The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

There Goes the Gay-borhood

I first came to D.C. for the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. I’d never been to the city before, except once on a bus trip from Georgia to Philadelphia, and then I only saw the bus station. This time, I was coming as an adult gay man (just shy of one year sober, too), to attend the biggest March I’d ever been to. We — myself plus the two guys I drove up with— got rooms at the National Cathedral, in a dormitory the College of Preachers. (One of us was dating an Episcopal priest at the time. It was not me.) Lucky for us, because there were no affordable hotel rooms and even floor space in the homes of D.C.’s gay community were scarce.

As soon as we finished the long, grueling drive and put out bags in our rooms, one of the guys insisted we make a pilgrimage to D.C.’s gay neighborhood: Dupont Circle. I knew there were cities that had whole gay neighborhoods. I’d read about the Castro in San Francisco, Chelsea in new York, and I’d been to Midtown in Atlanta. The idea still excited me. After living most of my life in places where being out wasn’t necessarily safe, the idea of a whole neighborhood that was not just gay-friendly space but gay space sounded amazing to me. I had no idea. At least not until we got off the Dupont metro and started riding up that long escalator and I heard a faint roar that grew louder as we rose higher.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketI don’t want to overplay the imagery, but as soon as we stepped on the bottom of the escalator I heard this incredible noise. And as we continued rising up through the tunnel, it got louder. I heard music,and cheering, and car horns, an whistles, and tambourines. Around the opening there was a ring of light, and against its glare I saw shadows of people waving at those of us who were emerging from under ground. As we got closer to the surface, I could see their faces as they were welcoming us, smiling and waving rainbow flags.

Then we stepped off the escalator at Connecticut and Q NW into a sea of queer humanity. I’d been out for long time by then, and I’d been to my share of Pride marches. My first one was in Atlanta, and I remember how it felt to turn around and see tens of thousands more spilling into Piedmont Park. Two words: not alone. But stepping out into Dupont Circle and seeing all kinds gay people everywhere, and then the next day at the march seeing so many that they filled my field of vision changed me. I said to straight friends of mine back at school, who asked me about the march, that it was “the safest, the most ‘OK’, and the most at home I’ve ever felt in my life.”

And it was. As a gay man, it was the safest space I’d ever been in. Little did I know I’d move to D.C. a year later, but when I did went back to Dupont Circle — that “safe space.” For ten years I lived as close to Dupont as I could afford to, and socialized there as often as I could. And among the gays & lesbians I socialized with, there was a feeling that those few blocks of the city were “ours”; a place where we were relatively safe from homophobia, discrimination, etc. My friends and I used to joke about it, but to some degree it was true then that any guy you saw in Dupont was assumed “gay-until-proven-straight.” I thought about that today, about the change in that “safe space’ when I read about the changes in the Castro in San Francisco.

For more than 30 years, most big cities have had a district either explicitly or implicitly understood to be the place to go if you were gay – the West Village and Chelsea in New York City, Washington’s Dupont Circle, Boston’s South End.

But as gays and lesbians win legal rights and greater social acceptance, community activists worry these so-called “gayborhoods” are losing their relevance. Like the bedsheet-sized rainbow flag rippling majestically at the intersection marking the entrance to the Castro, they are at a historical crossroads.

“What I’ve heard from some people is, `We don’t need the Castro anymore because essentially San Francisco is our Castro,”‘ said Don Romesburg, who co-chairs the GLBT Historical Society.

Just before I read that article yesterday, I a co-worker mentioned the construction work on D.C.’s new baseball stadium, and reminisced about the gay bars that were shut down so the stadium could be built.

No amount of Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey songs could mask the pain. One by one, until the wee hours Monday morning, the reigning drag queens of Half Street SE descended the stairs at Ziegfeld’s cabaret to strut their last, blowing kisses to admirers and making a few more sweepingly glamorous gestures — all of it a farewell to the shabby but perfect place they called home for three decades.

Ziegfeld’s, and four other establishments on the same forsaken industrial block at Half and O streets, closed yesterday in a cruelly predictable high school metaphor: The jocks win.

The city’s oldest stretch of gay-oriented clubs, which date back to the 1970s, just happen to sit smack in the footprint of the planned Nationals baseball stadium. There were two years of rumors about closing or moving. Certainties were followed by brief reprieves, while the city argued with Major League Baseball on the stadium deal. Word came last week from a judge that the buildings have to go, so construction can begin.

Ella Fitzgerald (nee Donnell Robinson), the drag performer who ruled the roost here since 1980, dabbed at her eyes all night and complained of hip problems, wondering if the world would see her next on crutches, or in a wheelchair. She lip-synched to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.” Then, in keeping with particularly moving drag performances, she gave the DJ the signal and did the song again. (People wept twice.)

I’d been to Ziegfeld’s many times in the past, seen Ella perform, tipped the drag queens, engaged in an extended flirtation with a tall blonde drag queen who did a fabulous Annie Lennox, and hit the dance floor between shows. And, yes, there was a strip club attached to Ziegfeld’s and another one down the street, but so what? If I step out of my office in downtown D.C. I’m within walking distance of two “gentlemen’s clubs” and one metro stop away from another straight strip joint (in Dupont Circle, no less).

What was special about Ziegfeld’s is what was special about the moment I emerged into Dupont back in 1993, or the moment I stood upon a newspaper dispense at march and saw gay people and supporters as far as my field of vision extended. It’s what was special about those bars, set back in the dark corner of an industrial neighborhood, on property that nobody wanted for the past 30 years. It was a safe place.

The isolation has not been without inconveniences. Marty Crowetz, 53, a former part-owner of Follies and now a contract engineer with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said that in the early years, he bought a snowplow because D.C. workers did not show up to clear the street. On many nights, he said, he and other gay ex-Marines — GEMs, they called themselves — patrolled the neighborhood, sometimes with a German shepherd, to ensure patrons’ safety.

But, he said, at a time when homosexuality was taboo in many quarters, the street’s remoteness also allowed people to visit without fear of being stigmatized. “It was freedom for me,” he said. “I didn’t have to hide. It was my getaway.”

And the same could be said of another old haunt of mine in Atlanta’s Midtown; the place I always ended up when I escaped to Atlanta on the weekends, with other gay college friends of mine, and where I spent many nights watching Charlie Brown’s Cabaret. (Now appearing at Hoedowns. If you’re in Atlanta, check out Charlie Brown’s show. That is, if you enjoy a good time.) Another dance floor in another town, now Backstreet is no more.

Several marquee nightclubs that gay men and lesbians flocked to for three decades — venues that owners credit with instilling a sense of belonging in young gay people, as well as helping Midtown transform from dilapidated to highly desirable — were razed in 2006, and now serve as the building foundation for two development projects city leaders hope will elevate Atlanta to a level of cosmopolitan living comparable to New York and Chicago.

For 30 years, Backsteet Atlanta, a 24-hour gay club, occupied the space at 845 Peachtree St. Atlanta police officers padlocked the club for good in July 2004, after Backstreet owner Vicki Vara lost a series of lengthy legal challenges to city ordinances targeting Backstreet and other 24-hour clubs.

…Vara considers the mainstreaming of Midtown at the expense of gay institutions like Backstreet to be almost sacrilegious, “comparable to politicos waltzing into Ebenezer Baptist Church and pronouncing the building had to be demolished for the sake of progress and moving forward.”

“Where will we gather to join ranks when the world places yet another hurdle in our path?” Vara said shortly after Backstreet was closed in the summer of 2005. She added that she was disappointed by “the apparent apathy of our brothers and sisters in this community as the elected, and appointed, city officials successfully railroaded new rules and ordinances into place, slicing out the very heart and soul of the roots of our freedom to express ourselves and gather with members of our ‘family.’”

Where will we gather, indeed? Even the Roxy in New York is going the way of development, and I never got to dance there. Of course, I write this a world away — and only a few miles — from Dupont and the former site of Ziegfeld’s, and even further from what remains of Backstreet and Charlie Brown’s Cabaret, sitting in the suburbs with my husband and son sleeping upstairs. And not without a sense of irony. As I pointed out earlier, some of those people pushing strollers through the Castro are gay parents.

It might even be typical to those of us who grew up in less-than-gay-friendly places and moved as adults to more tolerant (probably urban) locales where we could meet and socialize with others like ourselves, to build communities and families-of-choice together. Those communities provided safe spaces for a lot of us to express parts of ourselves that wouldn’t be welcomed or understood elsewhere, and thus those safe spaces are vigorously guarded and defended, for the simple reason that people need them and want them to remain.

And then some of us become parents, and everything changes. Even though more gays & lesbians are having children, parenting is still nowhere near as common in gay communities as it is in the larger world. So, on the one hand, gay parents can find it difficult to go about their new lives in communities that are still adjusting to the presence of children.

There’s more than enough irony to go around. As I’ve read seen some people mocking the article about the Castro while simultaneously displaying exactly the kind of bigotry that made it necessary for gay people to leave their hometowns and create our own communities — our own “safe spaces” — in places like the Castro, Midtown, or Dupont.

After all, how did San Francisco become a “gay mecca” in the first place? In Coming Out Under Fire, Alan Berube details this history of gays & lesbians serving in the military during World War II, including how the military looked the the other way when it needed every warm body it could get, including gays.

In theory, during the war, homosexuals were supposed to be screened out at induction centers on the grounds that they would make poor combat soldiers and that their presence would threaten discipline and morale. (The same rationale was applied at the outset against blacks as well.) The screening devices typically used with male inductees included observation of female bodily characteristics and mannerisms, answers to questions regarding occupational choice (men who checked off interior decorator or dancer were immediately suspect) and responses to the question: How do you like girls?

But in practice, Mr. Berube argues, since the pressure to meet unfilled quotas was so great, the examinations were often perfunctory. As a result, hundreds of thousands of homosexuals, perhaps a million or more, made their way into the armed forces, serving in all branches of the military – as tank drivers and clerks, riflemen and bombardiers, messmen and gunnery officers.

And when the military began rooting out and dishonorably discharging homosexuals as the war drew to a close (after all, the dishonorably discharged get few, if any, benefits; a significant, if small, cost-saving move for the military), San Francisco was the main “out-processing point” for discharged queers.

World War II brought further drastic changes to San Francisco’s sexual ecology. As historian Allan Bérubé has demonstrated, the war itself played a pivotal role in the formation of new sexual identity communities by throwing together vast numbers of gay men who formed associative networks based on their shared sexualities, and also created significant new employment opportunities in wartime industries for single women, including lesbians.

As one of the principal administrative centers of the war’s Pacific theater of operations, San Francisco became something of a dumping ground for homosexuals dishonorably discharged from military service. At the Treasure Island Naval Hospital in San Francisco Bay, medical and psychological experts conducted nonconsensual tests on many of these men in an effort to discover the “causes and cures” of homosexuality.

Faced with the prospect of returning home in disgrace or remaining in arguably the most scenic city in the United States, many gay World War II veterans opted for the latter. In the late 1940s, a tabloid paper in San Francisco described this demographic trend with the shocking headline, “Homos Invade S. F.!”

Others chose to stay in the cities where they were “out-processed.” And why not? Their discharge forms pretty much branded them. While only alphanumeric codes were used, potential employers were usually familiar with what those codes meant. So, returning home probably meant being unable to find a job and eventually being disgraced when reason for their discharge was revealed.

Why return home to those small towns where they were unlikely to find others like themselves? What was the point of going home to be “the village gay”? And the only one at that? It’s like the old song from the pervious world war queried, “How Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?” Ironically enough, it was the military — or, more precisely, the ban on gays in them military — that made gay enclaves in many cities even possible.

Of course, it wasn’t just the military, but also economic changes that game women more freedom to earn their own money, thus making marriage less of a necessity for survival, since tying the knot wasn’t necessary for a woman to keep a roof over her head and avoid becoming a burden on relatives. The same economic changes made cities more attractive to young people, and combined with increased mobility, fewer and fewer were staying “down on the farm”; especially those who knew their desires were different, but never had an opportunity to meet others like themselves.

Since all those various forces started changing American society, there’s been a common theme within gay life in America. It’s one shared with many other minorities in America. When we have nowhere to go, we make our own place to go. When we can’t go home, we make our own home. When we’re told there is no way,we make our own way.

That’s as true for the gay people who mourn the changes in the Castro as it is for gay moms and dads pushing strollers through the Castro, or passing through Dupont on the way back home to the ‘burbs, to feed the kid and put him to bed.

I knew the moment Dupont changed for me. It was the day I stopped in my tracks on Connecticut Ave. and saw that a Lane Bryant outlet had opened. Nothing against the store, mind you. But I don’t know many lesbians who shop there. It was a sign that the neighborhood had changed. And that was OK. It changed when gays moved into the neighborhood an gentrified it. (And maybe gentrified themselves right out of the market.) Now Logan Circle, the next neighborhood over, is becoming a new gay enclave.

And it will change again. Where we need “safe spaces” we’ll create them. But perhaps the most significant change, one that’s missed in the article, is that our lives are changing too. Some of us our raising families, moving to the suburbs and even living in the same small towns where generations before us could not, at least not openly and peace. Maybe the biggest change of all is that there’s more safe space than there was before.

So,yeah. There goes the gay-borhood. Now it goes wherever we go.

10 Comments

  1. I struggle with this one a lot. Tucson doesn’t have a gayborhood, which I think reflects very well on Tucson’s inclusive culture.

    And yet, I miss the Castro, Oak Lawn, WeHo, all those places. I love going there to “be among my own” and am sad to see us lose what has been an important part of our culture, our refuge.

    And yet, I love the option of being completely integrated as I am here in Tucson.

    I think this has a very close parellel to the sentiments many African-Americans expressed in the 1980′s, when they recalled what was lost as thriving communities faded due to integration. It’s not quite the same thing in thsi case, but it’s close.

    Of course, nobody wants to go back to those bad old days of segregation. But all good things are a mixed bag in the end, including integration. While things are so much better today than they ever were, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing if we spend some time mourning a little bit some of the good things we are losing, or maybe in some cases have already lost.

  2. I thought about that after I wrote this piece. I remembered talking to several people about the all-black towns that used to exist, and eventually faded.

    As always, the circumstances are not exactly the same, but there are similarities.

    I have mixed feelings too. There was something reassuring about “Old Dupont”; it felt kind of like a safe harbor. The same for Ziegfeld’s, it was a safe harbor too; a place for those who would otherwise have difficulty finding one. Or finding each other for that matter.

    I wonder, though, whether or not it’s inevitable. And what happens to those who still need that safe space, while others no longer need it. Does it collapse?

  3. This is an amazing blog post, Terrance. Hurry up and win a Koufax Award already!

  4. Thanks. ;-) I don’t know what it takes to win an award these days, other than a large enough readership to make sure you get the most votes.

    My understanding is that the kind of topics I blog about, and the kind of blogging I do — long posts like this one, and even longer — don’t lend themselves to building a huge readership.

  5. Beautiful piece. Thank you.

  6. WOW, a very indepth piece about the gayborhood.

    They are fun places to visit, and it would be a shame if they imploded. But because of rising real estate prices and city fathers envoking eminent domain to tear down gay bars and businesses, the gayborhood is indeed fading away in certain cities, and that is cause for alarm and concern.

    But maybe that could be a good thing if the gayborhood is reborn in older suburban business districts, where gay men and lesbians could contribute financially to the sucees of the new or relocated businesses, and where singles and couples could find more affordable housing. Soon some hunky guys may be mowing their lawn shirtless and add to the value of these new gayborhoods.

  7. Great post. Oh, hey, back in 1993? The chick in the black ankle boots sitting in the shade with heat stroke, watching everybody else march? That was me. :)

    One footnote to your post–just because a neighborhood is gay doesn’t mean it’s LGBT-friendly. There’s been a bit of a kerfluffle lately about sexism and racism in the Castro, which is very much a gay men’s neighborhood but not exactly somewhere that lesbians are welcome.

  8. I know someone who works for the Heritage Foundation who’s moving to Dupont. Sure it should be open to everyone, but somehow the idea of that seems completely wrong and sad.

  9. I find it interesting that in none of the articles I have read about the “devolution” or “heterosexualization” of “gayborhoods” no one has pointed out the most startling fact. We queers have been used in many ways to destroy communities of color so White heteros will be willing to move in to them. While it may not be true in every “gayborhood” as a community organizer in over 10 states I have some interesting thoughts on this. Caucasian real estate entrepreneurs look at gay people as colonists or settlers to make dangerous ghetto areas safe before they themselves go in and buy up everything. I moved to Florida 3 years ago and began organizing in working class predominantly black and immigrant neighborhoods that were adjacent to Fort Lauderdale’s “Gayborhood” Wilton Manors. I was horrified by some findings my extensive door to door organizing brought to my consciousness.

    “Maybe now this neighborhood will start to improve” said the white hetero conservative who had invested in property on the edge of the “gayborhood” of Wilton Manors. “I am so happy the gays are starting to move in, now these property values will start to go up”. As a queer of color (Native American) I was really pissed at her racist and what I consider homophobic attitudes. Why homophobic? She went on to point out to me that “it isn’t that I love the gays, in fact I don’t support their lifestyles but I prefer them to the you know whats” and nodded toward a black home across the street.

    I am a nightlife loving person and shortly after I moved here I wanted to go and party on the legendary South Beach and then came my next eye opening revelation in South Florida. We got down there on a Saturday night and were let down to find nothing of real interest going on. The Crow Bar was still open but aside from that South Beach just seemed to be a bunch of Gay tourists visiting what “WAS” at one time a Gayborhood. We traveled to a deli to have late dinner before going home. We were talking to a queer couple at the table next to ours about the state of affairs on South Beach. “Honey everybody moved to Wilton Manors and cashed in on the profits on their property”. Wilton Manors a former working class neighborhood of color had been taken over by South Beach queer folk in a few short years.

    At a recent Pride fest gathering in adjacent Palm Beach County in Lake Worth a “gayveloper” (gay developer) was handing out flyers inviting gay folks to be a part of “the next Wilton Manors” Northwood. What is Northwood? A former low to middle income neighborhood of color and immigrants that has now become the target of a concerted effort to create a gayborhood out of thin air.

    It all the sudden hit me. Do black folks in Northwood or Lauderdale Manor (adjacent black neighborhood to Wilton Manors) feel any less distressed about the loss homosexualization of their neighborhoods than queer folk do about the heterosexualization of South Beach, Laguna Beach, Key West, or the Castro? No. In fact it may be contributing to the erosion in many black communities for Queer Rights. My travels throughout Florida’s oldest gayborhoods and black communities have shown me that negative attitudes among African Americans towards queers are sharply more distinct in neighborhoods that are in the process of becoming Gayborhoods.

    Think about it. Who does this benefit. From Black or Latino a neighborhood becomes a gayborhood and then the conservative white Heteros move in. Who does this benefit? The dominant culture? Most definitely. Down here African American folks say “you can tell when the black community is about to disappear in South Florida, the gays move in and then it’s only a matter of time before we can’t afford to live here.

    Another revelation I had was this. I can’t speak for the Castro, or the Village, or Laguna but in the South being queer no longer has any real progressive political dimension. I have met many racist queers, materialistic queers who care not a whit about queer liberation much less the liberation of a bunch of poor people of color. As a progressive, as someone who feels in many ways we have become a tool for the oppressor to be weilded against others who are oppressed, it is time for us to value our communities for more than just property value or stop bitching about the loss of “gayborhoods”. Also there is the process no one wants to talk about in South Florida’s queer communiuty of young queers not being able to afford to live in these socalled “gayborhoods” without a geriatric sugar daddy. Yeah I said it. Wilton Manors is no place for young queers. Everyone wants young queers around but not if they can’t afford the rent.

    South Florida is a “free” and open society where you can have the sexuality you can afford. Yeah I said it. Straight swinger clubs, Gay bath houses, fetish clubs etc… For the rich only. Unless you are 18 to 25 and desiring the company of someone 20 years older (Don’t worry you’ll get paid for your service). Oh sure young people are always welcomed in these spaces. Like the 18 year old I met who made his living at the famous “Cupids” a haunt of wealthy old queers in Palm Beach County. Where he was welcome to be who he was paid to be. The “Queer” movement really needs to re evalute itself and it’s piece of the quilt of the progressive movement. The older I get the less progressive it seems.

    As a man I want to point out one other little factoid no one wants to talk about. Maybe gayborhoods would survive if they weren’t dominated by men and never more than a handful of old school lesbians Maybe there would be more passion in preserving them. Maybe if standing up for GLBT was more than just really standing up for the the big G and a little L maybe more young people would feel more ownership of it. My young lesbian, gay, and bisexual friends don’t go out to the clubs in the “gayborhoods” anymore. The massive gay clubs like the “COPA” in Fort Lauderdale replete with boring ass tv’s with male porn and a bunch of 40-60 year old men standing around appeal to who? Young lesbians? No Young Gay men? No. Bisexuals? Most definitely not. In fact annoucing you are bisexual in most queer communities both Gay and Lesbian is a social death sentence. So who wants to be a part of a boring ass social scene like that. My last point brings me to another question.

    Why do queer liberation orgs say they are for GLBT when we all know being bisexual in the eyes of most queers is synonymous with being disabled. Young queers are no longer attracted to the monolithic demands of orientation loyalty. I actually heard a straight mother of a gay son in Palm Beach who volunteers for the PFLAG chapter associated with COMPASS (the queer lib org in Palm Beach) when a young person talking to her said she was bi responded by saying there is no such thing. The girl was in tears. The Mother then said “So called bi people are confused everyone in the gay community knows that”. She went on “my son has to deal with the oppression of being a gay man. Bisexuals are just trying to avoid that oppression”. When asked why COMPASS says it represents Bisexauls in it’s mission statement, she responded “because bisexuals are just people who haven’t admitted to themselves they are gay yet”. When asked where she got all these ideas she said “all gay people I know at COMPASS think that”. She went on “Haven’t you heard? There is a gay gene. Either you are gay or you are not”. The girl she was talking to was in tears at this point.

    Why bother to go into this laborious section? The only point is this. If our community is disappearing can we afford to pigeonhole people out of that community? If we are looking for acceptance and freedom can we afford to drive other oppressed people out of their community? The queer liberation movement needs to remember that “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Remember just before Hitler took power in Germany Queers with no passion for the liberation of others danced the night away only to find themselves in concentration camps with everyone else at the end of the day.

  10. There are some things I agree with and some I don’t about Wilton Manors. Yes Wilton Manors and the surrounding areas, Lauderdale Manors, Middle River Terrace are now priced out of reach for anyone not making a very healthy living. Redevelopment plans are on the books to connect Wilton Manors to Downtown fort lauderdale with expensive lofts, townhomes and new single family homes, I have heard from people in the “realty” circles that the powers that be want the colored folk west of 95 so I think that is probably what will happen. Taxes and Insurance will force many from there homes and developers will buy them up tear them down and within 10 years everything east of 95 will be rich and white, or latin or black as long as you can afford it.

    Now with that said, I’m a poor white queer, I have a good job with a world wide company and I make good money except that in south florida now you have to make GREAT money to live. I’m robbing peter to pay paul all the time, I don’t know how much longer I will stay, I may move back closer to my family in the midwest, gay life wont be what it is here, but perhaps I wont be broke all the time and worried about the next rent increase. You see it really does not matter what color you are, its a class thing, and rich queers are the worst. If you are not rich or goodlooking beyond compare forget it. I have two great freinds here and that is about it, but I have a great time doing the things we like to do with them and I do feel safe as a gay man living here, but I have seen alot change in the six years Ive been here and its not for the good of the common joe. Its sad but queers are more cruel and intolerant of each other then any straight person Ive ever met. So if your thinking about moving to Wilton Manors, don’t if your poor or working class, if your mega rich and drop dead goodlooking you will fit right in.

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