A Case For The 'Gayborhood'

"Us queers in the Midwest do not have this luxury as many of our friends do on the east and west coasts."
08/14/2017 12:17 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2017

For most of the queer community, I think it’s accurate to say many of us will always experience a feeling of being at ease when we know we’re in a safe space. Whether in a queer-friendly neighborhood, café or restaurant – there is a sigh of relief when I see a hanging pride flag, knowing I’m in great company. This comes even after three years of being an out gay man. In saying this, I don’t mean that places of business and patrons that do not declare their queer-friendliness aren’t equally as great. However, this simple signal alleviates the anxiety we have been carrying our whole lives. It’s comforting.

I was walking around Detroit’s West Village neighborhood recently – an area occupied by long-time and new residents moving back into the city. Throughout the commercial area of the historic West Village community are a number of bakeries, art galleries, corner shops and liquor stores working to establish themselves in this new era for the city. Detroit recently endured a period of city-wide corruption, an unemployed workforce, bankruptcy and an undeserving bad reputation. Walking around the neighborhood now, you’ll see many new shops and residences that proudly display these signals of support and love with pride flags and Human Rights Campaign signs at their thresholds.

There are many pride flags hanging in different areas of the city, which have recently had an influx of young people moving into areas of the city in the past five years – Corktown, Midtown and West Village to name a few. I would not consider any of these to be what is known to be a “gayborhood” or queer village, though I have seen an influx of queer citizens and friendly businesses making themselves more transparent in the city. Detroit lacks a true queer area within its city limits, which is why if you are a queer-friendly business, I still appreciate the pride flag you have in your window.

At one point, the city hosted a gay village for a short period of time. Post-WWII, the downtown corridor hosted a number of gay-friendly bars and clubs in the 1940-50s, which gradually moved from center city to Detroit’s Palmar Park district by the 1970-80s. Often referred to as Michigan’s gayest mile, Palmer Park’s architecture, which blends Egyptian, Spanish and Mediterranean styles, paired with its close proximity to downtown, drew a vast number of queer men and women to the neighborhood where bookstores, bars, clubs and restaurants, all queer-owned, began popping up around the small area. One landlord in Palmer Park claims that out of the 48 residential units in his building, 46 units were at one time occupied by gay men in the 1970s. Gregory Piazza of the Palmer Park Historic District remembers the neighborhood as “the most exciting place I’ve ever lived.” And Madonna even frequented the Palmer Park corridor when she lived in the Detroit area, dancing at Menjo’s gay club.

After the 1980s, much of this community in Palmer Park shifted up Woodward to the Detroit suburb of Ferndale, further dispersing the community outside of the city limits. Most Detroiters and citizens residing in its metropolitan region refer to the suburb of Ferndale as Detroit’s gay neighborhood, which currently hosts Michigan’s largest LGBTQ resource center, Affirmations. Many businesses, cafes, bookstores and restaurants on the 9 Mile strip in Ferndale display pride flags and stickers. Though Ferndale hosts an incredible Pride festival and many queer-friendly places, for some reason, I never see many queer people.

Aside from Chicago, Detroit is one of the many large cities in the Midwest in great company with Indianapolis, Columbus, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Grand Rapids. I’ve visited many of them lack a prominent, concentrated queer village. Boystown in Chicago is an exception to this. Many of us queers in the Midwest experience our first true queer night out – myself included.

Growing up in the Midwest is more or less a great place to grow up based on your situation. People from the Midwest are known for being extremely neighborly due to its low population density. It’s very likely that you may run into someone you will indeed meet again, which could be why many Midwesterners treat one another as their neighbor. In places like New York or Los Angeles, people know it is improbable to run into someone on the street twice, resulting in the lack of warm gestures.

The Midwest is also extremely homogenous as it relates to population diversity. Many Midwest states’ have belts of religious homogeneity, where many assume that everyone they will encounter on a daily basis thinks, lives and believes just as them. I spent a great deal of time in Grand Rapids, Mich., a city centered in a highly concentrated region of the Dutch Christian Reformed Church (CRC) population. As a Caucasian man, people didn’t know whether or not I was a member of the CRC, forcing them to wear a lukewarm Midwest smile on their face with whenever they interacted with me. On the contrary, when these kinds of groups see that it’s probable that you aren’t a part of the church (i.e. lack common Caucasian features, look too “queer”, dress in Islamic clothing, etc.), that same lukewarm smile disappears quickly. So realistically, Midwestern values are great depending on who you are and what you look like.

This often creates a problematic environment for the queer community and a number of other minorities. These same values can easily turn against someone after coming out of the closet because many families, religious or not, have never met someone from the LGBTQ community due to the homogenous circle of influence they interact with on a daily basis. This is not an excuse, but at first glance, Midwesterners are not the most adventurous people when it comes to multiculturalism. This is where queer neighborhoods and safe spaces prove to be great outlets for teens and young adults (or whichever age) to find themselves, know that they have their own community and find resources they most likely will not find at home or school.

Back in 2012, I visited Chicago’s Boystown for the first time while staying with some friends. We went to Boystown after attending Lollapalooza. I was right out of high school, still in the closet and not at the legal drinking age – but as soon as I got off of the train near Boystown, I felt comfortable with my identity for the first time in my entire life. As a gay teen having grown up in a small suburban area in Michigan, Boystown was something I had always dreamt of. Experiencing this, a feeling of strength and pride exerted from the person inside that I had been hiding my entire childhood. This feeling of being safe and at ease for the first time in my life is one that I cannot explain, but my queer brothers and sisters can definitely relate to. I wanted to feel this way every day. Everywhere. That empowering light abruptly dimmed as I left the neighborhood that night. I still remember someone had written ‘x is a faggot’ on the interior of the train returned on.

I recently found myself in Brooklyn and Philadelphia for some work-related travel – two cities that I’ve recently fallen in love with. I like to get out and explore the city as much as I can between work engagements while traveling and while in Philadelphia, I found myself in its Gayborhood area while returning my rental car at a near location. I walked down 12th St. and stumbled at Giovanni’s Room, one of the oldest gay & lesbian bookstore in the United States.

Giovanni’s Room is an intimate and quaint two-story bookstore in an old, historic Philadelphia-style home, seemingly and effortlessly posed as one of the hearts of its Gayborhood. The bookstore was incomparable to the few LGBT resource shelves at commercial bookstores I had visited in Michigan. I looked through the store which was full of content, educational resources and literature about the queer experience and couldn’t help but think of the number of queer people this small book shop has helped in providing resources for the queer community, but also just providing a general sense of belonging for the community in general as a gathering space.

I mentioned to the man at the register that I wish Detroit had something like this as I walked passed a wall of flyers for benefits, fundraisers and help-wanted signs for LGBTQ community members in Philadelphia. One of the flyers promoted a benefit for a local caterer in the Gayborhood who was severely injured when he opened a package sent to his residence, which detonated and exploded, damaging his body and face. I realized there that these kinds of places are something that we lack in Detroit and the Midwest. Concentrated, large areas of queer residents, queer-owned/queer-friendly businesses and pride overall are scarce in cities in the Midwestern United States and though they may exists, are scarcely spread out around the city. These kinds of small businesses and community centers are what catalyzes the support for our community and its people, often forgotten when we are not united.

As a gay man, I find myself still scanning my surroundings where I’m not certain of the crowd or atmosphere. Growing up, our community is taught to be prepared for anything, whether for our safety or comfortability in general. Furthermore, being a Caucasian gay man, I have privileges that many of my queer POC friends do not have. Queer people of color have been historically pushed out of these safe spaces that were initially created for all of our community. Many of these spaces often were created BY queer POC in the first place. At its core, our community has an internal problem with inclusion. It is the duty of us to create an environment welcoming to all and the LGBTQ community that finds itself privileged enough to feel welcome and comfortable in all spaces and on our pride flag must make a cognizant effort to ensure we are all united. We are all equal and all deserve the same opportunity and inclusion.

Safe spaces are necessary for our growth as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals. Many of us find ourselves, no matter the stage of life, seeking these bars, clubs, bookstores, cafes and restaurants that allow us to feel comfortable while doing everyday things as we progress through this confusing, difficult and often long period of our life. Often as soon as we exit one of these gay bars or clubs located outside of a queer neighborhood, the guard that fell initially upon entering is quickly reestablished and we prepare ourselves to battle whatever comes our way just as we have been. Queer villages don’t appeal to us all, but they do provide a larger community for anyone who wants it. If you live in New York or Los Angeles or any other city that has a concentrated queer area, know that it is always there when you need it and when you don’t. Don’t take it for granted on the easy days. When you need support or want to be in the company of your queer community, it will always be there.

Living in the Midwest, I am still ultra-appreciative of businesses and facilities that wear a pride flag, regardless of whether they are queer-owned or not. As we lack a true queer village and concentrated area of queer people in our city limits, we don’t have an area that we know whether or not being out of the closet will go over well or is even safe to do in general. Us queers in the Midwest do not have this luxury as many of our friends do on the east and west coasts.

Pride flags and HRC stickers still mean the world to me, more so when displayed in a common space that I know I’m in a secure environment. Do not take these for granted, no matter how many you see in your every day or what stage in life you are experiencing. They will always mean something to someone.

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