The other day, while going for my run around the neighborhood, I decided on a whim to go down a side street I had not explored before. While running, I happened to notice a rainbow flag hanging outside the back of a home. Curious, I ran by the front to see if there were any other signs of queerness and, to my delight and surprise, there were several other homes with rainbow flags flying proudly.
Now, I had known for some time that I supposedly live in Syracuse’s “gayborhood” of Hawley Green, but until that day I had not seen many signs of queerness. As I continued my run, I felt an astonishingly powerful feeling of peace and calm—and even a little joy—settle over me. I was, I felt, somewhere I belonged. It was a unique feeling for, while I have lived in queer houses in undergrad (often dubbed “The Big Gay House”), I had never known what it was like to live in a truly gay neighborhood.
I’m sure that you’re probably wondering why I’m spending so much time rambling on about my run (and probably thinking that I sound like one of those pretentious fitness nuts who always prattle on about their most recent physical accomplishment). Well, it’s because of what that incident brought home to me, namely the continuing importance of queer enclaves in urban places. Now that marriage equality has taken the nation by storm and we can finally see ourselves portrayed at least somewhat sympathetically in the mainstream media, it might seem as if the bad old days of oppression are over and we can live our lives thoroughly integrated into mainstream society and neighborhoods.
But is that really the case?
If nothing else, the recent brutal beating of two gay men in Philadelphia reminds us of just how precarious queer life still is in these United States. For all that we have gained, there are still places and spaces where we are not welcome and where we are most definitely in danger. And, unfortunately, sometimes those spaces are the streets that we walk down at night, holding hands and attempting to take advantage of the fact that we have become, so we are told, just like everyone else.
The fact remains, however, that we are not, in many ways, just like everyone else. There are still a lot of very narrow-minded people in this country, and many of them, unfortunately also tend to be quite violent in their condemnation of what they see as a threat (to their religious faith, to their masculinity, take your pick). Often, far too often, they lash out in violence like what occurred in Philadelphia. Or that happened 14 years ago in rural Wyoming to a young man named Matthew Shepard.
Sure, we have gained a lot in the last 12 years. As an adolescent and even as a college student, I would never have dreamt that we would have made it this far, that I would no longer have to scour the television for even a tantalizing glimpse of queer people. Nor would I have dreamt that I could find other men like me with the ease of an app on an iPhone.
And yet, as scholars such as my own idol David Halperin have noted, this hookup culture (so easily facilitated by apps such as Grindr) has in many ways supplanted and rendered obsolete the old ways of forming queer communities. After all, why bother forming your own neighborhood if you can find others like you (or, as an extension, exclude others not like you) on the dating app of your choice? There’s no need for community when everyone is simply an individual, interacting with other individuals.
So, in my view, there is still a need for spaces that are specifically queer, where we can explore what it means to be queer in this brave new world of marriage equality. We still need gayborhoods in which homes and families proudly fly the rainbow flag, serving as beacons of encouragement and peace to those young people still struggling to find themselves. We still need spaces where we can proudly say, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”