Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: The gayborhood has crossed the road

After the better part of 14 years, I moved out of Midtown in February, which I consider the official end of the area’s reign as the gayest part of Atlanta. As much as I would like to claim credit, though, the post-gaying of Midtown began at the turn of the century and has accelerated without rest the past decade.

The Midtown I moved away from was much different than the gayborhood I discovered during weekend trips to Atlanta while I was attending Auburn. The queens no longer hold court at the gates of Piedmont Park every Sunday evening, the 24-hour gay clubs and their feeder bars are gone from Peachtree Street and it has been five years since Outwrite Bookstore ceased being a de facto community center and concierge, welcoming me and thousands of other LGBT pilgrims looking to learn more about the gay mecca of the South and ourselves.

In some ways, the rainbow crosswalks that were permanently installed at the intersection of 10th & Piedmont feel like a headstone for a Midtown that was, rather than a representation of the neighborhood or its future. But rainbows are supposed to offer hope, and the crosswalks make me believe Midtown will continue to be an area where LGBT residents and strangers are convinced that they have a place, and, however lonely it has felt on their journey thus far, they have a people.

I was born and raised on Halsted Street on the South Side of Chicago, a street name that many readers may recognize as the main thoroughfare through Boys Town less than 15 miles to the north. I had never heard of Boys Town until moving to Alabama, and visited for the first time during my Christmas break freshman year.

I remember seeing permanent rainbow fixtures that bore a city of Chicago seal, and couldn’t believe that I was standing on the same Halsted Street on which I had spent much of my life, and thought that if I had ever stayed on the No. 8 bus that was passing by, I would’ve found a place where my sexual orientation was celebrated instead of shamed; included rather than apart. I was 18 years old and full of confusion and fear (maybe a few hormones), and the city-sponsored rainbow signposts in Boys Town were one of the first affirmations that made me wonder whether I and other gay people were as fucked up as I had been reared to believe.

This was in December 1998, and I know that Boys Town has lost some of its raging homosexual identity in the two decades since then, as have so many other gayborhoods across the country. Call it karma or second-generation gentrification, but there’s a pattern of LGBT folks displacing residents in blighted neighborhoods, only to be replaced by young heterosexual families once the neighborhood becomes fabulous and unaffordable for single people.

The triplexes and older studio and one-bedroom apartments that allowed young LGBT people to flock to Midtown in the past have been replaced by single-family homes and condo towers built for the same millennials whom we’ve been told are living en masse in their parents’ basements, a paradox of urban planning that is also occurring nationwide.

However, the straight-washing of Midtown doesn’t sting as much as the loss of gayborhoods in other cities might, because LGBT Atlantans have long crossed the road. The metro area is so thoroughly queer that whether you live in Grant Park or Vine City, whether you work in white-collar or retail, whether you’re renewing your driver’s license or grocery shopping, it’s hard to take a few breaths without encountering identifiably LGBT neighbors.

All of us should be proud of whatever role we play in creating that Atlanta for residents and strangers. For so many, and now many more, the civic affection we have for our hometown, the moment we knew we belonged here, began near 10th & Piedmont.