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.
I 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.