Trouble in the gaybourhood? UBC study finds straight discomfort with LGBT people underlying acceptance

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      In Vancouver, queer spaces have traditionally been concentrated in places like the Davie Village or Commercial Drive. But progress in LGBT rights and mainstream acceptance, coupled with the development of the internet and mobile technology, has allowed LGBT communities to become more geographically diverse, with people coming out at younger ages and in areas without long-established LGBT communities.

      However, a recent study has revealed that just because LGBT rights and mainstream acceptance have been achieved doesn't necessarily mean that all is well beneath the appearance of things.

      University of British Columbia researchers Adriana Brodyn and Amin Ghaziani published a U.S.–based sociology study in the journal City and Community on April 13 that takes a look at what discrimination continues to persist in two LGBT neighbourhoods in Chicago, Illinois, in this era of social progress—but often in more covert or unconscious forms.

      While mainstream acceptance of LGBT people and issues has increased over only a few decades, this study explores in depth how straight individuals may verbally express LGBT support and yet their behaviour and attitudes may reveal persisting discomfort or even underlying negativity.

      For instance, the study cited a February 2015 report by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) which found that a significant number of American heterosexuals are still uncomfortable or very uncomfortable attending a same-sex wedding (56 percent), bringing a child to a same-sex wedding (43 percent), or seeing a same-sex couple holding hands (36 percent).

      Boystown, Chicago
      stevegeer/Getty Images

      For the UBC study, the researchers conducted 53 interviews with straight residents in two gay neighbourhoods in Chicago: the nightlife and commercial area known as Boystown, which was marked as a gay district with rainbow pylons in 1997, and the historically Swedish neighbourhood called Andersonville.

      The majority of the interviewees said that they supported, felt a common humanity with gay people, and had positive views of LGBT integration.

      In analyzing the responses from the participants, the researchers found several ways that straight residents dealt with dilemmas or tensions of living within gaybourhoods, or neighbourhoods which are significantly or predominantly populated by LGBT people.

      The researchers cite the phenomenon of how the improvement or beautification of neighbourhoods by LGBT people can attract straight residents to want to move into the area due to urban revitalization and increased safety. Yet the researchers also cited studies which examine how straight residents can change gay neighbourhoods through differences in taste, such as preferences for larger chain stores that may threaten the survival of independent queer businesses.

      The study also found some interviewees exerted social dominance in ways such as ignoring the political context or underpinnings of queer cultural spaces or disregarding differences between straight and LGBT people.

      "The belief that gay people may have a reason to create and then protect their own spaces arises in some occasions, but even when it does, this supportive attitude among straight residents seldom translates into critical self-reflection, let alone pause, about their presence in those very same spaces," the researchers wrote.

      Some interviewees also observed that living in a gaybourhood enabled some residents to claim that they lived among diversity, even though they did not specify that while there was sexual or gender diversity, it was not ethnically diverse.

      Straight residents also cited "reverse discrimination" when they felt excluded from queer spaces or businesses, such as when a gay-owned bakery instituted a no-child policy. Others accused LGBT advocates for queer spaces as "segregationist", "separatist", or "heterophobic". The researchers explained that according to such views, "gays are obliged to repay the acceptance that society has shown them by welcoming straights into the gaybourhood".

      The researchers pointed out that such responses revealed "beliefs about access to space, feelings of ownership, assumptions about power and privilege, and acts of consumerism that enables straights to occupy spaces that are designated as culturally queer in a way that feels inclusive but noninvasive and nonexploitive".

      The City of Vancouver has flown rainbow flags alongside Canadian flags at English Bay.
      Craig Takeuchi

      Analysis of responses revealed that LGBT people were expected to be happy about straight people living in their neighbourhoods, with comments such as "Isn't that what they wanted?" and that discontent about gaybourhoods becoming more straight is something that LGBT people need to "just get over".

      However, the researchers pointed out that "celebrating the arrival of straight people into gaybourhoods as evidence of equality valorizes heterosexuality as a symbol for what is normal, moral, and desirable".

      Meanwhile, many interviewees who expressed LGBT acceptance remained apathetic about social inequity or taking political action. Participants repeatedly relied on their presence in gaybourhoods as enough to express solidarity and being progressive without actually doing anything on behalf of LGBT people.

      While some interviewees perceived themselves as being "gay-blind" by not regarding individuals as LGBT (in the same vein as being "colour-blind" towards racial identities), this perspective also ignored any differences, inequalities, or discrimination that queer people experienced.

      "Those who turn a blind eye to intergroup differences believe that society has surpassed a certain threshold of equality and that gays and lesbians experience less societal disapproval," the researchers wrote, citing previous studies. "These views imply that political activism is no longer needed, an assumption that makes straight residents feel exempt from being an active ally."

      Analysis revealed that some straight people restricted acceptance of LGBT people to those who were heteronormative, or individuals who behaved, appeared, or had values more like straight people. Many also expressed an expectation for gays and lesbians to adopt mainstream, heteronormative values, including monogamy, marriage, and children.

      "Not a single heterosexual resident remarked on kinship structures, bathhouses, or the connective and communal powers of sex," the researchers stated.

      Vancouver Pride parade 2016
      Craig Takeuchi

      Ultimately, while the researchers noted that previous research had found heterosexuals who knew LGBT people reported more accepting attitudes than those who did not, unfortunately, "exposure to sexual diversity does not change minds fully" and physical presence alone is not enough.

      "At the core of our observations is a consistent demand by heterosexuals to experience the gaybourhood on their terms," the report states. "This explains why contact can produce discomfort and homonegativity, even after 20 years of sharing the same streets."

      What the study appears to reveal is a gap in awareness or deeper understanding of issues about LGBT spaces and issues by some straight residents that proximity or presence cannot address.

      "Acceptance does not displace prejudice; it recrafts it into subtler forms," the study states.

      The researchers also emphasized that sharing physical spaces does not compensate for or replace the need to address overt or systemic forms of discrimination against LGBT people.

      "Integration may be a means for achieving equality, but it cannot be the substance of equality, which must include advancements like employment non-discrimination, closing the sexual orientation wage gap, addressing antigay hate crimes, and redressing housing discrimination," the study concludes.