We're still limited in our ability to track the U.S. LGBT population, but there does appear to be a connection between gay neighborhoods and some of the markers of gentrification.

For the world premiere of HBO’s Looking, the new show about the lives of three gay men in the Bay Area, the cable network turned to one of the epicenters of gay culture in perhaps the most gay-friendly city in the country: the Castro Theatre, right in the center of one of the most thriving “gayborhoods” in the world. Chicago has Boystown, D.C. has Dupont Circle, Seattle has Capitol Hill, and the list goes on.

Economists have long speculated about the effects of gayborhoods on everything from diversity to gentrification to housing prices. One common theme of this analysis is that neighborhoods with a higher than average density of gay residents are by definition more diverse and open-minded, with a wider range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups as well. Another common argument is that gays often pioneer the revitalization of disadvantaged, crime-filled urban neighborhoods – and their presence can be seen as an early marker of gentrification and a precursor to a jump in housing prices.

But before they can credibly sort out these complicated interactions, researchers have faced a far more basic dilemma: it’s always been difficult to nail down exactly how different the concentrations of gay and lesbian residents in these "gayborhoods" really are.

There’s no box on the Census to mark sexual orientation, nor any other official marker to study the population of the LGBT community (though a “Queer the Census” campaign has advocated for the Census to add one). Researchers have instead been forced to use a wide range of proxies, from mailing lists to gay bars to votes for noted gay activist candidates.

At this point, the best national-scale data available tracks just a subset of the LGBT population: those who identify on their Census forms as members of a same-sex partnership or marriage (leaving out, by definition, any singles). And because same-sex co-habitating couples represent a relatively small portion of the population, this statistic is prone to some error. In fact, one recent analysis estimated that 28 percent of same-sex households identified in the most recent Census could actually be miscategorized opposite-sex partnerships.

Chicago Gay Pride Parade in the Lakeview and Boystown neighborhoods on June 30, 2013  (Shutterstock.com/Theresasc75)

Despite these problems, tracking the location choices of gay and lesbian residents is an important part of understanding neighborhood transformation. The notion that gay men often serve as “pioneers” – moving into older downtown neighborhoods and spurring gentrification – is one that deserves a data-driven test.

New research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Janice F. Madden and the University of Colorado Boulder’s Matt Ruther attempts to sort out the difficult questions of whether, where, and why gayborhoods form. The research, presented at the American Economic Association’s annual summit in January, uses data from the 2000 and 2010 Census and the 2005-9 American Community Survey to look at census-tract level concentrations of same-sex couples within 38 large central cities of 35 metropolitan areas across the U.S. (Though this data is clearly just a portion of the country’s gay and lesbian population, it’s the best proxy we have right now).

The study looked at several key questions: Where and how do gay and lesbian households cluster in neighborhoods within cities? To what extent do gay men and lesbians cluster differently and in different neighborhoods? How exactly do these gayborhoods differ from other neighborhoods? Are gay neighborhoods really more diverse in general than other neighborhoods? And to what extent do gays serve as early gentrifiers?

The authors found substantial clustering of gays and lesbians at the neighborhood level. To get at this, they looked at the proportion of the city’s same-sex couples that lived in different census tracts, allowing them to easily compare gayborhoods in cities that have vastly different numbers of same-sex couples. They found that across the U.S., and especially in the Midwest, same-sex couples are unevenly distributed across census tracts. The authors also looked at the “clustering” of these census tracts with relatively higher proportions of the city’s gay couples. In effect, they tracked how clustering at the tract level leads to the formation of a broader gayborhood.

Gay men and lesbians tend to gravitate to different neighborhoods, according to the study. Gay men also cluster more substantially than lesbians, according to the study. This is especially the case out West, particularly in greater San Francisco, San Diego, and Seattle. Lesbian couples were far less clustered than their gay male counterparts in both 2000 and 2010, and their level of separation from the rest of the population declined over the course of the decade.

Contrary to popular perception, there was little evidence that gay or lesbian households were more likely to live close to downtown. Gay men, however, were more likely to live in neighborhood tracts with older, historic housing stock.

The study also found little evidence that gay couples gravitate toward areas with large existing LGBT populations. Moreover, there was little evidence that gay and lesbian neighborhoods are more diverse than other neighborhood on racial or ethnic lines.

Same-sex marriage supporters wave flags in the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on California's Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, June 26, 2013 (REUTERS/Robert Galbraith).

The results of the study do point to a connection between gay neighborhoods and some of the markers of gentrification. Across the board, the researchers found neighborhoods that began the decade with larger concentrations of gay men saw greater income growth, and, especially in the Northeast, greater population growth as well. This last finding, perhaps one of the most significant in light of current debates about gentrification, largely backs up research done a decade ago by UCLA’s Gary Gates. (However, several of the study’s other conclusions, including the finding that gay couples were no less likely to live in racially or ethnically diverse neighborhoods, contrast Gates’s research from the 2000 Census).

Madden and Ruther’s findings attempt to nail down how the last decade of increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians nationwide has changed the country’s gayborhoods. They found that, in many parts of the country, the clustering of gay male couples in certain neighborhoods increased slightly over the decade from 2000 to 2010, but the segregation of lesbian couples decreased.

As same-sex marriage gains steam on the national stage, it will be interesting to see how these trends play out – especially as we gain access to better data on the subject. Gayborhoods were a product of a specific time in American urban history, when gay and lesbian Americans faced incredible discrimination, and urban centers were more dangerous and less attractive.

Today, both of these things have begun to change. Gays and lesbians are much more readily accepted in most major cities, making it easier for both LGBT individuals to come out and for same-sex couples to find, in many places, legal recognition for their unions and marriages. In addition, urban neighborhoods have become safer, more attractive, and more desirable to a broader cross-section of the population.

As America becomes more tolerant, the original reasons for the clustering of the LBGT community could begin to fade away. Some in the gay community suggest that it is important to preserve these older gayborhoods, which represent a key chapter in LGBT history. But as these areas of the city continue to change, potentially pricing out some of the gay couples who moved in decades ago, gayborhoods could just as easily become a thing of the past.

Top Image: HBO's Looking (HBO/David Moir)

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