You might have heard that Austin could soon join San Francisco, Vancouver, British Columbia, and other cities with a set of rainbow crosswalks.
At first, some business owners in the Warehouse District frowned on the idea, put forth by Austin Pride, to paint the intersection of West Fourth and Colorado streets with a spectrum of colors associated with the gay community. Yet few opposed the idea after the Austin City Council took up the matter in September. Private dollars would pay to install and maintain the crosswalks.
In other cities, the distinctive rainbows — sometimes temporary — have been placed in gay and lesbian neighborhoods. Austin doesn’t have — never had — a true “gayborhood,” defined as a district with a high density of LGBTQ residents, businesses and street life.
True, the Warehouse District, especially along the stretch of West Fourth named for late activist Bettie Naylor, has been home to gay bars and eateries for at least 30 years. Decades ago, the same could be said about Red River Street.
Few gay people, however, lived nearby.
Austin — which ranked high in the past two U.S. census surveys for its concentration of same-sex couples — could point to gay shadings in Travis Heights, Wilshire Woods or North Campus, but not anywhere that would be visible as a gayborhood.
“Thinking back over my 30 years here, my gay brothers and sisters have not been concentrated in one ZIP code,” says business leader Kerry Tate. “But, rather, most of all of Austin’s ZIP codes. The exceptions: Circle C, far northeast or far southeast Austin. I’ve intuitively felt for many years that it was a good thing that Austin had no area separate or apart … that our town has long been a ‘live-and-let-live’ gay-tolerant place within which LGBT citizens selected addresses using the same criteria as others choose neighborhoods.”
The fate of gayborhoods
In his new book “There Goes the Gayborhood?” sociology professor Amin Ghaziani chronicles the rise, fall and possible revival of gay communities in North America. Although repetitive and marred by dated jargon, the book carefully lays out its argument.
Ghaziani divides modern American gay history into three eras: The Closet, Coming Out and Post-Gay. During the first period, before World War II, gay people were scattered anonymously in urban areas.
After the war, gay and lesbian military personnel disembarked in coastal cities or near big bases. Thus were born gayborhoods such as the Castro in San Francisco, where coming out became easier. This process accelerated in other big cities such as Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Boston and Los Angeles after the Stonewall Riots of 1969, when citizens rebelled against undisguised police oppression in Greenwich Village.
The first priority for gayborhoods, then, was safety in numbers. Gay bashing is harder when the witnesses fight back. But gay people also found more social connections, gay-oriented retail, cafes and other businesses, and a sense of geographic identity. Gayborhoods also focused political organizing for gay communities.
So what changed in the past 20 years?
The nation’s gayborhoods had often bloomed in downtrodden areas, and once physically improved, they became desirable. So straight singles and families moved in. Also, Ghaziani contends, in this so-called Post-Gay era, straight people have turned more tolerant of their gay neighbors. Also gay people, especially young ones, feel increasingly comfortable living outside the ghetto.
As a consequence, American gayborhoods are losing a good portion of their identities. Gay bars are closing — in part because of digital social options — in many cities and, with them, bookshops, boutiques and cafes.
Interestingly, Austin bucks part of that trend. Three large new gay bars — the Highland, Castro’s Warehouse and V — recently opened or reopened in the Warehouse District.
Ghaziani is hopeful that gayborhoods will persist even as they change. There is a lot of history and sense of community in places such as Chicago’s Boystown — the focus of Ghaziani’s deepest research — even as gay people move to nearby Andersonville. Despite seismic social shifts, too, there is still a need for safety and levels of public comfort.
The author posits a future of “cultural archipelagos” that will link pockets of gay life within the general culture. He follows other shifts, like gay migration to the suburbs and rural areas, as well as the still-growing trend of gay families with children.
What it means for Austin
“It’s worth asking why Austin never needed a Castro,” says Austin communications expert Steven Tomlinson. “Surely there were always enough gay people here to staff one.”
Tomlinson says that places like the Castro, West Village, Chelsea and so forth are, nevertheless, part of a shared gay legacy.
“In the day, these neighborhoods were fun to visit, important to visit,” he says. “You felt better just knowing the option was there, the witness, the concentration of political power. But they were also, in their own way, exclusive, and in that sense, comfortable — not challenging — in an uncomfortable way.”
His husband, social entrepreneur Eugene Sepulveda, thinks that there is still a need for gay gathering places.
“It’s still important to create physical communities,” Sepulveda says. “Just as Austin’s communities of color need gathering places and neighborhoods, it’d be nice to have more of ours.”
Philanthropist Richard Hartgrove lived in Greenwich Village and Dallas’ Oak Lawn before moving to Austin.
“On the one hand, I think there is value in having a neighborhood where gay people can be themselves, hold hands without fear of censure or violence,” Hartgrove says. “But on balance, I believe it is much more important that we be integrated in as many neighborhoods as possible, because the more people see us as like everyone else, the less we are able to be demonized successfully by the homophobes.”