Urban Implications of the Growth of Gay and Lesbian Populations in Suburbs


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The 1994 film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a trio of transgender performers leave the clubs of downtown Sydney to make their way through the Australian outback on tour. Met with small town violence, the elder, played by Terrence Stamp, comforts the young victim, Felicia:

“We all sit around mindlessly slagging on that vile stinkhole of a city of ours, but in some strange way it takes care of us. I don’t know if that ugly wall of suburbia has been put there to stop them getting in, or us getting out.”

The city has been a haven for people who are different, and many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people sense that rural areas can be dangerous — citing the torture of Matthew Sheppard in Wyoming as further proof of long-held assumptions. But the suburbs are a growing border zone in between. How is the growth of gay and lesbian populations in the suburbs changing the focus of the GLBT community at large — and what implications does this shift have for central cities that have traditionally been the community’s home?

Urban Havens

Since before World War II, many urban centers have hosted or fostered pockets of gay culture and social life. And since the 1969 Stonewall riot in New York City jumpstarted the modern gay rights movement, urban gays and lesbians have fought to create community centers, gay-owned businesses, equal rights legislation, Pride Festivals and whole neighborhoods to call their own.

In summer 2001, new census data was released showing heads of households who cohabitated with a “same-sex partner.” This census category is a drastic underreport of the GLBT community, which neglects all single gays and in 1990 accidentally captured a few straight roommates. Still, it is useful in charting broad trends. While findings point to a strong urban base of gay and lesbian couples, inner- and outer-ring suburban growth in gay and lesbian populations is striking.

The strength of the urban base likely comes from continuing preferences to live in areas with strong established GLBT communities. Kirk Kicklighter, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in “Gay Couples Shun Suburbs” reported that “partnered gays overwhelmingly chose to live intown” or “inside the I-285 perimeter.” The Boston Globe’s Cindy Rodriguez recently reported that the new census data showed that “gay and lesbian couples tend to be concentrated in cities.” A 24-year-old in Jamaica Plains, the “epicenter of Boston’s lesbian community,” told her: “here, I feel like I’m part of a community.” Rodriguez reported that Boston’s urban gay and lesbian couples “tend to be clustered — just like ethnic minority groups.”

Also like ethnic minority groups, the gay and lesbian community has begun to use their concentration in cities to build political power. At the end of his life, writing about the future of the African-American-led civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about the fairly new preponderance of black workers and families in northern industrial cities. In Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? he urged, “the changing composition of cities must be seen in light of their political significance.” The strategic realization of “untapped Negro power,” of dense African-American power bases in major urban centers, did come to fruition.

A decade or two later, starting in San Francisco, a gay and lesbian political voice has unified, and won political influence and elected office. The density of gay and lesbian power in the cities has helped to pass civil rights laws against discrimination and hate crimes. But the road has been violent. Our nation’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, was murdered by a fellow member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. After three decades of setbacks and small victories, in many areas the battle for a GLBT voice in politics is still to be won.

Whether for a sense of safety, a sense of community, or a sense of unified power, it is still true and significant that most people of color, and most openly gay and lesbian people, still live in cities.

The Move to Suburban Life

Recently, both ethnic minority groups and many older gays and lesbians have begun to move out from city centers, and are today finding a measure of acceptance. While ethnic minority groups have moved mainly to older suburban areas, the gay and lesbian population has boomed in the outer suburban areas that were the fastest growing parts of America in the 1990s.

In the greater Baltimore, Maryland region of the 1990s, African-American, Asian-American, and Latino population grew fastest in the inner-ring suburbs, while the number of gay and lesbian couples reporting grew much more steeply in the outer-ring suburbs.

In 2001, The Miami Herald reported that in some suburbs surrounding Miami, like Wilton Manors, gay couples make up as much as 17% of the population, thus making it a “suburban mecca that trumps the citified gay enclaves”

Racial and sexual diversity in the suburbs has been a hard-won fight. Ever since the Fair Housing Act outlawed racial redlining of mortgage lending, the doors of educational, cultural, fraternal and other institutions have been slow to open. In The New York Times article, Diana Jean Schemo has illustrated that black families in Long Island are isolated into suburban enclaves, or “minority precincts” by school tracking, realtor steering and targeted sub-prime lending. The advances of ethnic minorities in the suburbs have largely been pyrrhic victories, as white flight is repeated in suburban neighborhoods where ethnic minorities move, depressing real estate values and, consequently, community services in towns like Irvington, New Jersey and Harvey, Illinois — thereby eliminating the very reasons why ethnic minorities moved to the suburbs in the first place.

In the 1980s and before, sociologists often found that the climate for gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the suburbs, like the climate for ethnic minorities, was less than welcoming. GLBT people had to assimilate to make it in suburban neighborhoods. Early reporting from the Journal of Homosexuality on the topic of suburban GLBT populations, or “non-ghetto gays,” found that “the suburban lifestyle inhibited sexual identity formation” and that suburbanites were “individualistic and assimilationist, rather than oriented to participation in collective identities, movements, or organizations.” Gay and lesbians in the suburbs were in hiding.

New Outer Suburban Tolerance

More recently, as GLBT people have migrated to far flung outer suburban neighborhoods, the literature has begun to tell a very different story. Suburban GLBT people often worked hard to challenge prejudice at the border of urban and rural life; now suburban living is viewed as a real option for gay and lesbian people, many of whom are coupled, and many of whom are raising children.

Suburban life is often raised up as proof of a new openness, with Salon.com charting a trend within gay literature that attacks the “ghetto mentality of many city-based gays”. Kenneth Kirkey and Ann Forsyth reported in 2001 that many gay men have “created a way of life that is gay, nonurban, and home-centered, with integration into the larger community.” The study, entitled “Men in the Valley: Gay Male Life on the Suburban-Rural Fringe,” showed that gays and lesbians in metropolitan edge cities in Massachusetts’ Connecticut River Valley were “positively affected by a level of tolerance, if not complete acceptance, more often associated with large urban centers.” Working for acceptance in the outer-ring suburbs has resulted in what they have called the “delinking of gay social networks from urban cores” — gay people no longer have to head into the city on a Friday night to meet up with a community of friends.

In Baltimore’s outer-ring suburbia, the Rainbow Room program has recently been started to provide a safe place for GLBT residents of Harford County. The county offers few areas of tolerance for residents who don’t want to trek into Baltimore City: one straight bar’s small back room is opened up to a gay and lesbian clientele on Friday nights only. In this climate, the Rainbow Room was founded in October of 2001. The group meets monthly at the local Unitarian Universalist Church, with attendance growing steadily.

Founder Diane Mathews reports that in addition to serving as a support group, the Rainbow Room has also tried to raise political awareness, with speakers educating about the recent fight to protect Maryland’s new Anti-Discrimination Act of 2001 from a referendum-driven repeal, and the push for gays, lesbians and bisexuals to be named in the Maryland Board of Education’s Civil Rights protections.

“My goal for now is to keep retention up,” says Mathews, “and reach out more to younger people. Sometimes they are shy to talk about their issues around adults.” In what she calls a “pretty right wing” area, one Starbucks and a mall parking lot are the only gathering places for GLBT youth. If she and a handful of other Harford County gay and lesbian leaders have their way, new youth-led programs will be coming soon. Some open-minded churches and parents group have been supportive, as have statewide and regional GLBT groups with a longer history.

The Challenge for the Next Generation

No one who is in, or supportive of, the GLBT community should dispute the importance of this work. These efforts have the potential to win the tolerance needed to stop GLBT people in the outer suburbs from experiencing the same re-segregation that ethnic minorities have faced in the inner suburbs. Nationally, there is a new awareness and focus on supporting outer suburban fledgling GLBT communities. One of the largest GLBT funders in the nation, the Gill Foundation, has led a movement to fund primarily non-urban nonprofits — those in areas that have under 1.5 million people. More and more, urban-based community service and advocacy groups should be reaching out to suburban GLBT people, young and old, to promote new leadership.

However, if GLBT people continue to migrate out in large numbers, the loss of a critical mass of sexually diverse residents, business owners, political activists and artists will be devastating to central cities. Gays and lesbians have been at the center of thriving American urban communities for generations, playing leading roles in urban culture — and fixing up neighborhoods that others had left for dead. What would Harlem, New York have been in the 1920s without Langston Hughes as poet leader; the Bloomsbury group in London without Virginia Woolf; North Beach, San Francisco in the 50s without Allen Ginsberg memorializing it; the Paris expatriates without Gertrude Stein as host? And where would Washington’s chic Dupont Circle or San Francisco’s bustling Castro be if gay and lesbian urban pioneers had not started fixing up homes there in the 1960s and 1970s, largely because they could not find an accepting place to live elsewhere?

The support and nurturance of urban cultural havens have made the difference, and the GLBT community would be foolish to disperse so far from the center that it loses its heart.

The next generation of GLBT leaders should — and will — continue to find creative ways to raise awareness and political activism in the suburbs, and to create non-urban places of safety and affirmation where gay culture can thrive. But they should also still maintain the cultural havens and political power bases the GLBT community has labored to build in the midst of the city. Cities, meanwhile, may have to do some creative thinking of their own to retain a population that, whether they know it or not, has played a critical role in much of the successful urban revitalization of the past few decades.

This article was written by Caroline Harmon and originally published in February 2003 on Next American City – a nonprofit organisation dedicated to promoting socially and environmentally sustainable economic growth in America’s cities.

Image courtesy of Janek B on flickr

  • Billyo

    i would certainly say so, since it so very hard for us straight guys looking to meet a good woman today.