Out in the Burbs

Can gay and lesbian culture thrive outside cities


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Coming out to oneself as gay or lesbian a generation ago usually prompted a move to the nearest big city, specifically to those infamous districts lesbians and gays were known to inhabit. Greenwich Village in New York, DuPont Circle in Washington, the Castro district in San Francisco, and other gay enclaves may not have been the swankest parts of town, but they offered a critical mass of other homosexuals, allowing for a certain amount of freedom that was hard to find in, say, Scarsdale or Bethesda or any small town. Lesbians and gays soon revitalized these neighborhoods, starting bars, bookstores, theaters, and restaurants.

The politics and style of the lesbian and gay rights movement were forged in these lively urban centers in the '70s and '80s. But Daniel Mendelsohn in Out magazine (March 1995) reveals that now growing numbers of lesbians and gays are forsaking urban life for the suburbs. What will this mean for cities and how will it change gay and lesbian culture?

At a 1994 meeting of the American Planning Association (APA), a small group of urban planners discussed the effects of this trend on cities. Mendelsohn quotes Lilia Medina, a San Francisco census coordinator who participated in the APA panel: ''A very significant proportion of housing renovation and neighborhood improvement in San Francisco has been primarily the result of moderate-income gay households that have invested work and time in a crowded urban setting. And they do so for that feeling of freedom, protection and self-expression provided by gay neighborhoods.'' But that freedom and safety can't be taken for granted today; urban violence and the rising cost of living in cities may be two reasons lesbians and gays are heading to the frontiers of the suburbs and to other less gay-identified city neighborhoods.

For some time now, gentrified gay enclaves like the Village, the Castro, and DuPont Circle haven't been financially accessible to most lesbians and many gays. Those living there are 'a mostly white, mostly male privileged group, which has never constituted a true sampling of the gay population,' says Larry Knopp, an associate professor of geography at the University of Minnesota in Duluth who was invited to participate in the APA panel. His own research on gay migration out of New Orleans revealed life-cycle issues as a primary factor: The pace of life in the suburbs was more desirable for older gays, who 'neither needed nor wanted to be in the thick of the gay scene,' says Knopp.

The migration may also be a natural progression of the gay and lesbian civil rights struggle, a cautiously triumphant return to the place where many of them grew up. With lesbians on the cover of Newsweek and gay characters appearing on television, suburban America seems somewhat more able to tolerate lesbians and gays than in years past. While Mendelsohn talks broadly about gay migration to the suburbs, Knopp points out that gays and lesbians are selecting inner-ring suburbs that allow them easy access to the city and are 'yuppie liberal' as opposed to 'family-values conservative.' In fact, though Mendelsohn makes it seem as if the choice is either Castro Street or Edge City, gays and lesbians still do live in large numbers in other urban neighborhoods.

Will the migration from the gay enclaves be the swan song of gay culture? Mendelsohn argues that it means gays and lesbians no longer subscribe to the notion that sexuality alone shapes identity. 'Issues once almost exclusively associated with 'mainstream' life -- monogamy, family, children -- are becoming increasingly important for gay men and women,' he writes. But this is hardly new: Many lesbians came out after a heterosexual marriage and were already raising children, and in the '70s many moved to the country or lived in group houses in the not-so-trendy neighborhoods on the fringes of the often unaffordable gay enclaves.

Mendelsohn wonders this: What makes us lesbian or gay if we're living next door to the Cleavers? What exactly is a 'gay' life these days? 'Such questions,' writes Mendelsohn, 'have led some to wonder whether the concept of gay identity itself... isn't somehow artificial -- like the gay enclaves themselves, a reaction to external pressure rather than a natural expression of some irreducible, internal essence.'