Does assimilation mean the end of gay neighborhoods?

Left: Saturday night crowds starting to gather on West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard. The crosswalk is painted in gay pride colors as part of the city’s efforts to honor the city’s LGBT presence and history. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) Right: West Hollywood Gay Pride Parade in 1984, the same year the community, located between Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, incorporated. (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

On a Saturday night on West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard, the sidewalks, dance clubs, bars and restaurants are packed. The crowd is made up of mostly men; mostly gay, joyfully, proudly and unapologetically gay men. This is West Hollywood after all, the community that’s been called America’s “Gay Camelot” because of its place in American gay life and culture.

It’s been a LGBT enclave in Southern California for decades. After West Hollywood incorporated in 1984, the city used its clout to champion issues of importance to the gay community. That included creating the country’s first same-sex domestic partnership registry in 1985 and drawing attention the sick and dying during the bleakest years of the AIDS epidemic, during which the city fought for more government help.

In more recent years West Hollywood’s gay residents have witnessed a series of LGBT civil rights victories, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage in California after a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision essentially abolished Propostion 8. That historic moment sparked a series of impromptu marriages at West Hollywood municipal facilities and celebrations on the street.

Celebratory rally in West Hollywood in 2013 after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling led to the return of same-sex marriage in California after the battle over Proposition 8. As the LGBT community scores civil rights victories, many wonder about the identity of West Hollywood and other gay enclaves. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Celebratory rally in West Hollywood in 2013 after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling led to the return of same-sex marriage in California after the battle over Proposition 8. As the LGBT community scores civil rights victories, many wonder about the identity of West Hollywood and other gay enclaves. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Most of its political leadership and many of its business leaders are gay and West Hollywood’s LGBT community feels more secure than ever before. But this has created new challenges and questions.

“And so now I think the biggest challenge is, where are we when we’re at a place that’s fully integrated?” says John Duran, a West Hollywood City Councilman and a veteran gay activist in the community. “We’re not only asking for a seat at the table, we’ve actually built the table.We’re chairing the table,” he says.

Gay Pride flags flying over West Hollywood. In recent years there have been disputes in the community over whether such a flag should fly over City Hall, with some questioning whether it would make heterosexual residents feel excluded.  (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Gay Pride flags flying over West Hollywood. In recent years there have been disputes in the community over whether such a flag should fly over City Hall. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Beyond West Hollywood, many in the LGBT community also wonder what the future holds for America’s traditionally gay enclaves in an era of growing acceptance of gays by the wider society.

“If we are moving towards a time of full legislative equality, does this mean that gay neighborhoods face the prospect of being passé?” asks sociologist Amin Ghaziani, author of “There Goes the Gayborhood.”

Created partly as a reaction to the hostilities of the heterosexual world, Ghaziani says gay communities are now experiencing an identity crisis as the gay and nongay worlds increasingly mix and mingle and gays feel comfortable living openly in communities far from places like West Hollywood, San Francisco’s Castro District or New York’s Greenwich Village.

“There are in fact two trends occurring,” says Ghaziani. “There’s ‘de-gaying,’ which suggests that non-heterosexuals are moving out. At the same time, there’s a ‘straightening,’ of gay neighborhoods, which suggests that straight people are moving in, so what we need to think about then is how do we preserve these spaces without pretending that these kinds of demographic changes are not transpiring,” he says.

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One can see those demographic changes in the parks and playgrounds of West Hollywood as both straight and gay families play with their children.

“I think it’s a great place for families with kids,” says Sabrina LeBow, a straight mom whose child is enrolled in a West Hollywood school. “There is a lot of gay parents in our schools that have kids. I don’t think it matters if someone is gay or not. It does not make it mutually exclusive. You can have both an active gay community and also a great family oriented community, so I think it’s both,” says LeBow.

But talk to other West Hollywood residents and tensions between older gay residents of the community and new heterosexual arrivals can be heard. Tim Ramirez, who’s gay, has lived in the community since the early 1990s. He feels some of West Hollywood’s straight residents can be arrogant and not understand how difficult it can still be for gays outside of the city limits.

The growing family friendly face of West Hollywood as both straight and gay couples with children move into the community. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
The growing family friendly face of West Hollywood as both straight and gay couples with children move into the community. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

“Because if we went to one of the straight clubs acting like the way they come and act, we would get our ass kicked,” says Ramirez. “They take it for granted that they have this freedom to come in here and impose themselves and not really think about how we would be treated if we went into straight clubs.”

Another issue confronting West Hollywood is just how to mark and honor its gay identity as its population becomes more diverse. In recent months there have been controversies in the community over whether it’s appropriate to fly the Gay Pride flag over City Hall, or whether the concentration of clubs and bars on Santa Monica Boulevard should officially be named Boystown.

Some West Hollywood residents, such as Councilman John Duran, say such actions and ideas could be seen as expressions of a kind of gay chauvinism and make nongay residents feel excluded.

“When you are out demanding equality, you also have to be willing to extend it. Otherwise you become as big of a bully as the bullies that we’ve had to suffer under for decades,” says Duran.

Duran says West Hollywood has to adapt to changing times and a greater diversity of residents, but he says the community can only change so much. “We aren’t going to make West Hollywood less leather and lace in order to accommodate families, whether they have gay or straight parents,” he says.

Back on West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard on a busy and gay weekend night, West Hollywood shows no sign of losing its identity anytime soon.

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Read how architects are competing to design the LGBT Center at the DNA blog:  5 Cool Architects Compete To Design LGBT Center.