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The Changing Nature of Gay Life in America

Two seemingly unrelated stories both illustrate the changing nature of gay life in America.

On January 30, the New York Times published an article describing the struggles facing many lesbian-only communities.  These womyn’s lands, found primarily in rural areas across the country, including many in the South, have existed since the 1970s, when they were envisioned as places where lesbian separatists could live and work in peace without encountering sexism.  But as their population ages, they are finding it difficult to attract a new generation of lesbians to sustain the lands. This is an issue also faced by similar communities for gay men as well as “gayborhoods,” whose population has been declining for some time.

Meanwhile, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, the nation’s oldest gay and lesbian bookstore,  announced it will close at the end of March. The store opened in 1967 and was located near the Stonewall Inn, where the modern gay rights struggle began in 1969.  Additionally, original owner Craig Rodwell was one of Harvey Milk’s lovers before he  moved to San Francisco; ironically, Rodwell’s political nature was said to be one of the reasons for their breakup.   Their closing will leave New York without a gay bookstore.

Economics seems to be playing a major role with both stories.  In the case of the womyn’s lands, their rural location isolates them from sources of potential employment, making it financially difficult for women to join even if they found the idea of rural life appealing. Oscar Wilde simply fell victim to the problem plaguing all independent bookstores – Amazon. The online retail giant hasn’t inspired the kind of scorn attributed to Wal Mart, yet it has a similar effect of destroying local businesses who can’t compete with their low prices. Oscar Wilde escaped closure several times in recent years thanks to two different owners since 2003, but the current financial climate has proven to be an  insurmountable barrier.

Some will see these stories and consider them a triumph of the LGBT movement, proof that we have arrived to our rightful place in the mainstream and no longer need structures and communities catering exclusively to our needs.

It is true that from a commercial perspective, we are a valued community. With an estimated $712 billion of purchasing power in 2008 (per a study conducted by the organizations Witeck-Combs Communications and Packaged Facts), the LGBT consumer is now actively courted by businesses large and small who are seeking a slice of the pink dollar pie.  You can see evidence of this in advertisements courting the community in LGBT media, as corporations in fields as diverse as cars, alcohol, clothing/fashion, and financial services often run specifically gay-themed ads that they won’t place in mainstream media.  And there is definitely more gay-inclusive product from Hollywood and television studios than ever before. Even straight clubs are promoting a gay-friendly environment or theme nights.  The rising generation of LGBT people increasingly come out at earlier ages, and do not see the need to affiliate exclusively with the gay ghetto.

While our social standing has improved, reading about the womyn’s lands and Oscar Wilde also makes me slightly uncomfortable. Marginalized people often say they want to be mainstream, yet there is a comfort in being able to escape to familiar territory, places where everybody knows your name, in the words of the old Cheers theme song, or at least your presence isn’t viewed as a curiosity.

I am particularly concered with the state of gay bookstores. They historically have been more than just a place to purchase books, magazines, and adult videos.  Many functioned as de facto community centers, offering meeting space and disseminating information about local activities, serving as a complement to that other pillar of gay social organization, the bar.  Chain stores may stock LGBT books, but their selection is often limited, and in any case they don’t feel a sense of responsibility to the community that often distinguishes LGBT businesses.

Our increased visibility in the media can foster a sense that we have overcome, but a look at our legal status when it comes to public policy concerning our relationships, housing, and employment makes it clear we are still not equal. For a local example, look no further than the Artee Hotel, which received national attention after the owner fired David Hill for his sexual orientation.

Lesbian separatist communities and gay bookstores are considered essential pieces of LGBT identity by some, relics of the past by others, and perhaps their decline is an unintended consequence of progress.  Assimilation isn’t always a painless process, as other minority groups have discovered. However, I do question if we are substituting chasing society’s recognition of our ability to be excellent, hip consumers for the much less glamourous work of organizing and political advocacy, which brings about the kind of change that goes a little deeper than the ability to buy gay books at Borders.

From “Blackout” for 2/9/09 by Anthony Rucker


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