Are gay neighbourhoods endangered in an age of acceptance?

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Canada's biggest cities have well-known gay neighbourhoods, whether it's Davie Village in Vancouver's West End, the Church and Wellesley district in Toronto or Montreal's Le Village Gai.

From edgy bars and hip restaurants to unique shops or just a interesting vibe, so-called "gaybourhoods" have a distinctive texture not unlike multicultural Canada's ethnic enclaves. And they served much the same function, allowing residents to live openly and relatively safely.

But a University of British Columbia sociologist says society's growing acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people paradoxically may have put gay neighbourhoods under threat.

A study by Amin Ghaziani that looked at several historically gay enclaves in the U.S., such as San Francisco's Castro district, New York's Chelsea and Boystown in Chicago, found same-sex couples were abandoning these neighbourhoods, replaced by heterosexual families who are helping change their character.

Ghaziani, an assistant professor at UBC, has turned his research into a book, There Goes the Gayborhood, being published next month by Princeton University Press.

Ghaziani, who grew up in suburban Chicago, began thinking about the phenomenon when he was living in Boystown after coming out at age 18. He spent almost a decade there, from 1999 to 2008.

"The changes in the neighbourhood became more pronounced toward the later years," he said in an interview with Yahoo News Canada.

[ Related: Vancouver unveils rainbow-coloured crosswalks as Pride Week begins ]

Whether it was straight couples holding hands or the increasing numbers of kiddie strollers, Ghaziani and his friends found a noticeable change on the streets of Boystown.

“Those kinds of visuals became almost daily topics of conversations that my friends and I would have," he said.

Sitting in one of the neighbourhood's gay bars, he witnessed another patron admonish a straight couple for kissing, explaining that a gay couple probably couldn't do the same thing in one of the straight sports bars located just a block away without inciting violence.

Ghaziani began to research the issue in earnest as a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton, reviewing U.S. census data, media reports and interviewing dozens of people in gay neighbourhoods.

Two things seemed to be happening simultaneously, Ghaziani found. While gaybourhoods were once seen as "a beacon of tolerance in a sea of heterosexual hostility," increasing societal acceptance made it safer for gay and lesbian couples to move out.

"Gay people have become integrated into the mainstream at much greater rates than they ever have before," he said. "Part of what it means for them is they now perceive many more parts of the city as options for they can comfortably live their life.”

While sexual orientation remains an important part of who they are, many LGBT people no longer see it as the defining characteristic in what he termed a "post-gay" world.

“Neither gays nor straights necessarily feel all that different from one another or that sexual orientation is necessarily that remarkable," said Ghaziani.

As one New Jersey lesbian couple told him: “We didn’t want to be the gay girls next door. We just wanted to be the neighbours next door.”

Younger LGBT people are also growing up in a world where sexual orientation has declining significance when it comes to social contacts and friendships. They're inclined to seek out friends with mutual interests in things such as recreation and music rather than sexual orientation.

“They enjoy being friends with gay and straight people alike; not a big deal," said Ghaziani.

"They also feel free from persecution, which is what it means to be post-gay. In other words they don’t see the world through a lens of oppression that prior generations did.”

One of Ghaziani's discoveries was how the straight world's perception of gaybourhoods had changed.

A foray to a gay bar once might have been seen as slightly dangerous for adventurous straights. But now many are drawn to gay neighbourhoods as chic and trendy places to live.

Gaybourhoods historically grew up in marginal areas, with gay couples rehabilitating run-down homes and establishing new businesses in the district. That gentrification made them attractive to straight families, though rising real estate values and rents also pushed many gays out.

One of the most surprising revelations was that straight families who'd moved into Chicago's Boystown perceived it as a safe place to raise children.

“That’s quite striking if you think about it because it was only in the nineties that gay men were stereotyped culturally as pedophiles," Ghaziani noted.

Straight women are also attracted to gaybourhoods, he added.

“They feel like it’s in those neighbourhoods that they are less likely to face sexual harassment or objectification," Ghaziani said.

Straight men now also seem more comfortable living alongside gay men, with the added attraction that straight women are moving in, too.

Not everyone in the LGBT community resents the change, Ghaziani said. Many welcome some level of integration and others never liked the idea of gay neighbourhoods at all.

But the long-term impact of this dual migration remains unclear.

“There’s certainly a concern that their cultural identity is being eroded, some concern that their histories are being forgotten," Ghaziani said.

Some cities have used taxpayer dollars to distinguish historic gay neighbourhoods, such as the rainbow-coloured crosswalks in Vancouver's Davie Village, rainbow flags demarking Church and Wellesley in Toronto and the rainbow pillars at the Beaudry metro station leading to Montreal's Le Village Gai.

[ Related: Church and Wellesley gets colourful as World Pride kicks off ]

But the question is, will gaybourhoods' cultural identity be gradually hollowed out, leaving nothing but Disneyfied trappings?

“It’s not clear what will happen," said Ghaziani. "In other words, will these places be like a Chinatown or a Greektown or a Little Italy that may not necessarily have a strong concentration the ethnic minority in place but where you might go if you want to sample the cuisine?"

The comparison with evolving ethnic neighbourhoods is strong.

"There are still Chinatowns but does that mean all Chinese people live there? No," Ghaziani said. "Are Chinese people dispersed and integrated in many different areas of the city? Yes."

In fact, de-concentration has the side effect of adding same-sex characteristics to other parts of a city, he said. For instance, gay or lesbian couples with children may look for a school where their kids are not the only ones with same-sex parents.

“Trying to find a place where that will not be a problem for the kid will create patterns in the decisions that these households make," said Ghaziani.

There's also an emerging trend to creating LGBT retirement communities in many cities where there's a need to create something like a gaybourhood for an aging demographic.

There's always the potential for cultural loss as gay neighbourhoods that were historically "crucibles of innovation" in fields such as art and design, change, Ghaziani said. But creative people have a way of finding each other, especially in the Internet Age.

"All neighbourhoods change," he said. "This is a simple fact of city life and gay neighbourhoods are not immune to it."