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VIEWS Racism in the Gay Ghetto, Mubaral Dahir
2003-10-22

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Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is known nationally, even internationally, as a gay and lesbian resort town. Following the break-up of a long relationship, I arrived in this gay mecca a few weeks ago, at least partly because I wanted to live in a 'more gay' environment than I had previously been in.

You can't get gayer than this.

In addition to dozens of gay bars and clubs, the laundromat is gay, the post office is gay—there's even a gay shopping mall.

The supermarket may be the cruisiest spot in town. I wanted to tell one gay man who'd been cruising around the aisle several times that he should make a show of it, at least, by putting something—anything—in his shopping cart.

Like me, gay men and lesbians have been moving here in droves from all over the country to surround themselves with each other and immerse themselves in gay and lesbian culture, while living in a climate of endless summer. This should be the ultimate gay and lesbian paradise, the way things could and should be if we as gay and lesbian people could build our own societies.

But I quickly found out there was a dark side to this sunny queer heaven.

I am only in town a few days when I hear the first of what will turn out to be a succession of shockingly racist remarks.

I am driving around with a new acquaintance. He's showing me the ropes of the new neighborhood, helping me get oriented to my new surroundings. At one point, we drive through a neighborhood that is visibly poor and run-down. It is a primarily Black residential area. 'Don't take this the wrong way,' says my new friend. 'But you have to be careful in this section of town. It's coon-ville.'

I sit in the passenger's seat, silent and stunned, wondering what other way anyone could possibly interpret his remark.

I wanted to dismiss this incident as the ignorance of one man. But paradise wouldn't let me overlook prejudice quite so easily.

A few days later, I am talking to another gay man I just met, and he is telling me about the condo he bought. As in many cities, gay men are fueling urban renewal and development here, buying old and dilapidated homes, refurbishing them, and selling them for profit.

This man's not in the business of buying, remodeling, then re-selling homes. He just bought his condo because he got a good deal. But all around him, he says spryly, other gay men are moving in and cleaning the neighborhood up. Soon, he hopes, all the 'Haitians and undesirable elements' will be pushed out, he tells me with unabashed pride.

Fast forward three more days. I'm showing yet another new acquaintance the apartment I rented here, a terrific loft townhouse at a reasonable price. We walk outside to take a dip in the pool, and pass some neighbors who live in a nearby unit. My neighbors happen to be a Black family. 'Oh,' the guy comments upon spotting them. 'I see you live in a transitional neighborhood.'

It might be tempting to dismiss all this flagrant racism as belonging to the South, with its history steeped in anti-Black sentiment.

But that would be too easy, too convenient a scapegoat for the racism in our own community. It would also be untrue: Like so many gay men and lesbians here, all the men I mentioned in this article are transplants from another part of the country. All happen to be from the North, where, as my mother—a Georgia native and good liberal with a thick southern drawl—used to say, 'They may not say the N-word, but they're thinking it.'

It would also be unfair, and inaccurate, to paint Fort Lauderdale as more prejudiced than any other part of the country. My guess is that it reflects well the just-under-the-surface racism that exists all across the nation.

But what struck me as ironically sad about the ugly face of racism here is that it is surfacing in a community of people who mostly moved here to create a new world for themselves, a world free of the prejudice that is homophobia. And yet, in our new paradise, while we have expunged one prejudice, we've let another fester unchallenged.

As gay men and lesbians, wherever we live, we cannot hope and fight for and demand a world without homophobia, and yet turn a blind eye to racism. In the end, all prejudices are tied together, and we cannot be free as gay people while we tolerate racism.

Not even if we live in a gay ghetto.

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