Thursday, May 11, 2006

Localization [II, 35]

It is generally accepted that gays and lesbians are found everywhere. Yet because they are a minority, they tend to congregate in certain places to be with those like them and to cushion, as much as possible, the effects of the prejudice and indifference they so often encounter from the host society.

Hence the phenomena of displacement and relocation. Such shifts of place can
be positive (some place where one might like to go) or convey a sense of banishment. A solution favored by those who are uncomfortable with homosexuality. This attitude seeks to portray those kinds of things as “far away,” having nothing essentially to do with ones own country or nationality.

Gay Meccas represent the aspect of positive attraction. In classical antiquity the expression take ship for Massilia (Marseilles) meant to turn gay. The reputation of this port may reflect its connection with the Gauls, who were noted for their homosexuality. In ancient times Lesbos was more known for its adventurous heterosexual women than for gay ones. But over the centuries the fame of its daughter, the poet Sappho, gave it this reputation.

Arcadia was a rustic district in ancient Greece celebrated by poets for the simplicity and innocence of its life. Gradually, the name became detached from a specific reference, to become “a place in the mind.” Some Victorians, including A.J. Symonds, used Arcadia as a coded reference to homosexuality. Arcadie was the name of a major French gay monthly, founded in 1955.

Sodom was known for several sins, but one of them, as attested by the story in Genesis, was homosexual rape. While it existed it might not have seemed a desirable piece of real estate (the actual site has never been found). But in later times a certain aura of romance invested the legendary city of Sodom, as seen, for example, in the 1930s film “Lot in Sodom.” By a curious paradox, sodomy seems no longer practiced in Sodom, wherever its ruins may be found, but almost everywhere else. During the Renaissance a legend emerged that connected its sister city Gomorrah with female homosexuality; hence the modern French term gomorrhéenne.

While homosexuality flourished in a number of Italian cities during the early modern era, Florence (sometimes knows as a modern Sodom) was the most notorious. The city on the Arno even gave rise to a German verb, florenzen, to sodomize.

During the latter part of the twentieth century Amsterdam and San Francisco emerged as the gay capitals of their respective continents. West Hollywood claimed to be the first fully gay city, though it is really a section of greater Los Angeles.

Gay ghettoes are quarters of major cities inhabited mainly by gay men and lesbians and featuring businesses catering to them. A recent portmanteau term is gayborhood. As identifiable districts in big cities these are essentially a creation of the twentieth century. However, the gay ghettoes crystallized from the earlier bohemias, run-down sections which combined marginal and criminal elements with writers, poets, and other creative people, drawn together by cheap rents and their common disdain for “bourgeois” respectability. As they improve, a process that owes much to the interior design skills of gays, they undergo gentrification.

Despite their stamp of modernity, there are indications that these urban conglomerations, with their gay element, may stem from a much earlier period—the Middle Ages. There is suggestive data from London and Cologne.

New York’s Greenwich Village, site of the Stonewall Inn where the 1969 riot took place has become well known. Note the musical group the Village People. More recently, however, the center of gay life in the Gotham has moved northward, to Chelsea. In San Francisco Polk Street was once the center, but then yielded to the Castro district. In Los Angeles the “Swish Alps” (the Silverlake district) preceded West Hollywood as a center.

In Central London the Dilly (the area around Piccadilly Circus) was the cruising ground of the Dilly boys from the mid-twentieth century onwards. In that city Bayswater and Soho have traditionally functioned as more integrated areas for gays and lesbians.

In recent years the Chueca quarter in central Madrid has become noted as a haunt for gays, but one in which straights mingle freely. In Paris it is the Marais. Several German cities boast quarters where gay men and lesbians are concentrated.

The discretionary income of gays and lesbians has helped to create resorts where they predominate, during the summer months at least. In the United States these include Provincetown (MA), Fire Island (NY), Asbury Park (NJ), Rehoboth Beach (DE), South Beach and Key West (FL), Saugatuck (MI), as well as Laguna Beach, Palm Springes, and Russian River (all CA). Many of these owe their popularity to the proximity of large metropolises, such as Boston, New York, Miami, and Los Angeles.

Only very short trips are needed to visit the micro-Meccas to be found in every big city: gay bars and bath houses (saunas)

Amusing names, but not necessarily limited to a particular place, are Queer Street and Vaseline Alley. Oddly enough, the blend Homolulu seems to be limited to Germany. While some of these names were negative in origin, they mostly now indicate sites that have proved to be attractive.

Not all gays flock to cities or resorts, but prefer to live in rural areas. These are sometimes termed RFD gays (from the old post office term, Rural Free Delivery).

While particular places may be favored by gay people (or be reputed to be so favored) gays tend to be more nomadic than heterosexuals. The travel industry relies on them a great deal, sometimes providing gay cruises. Note also the general phenomenon of sexual tourism.

There is another type of place regarded as a zone of banishment, a device by heterosexuals to “send away” these undesirables, at least metaphorically. The idea is to relegate homosexual behavior, at least in origin to some other place. “Our people, who are in essence noble and pure, were originally uncontaminated by this vice.” Thus Japanese claim that homosexuality was imported from China or Korea; Koreans regard it as unwelcome import from Japan. The argument as applied to sub-Saharan Africa, thought by Edward Gibbon and others to be "free of the vice. Recently some African nationalists have claimed the whites imposed homosexuality on Africans in order to degrade them. This claim is even made by fundamentalist Muslims, despite the flourishing history of same-sex behavior during the great age of Islam.

These attempted purifications of one's home territory are part of the more general device of ETHNOPHAULISM (which see).

Some types of “relocation” are more limited in scope. Thus in Italian there is dall’altra sponda, dall’altra parocchia (from the other shore; the other parish). German supplies vom anderen Ufer sein (to be from other shore) In English there is “take a walk on the wild side,” though this is not specifically targeted at gayness.

A further type of banishment occurs through a metaphor of elevation, when homosexuality is ascribed chiefly to aristocrats, or conversely to “the lower orders.”


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