There Goes the Gayborhood!

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there
they have to take you in."
-- Robert Frost

The straight takeover of San Francisco was made all too clear last month when Castro Street had to cancel its annual Halloween parade.

Strangers in a Strange Land

And if you examine the photo at left you'll understand why. Yes, it's a gay bar. And yes, it's crammed wall-to wall with straight people

“The Glindas, gladiators and harem boys of the Castro — along with untold numbers who plan to dress up as Senator Larry E. Craig, this year’s camp celebrity — will be celebrating behind closed doors,†reported the New York Times, citing the decision to disband the parade as a wrenching moment of "soul-searching" that struck "a blow at the heart of neighborhood identity."

It is a decision that is coming to symbolize the dismantling of the great gay ghettos throughout America -- what the press used to call “Gay Meccas,†those insular enclaves where men could walk down the street carelessly holding hands, or slobber over each other in the hellish light coming from some leather bar as they made out on the sidewalk. (A world lovingly imagined -- but wildly, cartoonishly overdrawn -- in the American version of Queer as Folk, below)

Halloween, with its theatrical flourishes and transgender play, was always the occasion for special events in Gay Meccas. Certainly free-loving San Francisco held one of the raunchiest.

Queer as Folk's mythical Gay Mecca

"The once-exuberant street party, a symbol of sexual liberation since 1979, has in recent years become a Nightmare on Castro Street," writes the Times, "drawing as many as 200,000 people, many of them costumeless outsiders, and there has been talk of moving it outside the district because of increasing violence. Last year, nine people were wounded when a gunman opened fire at the celebration."

But there was more to the abandonment of the parade than the influx of strangers and crime onto the pacific streets where Harvey Milk once ran a camera store -- streets that now sport a Pottery Barn and baby strollers. A mass emigration is underway. Citing the AIDS epidemic which decimated the community's first gay pioneers, freeing up once leaky "railroad-car" flats and gingerbread fixer-uppers to real estate speculators, the paper notes:

There has been a notable shift of gravity from the Castro, with young gay men and lesbians fanning out into less-expensive neighborhoods like Mission Dolores and the Outer Sunset, and farther away to Marin and Alameda Counties, “mirroring national trends where you are seeing same-sex couples becoming less urban, even as the population become slightly more urban,†said Gary J. Gates, a demographer and senior research fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Twenty years ago, if you were gay and lived in rural Kansas," Gates explained, "you went to San Francisco or New York. Now you can just go to Kansas City.â€

Can this really be true? Is San Francisco over? Is West Hollywood so very 10 years ago? Has Key West yielded to …Virginia Beach!

Gay migrations, circa 2006

Yes, asserts the Times, basing its certainly on a recent study of the demographic migrations of same-sex couples. Coit Tower, the Hollywood Sign, the beaches of Fort Lauderdale — these are no longer gay landmarks of home for the young and the restless.

Think instead — sit, please if you’re standing, the cabin is about to lose pressure — El Paso, Texas! Louisville, Kentucky. Witchita, Whatsamatterwith Kansas!

Some insights from the Times:

“The Castro, and to a lesser extent the West Village, was where you went to express yourself,†said Don F. Reuter, a New York author who is researching a book on the rise and fall of gay neighborhoods. “Claiming physical territory was a powerful act. But the gay neighborhood is becoming a past-tense idea.â€

Also this:

The Castro remains a top tourist destination for gay and lesbian visitors. But Joe D’Alessandro, president and C.E.O. of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, and a gay parent who lives in the Castro, predicted that eventually the neighborhood would go the way of North Beach, “still a historic Italian neighborhood though Italians don’t necessarily live there anymore.â€

Conclusion: The big, centralized Gay Mecca has served its purpose . It is, we are told by the movement of gay populations, no longer necessary.

And so, for many of us of a certain age, of a certain vintage found no more, though we were visitors only to that fog-bound homeland by the bay, the abandonment of the Halloween parade in San Francisco is, like a last wave goodbye, a wenching moment of soul searching.

Some pictures do speak a thousand worlds, if not more

Indeed. Surely the death of the Great Gay Ghettos requires a moment of silence, as well

Have we come at last to that longed-for golden age when gayness stops being a distinct identity, in need of comfort zones, those seedy, insular ghettos on the rusty outskirts of dead industrial centers, across the tracks, on the shady side of town?

Is this what all the sprucing up and gaying up has bought us: a homogenized, gentrified bit of corporate real estate that no 20-something can actually afford, the new “gayborhood,†an amalgam of big-ticket condo and rainbow-flagged shopping mall?

Or will there always be a "San Francisco" somewhere, just like they'll always be a -- well, let Sister Roma tell you in this, our favorite insight from the the Times piece.

On a recent Saturday, Sister Roma, a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an activist coterie of drag queens, sashayed down Castro Street in heavy eye shadow and a gold lamé top. Though she looked well prepared for Halloween, she said she planned to be in hiding that night.

She wasn’t feeling too deprived, however.

“Sweetie,†she said, “every day is Halloween in the Castro.â€

©2007 Nightcharm

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