by Amin Ghaziani
What are we to make of the many anxieties that surround the alleged demise of iconic gay neighborhoods like the Castro in San Francisco? The media, including The New Yorker (here), Salon (here), Time magazine (here), Huffington Post (here), BBC Radio 4 (here), Yahoo News (here), and the Advocate (here), have all taken a keen interest in this hot-button topic.
In the course of conducting research for my new book (here), I discovered an astonishing diversity of queer spaces. Researchers, however, emphasize the experiences of gay men, and in doing so, they erase the lives of lesbians. To set the stage, consider the words of sociologist Manuel Castells. “Lesbians, unlike gay men,” he says, “tend not to concentrate in a given territory.” He thinks that they “do not acquire a geographical basis.” Gender differences between men and women are to blame. “Men have sought to dominate,” Castells continues, “and one expression of this domination has been spatial.” On the other hand, “women have rarely had these territorial aspirations.” For gay men – as men – “to liberate themselves from cultural and sexual oppression, they need a physical space from which to strike out.” Lesbians – as women – “tend to create their own rich, inner world and a political relationship with higher, societal levels.” This perspective leads Castells to conclude that “they are ‘placeless.’”
Lesbian geographies exist. Sometimes they overlap with the more visible, gay men dominated districts—but they are also quite distinct, as the following table illustrates:
This table shows that lesbians do in fact cluster. Although they share some of the same areas with men (Provincetown, Rehoboth Beach, and the Castro), they more often live in less urban areas. All of their neighborhoods are less concentrated overall than those of gay men.
Why does this happen? Some scholars, like Castells, argue that gay men and lesbians have different needs to control space, and this makes lesbians placeless. The table above challenges this view.
Others stress women’s lack of economic power. Although the gender wage gap has narrowed, women still earn, on average, less than men across the board (77% of what men earn, as of 2010). The table confirms that women households are located in lower-income areas.
Subcultural differences also matter. Men are more influenced by sexual transaction and building commercial institutions, while women are motivated by feminism and countercultures. Lesbian neighborhoods consist of clusters of homes near progressive organizations that existed in the area before they even arrived—like artsy theaters, alternative bookstores, coffee shops, bike shops, and cooperative grocery stores. This gives lesbian districts a quasi-underground character, makes them seem hidden, and thus makes them harder to find for those who are not in the know.
Family formation is an important part of the landscape as well. Women same-sex partner households are more likely to have children, and so they have different needs for housing.
Related to this are preferences for city life. Lesbians are also more likely to elect rural locations, gay men choose bigger metropolises.
Finally, some lesbians reject gay neighborhoods because they find them unwelcoming. Gay men are still men, after all, and they are not exempt from sexism.
These reasons may circumscribe lesbian territoriality, but they do not negate it. On the contrary, lesbians are “canaries in the urban coal mine,” to borrow from sociologist Sharon Zukin (here), and they often augur economic and cultural changes that a neighborhood will eventually experience.
Amin Ghaziani is associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia.