The election of Donald Trump portends—if not darker days—certainly more gloomy days ahead for America’s LGBT community. President-elect Trump’s proposed policy agenda seems designed to marginalize minority groups, and Vice President-elect Pence has a demonstrated track record of vigorously working to restrict LGBT rights. The tone set by their transition team has already proven to be disappointing news for America’s lesbian and gay community members, many of whom live, socialize and patronize businesses in or near gay neighborhoods in urban centers squarely within progressive “blue” territory.
Gay neighborhoods—Chelsea and Greenwich Village (NYC), South End (Boston), North Halsted (Chicago), West Hollywood (Los Angeles), South Beach (Miami), and Dupont Circle (Washington, D.C.)—along with countless similar neighborhoods in medium- and large-sized urban centers, are vital places in urban America. These neighborhoods emerged after the 1960s sexual revolution and concurrent violence against gay men and lesbian women, including landmark events such as the Stonewall riots in New York and the UpStairs arson in New Orleans, in which more than thirty patrons perished. A desire to live in accepting communities galvanized gay men and lesbian women to become ‘urban pioneers,’ the first group to occupy older and declining central city neighborhoods as affluent residents fled cities for the suburbs. Gay and lesbian residents established communities in these neglected urban areas, where rents were inexpensive, space was plentiful, and safety was strengthened by numbers. Over time, through dedication, hard work and often in the face of adversity, LGBT residents invested in these communities by renovating homes and apartment buildings. New businesses and other investment were soon attracted to these vibrant neighborhoods, and the combined community-building efforts richly enhanced social and cultural life.
The latest trends, however, measured through demographic data, economic activity, and housing market performance, suggested the slow demise of gay urban neighborhoods for three key reasons. First, older gays and lesbians continue to assimilate in urban space and no longer feel a strong desire to live in gay neighborhoods, as fears for physical safety decrease and mainstream acceptance increases. Second, millennial LGBTs, coming of age in a time of greater acceptance, show more interest in integrating rather than segregating and are content trading propinquity for digital connection. Third, long-established gay neighborhoods, in desirable locations with quality housing and attractive amenities resulting from significant neighborhood investment, became appealing to mainstream buyers and residents. In this sense, gay neighborhoods became victims of their own success.
The outcome of the 2016 presidential election has placed LGBT Americans on edge. Seemingly rational trajectories of mainstreaming LGBT Americans—greater legal protections and equity under federal law, ever-increasing social acceptance, diminishing risk of discrimination and increasing safety—are now seriously threatened as a new and evidently conservative regime takes control of the American government. Many fear that the hard-won social advances of the LGBT community will be rolled back.
When candidate Trump says on the stump that “inner cities are a disaster,” he stokes fears—among rural and suburban Americans—from decades past when cities were dangerous, and crime-ridden. The vibrant, successful cities that drive our American economy today demonstrate that this rhetoric is unacceptable, and propagating empty allusions represents a significant step backward for urban America and especially LGBT neighborhoods. Donald Trump and Mike Pence should visit gay and lesbian neighborhoods to acquire a clearer understanding of the positive impact that LGBT residents, parents, and families have had in fueling our American economy while ensuring prosperity in their communities for everyone to enjoy, regardless of sexual orientation.
Perhaps one of the more disappointing changes to come is the likely death of a quiet effort just getting underway by the Department of the Interior, on behalf of the Obama administration, to identify and designate historically significant LGBT heritage sites across America. This potential loss is significant and should motivate LGBT Americans and community leaders to unite and advocate the continuation of this little-known but important initiative.
Since Nov. 8, there has been an outpouring of togetherness among LGBT community members via social media and public demonstrations. While the LGBT community celebrates many advances against discrimination based on sexual orientation, greater integration into mainstream society, heightened visibility, and increased confidence, fear clouds the present frame of reference. Segregation is a natural human response derived from fear of others, and to imagine a future when urban American becomes more divided—whether people separate themselves into neighborhoods because they choose to or they are forced to—undoes advances our country has made in creating an open, accepting, and tolerant society. People are again seeking kinship with others who feel similarly marginalized, and this might mean that gay neighborhoods, with their self-protective and sometimes outspoken nature, may again rise, but hopefully not as communities of last resort for America’s LGBT citizens.
Alex Bitterman, Ph.D., is professor and Chair of Architecture and Design at Alfred State College. Daniel Baldwin Hess, Ph.D., is professor of Urban Planning at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York and Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Migration and Urban Studies at the University of Tartu, Estonia.