The Sad Demise, Glorious Triumph, and Mysterious Disappearance of the Gayborhood?*

 402336_306794986024857_1039065546_n  Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design  

This post is part of a series of posts I’ve written on sexuality and space, specifically addressing issues of where LGBT populations live and why.  See “Can Living in the City Make you Gay?” and “Why More Lesbians (Might) Live in Rural Communities than Gay Men” for the first two in the series.

the CastroThe gayborhood is a relatively new cultural phenomenon. While groups of gay men and lesbians have sought living spaces organized around sexual identity for a long time, neighborhoods actively recognized as “gayborhoods” by others is something arguably more recent.  Indeed, as Amin Ghaziani writes, “It’s quixotic to think that gay neighborhoods have always been around and will never change” (here).  Sociological research on gayborhoods asks a few different kinds of questions: How and why do gay neighborhoods emerge?  What kinds of factors shape their growth and endurance?  What kinds of processes and forces threaten their existence?

A variety of social forces account for the emergence of gayborhoods.  Ghaziani discusses the pivotal role that World War II played in their emergence.  As men and women came home–some after being dishonorably discharged from service (as a result of their sexuality)–they settled in port cities like San Francisco.  But, gayborhoods were also emerging prior to WWII as well.  Yet, these early, largely urban, gay enclaves were distinguished by their unpublicized nature.  They were spaces to which people with same-sex desires could go to locate one another.  Ghaziani remarks, however, that the post-WWII U.S. was marked by a shift toward the development of increasingly formalized urban gay districts in some of the larger U.S. cities.

It’s difficult to chart the emergence of gay enclaves.  But, scholars in a variety of disciplines have helped to piece together this complex puzzle.  One of the endeavors that has produced a variety of responses is Alan Collinspath model of the emergence of gayborhoods.

Collins’ Economic Developmental Model

Collins ModelIn a nutshell, Collins takes an economic perspective and identifies a pattern in the emergence and development of urban gay spaces using Soho Gay Village in London as a case study.  I put together a summary chart of Collins’ model (right) for ease of explanation.  Collins discusses the pattern he identifies as follows:

This is characterised by an urban area in decline progressing through several broad stages of economic enterprise denoted by: sexual and legal liminality; gay male social and recreational opportunities; a widening service-sector business base; and ultimately, the assimilation of the area into the fashionable mainstream. (here)

The model is linear, and assumes (or prescribes) a single (optimal?) path of development for gayborhoods with the ultimate goal of undoing themselves.  The final stage–what Collins calls “integration”–is characterized by: increased presence of straights frequenting gay run establishments, increasing residential presence of heterosexuals, an increased presence of mainstream society service-sector businesses, the building of new apartment buildings to house the influx of straights and as a result of increasing property values and rents, and finally the movement of some of the existing gay population to other spaces (new gay enclaves, suburbs).  Collins is pretty positive about this development, and certainly, some LGBT populations benefit a great deal in the process of this transition.  But, Collins’ stage 4 leaves the sociologist in me a bit dissatisfied–and I’m not alone here.

Critiquing Collins’ Model

Referring to this process as “integration” is–in my reading–one of the least critical lights possible to shine on this process.  From a very different perspective, Jon Binnie refers to the process Collins identifies here as “colonization” and the “quartering” of sexualities.  Indeed, Collins recognizes some of this criticism.  As he writes, “[A]ssimilation of gay social spaces into the fashionable socio-sexual mainstream advances, but may feature, along the way, varying degrees of resentment from some quarters of the gay community that would prefer to retain more sexually exclusive social space” (here).  But, he’s not overly concerned with this throughout.

To frame this as simple “preference,” however, risks ignoring the populations within the LGBT community that may perceive increasing straight presence as dangerous.  It also risks ignoring LGBT populations most vulnerable in this transformation: the young, the old, the poor or lower income, trans individuals, etc.  Many of the opportunities that might have initially attracted LGBT migration might also be pushed out in this processes, along with certain businesses and services (e.g., bars, gay book stores, cafes, bathhouses), while other portions of local pink economies (e.g., small numbers of gay bars and clubs and select service-sector gay-run lifestyle enterprises) might have more elective affinity with the interests and desires of the new wave of straight in-migration.  Thus, what emerges as mainstream “gay culture” is a process intimately intertwined with existing systems of power and inequality.

Indeed, while gay men and women who moved early and were able acquire property stand to make great gains in this process.  But, less fortunate and financially able gay residents will become increasingly likely to be “priced out” of these neighborhoods–a point Brad Ruting makes in his critique of Collins’ model and analysis of Sydney’s Oxford Street district.  Similarly, in Andrew Sullivan’s essay, “The End of Gay Culture,” he suggests: “Where, once, gayness trumped class, now the reverse is true” (here).

While Collins’ model seems to predict that gay urban enclaves will somehow inevitably be integrated into mainstream urban economies, Ruting argues that what Collins calls “integration” is much more likely to result in the dispersal of LGBT populations to other, fringe areas.  Yet, rather than simply “choosing” to leave–as Collins model seems to suggest–Ruting frames this as a process of “exodus.”

This has played out far beyond transitions in gay urban enclaves.  Steve Valocchi argues that gay identities are “class-inflected” (here) and traces a historical process whereby gay identities have gone from political categories to lifestyle choices.  This classed conceptualization of gay culture is potentially working against LGBT community.  Working from a similar premise, Ruting argues, “Paradoxically, the economic forces associated with gay culture are in part acting against the consolidation and vibrancy of gay urban spaces” (here).  Thus, the transformation Collins describes as “integration” is part of a larger process Ruting argues is more aptly described as “de-gaying.”

On the Consequences of Conformity

Ghaziani is right to highlight this process as “uneven and incomplete.”  Certain populations within the LGBT community might benefit from the assimilation or gay spaces in ways others will not be able to.  Similarly, in Jane Ward‘s analysis of West Hollywood’s pride celebration, she notes that as the events have become increasingly mainstream, they have lost much of their political character in favor of celebrations of definitions of gay culture that inevitably marginalize portions of the gay community.

phili gayborhoodIndeed, many cities with nationally recognized gayborhoods have begun to treat them as natural resources to be marketed to tourists.  The Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus even produced a map (left) delineating the boundaries of the gayborhood, complete with historical sites of community activism and noteworthy gay-run establishments.

As Ghaziani, Ward, and Ruting all suggest, however, the mainstreaming of gay culture comes at a cost.  Similarly, Joshua Gamson suggests that boundaries are important aspect of processes of collective identities.  As collective identities emerge and become increasingly mainstream, some groups are highlighted, while others are excluded.  Examining these processes of exclusion is important as these are marginalized groups within marginalized groups.  This is not necessarily a critique of the Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus as their stated goals include the production of a safe, productive, inclusive community.Yet, processes of marginalization need not be the result of directly kicking certain groups out of these areas.  Indeed, discrimination can occur simply by omission.

Petra Doan and Harrison Higgins’ analysis of Atlanta’s gay urban enclave–Midtown–critically highlights this dynamic.  Relying on both Census data and interviews with Midtown residents and ex-residents, Doan and Higgins note how nonconformist populations of LGBT individuals often ended up ignored in planning efforts.  In addition to tracing some LGBT residential dispersion using Census data, the interviews with Midtown residents illustrated views of gentrification (and assimilation) as a mixed blessing.

To those early residents who invested their own hard work and capital into gentrifying neighborhoods, the rise in housing values appears justified, even if accompanying changes have resulted in both diminished tolerance for visibly queer people and greater hardship for LGBT businesses, institutions, and moderate-income LGBT people.  However, there is clearly a trade-off between personal gains from the high property values in better-established neighborhoods and the community benefits from having an inclusive and affordable queer space that welcomes most, tough not necessarily all, of the LGBT community. (here).

The dislocation of less advantaged groups within the LGBT community is a serious trade-off.  Yet, these effects are by primarily highlighting the gains made by others, potentially leading to what Daniel Harris refers to as “subcultural forfeiture” in The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture.  For instance, transformations in established gayborhoods might disproportionately affect LGBT youth and retired individuals on fixed incomes. Trans individuals and individuals who fail to conform to mainstream gay culture may also be dislocated in this process.

Beyond these considerations are those associated with LGBT activism and community engagement.  LGBT activism and political organization has often emerged out of gay urban enclaves.  The loss of these strategic bases for activism and political mobilization could have long-term effects less easy to calculate.  LGBT dislocation may in fact increase the vulnerability of populations forced to find homes elsewhere.  But, it also destabilizes strategic bases for political mobilization.  For instance, resurgent gentrification could restrict LGBT organizing efforts.  As Doan and Higgins argue, “political mobilization has devolved into a politics of the personal–the preservation of property values and neighborhood enhancement issues–making it more difficult to organize around broader LGBT issues” (here).

pinkhouse1009These processes are made all the more troubling by a recent study from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Developing on “Housing Discrimination against Same-Sex Couples.”  Applications for rental from same-sex couples compared with heterosexual couples were systematically less likely to receive favorable responses from landlords.  And jurisdictions with anti-discrimination laws based on sexuality exhibited more sexual housing discrimination than those without such laws.**  This makes it all the more difficult to find places to live above and beyond financial considerations of displaced LGBT populations.

Toward a Multi-Path Model of the Emergence and Development of Gay Urban Enclaves

So, to begin to conclude an already-too-long post, Collins’ model was incredibly important as it helped construct a conversation about the kinds of things that prompt the construction and evolution of urban gay spaces.  Yet, his model was overly simplified, and artificially frames the effects of resurgent gentrification in established LGBT enclaves as (primarily) positive for the neighborhood, community, and LGBT individuals more generally.  Other scholars discuss the effects of what Collins’ terms “integration” as more costly than the model suggests.

Rather than attempting to consider a single evolutionary path for gayborhoods, we ought to acknowledge that urban gay enclaves are less homogenous than a simple model implicitly suggests and recognize that there are a variety of “paths” that gay urban enclaves might take.  Indeed, as Binnie argues, “The notion of there being such a generic entity as a ‘gay village’ is itself problematic” (here).  More research is needed considering the variety of gayborhoods.  What kinds of factors play a role in their emergence?  What sorts of elements or social forces produce resurgent gentrification?  How are some able to retain a distinctive “gay” identity in the face of these shifts (and at what cost)?  Does the development of gay urban spaces follow one path?  Or, are multiple outcomes possible?  And if so, what leads to these different outcomes and what are their consequences for the LGBT communities who rely on them?

Below, I drew up a multi-path model I put together while reading for the emergence and development of gay urban enclaves, highlighting significant questions we can ask at different junctures.  I realize some of these questions are answered.  But it’s still interesting to attempt to visually situate these different outcomes.

Multi-path Model of Gay Urban EnclavesA couple of key points in this model that I do think are lacking (to my knowledge) in the existing literature are: (1) some analysis of instance in which gayborhoods fail to emerge (despite having “the right” pre-conditions), (2) further research into the populations displaced by the emergence of LGBT urban enclaves, and–consistent with some of Ghaziani’s suggestions–(3) a more thoughtful consideration of whether all gayborhoods actually are in demise.


*I’m indebted to Theo Greene for directing me to this body of research on the emergence and decline of gayborhoods.  Greene’s dissertation involves ethnographic, interview and archival research and traces the trajectories of three gay urban spaces in D.C.  Many of the issues addressed in this post are likely much better analyzed in his work.  I can’t wait to see the publications that result!  I also took a great deal from Amin Ghaziani‘s analysis of the alleged demise of the gayborhood in Contexts.  His short analysis makes me think of something new every time I read it.  Ghaziani’s book on the topic–There Goes the Gayborhood?–is forthcoming out of Princeton UP in 2014.  I’m sure he also tackles many of the issues I pose here.

**For instance, discrimination based on sexual orientation is not something legally prohibited by the federal Fair Housing Act.

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