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.