Gays Don’t Stray Far

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At least not when they live in “gayborhoods,” according to a recent study:

In their simplest model, comparing the travel patterns of members of gay, lesbian, and straight couples, the authors found that travel for non-work purposes were shorter in neighborhoods with more gay and lesbian couples. But this was especially true for gay men. Travel distances of trips made by straight men and women and lesbian women decreased by 6.2 percent for each percentage-point increase in the share of same-sex couples in the census tract. For gay men, trips decreased in length at nearly twice that rate, at an incredible 12.2 percent. …

So what’s behind this connection between shorter travel distances and gay neighborhoods?

The authors suggest that it reflects a broader concept of “neighborhoods of affinity,” where people live in neighborhoods because they share common interests and are drawn to similar features and amenities, as well as, potentially, the kinds of jobs that are available. In other words, in addition to our search for jobs, services and amenities, and transportation access, it is the very fact that we sort and cluster together that defines the way we move around a neighborhood. And these travel patterns can inadvertently reinforce the forces of sorting and segregating, as shorter travel patterns create even more self-contained worlds for some city residents.

So why doesn’t the pattern hold for lesbians? As the authors speculate (gated paper),“Gay neighborhoods are often located closer to the urban core and are typically denser than lesbian neighborhoods … This may be because gay men have the capital to locate in more expensive areas; moreover, being less likely to have children, gay men may have the disposable income to live in high-amenity locations.” Update from a reader:

I certainly think there’s some value in appreciating how social networks create certain neighborhood identities. In geography, my discipline, the emphasis would be on the reciprocal nature of this relationship: how communities create spaces that reflect their own interests and identities but also how those spaces in turn help solidify or further influence individuals’ social identity. Gay men didn’t just go to the Castro because they were gay. In some sense, living there may have defined for them what being gay meant.

However, I’m also struck in this article by the almost complete absence of any literature on segregation and external factors that limit the mobility of individuals. Certainly, when we consider race or poverty, high concentrations of minority groups aren’t just a matter of similar populations preferring to live in close proximity (though that can’t be completely discounted as a factor). In my own research on food access, I talked to several individuals who shopped at stores in the neighborhoods, but only because they lacked the resources to go elsewhere. One summed it up this way: “I live in the ‘hood, but I hate it.” In the case of Smart and Klein’s article, a focus on neighborhoods of affinity leaves largely unstated what seems an equally significant issue: these communities are necessary in part because the people and spaces found there remain socially unacceptable in many other communities.

In case you’re interested, I’m also sending along a couple of articles done by a couple of geographers on census maps of gay/lesbian households in San Francisco [pdf – here and here]. They similarly found that gay men were highly clustered at a neighborhood scale, but that lesbian households were much more dispersed and thus more “invisible” in conventional mapping approaches. They ask how the concentration of same-sex couples in urban areas might affect both their political power and their sense of their own sexual identities.