The strange death of the Gay District

Many of the most gin-soaked, euphoric and, poignant moments of my life have happened in gay districts. My first kiss, my first attempts at flirting, the time I made out with my boyfriend in the rain when the club told me I was too drunk to get in. Because I went to an all boys-school in the countryside, I was the only gay person that I knew growing up. It was in Birmingham’s gay district that I first realized that there were other people like me.

This week, bar owners in London are warning that they are threatened with closure due to rent rises. It’s becoming a familiar story. Bars in gay districts that were previously thriving are changing ownership, to be replaced by residential units and craft cocktail bars. Areas that were previously known for their head shops, sex dungeons, all-night cafes and LGBT watering holes are being stale pastiches of themselves.

‘These increased huge rate increases are ridiculous. You don’t get a say in it. You can try and appeal it but it will take two to three years to go to appeal” — Jeremy Joseph, G-A-Y

We all, us who can remember gay districts as they were, remember a club that had a profound influence on us growing up. The Astoria — torn down in 2008 in an act of cultural vandalism that that part of London has never quite recovered from — hosted G-A-Y, an outlandishly camp night that managed to pull off the balancing act of targeting younger people while making older guys feel welcome. Its replacement, Heaven, aspires to the same magic but falls somehow just short.

Much has been made of the end of “separation” in the gay community. How, as decades of inequality and discrimination are rolled back, the “visibility gap” is disappearing. Straight people are becoming gay allies, and gay people are becoming more indistinguishable from straights. The need to “be seen” and “visible” as an LGBT person is running into the reality that sometimes changes happens more efficiently when marginalized populations blend into the background.

How important is “being seen” to the emotional well-being of LGBTQ people, and does the idea of a “gayborhood” still serve the LGBTQ community?

Gentrification certainly plays a role here. Even many of my gay friends say that they would rather the gay district had more upmarket wine bars and eateries. The gay nightclub is passé, they argue, a throwback to an era when all we had was Gaydar and the handkerchief code. Many of them do not lust after an era where contact with gay people meant staying out in a sweaty club until 4 am. They laugh that there was ever an era where nightclubs had rows of computers where people could log in to a dating website, and still more that people ever used those things.

We’ve slipped silently into a new era of gay equality: where a generation of young LGBTQs are growing up without reference to the struggles of HIV/AIDS, bars being raided at dawn and homophobic abuse on the streets. For sure, today’s LGBTQs have their own struggles, like body shaming, queer mental health and protection of the transgender community, but these no longer require gay people to huddle amongst themselves. While LGBTQ spaces will always provide a focal point during moments of great trauma for the gay community, such as Manchester or Orlando, and gay “traditions” such as drag and karaoke on a Sunday will live on, the gay ghetto plays an increasingly less significant role in LGBTQ life.

The slow death of the gay village has happened in sharp relief to the expansion of gay-friendly neighborhoods elsewhere in town. A gay district used to be based on a particular geographic area that locals and tourists could point too. This area would be marked by LGBT flags above the bars, and these areas would act as a focal point for events such as Pride. Today, if you walk through Greenwich Village, the area feels moribund. Gays of New York have migrated north, into Hell’s Kitchen, where LGBTQ culture is just one of many cultures.

And while health care, community organizations, non-profits and churches being within a particular location used to matter a great deal when there was a stigma attached to being gay, these functions have now dispersed into the wider community. LGBTQs can now access these things anywhere. People can take an HIV test either at their local doctors or at home if they so wish and have hundreds of options for meeting other gay people.

Many, particularly older, gays, still hold a sentimental attachment to the idea of a gay district. For them they will always be the place where they first went to make friends, to meet people like them, to hook up, and to find a partner. They’ll always be the place where LGBTQ people can stand in opposition to the world. They cherish the bizarre rituals and the sense of history.

As we mark the Pride month and the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of sexuality in the UK, it’s worth asking some questions about the role of this kind of visibility politics. How important are gay districts to the advances of minorities? How important is “being seen” to the emotional well-being of LGBTQ people, and does the idea of a “gayborhood” still serve the LGBTQ community?

To understand why gay districts are hollowing out now, you have to know how they came to be in the first place. The modern American gay community, as we are aware, entered into existence as a result of World War II. Even before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, there were ructions in the military about homosexuality, and during the Second World War, many gays and lesbians were discharged for homosexual activity.

The gays that were discharged were not well treated when they came home. At that time, homosexuality was still very much treated a psychiatric disorder, so not only were many discharged soldiers barred from receiving any GI rights or benefits and getting civilian jobs, they were also often locked away in military psychiatric wards and tested on. One such test was the “Gag Reflex Test,” where a tongue depressor was stuck down a man’s throat. If he did not gag, this was because he had performed oral sex so many times that it no longer worked. After the war, gay men stationed in Europe were packed onto “queer” ships and sent home with dishonorable discharges.

If anything good can be said to have come from the crackdown on homosexuality in the military, it was that it gave birth to the LGBT Civil Rights movement in America. Much like today, many GIs were appalled by being told that they could not serve their country, and many veterans came out completely and began to advocate for change. Some got involved in proto-homophile organizations such as the Mattachine Society. Others, none too keen to return to small town America after the war, settled in the major coastal cities. For the first time, America’s cities had a critical mass of LGBT people, laying the foundation for Stonewall and the gay liberation movement.

“From that day on, nobody ran for anything in San Francisco without knocking on the door of the gay community.”

Over time, these groups gradually started to gain political influence for gay people for the first time. José Julio Sarria had served in the United States Army during World War II. Following his discharge, he served as a teacher, frequented the Black Cat and was eventually hired, first working as a waiter and then as a drag performer. After the 1959 San Francisco mayoral election, where police leniency towards homosexuals was one of the major issues, Sarria ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Sarria was the first openly gay candidate for public office in the United States. In winning nearly 6,000 votes and finishing ninth, Sarria shocked pundits, and for the first time, the idea that a gay voting bloc could wield power in city politics took hold. As Terence Kissack, former executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, would later comment, “[He] put the gay vote on the map.” As Sarria himself put it, “From that day on, nobody ran for anything in San Francisco without knocking on the door of the gay community.

It’s an open question whether we have gayborhoods today. Is Hell’s Kitchen a gayborhood? How about Williamsburg or Chelsea? Or Shoreditch or Dalston in the UK? Or Neukoln in Berlin? Sure, they all have gay bars and plenty of gays. But they also have a lot else, and other groups of people besides. Is it not cause for celebration that gay life has moved out of a small, rapidly gentrifying corner of Lower Manhattan? Should we not celebrate the fact that gay hip hop nights now exist? Does it matter if the act of meeting and connecting with gay people has moved from offline to online? When straight people come to gay spaces, it’s, of course, important that they feel welcome, but who does it really serve if we make them feel like second-class citizens when we do?

This debate rages online as well. When Pride in London released a set of posters for Pride in London focusing on winning over straight allies, the campaign was savaged on Twitter for prioritizing the voices of heterosexuals. The advertising agency behind the campaign had no doubt run focus groups and found, as opinion research in the States did on the issue of gay marriage, that ads featuring same-sex couples were not the way to persuade people sitting on the fence to back equality, and that ads showing straight supporters performed better. So what is more important here, the feelings of LGBTQ people, or advancing the cause of justice? Increasingly often these things are coming into conflict.

Too often, we want to have our cake and eat it: demanding integration and acceptance but also the right to slam the door of the gay ghetto shut and turf straight allies out for relatively minor transgressions. Hen parties are a small, negative side effect of gay bars being a nice place to hang out, and gay people have every right to demand respect in their own spaces, but not knowing all the words to Sissy That Walk is not a hate crime. Part of this new phase of adjustment will be nudging our straight allies towards better and more considerate behaviors. There are equally times when a straight presence will not always be welcome, however well-intentioned.

Social change has happened, to the extent that we could previously only have dreamed of. 65% of people have a friend or a close family member that is LGBT. The average age for coming out fifty years ago was 37. 37! Today it’s 17, and many are coming out before that. 7.3% now identify as LGBTQ, compared to 2.4% of baby boomers (shout out to my lesbian mum!). Increasingly our own narratives are intertwined with those of heterosexuals, not because heteronormativity is taking over, but because demography demands it. Segregating ourselves from straight friends, colleagues, and allies on a night out is not always an appealing proposition.

And yet, the more “safe spaces” such as Greenwich and Soho fade into history, the more we seem to need them. The Orlando and Manchester attacks both demonstrated that hateful bigotry is still very much out there. Most gay people have a tale of coming home from the club and facing homophobic abuse or a physical attack. In many parts of the world, there are no safe spaces for gay people, to the extent that discussing whether we need them in the West seems even complacent.

Gay districts have nurtured us, offering a sanctuary during some of the darkest moments in our history. Yet the brutal logic of the market dictates that for the most part, people no longer want to drink in them to the extent that they once did. This is a strange consequence of drinking establishments being such a part of our history. They’d never pack up the Statue of Liberty or Central Park if people stopped visiting it, but if people stop visiting a bar, then sooner or later, that bar is going to have to close, regardless of its cultural significance. One of the biggest jobs of our generation is to preserve LGBT history when the generation that has fought for our rights are no longer around to do so.

I’m an optimist about what the future looks like. I’d like to see more gay spaces open up around our largest cities, around the country, and around the world. I’d like gay areas to be, actually wherever gay people feel like living. I want a place with a nice riverside walk, shops, bars, and space to walk with my kids and my future husband. While protecting our historic areas, let’s set out to make the whole world a gay village.

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