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The Future of Our Gay Neighborhoods

We asked a sociologist about the evolution of places like London's Soho and San Francisco's Castro district, and why gay people tend to bunch together in the first place.
September 18, 2014, 7:30am

From London's Soho to San Francisco's Castro district, most metropolitan cities boast an area where gay men can walk down the street wearing chapless trousers in peace, and where lesbians can get their bikes fixed by other lesbians.

Amin Ghaziani is a professor in sociology and the author of a new book titled There Goes the Gayborhood? Taking him six years to complete, it's a comprehensive look at how these enclaves of acceptance come to be, what their main characteristics are, and how they have changed over time, whether it be through degeneration or gentrification.

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The book prompts questions for gay and straight people alike: "As society in the UK and US gradually become more accepting of homosexuality, is there still a need for these 'safe spaces'?" "What if I'm gay but don't care about living near other gay people?" "Where the hell should I invest my hard earned pink pounds?"

We caught up with Professor Ghaziani in search of some answers.

VICE: Hey, Amin. I guess it makes sense to start at the beginning—how do "gayborhoods" come about? 
Amin Ghaziani: Gay neighborhoods began to form following World War Two when many gay men and lesbians were discharged from the military as a result of their real or perceived homosexuality. Rather than returning home disgraced, many chose to remain behind in port cities or major metropolitan areas. These areas then flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, during a period that demographers refer to as the ‘Great Gay migration,' whereby individuals who were living in small satellite towns perceived the gay districts in major cities as a beacon of tolerance in a sea of heterosexual hostilities.

The Castro, San Francisco. Photo via Wikimedia Commons 

What are the defining characteristics of a ‘gayborhood’?

Gay neighborhoods have four defining characteristics. They have a distinct geographic focal point: In other words, locals and tourists can point it out on a map, usually by identifying one of two specific streets. They have a unique culture: LGBT individuals set the tone or character of the area, which is why rainbow flags are visible as you walk along its streets. They have a concentration of residences: Although not everyone who lives in a gay neighborhood self-identifies as gay or lesbian, a statistically sizable proportion of individuals do. Finally, they have a cluster of commercial spaces and nonprofit community organizations, ranging from bars to bookstores to community centers.

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How to gayborhoods in the UK differ to those in North America?
You tend to only see three of those four characteristics in London’s Soho. They have a distinct geographic focal point, a unique culture and a cluster of commercial spaces—but the area doesn’t necessarily have the same concentration of residences that you see in major gay neighbourhoods in the United States and Canada. This is probably because London has a effective public transportation system that makes the area accessible to a wide range of individuals.

This isn't the case for all urban districts in the UK, however. The gay village in Birmingham developed based on the idea of what economist Alan Collins called “Critical Gay Population Size.” In other words, "birds of a feather flock together”; a gay population beyond a critical threshold becomes a type of amenity that other non-hetrosexuals seek as they make residential decisions. This doesn’t really apply to Soho.

Brewer Street, Soho. Photo via Wikimedia commons 

What’s been you experience of living in North American gay neighborhoods?
I have always tried to live in gay neighborhoods. During graduate school I lived in Chicago’s Boystown district. Now I teach at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver and live in the West End, which is also a gay neighborhood.

They appeal to me for a number of reasons. Straight people will always outnumber gay people. That’s just a fact of life. I have always felt it’s nice to live in a place where I can see other people who are like me, where I can see two men holding hands or two women holding hands, where I can see the iconography of the LGBT community as I walk the streets. It’s also easier to meet other gay people.

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Do you think it’s about safe spaces too?
I do, yes. This is a very important point. Historically, gay neighborhoods are spatial expressions of a specific form of oppression. If the form of oppression changes, so will the spatial expression. So we live in a moment of unprecedented societal acceptance of homosexuality, and as a result the meaning and the composition of these districts are in flux.

Right. So this so-called era of “post-gay” acceptance, could you say that gay neighborhoods are under threat? Or, at least, gay communities are dissipating?
I don’t know if I want to say that they are under threat. That’s an aggressive word. I think that these urban districts are reflections of populations and they are reflections of societal attitudes. The neighborhoods will remain, but they may become more of a cultural repository than the safe spaces that they were.

To say that we live in a time of unprecedented societal acceptance of homosexuality is a bit of a generalization anyway, because not all sub groups are equally accepted; crimes against transgender individuals continue at alarming rates, and LGBT people of color do not necessarily feel the same levels of acceptance either by straight society or within the LGBT community. We also know that young people who are coming out of the closet still find themselves drawn to these districts. And so many types of individuals feel just a little bit safer in gay neighborhoods than they do beyond its borders.

Photo collage via cultiple Flickr users. Complete credits here

According to your research, gay neighborhoods have a greater tendency to become gentrified. Why is that? 
Research certainly shows that gay men and lesbians play a part in the early stages of urban revitalization. Lesbians actually come first. There is a sociologist in New York who has characterized lesbians as “canaries in an urban coal mine.” They typically seek out areas of the city that are affordable and have a progressive reputation where they can be around others who are like them. They will typically plug into the infrastructure of the area such as progressive coffee shops, co-op grocery stores, bike stores, counter cultural theaters, and so on.

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Gay men arrive later. Often some of them will feel like they are being pushed out of an existing area because it’s become too expensive or too straight. When they try to figure out where they want to move, they see that several lesbian friends of theirs live in a given area, so they flock to that area. Gay men, rather than utilizing existing resources in a neighborhood, tend to build new commercial areas. Bars, home décor stores, and any number of different businesses. That then increases the real estate value of the area.

We also know from economics that, in the US at least, the gayer the block, the faster its values will rise. Areas that have large concentrations of same-sex households experience greater increases in house prices compared with the national average. More specifically, in areas where male same-sex households compose more than 1 percent of the population, we see approximately 14 percent increases in housing prices. In areas where female same-sex households compose more than 1 percent of the population, we see a 16.5 percent increase in price. The national average in comparison is 10 percent. So, clearly, areas that have gay and lesbian households will experience greater increases in house prices.

London's Soho during Gay Pride. Photo by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

What did you learn/draw from the book?
What drove me to the project was trying to understand why these neighborhoods are changing. One explanation is what I call an expansion of the residential imagination: Basically, certain progressive cities are becoming the equivalent of gay neighborhoods. Where, say, once the Village was the gay neighborhood in New York, some individuals now say the entire island of Manhattan is gay.

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Another thing I learned is that new areas are forming in cities. There are now more areas that have a distinct association with same-sex sexuality than we have ever seen before. We are seeing the emergence of same-sex households with children and these families tend to make very similar and systematic decisions about where to live. We are also seeing clusters for LGBT people of color; New Yorkers talk about Chelsea on the one hand and “Chocolate Chelsea" on the other hand, and they talk about “Hell's Kitchen” on the one hand and an LGBT Latino “Hell's Cocina” on the other. We see distinct settlements for lesbians: A tiny town in Northampton, Massachusetts, was dubbed “Lesbianville, USA,” by the National Enquirer.

This was one of the biggest surprises in doing the book: to find that there are now so many more areas. Plurality is the name of the new game, rather than the death and demise of the one and only gay neighbourhood.

Thanks, Amin. 

You can pick up a copy of There Goes the Gayborhood? on Amazon.

Follow Amelia Abraham and Amin Ghaziani on Twitter.