When I was seeing She Kills Monsters last week (you did read my last article, didn’t you?), it was playing in Boston’s South End, an area that was very much the gay ghetto of Boston. I got to enjoy a slice of Emilio’s Pizza (so very good), but so many of the stores I used to visit there are gone. It got me thinking about the vanishing nature of what was once a big part of my life.
Boston used to have two amazing gay bookstores – Glad Day Books and We Think the World of You, both of which have closed. Marquis and Calamus Books are both still around, but they feel like shadows of their former selves when I go in, especially Marquis, which moved and shrank. Several gay clubs are still kicking around, like Machine, Fritz, and the Eagle are still there, but they seem to have become more specialized than back in the day. Fritz caters more to the Sports Bar atmosphere, and Machine (aka the Ramrod) is more for the leather/bear crowd. I miss dancing with the surprisingly friendly crowds at Man Ray and Buzz.
Fading into the Average
My visit to the South End made me wonder if the concept of “gay culture” or a “gay neighborhood” is going away. I’m of mixed feelings on the subject. On the one hand, it makes me sad, as that culture was very much a part of my life, especially just after college. On the other hand, this stepping out of the margins and into the mainstream also to some degree heralds a change in attitude that I think is very positive.
I think there’ll always be a need for gay clubs, if only to have a place where you can be relatively sure that the person you’re smiling at is smiling back at you for the right reasons. But is there a need for gay bookstores? I can walk into any mainstream bookstore now and find a LGBTQ section. Even the rather crappy little video stores that’re still lurking around have small gay sections in their mainstream and adult sections.
Once upon a time, when there was very much a feeling of “safety in numbers”, the appeal of a neighborhood of predominantly gay inhabitants was pretty undeniable. And certainly, the South End got a lot nicer after we moved in, took over, and gentrified it (actually, I hear rent prices are astronomical there now). But I like living in my own house in my own neighborhood, close to the urban bustle of Davis Square. I know there are other gay folks here and there in the area, but there are also college kids renting houses, families, and apartment buildings. It’s just a “normal” neighborhood, with nothing particularly gay or straight about it.
I think this move away from clustering in a neighborhood illustrates that there’s no longer a big level of fear about being out and about. All of the people we know in our neighborhood are aware that we’re gay, and it’s very much a non-issue.
Is It a Good Thing?
Part of me wonders if there isn’t something vital being lost in all this. There was a real sense of community when I was hanging around these neighborhoods. Are we losing something in losing a store, or a club, or a district?
I suspect that we haven’t lost this community, but it has transformed. Certainly, the internet wasn’t as omnipresent a thing when the South End was my regular haunt. Now, I can be connected with gay friends all over the world, and even explore specialty sites for every conceivable interest I might have. I no longer need to get my hands on a catalog from Mr. S (not that I shopped at Mr. S…ahem); I could order whatever I needed from them online. Hell, I used to belong to a gay book of the month club! It’s a different world, and our community has expanded in a way that I could never have imagined on the day I finally got over my fear and opened the door to Glad Day Books and stepped inside.
Every step towards a more mainstream acceptance is a good one, but I’m going to miss the spontaneity of all those gay bookstores. Calamus isn’t in an enormously convenient locale, so I don’t drop in too often. I miss going into Glad Day between college classes, and finding things like Ralf König’s The Killer Condom, the Stage One albums (which featured male singers singing both parts of Broadway musical love duets), or The Hormone Pirates of Xenobia.
The need for places like gay bookstores may have become much lessened, given the prevalence of the internet in modern life. There will always be a place in my heart for these spots, but, like many places of years gone by, we may be seeing their passing. Let us remember them fondly, but be glad that, if they have gone, it’s because being gay is no longer something that requires a ghetto.