…it’s funny—I almost never go to Park Slope [in Brooklyn]. I feel like it’s not a lesbian neighborhood. …my girlfriend’s aunt lived there in the ‘70s and when we moved there in 1989 she was like, “Oh! It’s not a lesbian neighborhood anymore! All of the Columbus Avenue [implying wealthy, predominantly White elite] people have moved in.” …all of the—I don’t know like institutions, like, The Rising [Café and Bar], they’ve disappeared. [Pause.] But, I guess it doesn’t really matter I suppose because if people feel like something’s a lesbian neighborhood then by dint of their believing it, it is. – Sarah ‘85 (from Gieseking 2013)
A neighborhood is understood as being “dominated by residential uses,” “walkable” in scale, and a concept of a (physical) territory that is often conflated with (social) communities that live within those territories (Gregory et al. 2009; see also Colombo, Mosso, and De Piccoli 2001). While lgbtq people have always existed in urban areas, lgbtq spaces were most clearly articulated in neighborhoods (Chauncey 1995; Weston 1995). Lgbtq people in the 1970s formed spatial concentrations in urban residential areas which, over time, became more visible and fixed as “gay ghettos” (Levine 1979). Those who lived in or used these spaces often experienced a reprieve from isolation induced by homophobia and grew communities from which to work toward social and political gains (Knopp 1997; Enke 2007).
Ghettos, however, hold negative connotations of being forced into a space with a lack of resources. By 1983, Manuel Castells argued that gay men in San Francisco’s Castro district were living not in a ghetto but in a neighborhood based on the confluence of their unique production of culture, economy, and physical spaces. Furthermore, the difference between marginalized ghetto space and gay space was one of agency:
While…others used the term ‘ghetto,’ gay militants speak of ‘liberated zones’: and there is indeed a major difference between ghettos and gay areas since the latter are usually deliberately constructed by gay people to create their own city, in the framework of the broader urban society. (Castells 1983, 272)
The majority of research on lgbtq spaces continues to expand upon Castells’ understanding of cultural and economic territorialization in the form of physical, geographical neighborhoods. Through its popularity and idealization as a “safe space,” the lgbtq neighborhood continues to be read by many as a space of liberation, community, and possibility. At the same time the neighborhood failed in many ways for many kinds of people, namely in regards to respecting and creating room for difference. The (supposed) lgbtq neighborhood, or “gayborhood” as it has affectionately been called, is still the most often referenced lgbtq space in both academic and popular literature, even as others question its demise.
Beyond physical neighborhoods and gayborhoods, there is also the related and hotly debated issue of community. The term community was first used by the burgeoning gay and lesbian movement of the 1960s and 1970s (D’Emilio 1983a; Weston 1995). Benedict Anderson’s (1983; 1983) concept of “imagined community” if often used in studies of lgbtq spaces to explain the fleeting, fragmented nature of their spaces but the congealed social and cultural life shared across them. Anderson defines an imagined community as follows:
It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. Communities are distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined. (1983, 6–7)
My reference to “The Wizard of Oz”‘s “lions and tigers and bears, oh my” in the title of this week’s class harkens back to what we hope and fear we will find in the forest of our search for lgbtq life and culture: neighborhoods, communities, and gayborhoods.
Our Discussion Questions
Why are these spaces so important, and also so contentious? Why do we return to them again and again but so many of us find no home in them? Are they real or imagined, historic or present in our everyday queer lives? What future is possible for the gayborhood, if any? And do we desire a gayborhood to continue?