Gentrification is deeply changing San Francisco’s urban landscape, affecting the socio-economic fabric of its neighborhoods, and challenging the city’s long time history as a haven for alternative culture and minorities. What role does this new context play in the transformation of the gay neighborhood? In There Goes The Gayborhood? sociologist Amin Ghaziani focuses on how and why gay neighborhoods, or gayborhoods, are changing, “de-gaying and deconcentrating,” across the nation. If, as Ghaziani writes, “the presence of a gayborhood signals a city’s commitment to diversity, tolerance, inclusion, and openness,” then how are these values being carried forward in San Francisco’s current economic climate?
French Sociologist Colin Giraud, author of Quartiers Gays [Gay Neighborhoods] and D’Arcy Drollinger, Artistic Director of OASIS, entrepreneur and community organizer, join in a conversation to explore these issues on March 8 at ODC. This event is part of “Gender in Translation,” a multidisciplinary, Franco-American operation, dedicated to questioning the notion of gender in the social sciences, philosophy, and artistic fields.
In anticipation of this conversation, Giraud and I talked via email.
Marie Tollon: Why is gender sociology a relatively recent phenomenon?
Colin Giraud: Gender sociology is often portrayed as a new and emerging field in sociology, especially in France. But gender issues, such as social inequalities between men and women, have been brought to the forefront and criticized for a long time now, mostly by feminist groups, writers and activists, rather than by academic sociologists. Most often, converting a social or political issue into an academic and legitimate question takes time and meets opposition. Because Women Studies, Gender Studies or Gay and Lesbian Studies challenge fundamental social roots, masculinity and femininity, but also heteronormativity, they have faced and continue to face many opponents. But things have changed and American research played a major role in the development of gender sociology. Even if pionneering research and anthropological texts have already explored the origins of gender hierarchies, the ’90s constituted a crucial period for sociology. They gave Gender Studies a successful theoretical background through Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble which provided a new intellectual framework to highlight gender inequalities. I think this book had an amazing influence in both activist and academic circles, particularly in France. For the last decade, Gender issues seem to have interested more and more sociologists in France, and students as well. Today, PhD courses and research focused on gender are burgeoning and it’s a good thing. I also think that French sociology has been obsessed with issues surrounding social classes -which are of course very important-but it has contributed to a lack of attention towards other issues such as gender or race. To be more specific: French sociology is still way behind American Gender studies.
MT: You have written about the “process of gaytrification.” What does this process entails?
CG: In my book, Quartiers Gays, I have tried to shed a light on the emergence and the development of « gay neighborhoods » in Paris and Montreal. Instead of considering them as established gay territories, I looked at history and considered the social groups who took a part in this urban adventure. Most of the gay neighborhoods in Western cities formed in old, working class and rundown urban areas. This gay migration, back to the inner city, helped gentrify these areas by changing local businesses, urban landscapes and attracting many other groups (private investors, white upper-class residents). Over the last few decades, gay men moved to areas that they in turn deeply transformed. They helped transform local urban life, not only by becoming visible but also by converting a stigma into attractiveness. Gaytrification means this specific urban role played by gay men in urban change, especially in the inner-city neighborhoods of Western metropolis. It affected both North-American cities (San Francisco’s Castro, New York City, Toronto or Montreal) and European metropolis (Paris, Madrid, Brussels or London). That’s why I decided to use this concept.
MT: In There Goes the Gayborhood? Amin Ghaziani looks at the way gayborhoods are changing –and notably deconcentrating- in today’s ‘post-gay’ era where sexual minorities are assimilating into the mainstream. What are the most significant changes the gay neighborhoods you have observed are undergoing?
CG: Ghaziani’s book points out what I have also observed in Paris and Montreal. If gayborhoods emerged as marginalized areas where gay pioneers could find safety and a sense of identity, they also changed their destiny. During the ’90s and until recently, gayborhoods have really been the hub of local gay scenes, but there is a price to pay for visibility and my research shows this ambiguity. Because of the gay gentrification, rents and prices have drastically increased in le Marais (Paris) and le Village (Montreal). More and more gay bars, bar owners and residents are priced out of these very central locations. I also pointed out this process of deconcentration, in the North East of Paris for example, since the beginning of the 2000s.
In my book, interviews with gay men underline another key factor. Gay men I met, especially among younger generations, seem to be less and less attracted by the idea of a gay ghetto. While first gay generations have moved to gayborhoods as -what they call themselves- “refugees,” the young gay population has been socialized in a “post-gay community” era. That can explain why they say they don’t need this specific area. Most of the time, they prefer gay-friendly and mixed places, they appreciate diversity in terms of gender, sexual orientation and represensations of homosexuality. They also consider le Marais or le Village as stereotyped and old-fashion environments. Of course, social and legal changes in France and Canada played a crucial role for them. But most of them have also both social and cultural capital, they can live as gay in other tolerant and friendly places and circles: it’s necessary if you want be gay far from the ghetto.
Another point is the role of the Internet for gay men. Gayborhoods have also been a place for meeting or sexual encounters, but they are now in competition with the Internet, Grinder, etc. Why would you go to a bar if you can find sex from your own home via the Internet? That’s something I have heard when interviewing gay men. These multiple factors explain what has changed for the gay urban population. But it does not mean the end of gayborhoods : they still have the highest number of gay bars in Paris and constitute a place for international gay tourism. They have also become open museums for gay history: in Paris and in Montreal, for example, guided tours are organized and celebrate this gay local identity.
MT: What are the main differences you have observed between North American and European gay neighborhoods? And what are the cultural and historical roots of these differences?
CG: What is probably different in North America and Europe -at least in France- is the link between neighborhood, community and identity. In Montreal, I’ve been really surprised by the way gay men living in le Village consider their neighborhood as a territory for their community. They talk easily about their “community” and claim their identity as members of a gay community. That phrase made sense for them and most of them seem to be proud of it: they also moved in le Village for that reason and said it clearly. Furthermore, most of the North American gayborhoods also have political roots and LGBT activism played a role in their development as well. For example, in le Village, first generations of gay bar owners had links and organized events with gay associations or groups. These groups gathered in a local community center that offered social services, sport clubs or a gay choir.
I think Paris’ gayborhood is really different because of the French political tradition and its complex relationship to communities and minorities. Gay men from le Marais seem very embarrassed by the word “community:” they criticize the idea of a gay community, they don’t accept this sense of belonging, they are French, citizens, men, but refuse to define themselves as gay. In France, gay neighborhhoods and the idea of a gay community have always been seen as a threat to national and urban cohesion. This fear became an obsession in French political debates in the 1990s : minorities are not truly recognized in the French Republic and it affects sexual but also ethnic minorities. I think it also affected gayborhoods such as le Marais where gay political activism, urban and social visibility have always been criticized, denounced and banished, especially by conservative people (lobby groups, residents’ associations, political leaders). This “lack of identity” is probably one of the main differences between France and North America due to very different conception of what a community means : a group providing resources or a threat to society ?