Gay people moving ‘out’ of their neighbourhoods

With a gay marriage referendum due in spring, are gay quarters a relic of the past? asks Kay Cairns

PHALLIC rainbow ‘pylons’ penetrate the skies, bronze plaques commemorating LGBT activists line the paths, and an abundance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people moves proudly through the streets. It feels like a Broadway musical. This is Boystown, Chicago, the first official gay village in the US, and the focal point of There Goes the Gayborhood?, a book by Amin Ghaziani, a University of British Columbia sociologist.

Ghaziani lived in Boystown, before leaving to study, like many other LGBT people, a phenomenon he calls the “de-gaying” of such neighbourhoods. Gayborhoods have existed in the western world for decades. San Francisco’s Castro and London’s Soho are prime examples. Ghaziani says: “At the end of a long day, gayborhoods promise an incomparable sense of safety, a place where gays and lesbians can seek refuge from ongoing heterosexual hostilities, hate crimes, discrimination, bigotry and bias.”

Capel St, in Dublin’s city centre, is Ireland’s closest approximation of a gayborhood, with its LGBT community centre, Outhouse, gay pub, Panti Bar, and numerous sex shops. But Irish Queer Archive founder Tonie Walsh says even this area could, and should, be swept up into wider culture.

Ghaziani says cities go through three distinct eras — the closeted phase, the coming-out phase and the post-gay phase. Coined by British journalist, Paul Burston, in 1994, ‘post-gay’ refers to the idea that LGBT people are more than their sexual and gender identities. Ghaziani says this mentality has spread through the western world, and has led many people to no longer feel the need to live in gay residential areas.

Walsh says that Ireland skipped the coming-out phase, reaching post-gay even before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993. He says: “People like me, growing up in the 1980s, when life was a little bit grim, had huge difficulties accessing LGBT services. LGBT people would use their local, because they’re known in their little village, they’re known in their personal space. And they’re integrated, too.” He says this culture of diversity has prevented a ghettoisation in Dublin.

Nate Silver, statistician and Out Magazine’s 2012 person of the year, is a manifestation of the American cultural path. He’s known for controversially referring to himself as “ethnically straight”. Ghaziani writes that, increasingly, younger people in the US consider their sexual orientation secondary to their place in life, a life that, says Paul Aguirre-Livingston, “in most ways is not about being gay at all”.

Elderly members of the LGBT community still seek out these safe sanctuaries, however, with gay retirement homes popping up across the globe. The first, Triangle Square, opened in Hollywood in 2007, followed by one in Stockholm, another in Berlin, and plans for more in Spain, France, and the Netherlands. These are important spaces for people who would have lived through a difficult era and wish to celebrate and embrace their gay culture.

Ghaziani quotes Michael Warner, Yale University professor: “To be fully normal is, strictly speaking, impossible. Everyone deviates from the norm in some way. Even if one belongs to the statistical majority in age, group, race, height, weight, frequency of orgasms, gender of sexual partners, and annual income, then, simply by virtue of this unlikely combination of normalcies, one’s profile would already depart from the normal.” And so, is it normal to be normal?

By pushing an image of normality, the LGBT community may be perpetuating the stigma of gay relationships. Warner says: “Ultimately, it is hard to claim that homosexuality is relevant as long as you feel the need to make the claim.”

While gays are leaving gayborhoods, straights are moving in. The number of gay men living in gay enclaves in the US has declined 8%, while the number of lesbians has dropped 13% in the last 10 years. Gayborhoods tend to have the best schools, amenities and nightlife, perfect for young families. In Dublin, this straightening has manifested itself in the metropolitan nature of Rathmines, a residential gayborhood. Buggies and nail bars accompany the nightlife and cultural amenities that smarten up the south city area.

An influx of straight couples to gayborhoods doesn’t necessarily mean acceptance. Some people say they live in a “diverse neighbourhood” as opposed to a “gay neighbourhood”. This detaches the neighbourhood from any particular community, but invites heterosexuals into it. It’s only cautiously that Rathmines could be referred to as a gayborhood. Gavin Brown, British geographer, is quoted in the book as saying this distinction helps residents “to overcome their discomfort with being ‘out of place’ in a gay space.” But it’s usually the LGBT population that feels out of place in a straight world, a concept known as heteronormativity. This affects gay bars. too. “Every Friday and Saturday night, we’re flooded with requests from straight girls in penis hats who want to ogle our go-gos, dance with the gays and celebrate their pending nuptials,”, quotes Ghaziani of David Cooley, founder of West Hollywood venue, The Abbey. The bar implemented a ban on hen parties in 2012, explaining the new policy was in response to “an offensive heterosexual tradition [that] flaunts marriage inequality in the face of gays and lesbians.

Straight gayborhood residents in Chicago, when asked for comment on the gay part of their gayborhood, defensively retorted that integration was the desired outcome that gay people have wanted. Ghaziani says: “Their inaction, in other words, freed them from any real responsibility.” He calls this blissful ignorance performance progressiveness.

Walsh says this performance progressiveness is the reason for Dublin’s gay bars and gay-friendly businesses. He says: “There was a distinctive shift after decriminalisation, alongside the Celtic Tiger. The way that the commercial sector opened itself to us, its almost as if decriminalisation woke them up to our commercial potential.”

Ghaziani warns that this exploitation, and marketing, of tolerance can be used as a lure to creative classes allegedly willing to shape the future of our cities. These concerns are shared by Walsh, who asks county councils to cater for their LGBT communities with more than just an annual Pride parade. “We need to give practical expression to notions of diversity and inclusion. Otherwise, there’ll be a flight of human capital to the larger urban centres, where those kind of facilities are more embedded.”

Dublin may have bypassed coming out, but it’s gay all the same. Quentin Crisp sums up the issue: gay people have “everything in common with nine-tenths of the human race.” Gayborhoods have their place, but not without wider acceptance of LGBT people in society.

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