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Two books examine future of LGBT spaces: Boystown and The Sex Effect
by Tony Peregrin
2017-02-28

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Goodbye, gayborhood?

Although they are written by different people, the books Boystown: Sex and Community in Chicago as well as The Sex Effect: Baring Our Complicated Relationship with Sex actually look at the formation and/or evolution of LGBT areas.

Boystown is a "gay Disneyland" where straight white women routinely "go on safari," asserts Jason Orne, a sociology professor at Drexel University, in his new book Boystown: Sex and Community in Chicago.

Orne spent three years in Chicago examining how gay men are losing what he terms the "radical lessons afforded by sex," particularly in the bars and nightclubs that form the bedrock of one of Chicago's gayborhoods, Boystown.

"When Boystown shifts into a commercialized, curated experience with each club having a different niche like a different area of Epcot, people can tell that they are entering a particular kind of experience, and they often feel that degree of inauthenticity around it," Orne said to Windy City Times. Non-LGBTs patrons—specifically straight white women attracted to these curated setting—often treat gay men like creatures at a "petting zoo," according to Orne, an openly gay man, which diminishes queer spaces that are traditionally about sexual connection.

"These spaces teach us who we are," said Orne. "Baby Gays going to a club for the first time will learn lessons from that club—you learn to flirt, you learn how to cruise, you learn how to read, you learn how to throw some shade, you learn how to take all of those things in stride because you know they are coming from a place of love from whomever said it. You learn to make mistakes and it be okay because you are a part of the group."

When someone is on safari, they treat others like "open people," explained Orne. "An open person, in sociological terms, is someone you feel free to touch, someone you feel free to talk to about any subject whether you know them or not." Orne point out that this happens in other elements of society as well. Pregnant women, for example, are often treated like open people when strangers feel free to touch a woman's belly or offers random, unsolicited parenting advice.

Orne said economic pressure led to the "Disneyification of Boystown," adding, "The classic example would be Buck's shutting down and Replay opening in its place. Several people who I interviewed for the book, particularly older folks, described Buck's authentic community atmosphere. However, the bar was doing really badly, nobody went there, while Replay is a place that I went to all the time. It is incorrect to say that I am looking back with a kind of nostalgia to a previous time. I think that the bars in Boystown today are great—but I think we need to acknowledge some of the costs in sexuality that have come with these changes."

Other economic drivers related to gayborhood erosion, according to some urban researchers, are dating apps like Grindr and Scruff, which provide a platform for queer men to meet without spending money in a bar. "I think it is too easy to say that bars are shutting down because people are hooking up on Grindr instead," said Orne. "Apps aren't our enemies and, in fact, I saw people using them to get around the on-safari people. If we are going to use apps, why don't we use them out in a bar? These apps can transform a space that maybe isn't as sexual into a place that has that backchannel simply by interacting with people on your phone. The thing is, there needs to be some connection to the physical, it can't just stay online. The times that I saw it be most successful were when people actually used it to generate an in-person encounter in the bar."

Orne said supporting queer spaces in the future means treating bars and clubs like community centers. "There's a bifurcation in our community about we treat LGBT spaces: there's gay bars to go out and have fun in and there's these community centers that offer services and that do events. I think they should be more integrated. I think we need to pay more attention to taking pleasure seriously, as a real part of our lives, and there's no reason why we can't integrate the two."

Jason Orne will read an excerpt from Boystown and discuss his new book on Thursday, March 9, at 7 p.m. at Unabridged Bookstore, 3251 N. Broadway.

The Sex Effect

In The Sex Effect: Baring Our Complicated Relationship with Sex, journalist Ross Benes examines the role sexual behavior plays in shaping society at large, including the development of iconic LGBT neighborhoods.

A chapter of Benes' book, which was excerpted in Rollingstone last fall, describes how the U.S. military inadvertently contributed to the formation of gay enclaves in large metropolitan cities. "When someone was publically outed and discharged from the military for being homosexual in the 1940s, they often remained in port cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York forming large gay communities instead of returning home to the middle of the country to face their fearful and angry families," explains Benes. "What is interesting is that the military, which historically had some of the most homophobic policies possible, indirectly helped bring together these gayborhoods that became major economic drivers for their cities."

In fact, Benes suggests that the development of gay districts today could be the key to a city's financial growth in the future. He cites Detroit's lack of a discernable gayborhood as a missed opportunity for the city, which filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2013.

"Part of what makes gay people such an economic driver is an increased tolerance for risk and there are a few things related to that, such as a lower probability of parenthood. I'm not trying to imply that gay people don't have children, they certainly do. It you look at the data from UCLA, straight couples are twice as likely to have kids as gay couples—a lot of that is biological. So, gay people who are childless do still care about the quality of school districts, for example, but they are going to have less incentive to make that the focal point of where they move. Also, if you don't have children more of your income is disposable since it is not going to childcare or after school programs and you can actually spend [money] in the city—and that's for childless people in general."

Benes, who identifies as straight, acknowledged that some LGBTs might resist the generalization that they have an increased tolerance for risk, and that not having children essentially makes them an economic force with lots of money to burn.

"I'm not trying to make a claim that LGBTs are anti-kid, and there will be anecdotal exceptions to everything—but anecdotal exception doesn't prove a sociological trend," said Benes. "The sociological trend doesn't come from sexual orientation. There are lot of gay people that care about education and care a lot about kids. However, if you are less likely to have kids, you are less likely to move somewhere solely because of a school district."

However you define a gay district's impact on a city's overall economic growth, Benes said gayborhoods are here to stay.

"I think these gayborhood extinction think-pieces are a little overblown," he said. "These areas may be declining in prevalence or population density, but many cities now have multiple gay neighborhoods rather than one centralized district—Andersonville is an example of this. I think there is a strong cohort of people who feel that gayborhoods have a strong cultural importance. Yes, necessity for gayborhoods has declined. But there are still many LGBT people who appreciate and prefer these areas."


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