Why Our Cities’ Gayborhoods Are Dying
It may not be as bad as you think.
“Honey, we were 16 and unstoppable. Fabulous music, fabulous hair, leg warmers!” Karel Bouley, a Los Angeles TV, radio and podcast host, is telling me about the first time he went to the West Hollywood gay district in 1978. He and a friend would sneak into a disco for young gays, appropriately named the Odyssey.
“We’d leave the girls and head across the parking lot. We were chicken [aka fresh meat], so they gave us whatever we wanted,” Bouley reminisces. “We’d go in the back door, dance a song, say hi to the boys.
“It wasn’t so much sex or party as it was community,” Bouley continues. “[Back then] it wasn’t okay to be gay. Bars were safe places more than clubs; they were spaces to be honest and be yourself without fear.”
They were also places for “all-out fun and debauchery. You did things all teens and young people do, stupid shit, but then grew up along the way.”
Andrew Miller first visited Chicago’s Boystown in June 1992. “I was an early bloomer for that time,” he tells me. He was 17, dating a man and out to his friends. “I vividly remember it being the first time that I thought that being gay wasn’t going to kill me, but make me stronger,” says Miller, now 42 and an actor.
“It was still certainly referred to as the ‘gay ghetto,’” he says. “A far cry from what it is now. The run-down buildings are gone, but at the time it was a bit gritty and affordable. So bars — and young gays — flocked to it.”
In the 60s and 70s, white Baby Boomer families escaped crowded and crime-ridden cities for the suburbs. Amidst this “white flight,” gay people became the vanguard of urban renewal, moving into poor neighborhoods, where rents were cheap. Vacant retail lots and warehouses offered room for restaurants, bars, galleries and nightclubs.
Gay money — and sweat equity — was valued. In San Francisco, the immigrant populations from Ireland and Eastern Europe profited from the gay influx.
“Their apartments that had been empty for years and were shabby and falling apart were suddenly being rented to gay men who were piling in and redecorating and painting,” San Francisco gay activist Cleve Jones writes in Mother Jones. “So they were happy, they made a lot of money.”
Cheap rents promised sanctuary for young gay men whose parents threw them out after they came out. Musicians, actors, dancers, writers, poets, teachers, painters, sculptors and photographers joined them, relishing the affordability and the cultural vibe. So did activists, radicals, communists, socialists and grassroots politicians, who championed gay rights and a slew of other causes.
Then came gentrification.
White flight began reversing itself in the 80s and 90s. By then, gayborhoods had been remade into attractive walkable blocks of cafés and restaurants, cultural centers with galleries and coffee shops and party destinations teeming with bars and nightclubs.
As wealthy, straight whites moved in, they began to demand change.
“When the rich reclaimed these areas, they didn’t want to be next to a gay bar where people are drunk and loud, pouring out at two in the morning,” Jones writes.
When gays talk about the death of gayborhoods, they’re talking about the closure of businesses, like bath houses, adult theaters and gay bars (San Francisco’s last lesbian bar closed in 2014). But they’re also talking about an influx of straight people to their hoods.
“[Now] we have the bachelorette parties that use gay bars as their safe space,” Andrew Miller says, echoing a complaint I’ve heard numerous times. “And, unfortunately, gays feel violated in the process. And economic growth has a tendency to whitewash culture.”
“The gays have done their jobs so well, they are no longer able to be there. We always move in to a place, rehab it, up the property values and then straights take it over,” Bouley says.
“When you lose the gayborhoods, you lose the political power that comes when you’re concentrated in precincts, and you also lose the cultural vitality,” says Jones, reminiscing about San Francisco’s Castro district. “This is the neighborhood that gave us the rainbow flag, the first gay marching band, the first gay men’s chorus, the AIDS memorial quilt, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. You also lose the specialized social services that are so important for our most vulnerable — our youth, our seniors, people with HIV, transgender individuals.”
“We always move in to a place, rehab it, up the property values, and then straights take it over.”
Not all gays find refuge in gayborhoods, however. Ernest Owens edits G Philly, the LGBTQ section of Philadelphia magazine. He moved to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. He’d come from Houston, and he was black. His first stop was legendary gay club Woody’s.
“I immediately went from excited to uncomfortable,” Owens says. “The room was racially split in half. Blacks on one side, whites on the other. The vibe was visually segregated. Awkward. Most of my gay nightlife experiences [until then] were lived vicariously through films and magazines that looked like things were all inclusive and united. This [Woody’s] was nothing like that. Very quickly I began to notice that I was being fetishized before I even knew that was such a thing. White men grabbing my butt and telling me I had ‘a big black booty.’”
Owens volunteered, counseling queer youth at community centers. But he left the gayborhood nightlife scene alone. On return visits, he says Woody’s and other clubs “were exploitative and played off of drunken stereotypes that for me was uncomfortable and unbearable because 1) I wasn’t intoxicated and 2) I was reduced to either a sexual exploit or a racial pariah.”
Miller appears in a web series called “#Gayborhood” that sends up the flamboyant, often narcissistic personalities of Chicago’s Boystown. It also speaks to Owen’s experience of being racially stigmatized. The show satirizes how the LGBTQ community often self-segregates — racially, and also in terms of gender, social class and specific orientation.
“The notion of a complete unity in the LGBT community is a myth,” says Bouley. “We are as fractured as anyone. Some are racists. Most are not. Some are classist. Most are not.”
Philadelphia rebranded its gentrifying gay district “Midtown Village,” and straights frequently throw bachelorette parties in gay clubs. So does Owens mourn the death of the city’s gayborhood?
“Not really. I think this is the consequence of a community that was excluded now feeling exclusion elsewhere,” he says. “Cities like Philly and NYC have a rich culture of LGBTQ history that is outside of the confines of [just] the Gayborhood and the Village.”
Owens also points out that gentrification affects everyone.
“I think, now more than ever, this country should be striving to create safe spaces for LGBTQ across the board,” he says. “Too often, gayborhoods become elite spaces that are racially and socially divided along class lines. Its sole purpose becomes defeated. Now, we should be pushing to spread inclusion all over the country.”
Some say that’s already happening.
“We are in fact on the edge of a paradigm shift that will continue to normalize us as part of the cultural tapestry,” says Joe Murray, a 73-year-old married gay man in Chicago. The question, Murray says, “is how will this affect our community.”
Under the headline “Death of the ‘Gayborhood’ is a Sign of Progress,” Seattle radio host Jason Rantz writes that “times have changed in this country and the LGBT community is experiencing growing acceptance.” In Washington state, he says the fight for acceptance “is near over.”
Bouley is more cautious: “There are not gay safe spaces everywhere. That’s a myth.” He says arguments like Rantz’s made more sense when Obama was president and we all thought Hillary would be next.
“Under Obama…maybe not having ‘gay’ bars or stores…was OK,” says Bouley. “But soon we’ll see the importance, again, of these places. As we come under attack yet again — and we will.” Bouley predicts new gayborhoods will pop up in lower-rent neighborhoods and cities. “Places with potential. Undiscovered gems. We discover them. We make silk purses out of sow’s ears.”
He says gayborhoods are popping up in more affordable places like Portland and Palm Springs, CA. Murray says Chicago’s more affordable Andersonville neighborhood has attracted gay men for 15 years — plus a thriving community of lesbians: “In some LGBTQ circles it is referred to as Girlstown.”
“We are not straight. We are not the same,” Bouley concludes. “We are in fact, different. But differences should be reveled in, not legislated against. I never wanted equality because I am just like you or anyone else. I wanted it BECAUSE I am different.”
Bouley feels we’ll always have gayborhoods. They might just not be the same ones we have now.