In 2015, the United States Supreme Court handed down the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges which guaranteed the right of all same sex couples in the nation to marry. While many viewed this as the victorious culmination of a movement which began on Christopher Street nearly fifty years ago, others criticized the single-mindedness with which our community pursed this one goal: gay marriage. Some believed that funneling our resources towards the right to marry came at the expense of other, more pressing concerns in our community such as equal protection for transgender people, or promoting HIV/AIDS awareness. Gay political powerhouses like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) became targets for those who believed that the capital-G Gay civil rights movement had diluted what was once a vibrant queer identity in exchange for a more white-washed and palatable one, often leaving our most vulnerable behind. Even Bernie Sanders once labeled the HRC as “establishment.” It was as if white, middle class gay men had transformed our movement from “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” to “We’re just like everyone else.”
$1,700 / month, 1 bedroom
Down here in New Orleans, as memories from the dark days of Hurricane Katrina recede with increasing velocity into the past, the city barrels toward its new normal. Property values skyrocket at a frenetic pace, and the gayborhood which was once creeping downriver from the Marigny into the Bywater now seems to lurch northward toward Lake Pontchartrain in search of greener (and cheaper) pastures. Streetcar tracks are under construction between the Marigny – traditionally New Orleans’ gayest neighborhood – and St. Roch which the Times Picayune identified as “Gentrification Ground Zero.” A few blocks away is the 7th Ward, where I just purchased my first home. It too witnessed some of the city’s most dramatic increases in property value over the past several years.
Similar to the national vitriol directed toward the HRC for being too mainstream, male, and white, the element of new home ownership which caught me most off guard wasn’t the flood insurance premiums or the gross incompetence at City Hall, but the epithets hurled my way by some in our community who prefer less mainstream and more bohemian lifestyles. Since buying my home, I’ve been accused of being a capitalist, a carpetbagger, a materialist, and, of course, a gentrifier. These criticisms sting most when delivered by cute hipster boys on bicycles with whom my chance of hooking up with has gone from “low” to “forget about it.” Being cool was never my forte.
But as a white, middle class, male homeowner I am not the harbinger of queer death! A recent article by Andrew H. Whittemore entitled The Dallas Way suggests exactly the opposite. So what does gentrification, assimilation, LGBT rights, and even gun control legislation have in common? Saddle up kids, let’s visit Texas and find out…
The Dallas Way
The Dallas LGBT population – currently the largest in the South – was once a silent and widely discriminated against community.
In Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood, now the gayest zip code in the entire state of Texas, rental discrimination was rampant throughout the 1970’s when “No Queers” signs where a common sight. But the path Dallas’ LGBT community took from invisible minority to protected members of the community occurred not through protest or radical action, but by the quiet work of property ownership, neighborhood revitalization, and yes, the g-word gentrification. Out of fear of violence and discrimination in a state as deeply conservative as Texas, gays and lesbians found that assimilation, not liberation, was the most effective way of gaining basic protection under the law.
This subtle method, dubbed The Dallas Way, is epitomized by the phrase “We’re here, we’re queer, we pay our taxes, we keep up our lawns.”
Beginning in the 1970’s, Oak Lawn and the nearby streetcar suburb of Oak Cliff began attracting a concentration of LGBT renters and homeowners. The Dallas assimilationist LGBT movement began when the president of the Dallas Gay Political Caucus (DGPC) encouraged activists to wear suits, wing-tipped shoes, and carry briefcases. The DGPC succeeded in electing openly gay precinct chairs, and even overturning the state’s sodomy law.
In 1993 a candidate for city council running on a platform of gay civil rights was beaten by openly-gay Craig McDaniel who ran instead on his record of service to his neighborhood organization, and participation on planning commissions. McDaniel’s district covered much of Oak Lawn and the surrounding neighborhoods. Chris Luna, the city’s second openly gay council member, also believed that the LGBT movement in Dallas was most effective when using traditional channels such as a homeowners association or neighborhood crime watches. With the support of these two men, the council passed a city-wide non discrimination ordinance in 1991, and benefits for the domestic partners of city employees in 1994.
McDaniel and Luna not only passed legislation that was important for the entire community, but paved the way for other openly gay candidates to follow in their footsteps as well.
In the 2000’s, LGBT residents crept northward into suburban North Oak Cliff where they continued to flex their political muscle. LGBT-supported mayoral candidate Laura Miller, who won her election in a landslide, said that “North Oak Cliff is strong and valuable and fabulous for one reason – the gay community found this beautiful neighborhood and came in and fixed this neighborhood up.” At a time when no other openly-gay elected officials served on the city council, Mayor Miller’s voice provided strong support for Dallas’ LGBT community.
We are familiar with the heroic tactics of the Stonewall rioters on the East Coast and the impassioned rhetoric of Harvey Milk on the West. But LGBT Dallas residents, who felt particularly excluded from the mainstream due to the conservative Texas political landscape, found that assimilation was their best path forward. In the words of Lawrence Knopp, “In the act of property revitalization, gay homeowners forged a cross-cultural alliance with their heterosexual counterparts based on mutual class interests.”
It is no secret that home ownership among the LGBT community has been primarily available to gay, white, middle class males. A 1996 survey conducted by the gay publication the Dallas Voice found that homeowners were 83% male and 88% white. However, as Whittemore points out, the most marginalized members of our community benefited from the protections won by the work of its more privileged individuals.
Gay assimilation into the mainstream and “The Dallas Way” is not without flaw, however. Today, as Oak Lawn begins to absorb a growing share of heterosexual gentrifiers, the neighborhood is being re-branded by realtors and developers as “Uptown.” An Oak Lawn Committee member is quoted as saying that those leading this change in Dallas “don’t know the history of the area and they don’t want to know.” This is eerily similar to New Orleans today, where many are attempting to re-brand the 7th Ward neighborhood as the “New Marigny,” or “South 7th Ward.”
This exposes the fundamental weakness of tactics such as The Dallas Way. Although property acquisition can result in a range of legal protections for those across the LGBT spectrum, gay middle class homeowners who eventually cash in on the value of their property leave behind the most vulnerable members of our community who desire, and could most benefit from, a closely knit gay community.
Whittemore concludes, and I agree, “This potential problem represents the principal shortcoming of “The Dallas Way” and represents an important new task for local activists and politicians sensitive to LGBT concerns, and this may involve more openly addressing how LGBT people stand out from the general population”.
Taking aim at what’s next
Last Sunday evening, after attending several of the impromptu vigils in the French Quarter for victims of the Orlando shooting, a few friends and I sat in my living room sipping on drinks and mulling over the tragic events which had occurred early that morning.
“What I don’t understand,” one of them began, “is where is the outrage?”
“There’s no outrage,” the other responded, “because if nothing changed after those kids were killed at Sandy Hook, no one will care that this happened to a bunch of queers.”
Although many in our community believe in tighter gun regulation, there is a justifiable concern that the powerful gun lobby is beyond anyone’s ability to overcome. Suggesting even the most common sense gun legislation, such as allowing the Center for Disease Control to study gun violence, has been nothing more than an exercise in futility.
There are mummers however, that maybe, just maybe, the LGBT movement could take on the gun lobby and achieve success. Our movement is bigger, more well-organized, more experienced, and more deeply connected than any grassroots anti-gun movement that has come before. It will be interesting to see if, and how, the LGBT community mobilizes its considerable muscle to address this uncharted territory. If gun reform does becomes a priority, such a herculean task will once again require the considerable resources of middle class gays and lesbians to make progress. Drag queens throwing beer bottles at the police worked wonders on Christopher Street in 1969, but if we want to take on an establishment like the NRA today, I believe we will need “establishment” organizations like the HRC to help us do so. We will need to borrow from the Dallas Way playbook.
For now, as we debate among ourselves which challenges our community should focus its resources on, remember that we’re all in this together. Middle class, 9-5 gays have the power to push the envelope and challenge convention, just not always in ways which are immediately obvious. Beige is a color of the rainbow, too.
Finally, to that cute hipster boy on the bicycle, I hope you’ll give me a second look. Come to my place for a beer some time. Unfortunately, I do not have PBR.
The Fenway Institute has released a policy brief arguing that gun violence is an epidemic in LGBTQ communities, and urges LGBTQ organizations to support reasonable gun control measures.
View the policy brief here.
Whittemore, Andrew H. “The Dallas Way.” Planning and LGBTQ Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Spaces. Ed. Petra Doan. Routledge, 2015. 39-55.