InQueery: the Gayest City in North America?

Posted on November 14, 2010 by

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You know how it is with statistics; it’s easy to misquote and misuse them. But some “recent study” showed that Fredericton, New Brunswick, has the second-highest number of gay people per capita in North America. Per capita means “for every count of 100 people.” So despite Fredericton’s small population, roughly 50 to 60 thousand residents (also highly disputed, depending on which city official you talk to), a relatively large proportion of them are gay. I have heard that the city with the highest number of gay people per capita is San Francisco, making Frisco the “gayest” city in North America. They’ve obviously never been to Provincetown, Massachusetts in July.

While the raw head counts are significant, it’s also important to factor in the geography of a place in order to understand why certain places feel “so gay.” San Francisco, New York City and Los Angeles all have large gay populations, as does Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. What makes these cities feel like gay meccas are their gay villages. In Montreal, it’s St. Catherine’s Street; in Vancouver, it’s Commercial Drive; in Toronto, it’s Queen and Dundas West; in Los Angeles, it’s West Hollywood; in New York City, it’s West Greenwich Village, or simply, “the Village.”  (Notice how often gay villages are “west” of some place).

Gay villages are established in small, densely populated areas that concentrate the population, and by doing so, enable face-to-face contact among members of a subculture. Gay villages are usually found in city centres, in high-traffic commercial zones, usually fed by ample public transportation. These are eminently walkable villages, making it easy and inviting for members of a subculture to cruise the streets and connect with each other. The boundaries of these tiny, dense villages become very clearly marked by gay-friendly, gay-themed or gay-owned businesses, bars, cafés, community organizations, restaurants, and entertainment establishments.

But what also makes these gay villages “so gay” is not only their geographic boundaries, location, density and size, but their culture. They are places where queer identity, behaviour and culture is diverse and highly visible. And we know what denotes a visible queer culture. First of all, it’s marked by visible gender diversity: drag, butches, queens, androgyny, trannies, bears, and the whole spectrum of queer gender expression. Secondly, it’s marked by overtly sexual behaviour: same-sex or similar-gender pairings and groupings, public displays of affection and flirtation, cruising for sexual encounters and displaying, through behaviour, that one is seeking sexual encounters. Third, it’s marked by open spaces and establishments where sexualized behaviour is encouraged and facilitated. Leather and fetish cultures are visible and supported by area shops and clubs.

What also marks a place as gay is the availability of gay arts, entertainment and literature, from sex shops with gay videos on display, to gay bookstores, to small theatres and entertainment venues where gay films, plays and shows are presented. Just “being” gay, even if lots of people in a particular location are gay, isn’t enough to establish a gay culture. The repression of gay culture isolates queers from each other, represses queer identity, and forces queers back into the closet. The visible and audible expression of gay culture provides a shared culture by which members of a community identify themselves and connect with each other.

Fredericton has had many gay bars over the last hundred years. (In fact, someone in QTC ought to do a history on the gay bars in this town.) But from what I’ve heard of the local lore, there has never been a gay section or village in Fredericton. The city has all the factors that would make it a prime location for a gay village. It is very small and densely populated. It has a small downtown area that has clearly marked boundaries: the St. John River on the north and the steep upward slope of the southside hills. The streets of the downtown are broad, high-traffic zones, but auto traffic is calm and it’s relatively safe from violent crime. Traffic in the downtown is supported not only by public transportation, but walking trails that encourage walking, cruising and face-t0-face contact. Queen and King Streets especially are highly walkable zones with small shops that house a wide range of small businesses. Queen and King are also the primary entertainment zones in the district, with lots of bars and restaurants, cafés and galleries. Lower York and Smythe are also dense, high-traffic areas that support arts, community organizations and small businesses that are conducive to gay culture.

As a small, walkable, densely populated city, Fredericton encourages fast and frequent, face-to-face interaction. Many of my friends can walk, bike and bus to the downtown area in a matter of minutes, so we can hook-up with each other for face-to-face conversations and group interaction. Fast, frequent, face-to-face interaction increases the speed, density and interconnectedness of social networks, and encourages a high level of participation in a subculture. Fredericton has that network potential in spades.

So Fredericton has the right demographics with a high per capita gay population; it has all the right geographic elements and dense social networks that make it a prime location for a gay village. What’s missing? The third factor, queer culture. Without a visible queer culture to mark the space as queer, the gay community in Fredericton will always be just short of being the “gayest city in North America.”

The historical tendency in the greater Fredericton area has been to privatize and suburbanize gay life. Ironically, both gays and straights in the area refer to this as “domestication.” Even more perverse, straights in the dominant culture view our retreat to suburban life not as achieving equality, but as achieving invisibility, a quality they value in their own lives. If you are “gay married” and have disappeared from a visible gay public life, you are “domesticated.”

My queer friends and comrades in QTC are undaunted. We are ready to mark downtown Fredericton as queer, to “queer it up”, not just in gay bars, but in every place we go. What it takes to make Fredericton queer is the sheer audacity of being visibly queer, visibly gender-variant and overtly sexual. It takes rebellion—we rebel against the pressure, from both straights and closeted gays, to translate “equal rights” as the right to be the same as the straight population. What we claim for ourselves as queers is the right to be different from the straight population. In a Province that is known for being conservative, religious and highly conformist, queer culture stands against the dominant culture as radically diverse, secular and highly individualistic.

The great fear is that we will actually achieve what we set out to do. Then, oh no, we will have established a gay ghetto that everyone will run from screaming. What’s worse, we will have commercialized gay life and sold out to a capitalist marketing scheme to sell more junk to a gay demographic. Ain’t necessarily so.

Notice that in my description of what constitutes a gay village is not a high level of commercial transactions, but a high level of face-t0-face interactions. In fact, most gay villages start out in very depressed areas marked by a high degree of diversity in class, race, gender and national origin. What kills gay villages is precisely their commercialization. The Castro in San Francisco is a case in point. The Castro started out as a literal ghetto, became Frisco’s gay village, was gentrified over the years and catered more exclusively to gay tourists with higher disposable incomes. As a result it became increasingly less diverse in queer visibility, gender and sexual expression, more white, more affluent and upper class, and finally more straight. Go to The Castro now. There are almost no gay establishments left, no cruising, no visible queer culture. Gentrification and commercialization ultimately kills queer culture and spaces.

You don’t have to spend money to queer a space. The Piers in lower Manhattan is the other case in point. There were no gay establishments on The Piers. The Piers were simply an open space along the waterfront where queers went to hook-up with each other in fast, frequent, face-to-face interactions, creating dense and highly interconnected social networks, and a visible queer sexual culture. They were also highly diverse in terms of race, class and gender expression. What caused the demise of The Piers was not commercialization, but police repression. Mayor Rudi Giuliani went on a mission to “clean up” The Piers by sending police to arrest queers on spurious charges and crack down on the cruising scene. Queer spaces are highly transient and contested spaces: what can’t be erased with gentrification can be eradicated with criminalization.

We don’t necessarily need a slew of gay-owned businesses to mark downtown Fredericton as gay. What we need, as I said before, is the sheer audacity to queer every space in the city. We have to mark Fredericton as queer with our own queer identities, with the outward display of our queer desires and diverse cultures. The Green along the walking trail, between the Walking Bridge and the Westmoreland Bridge, has as much potential to mark a “gay village” as do the shops and bars on Queen Street.

We could make Fredericton the gayest city in North America. We have the numbers and the place to do it. What we have to do is act like we own the fucking place.

Shaun Bartone, Editor

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Posted in: InQueery