Saturday, July 02, 2011

GLBT life in the great cities of the world

[The following piece is a draft of a small segment of a major undertaking in progress to survey what has been learned in homostudies since the publication of the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality in 1990. Coverage is highly selective, emphasizing changes in the field and in scholarship during the last two decades.]

Since the later Middle Ages, cities have been places that have attracted gay and lesbian people. The old German expression “Stadtluft macht frei”--city air makes you free--may not have been literally true, but the hurly-burly of cities offered relative freedom for many marginalized groups. For this reason, GLBT people frequently found themselves having to consort with sex workers, confidence men, thieves, and other marginal types. Some areas frequented by this mixture developed in the Bohemian quarters first widely visible in the nineteenth century. (In some respects, these districts are the ancestors of today’s "gay villages." formerly misleadingly termed gay ghettos.)

It is relatively easy to create a snapshot of contemporary GLBT life in the great cities, by amalgamating information on political and service organizations, businesses, meeting places, and residential quarters. The great challenge lies in creating a diachronic account, the history over time, which can only be done by careful sifting of newspapers, caches of letters, and archival records. For most cities, the picture afforded by this research stretches back to 1800 or so, and no further.

There are exceptions. It is generally accepted that the most significant study of gay urban life in the early modern period is the impressive monograph (1996) of Michael Rocke on Renaissance Florence. However, it is only beginning in the eighteenth century that we can create accounts of such places as London and Paris. Thus historians must resign themselves the likelihood that any real reconstruction of what must have been a vast panorama of GLBT life in cities from their inception in the ancient Near East will remain forever elusive. However, much rewarding work could be done on the history of Asian cities.

Today, most of the older prime cities, such as London and Paris, Chicago and New York, Rio de Janeiro and Sydney, have retained their cachet. Yet these cities, and others like them, have seen a certain emptying out of the center city as gay men and lesbians increasingly move to the suburbs, where they tend to raise children and copy heterosexual lifestyles.

Gays are not the only ones who are leaving the cities, Some heterosexuals who are departing blame gays because of their supposed role in “gentrification,” Portland, Oregon is a case in point. In the view of some disgruntled residents it has gone from a pleasant but affordable place with good schools, to a “super-hip” but very expensive place from which families are fleeing. Some Portlanders blame gays and lesbians flocking to the city, because: 1) without children, gays can afford to bid up house prices, and 2) also without children, they don't care about schools and instead vote to spend tax money on things like public art and subsidizing major-league soccer. Some liberal, middle-aged Portlanders are unhappy that a growing share of public money goes to projects favored by the hip and childless while the school system is being allowed to fall apart.  In truth gays are only a small part of the story--more important are wealthy "empty-nest" retirees--but gays are a particularly visible and easily scapegoated part of it. To a large extent, this complaint is a stereotype, for an increasing number of gays and lesbians do have children. What one can probably expect is an increasing conflict over amenities between those who have offspring to raise (whether the parents be straight or gay), on the one hand, and the childless (whether straight or gay), on the other.

More positively, Richard Florida, an American urban theorist, has detected a positive correlation between gay-friendliness and urban vitality. His theory asserts that metropolitan regions with high concentrations of technology workers, artists, musicians, lesbians and gay men, and a group he describes as "high bohemians," exhibit a higher level of economic development that others. Florida refers to these groups collectively as the "creative class." He maintains that the creative class fosters an open, dynamic, personal, and professional urban environment. This environment, in turn, attracts further numbers of creative people, together with businesses and capital. He suggests that in the interest of long-term prosperity attracting and retaining high-quality talent would be a more effective use of a city's resources than a singular focus on real estate such as sports stadiums, iconic buildings, and shopping centers. Richard Florida has devised his own ranking system rating cities according to a "Bohemian index," a "Gay index," a "diversity index," and similar criteria.

At all events, the sort of grunginess that was once characteristic of urban bohemia--including gay bohemia--has lost its attraction. But quality living is expensive, and not everyone can afford it.

Regrettably, there are other downside features as well. Ever since the 1960s, the role of drugs (“controlled substances”) has been significant, even pervasive, though recent developments have seen a recession of heroin and cocaine in favor of crystal meth (“tina”) and prescription drugs.

Everywhere HIV/AIDS has taken its toll, perhaps in San Francisco more than anywhere else. Polk Street, formerly the major axis of gay life, had begun to yield to the Castro as early as 1980, but the AIDS crisis accelerated this process of hollowing out. Fashion plays a role in these neighborhood shifts. All the shifts notwithstanding, gay influence in politics and the arts remains powerful in the Bay City.

With the growth of the federal government and satellite industries, Washington DC has become more significant in the US, especially with the lifting of discriminatory policies in the federal bureaucracy. Most of the leading US gay rights organizations, with the Human Rights Campaign at the summit, are now headquartered there.

Changes in other cities are even more marked.

In Berlin the formerly Communist Eastern part of the city has been integrated into the whole urban fabric (since 1989). At the same time, the traditional Western gay neighborhood (around Nollendorfplatz) has regained the vitality and prominence it had enjoyed in the 1920s and 30s when Christopher Isherwood "and his kind" lived there (immortalized in the musical and film "Cabaret"). The building where Isherwood lived at the time now bears a commemorative plaque. This "gay village" currently hosts a large annual "Gay Fair." The annual "Christopher Street Day" parade (the gay parade, not named after Isherwood, but after a street in Manhattan) still starts and ends in the former West Berlin (from Kurfürstendamm to the Siegessäule). However, gay hotels, cafés, bars, and "sex clubs" can be found in both East and West Berlin. They advertise and operate much more openly than ever before, attracting gay and lesbian visitors from all over the world. Indeed, Berlin today is a major center of gay tourism, a development actively supported by the city administration and its openly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit.

With the overall fall of Communism, other East European cities such as Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest have developed as vibrant centers of gay and lesbian life.

The emergence of Buenos Aires as a major GLBT center reflects the larger pattern of change in Argentina. The return to democracy in 1983 fostered the gradual emergence of a GLBT rights movement. Gay bars opened and the LGBT community began to become more open, with pride festivals, publications, and political activism. These changes were crowned by the legalization of same-sex marriage in Argentina on July 15, 2010, following a positive vote in both chambers of parliament.

In the Middle East, Tel Aviv, where the population is thought to be at least 15% gay and lesbian, has established itself as a major destination of gay tourism. Several Israeli films have presented a positive image of gay life in the city. Beirut ranks as a distant second.

Coincident with the 2009 step of India's Supreme Court in striking down much of the antigay Article 330 of the Indian Penal Code, Mumbai (Bombay) has emerged as that nation's gay capital. Its pride march is particularly impressive.

Long a destination for sexual tourists and expatriates, Bangkok has emerged in recent years as a vibrant gay center on its own. The infrastructure includes periodicals, organizations, saunas, restaurants, and bars and so forth. A fascinating feature is the interplay between indigenous concepts of same-sex identity--kathoey, tom, dee, and so forth--with imported Western models.

Shanghai is not an old city: it first came into prominence as a port when it was opened to the west in 1842. The French, British. and United States controlled the city until 1948 (under foreign "concessions"), and it was known for its freewheeling sexual ways, including homosexuality. Some of this earlier influence survives, as one can see at the Bund, the array of Western-style buildings along the river. Today, the city has several gay bars, together with a gay center which in 2009 hosted China's first gay-pride festival.


Abraham, Julie. Metropolitan Lovers: the Homosexuality of Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Armstrong, Elizabeth. Forging Gay Identities: Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco, 1950-1994. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Atkins, Gary L. Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.

Baim, Tracy, ed. Out and Proud in Chicago. Chicago: Surrey Books, 2008.

Berlin Museum. Eldorado: Homosexuelle Frauen und Männer in Berlin 1850-1950-- Geschichte, Alltag, und Kultur. Berlin: Frölich & Kaufmann, 1984.

Boyd, Nan Alamilla. Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Cook, Matt. London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Faderman, Lillian, and Stuart Timmons. Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Florida, Richard L. The Rise of the Creative Class: and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Higgs, David, ed. Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories since 1600 London and New York: Routledge, 1999. [contributions on Amsterdam, Lisbon, London, Moscow, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and San Francisco]

Himmel und Hölle: 100 Jahre schwul in Köln. Cologne: Centrum Schwule Geschichte, 2003.

History Project, The. Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

Houlbrook, Matt. Queer London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Hurewitz, Daniel. Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Jackson, Peter, ed. Queer Bangkok: 21st Century Markets, Media and Rights. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011.

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapofsky, and Madeleine D. Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of the Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge, 1993 [on Buffalo].

Leung, Helen Hok-sze. Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Postcolonial Hong Kong. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2008.

Nickels, Thom. Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.

Norton, Rictor. Mother Clap's Molly House, The Gay Subculture in England: 1700-1830. London: GMP Publishers, 1992.

Revenin, Regis. Homosexualité et prostitution masculines à Paris (1870-1918). Paris: L’Harmattan, 2005.

Rocke, Michael. Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Rosenkranz, Bernhard, and Gottfried Lorenz.  Hamburg auf anderen Wegen: Die Geschichte des schwulen Lebens in der Hansestadt. Hamburg: Lambda, 2005.

Stein, Marc. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Striker, Susan, and Jim Van Buskirk. Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996.

Trüeb, Kuno, and Stephan Miescher, eds. Männergeschichte: Schwule in Basel seit 1930. Basel: Buchverlag Basler Zeitung, 1988.

Twin Cities GLBT Oral History Project, Queer Twin Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

White, C. Todd. Pre-Gay LA: A Social History of the Movement for Homosexual Rights. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

In addition there are various city guides of Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Paris, and other major cities, too numerous to list here. While these are going constantly out of date, even the older ones are useful in that they preserve addresses and opinions of times gone by.