Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Urban Space

Gay men feel at ease critiquing each other. I am not talking about critiquing in the sense of saying that your belt totally doesn’t go with your jacket (Though, now that you mention it...). Nor am I talking about mocking Dorian’s inability to let go of Gil Gerard (Though, now that you mention it...).

Rather, I am talking about the fact that we often get snagged into endless internal debates about the proper way to express our sexualities to the rest of the U.S. Many conservatives within the community desire all queers to conform to heterosexual assumptions and models of behavior. They argue that elements like leather men or dykes-on-bikes degrade all queer folk. Some on the left, likewise, belittle those queers who are different from themselves. They disdain those whom they deem “too assimilationist.”

One internal debate that seems to be appearing more and more recently is over the issue of “gay ghettos.” Certain circles of gay men consider it fashionable to disparage gay ghettos as “antiquated” or “self-segregating.” The folk who take this position often claim that there is no longer a need for such places. Keeping them, they argue, just reminds heteros of our difference. Those who reside in gay ghettos, critics claim, are supporting queer separatism and probably harbor feelings of inferiority. Besides, they say, we have achieved enough social equality to be able to live [quasi] openly in the larger [read hetero] community.

Similar types of arguments have long appeared in discussions of racial minorities. “Why,” some people ask, “do African American students always sit together in class?” Dominant culture excludes those deemed “different” and then comes back with a demand for those same groups to pretend that difference does not exist.

All of these discussions, however, redirect attention away from the larger homophobic and racist institutions and practices that keep us unsafe. It makes our problems the queer community’s fault. The basic premise being that we must collectively act and look a particular way before we are worthy of civil protection. This idea also wrongly assumes that social equality will be achieved without a complete overhaul of our larger culture’s attitudes about queer sexualities and sexual freedom. Instead, it puts the onus on queers to modify their own habits and ideas.

Let me be up-front and say that I have not lived in a “gay ghetto.” For most of my adult life I have lived in towns where such a thing didn’t exist. I also have never been one who excludes or limits my circle of friends based on sexual orientation.

I am not inclined, however, to criticize those who do. Such impulses suggest more about a need for community and sense of security than a problem within queer circles. In particular, those who have just recently come to terms with their sexual desires often have little idea how to confront and challenge homophobia in their daily lives. They, therefore, seek the protection of simply being with other queer people.

Saying that gay people should not live in the gay ghetto always stuck me as the same as saying that Americans should not live in Detroit. It ignores the historical, economic, and social reasons why such a space exists.

Gay ghettos appeared from two contradicitory impulses. On one side, the white middle class wished to push all people deemed “unworthy” out of their urban neighborhoods. Racial minorities and sexual deviants often competed for, and intermingled in, this space (something that has changed in gay ghettos, which are rarely literal "ghettos," but that is another entry entirely ).

On the other side, queers wanted spaces that served as political and social sanctuaries where they could escape heterosexual domination. Queer folk wanted a zone where we would not be the object of homophobic assault if we pursued our sexual interests.

None of the critics of gay ghettos notice that heterosexuals maintain and police their own zones. Suburbia is rarely discussed as a means of self-segregating, though it often does just that, keeping white, heterosexual folk away from racial and sexual others.

Nor do those critics investigate the ways that heterosexuality allows people to bond with one another with ease. Heterosexuals invariably live, work with, and “hang” with a majority of other heterosexuals. Yet, they are rarely accused of separatism in the same ways that queer folk are accused. We just take it as a given that heterosexuals will most likely be with other heterosexuals all of the time.

Popular culture, religious leaders, and politicians still bombard us with messages that we have no value, are “unnatural,” and lead meaningless lives. It’s a small wonder that many in our community fall for addiction or other means to look for a temporary escape.

Even the allegedly more positive images of queer folk in the media often leave us ambivalent. We are in an era when heterosexual women are being told by the media that it is peachy, if not mandatory, to have a gay best friend. Gay men have become a fashion accessory and a means for straight women to testify to their own uniqueness by approbating ours. In the meantime, we are presented as less than a real person. Instead, we are merely a fractured mirror that can validate the latest shade of eye shadow for our gal pals.

Those who espouse a desire for all queer folk to conform and be like their hetero peers often receive greater social praise for their efforts. Keeping quiet, not being “too out,” or even pretending like we aren’t different maintains the status quo. This logic promises material success and stability as long as we are willing to negate the value of our difference or visibility.

Under these circumstances, it makes sense that gay men create a community with others who share similar experiences. Gay ghettos provide a space for men to bond with each other. Even if a form of self-segregation, it also provides a context where individuals can feel secure and safe.

I am not suggesting, obviously, that gay neighborhoods are unchanging utopias. Our circumstances as queer folk have changed. We are no longer forced to seek out red-light districts in major urban areas.

Gay ghettos have their modern problems. Commercialization, from my persepective, has often replaced legitimate queer liberation movements in many gay neighborhoods. Young queers can stand in a circle, mouth residual expressions from the seventies of “pride” without understanding its historical context, and purchase rainbow flags and cock-rings galore. This meaningless marketing of once revolutionary symbols strips these signs of their ability to serve the fight for concrete political and social change. Gay ghettos stand in danger of moving away from being communities geared to resistance and becoming communities geared to consumerism. Indeed, probably many of those same gay men who argue for the dissolution of gay ghettos also make a point of finding them when out on a tourist vacation.

Our goals, though, should not be judging each other and our living choices. Rather, we should remember that we all have a personal investment in pursuing sexual liberation. The creation of gay ghettos (and their continuation) emerges out of a desire to feel part of a larger group based on shared experiences and desires.

These city spaces can be, and have been in the past, places where fights for social justice emerged. True liberation has to start with our own acceptance of the variety of queer choices.


tornwordo said...

Nice article. I can sum it up. Live and let live. (Our time here is so short!) Please take no offense at my glibness.

GayProf said...

Torn:Oh, man, I wrote all of that when I could have just said that. Damn. ;-)

Doug said...

I've never lived in a "gay ghetto," but I've wanted to. I used to drive through Wilton Manors in South Florida and dream of living so close to so many queer resources and being surrounded by so many other queers. I don't usually have a problem defending myself against homophobia, but my level of comfort is higher whenever I'm in Wilton Manors.

I'm told my best color is green, so if I am to be a fashion accessory, I'd have to be one for a girl who liked green. Otherwise, the deal's off! *snap*

MEK the Bear said...

I completely agree, the concept of the leather man does not offend (being one it better not), nor the outrageously fabulous drag queen, nor the circuit boy, nor white heterosexual Christians (ok, at least in theory), nor the log-cabin republican (ok, again, at least in theory, and notice how they come AFTER WHC’s).

It’s when any one of these ‘types’ (mostly WHC’s and LCR’s) tell me that I’m not a valuable member of the community because I don’t hold the EXACT same values that they espouse when I start judging them, hey, they threw the first stone!

Anonymous said...

We don't really have a GG here, but all the gay bars in town are within a mile of each other.

Given that for some of us the only interaction or chance to meet other gay people must take place in one of these gay bars, and given that once in the gay bar one is prone to consume large quantities of alcohol, it follows that it would benefit these gays to live somewhat close to these bars. Walking distance would be ideal.

Thus, a GG is formed. Except here, because like I said, we don't really have one. What I don't understand, is why?

Riza said...

Well said. Very well said.

Anonymous said...

Gay ghettos make for a short distance between Manhunt and the destination. It saves gas.

Chris said...

I love your vim and the compelling way you write, but I've got to say, this time I got lost somewhere in the second page.

marsmsu said...

Americans shouldn't live in Detroit? I don't get that analogy, and I'm from Michigan (but, thank God, not Detroit). Also, just fyi, Detroit has its own gay ghetto, it's called Ferndale. The rest, though, was good stuff, as usual.

Wiccachicky said...

I think the issue of space goes far beyond just the "ghettoization" of queer culture. In general, all minority groups want a safe space where they can relax without being judged all the time. In larger cities, this space comes in the form of a physical location (or ghetto) - but in smaller places, you may only have one bar or one coffee shop - and even then, you never know if people are "trespassing". As queer life becomes more visible vis-a-vis popular culture, the "hip" heteros are feeling more and more comfortable crossing into queer space.

Thanks for getting me thinking about might work in my recent essay...hmmm...

GayProf said...

Doug: Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply that only those newly out find the gay ghetto more comfortable. Also, I agree with Wiccachicky about the way groups look to carve out a space.

JPDC: Maybe you can start the trend! It does seem, though, that mid-level cities don’t really have gg’s. It’s more of a major urban phenomena. Do we have any urban geographers out there with theories about this?

Riza: Thanks for stopping by my little bloggy.

Anon: Oh, right, I forgot about the sex bit. Damn.

Chris: Sorry – This post probably could have been a bit more clear. Also, I might have had too many ideas up in the air. Eh – Can’t win them all.

Marsmu: The idea being that Detroit is a national embarrassment (evidenced by your thankfulness not to be from there) as some conservative gay folk see gg’s as an embarrassment.

Wiccachicky: As I said to Doug, I agree with you. What essay are you writing?

WayOut said...

I’m all for gay ghettos because they do serve a purpose as a known safe harbor. Some find it easier to express being gay there who felt unaccepted elsewhere, but I think the real fight is in the hinterlands. We need to live among heterosexuals to gain acceptance and allies, but without losing our own identities.

GayProf, you touched on something in your piece that I’ve been wondering about lately. I’m wavering on the issue. I’m older than most of you, a product of Stonewall. So I have to ask. Does anyone still use the word “butch” to describe certain gay men?

I can understand gay men cultivating masculinity and hard bodies. If we are attracted to such things, being (or posing to be) such things did seem a great way to get laid. I dutifully went to the gym for a million years. While I can accept these efforts to become more sexually desirable, as shallow as that seems to me, I can’t accept that “butch” gay men are better than any others.

What I now find disturbing is that masculine gay men, whether naturally or cultivated, are viewed as superior and somehow more acceptable, not only to society at large, but to many gay men as well. See, we’re just like straight men! The new attitude is we’re men who just happen to be attracted to men. I hear disparaging comments from gay men about each other, “He’s such a queen.” Well, that isn’t anything new, but many now seem to want to distance themselves from anything effeminate. Personal ads boast “straight-acting.” It didn’t used to be this way. We had a stronger, more inclusive, “we’re all in the same boat,” sense of connection. We were pretty much overjoyed that there were other gay people. Yet, my annoyance with gay men who want to “act straight” admittedly isn’t very inclusive or supportive. Sorry, but I don’t like it. I don’t see this as positive, or self-affirming, or anything good.

I really had to think about it to make sure this wasn’t some sort of subcultural progress – that gay men had reclaimed their own masculinity or had rejected the societal expectations of behavior. I’m really not sure. Maybe, but I don’t think so. (Some of the biggest critics of effeminate men aren’t nearly as masculine as they supposed themselves to be.) This is too long, I apologize, but I had trouble nailing this down. Also, I’m using butch, masculine and straight-acting sort of interchangeably, and they are all not exactly the same thing. All I know for sure is gay men didn’t try so hard to be those things in the past, at least among each other, and being gay was a lot more fun.

Rey D said...

Very interesting. I think that living in a ghetto, just like everything else, has advantages and disadvantages.

You can learn a great deal about a groups of culture whether your own or otherwise, by living in a ghetto. Also, living in a ghetto can help a person gain a certain amount of confidence to better handle living in other places (e.g.: a young gay person coming from a conservative neighborhood/region can learn that it is ok to be who is his in a ghetto).

On the other hand, spending a significant portion of one's life living in a ghetto can be a handicap for personal growth -- the ghetto becomes the person's only world, and he could find himself unable to live else where.

While people are entitled to live where they want (or eat or drink what they want), it is not necessarily good for them or their peers.

I've never lived in a gay ghetto, not because I didn't like the idea, but because in NYC you have to be either semi-wealthy or willing to live in a tiny space or with several room mates should you choose to be in a ghetto. By not living in a ghetto, I'm able to enjoy the best of both worlds: I get to live in a house in a quiet neighborhood with several rooms and a backyard and plenty of free parking, and I still get to go to the ghetto when I feel like having some fun.

Talking about gay ghettos, in the last twenty plus years it seems that NYC, especially Manhattan, has been, and still is moving from having a couple of gay ghettos (The Village and Chelsea) to having a more uniform distribution of its gay population. Those places have becomes so costly, that it seems that more and more wealthy straight people are starting to have such a significant presence that these neighborhoods are beginning to look much less like ghettos. I hear a similar phenomenon is occurring in SF’s Castro area.

Kalvin said...

I live in a gay ghetto, and I love it. Walking down the street and seeing gay friends kiss each other in greeting daily is something that I think really bolsters me. I have to say though, it seems anti-thetical to anti-assimilation to say that you shouldn't have a gay ghetto, no? I think those complaints are usually more about the corporatization (fivebucks, chain restaurants, desexaulization) than their existence.

Rebekah said...

As usual, I'm impressed by what you say, and the way you state it.

Having said that, I'm taking issue on a side note:
"Gay men have become a fashion accessory and a means for straight women to testify to their own uniqueness by approbating ours."

Really not fair. I'm sorry you feel that way, but I don't agree with you at all.

I'm a straight woman with a larger than usual number of gay friends (male and female). A number of these friends I met before they even knew they were(or came to terms with being) gay.

I'm not appropriating anything here. I have friends I like, and some of them happen to be homosexual.

I may be more attracted to gay men than straight men because they're safe; I don't have to worry about being rejected or rebuffed sexually by someone whom I already know beforehand won't be interested in me anyway. That would be a valid point.

I'm possibly just being sensitive here. I know I'm part of the mainstream; does that mean I can't be friends with a gay man or lesbian without it having a deeper meaning?

Anonymous said...

gayprof, no. not the sex....its about the gas!

GayProf said...

Rebekah: I didn’t mean to imply anything about actual friendships in real life. Heck – If I ruled out friendships with straight women then I would be a rather lonely gay boy.

Rather, it’s the way the media has set up a particular vision of straight women/gay men. As with all popular media, there are those who accept it at face value.

Castle of Stink said...

I've recently been thinking about this specific phenomenon. I was in Hotlanta about a month ago and stayed with a former student/lesbian in Midtown (Hotlanta GG). As I drove in to the complex in which she lived, I thought about how wonderful it was to live in such a place. Just the idea that you could walk to a gay bar, a gay gym, a gay Starbucks (granted all Starbucks are a little gay), or to the apartment complex pool (mostly, but not 100% gay), with a gaggle of flamboyant friends and not feel threatened in any way... well, it felt nice...

For about twelve hours.

The next morning, sitting outside of Starbutts waiting for an old college bud to meet me for lunch, I went from being enthralled by the behavior of the various types of gay men around me--the gym bunnies, the punks, the bears, the older gentlemen--to feeling a little thankful that I didn't live in such an area.

Sitting alone before noon in a coffee shop, I couldn't just wait for my friend without feeling constantly scrutinized. On the other hand, I was certainly not shy when it came to looking at hot young bodies walking in front of me.

I'm in a smaller city with no GG. There certainly is a sizeable community, but only one gay bar (which I don't frequent). I like not living in a GG. But, I also like knowing I can visit one when I want...

chiron said...

Given a choice, I would live in the ghetto. I suffer nostalgia for that particular past. My life experience is that I arrived just as it was going. I still regret the things I never experienced.

Antonio said...

Gay ghetto, segregation, whatever. The only thing I ever want is a place to freely hold my bf's hand in public.

Good post. Definitely something people would do well to remember these days.

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