be the moment you log on, provided there is a critical mass of other users who are also logged on at the same time as you.

Finally, in addition to cultural artifacts and cultural expressions, gaybourhoods house organizations, businesses, and nonprofits that cater to LGBTQ individuals. These include bookstores, progressive churches, travel agencies, hair-styling shops, realtors, doctors, lawyers, medical clinics, retail stores, periodicals and political groups. Not all such organizations are located in gay districts, of course, but many of them certainly are, and this will ensure the continued resonance of existing gay neighbourhoods, regardless of demographic fluctuations.

For all these reasons, I don’t think gaybourhoods are dying– and I’m not the only one. In a June 2013 nationally representative survey of 1,197 LGBT American adults, the Pew Research Center finds “different points of view about how fully they should seek to become integrated into the broader culture.” Nearly half their respondents (49 percent) said that “the best way to achieve equality is to become part of mainstream culture and institutions such as marriage.” An equal share, however, say that “LGBT adults should be able to achieve equality while still maintaining their own distinct culture and way of life.”

Some believe that on-line dating and mobile apps such as Grindr are creating a “diaspora” of gays from traditional gaybourhoods, according to Ghaziani, who is not so sure.

WP: Your book indicates that non-gays are moving into traditionally gay neighbourhoods. What has spurred this diversification or “straightening out” as some have put it?

The same increase in tolerance that allows gays and lesbians to feel comfortable beyond the borders of gay districts also contributes to straight residents feeling more at ease living and socializing in them. Charles Blow captured this attitude in the title of his 2010 essay in the New York Times: “Gay? Whatever, Dude.” Straights have always lived and socialized in gaybourhoods, of course, but they have become “a common site on the streets” in recent years, Dan Levy notes in his story for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Two decades of struggle for equal rights have translated into real economic and emotional progress for homosexuals—and many heterosexuals,” he explains. “If lesbians and gays no longer feel confined to a homosexual safe zone, straights are increasingly less likely to be threatened by same-sex attention. Relaxed attitudes about sexual identity have led to a greater permeability.” Residential turnover in this contemporary context blends economic predictions about gentrification with cultural change: it is a function of demand among straights for urban areas that become fashionable due to their association with gays and lesbians.

WP: Are we in North America in a “post-gay” phase? Are Canada, the US and the UK in different phases?

AG: Gay life today in places like Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States exists “beyond the closet,” to borrow a visual metaphor from a sociology by the name of Steve Seidman, despite the undeniable persistence of heteronormative biases in the state, societal institutions, and popular culture. While the coming out era was typified by being open and out about one’s sexuality and having almost exclusively gay social networks, today’s “post-gay” period is characterized by a rapid assimilation of gays into the mainstream. British journalist Paul Burston coined the phrase post-gay in 1994. It found an American audience four years later in 1998 when Out magazine editor James Collard used the term in the New York Times to argue, “We should no longer define ourselves solely in terms of our sexuality—even if our opponents do. Post-gay isn’t ‘un-gay.’ It’s about taking a critical look at gay life and no longer thinking solely in terms of struggle. It’s going to a gay bar and wishing there were more girls there to talk to.” He clarified the meaning of this provocative new idea two months later in a Newsweek article: “First for protection and later with understandable pride, gays have come to colonize whole neighborhoods, like West Hollywood in L.A. and Chelsea in New York City. It seems to me that the new Jerusalem that gay people have been striving for all these years won’t be found in a gay-only ghetto, but in a world where we are free, equal and safe to live our lives.” A similar term arrived in Canada in 2011 when Paul Aguirre-Livingston, writing for a Toronto-based magazine called The Grid, published an article entitled, “Dawn of a New Gay” in which describes the emergence of “a new type of gay,” one he calls “the post-mo,” short for postmodern homosexual.

The primary feature of the post-gay era is a dramatic acceptance of gays and lesbians into the mainstream. Changes in public opinion provide one indicator for this. A 2013 Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that “public support for gay marriage has hit a new high.” Fifty-eight per cent of Americans now believe that it should be legal for lesbians and gay men to marry, while 36 per cent say it should be illegal. The pollsters noticed that “public attitudes toward gay marriage are a mirror image of what they were a decade ago: in 2003, 37 per cent favored gay nuptials and 55 per cent opposed them.”

With the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states, the elimination by the US Supreme Court of a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, the increasingly positive portrayal of gay and lesbian lives in the mass media, and the development of a straight allies movement of “politically gay” heterosexuals it stands to reason that many gays and lesbians will feel less pressure today than those in prior generations to concentrate in the few enclaves that have traditionally been associated with them.

WP: In your opinion, what does the future have in store for ‘gaybourhoods’?

AG: It is quixotic to think that gaybourhoods have always been around, that they will remain stable in their character and composition, or that they will never change. All neighbourhoods, along with the cities that surround them, are organic, continually evolving places. But it is equally naive to declare the death of the gaybourhood. Any persist-or-perish binary about the fate of these areas is simply untenable.

The post-gay era is undoubtedly reconfiguring the decisions that individual gay and straight people make about where they wish to live. The range of possible outcomes, however, is far more diverse than either sexual separatism or the integration and inevitable demise of the gaybourhood. What we find instead is a shifting balance of beliefs: gays swing between disfavoring gay districts, yet they are still seeking some semblance of a community that is based in a specific, identifiable part of the city. In this way, gaybourhoods reflect the complexities of the post-gay era itself, and they contain seemingly contradictory features.

While the post-gay era is likely to last, gays and lesbians have more diverse options for how to structure their lives. This means not the end of gaybourhoods, as some observers predict, but rather their unexpected growth. Queer geographies are plural. What I mean by this is that there are now more places that have a distinct association with same-sex sexuality than we have ever seen before. Plurality is the name of the new game, rather than the death and demise of the one and only gaybourhood in town. The future of gaybourhoods is one that I think warrants using the image of “cultural archipelagos.” 

A rainbow pylon in Boystown, Chicago, once home to Ghaziani, welcomes visitors as a landmark of the city’s gay village. Photo credit: Gary Baker

WP: You note in one of your interviews that you were always an advocate and a rabble rowser in your undergraduate years. What do you hope this book will move people to do, if at all? Is it a call to action in any way?

AG: This book has already accomplished what I hoped it would: it has spurred an international conversation about the meaning of gay neighbourhoods in multicultural societies. Since the book came out, I have given 70-80 interviews with journalists from 7 different countries.

As part of this conversation, we need to ask ourselves why there is so much debate on the importance of these districts. Why, for instance, does it matter if the New York Times runs a front-page headline that states, “Gay Enclaves Face Prospect of Being Passe.” Or when the Globe & Mail announces: “There Goes the Gaybourhood: A New, Straight Crowd is Discovering Church and Wellesley” in Toronto.

As I mentioned earlier, some people say that we are living in a post-gay, or post-mo, moment, one where people do not have to define themselves so centrally by their sexual orientation.

I believe that a truly post-gay society is not one where heterosexual people can pretend that we are not gay—any more than it is one where gays, lesbians, and bisexuals feel like they have to define themselves as “ethnically straight.”  Instead, it is a society in which in which we recognize that queer cultures are something to celebrate and preserve without qualification.

Unfortunately, however, we as a society have not articulated a compelling logic in which acts of queer cultural preservation make sense to us as life-saving, identity-affirming, and community-building. We live in curious moment when marginalized identities like sexuality function as markers of cosmopolitanism, diversity and urban creativity, tolerance, respectability, and economic competitiveness.

But we are bereft to consider them as vectors of exploitation, especially as we move toward a landscape of full legislative equality. Why, for instance, do we assume that integration is the desired outcome? Why do efforts at preserving gay districts strike some as “separatist”? Is increasing straight presence in gay neighbourhoods, at gay bars, at gay street festivals, or at the annual gay pride parade always positive and something to celebrate? What is lost when queer spaces become demographically and culturally diluted? To ask such questions is evidence that, when it comes to sexuality, we cannot simply strive for, and stop at, ideals like “integration,” “inclusion,” and “tolerance.” These are all necessary but socially insufficient. We must find ways of celebrating queer spaces – and the communities, cultures, and histories that they represent – as unapologetically queer spaces.

Amin Ghaziani is a Wall Scholar with the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies and a UBC Associate Professor of Sociology. On January 28, 2015 he will be hosting a public Wall Dinner Forum entitled, Sexuality and the Interdisciplinary Imagination: An evening of concerts and conversation.