Will LGBT+ Social Spaces Wither Away?

The gay bar has been eulogized by the gay press (https://goo.gl/VyKA8Q), pathologized by experts studying crime and deviance, and romanticized by others.

On the surface, such eulogies appear to be valid. All across the nation, gay bars are closing. Even the Stonewall Inn in New York, known for its 1969 uprising, has had issues with staying afloat. Traditional LGBT+ venues have met the increased competition and rising rents by charging customers higher and higher prices. This has meant that LGBT+ people must spend more on both patronizing and living in those spaces. At the same time, social media apps offer a new way to connect our community.

But as gayborhoods become more gentrified, people meet through social media, and gay identity finds more acceptance (https://goo.gl/NXCcu8), some LGBT+ people say that this means we now live in a post-gay era.

They say that sexuality no longer matters, that we can be gay anywhere, and that traditional gay institutions are holding back progress from full assimilation into the dominant culture.

However, these claims obscure the ongoing problems of LGBT+ identity and discount the experiences that many gay folks still face. Although significant victories have been won, including gay marriage, the idea that we are truly free to be whoever we want obscures the lived experience of people who now live in an era when they are more visible than ever. This is due in large part to a more general awareness in society, but also increased media attention.

LGBT+ spaces exist to provide a moment of peace and a chance to be with others who share the experience of otherness that comes from living in a straight society. Even among sympathizers to LGBT+ issues who do not live in our world, I find that I must go through elaborate explanations of what many of us take for granted (such as why a gay bar is so important or what words we use to communicate our identities and desires).

Being in gayborhoods, the collection of bars, nightclubs, and other establishments within many urban cities, can inspire a complex mixture of emotions and feelings. I will never forget my first venture into one. It was liberating to see same-sex couples and other gender non-conforming individuals holding hands, to see symbols of LGBT+ culture and stores geared toward our community. For me at least, it also had a profound healing effect on my psyche and made me feel a part of something bigger than myself. In the gayborhood, I never had to fear the consequences of staring at those I found attractive or worry about kissing my date in public or even confessing my sexual sins.

One of the more recent versions of the gay bar eulogy is that social media, a la Grindr (a geo-location dating app for gay men), is serving as a substitute for the gay bar and gay bath. Similar correlations are being made by lesbians with the introduction of Her, a geo-location based dating app like Grindr designed for them.

But critical examination of this claim reveals something far different. Grindr, like the gay bar before it, offers users the ability to find, connect, and potentially develop relationships with others — even relationships of a more carnal nature. However, as social media scholars have shown, and as I argue in my own work, such technologies are just as likely to exaggerate existing divisions of race, class, gender expression, and other social dimensions as they are to bring us closer.

In addition, although the technology provides an additional opportunity to connect, it does so only by suggesting that using it will result in offline relationships. It’s a tool, not an end in itself. Moreover, many LGBT+ spaces now use Grindr as a place to advertise and have had success in doing so.

Although police raids like those at Stonewall no longer occur, a new threat looms on the horizon, the paradox of visibility through heightened awareness. As if watching a comedy, I stood frustrated while trying to order at a gay bar, within an area called the gay village, while a group of college-aged boys jumped in front of me to order and delayed me even further by flirting with the bartender. Then, to make matters worse, they asked whether they were in a gay bar. How ironic is it that when a gay man is pushed aside in a gay bar while a group of young, heterosexual, chauvinistic men enjoy a higher level of status.

Incidents like this one have been commonplace as I conduct my ethnographic study of gayborhoods. Even more common are the bachelorette parties that increasingly occupy space in gay clubs. Because most heterosexual people have never been to a gay bar, they don’t understand the unwritten rules and codes of conduct, and because they probably will never be back, they have little respect for these venues. To them, gatherings in such spaces are hedonistic expressions of losing oneself, disconnected from politics.

Their knowledge of gay clubs is also obscured by reality TV shows that depict a bourgeois notion of gay life (such as What Happens at the Abbey, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Will and Grace and other LGBT+ oriented programs). These shows reduce LGBT+ people to parodies of themselves and offer an image of gay culture that exists only for a select few.

Such portrayals also confuse heterosexual allies by producing an illusion that the lives of LGBT+ persons are somehow luxurious — filled with drinking, dancing, drugs, travel, and endless sexual escapades. The images are so powerful that even many LGBT+ persons have trouble differentiating how much of this talk of luxury and escapades is real.

The reality is that being an LGBT+ person can mean living a life wrought with a profound sense of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and a whole host of social problems. One recent study found that gay men have higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, suggesting that because of prolonged anxieties about their sexual identities, they have underdeveloped coping mechanisms when it comes to stress.

Thus, the notion that gay men are overly dramatic is not without scientific evidence, but the reason for this is far more interesting than the phenomenon itself. It suggests that gay men walk around with a higher level of stress, and as we know through other research studies, the higher the stress levels, the higher the morbidity rate (https://goo.gl/hTZ5v5). The gayborhood, for many, is an outlet where some of these problems can be escaped in an effort to survive the cruelties of daily life.

The rise in acceptance and awareness of LGBT+ identities has had a significant cost for our spaces. Outsiders who have no connection to our history are increasingly co-opting gay spaces that they find profitable. As real estate in these gay spaces becomes more valuable, the current inhabitants are pushed farther and farther out. As distance and costs rise, their ability to participate in these spaces is neutralized.

Most gayborhoods have become so gentrified that LGBT+ people can no longer afford to live there. To some, this decrease in participation validates claims that we live in a post-gay society, as LGBT+ folk no longer flock to gayborhoods. Even our pride festivals reflect this cooptation through their increasing dependence on corporate funders, who often have little commitment to LGBT+ rights outside of riding the wave of acceptance in contemporary society that our leaders have created through years of hard work.

However, perhaps we should feel pride that we have created an alternative social structure for ourselves that is so attractive that even outsiders want in on the experience. In many ways, this has created a need for new social configurations that are only just beginning to emerge.

As if to answer part of the “post-gay” critique that we should no longer be defined by our sexuality, other associations and groups within the LGBT+ community are springing up. Unlike adherents to the post-gay rhetoric, these new groups recognize the power that comes from visibility and they seek to preserve some semblance of shared group identity. Moreover, they see value in LGBT+ spaces and seek to create venues that are more inclusive and seek to increase recognition of the complexity of LGBT+ life.

Examples of this include Queercon in Las Vegas (a group of LGBT+ hackers), video games like Life is Strange (a coming of age story where players make decisions for the lesbian main character who finds out she likes women), and self-proclaimed queer dance parties such as Queen! in Chicago. Much like LGBT+ sports teams and rodeo associations that emerged to challenge the stereotypes of LGBT+ persons, these new groups seek to challenge the notion that LGBT+ people are one-dimensional consumers of celebrity culture.

Although gayborhoods are no doubt undergoing a great deal of change, the people are seeking out ways to connect with others with whom they share a sense of social solidarity. It will undoubtedly be some time before the gayborhood is laid to rest for good.

Christopher T. Conner is a professor of sociology at Washburn University in Topeka. He is concluding an ethnographic study of what it means to be an LGBT+ person in an era of heightened visibility. For further inquiries, please contact Chris.Conner@washburn.edu.