Volume XII, Number I, Spring 2016


"Review of Amin Ghaziani's There Goes the Gayborhood?" by Nóra Németh

Nóra Németh graduated from the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged with a master’s degree in American Studies. Email:

There Goes the Gayborhood?
Ghaziani, Amin
2014
Princeton: Princeton University Press
360 pages
ISBN-10: 0691168415
ISBN-13: 978-0691168418

In the contemporary climate of growing societal acceptance and improving legal equality along with the visible representation of the LGBTQ community in popular culture, it is relevant to pose questions about the future of gay neighborhoods that are traditionally known as the primary artifacts of the period that has been characterized by harsh anti-gay sentiment, violence and injustice. Since the coming out era, gayborhoods have been the powerful spatial expressions of gay imaginary, providing homosexual communities with a new sense of root, safety and freedom. As a result of recent transformations of public attitudes, however, the powerful meaning and significance of the iconic gayborhoods of the American urban landscape have stated to decline. Several newspaper articles have predicted the disappearance of gay enclaves, as a reaction to which Amin Ghaziani examines the changing social and spatial structures of gay neighborhoods. In his book entitled, There Goes the Gayborhood? he argues for a promising future for an expanding queer geography that is defined primarily by an emerging post-gay paradigm. Drawing on a tremendous amount of historical analysis, demographic statistics, news report reviews, interviews and personal observations, Ghaziani provides a unique insider’s look at the iconic gay villages of Chicago in order to research the evolving identity, functions and culture of contemporary gay neighborhoods.

In the Introduction, having surveyed the most iconic gay neighborhoods of the American urban landscape such as New York’s Greenwich Village, Washington DC’s Dupont Circle or the Castro district in San Francisco, Ghaziani defines gayborhoods as places with "a distinct geographic focal point" (2), with a unique gay culture including symbols and ritual events along with a notable concentration of homes and commercial spaces. Though a "complex gay male world" (13) emerged in the bohemian neighborhoods of the major American cities between the second part of nineteenth century and World War II, this new gay realm appeared on the urban landscape only, as a ”topography of gay meeting places" (13). Accordingly, resting on the promise of urban anonymity, scattered bars and cabarets established an early urban gay culture that was characterized mainly by concealment, isolation, duplicity and the feelings of shame and fear. Then, following the war, "a nationwide ‘coming out’ experience" (15) motivated the growing number of urban gay population to be open about their sexuality, thus to establish visible gay public places to gather and socialize in. Gay neighborhoods as "distinct" (16) urban spaces began to flourish following the Stonewall riots in 1969, when gays were motivated to create vibrant urban gay spaces which provided safety, tolerance and sexual freedom for the community.

As regards the present nature of gay neighborhoods, Ghaziani argues that despite of the growing social acceptance of homosexuality, gay neighborhoods are still the only type of urban space that can provide members of the gay community with a safe haven where they can socialize freely, express romantic emotions publically and organize themselves for common goals. Yet, he agrees that the queer geographies of the United States are changing predominantly because "gay life in the Western world today [….] is "beyond the closet" (176). He borrows the term ‘post-gay’ coined by Paul Burston as a definition for the contemporary extended gay identity and landscape, primarily as a result of the wider social acceptance of the gay community. Consequently, on the one hand, gays seem to feel less isolated and have started to move into non-gay neighborhoods, while on the other hand, an influx of straight population into traditional gay neighborhoods can also be observed. In There Goes the Gayborhood?, Ghaziani aims to provide a better understanding of the changes of the American gay urban landscape in the new post-gay world by examining the changing nature of gay enclaves and then, by outlining the specific ways in which gayborhoods can persist in the future.

In the first part of the book, Ghaziani dedicates three chapters to the identification of the ways in which the changing contemporary perception of sexuality generates the geographic reordering of the urban landscape. After investigating the recent tendencies of assimilation, in the first chapter, Ghaziani points out that it is often certain life events that encourage the members of the gay community to reconsider their relationship with urban spaces. Through personal interviews, Ghaziani introduces different perspectives and stories while he also touches upon the ways in which Internet alters the relationship between sexuality and the city by replacing the traditional functions of the gay neighborhoods.

In the second chapter, Ghaziani locates the mechanisms that alter the structure and functions of contemporary gay neighborhoods in the scope of his analysis. In order to offer a better understanding of the expanding spatial location of gay identity, Ghaziani provides a unique insider’s look at the vibrant gay life of Chicago. He does it by exploring the active gay districts of the city with a focus on the effects of assimilation, and by offering an impressive collection of daily encounters, experiences and personal interviews with locals with all kinds of sexualities. The author demonstrates that the expansion of the urban gay horizon has been a continuous process if we consider the historical development of the relationship between sexuality and the city. The dispersed gay places of the closet era came together in the coming out period for the formation of gay neighborhoods that, as islands of meaning welcomed gay refugees with a distinct character, community and with the promise of safety. Today, in the post-gay era as urban mentality is becoming more accepting, the entire city can be considered as a meaningful, livable and safe space for the gay population.

The resulting social blending with frequent contacts between straight and gay population, along with the more prominent visibility of the latter apparently reduce prejudice and the feelings of being culturally foreign. As Ghaziani argues, the dominance of this emerging feeling of cultural sameness also contributes to the changes in the gay urban landscape, however, he also indicates that its forms of expression is varied and is determined by one’s sexual orientation. No longer feeling culturally othered, gays not only integrate into the mainstream society but also many of them would welcome straights into originally gay enclaves. In connection with this, Ghaziani points out some vexing and contradictory issues that emphasize the complexity of the relationship between gayborhoods and the post-gay period. Besides raising questions about the link between the shifting concept of sexuality and neighborhood integration, as well as about the importance of spatial concentration in the development of a post-gay sensibility, the author also voices his concerns about the preservation of gay identity, culture and community without distinct spatial presence. Importantly, Ghaziani also discusses the straight remarks on social blending by sharing the three main ways in which straight population expresses cultural sameness. First of all, many of them feel "benignly indifferent to their gay neighbors" (83) meaning that they do not consider sexual orientation important and they do not notice gay presence. Secondly, as Ghaziani argues, a portion of straight residents asserts that sexual integration is after all the "desired outcome of the gay rights movement" (90) so the members of the gay community should celebrate the demographic and cultural integration of gay neighborhoods. Finally, he refers to a minority of the straight population that accuses those members of the gay community who are concerned about the preservation of their neighborhoods with reversed discrimination, meaning the unwelcoming behavior and the exclusion of straights from gay neighborhoods. Reacting to this complaint, Ghaziani contends that it is "systemically illogical" (96) and that "heterosexims and homophobia are institutional systems" (96) that can work only in one direction.

Following the examination of the patterns of assimilation that enable members of the gay community to consider an extended urban landscape as possible places to settle down, Ghaziani analyzes those important junctures of the lives of gays that trigger them to reevaluate where they want to live and socialize in. Based on several personal conversations, Ghaziani concludes that the primary triggers are: ageing, the coming of age of a new generation and having children. The majority of the interviewed middle-aged gays and lesbians claimed that growing older has made them less reliant on the larger gay community, while social influences and the eased pressures for conformity have also become less important for them. Instead, the desire to have more living space and more calmness in the surroundings encourages them to depart from gay neighborhoods. Another group is the new gay teenager who being socialized in the post-gay period comes out earlier, has sexually mixed company and places less emphasis on self-identification. Consequently, as Ghaziani argues, new gay teenagers connect to gayborhoods in a less meaningful way as they do not necessarily feel compelled to enjoy their lifestyle or socialize within the safe boundaries of gay neighborhoods. The author also points out that the growing number of same-sex households with children that he called the "gayby boom" (116) also shapes gay spaces. Similarly to straight parents, the most significant decisions that same-sex parents make are about school systems and the living spaces including housing and the neighborhood itself. Finally, in the same chapter, Ghaziani argues that urban sexuality and the meanings of urban space are highly influenced by the developing opportunities offered by Internet. Enabling social networking, providing a safe space from hostilities and offering a site for gay organizations and businesses, Internet seemingly can replace many of the traditional functions of gay neighborhoods.

After the investigation of the complexities of the post-gay period expressed in the changing gay urban landscape, in the second part of There Goes the Gayborhood?, Ghaziani aims to prove that declaring the disappearance of gay neighborhoods from the American urban landscape is naive and unrealistic. Thus, he focuses on those conditions that indicate the persistence of gay spaces in the future. The first chapter of this part elaborates on a new narrative thread as regards the surprising expansion of queer spaces in new and sometimes quite unexpected areas. Relying on census data, the author concludes that while traditional urban gay neighborhoods still exist as meaningful places and safe havens for singles, the gay youth, gay people of color and transgender people, same-sex families, retired gays and lesbians create unique trends by reconcentrating in new places in this way expanding queer geographies. As a result, new and distinct gay-identified spaces emerge that Ghaziani called "cultural archipelagos" and defined in the following way,

multiple clusters of gay and lesbian populations are emerging in cities of different sizes and, as we will see it, in the suburbs and in rural area as well. (137)

Drawing on the urban gay history of Chicago and New York City, the author explains the historical pattern of collective relocation of the gay community that has been primarily motivated by political and economic issues, but historical events such as the AIDS crisis or the significant straight influx have also shaped gay geographies. As he argues, this distinct pattern of collective gay migration reveals that sexuality is still an important structuring aspect of life, while the development of the new gay identified areas across the United States illustrates that gays and lesbians are "still chasing rainbows" (148). Ghaziani also illustrates "another alternative for the future of urban America" (163) by pointing out the emerging new gay spaces beyond the urban areas, mainly as part of the suburban and rural landscape.

In the fifth chapter, the author argues that despite of the growing public acceptance of homosexuality and the developing legislative landscape, contemporary gay neighborhoods still have the prominent function of being safe havens. With exploring the gay spaces of Chicago and describing the discrimination, violence and injustice that local residents have to endure on a daily basis, Ghaziani aims to prove that gay neighborhoods are indeed the only safe urban spaces that enable gays and lesbians to explore their sexuality and display basic acts of intimacy in the public. Furthermore, he also discusses the importance of gay neighborhoods for those who come from smaller cities, suburbs or rural areas. As Ghaziani explains, for these members of the gay community, gayborhoods are “life-affirming” (188) and “life-giving” (188) sacred spaces where they can explore, express and perform their sexuality freely. At the same time, he also touches upon “internalized racism” (181) that gay youth of color have to endure, along with the spatial invisibility of transgender people even within the safe boundaries of the gayborhoods. Moreover, the author focuses on the ways in which the institutional and cultural character of gay neighborhoods can be maintained despite of the prominent straight presence in the area. Thus, he elaborates on the three factors that can ensure the survival of gay enclaves: (1) psychological and performative possibilities to enable gays and lesbians to explore, express and display their gender and sexuality; (2) anchor institutions to promote vibrant gay culture and to give the neighborhood a distinct identity; and (3) commemorations to embody gay history, culture and collective memories.

After acknowledging that gay neighborhoods still have the original function of providing safety and comfort for the gay community, in the sixth chapter, Ghaziani places those gays and lesbians in the scope of his analysis who leave gay neighborhoods. The final chapter of There Goes the Gayborhood?, presents two main patterns of relocation informed on the one hand, by the concept of homophily, the "propensity for minority group members to stick together" (257). On the other hand, as Ghaziani argues, relocation decisions are influenced heavily by the similar choices and decisions members of the gay community make, eventually leading to the inventions and reinventions of "the very meanings and material expressions of gay districts" (210). As the author examines, a major pattern of relocation is the revival of gay neighborhoods that is characterized by the systematic and collective movement of gays and lesbians, often resulting in the development of new enclaves adjacent to the original one. Moreover, as Ghaziani discusses, the multiplication of queer geographies is another significant trend, meaning the emergence of little pockets of neighborhoods that are pioneered by same-sex families, people of color, and ageing gays and lesbians.

There Goes the Gayborhood? offers a panoramic view of the ways in which recent cultural and social transformations along with an expanding gay identity are expressed in the American urban landscape. As an insider, Ghaziani guides the reader around the iconic gay neighborhoods of the United States in order to present the evolving structure, culture and function of these distinct queer spaces. Throughout his book, he argues that gayborhoods are still and will remain meaningful in the future for the members of the LGBTQ community. The value of his argument lies in the unique insider perspective he provides, his diligent research along with the overwhelming amount of information he collected to support his persuasive claims. With this outstandingly well-researched and well-structured book, Ghaziani contributes to the growing literature on the geography of sexuality while he also encourages the broadening of the research focusing on the intersecting fields of urban and queer studies. There Goes the Gayborhood? is a valuable source for readers with academic interests in the fields of queer studies, urban studies, gender studies, cultural and urban sociology but the enthusiasm and determination of Ghaziani make the book a truly thrilling reading experience for the general public as well.