Where Is the Gay Ghetto Today?

 

I was looking through a 1982 book (yes, that's a while ago) by Dennis Altman called The Homosexualization of America, which discusses the birth and development of a specific “gay culture,” tying it into developments in the 1960s and 1970s such as the women's movement and the marketing of sex in popular culture.

This description of a typical gay neighborhood from that period really got me thinking, especially from a twenty-first century perspective: 

“Such areas are marked by a certain sameness: they seem at first to be populated almost entirely by men under the age of forty-five, dressed in a uniform and carefully calculated style and dedicated to a hedonistic and high-consumption lifestyle. The main streets of what are often termed the ghettos—Christopher Street and Columbus Avenue in New York, North Wells in Chicago, Castro and Polk in San Francisco, Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles—are lined with shops selling high-camp postcards, coffee pots, pillowcases, T-shirts, and even food (in the ice cream parlors and “Erotic Bakeries”), with dim noisy, and smoke-filled bars, and with the new-style gay restaurants, full of potted palms, with large front windows and health-food menus.” 

 

1970s Chicago


Now, specifically from a Chicago context, North Wells is no longer a gay area (and hasn't been for some time), and Boystown on Halsted Street, though it does conform to some of the description above, seems to be watering down its wild gay nightlife image. Both areas have been solidly gentrified (think strollers, tourists, and sports bars) for some time now. In fact, many gays, having been priced out of these areas, have moved north to less expensive areas like Rogers Park, or, in the wake of increased social approval, moved to the suburbs where many of the jobs have gone and to raise their own families. 
 

Halsted Street, Chicago

 


 

 

 

But what gets me thinking even more deeply (after laughing at the visual in the quote above of “potted palms”) is the queston of whether physical geography really does matter anymore when we are thinking of a gay neighborhood or even a gay culture.

 

After all, it's obvious that connections via the Internet and social media can easily transcend physical limitations and socioeconomic boundaries. A gay guy living on a farm in a “red state” area might of course want to visit a gay-friendly urban area in a “blue state,” but if he's got Internet connectivity, he wouldn't feel as isolated. And urban gays are at at point now, where instead of hanging out at bars or cruising bathrooms, they can hook up instantaneously via Grindr. The “hedonism” Altman observed can end up becoming “virtual” rather than real! 

It's ironic though, as members of the LGBT community are trying to jump through (and quite successfully) one of the last social hurdles in their journey toward full acceptance as equal citizens, same-sex marriage, that face-to-face interaction seems to be an option, not a necessity. As what were once gay ghettos disappear, I do wonder if the very real and nitty-gritty sense of community which gave birth to Stonewall and banded together to confront the decimation of the AIDS crisis will disappear as well. 

 

1970s Chicago
 
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