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🌈 Somewhere over the rainbow crosswalk.
Examining the digital grids and embodied intersections of West Hollywood.
When all the world is a hopeless jumble And the raindrops tumble all around Heaven opens a magic lane When all the clouds darken up the skyway There's a rainbow highway to be found Leading from your windowpane To a place behind the sun Just a step beyond the rain —Yip Harburg, "Over the Rainbow"
You might be thinking, “This shoulda been Judy’s version,” and fair enough. But she rarely did the verse, so I’m mixing it up with Ella. May the gay mafia forgive me. —PM
Welcome back, citizens! Status season continues, and LGBTQ Pride Month is upon us. Let’s talk about it.
I feel immensely proud and lucky to live openly as a gay Filipino-American, and to call LA home for over two decades now. But the rising tide of anti-trans, anti-drag, anti-queer rhetoric is leaving me a bit uncertain of my standing, safety, and status in 2023.
So to meet the moment this week, I’m taking a closer look at West Hollywood, my local “gayborhood,” in both physical and digital form. What are the patterns and legacies that make West Hollywood vital to me and my fellow gay men of color? And what elements do we bring with us online now, or could in the future?
Part 1: Affirmation
The West Hollywood we know today is still quite new. The modern incarnation of Weho’s stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard, with its prominent grassy medians, public art installations, and numerous queer-centric establishments, only reached full completion in 2002.
The experience of going into West Hollywood, especially during Pride Month, still feels rather affirming to me personally, even though my bar-hopping days are well behind me and my interactions there were sometimes less than ideal. When I visit there, I feel acknowledged in a way that I just don’t in other parts of the city, or the world, or my life in general. And that path to queer affirmation began many decades ago.
West Hollywood’s evolution from railway junction to gay Camelot.
So how did West Hollywood become a gayborhood? The working-class area surrounding the former Sherman railyard on the corner of Santa Monica and San Vicente drew in queer people around the mid-20th century because this historically working-class section of the city was far more affordable than neighboring Beverly Hills or Hollywood proper. Also, since unincorporated West Hollywood was outside of LAPD’s jurisdiction, gay people were less likely to be harassed or cited by a county sheriff.
The flipside of hands-off county governance in West Hollywood was regulatory neglect and rapidly rising rents. A coalition of tenants, gays, seniors, and Jewish immigrants successfully campaigned for West Hollywood’s incorporation in 1984. With half of its inaugural City Council candidates identifying as gay or lesbian, and as the city courted laborers in the gay-friendly hospitality, design, and entertainment industries, West Hollywood was well on its way to becoming “gay Camelot.”
An incorporated West Hollywood became an important symbol of hopes and dreams for gay men all across the Southland. Jeremy Atherton Lin describes this moment well in his excellent Gay Bar: Why We Went Out when he discovers a family friend’s photo montage of Santa Monica Boulevard pinned to their bedroom wall:
“The gaze was homoerotic, but not at bodies. Details from West Hollywood—signage, streetlamps—were rendered monumental… I hadn’t considered how it might be something other than a territory to be inside or excluded from, but a geography apart—held in thrall from afar… I considered how a cultural scene could function not as a box with a clear outside and in, but as a signal, like a searchlight across the sky. He had depicted a landscape.”
That landscape is the sum total of deliberate choices made by the city, including its long-running outdoor public art program on the greenspace medians of Santa Monica Boulevard, the 2012 installation of the first permanent rainbow crosswalk in the world, and the late 2019 installation of LED rainbow lanterns above Boystown. West Hollywood’s “gayborhood” status is visibly and unmistakably affirmed, living out loud all year ‘round.
How queer digital spaces can improve upon West Hollywood’s legacy of affirmation.
The rise of West Hollywood in the ‘90s came with a trade-off: the rapid gentrification up and down the boulevard, in the quest for marketable legitimacy from the city at large, made the area far less accessible and affordable for its historically vulnerable tenants. In Ryan Gierach’s Images of America: West Hollywood, former mayor Jeff Prang shares his concerns:
“It was once a place where a young man could come to and live inexpensively and explore himself… I’m afraid the youths of today don’t have much of a chance to get their start here today.”
This is where digital public spaces can tip the scales, to make the visual affirmation of gayborhoods more widely available on a more regular basis. For instance, many of my queer peers still look back fondly at a place like pre-2018 Tumblr, where we could “explore ourselves,” as Mayor Prang said, by posting to multiple blogs in a space administered in the same way a county sheriff would in West Hollywood—that is, relatively hands-off when compared to larger social networks.
As the New_ Public community engages in the work of building queer-affirming digital public spaces, the one “gayborhood” insight I’d like us to explore further is the significance of public art in these environments. If our digital spaces can capture that same spatial and textural impact as a multi-story mural or a metallic sculpture on the boulevard, an installation that changes as the skies change or the crowds change, that would be a sight. Google Doodles come the closest to achieving this, although I’m sure there are many more.
Part 2: Liberation
While much of the discourse around queer progress in the last 30 years centered around affirmation and acceptance from dominant institutions—the right to marry, the right to serve, the right to work—the other major track running through gay civil rights in America is one of freedom, a frank sexual challenge to the straight status quo on the principle of pleasure.
The real-life and virtual “gayborhood” of West Hollywood offers structures that protect the freedoms of those relationships, but they can also limit those freedoms, particularly for gays of color. Let’s get into the grid.
The trouble with gay LA grids, both online and off.
The LA city map is a glorious mishmash of crooked streets. The clashing street grids started with the shift from Spanish to U.S. rule in the 1700s, further complicated by LA’s unique topology and the remnants of the city’s railway system.
More recently, West Hollywood gave the world a new type of grid, one that would redefine gay culture forever: Grindr, the world’s most popular gay dating app. In an interview with Xtra Magazine, company founder Joel Simkhai explained his motivations rather elegantly:
“I always wondered who’s gay around me, and I’ve always wanted to find a way to figure that out… I looked for a way to solve that and it just wasn’t there. The second generation iPhone comes in with GPS and the app store and the ability to write native applications, and then it just became a race to get the app out as quickly as possible.”
There are good reasons for both Grindr’s grid and West Hollywood’s north-south grid: ownership is clear, and distribution is mathematically even. But as we know both in real life and online, grids like these are largely tools of colonization, and therefore inherently unequal.
Granted, Grindr did not invent the white supremacist hierarchy and discourse in the gay community. In The Poetics of Cruising, Jack Parlett quotes Shaka McGlotten’s Virtual Intimacies to reflect on the gay hookups as a discriminatory practice long before Grindr:
“It is infelicitous to claim that cruising hasn’t always, in some sense, involved the mediation of ‘a screen.’ In other words, we must interrogate where a critique of the present ends and a nostalgia for an imagined past begins, a ‘longing for a past when people supposedly had more authentic connections with one another,’ when in fact in the ‘1970s, anonymous sex was often experienced and described as dehumanizing, in much the same way that cybersex is denounced now.’”
To Parlett’s point, Weho has a rich history of racism pre-iPhone. Several bars required queer men of color to present multiple forms of ID for admittance until the practice was outlawed in the mid-’90s, and those same men are typically only centered or catered to one night a week at any given bar: GAMboi for Asians at Rage, hip-hop Sundays for Black queers at The Abbey. On any other night, how welcome we felt was a bit of a crapshoot.
How queer digital spaces can expand Weho’s pursuit of freedom.
But even if intersectional queers only get their one night a week to live their full truth at a given bar, these nights still serve as an important vehicle for self-realization and liberation. Anthony Christian Ocampo describes the power of these nights in Brown and Gay in L.A.:
“It was within clubs like these that second-generation gay men witnessed for the first time that femininity among men could be celebrated, not disparaged… these second-generation gay men held rigid ideas of how young Filipino and Latino men were supposed to act… But the moment they stepped into a gay club, they realized they could break the rules that, for most of their lives, had hindered their ability to be fully themselves.”
Translating this intersectional freedom to our online gayborhoods is less successful. While everyone technically has the same freedom to pursue pleasure and be celebrated on apps like Grindr, the rectilinear interfaces common in the category have a tendency to flatten queer voices and bodies into an illusory conveyor-belt sameness for easier consumption, like cubicle farms or concrete aisles in a big-box warehouse store.
To reclaim that freedom in digital public spaces, the idea that intrigues me the most is to refute the grid and its clean and easy corners. Instead of begging me to forget everything about myself that doesn’t fit into a square-shaped profile and bio, I’d be interested to see more organizational patterns that can handle curves, or obtuse angles, or variable scaling when presenting ourselves visually without sacrificing clarity or speed.
Part 3: Intersection
If you were to plot out the modern movement for gay and transgender rights in America, it can be understood as an oscillation between two very good and very important things: the pursuit of freedom, and the pursuit of respect.
Looking back, it feels like we had to prioritize one over the other, freedom or respect, at any given point in our history. Gay liberation took hold in the ‘60s and ‘70s, while marriage equality dominated the 2000s and 2010s.
But our physical and digital gayborhoods show us that this is a false dilemma. At their best, gayborhoods like West Hollywood ensure that our freedoms are worthy of respect. There is no need to choose.
Much like the turn-of-the-century railway lines that crossed to form the epicenter of Boystown, freedom and respect form a powerful intersection for us to process and understand our collective queerness. Now more than ever, not just this month but every month, it’s important that we command and demand respect for our freedoms.
For digital public spaces to evolve into the gayborhood of the future, we must be well-served by the patterns and methods we choose to build out those spaces at the intersection of freedom and respect. It’ll bring us one step closer to finding out what’s beyond the rainbow. 🌳
New_ Public’s Pride Archive
A special shout-out goes out this week to all the queer writers, builders, and leaders in our community. Here’s a collection of LGBTQIA+ content from our archives.
And that wraps it up for this week! Next time, we’ll unveil our newest initiative: the Community Stewards Guild.
Zero feet away,