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Flags are photographed in San Fransisco’s Castro neighbourhood (Thinkstock)
Flags are photographed in San Fransisco’s Castro neighbourhood (Thinkstock)

Lesbians lead the way when it comes to neighbourhood gentrification, research shows Add to ...

Well before SUV-strollers and bearded hipsters gentrified neighbourhoods, lesbians were there first.

Gay women are “urban trailblazers,” getting to areas first before gay men gentrify them and straight couples price everyone out, according to new research on gender and cities from Amin Ghaziani, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia.

Ghaziani’s research looks at where gay women and men share space, where they don’t and why. The work grew out of Ghaziani’s recently published book There Goes the Gayborhood?, which tracks the shifting demographics in these cultural enclaves in the United States, drawing on interviews, census data and public opinion polls (the highest concentration of gay male households is in the historical San Francisco district of Castro; for lesbians, it’s idyllic Provincetown, MA).

Ghaziani spoke to The Globe from Vancouver about what separates male gaybourhoods from less obvious lesbian enclaves, and how both get co-opted by straight folk.

You found that – like artists – lesbians are early gentrifiers in cities. They’re the trailblazers in frontier neighbourhoods, not gay men. How do they start to gentrify areas?

The idea that gay people instigate urban renewal is widely known, but it’s imprecise. Lesbians actually come first. In a 2010 interview with The New York Observer, sociologist Sharon Zukin offered a provocative image of lesbians as “canaries in the urban coal mine.” The idea here was that lesbians were actually the urban pioneers.

Gay women create a “girl’s town” for themselves. It’s a stage of incubation or pre-gentrification; there isn’t widespread awareness that the area is a gay district. Women are motivated by feminism and counter-cultures. This is why lesbian neighbourhoods often consist of a cluster of homes near progressive – but not flashy – organizations like co-operative grocery stores, coffee shops, alternative theatres, bike shops, secondhand bookstores and performance spaces.

That sounds like a hipster’s dream.

Gay women plug into existing progressive facilities in affordable neighbourhoods. The effect is that lesbian neighbourhoods, if you even know about them, will feel quasi-underground or hidden.

What’s the difference between a lesbian enclave and a gaybourhood?

Men are much more influenced by sexual transactions and building new commercial establishments like bars, big nightclubs, saunas and trendy restaurants. As property values increase, because women make less than men, gay women will feel priced out, before straight people arrive and push out the gay men. Straight households come last in the advanced or late gentrification stage.

What role do children play here?

Gay women are more likely than to men to have children and this creates different housing needs for them. Generally speaking, gaybourhoods offer single occupancy units at higher rents. Women need lower rent and family-oriented units. This steers them to either different neighbourhoods in the same city, typically cheaper ones, or to non-urban areas altogether.

Why have gay men followed gay women geographically? Do they feel it’s a safe space?

They feel safer there, yes, but there’s also a basic human tendency that like attracts like. Sociologists call this homophily. It’s a tenacious principle, even in an era of unprecedented societal acceptance of homosexuality.

What about this more touchy idea that some lesbians don’t want to live among men, gay or straight?

I think there’s some truth to that. Gay men are still men, after all. There is evidence both in my research and the research that other sociologists have conducted that some lesbians like to live in their own areas because they perceive gay neighbourhoods as unwelcoming.

When we think about gay neighbourhoods, many of us rely on a fairly unimaginative notion of queer lives and cultures, collapsing their diversity into a singular geographic expression. It’s inaccurate in the urban or surrounding suburban landscapes, or in the outlying rural areas. We don’t realize that lesbians may have different reasons why they will or will not select an area.

Is it controversial to suggest that lesbians and gay men may be at odds with each other as neighbours? We prefer to think of the gay community as a unified front.

To suggest that gay men and women sometimes have different residential choices should not be alarming or all that surprising. Jim Owles, a New York activist, said in 1971 that one of society’s favourite myths about gay people is that we are all alike. Many years have passed since he said that but the myth is still hard to shake.

At this point we’re just having a conversation about gay men versus lesbians. Trans individuals have a different set of needs – we know so little about that. There’s an astonishing diversity of queer lives that will influence the everyday decision that people make about where they want to live, or not live.

Gay neighbourhoods used to serve very much as safe havens. With increased tolerance, will we see gay households increasingly dispersed across cities, and not in localized areas?

Gay neighbourhoods formed and evolved as a function of safety. Gays and lesbians from across the country flocked to these urban districts because they perceived them as a beacon of tolerance in a sea of heterosexual hostility. We live in a time of unprecedented societal acceptance of homosexuality. What will happen to these safe spaces in safer times? With increased tolerance, we see the de-gaying and straightening of these areas: gays are moving out and straights are moving in.

But the question mark in the title of my book is important. As I was trying to understand why existing gay neighbourhoods are changing, I encountered a number of surprises. One is the emergence of new areas for specific subgroups of LGBT people. I call these “cultural archipelagos.” There are now more areas of the city that have a distinct association with same-sex sexuality than we have ever before witnessed.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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