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The Battle for the Gayborhood Has Become A Passive-Aggressive Turf War

Not long ago, a young mother and father took their newborn daughter for a long walk in Chicago and ended up in Boystown, the city’s main gay neighborhood. When they entered a local restaurant with a stroller, however, they were met with a roomful of sideyes. “No, we don’t have a child seat,” explained the queer host, who demanded that they keep the stroller on the sidewalk.

The couple was stunned by the frosty greeting. After all, they thought of themselves as progressive LGBTQ allies. The host and restaurant’s patrons, however, likely interpreted their request as “posturing,” explains Amin Ghaziani, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, a term that he defines as flexing privilege on the turf of those who have traditionally had none (or very little).

These “turf wars” are the key finding of new research Ghaziani published last week with Adriana Brodyn, a doctoral student, for which they interviewed 53 straight people in two Chicago “gayborhoods” (Boystown and Andersonville), all of whom considered themselves open-minded supporters of gay rights.

In particular, the baby stroller — a signifier of breeders in the gayborhood — was a consistent source of tension. A straight woman, for example, explained she felt discriminated against when she wasn’t able to enjoy “half-price scone day” at a gay-owned bakery whose multi-door entrance couldn’t accommodate her stroller. After multiple people voiced the same complaint, the bakery implemented a “no-child policy” to avoid the issue altogether. But once they did, they were accused of being “segregationist” and “heterophobic.” Or as one respondent put it, they were being “racist against straight people.”

Gallup’s annual Values and Belief Survey, 2001–2017 (via Amin Ghaziani)

It’s strong language, especially given the extent to which beliefs about homosexuality have changed since the 1990s. Terms like “post-gay,” “beyond the closet” and “post-marriage equality world” suggest the struggle for gay rights is over, but Ghaziani says that’s not really true. “Prejudice and discrimination still exist — it’s just more subtle and difficult to detect,” he explains. As evidence, he notes that heterosexuals are often willing to extend so-called “formal rights” to same-sex couples — e.g., hospital visitation, inheritance rights and insurance benefits — but that they’re more hesitant to grant “informal privileges” like public displays of affection.

Similarly, GLAAD’s annual “Accelerating Acceptance Report” has found:

  • 56 percent of heterosexual Americans are uncomfortable attending a same-sex wedding.
  • 43 percent are uncomfortable bringing a child to a same-sex wedding.
  • 36 percent are uncomfortable seeing same-sex couples hold hands.

And yet, Ghaziani’s respondents were more than happy to appropriate gay culture. Several told him, for example, that the rainbow flag had nothing to do with the LGBT community; rather, they insisted, it was a broad symbol meaning everyone is welcome. (Reminiscent of Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter.) “It’s redefining the neighborhood away from a gayborhood to a diverse area,” Ghaziani explains, adding that a range of settings were cited — from cafes and restaurants to bars to even the LGBT community center, which some straight people claimed was “a center for everyone who lives in the community, not just gay people.” Says Ghaziani, “Once you do that, you have the ability to make accusations of reverse discrimination, which we found as well.”

Ghaziani’s analysis also identified a belief that gays and lesbians should “be happy” about the presence of straight people in gay neighborhoods. “This is what you wanted,” a male respondent argued while waving his finger in Ghaziani’s face. “You wanted equality. You wanted your rights. You wanted to get married. This is it!” That question — what do you people even want? — reminded Ghaziani of something sociologist Mary Pattillo, who studies the black middle class in America, wrote upon reading his 2016 book, There Goes the Gayborhood:

“I’m not a lesbian, I don’t live in a gayborhood and I don’t study LGBT communities. Instead, I’m black, I live in a black neighborhood and I study black communities. And black people get asked the same question: ‘What is it that you want?’

“The situation for the black and LGBTQ communities is definitely not the same, but I couldn’t help but to read the gayborhood through the prisms of racism, racial residential segregation and the black political positions that arise in response. What is it that you want? What is it that we want? We want visibility and invisibility. We want high expectations and low expectations. We want to be able to love out loud and keep our business to ourselves. And, finally, we want freedom to move and freedom to congregate. These are obviously contradictory pairs, but that’s exactly what you get and we want it, too.”

When I ask Ghaziani where we go from here, his prolonged exhale indicates a multi-part answer. “First,” he says, “this study should provide pause to those who believe that since gays and lesbians can get married now, discrimination is over.” Marriage equality is by no means a panacea, he adds, and says it’s a mistake to look at just legislative or judicial forms of equality.

And second?

“The more people talk about this,” Ghaziani says, “the more people will appreciate the fact that it’s the well-intended individuals who are unexpectedly reproducing the inequalities. If we can help people become more aware of it, then we can at least try to change the nature of the interactions that perpetuate the discrimination.”