Wither The Gayborhood

Wither The Gayborhood?

Christopher T. Conner

Washburn University

The gay bar has been eulogized by the gay press, pathologized by scientists, and made nostalgic by historical accounts of the Stonewall era. On the surface, it would appear that such eulogies are in fact valid. All across the nation gay bars are closing, even the Stonewall Inn has had issues staying afloat. Elsewhere the role of gentrification, social media, and the popularization of gay identity—as a consumer group and politically through gay marriage—have all resulted in claims by some LGBT+ persons that we now live in a post-gay era. According to adherents to the post-gay rhetoric, we now live in an era where sexuality no longer matters, that we can be gay anywhere, and that traditional gay institutions are holding back progress from full assimilation into the dominant culture. However, these claims obscure the ongoing problems of LGBT+ identity and discount the experiences that many gay folks still face and upon critical examination are suspect. Although significant victories have been won for LGBT+ persons, the idea that we are truly free to be whoever we want obscures the lived experience of these persons who now live in an era where they are more visible than ever.

LGBT+ spaces exist to provide a moment of peace, and others who share the experience of otherness that comes from living in a straight society. Even among sympathizers to LGBT+ issues who do not live in our world, I find that I must go through elaborate explanations of what many of us take for granted (like just what is Grindr, or why a gay bar is so important). Moreover, there is a complex mixture of emotions and feelings that come from being in gayborhoods. I will never forget my first venture into a gayborhood, it was a liberating experience that came from seeing same sex couples holding hands (and other gender non-conforming individuals), symbols of LGBT+ culture, and stores geared towards our community. It also had, for me at least, a profound healing effect on my psyche and made me feel a part of something bigger than myself. In the gayborhood, I never had to fear my stares as I looked upon those I found attractive, or had to worry about kissing my date in public, or even confessing my sexual sins. Though, at the same time I was resentful to where I live and why my city was not organized in such a way.

One of the more recent versions of the gay bar eulogy is that social media, a la Grindr (a geo-location dating app for gay men), is serving as a substitute for the gay bar and gay bath—similar correlations are being made by lesbians with the introduction of Her (an app like Grindr designed for lesbians). However, critical examination of this claim reveals something far different. Moreover, it ignores some of the underlying reasons resulting in the popularity of such apps, and why traditional gay spaces remain so popular. Grindr, like the gay bar before it, offers users the ability to find, connect, and potentially develop relationships with other—even those relationships of a more carnal nature. However, as social media scholars have shown, and as I argue in my own work, such technologies are just as likely to exaggerate exiting divisions of race, class, gender expression, and other social dimensions as it is to bring us closer. Thus, while it provides an additional opportunity to connect, such relationships it does so only by suggesting that using it will result in offline relationships—thereby implicating itself as a tool and not an end of itself (even a carnal relationship must end with a physical meeting). Moreover, many LGBT+ spaces now utilize Grindr as a party of their advertising and have enjoyed great success in doing so.

While police raids such as Stone Wall, no longer occur, a new threat looms on the horizon, the paradox of visibility through popularity. As if watching a comedy, I stood frustrated while trying to order at a gay bar, within an area called the gay village, while a group of college aged boys jumped in front of me to order, and delayed me even further by flirting with the bartender. Then to make matters worse they asked if they were in a gay bar. How ironic is it that a gay man be pushed to the side while a group of young, heterosexual, chauvinistic men be elevated to a heightened level of status. Incidents such as this one, have been commonplace as I conduct my ethnographic study of Gayborhoods (the collection of bars, nightclubs, and other establishments within many urban cities). More commonplace are the bachelorette parties which are increasingly occupying spaces in gay clubs. Because most heterosexuals have never been to a gay bar they don’t understand the unwritten rules, codes of conduct, and because they likely will never be back, have little respect for the venues they occupy. To them gatherings in such spaces are hedonistic expressions of losing oneself disconnected from politics. What is known about gay clubs is also obscured by reality tv shows which depict a bourgeoise notion of gay life dominate the media (such as What Happens at The Abbey, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Will and Grace, Ellen, and other LGBT+ oriented programs). These television shows reduce LGBT+ folk to parodies of themselves, and produce an image of gay culture that exists only for a select few.

Such portrayals also confuse heterosexual allies by producing an illusion that the lives of LGBT+ persons are somehow luxurious—a life filled with drinking, dancing, drugs, travel, and endless sexual escapades. The images are so powerful that even many LGBT+ persons have trouble differentiating between the luxurious, albeit illusionary, talks of drinking, dancing, drugs, travel, and endless sexual escapades. The reality is that being an LGBT+ persons means living a life wrought with a profound sense of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and a whole host of social problems. One recent study found that gay men have higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, suggesting that because of prolonged anxieties about their sexual identities they have underdeveloped coping mechanisms when it comes to stress. Thus, the notion that gay men are overly dramatic is not without scientific evidence, but the reason for this is far more interesting than the phenomenon itself. It suggests that as gay men we walk around with a higher level of stress, and as we know through other research studies the higher the stress levels the higher the morbidity rate (cite). The gayborhood, for many, is an outlet upon which some of these problems can be escaped in effort to survive the cruelties of the world we must interact with daily.

The rise in popularity of LGBT+ identity has had a significant cost for our spaces. Outsiders who have no connection to our history are increasingly co-opting gay spaces they find profitable. As real estate becomes popular the inhabitants are pushed further and further out, and their ability to participate in these spaces neutralized as both distance and costs rise. Most gayborhoods have become so gentrified that the bulk of the residents can no longer afford to live there. To some, this decrease in participation validates claims that we live in a post-gay society as LGBT+ folk no longer flock to gayborhoods. Even our pride festivals reflect this cooptation through their increasing dependence upon corporate funders, who often have little commitment to the LGBT+ rights—outside of riding the wave of popularity and visibility that our leaders have created through years of hard work. However, perhaps we should feel pride that we have created an alternative social structure for ourselves that is so attractive that even outsiders want in on the experience. In many ways, this has created a need for new social configurations that are only just beginning to emerge.

As if to answer part of the “post-gay” critique that we should no longer be defined by our sexuality, other associations and groups within our community are springing up. Unlike adherents to the post-gay rhetoric, these new groups recognize the power that comes from visibility and seek to preserve some semblance of shared group identity. Moreover, they also see value in LGBT+ spaces and seek to create venues which more inclusive, seek to increase recognition of the complexity of LGBT+ life. Examples of this include Queer-con in Las Vegas (a group of LGBT+ hackers), video games like “Life is Strange” (a coming of age story where players make decisions for the lesbian main character who finds out she likes women), and self-proclaimed queer dance parties such as “Queen!” in Chicago. Much like LGBT+ sports teams and rodeo associations which emerged to challenge the notion that all LGBT+ persons are effeminate, uncoordinated, or fill some other stereotype; these new groups seek to challenge the notion that LGBT+ people are one dimensional consumers of celebrity culture. While gayborhoods are no doubt undergoing a great deal of change, the people are seeking out ways to connect with others with whom they share a sense of social solidarity. It will undoubtedly be sometime before the gayborhood is laid to rest for good.

AUTHOR BIO: Christopher T. Conner is professor sociology at Washburn University located in Topeka Kansas. He is also an occasional contributor to this outlet. Dr. Conner is concluding an ethnographic study of what it means to be an LGBT+ person in an era of heightened visibility. For further inquiries please contact Chris.Conner@washburn.edu.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *