A reader flags this report:
New research finds that traditionally gay neighbourhoods are becoming increasingly “straight” places, and could be at risk of losing their distinct cultural identity. Fewer same-sex couples reside in historically gay neighbourhoods compared to 10 years ago, according to one of the largest studies of sexuality in the U.S. Led by University of British Columbia sociologist Amin Ghaziani, the study found the number of gay men who live in gay enclaves has declined eight per cent while the number of lesbians has dropped 13 per cent. Ghaziani’s research, which is collected in his new book There Goes the Gayborhood, suggests that San Francisco’s Castro district, New York’s Chelsea, Chicago’s Boystown and other “gayborhoods” are changing as growing numbers of heterosexual households join or replace gays and lesbians. He offers several reasons for the shift, including gentrification, changing attitudes among gays and lesbians, and growing acceptance of same-sex couples.
This season in Provincetown has been very striking. It’s nearly a decade since I wrote The End Of Gay Culture for TNR, but only now that the small drip-drip-drip of change seems to have reached a tipping point. The Ptown I came to in the late 1980s is gone forever. Back then, the crowds that thronged here – far larger than today – were dominated by gay men of all ages. On big holiday weekends, there were long lines outside several bars and the entire street was a virtual club. The crowd at Spiritus Pizza at 1 am would stretch for blocks and last for a couple hours. Cruising was everywhere – on the streets, the beaches and the docks – all amid the somewhat dilapidated houses and sea-shacks where groups of gays would crash for night after night. It felt like an alternative reality – an oasis at the end of the world, a place where some of us had come to die but so many more had come to live for the first time.
It’s utterly different today. The gay male crowds are much smaller; the straight influx far larger. Children are everywhere – of gay and straight parents. The super-wealthy have moved in – and real estate prices have all but prevented most regular gays from being able to live or rent here. Instead of legions of young homos working as busboys and waiters – exiled from their homes, or seeking a new life, or just killing time in a beautiful spot – we now have hundreds of young Bulgarian work-study exchange students brought in every summer and housed collectively. And many of the gay men here are like me – older now, and married, and spending more time in the garden than in the bars.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s still an unabashedly gay-friendly town. You wouldn’t mistake its vivid tableau of street life or its scootering drag queens for, say, Chatham. But when dozens of bachelorette parties invade the gay bars, when children are building sand-castles where gay men used to cruise, it has a very different vibe.
You begin to see the depth of the social transformation that the debates over the military ban and marriage have wrought.
The happy, integrative truth is: gay men can now go on vacation to many different places in America and feel safe and secure. They don’t need to be in Ptown any more. A middle-class gay couple in Boston can go anywhere on the Cape or the North Shore. Or anywhere in Europe. Ptown has competition all over the world in a way that just wasn’t true ten or twenty years ago.
Then there’s the extraordinary impact of technology. One of the attractions of Ptown back in the day – when I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time – was that you could get laid almost as easily as you could get sub-burnt. It was so amazingly convenient – everyone within a few blocks over a couple of miles. But that convenience is now enjoyed in countless places in America, because of hook-up and dating apps. Every urban neighborhood has a virtual Ptown readily available all the time.
There has also, of course, been a slow transformation of gay culture in the last decade or so – including the first big generation since AIDS of middle-aged gay men. Hence the bears. But hence also the shift toward coffee shops over bars, indie cinema over drag queens, or events like the Tennessee Williams festival in September or the Film Fest in June. I’m not saying the old Ptown doesn’t still exist – in Bear Week or Carnival Week or July 4, you can still catch a strong whiff of it (among other things) – but it’s a lot less visible and complemented by a much more integrated and diverse summer population.
Do I feel some pangs of nostalgia? Of course I do. I do think there’s space for different sub-cultural oases in a fast homogenizing culture. Regret? I miss going to a gay club and not having to fight my way past a phalanx of twenty-something bachelorettes, taking selfies surrounded by “the gays.” Some of the straight love can feel a little like being in a zoo for their amusement. We sure don’t scare them like we used to. At the same time, this shift is a function of far greater freedom and integration than gays have ever experienced in America or the world. It is a new dawn for the vast majority – but a gathering dusk for something else more distinct, more edgy, more alienated and more exhilarating.
(Thumbnail image: Provincetown, MA by Ted Eytan. Note: photo has been cropped.)