Rainbow’s End

Charting the changes in queer urban life

By most accounts this year’s gay pride parade in Toronto was a big success as well as a landmark event. It incorporated a host of participants from all over the globe who came to Toronto to attend the WorldPride Human Rights Conference. With something like 12,000 marchers, the parade was much larger than in previous years and went on longer. By its conclusion, as fatigue mingled with euphoria, the sudden and intense downpour of rain breaking the heat of the day came as a blessing. To the many who lingered on the steamy streets of Toronto’s Church Street gay village, the rainbow that materialized in the sky over their heads seemed entirely fitting, a bit of pathetic fallacy eagerly recorded on hundreds of Instagrams. The rainbow, symbol of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered (LGBT) movement made manifest in the heavens, had a rightness to it—especially in a city where, weeks before, a provincial election had returned to power a majority Liberal government led by an out lesbian in a committed relationship with a female partner. That this circumstance never seemed to come up in the campaign conversation probably had more to do with the galvanizing presence of a Conservative candidate who invoked the bad old austerity days of former Conservative premier Mike Harris than with any newfound sophistication. Still, it led one to reflect. There seemed at least cause for measured optimism.

Measured optimism is a hallmark of Amin Ghaziani’s There Goes the Gayborhood? Despite the cutesy title (seemingly inspired by a 2007 Globe and Mail article by Micah Toub, “There Goes the Gaybourhood: A New, Straight Crowd Is Discovering Church and Wellesley,” cited in the text) and a certain jargon-y quality to some of the prose, Ghaziani, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, has a great subject. He examines the shifts and changes occurring in the Chicago gay village known as “Boystown” and its neighbouring community Andersonville.

Ghaziani’s research is based on newspaper articles and census data as well as interviews with 125 residents of those two neighbourhoods. The author lived in Chicago for a decade before beginning his research. One caveat here, and perhaps an unfair one because, strictly speaking, it is not something within Ghaziani’s mandate, is the absence of vivid particularity in the interviews. In seeking to record patterns and trends, the collected testimony starts to sound repetitive. There is a kind of homogenization effect. More’s the pity since some of these stories might well have been broken out into human-interest sidebars. And while Ghaziani keeps his focus on Chicago, the transformations he describes and the questions he raises have application to gay villages in other North American cities, be they New York and San Francisco in the United States, or Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto in Canada.

In framing his thesis, Ghaziani suggests three major eras in the evolution of the gay neighbourhood—sometimes called the “gay ghetto,” the “gay village” or, as in the current instance, “Boystown.” The first is the “closeted” era, and it extends essentially from the early 20th century until the 1970s, when the fallout from the sexual and other revolutions that started in the late 1960s came to be felt. The feminist revolution also played its significant role, specifically in the development of the lesbian identity, which, as Ghaziani points out, evolved coterminous, but not necessarily in complete synchronicity, with the revolution in gay rights. In fact, the Andersonville area of Chicago had its gaybourhood beginnings as a gathering place for lesbians.

The second major era is what Ghaziani terms the “coming out” period of the 1970s and ’80s, as gay men and lesbians asserted their own cultural identities and the pronounced character of gay and lesbian neighbourhoods came into clearer focus—although the need and presence of these enclaves predated such identification since gays and lesbians had already devised subtle methods to associate with others who shared their sexual preferences. This second era was about comfort on a level of community. It had a lot to do with the basic need for physical safety. If you wanted to hold hands with your same-sex partner or demonstrate affection in public, you generally could in such environments, without drawing disapproving stares or, worse, getting bashed. “Gayborhoods, as such, are modern urban artifacts of the coming out era,” notes Ghaziani. “They first formed after World War II, and they flourished some decades later after the Stonewall riots. This abbreviated history reminds us of a simple fact: gay neighborhoods have not always been around. And they have never been exclusively queer, even after they arrived on the urban scene.”

The mainstreaming of gay acceptance in popular culture and its validation through recognition of same-sex marriage and adoption rights (although this is not yet universally true in the United States) evolved to the point sometime near the turn of this century when Ghaziani’s third period begins—what he calls the “post-gay” era.

This era is defined by the fact that generations have grown up without having experienced the culture wars that shaped what is commonly regarded as the gay identity. “My sexuality is no longer the lynchpin of my identity,” 30-year-old “Bill” told Ghaziani. “I’ve grown into a more multifaceted person. I enjoy many aspects of myself, rather than merely focusing on my life as a gay man. Today, my friends aren’t limited mostly to gay men … I’ve integrated my sexual orientation into my life, which has alleviated my need to focus on it.” Or, as the pollster Nate Silver says of himself, “I’m kind of sexually gay, but ethnically straight.” A distinction is drawn between being gay in a cultural sense and in a sexual sense. Says Ghaziani: “An us-versus-them mentality, which was common in the closet and coming out eras, is yielding to an us-and-them view of relationships in a post-gay world.” And a consequence of this combination of wider tolerance and expanded sense of social opportunity has meant that the “residential imagination” of gays and lesbians, in other words where they choose to live, has similarly broadened.

Demographics play a central role in determining choice of neighbourhood. A number of gays and lesbians want, or already have, children. Concerns for the child’s schooling, for example, will often determine the choice of location where one plans to live and that means the desire for good schools takes precedence over the desire for, say, good bars. Age is also a factor. Older gays and lesbians often prefer quieter, less “happening” places to live.

Meanwhile, the internet and attendant tech phenomena have upended the traditional role of the gay village as a nexus for socialization. No need for bar hook-ups when a smart phone solves that problem. Ghaziani recalls spotting this graffiti in Vancouver’s Davie Village: “MORE GRINDR = FEWER GAY BARS.” Although, as he is quick to point out, lines between cause and effect cannot be so easily drawn: “The app can also supplement, rather than supplant, bar attendance, and I personally know many men who use it while they are inside a gay bar or at a house party.” Furthermore, nostalgia for the gay bars can be a generational thing. Nostalgia for some means being out of touch for others. “I see a lot of the older gay male generation referring to how the young gay community relies too much on social apps and doesn’t support the Village, et cetera,” wrote a (presumably) younger reader to the LGBT biweekly Toronto newspaper Xtra. “Here’s the thing: the Village isn’t to us what it was to you. A lot of my gay male friends don’t like going to the Village. It can be full of very vain, catty and superficial people. It has become a venue for straight people (especially women) to make a spectacle out of gay men. It can also be a very racist and transphobic place. I can’t speak about before my time, but currently it is not a safe haven. It’s actually an unsafe environment for a lot of LGBT-plus people.”

As for gay book stores, another staple institution of gaybourhoods, their fortunes tend to reflect the plight of book stores in general in an internet age. The loss of such institutions raises a question implicit in the title of Ghaziani’s book. Can a gay identity exist without some kind of spatial correlative—the bars that bring people together, the book stores that reflect the histories that inform it? As we might deduce from that irate correspondent to Xtra, the nature of this gay identity can yield a multiplicity of perspectives.

Through his interviews, Ghaziani catalogues the tensions and ambiguities that inform the interrelationships between minorities and the majority, and among the minorities themselves: the resentment of some gays toward straights who settle in their neighbourhood, for example; the resentment by lesbians toward gay men who take over neighbourhoods they established; the unease some straights still experience at same-sex public displays of affection. Moreover, social progress presents its own dilemmas. If same-sex marriage is now an accepted fact of life in this country, where does the LGBT movement go from here? “Same-sex marriage is not the final frontier of the queer rights movement,” Peter Knegt has written in his About Canada: Queer Rights. “There remain the questions of whether same-sex marriage is a progressive idea in the first place and, if it is, who exactly benefits from it. It wasn’t even an issue for most of the pioneers of the Canadian movement while some issues they did very much believe in—like sexual censorship and the decriminalization of many consensual sex acts—remain unresolved.” In his book, Ghaziani cites Daniel Mendelsohn’s phrase about the “heterosexualization of gay culture” and his provocative query about whether “culturally speaking, oppression may have been the best thing that could have happened to gay culture. Without it, we’re nothing.”

Ghaziani’s title question is rhetorical. Yes, there is movement away from established gay neighbourhoods—but that movement is often directed toward laying the foundations of new gay neighbourhoods nearby. In the Chicago experience, that direction has been northward, from Towertown to Old Town to New Town to Boystown and now on to Andersonville. In my city of Toronto, the migration appears to have tended east and west. But, like Boystown, the Church Street neighbourhood in Toronto is still a gay mecca, in part because of the gay businesses there and in part because the city itself has commemorated that gay history through various forms of signage. People do not actually have to physically live in a gaybourhood for a gaybourhood to remain important.

Moreover, gaybourhoods are needed. It would be misleading to extrapolate from the experience of more mainstream gays who, in the American author Bruce Bawer’s phrase, demanded their “place at the table” and achieved that goal. Many more remain outside this more privileged loop. My friends’ kids and my own nephews and their contemporaries regard gayness as no big deal. This is encouraging, but it should not divert us from the knowledge that for many young gay and lesbian people the path to adulthood remains a fraught journey and suicide is still the leading cause of death among queer youth. There are those living in small towns or in ethnic cultures who are traditionally homophobic. There are those who are economically disadvantaged: social class and (as Ghaziani indicates when addressing the Chicago experience) race both play significant roles in determining outcomes. “Post-gay does not mean post-discrimination,” notes Ghaziani. “This will ensure that gayborhoods live on to see another tomorrow.”

Schools can be the obvious front line in any effort to provide a safe and encouraging environment for sexual minority kids and, in a recent issue of the Journal of Canadian Studies, David Rayside sees “hopeful signs of change” in such phenomena as the growing number of Gay-Straight Alliances and the increased awareness that bullying in the schools has become a matter of more general concern. But he also recognizes the challenges for LGBT inclusiveness: “There are institutional, political, social, and cultural forces that reproduce traditional norms among young people and reinforce caution among educators, even those who believe that change must come. Most teachers still report being unprepared for discussions of sexual diversity, and many who are prepared are nervous about the reactions of students, parents, and administrators.” Ghaziani admits to a significant disadvantage in doing his own research—being thwarted in the ability to speak with queer teenagers because of a ruling that demands parental consent before interviews with minors can take place: “Requiring such a signature from a parent presents an obvious challenge for those young people who are not yet out at home.”

In the final few pages of his book, Ghaziani discusses his use of terminology and how such discussions have become more complex and more demanding of precision. It is a key point. What was once simply “gay” and “lesbian” is now LGBT—although, in fact, that standard has now become outdated as well. Even the more up-to-date LGBTQ, the “Q” for queer representing the kaleidoscope of other sexual minorities, is being challenged by other groups demanding to be specifically included under the umbrella of this accreting acronym. People of colour and two-spirited individuals from the First Nations are among those who now press to have their stories heard. In other words, gay and lesbian issues can no longer be viewed in a strictly binary sense. And it will become the responsibility of society and of the LGBT movement itself to accommodate and recognize the newcomers and their stories. The recently signed memorandum of understanding between the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto appears to be a positive step forward in this regard.

The gaybourhood has expanded because the contemporary gay identity has expanded. But while it is a new scene out there, the narrative is an old one. Those in sexual minorities, as with those in the sexual majority, still want only the freedom to love and be loved in their own ways, to be true to their hearts in whatever fashion that assumes—to be, in effect, authentically themselves. To find fulfillment in that aim is, indeed, to discover the end of the rainbow.