By Elizabeth Boylan
At what point does a neighborhood evolve into a full-out "gayborhood?"
Is it defined by a critical mass of queer people living in it or utilizing a particular space? I’ve always found rainbows to be fun and festive; perhaps we could calculate the number and size of rainbow flags in any given area to determine some sort of queer numerical value.
Certainly, the Castro in San Francisco ranks high on both of these standards of measure, and is one of the more well-known gayborhoods in America. I am a lesbian and spend a fair amount of time there, but I would not call it “my gayborhood.” See, as far as the LGBT community is concerned, the Castro runs heavy on the “G,” and relatively light on the “L,” “B” and “T.” It is primarily – and at times exclusively – a gay male-oriented space.
In my opinion, not all "gayborhoods" exist as discrete neighborhoods with clear borders. Instead, some subsist in fluidity, often occupying space in a temporary or transitory manner.
Gayborhoods can exist within, around and between any neighborhood. Places and spaces that aren’t explicitly recognized as gay can function as queer meeting areas. A strong showing of lesbians (or at least “potential lesbians”) at my weekend farmers market colors my shopping excursion queer. A gay rugby team or a women’s flag football league steps on a field and converts an ordinary patch of grass into a hub of queer activity. The individuals present transform these benign places into queer spaces, and the actors and participants of these events may feel a sense of community in this momentary queering.
Local gay bars often host “ladies nights,” but as these nights occur only for selected hours each week or month, their presence is not necessarily inscribed on the physical place. I would be hard pressed to identify a permanent, physical manifestation of the queerness of San Francisco’s Dolores Park, yet thousands of lesbians descend upon its grassy hills prior to the annual San Francisco Dyke March. Similarly, San Francisco Trans March organizers stage pre-march activities and performances for transgender folks, friends and allies in the park. Walk through that same space on the other 363 non-lesbian/trans days of the year, and you'll find a diverse, eclectic and eccentric mix of people that I would still consider “queer,” regardless of their sexual orientation.
These places, while not marked exclusively as gay, provide the opportunity for a variety of gayborhoods to coalesce temporarily or informally.
Many gay communities exist without the possession of buildings forming a unique neighborhood. We do not necessarily live in separate enclaves, as queer is but one of many dynamic identities we claim. However, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer identity becomes more salient in transient queer spaces.
While this fluidity provides flexibility and allows us to informally co-opt space, it can also render our places invisible in the built environment. That's why an inclusive analysis of gayborhoods will recognize the importance of elusive and amorphous communities, as well as those with physical borders.
Elizabeth Boylan is the administrative assistant for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Western Office in San Francisco.
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