This book review is from the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine.
By Amin Ghaziani
360 pp. Princeton University Press $35
For nearly half a century, San Francisco’s Castro district has been the gay Mecca, and from every corner of the globe LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) tourists have made the pilgrimage. They came to party, and many wound up staying. The rainbow flag was first flown there. The annual Gay Pride parade and Halloween party were red-letter days on the LGBT calendar.
Gay tourists still throng the Castro, and tour buses continue to bring gawking tourists, but the neighborhood isn’t what it used to be. Lesbians and gays are moving out, the census data show, and straights are moving in—that means more strollers and fewer sex shops. The Gay Pride parade, once a cultural celebration, has morphed into a corporate-sponsored event, and like Halloween, it draws thousands of titillation-seeking suburbanites. The rainbow flag has become as ubiquitous, and as stripped of meaning, as the “I Heart [fill in the blank].”
This transformation story is much the same in other gay enclaves such as Chelsea and Greenwich Village in Manhattan, Dupont Circle in D.C., and Boystown in Chicago. As a Chicago journalist observed, “With more [straight] families moving in and longtime [gay and lesbian] residents moving out, some say Boystown is losing its gay flavor.”
Some observers cheer the demise of these neighborhoods, among them veteran gay activist Urvashi Vaid, who has urged gays and lesbians to “leave the ghetto.” Others lament the loss of a distinct gay sensibility and the homogenization that accompanies these demographic shifts. Like it or not, though, the change seems to be inevitable and permanent. “We tend to assume that once created, queer neighborhoods will be self-sustaining,” Don Romesburg, a historian, points out. “That’s not true. Our neighborhoods get built within particular economic, political, and cultural circumstances. When those change, so do our neighborhoods.”
In There Goes the Gayborhood?, University of British Columbia sociologist Amin Ghaziani vivisects the transformation of these communities, which he labels “gayborhoods,” as well as the emergence of gay enclaves in other urban precincts, suburbs, and small towns across America. The census data—the only information available to Ghaziani for broad-brush arguments—have only limited value. The Census Bureau only counts gay households, not LGBT individuals, which excludes the estimated 75 percent of gay men and 60 percent of lesbians who are single, as well as gay couples who live apart and transgender and bisexual men and women. For finer-grained analysis, Ghaziani draws on 40 years of newspaper coverage and 125 interviews to explore how gay life has evolved during the past generation—what has been termed the “post-gay” era. While some LGBT residents are moving out of the gayborhoods, Ghaziani argues that a distinct, place-based gay identity continues to evolve. It’s a nuanced and complex tale—a tale of neighborhood changes and cultural shifts, an identity in flux—and Ghaziani does a nice job of telling it.
In a breathtakingly short time span, we’ve seen a tectonic shift in popular attitudes toward gays and lesbians, away from bigotry and toward acceptance. At the same time, gays have grown less inclined to regard their sexuality as defining who they are. They’re more apt to see themselves as multifaceted individuals who happen to be gay—think Emmy-winning comedy Modern Family, with its multiple story lines that showcase how the meaning of “family” keeps evolving. As Nate Silver, editor of ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight, put it, “I’m kind of sexually gay, but ethnically straight.”
Marriage equality provides the most dramatic example of this change. A decade ago, Massachusetts was the lone state to legalize LGBT marriage. The idea was widely dismissed as a liberal pipe dream—even civil unions, gay marriage lite, seemed a stretch—but now the movement seems unstoppable.
Gays and lesbians can wed in 19 states and the District of Columbia, with more to come. In recent months, courts have overturned state bans on gay marriage in a dozen states. During oral argument in a case challenging Wisconsin’s anti-marriage law, Federal Appeals Judge Richard Posner, a Reagan appointee and one of the sharpest minds on the bench, went so far as to compare these bans to laws that criminalized interracial marriage. The Supreme Court will have the final say, most likely in this term, and it’s hard to imagine the justices as Canute, commanding the tides to halt.
The sea change in popular opinion has been equally striking. While a 2009 USA Today/Gallup poll found that only 40 percent of voters endorsed gay marriage, a 2014 Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that nearly 60 percent favored marriage equality. In every region of the country, and even in the states that forbid same-sex couples to wed, a majority now favors gay marriage, and so do 77 percent of voters under age 30. Republican strategists can read the tea leaves. In 2004, the GOP made the gay marriage menace its wedge issue, but now, with 40 percent of Republicans embracing marriage equality, the party has been notably silent.
While discrimination and hate crimes remain all too common—the United States is no more LGBT-blind than it is color-blind—poll data show an unmistakable trend toward acceptance. As a live-and-let-live attitude toward gays and lesbians has increasingly become the norm, they have come to identify their neighborhoods not as lavender ghettos, but as entire cities—San Francisco, New York, or Chicago. In a 2013 Pew survey, 92 percent of the LGBT community agreed that society had become more accepting over the past decade and expected this trend to continue.
That’s one reason why organizations like San Francisco’s LGBT Community Center, with its focus on gay identity, are struggling; why iconic gay bookstores like A Different Light in San Francisco and the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York have closed; why readership of gay newspapers has dropped; and why the number of gay bars, the traditional gathering places of gayborhoods, is shrinking. In Boston and Cambridge, for example, there were 16 gay bars in 1993, but fewer than half of them were still in business 14 years later. In Chicago, the Manhole—the name speaks volumes—reinvented itself as Hydrate, a martini bar pitched to straights as well as gays.
The pace of change is picking up as this generation of LGBT teenagers comes of age. Psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams’s research finds that these youth “have much less interest in naming [their] feelings and desires as gay. The notion of ‘gay’ as a noteworthy or identifying characteristic is being abandoned.” In years past, coming out was often a traumatic experience, but now many teens are candid about their sexual desires, and their straight friends take it in stride. Nationwide, in high schools and on college campuses, Gay-Straight Alliances are flourishing. Last June, a gay high school couple in politically conservative Putnam County, New York, was overwhelmingly elected prom king and queen. Their parents were supportive, and so was the school administration. “We’re proud of all our students,” said the principal. “They know they have the right to pick whoever they want.” The couple reported that their biggest concern was deciding who would be king and who would be queen. If LGBT young adults head for New York City, they’re more likely to live in hipster Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bushwick and Red Hook than in Chelsea.
Meanwhile, many gay couples in their thirties and forties, weary of the frenetic pace of the Castro or Chelsea, are relocating to less party-hearty urban neighborhoods or to the suburbs. There has been a substantial migration from San Francisco, the nation’s priciest rental market, to Oakland, the West Coast’s answer to Brooklyn, where housing is more affordable. A considerable number of gays and lesbians have made the move, and they’re not looking to re-create the Castro. The same pattern can be seen in New York, with LGBT migration from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens, as well as in Chicago and Washington, D.C., as gays and lesbians move to cheaper, less gay-identified neighborhoods.
The Internet has hastened this diaspora. An international study of 17 cities found that, without exception, the virtual world outstripped the brick-and-mortar landscape. It’s a familiar pattern, and not just among gays. Why shop in a gay bookstore when Amazon is cheaper? Why go to a gay bar when apps like Grindr facilitate instant hookups, and websites like Match.com make it easy to shop for a relationship?
This new technology has enabled gays and lesbians to focus on their individual lifestyles—they no longer see a pressing need to promote the well-being of the LGBT community. That attitude is consistent with a zeitgeist that, as New York University Professor Lisa Duggan argues, promotes “a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption,” a move “away from identity politics to a privatized pride.”
If you take a close look at what’s happening in LGBT America, however, the picture becomes murkier. Ghaziani describes the “post-gay era” as “uneven and incomplete.” Many gays and lesbians still live in the gay enclaves, which remain a lure for others, including teens for whom coming out is no picnic. What’s more, while places like Chicago’s Boystown have lost some of their luster, “cultural archipelagos … multiple clusters of gay and lesbian populations,” scattered nationwide, have emerged.
Although these observations ring true, it overstates the case to describe Albuquerque or Orlando, two of the cities with the largest proportion of gay couples, as “new hotbeds of queer lives, cultures, and communities.” Those cities have become attractive to gays because they’re seen as gay-friendly, but they haven’t become centers of gay culture. Ghaziani detects “a perceptible sexual charge” in these cities but, having been to both, I have no idea what he observed in his travels.
Similarly, it’s a stretch to think of the suburbs to which gay families are moving as part of a cultural archipelago. That other LGBT families live in “once-sleepy blue-collar suburbs” may well ease the adjustment of these former urbanites, but that’s not what motivates them to move. Like millions of Americans, they want the white-picket-fence life, replete with “affordable roomy houses with a yard, along with safe streets and a good school for their children.” They describe themselves as “‘regular Joes’ and ‘suburban’ … ‘true mainstream Americans.’”
The aspirations of these “Ozzie and Ozzie” families bring to mind the attitudes and behavior of immigrants. With few if any exceptions, they have initially settled in tight-knit communities, which offer familiarity, social cohesion, preservation of cultural identity, and insulation from bigotry. These enclaves, the Chinatowns and barrios, continue to attract new arrivals. But as immigrants assimilate, their options expand, and many of them move to ethnically mixed neighborhoods. They may participate in cultural events put on in their old communities, but that’s not where they choose to live.
Much the same holds true for gays and lesbians. To state the obvious, the LGBT community isn’t an ethnic group, and most gays and lesbians are not foreign-born. Yet as There Goes the Gayborhood? demonstrates, the forces that shape the lives of immigrants—the pull and tug of identity and assimilation, cultural and market forces, discrimination and acceptance—are at work. Why should gays and lesbians who opt not to define themselves by their sexual identity behave any differently?