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What is Happening to the Gayborhood?

Sheena C. Howard

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Sheena C. Howard is Founder of NerdWorks and Assistant Professor of Communication at Rider University. Howard is an award-winning author, including a 2014 Eisner Award winner for her first book, Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation (2013). She is also the author of Black Queer Identity Matrix (2014) and Critical Articulations of Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation (2014). Howard has appeared on NPR (National Public Radio), 900 am WURD, Philadelphia Weekly and CCP-TV as well as other networks and documentaries as an expert on popular culture, race, politics and sexual identity negotiation. She has also written opinion pieces for the Trentonian.
posted by Sheena C. Howard on Aug 25, 2014 10:30am | comments


In 2007 Philadelphia became the second American city (after Chicago) to mark one of its neighborhoods as gay by officially renaming a portion of the city as "the gayborhood". Today, across all major cities, we see a shift in the cultural make-up and dynamics of gayborhoods. What is happening to the ‘gayborhood'? is the impetus for Amin Ghaziani's book, There goes the gayborhood? Ghaziani sets out to explore the cultural, social and political shifts that are having a huge impact on gayborhoods across major cities in the country.

The shifting of the cultural dynamics of Philadelphia's gayborhood is readily apparent and Ghaziani's book provides several insights that are of relevance to Philadelphia's gay/ lesbian scene. As we see staples in the gayborhood closing its doors, such as Sisters lesbian bar and Giovanni's Room, the assimilation of straight residents moving into gay areas as well as the declining number of gay and lesbian bars in the city of Philadelphia, there is cause for concern for some city residents.

There are four major factors that are having an impact on the cultural and economic dynamics of gayborhoods across the country, these are: legislation, assimilation, technology and age. Gayborhoods are losing their relevance as the LGBTQ community wins legal rights and greater social acceptance. Legal rights do not translate into greater social acceptance, however the significance of federal legislation and state to state acceptance of gay marriage provides many lesbian and gay individuals with a sense of social acceptance and as a result provides them with greater options on where they choose to live. In other words, gay and lesbian people do not feel confined or obligated to live in specific neighborhoods or neighborhoods historically identified as gayborhoods; they simply feel just as comfortable living in other areas of the city, including rural and suburban areas. Many gayborhoods formed during the "coming out" era and as we move to what, Ghaziani calls a "post-gay era" we can expect to see gayborhoods disintegrate, as there is less discrimination and violence. For Ghaziani, individuals who identify as "post-gay" define themselves by more than their sexuality, and they disentangle it from a sense of militancy and struggle. Post gays feel free from persecution, even while they acknowledge that inequalities persist, and they prefer sexually mixed company (p. 28). This encompasses a new generation of gay/ lesbian people. As the younger generation views sexual orientation as less taboo than the generation that precedes them and as the older generation of gay and lesbian individuals feel less of a need for external acceptance, the density of gay and lesbian individuals living and participating in gayborhoods declines.

In major cities across the United States, such as Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, many people feel as though the entire city is "gay" – meaning no matter what part of the city you are in, you will see gay and lesbian people. Therefore, focusing on living, partying and patronizing organizations specifically located in the gayborhood is not as paramount as it once was.

A few years ago in Canada, a gay activist group plastered fliers all over Davie Village, Vancouver's gayborhood which read, "MORE GRINDR = FEWER GAY BARS". The influence of technology cannot be understated in its impact on gayborhoods across the country. I do know that when I was too young to travel to the gayborhood at night in Philadelphia and when I was in college with very little time to frequent the gay neighborhoods in NYC, I relied on social networking sites to find other lesbian women to connect with. If one is looking to meet other gay and lesbian people, one does not have to leave the comfort of his/her own home to court, date and meet other similar people along the lines of sexual orientation. Phone apps such as Grindr, that aim to make hooking up easier, eliminate the need to frequent gay and lesbian bars if your objective is to meet a hot gay or lesbian woman for the night.

As gayborhoods become tourist attractions for visitors and as straight people move into historically gay neighborhoods, the dynamics of the gayborhood change as well. According to Ghaziani, research shows that straight people are moving into gayborhoods at an alarming rate. Ghaziani interviewed several straight residents living in gayborhoods in Chicago and an overwhelming majority stated a notion of ‘sameness' in which they claimed they saw LGBTQ people as no different than them. One straight man living in a gayborhood in Chicago, stated "If everybody's gay or everybody's not gay, its yesterdays news". One important implication here, is to consider the power dynamics and economic effects of straight people living in gayborhoods in which gay themed bookstores, night clubs and community centers are less frequented due to a decline in relevance as more straight people and less gay/lesbian people are living in close proximity to these resources. Many straight people retort that integration is the goal and why see anyone different which works to erase the cultural relevance of gay enclaves. For me, this notion of ‘sameness' on a social level is in stark contrast to the political landscape. If people are using ‘sameness' to justify assimilation and a decline in the need for a gayborhood than why are gay and straight people alike so incessantly hell bent on classifying marriage between same sex couples as "gay marriage" as opposed to just "marriage".

Despite the inevitable changing dynamics of the gayborhood due to social, cultural political and economic factors, there are still large pockets of gay and lesbian people in Philadelphia who lament the loss of staples in the gayborhood such as Sisters and Giovanni's Room. Across the LGBTQ community there are pockets of people who see the gayborhood as a necessary tool for the cultural preservation of the LGBT community and there are others who see segregated sections of the city as damaging. As a member of the former, I question the sustainability of social services and community centers for LGBTQ youth in gayborhoods, which are necessary for so many young people who are kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or who are tormented at school because of their gender identity. My question is, how can Philadelphia's gayborhood, along with its gay themed organizations retain cultural and institutional relevance despite the many changes that are impacting gayborhoods across the country?

NOTE: Opinions are those of the author, and not necessarily those of or of any organization or business that the author is assosciated with.

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