Out in the Burbs

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.’

Just because some lesbians and gays crave the lawns and malls of
suburbia, attendance at gay pride rallies won’t necessarily drop.
You can be an AIDS activist and come home to a split-level ranch
house. Maybe the issue isn’t losing a culture but transforming it.
Knopp notes that groups like Queer Nation and ACT UP have created
Queers Out Shopping campaigns in suburban shopping malls and
Queers’ Night Out in heterosexual sports bars. The new gay identity
may not be about circling our wagons but about moving into the
mainstream, on our own terms: out and proud

Original to Utne Reader Online

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