Heading Back To The Gay Future

gay in the district

I vented a little – well more than a little – in my Sunday Times column last week. It was about the amazement that many New Yorkers have that anyone could even think of moving back to DC once they’ve gotten a taste of the Big Apple. That a gay man would pick DC over NYC seems to strike a particularly raw and incredulous nerve. But, of course, one of the things I miss is the community I grew up in as an adult, the friendships over the decades, and the particular way of gay life that has evolved in DC more potently than in many cities with much stronger gay reputations.

And now it’s not just me saying it … but even the New York Times. Jeremy Peters’ piece is a little over-stated but its core argument is indisputably true. Washington has always been a very gay city, and still is:

Gary J. Gates, who studies census data for the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, reports that Washington has 18.1 same-sex couples per 1,000 households. That places it eighth among cities with populations larger than 250,000. Sorry, New York, but you have only 8.75 same-sex couples per 1,000 households. In Manhattan alone, it’s higher, at 16.7, but still not higher than D.C. The top three are San Francisco (30.3 per 1,000), Seattle (23) and Oakland (21). The numbers capture only those who acknowledge being in a same-sex relationship.

What Peters observes – after living in New York for six years – is the gay sophistication of the place. He argues that the stunning success of the civil rights movement, which reached its tipping point under Obama, has eroded the closet to the point of irrelevance, and thereby transformed the place. That’s certainly true, but I knew gay Washington before the Obama era, and it wasn’t ever as uptight as some would have you believe.

There was always a thriving nightlife – from the great old discos, Tracks and Lost and Found to one of the cradles of House music, the Clubhouse. The DC Eagle is as venerable as the New York version. The community’s response to the AIDS crisis was deep and wide. And the military and Congress brought gays from all over the country to the capital – and not simply because they were gay. So there was always a deep bench of gay cultural diversity in DC that was more like the rest of the country than the flypaper destinations like New York or San Francisco or Miami. And if you’ve never two-stepped at a gay country bar, then Remingtons will be a revelation. For me, a little English kid, it was quite simply overwhelmingly wonderful.

In that way, I think DC was ahead of its time as well as behind it. It had the kernel of a really thriving, large, and diverse gay community, but inside a hard shell of fear and the closet. I don’t want to minimize the fear.

When I was openly gay in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was a real novelty. I could almost feel the tension in some gay social circles as I entered: Would I expose them? Why did I think I could get away with being open in a city whose homosexual presence had always been defined by maximal discretion? When I came out as HIV-positive in the mid-90s, the was another collective dropping of jaws. But over the years, as the gay and (to a much lesser extent) HIV closets eroded, something that had always been there began to breathe and grow into something more mature and more integrated than the beachheads of gay visibility and power. So much so, in fact, that New York today seems a little dated in comparison, even a little stereotypical with its huge fashion and theater scenes.

Then the little things: the gay press in DC is vastly superior to NYC. The infrastructure – from booming 14th Street to Columbia Heights as well as Adams Morgan and Tacoma Park – is often newer and fresher and more modern than New York. A gym like Vida can be a little much – but it no longer has any inferiority complex toward New York. Yes, the white men are, to my mind, simply way hotter in NYC than DC. The DC gays are perfectly formed, but also a little too squeaky clean. A little less deoderant and a little more body and facial hair would be a blessing. But then what does New York have that compares with Bear Happy Hour at Town or a gay sports bar legend called “Nellie’s” that has plastered on its exterior: “Are you Nellie enough?” That kind of edge – integrating mainstream with the subculture and finding a new cultural fusion of the two is something really coming into its own in the nation’s capital. New York, in contrast, seems – dare I say it? – a little played out.

(Photo: Craig Hollander, left, and his partner Gary Unger enjoy the Oscars at Shaw’s Tavern, a DC gastropub managed by a largely gay staff which attracts straight and gay patrons alike. Both men enjoy living openly gay in the district. ‘DC is very much gay-friendly,’ says Gary. ‘You don’t have to look over your shoulders anymore’. By Astrid Riecken/Washington Post/Getty.)