Forty Years of Queering the Suburbs

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Forty Years of Queering the Suburbs

On the third Friday of each month, college professor Jerry and scientist B.J. attended the monthly potluck of the residents of their neighborhood in Maplewood, New Jersey. Jean-Marie and her partner June could be found out and proud at a Giant Food supermarket in Sterling, Virginia. David was cutting a tree outside of the house he shared with his partner in Needham, Massachusetts when a neighbor asked him, “Ah, a lumberjack?” David replied, “Yes, we’re bucking the stereotype.”

These are just a handful of examples of couples described in the last 40 plus years of trend pieces regarding gays and lesbians in America’s suburbs. One could trace the history of, if not the country’s cultural understanding of the phenomenon, then certainly its preoccupation with it via New York Times headlines alone. 1977: “Homosexuality And the Suburbs.” 1986: “Suburbs Are a Magnet to Many Homosexuals.” 1991: “A Milestone in the Fight for Gay Rights: A Quiet Suburban Life.” 1996: “Gay Parents Ease Into Suburbia; For the First Generation, Car Pools and Soccer Games.” 2000: “A Quiet Town Of Potlucks, Church Socials And Two Dads; Gays Find Warm Welcome In a New Jersey Suburb.” 2004: “Welcome to the Rainbow State.”

Historically, the story has gone like this nut graf from “Welcome to the Gayborhood,” which appeared in the June 20, 2006, issue of The Advocate:

As growing numbers of gay and lesbian Americans seek affordable roomy houses with a yard, along with safe streets and a good school for their children, they are changing the American suburbs. They’re shopping together at big-box stores and dining at local chain restaurants. They’re sitting on the boards of the neighborhood associations and public schools, and they’re going to parties at their straight neighbors’ homes.

It’s a narrative as cliched as the notion that gay men love The Wizard of Oz: To escape small-town persecution, gays flee to urban centers only to realize after a few years that if they ever go looking for their heart’s desire again, they shouldn’t look any further than their own backyard. If it isn’t there, they never really lost it to begin with. Back to the suburbs they go.

“I think in general the media coverage of LGBT geography often has come down to, ‘Where are people moving? Where do they want to live?’” Gary Gates told Jezebel. For years, Gates was the media’s trusted source on the matter. As an author and demographer, he helped shape people’s understanding of the size of the gay population of the U.S. and where its members lived. Via his research with the Williams Institute and general expertise, Gates helped perpetuate this idea that gay people were moving to the suburbs en masse.

But now he believes that he oversold the mobility narrative. Gates said he became more skeptical when he realized Gallup poll results that indicated social acceptance in areas that correlated to relatively high LGBTQ population percentages. Because we have no way of determining on a mass scale when people came out, the numbers he once interpreted as proof that gays and lesbians were moving to the suburbs could just as easily show that gay and lesbians in the suburbs were more likely to identify as such from where they already were, in the wake of growing social acceptance.

“The vast majority of people don’t actually have the luxury to pick wherever they want to live,” Gates explained. “And there’s absolutely no evidence that LGBTQ people are more likely not to live in the area where they grew up than non-LGBTQ people. I suspect the ones who move make different decisions, absolutely. But LGBTQ people aren’t necessarily inherently more mobile. To be mobile you have to have more money, you’re probably more educated, you’re probably more white.”

At the very least, our collective understanding of the magnetic and then repelling effect of “metronormativity” (Jack Halberstam’s term for the mistaken notion that all queer people live in urban areas), has been overly simplified, despite the rigor of the thought that has gone into it by several experts, many of whom spoke to Jezebel. The narrative of LGBTQ mobility has been hampered by insufficient data collection, a strong bias toward gay men as representative of the whole of the queer population, and an attempt to dissuade researchers from their interests in these groups. Where and in what numbers LGBTQ people live is a story that exists largely in imagination and inference. Oral tradition is, in many ways, more reliable than the scant data that has been quantified. The incomplete picture underlines the ephemeral nature of queer history. There are parts of it that are just gone like flaking embers in the wind. It’s not only queer history that is largely undocumented and unwritten—it’s the present as well.

It’s not only queer history that is largely undocumented and unwritten, it’s the present as well

People from all walks of life move from the city to the suburbs to spend less money on more space. LGBTQ people are no exception. There are a number of suburbs known for being their own sorts of queer enclaves—Montclair, NJ, Wilton Manors, FL, Plainfield, NJ, and Oak Park outside of Chicago. Lillian Faderman, arguably the mother of U.S. lesbian history, has watched the country change since she first started frequenting working-class lesbian bars in Los Angeles in the 1950s.

“I think acceptance is huge now,” she told Jezebel. “I think queer people are far more comfortable now staying put or moving to the suburbs than they would have been even 30 years ago. We live in a suburb of San Diego. I think 30 years ago I would have been a little worried about being out. Our neighbors know now and they are accepting because who would admit to being a homophobe even if you’re not accepting? You act like you are nowadays, unless, I suppose, you are somewhere in a red state.” Faderman remained mostly closeted even after she started working at California State University, Fresno (Fresno State) in 1967, but said that visiting urban gay and lesbian book stores helped build up her bravery to fully come out in the ’70s.

“I realized that I didn’t have a huge community in Fresno but I had a big community nationwide,” she explained.

Amin Ghaziani, professor of sociology and Canada research chair in urban sexualities at the University of British Columbia, described the “incremental” understanding of queer placement. “First, we had to grapple with the fact that there are sexuality-specific spatial expressions—‘Oh right, gay people tend to have urban districts that resemble the urban districts you see for racial and ethnic groups.’ Once we got our head around that, then we were able to create more complex portraits and say, ‘Oh wait, gay people don’t all just live in one part of the city,’” he explained. “Things that may seem obvious to insiders were less obvious to outsiders and so our imagination and understanding of the phenomenon became more diverse and more complex.”

When he was in grad school in 1992 at the University of Missouri, Wayne Brekhus began the research that would eventually comprise his 2003 book Peacocks, Chameleons, Centaurs: Gay Suburbia and the Grammar of Social Identity. He recalled that the suburban facet of gay life hadn’t yet been studied at the time. “I figured, ‘There has to be a gay community here somewhere,’” he said. His early subjects were friends of friends.

One main barrier to understanding the queer population has been the Census’s limited collection of data.

“The Census data has never been enough,” urban and digital cultural geographer/environmental psychologist/A Queer New York author Jen Jack Gieseking told Jezebel. “The assumptions people make about that data is all based on couples, it’s just so nuts to me.”

What Gieseking was referring to was the Census’s lack of individual sexual identity data. Instead, it collects only data on same-gender couples and has only done so since 1990, when an “unmarried partner” option was added. But since the unmarried partner’s gender needed to be cross-referenced with the respondent’s, this left open a margin of error that wasn’t corrected until the 2020 Census, when “same-sex husband/wife/spouse” and “same-sex unmarried partner” were specifically added to the survey.

Of course, that specificity just scratches the queer surface. Still uncounted are gay single people, anyone who’s a member of multiple groups (i.e. a bisexual man who is partnered with a woman), trans people, nonbinary people—basically, any queer person who isn’t a part of a couple. U.S. Census Bureau director John Thompson wrote in 2017 that there was “no federal” need to collect data on individuals’ sexuality or gender identity. I probably don’t need to point out that he was acting at the time under the Trump administration.

“There’s still this sense that asking about sexual orientation or gender identity is a confidential question or a personal question as opposed to a demographic, like how you would ask about race or ethnicity,” said Gates. “I think that’s an obstacle. It’s also an obstacle because it is still a political issue. Asking about it is seen as somehow giving some imprimatur in a political sense to the idea that there are non-cis-heterosexual people. I think that has constantly been a wall that you hit against in federal data.”

As to why it’s important to quantify this data, Gates explained: “With sexual orientation, the argument is simply that this remains a big public policy debate. You’re debating all these people’s lives and not giving them the tools that lots of other groups use to justify their existence in some ways. The sad reality of the policy world is that you don’t count unless someone counts you.”

Because the Census only counts same-gender couples, this article necessarily refers to “gays and lesbians” repeatedly, which is outmoded and non-inclusive. Additionally, historically the anecdotal data that was collected focused on gay men, and not women. Brekhus, whose book exclusively examined the gay-male population of the New York suburb of Northgate, said the concentration of such research was “probably tied to male privilege.”

“It used to be that the idea of gay identity evoked gay [male] identity first,” he said. “If you were looking for an aggregate culture, the gay-male communities were much more visible.”

“In the ’90s data, it was mostly male and then in 2000 it was mostly split and then it became majority female,” explained Gates. “The majority of married couples, not dramatically so, are women. And now, in data at least, the vast majority of LGBT are women and it’s because of bisexual women. I think women are visible in the data, but the research doesn’t always focus on women in the way that it should. The vast majority of people would not know that women are the majority of LGBT people.”

Faderman said that she was not surprised that the abundance of reporting regarding same-gender couples and their mobility focused on men. “It’s always been the case because women have always been kind of an afterthought,” she said.

I believe the poor queer people are getting pushed out

But the lack of hard national numbers for the majority of queer people has not dissuaded those interested in these populations. A number of researchers have relied on qualitative research to pick up the slack.

“How do we demonstrate this population is moving to the suburbs without having a count? And I think we can say that it is happening but how do I back that up other than my scholarly intuition and knowledge of the community?” is how queer geographer Rachael Cofield verbalized the challenge proposed by the research included in her recent presentation at the American Association of Geographers annual meeting. Her talk focused on “ephemeral pace-making activities that the population I spoke to used to make sense of gentrification but also to how they made the suburbs queer in pockets.” For it, Cofield interviewed 40 queer people in and around Atlanta of diverse gender identities and sexualities. Cofield’s findings suggested that people weren’t leaving the city because they elected to settle down in quiet with their partner and 2.5 children, but because they were pushed out as a result of costly city living.

“For certain, I believe the poor queer people are getting pushed out,” said Cofield. “I’m willing to stake my claim on that. The quantification we’ve done has been incredibly limited, and that’s not to say that the work that’s come out of it hasn’t been insightful, but the kinds of claims you can make about it definitely shift. We don’t have a big data pool to go, ‘I can make a general claim.’ I can make a lot of specific claims about queer people I’m familiar with. I can make a lot of specific claims about the people I worked with and there are a lot of gaps in that.”

Cofield said that none of her queer subjects considered the neighborhoods they live in as queer. (Midtown is Atlanta’s well-known and now upscale queer “gayborhood.”) Cofield explained that “people didn’t really stop making places for themselves. The need for community didn’t go away, it just shifted to this more home-based in the suburbs where you don’t have to drive an hour to get to your friends or you can live closer.”

Gieseking’s process in tracking the lesbian and queer populations (read queer populations that don’t necessarily include cis men) in and around New York involved following social media accounts, talking to people, reading blogs, and newspaper articles. They also constructed maps from lesbian-queer organizational records and lesbian-queer publications.

“When I was doing this research, I used to fantasize that the mafia would one day turn over all of their books and we could see what queer life was like in 1950s to ’70s lesbian bars,” they said, referring to mafia ownership of gay bars, especially in the pre-liberation years. “What would it be like if all the lesbians told us where they lived, how much rent they paid, and if they had roommates and what their landlord was like, and why they had to leave? Gays, too. You could look at patterns of gentrification.”

What Gieseking did find was a pattern of lesbian-queer living and socializing that resembled “constellations” as opposed to centralized “gayborhoods.”

“The thing about lesbian-queer spaces is the gayborhood wasn’t our space,” they explained. “We’re supposedly part of it, but there have only been at any time in Greenwich Village three lesbian bars. With constellations, these spaces have always been really fragmented and fleeting. When you make so much less money and you have so much less political power, your places don’t stay as long.”

In the years since he wrote 2014’s There Goes the Gayborhood?, Amin Ghaziani has broadened his perception of gay enclaves from gayborhoods to cultural archipelagos, as he described in a 2019 article for City & Community. “I think we need to think less in terms of singularity and really broaden our imagination to include plural concentrations of queer people,” said Ghaziani.

Ghaziani’s shift illustrates the manner in which perception has been necessarily complicated over time. “It’s not as if you don’t have concentration, then you must have diffusion,” he explained. “Now we have concentration and pluralism. Now we have concentration and a greater reach beyond just one place.”

I think a lot of people move to the suburbs as a radical gesture, like, ‘Hey, I can be anywhere

“Here, we’re just part of a neighborhood. We weren’t the gay girls next door; we were just neighbors. We were able to blend in, which is what you want to do, rather than have the scarlet letter on our heads,” is how a building contractor named Diane described her life in Haddonfield, Pennsylvania to the New York Times in 2004. Diane had moved there from a Philadelphia gayborhood.

Alongside the notion that gays are growing up and out of the city exists one in which they are doing so as a way to assimilate into heterosexual culture.

“The thing that I think of when you talk about suburbs is that it’s part of what I think of as the gay assimilationist movement,” Walt Odets, psychologist and author of Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives, told Jezebel. “The idea is you can be there and be ‘an ordinary family’ the only difference being that it’s two men. To me, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It compromises the life of the individuals who do that. I don’t think really gay men are, in many ways, similar to conventional straight groups.”

Odets traced the palpable desire to assimilate back to the so-called plague years of AIDS and the ensuing shame the epidemic fostered in gay men. “People want to be just like their neighbors,” said Odets. “They just want to be ordinary people, just like everyone else, and that of course has no meaning anyway. There are no ordinary people.”

What may be true for some upwardly mobile gay men, doesn’t necessarily apply to the complete queer suburban population. “I don’t really know that people want to assimilate with what they associate the suburbs to be, at least in the South,” said Cofield. “The saying is that as soon as you leave Atlanta, you’re in Georgia. People don’t really associate Georgians with being particularly accepting of queer people, or really anyone that isn’t more white people.”

For Ghaziani, the diversity inherent in just being out and visible in the suburbs is at odds with the very notion of assimilation. “Their presence as LGBTQ people in suburban contexts can be a radical act of pushing people out of their comfort zones into recognizing queerness is not something that is confined to singular parts of the city,” he explained. “Its political, cultural, and social effects can be radical, not erasing.”

Gieseking agrees. “I think a lot of people move to the suburbs as a radical gesture, like, ‘Hey, I can be anywhere,’” they said.

This is beyond my wildest dreams. Young people can take all of this for granted. You don’t have to live in a big city anymore. Nobody’s hunting you

So what are we to make of all this? With the systemic barriers in place to obscure data, with the necessary reliance on anecdote, with the rigorous interpretations that overturn traditional narratives about queer centralization and assimilation, the notion of queer mobility is one of those things that reveals how much we don’t know the more we learn about it. Queer people have been robbed of their demographic sense as a group and within smaller identity groups so that conceiving this stuff in the first place and then upending your assumptions can be utterly disorienting.

“I didn’t think I would see any of this,” said Faderman, who is now 80. “We were outlaws when I came out. The only reference to us in any kind of print, even, was how we were sick, of how we were arrested for doing nasty things or the pulp novels, which I used to read faithfully because it was the only way I could read about lesbians, and of course, they would always end in tragedy. This is beyond my wildest dreams. Young people can take all of this for granted. You don’t have to live in a big city anymore. Nobody’s hunting you.”

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